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  Chapter Twenty-nine

Winston, Westland & Wapping


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APART FROM the Liverpool drama the most important events in the closing months of 1985 were the "inner-city explosions". 

A black woman, Cherry Groce, was shot in the back in the presence of her children by police in Brixton. The protests led to clashes between youth and police in the area. We commented:

For most of the youth involved it was a spontaneous expression of frustration and anger. At the same time, as in all such situations, a minority can use the spontaneous lashing out at all the local symbols of authority and wealth as a cover for assaults on local people, thefts from homes, and even rape. (1)

A week later Cynthia Jarrett of Tottenham, north London, died during a police raid. This led to the Tottenham riots in which one policeman, PC Blakelock, was killed. We commented:

No one, least of all socialists, can condone rioting. But on an estate where more than half of the 16 to 18-year-olds are unemployed, where police automatically treat blacks as ‘suspects’, it is understandable that the brutal use of the police force can easily spark off rioting where any available weapon is used. (2)

Winston Silcott was jailed for this murder, but after a big campaign over years, the conviction was overturned. Winston, however, remained in prison as a result of an earlier conviction, which is also being challenged. The campaign, led by his brother George, has continued to seek Winston’s release. George has spoken at many of our meetings, including the rally that launched Militant Labour, and our first conference.

Westlands

At the beginning of 1986, just at the time when Thatcher appeared to be safely ensconced in power, having seen out Galtieri and the miners, the Westland crisis detonated. We commented:

The public strife within the Tory Party over the Westland affair has given workers a revealing glimpse of the greed, deceit and hypocrisy of the ruling class. Behind their facade of respectability, and statesmanship lies the reality of businessmen, politicians and top civil servants motivated by their own self interest. Only their greater interest in protecting their wealth and power from the workers forces them to patch together a public face of unity and common purpose. (3)

Heseltine, who at the time of the Westland affair was denouncing back-stabbing practices largely because it was carried out by Thatcher, was himself prepared to use precisely those methods when it suited him. It was Heseltine who insisted on the prosecution of Sarah Tisdall and Ponting, under the Official Secrets Act for daring to reveal what was going on within his department over cruise missiles.

The fate of the Westland workers was secondary in this cynical battle for money, power and prestige by a handful of tycoon’s and their political friends. Dave Nellist in Parliament called for the nationalisation of Westland and its incorporation into a renationalised British Aerospace. Exposing the complete hypocrisy of the Tory government and the split in the ranks of the capitalists, he said:

In February 1971 the Prime Minister Heath took one night of parliamentary time to push through a bill to take Rolls Royce into public ownership. A year ago Lawson, through the Bank of England, bought and effectively nationalised Johnson Matthey Bank for a nominal £1. (4)

He demanded the nationalisation under workers’ control and management of Westland and the aircraft industry of Britain.

Thatcher survived the crisis over Westland. But she subsequently admitted that she, and her entourage, were fully expecting that she would be forced to resign. She had reckoned without the ineptitude of Neil Kinnock. He also subsequently admitted that his lamentable parliamentary performance had thrown a lifeline to Thatcher.

Not just Thatcher’s fate but that of the whole Tory cabinet was at stake. Two cabinet ministers had been forced to resign, Heseltine and Brittan, and another, the Solicitor-General Mayhew, almost followed them. Thatcher hung on because of the complete ineptitude of Kinnock.

Wapping

It was working people who were to pay dearly for the dereliction of their elementary duties by the Labour leadership. They were looking for deliverence from rapacious Thatcher capitalism with the election of a Labour government. None more so than the printers in Fleet Street. Rupert Murdoch had declared war on them. He had sacked all his Fleet Street workers and was printing his papers in a new plant at Wapping. He had thrown down

a challenge to the entire trade union movement. If he wins, one of the best organised battalions of the working class will have been vanquished. (5)

Murdoch had exploited every opportunity provided by his friends in the Tory government to use the laws which they had introduced against the unions. The print workers had a proud record of union organisation which had improved wages by which all workers had benefited. The government was in complete disarray over the Westland scandal and they had still not dared to proceed with the sacking of GCHQ workers for fear of the massive industrial action which this would provoke. It was clear that Thatcher and the print bosses could have been forced to back down if there was solid united action.

