The Destructive Legacy of Thatcher’s Oil

By Alistair Livingston

In 1973, the SNP began using the slogan ‘It’s Scotland’s Oil’ to support their campaign for Scottish independence. By 1979, the tax revenue from ‘North Sea oil’ was beginning to boost the UK economy. This allowed the Thatcher government to destroy the UK’s manufacturing industry in a successful attempt to ‘reduce the strength of the working class’ by creating a ‘reserve army of the unemployed’. This blog post reveals the human impact of these policies on just one manufacturing company in England and argues that while ‘Another Scotland is Possible’, the Radical Independence Campaign must never forget the destructive legacy of ‘Scotland’s oil’ on the possibilities of other UK communities.

It’s Scotland’s Oil
It was forty years ago this week in August 1973 that  I started catching the Western SMT bus from Castle Douglas (via Gelston and Whinnieliggat) to Kirkcudbright Academy. Back then Kirkcudbright Academy  was the only school in the (soon to be abolished) Stewartry of Kirkcudbright with a fifth and sixth year. So kids from Dalry, Gatehouse, Dalbeattie and Castle Douglas who wanted to sit their ‘Highers’ (Scottish A levels) had to go to the Academy. Third year pupils who were expected to go on to take Highers – like myself- made the transition in fourth year.

My French teacher at Kirkcudbright Academy was George Thompson. George was also the SNP candidate for Galloway. In October 1973 the Yom Kippur Arab-Israel war broke out which led to an oil crisis in which the price of a barrel of oil jumped from $3 to $12. In the UK this was swiftly followed by a miners strike which led to power cuts that winter and (from January to March 1974) a ‘three day week’ when commercial users of electricity were only allowed power for three days at a time. Even television was affected, with broadcasts stopping at 10. 30 pm each night. Shops had to switch off their lights at night as well. It was all very dramatic and created a real sense of ‘crisis’. Inflation was also running at 20%….

Prime Minister Ted Heath responded to the miners’ strike by calling a General Election on 28 February 1974. Heath laid out his position in a TV broadcast on 7 February:

Do you want a strong Government which has clear authority for the future to take decisions which will be needed? Do you want Parliament and the elected Government to continue to fight strenuously against inflation? Or do you want them to abandon the struggle against rising prices under pressure from one particularly powerful group of workers… This time of strife has got to stop. Only you can stop it. It’s time for you to speak — with your vote. It’s time for your voice to be heard — the voice of the moderate and reasonable people of Britain: the voice of the majority. It’s time for you to say to the extremists, the militants, and the plain and simply misguided: we’ve had enough.

The result was inconclusive. Heath won more votes but Labour under Harold Wilson won more seats and formed a minority government. Another general election was held on 10 October 1974 which gave Labour a small majority. George Thompson stood in both elections, losing in February but winning (by 30 votes ) in October. I volunteered to help George in both elections, spending my lunch breaks stuffing envelopes and sticking ‘It’s Scotland’s Oil’ stickers everywhere- including my school bag.

Fast forward to the general election of 3 May 1979. In January I had moved to London to take up a job. I got in touch with George Thompson and he had invited me to visit him in the Houses of Parliament. But then Ian Lang won Galloway back for the Conservatives with a 2922 majority. Lang held Galloway for the Tories the next 18 years, until Alasdair Morgan won the seat for the SNP in 1997. So I never got a chance to meet George and his fellow SNP MPs in 1979..

I had moved to London from a factory at Lydney in Gloucestershire where I had been working for the J. Allen Rubber Company since 1977. This company was part of the London Rubber group which made Marigold rubber gloves and Durex condoms. Through the 1960 and 1970s, London Rubber had been expanding in the USA, India and South Africa. Just before I began working for them, they had opened a rubber glove factory in pre-Revolutionary Iran. In 1977, the plan was to build a glove factory in Malaysia. This involved constructing a rubber glove production machine in sections at Lydney, then taking it apart again and shipping the sections out to Malaysia for reconstruction.

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Photo- J.Allen Rubber Company, Lydney, Glos.

I was based in the Engineering Department as a ‘clerical assistant’ to keep track of all the thousands of bits and pieces used in the construction. By the end of 1978 the job was done and the last container load of parts were despatched- see photo below.

