Saving UK industry the last time around: Tony Benn, the Tories & Upper Clyde Shipbuilders

In Uncategorized on March 30, 2016 by kmflett

Saving UK industry the last time around; Tony Benn, the Tories & UCS


Tony Benn joins a march of UCS shop stewards

The decision of Indian based firm Tata to, in effect, close its remaining UK steel plants is very bad news for the workers and communities directly involved. Job losses will be considerably larger than those directly involved if the closures go ahead.

Iron and steel along with coal were the bottom line of Britain’s industrial dominance in the nineteenth century and employed huge numbers.

Steel manufacture declined during the twentieth century when it suffered from lack of investment in private hands. There were two periods of nationalisation, after 1949 and from 1967 to 1998. Both were initiated by a Labour Government although they were a long way from any idea of workers control that might really have saved the industry.

Britain can of course import (at the moment) very cheap steel from China but it might be reasonably argued that this is hardly the most prudent way of proceeding in the longer term,

The debate will go on, hopefully with activity by unions and union members in steel (Unite, GMB and Community) to the fore.

There is however an interesting historical parallel with the Heath Tory Government of 1970-1974.

In 1971 Upper Clyde Shipbuilders went into liquidation because the Government would not provide £6m to keep them going. The claim was that the shipyards were ‘lame ducks’ and you will hear the same point made by hard right commentators about steel now.

The workforce was led by Communist and Labour shop stewards and decided to go into occupation of the shipyards to keep them working and stop closure.

The Labour Shadow Industry Secretary was then Tony Benn.

In his diary (14th June 1971) he noted ‘I drafted a statement on UCS calling for public ownership and workers control in the yard itself..I saw Harold Wilson and he approved the draft’.

Benn met, attended public meetings called by and worked with the UCS shop stewards. He found their demands of working with management to determine how the shipyards should be run to be modest.

The Government made a statement on UCS on 29th July 1971, pessimistic about saving the shipyards. Labour called a debate for August 2nd which forced Tory Premier Heath to cancel his Admiral’s Cup yacht racing for the day.

Reviewing the year on 31st December Benn noted ‘In supporting UCS I came up against another group of people, namely the right wing of the Labour Party, which is opposed to my support of shop stewards…’ Benn’s support for UCS did not make him popular with some in the PLP not least because numbers of UCS stewards were Communists.

Yet though Benn faced opposition from the Tories and some in his own Party his decision to back those who fought to keep shipbuilding on the Clyde at UCS proved correct. He recorded in his Diary (28th February 1972) that ‘John Davies announced £35m for Govan shipbuilders at UCS’.

The Tories had been forced by the shipyard workers occupation and resolute Labour support for them to recognise that with some public investment the shipyards far from being a ‘lame duck’ had a decent future.

The shipyards currently do work for BAE Systems including warships…



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