December 30, 2009 2:00 am
James Callaghan became so exasperated with the trade unions towards the end of the "winter of discontent" that he suggested they might well need a dose of Margaret Thatcher to make them see sense.
The Labour prime minister's bleak assessment came during a tense phone conversation in January 1979 with Len Murray, leader of the Trades Union Congress, as the two men sought to break the impasse of the road hauliers' strike, which created a virtual blockade of the UK.
Callaghan, who died in 2005, said he would "not be prepared to continue" if the lorry drivers' salary demands took the country back to the "pay explosion" of 1975. "Maybe the trade unions will have to learn their lesson once again and face the antiunion measures that a Thatcher government would bring in," he told Mr Murray.
In other January meetings with the TUC leader and Moss Evans, general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, Callaghan told them it was impossible to keep inflation down while giving in to 20 per cent pay demands.
"The Labour party and the trade union movement are in worse disarray than at any time since the general strike," he said.
Appealing to the unions to recognise that they were making a Tory victory inevitable if the strike continued, Callaghan pointed out that "the background to an election would be: the opposition would see the government could not govern; 1m people would be out of work by the end of next week if there was a national strike; current anger against the unions, fanned by the press, would be exploited; and the result would be that the government would be destroyed".
Cabinet minutes also show that Callaghan wanted to declare a state of emergency on January 18 1979 and bring in the army to get road haulage moving again but was persuaded by colleagues to hold off.
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