Lawson Becomes Chancellor – Attacks Miners, Sells Coal, Oil and Gas

Lord Lawson created Britain’s privatised energy industry. Some argue that he supports their interests by denying the need for robust climate change policies. But he didn’t support everyone who worked for coal, oil and gas companies. Even back then.

The general election of June 1983 was a landslide for the Tories and landed Thatcher an increased mandate for her free market reign. “Margaret unexpectedly offered me the chancellorship,” Nigel Lawson recalled.

Lawson’s first appearance at the dispatch box brought with it promises of further tax cuts and an attack on public services—and he also tried to sneak through the sale of £500 million in British Petroleum shares, hoping the British public wouldn’t notice.

On 29 June 1983, he told the House of Commons about “an emergency package of spending cuts—which would bring savings of £1 billion.”

A month later Lawson admitted that he also intended to sell off some of the government’s remaining shares in British Petroleum.

Lawson had only confirmed the sale after a written question. John Biffen, the leader of the house, was “barracked for some twenty minutes” by MPs furious at the apparent abuse of parliament.

“I am by nature fairly secretive,” Lawson said of the period. “In presentational terms at least, my chancellorship did not get off to a very good start.”

Lawson’s bungling was about to get worse. The Guardian, the country’s leading left-wing broadsheet obtained a copy of his budget. “I was deeply depressed, even devastated,” he would recall.

Budget Leak

“I find it difficult, writing several years later, to express the depth of despair I felt on the night of 29 February 1984, when I was first told by my press secretary, Martin Hall, that the Guardian had got a jumbo budget leak, and then was brought the first edition where I was able to see the full horror of it all.”

The leak compounded his unpopularity. The cuts came when millions in Britain were suffering.

Unemployment had risen from £1.1 million when they came to power—with Charles Saatchi’s masterstroke political campaign, Labour Isn’t Working—to £2.4 million when Lawson was made energy secretary, and further to £2.8 million by June 1983.

But for the new chancellor, this level of unemployment was acceptable after years of “overmanning”. The following year, the Daily Mail was shocked by his callousness when he increased tax on fish and chips.

His performance at the ballot box caused uproar on the Labour benches. “The opposition were bound to claim that this justified their allegations during the campaign that we had a ‘hidden agenda’ of further public spending cuts,” he complained.

As chancellor, Lawson would, in 1984, side with the energy industry against its own employers.

Working Class

The national strike by the National Union of Mineworkers lasted almost a year, and was the last time in British history that the working class would demonstrate any control over the country’s energy policy.

A decade earlier, the miners had pitted themselves against Edward Heath—and won. Hayek, in “The Road to Serfdom”, had argued that the free market could only operate if the “monopoly” of trade unionism was destroyed.

Nicholas Ridley, a Conservative MP, drafted a detailed secret plan to defeat the unions working in government-run industries. The miners’ strike was the painful reaction to the government’s attack on trade unions.

“Our original aim was to build a successful, profitable coal industry independent of government subsidies; to de-monopolise it and ultimately open it to private enterprise,” Lawson wrote in note to Howe, when the latter was still chancellor.

“Then the events of February 1981 showed beyond any reasonable doubt we will make no progress towards our aim until we deal with the problem of monopoly union power.” [Lawson, 1992: 142].

The government began secretly stockpiling coal, converting power stations to oil, and hiring truck drivers in case of a sympathy rail strike. [2]

Then, in March 1984, it announced the closure of 20 mines, at the cost of 20, 000 jobs. The NUM, led by the Marxist Arthur Scargill, immediately called strike action.

Checking Abuses

The country’s most powerful union, with the ability to cause blackouts and bring the country to a halt, was ready to confront Thatcher and Lawson directly.

Either the government or the union would be destroyed in the coming months. Thatcher introduced laws through parliament that made secondary—where workers would line up outside other factories and offices and ask the staff to strike in support—illegal.

Lawson confirmed the government was less than completely honest about its intentions.

“A reduction in union power was an important aim of Conservative policy, even though it was couched in the language of checking abuses, democratising procedures, and so on.”

The strike ground on for over a year. Thatcher attacked “the enemy within”, evoking fears that Marxists run by Moscow were infiltrating British unions.

Tony Benn, the former Labour energy minister, called the strike a “civil war”.

Allegations were raised in Parliament that Roger Windsor, the chief executive of the NUM during the strike, had been working for or with MI5. He took £80,000 from journalists to make false claims that Scargill misused union funds.

Police in riot gear clashed with 6,500 pickets at—and the BBC was caught reversing the footage to make it look like the officers were under attack.

Politically Possible

Then, on 5 March 1985, the NUM delegate conference voted to return to work. The closures would go ahead.

There were 160,000 miners in Britain at the beginning of the strike. Today, there are fewer than 6,000. Coal is imported from the US and Poland, while nuclear power derives from France.

The mining industry in Britain was buried. Lawson calculated that the strike had forced the government to borrow an extra £2.75 billion.

“Even in narrow terms,” Lawson had said during a major government debate as early as 31 July 1984, breaking the miners’ strike was “a worthwhile investment for the nation”.

Labour, he added, took the remark to be “conclusive evidence that the government had fomented the strike deliberately. This caused uproar in the chamber.”

This is the moment in history where the miners who powered Britain would have any lasting influence in its distribution.

The idea that the working class should have a decisive say in the control of energy, or the factories and offices, would be confined to history, a fading memory, no longer understood to be “politically possible”. 

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