40 years ago trade union power ensured that the nation’s politics and economics revolved around wage demands. Now the weakness of unions is being held responsible for the strange characteristics of the recession from which we are emerging. The fact that unemployment didn’t rise much above 2.5m during the worst slump since the thirties is attributed to workers concluding that accepting flat wages was better than losing a job after an heroic strike. People have seen the cost of living go up while earnings have stagnated, and yet there has been little evidence of industrial action. The government is felt to be in charge with a clear direction whether we like it or not.


It is incredible to compare the country now with forty years ago. Ted Heath was in the last months of his premiership. In the face of an overtime ban by the National Union of Mineworkers, British industry began 1974 under a State of Emergency and drastic measures to protect dwindling coal stocks. Rota power cuts meant that factories, homes and offices would only get power three days a week. Floodlit football was banned and TV went off early.


How had it come to this? For decades the UK’s economic performance was declining just as union power was rising. The Labour Government in the late sixties had attempted to improve a truly off strike record with proposals entitled “In Place of Strife”. The unions wouldn’t have it and by the time the Conservatives returned to power in 1970 people were seriously asking if the government or the Trades Union Congress were running the country.


Ted Heath was determined to answer that question in his favour and set up the Industrial Relations Court in 1971. It had the power to grant injunctions to stop strikes. It was an utter failure. Unions were fined and faced having their funds seized. Dockers were jailed for defying the court and a possible General Strike was only averted by the intervention of the Official Solicitor that no one had heard of before to free the men. So instead of settling industrial relations, Heath’s measures had exacerbated them. The question loomed larger and larger, Who Governs Britain?


As January turned into February the miners showed no signs of yielding, Heath decided on a General Election on that question. He expected that people plunged into gloom and candlelight would turn on the workers. That was certainly the view of many in the Labour Party. However voters were not yet ready to face down the unions and soon Labour’s Harold Wilson was back. People wanted Wilson to settle with the unions and give everyone a quiet life.


Short term fixes didn’t work and five years later gave their backing to Margaret Thatcher who decimated the power of the unions and forced Labour to change from being the party of the workers to a more ambiguous role in the centre of politics. That’s how the current government have been able to impose massive public spending cuts and hold down wages.


But how long will this passivity in the workforce continue? This year could see people demanding higher pay as the economy turns, particularly if employers start to find a shortage of skilled workers.









When we booked John Major to speak to us parliamentary journalists this week we were expecting some gentle reflections on his time in office in the nineties. Perhaps some thoughts about his predecessor Margaret Thatcher being a back seat driver or about the soapbox he used in 1992 to deliver the Conservatives last General Election victory.


But no, the former Prime Minister decided to wade into the energy debate with a call for a windfall tax on the energy companies. It was a reminder to all that the man who won a fourth term for the Conservatives is still around. He rarely makes speeches and generally avoids embarrassing the government but it was clear from listening to him that he was getting a lot off his chest.




But to return to the hot political topic of the moment, energy. I thought I’d ask Mr Major if he felt any responsibility for the current crisis. After all it is the long term failure of successive government to invest in our energy infrastructure that has left us with a perfect storm. Coal and old nuclear power plants closing, the increasing need to import expensive gas and rocketing bills.


Major’s government was in office about half way between 1961 when Britain opened its first commercial nuclear plant (and led the world with the technology) and 2023 when the Hinckley Point station announced this week will come on line. The early nineties would have been the time to plan for the future given the long investment lead times needed. With the frankness only available to an elder statesman John Major told me that he was “happy to admit to a million errors and failing to do anything about civil nuclear power was one of them.”


One can admire his honesty but be appalled either at the short sightedness of our energy planners or the cowardice of our politicians in the face of voters fears about nuclear leaks or spending money on projects that would not bring short term electoral advantage.


Anyway the new nuclear programme is now under way with the Chinese and French in charge. It should mean plenty of work for us in the north of England where many of the skills are located. Let’s hope the waste issue has been thoroughly thought through this time as we continue to incur the massive decommissioning costs of the old nuclear industry.




Apart from energy we were treated at the lunch to some old fashioned one nation Toryism. Mr Major declared that his party would never fight back in Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool by pandering to its core vote. He referred to the “silent have nots, I know them, I grew up with them.” He mentioned “lace curtain poverty” and said Tory policy had to be addressed to them.


His time as Prime Minister was undermined by Euro sceptic rebels headed by the current Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith. He criticised the way he was handling the benefit reforms.


In an unguarded moment in 1995 he had called some of his Cabinet colleagues “bastards”. Getting years of frustration off his chest he told us on Tuesday “it was true, they were.”


He ended with a defence of our membership of the European Union that Ted Heath would have been proud of.


We may not hear from John Major again for some time but his words will need to be heeded by David Cameron who most of the time is being pressed to the right.



As the dust settles on Andy Murray’s great triumph, I have been wondering just how many people have been lucky enough to see England win the World Cup and a Brit win the Men’s Singles at Wimbledon.

