They Want Their Deficit Crisis and They Want It Now
Dave Weigel on Signs of a Brain in the Press Corps...

The Rise of Margaret Thatcher: Background

The point of a strike was always to convince the decision makers and the residual claimants to the cash that they were better off paying you what you asked for rather than holding out until you came back to work--and to do so without convincing the broader civil society that the framework that gave you the power to strike was too much of a bother and an inconvenience to maintain and support.

The British Labour movement in the 1970s seem to have been extremely bad at this. And so Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister--with the Conservatives deciding that toleration of the Attleean settlement had outlived its usefulness, with the Liberals agreeing, and with a third of even Labour believing that it was time for a period of Conservative rule to take the unions down a peg.

One would think that such a Legimation Crisis of the Attleean settlement would have called forth a lot of thought and agitation on the left as to how to avoid such a disruption of the institutional framework of post-World War II High European Social Democracy. But no.

English activist and historian E.P. Thompson on the power workers' strike of 1970:

E.P. Thompson (1971): "Sir, Writing by Candlelight..."

Let the power workers dim the street lamps, or even plunge whole districts into utter darkness, the lights of righteousness and duty burn all the brighter from 10,000 darkened drawing-rooms in Chelsea or the Surrey Hills.


May I, writing by candlelight, express my total support for the government in their attempt to halt the unbelievably inflated wage claims now being made?

inquires one correspondent to The Times (12 December). Undoubtedly he may and will....


[T]he clergy... do not push themselves forward so obtrusively.... Some small part, perhaps, has been taken over by that new conscience-bearer, the middle-class housewife, who being out of the hurly-burly and puerility of industrial warfare... can instantly detect from her kitchen the national interest. Thus, on 11 December, a correspondent from Prescot, Lancs.:

...the radio is dead. The television is dead. The electric heaters are dead. The kettle is dead. The fridge is dead. My washing machine is dead. My iron is dead, All the street lights are dead.... Goodness knows how many tragic deaths may result...

It is (she concludes) 'an exhibition of power surely grotesque in its selfishness.'

All dark and comfortless: we stalk the drear world of the psalmist or the space-fiction writer: all that inanimate world of consumer goods, animated each quarter by the insertion of money, lies inert, disobedient. All flesh is grass, we know: but what (O ultimate of horrors!) if all gadgets turned out to be grass also?... Grotesque and selfish the power workers' action may have been. How can one know? Facts have been scarcer than homilies. Reading the press one learns that one has been through little less than cosmic disaster. One had thought that one's neighbors had suffered little more than power cuts for several hours on three or four days, but the mistake is evident. Outside there in the darkness, the nation had been utterly paralysed for week upon week: invalids dependent on 'continuously operating' kidney machines lived two or three to every street....

What is, of course, 'grotesque in its selfishness' is the time-worn hypocrisy of the bourgeois response to discomfort... that old bourgeois theme for moralisms: the 'servant problem'. But the servants are now out of reach: an electric light switch is impervious to the scolding of the mistress; a dust-cart cannot be given a week's wages in lieu of notice.... For 95 percent of the bluster and outrage was the miasma arising from tens of thousands of petty material inconveniences. The electric alarm failed to go off, mummy fell over the dog in the dark, the grill faded with the fillet steak done on one side only, daddy got stuck for half an hour in the lift on the way to a directors' meeting, the children missed Top of the Pops, the fridge defroze all over the souffle, the bath was lukewarm, there was nothing to do but go early to a loveless bourgeois bed. But, wait, there was one alternative: 'Sir, writing by candlelight...'

But to mention the real occasions might seem petty. It was necessary to generalize these inconveniences into a 'national interest'. The raw fillet steak became an inert kidney machine, the dripping fridge an unlit operating theatre, the loveless bed became a threat to the 'whole community'....


The grand lesson of the 'emergency' was... the intricate reciprocity of human needs and services.... What other people do for us is mediated by inanimate objects: the switch, the water tap, the lavatory chain, the telephone receiver, the cheque through the post. That cheque is where the duties of the good bourgeois end. But let the switch or the tap, the chain or the receiver fail, and then the bourgeois discovers--at once--enormous 'oughts' within the reciprocal flow.... Why, all these people owe a duty to the community!

What the duty of the community is to these people is less firmly stated.... [S]alary increases (like those of admirals and university teachers) [that] are awarded quietly and without fuss... [create] no national emergency and no dangerous inflationary pressure.... It is the business of the servant class to serve. And it is the logic of the reified bourgeois world that their services are only noticed when they cease. It is only when the dustbins linger in the street, the unsorted post piles up--it is only when the power workers throw across the switches and look out into a darkness of their own making--that the servants know suddenly the great unspoken fact about our society: their own daily power.