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The industrial dispute that went a long way towards turning the then nascent Labour Party into the political force it is today involved a Welsh train operator and a small trade union which counted among its members my grandfather, Joseph Mellor.
In 1900, the Taff Vale Railway Company sued the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS) for damages after it took industrial action in a bid to obtain higher wages and union recognition.
After the company employed strike-breakers, the dispute was over within a fortnight. But the judgment in the court case that followed had far-reaching consequences that reverberate to this day.
Mr Justice Farwell found in favour of the bosses and, in doing so, effectively eliminated the strike as a weapon of organised labour.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is pictured at PMQs in the House of Commons on Wednesday, 22 June
As a result, workers looked to the Labour Party to advance their fortunes and, between 1900 and 1906, the number of Labour members of Parliament rose from two to 29. It was on its way.
While Grandad Joseph regarded me as a class traitor for becoming a Tory, he would have had no truck with the men at the helm of today’s RMT.
He worked on the railways at a time when train guards wore a well-pressed three-piece suit, with a carnation in their buttonhole and a watch chain hanging from the waistcoat pocket. They took pride in their job and prized the respect of their neighbours.
The rights my grandfather and his generation fought for helped give back rail workers their self-respect but, over the years, successive union radicals have exploited their power to disrupt the life of the country to blackmail governments into bowing to increasingly outrageous demands for improvements in pay and conditions.
And now they appear bent on going one step further. There was no way my grandfather or his colleagues would have allowed themselves to be used by today’s militant, far-Left RMT leaders as pawns in a political struggle with only one end in view: the toppling of a Conservative government.
And that means it is time for our prime minister to step up to the plate, just as Margaret Thatcher did when the National Union of Mineworkers attempted to pull off the same stunt in 1984-5.
In the long watches of the night, after all the traumas he has been foolish enough to put himself through, Boris must surely long for an event that could, almost at a stroke, redeem him in the eyes of the millions of Boris fans, who have become disaffected by all those Partygate antics.
Now is the time for the man who presided over the garden of No 10 turning into a louche Chicago speakeasy at the height of Prohibition to show the same steel that he displayed when he courageously stood alongside President Zelensky in Kyiv, pledging all our support for his brave fight against the Russia invaders, while the leaders of France and Germany skulked on the sidelines.
Boris must surely know it is not just a personal imperative, but a national one, that he ends up looking like Margaret Thatcher and not Ted Heath, the man she deposed after he proved unable to take the people with him in the battle against the unions.
There are no prizes for finishing second in this dispute.
Heath was a thoroughly decent and patriotic man. I enjoyed many hours talking to him about classical music, but always studiously avoiding the subject of politics. It was just too embarrassing. Because when the great challenge of Joe Gormley and the miners came upon him, he asked the voters ‘Who governs the country?’ and they replied ‘Not you, mate.’
Prime Minister Thatcher gives her closing speech at the Conservative Party Conference following the IRA bombing of a Brighton hotel in 1984
What followed was the state of anarchy created by a weak and irresolute Labour government — a foretaste of what we can expect if history repeats itself — which saw inflation approaching 30 per cent, as unacceptably large pay claims flooded in from the Luddites of the trade union movement who swept all before them.
I never tried to talk to Margaret Thatcher about music, or indeed much else, come to think of it. When I was her youngest minister for four years, she treated me with even more contempt than my mother did.
But I didn’t mind that much, because I knew from my vantage point in the Home Office at the time of the confrontation with Arthur Scargill and his hard-Left allies that this was her moment, her date with destiny, her chance to enter the history books as a national figure whose name would echo down the ages.
Of course, there were occasions when I thought the Iron Lady the most unreasonable woman on the planet. But the force of her convictions, and her determination to see off Scargill, carried all before it.
The miners’ dispute was like Waterloo, which was — in the immortal words of the victor, the Duke of Wellington — ‘a damned close-run thing’.
But she won, and so did the country, triggering a huge increase in prosperity, only made possible by the defeat of Scargill and his fellow travellers.
They sought to constrain the natural talent and flair of the British people, whereas Margaret Thatcher just wanted to let it rip — and she did.
She was never that popular before the miners’ dispute, and plenty of people didn’t like her afterwards. But they gave her what Boris must surely want more than anything else: respect.
There isn’t much of that about for the blond bombshell at the moment. Yet getting it right in the next few months will transform his reputation — and the future of the country. But if he is to reach this place in the sun, he needs to get on the front foot, like Maggie, and face down the RMT leadership.
Boris must make sure it ends badly for them, just as it did for the miners in 1985.
One of Maggie’s masterstrokes was to bring in new laws that gave workers the right to elect their own leaders and to participate in pre-strike secret ballots. Almost four decades later, legislation is one of the tools Boris must use to bring the unions to heel.
For a start, the railways should be recognised as the essential public service they are for people such as police officers, health workers and others whose roles are vital to saving lives.
A new Bill enshrining Minimum Service Level Agreements (MSLAs) could oblige the unions to provide at least a skeleton staff on strike days, so a basic service would continue to operate during disputes.
As far back as 2019, the then-Transport Secretary Chris Grayling asked his officials to draft just such legislation.
The Prime Minister must now show the smack of firm government, and introduce it forthwith. How about next week, Boris?
Meanwhile, the Government is today expected to remove a legal block on companies using agency workers to cover striking workers. Again, such a move cannot come a moment too soon.
Labour MP’s on the picket line RMT strike at London’s Victoria station on Tuesday 22 June
After all, only yesterday the leaders of the NEU, the country’s largest teaching union, said they will ballot their members on strike action later this year unless the Government agrees to an ‘inflation-plus’ pay rise.
Members of other trades and professions, including NHS workers, Royal Mail employees and criminal barristers, are threatening to create a summer of discontent.
Such narrow-minded selfishness at a time of national emergency, with inflation spiralling out of control, can only worsen the nation’s hardship.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Or we have to pray so.
- David Mellor QC held four ministerial posts under Mrs Thatcher.