Monday, January 25, 2016

The Ridley Report – How the Tories plotted to smash the mining unions and destroy working class opposition

The destruction of the mining industry was a deliberately worked out plan.

It was an attempt to take on and smash the most militant determined and class conscious section of the organised labour movement. And this was seen as a critically important task by the ruling class and their chosen instrument, the Tory Party. 

It even had a name, the Ridley Report, named after its author. 

Ironically Nicholas Ridley MP, like David Cameron, was another well-heeled rich boy who was educated at Eton College along with the other rich boys of his generation. 

The Tories had been thrown out of office in 1974, during the big upturn in strike action which is best remembered for its miners’ strikes, with power cuts and the three day week. Ted Heath went to the polls asking the question: “who runs the country” and lost! 

The ‘70s were a period where wave after wave of industrial struggle forced the bourgeoisie to look to more extreme measures than ‘usual’, while at the same time the working class, the unions and the Labour Party began to move towards the left. 

Many workers began to draw revolutionary conclusions on the basis of their experience, while extreme Conservative politicans began to plot a military coup to overthrow that well known revolutionary, Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson. 

In 1974 the Tories drew up a plan as to how they might take on and defeat a major trade union in the public sector or nationalised industries as they were known at the time! 

It was a blatant policy designed to declare civil war against the working class. The plan was quite thorough, as became obvious when it was leaked to the Economist in 1978: 

·         The government should, if possible, choose who and when to fight; 

·         The plan grouped industries together based on an assessment of how    easy they might be to beat; 

·         Coal stocks were to be built up at the power stations; 

·         Coal supplies should be arranged via non union foreign ports 

·         Non union lorry drivers should be recruited; 

·         Coal/oil dual fuel generators should be built at whatever cost;

·         The state must "cut off the money supply to the strikers and make the union finance them"; 

·         It was necessary to organise and equip a squad of mobile police, ready to use special riot tactics to defeat pickets. 

Ridley was merely the architect of the plan but it’s quite clear he wasn’t acting alone. The plan was agreed by the Selsdon Group of right wing Tory MPs, a group that included among its number both Norman Tebbitt and Margaret Thatcher who was elected Tory leader in 1975. 

Margaret Thatcher was eventually elected Prime Minister in 1979, by which time the right wing Labour government was utterly discredited and the leadership isolated within the active layers of the labour movement. 

Society was polarised, the Tories began to implement an economic strategy designed to make the economy ‘leaner and fitter’. In other words they sought to make the working class pay for the economic crisis that erupted between 1979 and1981. 

The Tories responded by slashing benefits to the old and the sick, cutting services and attempting to roll back the welfare state, under the banner of “self reliance”, “choice” and “the free market”. 

The Ridley Plan was central to this programme, the straightforward reason being that the organised Labour and trade union movement represented the biggest single obstacle to their plans. 10 million workers were organised in the TUC, potentially the most powerful force in British society, and the working class was moving to the left. 

The Tories had to risk a confrontation with the unions. The ruling class had no option, under conditions of capitalist crisis. In the minds of Thatcher and her cronies there was ‘no alternative’. 

It would be wrong however to look at the Ridley Plan in isolation. It was just one aspect of the Tories anti trade union onslaught. Even today, after almost 12 years of New Labour, the laws governing trade union activity in Britain remain the most repressive in any of the advanced capitalist countries. Restrictions on picketing, the huge bureaucratic process required to carry through strike ballots and the right of the government to “sequester” trade union assets were all imposed to try and cut across the potential for militant trade union struggle, which had been so much a feature of the 1970s. 

The ferocity of the struggle that the miners were forced to wage to defend their jobs and communities however, revealed the limits of the Ridley plan and the trade union laws. 

Despite the plans that the Tory government had prepared and despite all of the legal mechanisms and ploys that they used to undermine the strike, the battle of pit closures lasted for almost a year. The level of support within the working class for the miners meant that millions of pounds were raised on the streets and from the labour movement to support the miners and their families. The Tories were forced to move the legal goal posts on several occasions to try and shackle the National Union of Mineworkers.

The class struggle is a battle of living forces, involving real men and women. The strategy and tactics of the ruling class are an extremely important factor in the situation, but of even more importance is the role of the leadership of the working class.

