‘I do not know any other way’
Mrs Margaret Thatcher believes that the miners’ strike will be resolved in the end by more and more people returning voluntarily to work. She declines to put a date on it and is reluctant to say anything that might exacerbate the dispute.
The Prime Minister postponed her visit to the Far East later this month because she says it would have been impossible to empty her mind of what was happening at home.
She appears to have no immediate plans for a new initiative though she told the Financial Times yesterday that no general would reveal his strategy in advance. For her, commenting on the whole situation—with the miners’ and the dockers’ strikes coming together—was “like treading on eggshells.”
If it had not been for the two disputes, she said, everything that she had always believed in would have been falling into place. It took Britain a very long time to live down its reputation for strikes and, as she constantly reminded visitors, it was not this country but West Germany which had just gone on strike in support of a 35-hour week. The miners’ dispute, and the dockers’ support for it, had got in the way of progress that was being made.
Mrs Thatcher was at pains to point out that she was not at all opposed to trade unions. What she wanted, she said, was “responsible trade unionism with respect for individual members.”
She was looking forward to the day when Government contacts with union leaders could again be increased and the unions could be at peace with each other.
When trades unionism began, she suggested, the members had something to gain by gathering together. But with 11m. members the consequence today was that “one union gains at the expense of another.”
The Prime Minister expressed considerable concern at the violence and intimidation involved in the miners’ dispute, but she defended her Government's Employment Acts so far and claimed that they were having their desired effect.
Part of the new laws relating to trades unions, she said, was intended to give more power to individual members. Mrs Thatcher repeatedly praised the “bravery” of the miners who had defied the strike call and particularly those who had taken court action.
The law was there to be used she went on, and where it had been used it had been very effective: for example, in South Wales.
The reason why it had not been used by big concerns, such as the British Steel Corporation, was that supplies had continued to get through and that production had been maintained. The Prime Minister said that output at the Ravenscraig steel plant in Scotland recently had been higher than before the coal strike began.
She gave no indication that any new Employment Acts were contemplated, though she stressed the importance of the need for secret ballots.
Even under the new rules adopted by the NUM, where only a simple majority is required for strike action, she said that 14 areas had in effect voted to stay at work.
Mrs Thatcher regretted that the courts were sometimes overloaded and that the police were overburdened. “We are constantly trying to do more,” she claimed, “but we can't have any say in the way that they operate.” Steps were being taken to accelerate court hearings.
At one stage in the interview the Prime Minister suggested that a university department might be commissioned to study the effects of the miners’ strike on employment and inward investment, both of which had been going better before the dispute began. The striking dockers and miners were creating unemployment faster than any government could do.
There is no suggestion, however, of a change of approach. Asked specifically about the level of unemployment, Mrs Thatcher insisted: “I do not know of any other way than the one I am using, nor of any other that will work in the long run.” She had, after all, “only been in office for five years.”
The intention was to mitigate the effects of social and technological change as far as possible. She would like to spend more money on roads and more on water, but the problem was that she could not spend the same money twice.
Mrs Thatcher frequently sympathised with the demand for job security, but she said it could not be a matter of holding the same job all the time. Britain had been much slower than Japan and the U.S., she reiterated, in accepting change and indeed praise for President Reagan was scattered throughout the interview.
In an unusual tribute to Mr Edward Heath, the former Tory leader, she said that he and she had accepted together in 1970 that the prime aim must be to make British industry prosperous.
One of the difficulties in Britain, however, was the absence of sufficient “self-starters” or entrepreneurs. There was an attachment to heavy industry which amounted almost to a virility symbol.
The Prime Minister referred several times to the North-East which she regards as a kind of litmus test for the success of her policies. The dockers there, she pointed out, were working. She was delighted that Nissan had established its plant in the region, and would have liked Inmos to have gone there as well. But the entrepreneurial spirit was still not strong enough. Mrs Thatcher suggested in this context that the areas most in need of starting up grants for new industries were sometimes the ones least likely to claim them.
She also blamed high pay settlements for unemployment. “We would have more money for public investment if it did not go into salary increases … . Real wages have not gone up in the U.S. since 1977.”
There was a peculiarly British phenomenon, she said, in that time and again people “would choose to have higher pay with fewer employees.” She attributed a good deal of that to the backlog of prices and incomes policy.
