Chapter 26 (1978-1980)

The Winter of Discontent

Shortly afterwards, the expected onslaught by the militant Left on Reg Prentice’s position reached a climax and he was faced with a loaded Constituency Committee determined to remove him. He called a public meeting in Newham to defend his record, at which he was accompanied on the platform by Home Secretary Roy Jenkins and other luminaries of the Labour Cabinet. Peter Aris and I attended as stewards and Freda and Joan Prentice gave moral support from the front row. When a bag of flour was thrown at Jenkins, Freda leapt to her feet in protest and the incident was recorded by television news cameras. She was quite surprised when next day several of her children remarked proudly that they had seen their headmistress gallantly defending the speaker. It was all in vain and Reg was duly “de-selected”, which meant that he would lose his seat as an MP at the next election. But he caused consternation when a few months later he announced that he had joined the Conservative Party, the only Cabinet Minister apart from Winston Churchill who had ever changed sides. Under the British political system, a Member of Parliament officially stands for election as an individual and not as a member of a particular political party. In fact, until a few years ago, a candidate’s party was not shown on the ballot paper. Thus although changing his allegiance from Labour to Conservative, Reg remained the MP for Newham until the next General Election, at which time he won the “safe” seat of Daventry and became Minister of State for Social Services in Mrs Thatcher’s Government. For one subject to the strains and vicissitudes of public life, Reg was an unusual man in many ways. He never to my knowledge sought to obtain advantage or preferment at someone else’s expense; and however exalted his position he remained loyal and close to his friends and relatives.

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Carolyn now obtained a teaching post at Finchley High School, a Roman Catholic school for boys. She had adopted that branch of the Christian faith while at University after much thought, and Freda and I were both happy that she had done so with characteristic certainty. A car was essential for her and I had just bought a German NSU 1200, a remarkable little vehicle with a rear, air-cooled engine which served me well and gave me great pleasure. Quite coincidentally, we later saw an advertisement for an NSU Prinz, a two-cylinder version of the same car, which we bought for Freda; Carolyn then inherited the Ford Anglia. I kept all three cars in running order, which occupied much of what free time I had at home; but I had inherited a love of cars from my father and found it a relaxing alternative to poring over official papers.

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My time in DS5 was now coming to an end but I enjoyed several trips to sea including one in HMS Exmouth, a prototype ship powered by an aircraft engine identical to those which propelled Concord. The Royal Navy, as so frequently the case, was in the vanguard of developing new ideas and before long the whole Fleet was powered by either gas turbines or diesel engines. Paradoxically, the only steam-driven ships in the Navy were the modern nuclear submarines, whose reactors effortlessly created great heat. I was also deputed to spend a day at sea with a Treasury official in an old “C”-class destroyer which had just returned from an Icelandic patrol. Little Iceland had decided that fishing was its only major industry and had unilaterally extended its territorial waters beyond the 12 miles prescribed by International Law. This swept up valuable fishing grounds which Britain had trawled for as long as anyone could remember, and we sent frigates to protect our rights.

A dangerous game of cat and mouse followed between our warships and trawlers and the small gunboats of Iceland, in which the latter destroyed expensive nets, deliberately collided with our ships and even fired at them, knowing that we would not use our superior power to retaliate in kind, as we would certainly have done in earlier times. Public conscience and the ethics of international relations had now moved too far in the Western world for the British Government to want to be accused of bullying a tiny nation defending its rights. (It was not so elsewhere, of course, since Communist countries had no such inhibitions when confronting weaker neighbours). After a time Britain gave in and Iceland won what became known as the “Cod War”. While it lasted, however, Royal Navy ships endured appalling weather for weeks on end and the destroyer I visited had returned with upperworks swept away and its steel deck actually split with the force of the sea.


