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World: Dark Days in Great Britian

5 minute read

IN Covent Garden, Bizet’s Carmen was performed in total darkness. In Soho, a resourceful strip-club owner issued flashlights to his patrons so that the show could go on. A TV mystery went off the air just as the detective was saying “The person we want for murder is . . .” Parliament debated, and the Queen took afternoon tea, by candlelight. Millions of homes were without heat, electricity or hot water for long periods, and whole areas of London resembled the capital during the wartime blitz. Darkness and gloom had descended on Britain because 125,000 Electrical Trades Union (E.T.U.) workers had decided to stage a slowdown. It was so effective that at any given moment during the week a quarter of Britain was without electricity.

At first there was some sympathy for the normally reasonable, well-led electrical workers, who were using the slowdown to try to gain a wage increase of $13.92 over their current average weekly earnings of $57.60. The E.T.U. workers felt that their markedly increased productivity had not been amply rewarded. Moreover, they knew−and resented−the Tory government’s desire to make them a test case of an election pledge to fight inflation by curbing wage increases in nationalized industries. Heeding Prime Minister Edward Heath’s feelings, the Electricity Council held fast to an offer of $4.80 a week. As the power shortage worsened and the Queen proclaimed a state of emergency, more and more Britons felt deep resentment toward the workers.

Besides the general inconvenience, a number of deaths were attributable to the power shortage. Three hospital patients died when attendants were unable to bring needed equipment to them on time because of stalled elevators. Four deaths by fire were laid to the use of candles or matches in place of electricity. If the shortage continued, a Public Health Department doctor warned, lack of heat might kill 10,000 of the elderly within a month.

Solid Bone. The angry populace soon retaliated. Dentists and doctors turned away electrical workers who tried to take advantage of the slowdown by scheduling appointments. Stores, bars and gas stations refused to serve them. A bus conductor told one power man: “Your lot have put me to a stack of inconvenience. Get off and walk.” One of the few signs of support came from unionized workers at London’s Evening Standard who walked out and halted late editions in protest against a drawing they considered objectionable. The cartoon pictured the E.T.U. worker as “Homo-electrical-sapiens Britannicus, circa 1970″−with head of “solid bone,” eyes “green with envy,” ears “deaf to reason,” mouth “permanently open,” hand “always out,” and only a hole where his heart should be.

During the blackout, beleaguered Britons also had to endure a 24-hour nationwide strike by 350,000 workers protesting the government’s proposed Industrial Relations Reform Act, which comes up for debate this week in the House of Commons. The Carr bill, so named for Employment and Productivity Minister Robert Carr, aims at legally preventing wildcat work stoppages. Though the bill is anathema to many union members, only a fraction of Britain’s 24 million organized workers left their jobs in protest.

The Wrong Issue. Temporarily, at least, the discomfited public has rallied behind Heath and his hard line against the E.T.U. The Prime Minister can take less comfort, however, from the latest Harris poll; it shows that his Labor predecessor, Harold Wilson, has increased his lead in personal popularity over Heath by 51% to 37%. The poll also indicated that the Labor Party has now surged ahead of the Tories in public popularity, 48% to 45%. Once the electrical showdown is settled, moreover, many Britons may turn against Heath and the Tories for having allowed the blackout to continue so long.

Heath, who is scheduled to meet with President Nixon in Washington this week to discuss foreign policy, has been concerned primarily with his long-range plans for re-establishing Britain as a major world leader. Many of his critics feel that as a result he has failed to come to terms with the day-to-day problems of running the government. They complain that his unexpected victory over Labor in June has turned his natural cockiness into outright arrogance.

To be sure, Heath seemed arrogant−if not foolhardy−in two of his early policy decisions. He chose to sell arms to racist South Africa to demonstrate his rugged independence in foreign affairs. He picked the relatively underpaid nationalized workers to prove his toughness in the face of inflationary wage claims. Then, too, there was Heath’s minibudget, whose combination of tax cuts and rollbacks in social services is now seen by some to benefit only the well-to-do or the very poor. More and more, Britons are beginning to wonder whether Heath’s critics are on to something when they say that he is not so tough as he is simply unfeeling.

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