Mrs Thatcher took another side-swipe at the last Labour Government when she attacked corporatism—government, unions and management all getting together. The real aim, she claimed, should be to establish competition and to end monopolies. “Never, never: never underestimate the importance of good management,” she said, “and we don't have enough of it.”
Management was one of four themes she stressed most in economic policy. The others were small businesses, pay settlements and a willingness to accept change.
Of course, people who lost their jobs—like the miners—had to be compensated because their skill was their capital but their long-term security should not be equated with holding the same job for a lifetime, she said.
Turning directly to party politics, Mrs Thatcher argued that when she entered the House of Commons in 1959 she believed that the class war was disappearing.
It had come back, she claimed because socialism had taken over in the Labour Party. All the language of the class struggle was there again. “You have to have a Government which believes really passionately in the kind of things I believe in to stop it’
The Prime Minister was equally dismissive of the Social Democratic-Liberal Alliance. “You have to be very strong to stop people believing in their siren voices.” Mrs Shirley Williams, she believed, still wanted to work with the Labour Party and Dr David Owen was “only one man.” She had never, she said, seen any clear objectives in what she called “the two middle parties.”
There appears to be no firm decision yet on who will replace Mr James Prior as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. But Mrs Thatcher argued that the problem could not be resolved from No.10 Downing Street. “It will be resolved only if you get cooperation from the people over there. No-one has got it, so Ulster stays part of the United Kingdom.”
Europe, she said, was nearly through as far as the British contribution to the budget was concerned. It was a question of the future of the Community on a world stage and “getting other people thinking in bigger terms.”
As for the miners, Mrs Thatcher concluded, the dispute will be resolved in the end “by more people returning to work.” It meant putting across the facts to the people again, again and again. “For what you have at present,” she said, “is unions trying to destroy unions.”
“Some of their arguments apply just as much to exhausted pits as to unecomonic ones. If you listened to their arguments you would go on producing mud to keep a community going.”
“We have been getting more people in work, some of them not coming off the unemployment register—but demographic factors have been adding to the working population. Compared to some of our continental neighbours we have a high proportion in work. One of the fundamental problems is that too much of the money available has gone into high salaries and wages.
Real wages in America have not risen since 1977; their growth has gone into job creation. Our earnings went up by 7¾ per cent last year—9½ per cent in manufacturing—way above the rate of inflation.
Part of the problem is the continuing hang-over from incomes policy—we've had more incomes policies than anyone else and we have suffered for it. People think they were entitled to wage increases as a matter of course.
This is again a fundamental point. You can price yourselves out of a job.
“We're just beginning to succeed a little bit with the young, partly through the Alan Walters scheme which has helped to price a number of young people into jobs and partly through the training schemes. I'd rather see a young person priced into a job, with a low pay at first, and then you've got a chance.”
“I've only been here five years and there are so many fundamental things to correct. But we have not done too badly all in all—not well enough for my inexhaustible appetite for getting ahead and doing the right thing … So it is small business, it is pay, it is good management—never, never underestimate the importance of good management—only good management can motivate a workforce—and the willingness to accept change both within industries and in moving from one industry to another …” Long-term fundamental reforms have to be accompanied by short-term measures to “cushion the hard corners of change.”
“You must have a government which believes very passionately in what it wants to do, is very strong in its sense of purpose and does not listen to siren voices.
“I have not seen (in the Liberal and Social Democratic parties) the requisite clear objectives and strength of purpose.
“As for the Labour Party, there isn't a Labour Party, it's a Socialist party. The good, solid, honest Labour people have not been strong enough to stand up to the others.”
“Why I believe in freedom is not only that I believe in it as the only thing that gives life dignity and meaning, not only because without it you will not get the initiative to create increased prosperity.
“But I also believe that when the crunch comes, the majority of people are decent and honourable and when the crunch comes you will get the kind of bravery and action on the part of the working miners and their families that you are getting now … .
“I can only say that what is happening now is that an increasing number of people are taking responsibility … the Nottinghamshire miners, they have been extremely brave—some of the people in the docks, too.
“Finally, that is the only weapon, if I might use that word, that you believe in the end more people will say ‘it does depend on me’—not everyone but sufficient people at every level of life, at every level of organisation, prepared to take the responsibility necessary to keep freedom alive, and necessary for responsible trade unionism to continue.”