As a first step the TUC has no alternative but to expel the EETPU for its strike-breaking activities at Wapping. At a time of industrial war, there is no place within the ranks of organised labour for a body which not only does nothing to support the struggle to defend trade unionism but actively mans the barricades for the enemy. (6)

The EETPU leadership had collaborated with Murdoch in supplying the scabs who had taken the jobs of Fleet Street workers at Wapping. Right from the outset, we had demanded all-out strike action throughout Fleet Street and the newspaper industry generally. The paper also went further and said that action would not be effective until printworkers come out on "all-out industrial action". Printworkers should absorb the lessons of Warrington and the miners’ strike. Pressure should be exerted on the general council of the TUC for effective action, a one-day general strike of all workers in support of the printers. But:

activists at every level have to take the responsibility for convening mass meetings of the membership in the workplaces and the union branches, to explain the issues at stake and to generate action from below to achieve a national mobilisation. (7)

As the dispute intensified so also did the repressive methods of Murdoch’s protectors, the police. In mid-February we reported the comments of a 17-year-old girl who was amongst 5,000 demonstrators on the regular Saturday night picket which was attacked by the police:

Police snatch squads attacked after a section of us were forced into a barricaded street. I was pushed in the face and was grabbed by my hair... Another girl and myself were caught by surprise and knocked to the ground. My head hit the pavement... The police fought as if it was an all-out class war. (8)

And the answer to Murdoch’s all-out war?:

The only possible course of action is to deepen and extend the dispute... Already the Express wants a 50 per cent cut in their workforce. The Guardian wants a massive job cut. The fate of every print worker depends on the outcome of this struggle. The print bosses are out to smash the pre-entry closed shop, the bedrock of our strength. (9)

Anglo-Irish Agreement

While class war had broken out on the streets of Britain, once more in Northern Ireland a dramatic escalation in religious sectarianism had taken place. This had been provoked by the Anglo-Irish agreement between the British and Southern Irish governments. Massive Loyalist protest demonstrations had taken place with the threat of an all-out Loyalist stoppage looming and a whole series of sectarian incidents taking place.

Militant pointed out:

The agreement has changed nothing for the working class. Poverty remains, 22 per cent of the workforce are unemployed. A quarter of total household incomes comes from social security benefits, as opposed to 14 per cent in Britain as a whole. The real solution of the Tories is cuts and more cuts. A drastic cut in the Housing Executive budget will mean that in the financial year of 1986-87 a grand total of 15 new ‘Executive’ homes will be built in the western half of the province. (10)

At the same time, the repression continued unabated, as was shown by the shooting of a 20-year-old Catholic youth, Francis Bradley. He was killed by army undercover units in South Derry. The "shoot to kill" policy was clearly in operation.

Militant concluded:

For the working class, both Catholic and Protestant the agreement, far from leading to a solution, will make things much worse. It means a continuation of poverty, added repression, and a huge increase in sectarianism... Only the Labour and Trade Union Group has been alert to the dangers. They have demanded a special rank-and-file conference of the trade union movement to discuss how to prevent the further division of the working class, and also to present a socialist alternative to the Anglo-Irish deal. (11)

The most tragic fall out of Thatcher’s blunder in proceeding with this deal was the escalation of sectarian murders. Militant supporters in Northern Ireland also suffered in July 1986. Colm McCallan, a prominent and courageous member of Militant Irish Monthly and the Labour and Trade Union Group, Colm McCallan, was shot by Loyalist assassins outside his home in North Belfast in the early hours of the morning. 

Colm was only 25 years old, was an ex-production worker and a member of the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers’ Union, who had become a Militant supporter in 1981. He was extremely proud of his socialist ideas, once remarking that joining Militant was the most important decision he had ever made.

We reported:

His killers are almost certainly the same UVF gang which murdered Catholic building worker Brian Lennard, on Belfast’s Shankill Road a few days earlier. Like him, Colm was shot because he was assumed to be a Catholic. (12)

He was one of a number of martyrs who had laid down his life for socialism, workers’ unity, and the ideas of Militant and Militant Irish Monthly.

 

Continued...

Reference Notes

 

 

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