Speeches, etc.

Margaret Thatcher

Conservative Party Political Broadcast (Winter of Discontent)

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: House of Commons
Source: Thatcher Archive: CCOPR 71/79
Editorial comments: 2100. The Daily Mail reprinted the whole broadcast under the headline "Why we must be one nation, or no nation!" (18 January 1979).
Importance ranking: Key
Word count: 1135
Themes: Labour Party & socialism, Trade union law reform, Strikes & other union action

Yes, technically, this is a Party Political Broadcast on behalf of the Conservative Party. But tonight I don't propose to use the time to make party political points. I do not think you would want me to do so.

The crisis that our country faces is too serious for that. And it is our country, the whole nation, that faces this crisis, not just one party or even one government. This is no time to put party before country. I start from there.

Of course there are major political differences between the parties, just as there are between many of you sitting at home. But I believe there are some things which should not divide us.

None of us wants to see our country torn apart.

Some of the things I've seen on television, read in the newspapers, and heard directly from you in factories and shopping centres make me wonder what has happened to our sense of common nationhood and even of common humanity.

We've seen strikes called before agreements have ended. We've seen them used as a weapon of first resort, not as the last step after everything else has failed. We've seen industrial action directed straight at the public to make you suffer—directed even at the sick and disabled. That sort of action damages the reputation of all trade unionists. Most of whom don't agree with it. [end p1]

We've seen picketing that threatens to bring the country to its knees—emptying our shops, endangering our farms, closing our factories, taking our jobs. Picketing was meant to be about ‘peaceful persuasion’ at the scene of the dispute. The result of recent legislation and practice is that today almost any determined group can strangle the country.

So here we are just two weeks into 1979, with some of our towns and cities, especially in the north and Midlands, looking as though they are under siege; with many people—the old and those with young children—suffering real hardship; some even without water. While export orders are locked in and food rots at the docks.

Of course, the storm may blow itself out. Things may start to get better. I hope with all my heart they do. But even if that happens, the underlying problems will still be there. If the past is any guide, what has happened this winter could happen again next winter and the winter after that and so on and so on. What we face is a threat to our whole way of life. There are two main issues.

First, the role of trade unions in a free society. Successive governments over the last 10 or 15 years have come back to this time and time again. And time and again their attempts to strike a fair balance with trade union power have been defeated.

We've been unable to establish sufficient common ground in Parliament to carry through a programme of reform which the whole country wants and the whole trade union movement can accept.

I recognise how hard this is for the Labour Party, because of their close connection with the unions. Without the unions there would be no Labour Party. Without union money there would be no Labour funds.

But surely Labour can accept what I think the majority of union members themselves accept, that there are some changes which have simply got to be made if we're to avoid not just disruption but anarchy. [end p2]

The case is now surely overwhelming, there will be no solution to our difficulties which does not include some restriction on the power of the unions. And if that case is overwhelming, then in the national interest surely government and opposition should make common cause on this one issue. I'm not suggesting that the Labour Party should take over all our Conservative policies on industrial relations. I wouldn't object if they did but it's hardly realistic. What I propose is simpler. We should attempt inside Parliament to reach agreement on three areas where I believe there is already agreement outside Parliament.

First, we should amend the law on picketing. We should get rid of so-called “secondary picketing” —that is picketing which hits firms that aren't directly involved in a dispute. The Government should see that that law is enforced. We should agree with the trade union movement a strict code of practice for peaceful picketing. That, too, must be upheld.

One reason why picketing is so powerful is because of the weapon of the closed shop. We must amend that law.

Second, we should work out together proposals for making the trade unions more democratic and more representative of their members. Mr. Callaghan has expressed cautious interest in this in the past, but only if the unions approached him. I do not think we can wait for them to do that. We should approach them. What I have in mind is postal ballots paid for by the exchequer and widespread secret ballots throughout the trade union movement, secret ballots on union elections, secret ballots on industrial disputes, and so on. Like any other member of our society, a union member should be free to record his opinion without fear of others watching and taking note.

Third, you know that the police and the armed forces don't strike.

There are certain vital services which should also be protected from strike action: fire services, hospitals, gas, water, electricity and others. We must try to negotiate a no-strike agreement with those who operate these services in return for firm guarantees on pay, now and in the future. If they are prepared to look after us we must look after them. [end p3]

These are three concrete proposals for a common effort to meet a common danger. I hope Mr. Callaghan and his colleagues will give them a fair wind. I don't claim that they would provide an immediate answer to all our problems. But they would help to restore a measure of peace and sanity to a rapidly worsening situation. The other issue goes right to the heart of what we call democracy. In a democracy we choose, each one of us, what sort of society we want to live in. What sort of country do you want?

Despite our problems and our failures this is still a good land to live in and bring up a family. It is a land of great natural riches—the coal beneath our feet, the oil and gas in the sea around our shores, the fertile acres of our farms. It is also a land of great human resources. We still have—we have always had—enterprise and skills, firms and industries whose workers can perform as well as any in the world.

What we do not have are the right conditions, the incentive for success. It is this incentive we must and can create. But to do so we must first stop tearing ourselves apart.

If the present crisis has taught us anything it has surely taught us that we have to think of others as well as ourselves; that no-one, however strong his case, is entitled to pursue it by hurting others.

There are wreckers among us who don't believe this. But the vast majority of us, and that includes the vast majority of trade unionists, do believe it, whether we call ourselves Labour, Conservative, Liberal—or simply British.

It is to that majority that I am talking this evening. We have to learn again to be one nation, or one day we shall be no nation. If we have learnt that lesson from these first dark days of 1979, then we have learnt something of value.