Socialist Equality Party (UK)
The Historical and International Foundations of the Socialist Equality Party (Britain)

The mass movement against the Heath government

174. The global crisis plunged Britain into a period of intense class conflict, which brought it closer to revolution than at any time since the 1926 General Strike. As a major finance centre, it was especially vulnerable to the sweeping capital movements that took place following the break-up of Bretton Woods.The Wilson government was forced into a series of devaluations and major spending cuts. In 1969, it brought forward the White Paper, “In Place of Strife”, to enforce legal sanctions against strikes.

175. The SLL warned that the refusal of the Labour left to lead a struggle against Wilson was paving the way for the return of a Conservative government, and the imposition of even more savage measures against the working class. In 1968, Conservative MP Enoch Powell had been sacked from the shadow cabinet after delivering his notorious “Rivers of Blood” speech, seeking to whip up anti-immigrant sentiments. But Powell’s remarks were only the initial expression of a right-wing shift by the Tories, who, by 1970, had adopted a radical, free market agenda. Based on the monetarist economic policies of Milton Friedman, they advocated an end to the “bailout” of inefficient companies, the curtailing of social provisions, and a legal offensive against wildcat strikes.

176. Elected in June 1970, one of the first actions of the Heath government was to press forward with its Industrial Relations Act against the trade unions, targeting in particular unofficial strikes. Over the next four years, Heath was forced to call no less than five states of emergency, as a mass movement involving millions developed against his government. The first national miners’ strike since 1926 broke out in January 1972, a year that saw 23.2 million work days lost due to strikes. Mass picketing at the Saltley coke depot in Birmingham, involving thousands, forced the government to grant a 21 percent pay rise.

177. In July, five striking shop stewards on the London docks were arrested for secondary picketing and sent to Pentonville jail. Their imprisonment saw all the major ports come to a standstill, as 170,000 dockers struck. Printers in Fleet Street walked out, stopping virtually all the national dailies, and rolling strikes were implemented by other sections of workers. A blockade of the prison by tens of thousands led to the intervention of the hitherto little-known Official Solicitor, who, using ancient powers, ordered the release of the five.

178. Utilising events in Northern Ireland, Heath had introduced a new system to deal with civil unrest by placing responsibility for emergency powers under the control of the Civil Contingencies Unit. This apparatus was employed in 1974 against a second national miners’ strike. In preparation for the confrontation, the government placed industry on a three-day week to conserve fuel supplies, while the civil service, the police and the Ministry of Defence were secretly placed on an alert procedure. Military manoeuvres were carried out at Heathrow airport and other strategic locations.

179. Seeking to mobilise sections of the middle class, Heath called a general election for February 28, 1974, under the slogan, “Who runs Britain, the government or the unions?” But he had badly misread the political mood, particularly the combativeness of the working class. Despite government threats and a vicious media witch-hunt, the miners stayed out on strike for the duration of the election campaign. Their determined response shifted the balance of class forces. Heath failed to secure a majority but, for four days, refused to concede defeat. Though apparently Heath was attempting to form a coalition with the Liberal Party, the former Chief of the Defence Staff Lord Carver later admitted that discussions about military intervention had taken place at the time among “fairly senior officers”.