Ted Heath's government runs into early trouble...
The autumn of 1970 saw the first real slide into chaos with the so-called dirty jobs strike by local council workers in London. Refuse collectors seeking higher wages were joined by workers at refuse-dumps, determined to prevent the public from disposing of their own rubbish, and by sewerage-workers. By mid-October more than 60,000 workers were on strike, with solidarity action in the form of overtime bans and one-day stoppages pulling another 75,000 into the dispute. The effects spilled into unrelated areas – schooldays were lost and parks were closed when caretakers and park-keepers walked out – but the real danger came from the action at the heart of the strike.
‘Millions of gallons of untreated sewage poured into the rivers Thames and Avon yesterday,’ reported the press; ‘only volunteers, working up to eighteen hours a day at pumping stations, were preventing serious flooding and the danger of many people being drowned in their homes.’ Fish died in their thousands in the polluted rivers, swarms of flies, breeding in the Deephams sewage works in Enfield, descended on North London and – as a foretaste of crises yet to come – Leicester Square became a temporary refuse-tip, disappearing under a mountain of bin-bags.
There were even tinny echoes of the 1926 General Strike, as members of the upper classes demonstrated their opposition by symbolic action; one group of volunteers – which included the Duke of St Albans’ daughter, Lady Caroline ffrench Blake – cleared up Downing Street, and their leader, an economist named Patrick Evershed, promised further such measures: ‘Having successfully swept Downing Street the six patriots, plus some more friends, intend to sweep round the Cenotaph in time for the Remembrance service.’ It was, he said, ‘a disgrace that Mr Heath’s visitors who come from all corners of the world should have to wade through debris on the way into No. 10.’
However grateful Heath may have been for the courtesy, it made no difference to the outcome of the dispute. The united front of the employers soon began to crumble, with first Barking Council and then Tower Hamlets reaching their own agreements, even before an independent committee, led by Sir Jack Scamp, concluded that ‘a non-inflationary settlement was never in prospect’, and accepted virtually all the unions’ demands. That verdict brought a close to a six-week strike that offered little enough optimism for the immediate future, but the year was not yet over.
Electricians began a work-to-rule that led to the first power cuts of Heath’s government (and another state of emergency), and the parliamentary term ended with the House of Commons sitting in near darkness, its proceedings illuminated by candles and paraffin-lamps. ‘Driving home through the darkened streets, which only weeks before had been littered with rubbish,’ reflected newly elected Tory MP, Norman Tebbit, ‘I wondered for how long this succession of strikes would continue...’
published by Aurum Press
© Alwyn W Turner 2008