Commentary (The Times)

Strikes: “Mrs Thatcher warned in secret report of defeat in confrontation with unions” (leak of Carrington Report - Authority of Government Policy Group)

Document type: Declassified documents
Source: The Times , 18 April 1978
Journalist: Peter Hennessy
Editorial comments:
Importance ranking: Key
Word count: 884 words
Themes: Trade unions, Strikes & other union action

Mrs Thatcher warned in secret report of defeat in confrontation with unions

A future Conservative government would be unable to defeat certain powerful trade unions in a direct confrontation. That is the advice contained in a secret report to Mrs Margaret Thatcher by a high-level Tory group led by Lord Carrington. The group took evidence from leading businessmen and former highly placed civil servants. It concluded that use of the Armed Forces on a large scale to break strikes would not be possible.

Mr Heath ‘not to blame’ for 1974 failure

By Peter Hennessy

Mrs Thatcher, Leader of the Opposition, has been presented with a secret report wvarning her that a future Conservative Administration would be unable to defeat trade unions with the power to throttle the physical and economic life of the country, such as the miners and the power workers, should they confront the government.

The document was prepared by a small group of former ministers and Conservative Party advisers. Its chairman was Lord Carrington, party leader in the House of Lords who, as Secretary of State for Defence and later for Energy, played a leading part in handling the emergency created by the winter crisis of 1973-74 which brought down Mr Heath’s government.

Its findings go to the heart of the question posed bv the result of Mr Heath’s clash with the miners: would powerful and determined unions be able to prevent a future Conservative Cabinet from governing in a period of industrial strife?

The predominant theme of the Carrington report is its warning to Mrs Thatcher that it was not the political incompetence of her predecessor that lay behind the Tory trauma four years ago. Strong unions and the advanced technology operated bv their members, particularly in fuel and power industries, mean that no government these davs can “win” in the way Mr Baldwin’s Cabinet triumphed during the General Strike of 1926, by maintaining essential supplies and services.

Lord Carrington took evidence in strict confidence from prominent businessmen and distinguished former civil servants before reaching his conclusions. He was instructed that the exercise findings would never become known, so sensitive was the issue judged in the light of Mr. Heath’s experience. The former civil servants, in particular, strove to impress on the Opposition, according to one Tory insider, “that it could not, when next in government, ride off into the sunset and take everybody on; there was no magic available to Mrs Thatcher, as there had been none for Mr Heath”. The harsh reality encapsulated in the views of witnesses wlho appeared before the inquiry is said to have opened the eyes of some of the more hawkish Tories involved.

Lord Carrington’s group examined the possibility of using the Armed Forces to break strike,. It concluded that such a practice could not be adopted on any large scale for two reasons: first, that Britain no longer had enough troops, and second that it would permanently damage the fabric and practice of the country’s politics.

The report is not entirely defeatist in tone, however. It recommends that a higher priority should be given to emergency planning in periods of political and industrial quiet and that the best brains in Whitehall should be devoted to it. One lesson the group drew from the experience of the Heath government was that it had been a mistake to leave such work until the last minute.

Mr Heath’s ministerial Emergencies Committee, like that of Sir Harold Wilson and Mr Callaghan after him, was served by the Civil Contingencies Unit in the Cabinet Office. Led at present by Sir Clive Rose, a deputy secretary on secondment from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, it consists of about 15 officials whose numbers are augmented vhen an emergency threatens.

Should Mrs Thatcher heed Lord Carrington’s advice, a future Conservative government would greatly strengthen the unit and its preparations. The report, however, has nothing to say about improving regional organization for civil emergency; in the past, that has proved the key to successful plans for the maintenance of essential services and supplies.

Lord Carrington conducted the bulk of his inquiry in 1976 and 1977, and its findings generally share the pessimism of Labour ministers at that time about the feasibility of facing down unions in disruptive disputes. Since then the successful use of troops to break the firemen’s strike has created a new mood of resolution in Whitehall.

The Emergencies Committee of the present Cabinet, chaired by Mr Merlyn Rees, Home Secretary, for example, commissioned and approved a plan, code-named Operation Raglan, whereby troops would have taken over the vehicles and work of petrol tanker drivers had their dispute developed in February into an all-out strike. But for all their latter-day robustness about strike-breaking, ministers remain acutely aware that such remedies cannot be applied to every example of industrial disruption, especially in high-technology areas of the economy.

The relative fastidiousness of Tory politicians in planning for civil emergencies, especially the use of troops, has not surprised everyone in Whitehall. One senior official, with long experience of such matters, when asked recently if it was easier for a Labour government to “take on” the unions, replied: “Undoubtedly, yes. The Conservatives do not hold the trade union movement in anything like the same contempt as Labour ministers.”