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Photo Engineering Department J. Allen Rubber Lydney November 1978. I am 3 from right in front row.

My job was over but the company decided it would useful to conserve the skills necessary for such projects by setting a Project Engineering/ Project Management department at their main factory in east London. I was recruited for this new department. All very exciting – but then came the 1979 general election…

At first all seemed well, but then in 1980 the new government’s obsession with monetarist economic policy started to bite. I used to get the bus in to work along the North Circular Road from Walthamstow, passed the Greyhound racing stadium (‘the Dogs’)and then a few other factories before the London Rubber one. There was a big furniture factory (Liden’s?) near the Dogs. It was the first to go. Further down the Lea Valley was the Lesney (Matchbox toys) factory. After a few false alarms it finally closed on 11 July 1982. This was a big shock for east London and was there was a lot of worried discussion at work about our future. What was more of a shock for myself was that the Lydney factory, where I had worked, also closed in 1982.

Altogether the Lydney factory had employed about 1000 people. Most were women who worked in the glove packing department, but there were the 30 or so men in the Engineering department where I had worked and at least as many again who worked for Production, making the rubber gloves. In contrast to the London factory, the Lydney factory was a ‘family affair’, with husbands and wives, sons and daughters all working together. Again, unlike the London factory which was also the head office, there were only 3 or 4 managers and no Directors. It was not an alienating environment to work in, it was more like a friendly village community which had developed up since the J. Allen Rubber company began making rubber gloves there in 1950. Now it was gone.

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J Allen Rubber Co. Women’s Football team – 1966

The AG (automatic glove) machines in Lydney were more modern than the AG’s the London factory so two of the London machines were scrapped to be replaced by two from Lydney. So the last job the guys I had worked with at Lydney had was to work themselves out of a future…Not that it made much difference in the long run. The London factory was closed in 1994 with the loss of 600 manufacturing and 100 administrative jobs. The London Rubber Company, but not the Durex and Marigold brand names, disappeared after a series of takeovers. Neither condoms nor gloves are now manufactured in the UK. The Youtube clip below shows a present day rubber glove making machine in action. The ones I knew were similar, but larger.

Maggie’s Oil- all that is solid melts to air.
If I had realised then that the so seemingly solid and enduring factories (and industry) I worked in were going to melt into air, I would have recorded them for future industrial archaeologists and historians. But all I have are half-recalled memories and one or two photos.

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Photo- myself hard at work at the London Rubber Company.

One of the half-recalled memories is of reading a magazine (Engineering Today?) for engineering managers in the early 1980s. Despite being a magazine for managers, it was forced into taking a strong but totally ineffective editorial line against the Conservative government’s economic policies. What pushed them over the edge was a series of closures affecting machine tool manufacturing companies in the West Midlands. Machine tools- lathes, planing machines, drilling machines, etc make the machines which make manufactured products. Without machine tool making companies, even if the UK manufacturing sector managed to recover, it would be dependant on non-UK (which then meant German , USA or Japanese) expertise for its future growth. It meant the final end of the UK as ‘workshop of the world’.

What we now know is that the destruction if the UK’s manufacturing industries was a deliberate part of the class war waged by the Tories. In 1991, Alan Budd was interviewed by Adam Curtis for a TV series called ‘Pandora’s Box’ about the 1980/81 period.

Curtis: For some economists who were involved in this story, there is a further question: were their theories used to disguise political policies that would have otherwise been very difficult to implement in Britain?

Budd: The nightmare I sometimes have, about this whole experience, runs as follows. I was involved in making a number of proposals which were partly at least adopted by the government and put in play by the government. Now, my worry is . . . that there may have been people making the actual policy decisions . . . who never believed for a moment that this was the correct way to bring down inflation.

They did, however, see that it would be a very, very good way to raise unemployment, and raising unemployment was an extremely desirable way of reducing the strength of the working classes — if you like, that what was engineered there in Marxist terms was a crisis of capitalism which re-created a reserve army of labour and has allowed the capitalists to make high profits ever since.

