When George Orwell wrote his science fiction dystopia in 1948, and made it a comment on British and world politics by reversing the last two digits--hence the title '1984'--he could not have known that the year would indeed be a turning point of great moment in British history. Occasionally it is possible to identify the one or two key players who altered the course of a nation's history, even when they are of the much under-appreciated business classes. So it is that the title of Sir Ian MacGregor's dramatic and heroic autobiography is in two significant parts. 'The Enemies Within' (a controversial phrase of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher), refers to the overt and clandestine nexus of Marxist elements in the trades unions, the government, the church, the civil service, the media of British society. And the sub-title, 'The Story of the Miners' Strike, 1984-5', refers to his specific task of revitalizing major sections of British industry: crucially, his handling of the strike at the National Coal Board (NCB) and its subsequent de-bureaucratization and return to management control, which forms the last three-quarters of the book. He writes with passion, depth of insight, and wry humour. He is realistic and modestly aware of the part he played, and his account is stacked to the rafters with inside information. His final sentence reads: 'The lesson, above all lessons, to be learned from the strike is that we cannot depend on democracy. It depends on us.'
Born and raised in Scotland before the first world war he became a qualified metallurgist and worked in heavy industry making armour plating. In 1940 he crossed the Atlantic to Washington and collaborated on the design of the M4 Sherman tank. After the war he rose within heavy industry in the US, notably with Amax, and having numerous adventures with the unions. He was offered a government post under Henry Kissinger, but declined as they were just good friends, and got into finance at Lehman Bros. Sir Hector Laing (United Biscuits) drew him back to Britain (at the age of 70) to sort out British industry. There is a chapter on his time at British Leyland (small success); a chapter at British Steel (much more success); and on to the grand finale with a three year contract at the NCB starting in 1983. The Prime Minister herself interviewed him for the job (this book is a good sequel to her 1983 biography, 'Thatcher', by Wapshott and Brock); both of them aware that the 'Marxist autocrat' had to be defeated. The union was set to bring the country to its knees, as it had done twice in the 1970s; even bringing down a Tory government on the second occasion. But this time it was different. Battle with Tory was declared and the strike started in March 1984. It ended when 50.75% of the men had finally returned to work in March 1984. Amid the instinct for British compromise and union appeasement very few had the nerve to see the strike out, but in the end a few was all it took. The right of management to manage was asserted. It fundamentally changed the shape of British society, and it is surprising how few today remember it now. So we must look carefully to see who it is who writes the history book, must we not?
The review of this Book prepared by Michael JR Jose