Jack Hart: Trade unionist who took on the Tory government over the ban on unions at GCHQ

 

Jack Hart, a leading signals specialist, was an unlikely trade union activist, but on 25 January 1984, Hart, then chair of the committee representing all civil service trade union branches at GCHQ, was summoned to a meeting to be told that the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, had decided to ban all unions at the government's secret listening centre in Cheltenham, and at other listening posts. Workers had a choice of leaving their unions or being dismissed. Those who gave up their membership were to receive £1,000.

Thatcher's decision, believed to have been taken under pressure from the Americans following a civil service dispute two years earlier, led to the long-running campaign organised by the civil service unions and the TUC, which united all members in anger at the accusation that people belonging to unions could not be relied upon to be loyal to their own country. Len Murray, then General Secretary of the TUC, waded into negotiations alongside civil service unions, making a deal with the Cabinet Secretary Robert Armstrong which allowed members to keep their cards, in exchange for the unions agreeing not to interfere with GCHQ. Thatcher, believing they faced a conflict of loyalty, tore up the agreement.

Hart was appalled at the ultimatum, and along with other workers at GCHQ deeply resented the inference that they had a conflict of interest. Senior managers had outlined the important work carried out by the workers, including union members, during the Falklands War; to make matters worse, the workers, many of them long-time signals operators, had never told their families what their jobs were.

Des Hart, Jack's son, recalled: "We knew he wasn't in the forces. I had a vague idea, I just knew he had a job, but we never discussed it, and I was told if asked to say he was a civil servant. Close family friends didn't know about it until Geoffrey Howe stood up in the House of Commons announcing details of the ban and giving details of what the people working at Cheltenham did."

Hart, then in his late fifties and heading towards retirement, found himself locked into a battle to get the ban withdrawn. Later, following his early retirement, he continued with the fight, becoming secretary of GCHQ Trade Unions, the committee set up to represent union members. The campaign was to last for 13 years; 14 members were to be sacked five years later.

A quiet, steely, cricket-loving, more used to settling disputes over a glass of beer, Hart was quick to declare his feelings: the first edition of the campaign's publication Warning Signal carried the headline "Jack's not signing", as he outlined his reasons for not accepting the government's £1,000 offer.

Accompanied by his wife Iris, Hart threw himself into the campaign and travelled around the country attending and speaking at meetings and conferences, constantly reminding people about the government's actions, becoming in many ways the public face of the campaign. In Easter 1992, he visited his son, who was then working in Cyprus. In the hopes of a Labour victory he was carrying a suitcase full of union recruitment forms to be handed out to those working at the local listening post. Des Hart said: "It was the fact that he had been on the inside of the wire for over 30 years, and the one thing that you didn't do was question the loyalty of the staff. He was angry at Thatcher's arrogance in accusing them of treachery for exerting the right that they were defending, that of democracy."

Hart was born in Rainham, Essex and educated at the Royal Liberty School in Gidea Park. He was called up in 1945, joining the Royal Corps of Signals, and was posted to Ceylon, where he trained as a wireless operator who would keep in contact with agents who were to be dropped into Japanese held Burma. He remained in the Far East until 1947, when he returned to England and was recruited to work at- GCHQ which had taken over the top secret role of eavesdropping, previously carried out at Bletchley Park during wartime. He took a crash course in Russian and was posted to Cyprus and Hong Kong as a "listener", scanning the airwaves, before returning to GCHQ's outstation in Taunton.

Brendan Barber, former General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress, said: "Of all the 1980s government attacks on trade unions, the GCHQ ban was the most spiteful. Jack Hart embodied the values of honesty, decency and patriotism that characterised the campaign for the restoration of rights and that kept the GCHQ trade union cause in the public eye right through to the time that the rights were restored as one of the first acts of the incoming Labour Government in 1997."

Indeed, within hours of being elected the new government restored trade union rights at GCHQ. "It was fantastic," Des Hart recalled. "My father went to the rally and saw the sacked men march back into GCHQ. He was ecstatic – it had all been worth it."

Peta Steel

Jack Hart, radio operator and trade unionist: born Rainham, Essex 18 February 1926; married 1952 Iris Keating (died 2009; two children); died Taunton 27 November 2012.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
people Ex-wife of John Lennon has died at her home in Spain
News
Nick Clegg on the campaign trail in Glasgow on Wednesday; he says education is his top priority
peopleNick Clegg remains optimistic despite dismal Lib Dem poll ratings
Life and Style
2 Karl Lagerfeld and Choupette
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
Buttoned up: Ryan Reynolds with Helen Mirren in ‘Woman in Gold’
filmFor every box-office smash in his Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. Now he says it's time for a reboot
News
people
News
Actress Julianne Moore wins the Best Actress in a Leading Role Award for 'Still Alice' during the 87th Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood, California
people
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Chef De Partie

£20000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the four inns of Court i...

Ashdown Group: Graduate IT Support - Surrey - £24,000

£20000 - £24000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Graduate IT Support Helpdesk / 1st L...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Marketing Executive - Property

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting job opportu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO, Paid Search and Marketing Assistant

£19000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

War with Isis

Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

A spring in your step?

Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
10 best compact cameras

A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

Paul Scholes column

Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?