The Ridley Plan was just part of a drift under Thatcher towards authoritarian rule in Britain, authoritarian rule now considered necessary by the ruling class. This was carried out through parliamentary means, a form of ‘parliamentary bonapartism.’ as the Marxists explained at the time.

This reflected the crisis of capitalism and the fact that the ruling class weren’t confident that they could rule through the ‘usual’ methods. Yet the strategy of the Labour Leaders was to adapt to the new conditions by appearing to be “reasonable and moderate”. Meanwhile the trade union leaders adopted a policy of ‘new realism’, essentially weakness and collaboration. Under these conditions the outcome was inevitable - more attacks on the working class and the poor, the weak and the old. At the same time however the ideas of Marxism began to gain ground and began to become a significant factor in British politics. 

The main lesson of the Ridley Plan for the labour movement and the politically active layers of the youth is that a Tory government would be forced to move against the working class, to deal with the crisis that the capitalist system clearly faces. In the dark corridors, and the city boardrooms similar plans will be being drawn up today. Our task has to be explain the threat that this poses and help arm the movement to fight and defeat the Tories.

Adapted from ‘Socialist Appeal’.


Demetrius said...

Alas, as someone who was actually there, in Barnsley and in the Mayor's Parlour helping to manage whisky stocks, when the strike started, there was nowt much secret about any of this. Deep in darkest London, the journo's and such huddled in their saloon bars may have not known much but up in Yorkshire we did. Also, in the 1970's there had been so many strikes that when turning up for work the first question of the day was who was on strike this week. As for the police, indeed they had been trained up, primarily to deal with the football supporters, the Sheffield ones were a couple of nasty bunches and Rotherham, smaller but no better. The Barnsley lads sadly were naive and a bit of a rabble. It was a tragedy that Mick McGahey, great bloke, had been sidelined as Deputy, he has his wits about him. Scargill was a cock-up artist.

Alex Cox said...

How handy that the Polish government and its fearsome enemy, Solidarinosc, were there to export all that coal to assist Mrs. Thatcher in breaking the miners' union. No wonder Solidarinosc was her favourite trade union, and that it received so much money from UK and US intelligence.

ReadingRed said...

Regarding Mick McGahey's non-accession to the presidency of the NUM, what must not be forgotten are the Machiavellian machinations among the top brass of the NUM that paved the way for Arthur Scargill to reach that position. Despite being very ill, Joe Gormley intentionally hung onto his post as President of the NUM until he could be sure Arthur Scargill got the job. Joe Gormley knew if he hung on to the presidency, then the retirement rules would exclude the dour, thoughtful Mick McGahey from running for president.
Mick McGahey was nobody's fool, he was a man with a union track record second to none. Why was it that Joe Gormley, later Lord Gormley, the preceding president of the NUM, the epitome of a compromising right-wing Labourite, made militant Arthur Scargill his heir apparent? And again, why was it that Joe Gormley, this 'moderate' who never rocked the boat over pit closures, would fix it so that a man who 'shouted from the rooftops' that he opposed pit closures would be next in line his job? Maybe we'll find out one day.
The miners' strike 1984-5 was just another example of a tendency which has run throughout the history of the working class in Britain. The British working class has been caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand the reformist Labour Party which will do anything to direct the working class away from a challenge to the system and on the other the phoney ‘left’ in innumerable groupings which will advocate suicidal tactics.
Both lead working class activists down blind alleys. The miners’ strike showed both the weakness of the working class and its strength. Although lacking any socialist leadership, undermined by the Labour Party and Trade Union leadership, the strike showed the strengths of the working class. People were able to organise and support miners’ families, providing huge quantities of food. Tactics were worked out to beat the police and their intelligence, lorries were ‘disabled’.
But the leadership was bent on the suicidal path (strike without a national ballot) which many on the ground could see was doomed from the word go. The timing of the strike, when coal stocks were high, was another factor in its defeat. Pitched battles with the police were used by Scargill in particular, to promote the cult of his personality, and did nothing to move the strike in a positive direction. In fact, they resulted in injuries and demoralisation.
But for many of us who were involved, the year of the strike was one we will never forget. Many people were free in a way they had never been before – free to make their own decisions and put them into action. We realised what working class solidarity could mean and these lessons should not be forgotten. At the same time, we need to learn from the mistakes and educate ourselves, instead of relying on the lead of those who tend to have their own interests at heart and our interests are only a cover for theirs.

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