9th February 1972. Who Governs Britain?

Prime Minister Edward Heath was in the wrong place at the wrong time when conciliation skills were needed when he took office in June 1970, as a State of Emergency was called the next month.(1)

Heath in his first year saw  more working days lost in strikes since the General Strike of 1926, with dockers, national newspapers and local authority workers in dispute.

In the three years eight months of Heath’s Government a State of Emergency was called five times: since the 1920 Emergency Powers Act there had only been eleven.

By December 1970 an Industrial Relations Bill, to come into effect the next August, was published and soon the miners were demanding a 47% pay rise.

Barnsley miners picketing Grimesthorpe Colliery 1972.

Barnsley miners picketing Grimesthorpe Colliery 1972.

Pressure was mounting on the government and by Today in 1972 a State of Emergency was declared, a month after the National Union of Miners (NUM) had called for a national strike, the first time in its history.

A total electricity blackout lasting nine hours resulted, twelve power stations closed as coal stocks were low, with the rest operating below capacity.

Industry went on to a three day week, whilst houses lacked heating and lit by candles. Train drivers refused to move oil trains past picket lines; more than 1 ½ million were laid off .

The miners accepted 20% or £6 per week, granted by the Wilberforce Commission and the strike ended on 28th February. But having tasted blood, two years later the miners struck again.

Heath had come into office hoping to deregulate the economy by changing from direct to indirect taxes and committed to bring in an Industrial Relations Bill to control the Unions at  a time when the general public were sick of ‘wild- cat’ strikes.

Determined to ignore Labour’s previous ineffectual income policies under Harold Wilson, Heath soon realised that there would have to be restraint as inflation rose to 22% in the next year.

However in 1972 rising unemployment saw Chancellor, Anthony Barber adding to inflationary pressures by increasing money supply forcing Heath to try and contain by a Prices and Income Policy: result was a further deterioration in labour relations.

January 1973 saw the government unveil the second phase of its Wages and Prices Programme, when pay rises was limited to £1 a week + 4%. On May Day there was a national one-day-strike calling out 1½ million workers.(2)

To add to Heath’s woes, the NUM now turned down a 13% rise and banned overtime and coal supplies at power stations again dropped.

After an 81% vote to strike by the miners, on 13th November 1973, a State of Emergency was again announced, the fifth in three years, after miners and electricity workers continued their ban on overtime.

On December 13th a three-day week was announced, coming into operation on 1st January 1974, and set to last until 7th March; £1.2 billion was chopped off public spending, TV finished at 10.30 pm.

By February 1974 the miners were on strike again forcing Heath to call an election on Who Governs Britain? whilst the three day week was still in operation.

Wilson back in business 1974.

Wilson back in business March 1974.

Heath departed and Labour’s Wilson, once back in office settled the strike  by granting the miners 35%, with next year a further 35% without any action threatened.(3)

By the 8th of March we were back to ‘normal’, though trouble had only been bought off for a time and set to culminate in the 1979 ‘Winter of Discontent’.

(1) State of Emergency called 16th July 1970.

The early 1970.s was a time when the ability to govern was withdrawn from the Tories under Heath, and ultra right figures such as General Sir Walter Walker decided to pitch themselves against the ‘hard left’ of the Unions.

Thus the Unison Committee for Action (UCA), a voluntary civilian group, organised in the event of civil break down, a fear which culminated in the 1979 ‘winter of discontent’.

(2) In September 1973 twenty unions were expelled from the TUC for complying with the Industrial Relation Act; Mortgage Rate rose to 11%.

(3) Heath took office on the 19th June 1970 until his defeat in February 1974.

Ref: Origins of the Emergency Powers Act/uk statewatch.org/news

Ref: State of Emergency. Britain 1970-74. The Way We Were. D. Sandbrook, reviewed by Natalie Wheen in Observer, Sunday 26th Sept. 2010.

Ref: timeshighereducation.co.uk/Britain 1970-1974.



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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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