Boris must harness the spirit of our greatest post-war Prime Minister in how he deals with the Unions



As the furlough scheme comes to an end this autumn, it is paramount that we get the economy back up and running, especially after it was announced that the British economy had shrunk, in terms of GDP, more than any other developed nation in the West. 

Boris Johnson has already made clear that schools must go back in September, no matter what – but it isn’t the children or the parents or even individual teachers who are proving the most significant barrier to this. Who is then? Well, of course, it’s the the unions. The National Union of Teachers, or NUT for short, has been a massive thorn in the government’s side during this pandemic. The Children’s Commissioner for England suggested to the government that for schools to reopen, pubs should close as an expense – the government should not and must not do this. 

What we really need in Britain is for the government to stand up to the unions, in something of the spirit of one former Prime Minister, and her ever loyal right hand men, Norman Tebbit, and enforcer Ian MacGregor. Mrs Thatcher came to power following mass striking during the infamous winter of 1978/79; her determination to stand up to the unions and her pledge to reform the whole system won mass public support, which saw her storm into Number 10. Her first Employment Secretary, Jim Prior, was a disappointment and was seen as weak in his approach to union leaders; thus, in the 1981 reshuffle, she promoted Tebbit, then a trade minister, to stiffen the approach. 

The 1982 Employment Act completely changed how unions worked and had met with stiff resistance from people such as TUC General Secretary, Len Murray, trade unionist Bill Keys and, perhaps most famously the Chairman of the National Union of Mineworkers, Arthur Scargill. Scargill even pledged to “defy the law”, something Thatcher’s emboldened government did not take kindly to! 

Tebbit remarked that his “greatest achievement in government” was to substantially curb union power and make the whole system a fairer one. The 1982  act restricted legal immunities from trade unions, it gave members a right to a secret postal ballot on strike action and most significantly it abolished the closed shop – as well as giving trade union members the right to select their leader through a secret postal ballot. 

Following Scargill’s vow to “bring down the government”, Thatcher took on the NUM in the now infamous miners’ strikes, which lasted just shy of a year, between 1984 and 1985. Her defiant position on the matter revolutionised how Prime Ministers dealt with unions and ultimately bettered workers’ rights by limiting the powers of militants. To quote Tebbit, “it was no longer beer and sandwiches in Number 10 for union leaders.”

We need Boris Johnson to stand up to people like Len McClusky and NUT boss Philipa Harvey, otherwise we run the risk of repeating the mistakes of Edward Heath’s government, with its unsatisfactory placatory measures. The unions toppled every government until Thatcher’s. The current Prime Minister must beware the dangers of giving in. 

Ethan Thoburn is Chairman of South Tyneside Conservatives and an Area Officer in the North East of England. He is Editor of The Bruges Group. Follow him on twitter: @ethan_thoburn