In 1965 I made sure I applied on the first day when tickets became available and was with my Dad at Wembley for our famous win a year later.

This time I was lucky in the public ballot and went with my son Chris to see Murray’s victory.

There must be others who’ve witnessed both rare sporting events, let me know.

It’s not possible there was a ninety plus person in Centre Court on Sunday who has seen Perry,Moore and Murray is there?



Forty years ago Ted Heath told the nation there were going to be power cuts, now the spectre is raising its head again but for very different reasons.

In 1973 Heath was about to embark on his final struggle with the National Union of Mineworkers. The NUM was led by Wigan’s own Joe Gormley. This avuncular president of the miners won his battles with the Conservative government unlike his successor, Arthur Scargill, who preferred a glorious defeat.

Now it’s not picketing that threatens to plunge us into darkness but the failure of successive governments to plan our energy supplies properly.

Around 2015 we are going to face the perfect storm in terms of energy. The closure of our most “dirty” power stations will be complete to comply with our environmental obligations and our old fashioned nuclear power stations will be generating electricity for the last time. North Sea gas production has peaked.

There has been much talk about what will replace these old power sources and investments are beginning, but not soon enough. Hence the recent speculation that factories might be asked to reduce their power consumption between 4pm and 8pm on winter evenings.

Huge controversy has raged in rural parts of the North over wind farms and the government recently strengthened the powers of objectors which seemed a strange thing to do if it still has faith in renewables to come to our aid.

Wind is at the centre of a poker game being played between the industry ad government over the strike price (what the National Grid will pay). Before it invests the industry wants £100 per megawatt hour (twice the market price) for onshore wind farms and £155 for future offshore plants like the ones in the Irish Sea.

Future nuclear plants are similarly stalled although the government denies it is being held to ransom by the French company EDF Energy.

So we could be down to 2% spare capacity of generated power in three years time. A cold snap could see us reaching for the candles again.

Part of the solution is lying under our feet here in the North. After a two year freeze following the Blackpool quake, the government has taken a number of steps to restart the exploration for shale gas. This could meet most of our gas needs for 40 years. Incentives for exploration, streamlining of planning and standardisation of planning permits were all announced in June’s government infrastructure announcement. These were twinned with measures to ensure that local communities on the Fylde and in Cheshire share in the benefits. However unlike in America we only own six feet under our houses, so people in Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cheshire won’t be getting million dollar cheques like some lucky homesteaders in rural America.

The cost of blackouts in three years time would be huge to industry and business. Ministers must factor that into their hard bargaining over the strike price for power in the future.






Ted Heath remains a hate figure for many Tories. Two reasons for this are well known. He took us into Europe and he conducted the longest sulk in political history when he was deposed by Margaret Thatcher. The third, less publicised reason, was the economic U turn he performed midway through his government in the early seventies.


In 1970 Heath came to power with a right wing agenda to deregulate and make a transfer from direct to indirect taxation. Rising unemployment knocked him off course and his Chancellor Anthony Barber reflated the economy. The resulting inflation was controlled by an incomes policy which led to the miners strike, the three day week and the Conservatives lost the 1974 election.


When Margaret Thatcher faced a similar economic crisis early in her premiership, she was not for turning and became a heroine of her party. Such a status is never likely to be available to David Cameron and George Osborne but next week they do face a similar situation. The cries to modify the austerity and borrow our way out are deafening. Labour point out that as the economy flat lines we are borrowing more anyway.


I don’t expect the Chancellor to ease up. The Budget is likely to include fuel duty relief and more spending on infrastructure but I expect a broadly neutral budget as ministers cross their fingers and hope that the economic course on which they are set, works.


There are economic indicators which support the Chancellor’s approach, the mortgage market is easing, business start ups are growing and unemployment is down.


It is worth reflecting on that last point. It is one of the outstanding features of this recession. In Heath and Thatcher’s time, unemployment rocketed up as the economy slumped. Why hasn’t it happened this time. It is partly because the figures mask the fact that a lot of people are part time or under employed. Workers have been prepared to suffer wage freezes and reduced hours to keep their jobs. The trade unions, once able to bring down governments, are whispering from the sidelines. Sad but true, strikes are not really an option in the 21st century.




One of the many reasons why people are turned off from politics is that the great and the good generally don’t pay with their jobs when things go wrong.


If a brickie builds a dodgy wall and it falls down he gets sacked. If a car mechanic does a shoddy job on your vehicle; same fate.


But when it comes to police officers failing to pick up on complaints about Jimmy Savile or health disasters like Mid Staffs, none of the people at the top lose their jobs.


The glaring example is Sir David Nicholson, head of the strategic health authority which covered Mid Staffs. Now head of the whole NHS for England, he has defied repeated calls to resign.


Just occasionally justice is served as we saw this week with Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce, but this does not detract from the need for people who take high salaries to walk the plank if things go wrong.