Lord Marshall of Goring, former chairman of the Central Electricity Generating Board, is spurred by a book on the miners' strike to recall why the lights were never entirely extinguished.
Crisis Management in the Power Industry: An Inside Story
By Frank Ledger and Howard Sallis
Routledge; 341pp; £35
The story of how the Great Miners' Strike of 1984-85 was defeated - without publicity or political motivation - by the electricity supply industry in the shape of the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) has not been told before. Frank Ledger and Howard Sallis's book which records those confused but exciting times in some detail, and with complete accuracy, is therefore long overdue. But it is not my purpose to review their work here - simply to add a personal footnote.
From my point of view the story began in June 1982. I had recently been appointed chairman of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, a job which I thought would see me out to retirement. It was therefore a shock when the then Energy Secretary, Nigel Lawson, abuptly (although courteously) informed me that I was to transfer to the CEGB. Since he also told me that this move had the the Prime Minister's approval I felt I had better accept with good grace, even though I was a scientist, not an engineer, and had no previous experience of the electricity industry.
At my first board meeting I asked about our plans to combat a miners' strike, and I was not satisfied with the replies of the executive directors. Among other things there was disagreement about whether the costs of any fight, and of our preparations, should fall on our budget to be passed on to the consumer, or be paid for directly by the Government. The discussion was inconclusive, and I postponed a continuation until the next board meeting which took place on the first Wednesday of August 1982. At this meeting I announced that I could not follow the arguments about costs. We needed a simple, straightforward statement of policy, and I said that if the miners' leader, Arthur Scargill, called a strike - and if, as a result, the lights went out - then as a matter of principle I would have to resign.
Eric Sharp (chairman of Cable & Wireless) immediately supported me. He agreed that we needed an unambiguous policy, and declared that if the electricity supply failed then he, too, would resign as a non-executive director of the CEGB. But he added a rider: he would not resign with me but 48 hours later, since it would take him two days to dismiss all the executive directors. This remark produced laughter all round. It was not needed as a threat, but it made abundantly clear what should be done. The executives no longer had to look over their shoulders, and worry about whether they were going too far or too fast.
One executive who was particularly glad of being given this lead was Gil Blackman, director of operations. I did not discover why until the following month when he sought approval for £70 million, spent on preparations. Naturally he could not possibly have spent £70 million in one month: it would take longer than that to negotiate the contracts. The fact was that Gil had already made up his mind what our policy should be, and had committed the money even before I arrived. The board approved his request without asking embarrassing questions. The next two years were a period of constant, but discreet, preparation. We built up coal stocks to unprecedented levels, prepared the power stations against siege picketing and, most important, made plans to burn vast quantities of oil in both oil and coal-fired stations.
At last, in March 1984, Scargill called the strike. This was a serious mistake. If he had waited six months the dispute would have coincided with the onset of winter, and he would have had a very good chance of winning. On 26 March I met the executive directors to decide on our reaction. It was a difficult decision. We could not ask the Government for advice or comment because any involvement from that quarter would immediately give the dispute a political flavour. People would ask: were we fighting to maintain electricity supplies or to maintain the Thatcher Government? We knew the staff would support us if we were doing our legal duty; and that they would not do so if they thought we were supporting a government which was deeply unpopular with them.
It would have been normal for us to consult the Electricity Council and the area electricity boards before making any significant decision, but we knew that industry-wide consultation would inevitably be inconclusive. We therefore accepted that we had to take an immediate decision ourselves, and the other directors made it clear that they thought this was a decision for the chairman.
The choice was, in fact, very simple. We could start burning our huge reserves of coal which we had already paid for. Therefore, if the strike ended after a month or two, it would effectively have cost us nothing. On the other hand, if the strike dragged on, our coal stocks would be exhausted before winter set in, and if Scargill could hold his strike together until Christmas, he would win. So if we thought Scargill could keep the strike going until Christmas, we should begin burning oil immediately. Burning oil would rapidly run us into millions (or billions) of debt. However it would also mean we could conserve coal for the winter, in which case Scargill might lose.
I decided to burn oil. It was a unilateral decision taken in view of the legal responsibility of the CEGB 'to maintain a secure electricity supply to England and Wales'. I then informedthe Electricity Council of the decision. The Council took careful note and made an even more careful note that it was not involved in the decision, nor responsible for the outcome. I also told Peter Walker, who had succeeded Nigel Lawson as Secretary of State. Walker appreciated that this had to be a CEGB decision, and that a government directive would destroy our authority with our own people. He, too, took careful note. He asked for our conversation to be minuted, and arranged to tell the Prime Minister that day. He said, correctly but chillingly, 'Walter, I note that this is your decision and you accept the responsibility for initiating this expensive action'.
The next three months were the most miserable of my life. If the strike had collapsed within that time - and no previous coal strike had lasted as long - I am in no doubt that my career would have ended with it. In fact it was the right guess: the strike was very long. But I was able to relax only when colleagues in the electricity industry and officials in the Department of Energy began to say, 'How wise we were to burn oil immediately'.
The Prime Minister obviously approved of what we were doing but was wise enough not to say so. Finally, however, she determined to make a speech in the House of Commons praising our activities. Walker advised her strongly against doing so. But Margaret Thatcher was disinclined to accept advice from a Tory 'wet' and I had to write begging her to ignore us in her statements.
As winter approached, it seemed increasingly likely that Scargill would maintain his strike and that the CEGB would be unable to maintain electricity supplies. We needed further action to operate big coal-fired power stations at full power (as at Didcot), and to burn 'fresh' coal at 'blacked' stations even though this would be provocative. I told Walker in advance but Thatcher again intervened. She had been warned by Norman (now Lord) Tebbitt that the CEGB was about to fail, and refused to accept Walker's assurances to the contrary. This time the Secretary of State insisted that I should see her myself.
So I met the Prime Minister, together with Walker, and promised her that we would maintain electricity supplies. Of course I did not actually know that we could, but it was quite clear that the Prime Minister's role in this dispute was to sit quietly at Number 10 as an observer. It was not a role that Mrs Thatcher liked, but with some reluctance she agreed. Walker and I therefore hold the unique record of giving her unwelcome advice - and surviving.
I returned from my interview determined to order one last effort, even if it was provocative. In the event I needed to say nothing.
My colleagues knew that I had been summoned to see the Prime Minister, they knew without being told what the discussion was about and the event itself stiffened their resolve. Before I returned they had set in train the necessary actions. I therefore told them nothing about what had passed in Downing Street. We were fighting a battle about the obligations of the CEGB, not about the struggles of the Government. That was how we had prepared for the strike and that was how I wanted it to end.
My own recollections are those of one manager among thousands. This was an enormous, concerted effort, made because Parliament had put us under an obligation to maintain electricity supplies. It is now accepted wisdom that nationalised industries should be deregulated, abused and abolished as soon as possible. But not all nationalised industries were ineffective, and some were, on balance, the best solution for their day. This was certainly true of the CEGB during the critical year when all the lights did not, quite, go out together.
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