Tories draw the lines, we the public take up arms
NIGEL Lawson, the man who towered over the British economy in the 1980s, is a shadow of his former self. He has become small and wizened, a walnut where he used to be a pumpkin. Still talks rot, though.
As George Osborne prepared to stand and deliver his autumn statement, BBC News propped up Lawson outside Parliament to give his view.
Which boiled down to supporting the chancellor in his squeeze on working people because it was “needed” to keep interest rates low. As if low interest rates were somehow more important than people’s lives and futures.
As chancellor himself from 1983 to 1989, Lawson presided over much higher interest rates than we have now. As well as reducing taxes on companies and the higher-paid while increasing Vat, thereby putting more of the burden on the less well-off. Well, he is a Tory.
He was also a key figure in the first wave of mass privatisations. Or, as another former Tory chancellor, Harold Macmillan, put it, “flogging off the family silver”.
It is partly because of what Lawson did then that we are up the creek now.
Lacking a manufacturing base for our struggling economy, while gas, electricity, telecoms and British Airways continue to make profits for private companies not the public good.
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Lawson also played a central role in preparing for Maggie Thatcher’s carefully prepared, sustained and vicious attack on the coal industry.
Thatcher’s enthusiasm for nuclear power stemmed from her eagerness for the assault on coal.
She was not going to be brought down, as previous Tory PM Ted Heath had been, by a stoppage of the coal supply to power stations. She was going to make sure the electricity continued to flow into the nation’s homes and businesses no matter who she picked a fight with.
The miners’ strike of 1984-5 was a turning-point in industrial relations in Britain.
It so happened that for three months of that period I was on strike myself, over a matter not obviously related (the loss of newspaper jobs through the imposition of new technology).
Striking miners occasionally visited our picket line, and we visited some of theirs. To use a phrase recently hijacked by our ruling toffs, we were all in it together.
And of course, as history knows, we lost together.
The eventual defeat of the miners, and the devastation of their industry, was a shattering blow to the whole of trade unionism. Which was exactly what Thatcher intended all along.
What Lawson, particularly in his earlier role as energy secretary, helped her plan and prepare for.
This week’s strike by public-sector workers was billed as the biggest walk-out since 1926. In terms purely of the number taking part, it was. One day of protest, however, hardly equates to the bitter, protracted disputes we lived through in the 1970s and 80s.
It does have this in common, though, with the miners’ strike. That it was a fight picked by a Tory government. And that no one will have been more pleased by it than those who provoked it.
Just like in the 1980s, it gives them a chance to split the populace into an “us” and a “them”. To divide and conquer.
Which is not to say that the unions and their members were wrong to take action. Frankly, they had little choice.
And this, surely, is merely the beginning, the marking-out of the battleground between the government and the people they supposedly represent.
Osborne’s statement, though conveniently hidden from full media attention behind the strike, drew more of those lines.
The pre-publicity was mostly for what you might call the good news. Extra spending on schools, youth unemployment, the building of houses, railways and roads – including a possible new toll road from Felixstowe to the Midlands. New (though piffling) investment in the space industry, green technology and research into animal disease.
The detail showed that the bill will be picked up by public-sector workers and the low-paid.
The independent Office of Budget Responsibility estimates that Osborne’s new policies will cost 710,000 jobs in the public sector, compared with the 400,000 it had previously expected as a result of the government’s spending cuts.
Welfare campaigners say his decision to scrap an increase in child tax credits will result in an additional 100,000 children dropping below the official poverty line.
He signalled the end of national pay bargaining within two years and set a two-year one per cent ceiling on public-sector pay rises – measures surely designed to provoke the unions into further action.
Osborne, of course, is banking on the majority public mood supporting him as he casts the public sector and their union leaders in the role Thatcher cast the miners and Arthur Scargill.
I wonder if Len McCluskey, general secretary of the union Unite, isn’t perhaps nearer the reality.
People, he says, “have seen their living standards get squeezed while the rich get richer.
“They look at the teachers, lollipop ladies and civil servants marching and then they look at the millionaires in cabinet, and they know which side to support.
“Trade union members aren’t some inconvenient troublemakers making life hard for the public: they are the public.”