I now moved to a Division by the name of Management Services (Organisation), whose task was to examine the working methods of any area of the Ministry of Defence where economy and/or greater efficiency could be gained. Gone were the days of the powerful autonomous Ministries - the Admiralty, War Office and Air Ministry - which had administered each arm of Defence for so long, but inevitably the character and supporting bureaucracies of each Service remained in being over wide areas. Their traditions and working methods were often unchanged and it was clear that for the future they needed to be brought into harmony, and in some cases one facility could supply all three Services. It was a mammoth task and needed to be done carefully, not simply because vested interests and ancient loyalties were involved, but because each Service had individual needs which must be protected. A fighting force depends on a huge back-up of supplies and administration which it takes for granted. Soldiers, sailors and airmen are trained to understand how to obtain what they need to work effectively and it is impossible to make sudden drastic changes in procedure or sources of supply without endangering their efficiency and putting their lives at risk.

Man S (Org), as it was known, consisted of two Branches, of which I headed one primarily concerned with the myriad items of hardware and support services needed by the Armed Forces. I had a small staff of civilian and military experts in these fields whose task it was to examine in detail how things were done and recommend how they could be streamlined or, if possible, combined. Over the next few years we studied subjects as diverse as the repair of warships and RAF aircraft; hospitals, medical and veterinary services; legal advice; accounting systems, stocktaking methods, contracts with private industries; negotiations with the German Government over staff for the British Army of the Rhine; job agencies for ex-servicemen; schools; recruitment; museums; and many others.

My “assignment officers” usually worked in pairs and would travel over Britain and much of the world collecting information on which to prepare a report. My own task was to approve their programme of work and sell it to the senior officers and Heads of establishments concerned, then to control the progress of the assignment and eventually to agree the report and pursue it through the often difficult stages of Defence Council approval. Even after all this, ensuring that something actually happened and that changes were made called for much tedious and persistent follow-up. Every job brought a wealth of information on aspects of Service life and the role of the Armed Forces in the life of the nation, sometimes with legal obligations going back to ancient times, of which few people were aware. It was intensely absorbing, frequently baffling and frustrating, but always challenging and satisfying.

A Week in Canada
A visit to my office by a Canadian Army Officer to examine our methods brought an invitation to me to join a small British team, headed by a Brigadier, which was to spend a week in Canada lecturing on aspects of British Defence organisation. One of my officers had recently completed a detailed study into stocktaking by "random statistical sampling" and the Canadians wanted me to give a presentation to their people about it.

Our party flew from Gatwick by Canadian Air Force Boeing 727, via Lahr in Germany, to a Canadian military base at Trenton, on Lake Ontario. After leaving Lahr, we flew westwards back over Devon and Cornwall at some 30,000 feet in glorious weather and were able to see both counties spread out exactly as the maps show them. An interesting sight was the curious sea mist which so often shrouds the edges of the Cornish coast while the rest of the county basks in the sun. Our family holidays in Cornwall years before had often been marred by the cold, clammy condensation, made more annoying by the knowledge that above it was undiluted sunshine.

It was my first visit to the New World and I marvelled at the beauty of the Canadian landscape as we swept over countless lakes and forests before touching down. The Canadians made us very welcome and showed us as much as possible in the limited time available. Visits included Kingston, with its beautifully preserved old English and French forts; Toronto, where I admired the breathtaking vista from the top of the needle-like CN Tower (which my two aviator companions could not face!); Niagara Falls; and finally to Ottawa, the Capital. A most memorable trip.

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In 1977 tragedy struck us when Freda suddenly complained of a shadow in one eye. She sought medical advice but was palmed off with assurances that it was a temporary mishap which would get better. When it did not improve she was sent to Moorfields Eye Hospital. Too late, they diagnosed a detached retina and after two fearsome operations she was told that she would never regain the sight of that eye. Her other eye was already the weaker of the two and so her sight was seriously restricted. Nevertheless, she struggled on as Head of her school and for a time continued to drive to work, with the approval of the medical and licensing authorities, though her confidence declined and after a short time she had to give up her car. I bought her a bicycle which could be folded to go in the boot of my car and I would take her to school in the morning, leaving her to cycle home in her own time at the end of the day. But she still wanted to spend long hours at school or working at home and the strain exhausted her, added to which she could no longer rely on that eagle-eyed control of events which the supervision of young children (and her staff, for that matter) demanded. She endured this for several months but was then forced to give up and was retired on medical grounds. She accepted this devastating change of life with remarkable fortitude but I was aware of the agonies of frustration and disappointment which she endured, and in turn suffered the pain of my inability to do anything help her.

