Leading Article: Major's puzzling signals to GCHQ

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THE BAN on trade union membership at the Government's General Communications Headquarters in Cheltenham, the 10th anniversary of which comes up next month, was one of the more bizarre episodes in British industrial-relations history.

It was a belated response to a strike by GCHQ workers in 1981 for more pay. Margaret Thatcher and her ministers were not content to abolish their right to strike, nor to withdraw recognition from their unions. Instead, the Government went for an outright ban, requiring employees to tear up their union membership cards if they wished to keep their jobs. Most of the 7,000-odd GCHQ employees yielded to pressure, accepting compensation for the loss of their union rights. Hundreds chose to leave; 18 diehards were sacked.

To Mrs Thatcher, GCHQ was but a single battle in a wider war to break the unions' power over the country, and it no doubt seemed to her of a piece with the miners' strike and Wapping. She may have been under pressure from the United States, whose government benefited from the work done at GCHQ but was at one remove from the political cost of outlawing the unions that organised there. British civil servants may also have had a hand in the matter; later accounts suggest that the issue first arose because of a mishandled administrative change from weekly to monthly payment of some members of staff.

It would have been out of character for Mrs Thatcher to do anything that would look like retreat. But John Major is different. He has built his career on his skills as a conciliator; his taste for pragmatic solutions is as suitable for a government with a small majority as Mrs Thatcher's style was for one that had over 100 parliamentary seats more than its opponents.

That pragmatism should tell him that if trade unions can recruit people who work at nuclear power stations or in sensitive areas of the Ministry of Defence, there is no reason why they should be excluded from GHCQ. It should not be hard to find a settlement that guarantees the continuity and efficiency of the essential work done at the centre, while restoring to its employees some of the rights they used to possess.

Yesterday's meeting at Downing Street was therefore a puzzle. Mr Major was ill-advised if he believed that by merely meeting the trade unionists he would mollify their friends at the International Labour Organisation - and thus prevent the ILO from delivering a public rebuke to the Government in a report next summer. But equally, he cannot have expected the union leaders to be happy with his meagre offer of a right for the GCHQ staff association to affiliate to the wider Council of Civil Service Unions.

Having chosen to awaken this sleeping dog, the Prime Minister should now offer a compromise. He should accept the unions' long- standing offer of a no-strike deal at GCHQ, allow them once again to recruit at the centre, and thus put an end to the whole sorry business.