13 JANUARY 1979, Page 4

A letter to Guadeloupe

Ferdinand Mount

Dear Prime Minister Wish you had been here, in a way, if only to show you a thing or two. On the other hand, think of the homely homilies and the nautical metaphors that your absence until now has spared us. We must be thankful too that we have been spared some of those collective scapegoats which you, like your two immediate predecessors, tend to invent when you run into trouble: 'the wreckers', 'the speculators', 'the men of violence', 'the mindless militants', and now, by courtesy of your friend Merlyn Rees, 'the panic buyers'. This execration of an anonymous enemy neatly deflects criticism of government policy and defers examination of the causes and effects which have got us into this particular mess. But are these Guilty Men really any more 'mindless' or 'greedy' than anyone else? Or is it possible that the scapegoats may sometimes be acting quite rationally, given the situation created by the Government?

The eighteen motorists sitting in front of me outside the BP garage just beyond the Hammersmith flyover are acting quite rationally. And so is the man in the sheepskin coat who removes the nozzle of the pump with infinite care from his tank after filling his Saab so as not to spill a drop of the precious stuff, like a wine-fancier decanting the Lynch-Bages. And so is the little old lady behind me who fills up with f1.13i worth of petrol and then asks the attendant if she could have one of those cans over there to fill as well ('No, lady, those cans are full of oil' — 'But couldn't you empty them?' — 'no lady, I could not'). And so am I acting rationally. Pace the head of Bejam's, the food freezer people, the only thing we all have to fear is not fear itself. What we have to fear is the strong possibility that not a single garage in North London will be open tomorrow.

Well then, if we are not irrational, are we not anti-social? Does not individual prudence clash here with the collective good? It would, if we knew for sure that there would be no petrol on sale at all on Monday because of war in the Middle East or an all-out strike by the tanker drivers. In that case, the Government would have to introduce rationing immediately — as many garages in areas of shortage already do off their own bat. But we do not know how many garages will be open next week, nor how much petrol they will let us have. In this unpredictable, not to say fluid situation there is no specific moral duty to be discerned — such as to keep our tanks only half-full or not to use the car at all. Equally, if we all were simultaneously to give up buying winter vegetables, the only result would be a lot of cross greengrocers and rotting brussels sprouts.

But if we are behaving neither irrationally nor immorally in trying to cope with this inconvenience, how far can we argue that the trade unionists who have inconvenienced us are themselves either lunatics or greedy-gutses to try to restore their differentials after three years of erosion by government wage controls? And even if the lorry-drivers are 'wreckers' by nature or nurture, what precisely is it that has led them to cause such conspicuous havoc at this specific moment?

Mr Moss Evans, leader of the Transport workers, and Mr Jack Ashwell, the lorrydrivers' negotiator, have contended all along that these disputes are perfectly easy to settle and might never have led to a strike at all if it had not been for the government's wages policy.

At first blush, this sounds like a feeble excuse. After all, if the Government limit is supposed to be 5 per cent and the argument is about whether the lorrydrivers should receive 15 per cent or 20 per cent, then the Government's intrusion does not seem to be affecting the issue much. And anyway we know that Mr Moss Evans is a Welsh windbag of Eisteddfod class. Besides, has not the House of Commons voted that the Government may no longer penalise employers who grant pay rises of more than 5 per cent?

Yet the Government is still exercising a huge influence over these and other pay negotiations. And, unfortunately, most of the influence is counter-productive. Mr Roy Hattersley's men telephone the road hauliers constantly to remind them-of the 5 per cent pay limit. And Mr Hattersley's Department still has the statutory power to turn down the industry's application to increase its haulage rates to pay the increased wage bill — which is intended to stiffen the employers' resistance but in practice only inflames the lorry-drivers' suspicions that they will be cheated of 'our money' (that is, the rise they would have obtained without fuss if the Government had not interfered). Meanwhile, Mr Healey threatens to put up taxes in the Budget to claw back excessive pay rises. And if he is going to do that, it is advisable first to obtain one's excessive pay rise, is it not?

In other words, these government intrusions, far from damping down expectations, may tend actually to inflame them. They set nerves twitching; a strike begins to look like the only way of breaking the encircling bureaucratic nexus. If the trade unions themselves are part of this nexus, as they were during the Social Contract, then there is less to fear. Equally, if there is a legal code prescribing precise criteria for wage increases, then the unions at least know where they are. But when a government attempts to impose a pay limit without either an agreement with the parties or a set of legal criteria, then its interventions — inevitably arbitrary, mysterious and unpredictable — are more likely to add to uncertainty than to allay it. I don't mean that social contracts or pay laws do cure inflation. I mean that persisting with the fagends of a pay policy which has no backing in law and which has been rejected by one and all doesn't work either.

The above is not an apologia for the tactics of the lorry-drivers or of anybody else on strike. It is merely to state, as Mr Enoch Powell alone among leading politicians regularly states, that most trade unionists and most trade union leaders act just as rationally as little old ladies looking for petrol and Prime Ministers looking for Commons majorities. In a predictable world, they will behave predictably, which usually means what that world calls sensibly. But if the world is destabilised — for example, by erratic governments which spend too much and borrow too much — then their behaviour will be erratic too.

You were probably too busy islandhopping to hear what Margaret Thatcher had to say to Brian Walden on television last Sunday. She produced an eyecatching list of measures to reduce the incentive to strike: the taxation of short-term social security benefits, for example. Left to yourself, I know you would now be inclined — as you were not in 1969 — to much the same kind of institutional reform to bring the trade unions back into prop ortion with the rest of society. You don't like the growth of intimidatory picketing any more than the rest of us. But just because the Labour Party in its present state would never dream of laying a finger on the unions' legal privileges, there is no need for you to give way to one of those sudden fits of gloom to which you are prone. You — or any other Prime Minister — can go a long way towards making the unions behave sensibly by pursuing a steady and pre dictable financial course. It isn't enough, but it's a useful start to 1979 — for which all the best.

Yours sincerely, 'Full Tank' North London