Elsewhere on the family front things also developed. Brian, who had divorced his first wife, obtained a job at Peterborough General Hospital, where he formed a friendship with a delightful and attractive nurse called Hilary Blood. Romance blossomed and they were married. The effect on Brian's confidence and self-esteem was enormous, and he soon regained his buoyant interest in everything. Hilary is a sensible and sound manager and together they saved enough to buy a bungalow at Helpston which they set about making into a beautiful dwelling with an enchanting garden. Brian also returned to teaching on a casual or “supply” basis which, by dint of hard lobbying of the Education Authority, was soon converted to a permanent post. Carolyn too met and eventually married a fellow teacher at her school named Alan Sallis and settled down in a new house at Hemel Hempstead, where in due course the first of three children was born. Alan was a fine sportsman and an accomplished golfer who became Captain of his club at the remarkable age of 30, rising to be Captain of the Hertfordshire Golf Captains by the time he was 40.

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The Thatcher Government
However, to return to the late 1970s. The Labour Government rapidly fell into disarray as inflation mounted to over twenty-five percent and unions demanded ever more freedom. Wilson resigned and the premiership fell to James Callaghan, an able and respected man who accomplished much in impossible circumstances. Matters came to a head during the “Winter of Discontent” in 1978, when public service employees with unbelievable disregard for their Party, their country and even their own futures commenced a series of strikes which left hospitals closed, rubbish uncollected, fires unattended and even the dead unburied. A General Election was held in 1979 which the Conservatives won and Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister, a post which she was to hold for twelve years in which she changed the face of Britain.

Initially not a lot seemed to happen but legislation was rapidly passed restricting the stranglehold of the unions on their employers and indeed on their own members. The move towards truly comprehensive education throughout Britain was also halted and grammar schools catering for the brighter children were restored or reprieved. In the Defence field the pressure for savings continued unabated, as indeed it had for the previous thirty years or more, but there was a noticeably greater urgency and my Division was given a wider remit to seek out economies and was given added powers to do so. My officers were a varied and accomplished group with a wide range of interests outside work. Two of them were skilled yachtsmen and took part each year in the international Fastnet Race. In 1979 a sudden storm broke unexpectedly upon the boats off Lands End and several were wrecked. My own people, in separate craft, survived by battening down the hatches and sweating it out, but seventeen unfortunate participants were drowned.

The next year Mrs Thatcher decided upon an exhaustive attack on waste and inefficiency throughout the British Civil Service, to which end she obtained the services of a businessman named Derek Rayner, then Chief Executive of Marks and Spencer, the huge retail chain. Mr Rayner (who shortly became Sir Derek and later Lord Rayner) selected individuals in each Ministry to examine specific areas of work and report direct to him. He in turn answered solely to the Prime Minister. Most of the people he chose were young “flyers” but I was surprised one day to be told that I had been picked to study the use of professional Statisticians in the Defence Services for Rayner. I was to be joined by a young statistician to guide me in a world about which I then knew little.

The Defence Statistical Service consisted of a number of professionals assisted by less qualified civil servants, amounting to a sizeable group altogether but split into penny-numbers in a bewildering array of activities. During the ensuing six months I studied their roles in predicting aircraft accidents, calculating the Army’s need for guns, tanks, ammunition and transport, assessing the radar and weapons requirements of new warships, analysing the incidence of sickness and casualties in military personnel and the reasons for it (which were sometimes surprising), advising on the numbers and types of recruits for the Navy and the RAF in future years, and many other fields. From offices and units all over the country I amassed a vast amount of information, on the basis of which I wrote a report recommending changes which would save a large sum of money every year without impairing services to the Defence effort. This epic was well received and Freda and I were invited to an entertaining cocktail party at 10 Downing Street where we were received by Margaret Thatcher and her husband Dennis. Her presence and personality were undoubtedly powerful, while Dennis was a most pleasant and interesting host. I was also amused some months later to receive a formal notice from the British Library instructing me to send them six copies of my report for the national records!

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