For many months now, I have been repeating to myself Dickens’ famous opening line to A Tale of Two Cities – “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. My emphasis has been, of course, on the second phrase. Now is the worst of times, isn’t it? Now is surely the “age of foolishness” as Dickens went on to write. We did indeed once have “everything before us” and now we have “nothing before us”.
Look at what has been going on this week. The Prime Minister, Theresa May, has lost not one but two members of her Cabinet – Sir Michael Fallon for sexual impropriety, Priti Patel for conducting a sort of freelance foreign policy in Israel of all places. Then the Prime Minister made matters worse as only she knows how. She replaced Sir Michael with an inexperienced chief whip, Gavin Williamson, and attracted further criticism from within her own party.
Meanwhile it is unclear how well or badly the Brexit talks are going with the oh-so-relaxed David Davis in charge. Theresa May, imprisoned in her immobility, seems scarcely involved.
But she can still be obstinate. For example, Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, wants to remove students from the Government’s immigration targets. But the Prime Minister blocks this sensible move. She is apparently implacable in her resistance to any change in policy. Sheer obstinacy can have its advantages, but it is not always wise.
But having said all that, and added that I voted to remain in the European Union, I have to say that these times are not the worst I have experienced in British politics. Because once I was not so much despairing as literally frightened at the way the government of the country was going.
I refer to the “three-day week” announced by the then Prime Minister, Edward Heath, in December 1973. Britain had been experiencing very high rates of inflation following a massive jump in oil prices. Consumer prices had been rising at over 25 per cent per annum. This could have transmuted into hyperinflation such as Germany experienced in the 1920s.
To tackle this, the government capped public sector pay rises. The unreformed trades unions of the day, led by the National Union of Mineworkers, objected. The national conference passed resolutions for a 35 per cent wage increase, regardless of any government guidelines. In November the miners started an overtime ban; the government began to fear that before long they would stop work altogether. So on 13 December, Heath announced a series of measure to conserve fuel. For a fortnight from 17 until 30 December, industrial and commercial energy users would be restricted to only five days of energy consumption. From the start of 1974, the restrictions would be increased to only three days of consecutive energy consumption a week – essentially enforcing a three-day working week.
At the time, I was the editor of a weekly magazine, the Investors Chronicle. The editorial offices were in the City but every Wednesday we went to the magazine’s printers in St Albans in Hertfordshire to read proofs and get everything ready for publication. But suddenly the first question was whether power to run the printing presses would be available or not.
The moment when I actually felt frightened was when walking up St James’s Street in central London one evening. Everything was dark. It felt like wartime. What had Britain come to? That for me was the very worst of times.
Then Heath attempted to strengthen his hand by calling a general election at the end of February. He addressed the country on television on the evening of 7 February, and asked: “Do you want a strong government which has clear authority for the future to take decisions which will be needed? Do you want Parliament and the elected government to continue to fight strenuously against inflation? Or do you want them to abandon the struggle against rising prices under pressure from one particularly powerful group of workers? This time of strife has got to stop.”
I remember thinking at the time that we were being asked two questions rather than one: first, who governs the country, Parliament or the Trades Unions Congress? And second, do we approve of Heath’s record? My answer to the first was of course Parliament; my answer to the second was ‘no’. Inevitably the electorate’s answer was muddled. Labour won 301 seats to Conservatives 297. Labour under Harold Wilson formed a minority government and came back to the electorate eight months later to be rewarded with an overall majority of three.
Five years later, Thatcher won her first general election. She successfully took on the miners at the so-called Battle of Orgreave. This was a violent confrontation in 1984 between police and pickets at a British Steel Corporation’s coking plant. And she passed legislation that substantially weakened the trades unions.
But now the trades unions are getting restive again. Heath’s three-day week isn’t just ancient history from a bygone era. It is still relevant. Be warned.
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