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The People’s Thatcher

So, farewell then, Great Leaderene… Actually, more the Housemaster’s Wife.

You divided a nation. You certainly divided me. Born on the black-sheep side of a wealthy family, I’ve been a lifelong socialist, detesting power and privilege, at the same time relying on a Trust fund to act as my social security blanket. You detested those things too. I’ve worked all my life, had to, and always believed in the value of trades unionism, but throughout my career I hated too, the power and privilege of the unions.

After two years in college studying and learning to become a film cameraman, in 1970 as you rose through the ranks of the cosy Conservative hierarchy, a gentlemen’s club you secretly hoped to break apart, I left and was immediately recruited to work as a junior member of the camera crew on a proper feature film shooting on location in London. Two weeks into my new career, a man came onto the set and took the producer aside. Five minutes later, I and two other ex-students were sacked. Why? We weren’t members of the Association of Cinematographic and Television Technicians, the mighty ACTT.

I immediately offered to join, but was told I couldn’t. Not until I had been working in the film industry for six months…. It was a joke, but it aborted my nascent film career. I fell accidentally into radio broadcasting and, as a news writer, felt it was behoven to me to join the National Union of Journalists. For four years I paid my dues, and then I was a senior News Editor, the company got into difficulty and started laying waste to the staff. Unfairly dismissed (the company denied that I was even an employee!), I ran to the union. We won’t help you, they sneered. You’re management!

A 24-hour news radio station I worked for, LBC had been started by newspaper people. Knowing nothing else, they let the print unions in. Members of the militant Society of Graphical and Allied Trades were allowed to dictate to producers and editors. They controlled the flow of raw news information into the building. If they chose not to work, there was no new news. Journalists were not allowed to touch the newswires. A bunch of, frankly, lazy gobshites, the SOGAT members sat around playing cards, or went to the pub, and were paid twice as much as experienced broadcasters.

In 1980, I got a contract working as a relatively lowly writer on Thames TV’s flagship programme, Thames News. I had been in my new TV career a week, when members of the technicians’ union, the ACTT, went on strike. The issue was the introduction of videotape. Up to then, the reporter went out on a story accompanied by a film crew of seven. Four of them were unnecessary to the process of gathering news; they would be drivers, riggers, ‘assistants’. It was cumbersome and expensive, and open to corrupt practices: expenses were faked, overtime and ‘danger money’ demanded, foreign currency transactions fiddled and the proceeds divided. Fewer stories could be covered, more slowly and at greater cost, reducing the salaries that could be afforded to non-ACTT staff..

Yet the technology existed to streamline the process. The introduction of lightweight video cameras and digital editing suites was fiercely resisted by union officials, who knew perfectly well their members’jobs were not threatened: more people could be employed gathering more news more simply, and this would dilute their power. It was nothing to do with jobs being threatened, but entirely to do with non-union members being let in who would work for less and expose the corrupt practices of the past.

For five weeks, my new TV career remained in suspension. Eventually there was a cock-up over renewing my contract, I was temporarily without one and I quit the ‘profession’ with, it must be said, some relief.

Thatcher brought in laws banning the union closed shops. This allowed the sometimes harsh light of progress to stream in through the smoke-blackened curtains of union backrooms. It brought more fairness to the workplace.

My attitude to unions is, as may be imagined, ambiguous. Like Thatcher, I suspect, I could see their initial value – although, frankly, they had done nothing for me and my ‘rights’ as a working man. In German industry, unions operated on a collegiate level with directors and technicians; in Britain, they had become bloody-minded obstructionists, weekday Marxists out only for themselves.

While feeling sad for the miners and their shattered communities, history may judge that Scargill was a preposterous figure, a monstrously vain bully who deserved taking down, and who (like Hitler) brought his union and their industry, that had done so much to improve conditions for miners since the General Strike, crashing down in flames. The print unions, the labour ‘lump’ on which building workers and dockers had to depend for a precarious living… I hate to say this, but she was right.

But, Oh God! that voice….

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