Now again, I would not say I believe that story, but when I really worry about all this, I worry whether that indeed was really what was going on.

But why did the resulting’ crisis of capitalism’ not bring the whole system crashing down? Interviewed by Mandy Rhodes for Holyrood magazine in May 2013, former Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healey suggested an answer which involves ‘Scotland’s’ oil.

I think we did underplay the value of the oil to the country because of the threat of nationalism but that was mainly down to Thatcher. We didn’t actually see the rewards from oil in my period in office because we were investing in the infrastructure rather than getting the returns and really, Thatcher wouldn’t have been able to carry out any of her policies without that additional 5 per cent on GDP from oil. Incredible good luck she had from that.”

Access to ‘Scotland’s ’oil from the North Sea also came in handy during the 1984/5 Miners’ Strike. The 778 feet tall chimney at Inverkip power station on the Clyde was demolished on 28 July 2013. The power station was commissioned in 1970 when oil prices were low. The rise in oil prices after the 1973 Arab-Israel war led to it being mothballed- until the 1984/5 Miners Strike when it was fired up to keep the lights on. Mission accomplished it was mothballed again.

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Photo- Inverkip power station in operation 1985- during Miners’ Strike.

History and Class Consciousness
Over the past 8 years, I have been using my Greengalloway blog as an counter-Spectacle/ counter-hegemony ( Thank you Lucy Brown) device to overcome a problem- that individual life has as yet no history- identified by Guy Debord of the Situationist International in sections 156–158 of ‘The Society of the Spectacle’, first published in 1967.

156. The production process’s constant innovations are not echoed in consumption, which presents nothing but an expanded repetition of the past. Because dead labor continues to dominate living labor, in spectacular time the past continues to dominate the present.

157. The lack of general historical life also means that individual life as yet has no history. The pseudo-events that vie for attention in spectacular dramatizations have not been lived by those who are informed about them; and in any case they are soon forgotten due to their increasingly frenetic replacement at every pulsation of the spectacular machinery. Conversely, what is really lived has no relation to the society’s official version of irreversible time, and conflicts with the pseudocyclical rhythm of that time’s consumable by-products. This individual experience of a disconnected everyday life remains without language, without concepts, and without critical access to its own past, which has nowhere been recorded. Uncommunicated, misunderstood and forgotten, it is smothered by the spectacle’s false memory of the unmemorable.

158. The spectacle, considered as the reigning society’s method for paralyzing history and memory and for suppressing any history based on historical time, represents a false consciousness of time.

However, and on reflection very significantly, while the history of the anarcho-punk scene I was involved with is now comparatively well documented, all I can find about the factories I worked in and the lives of the thousands of workers who were employed are histories of the commodities they produced – the Marigold gloves made by J. Allen Rubber Company and the London Rubber Company’s Durex condoms.

In the late 1940s the owners of a small rubber company in England identified that domestic work in the house was increasingly tough on the hands and that gloves would provide an ideal solution to protect them.

The company was J. Allen Rubber Company, based in Lydney, Gloucestershire and had built its business on manufacturing teats for baby bottles since the 1930s. By the time they started to manufacture Marigold house gloves – the year was 1950. The first Marigold gloves were orange and sold in chemists’ shops in a range of sizes and just two finishes – smooth and crepe. At the time they were considered a luxury item and expensive.

Two years after the launch of Marigold gloves, J. Allen Rubber Co was sold to United Transport. By the late 1950s sales were booming with production rising from 15,000 pairs in 1952 to 500,000 in 1959 and being exported all over the world, especially to the USA and in Europe to Scandinavia and Italy – which were the main markets. Then in the 1960s, the London Rubber Company brought the Marigold brand and created the Marigold Industrial division in the late 1960s to meet the growing demand for more technical workplace gloves.

In November 2003 the Marigold brand was bought by French glove manufacturer Comasec®, which was in its own right a manufacturer of specialist gloves for both industrial and household applications, creating Comasec International Group or CMIG. During the last decade, Marigold® Industrial developed rapidly from being a highly successful UK based business with European markets treated as export to a genuine international brand with markets across Northern and Southern Europe, North America, Eastern Europe, South Africa and the Far East.

And this

The London Rubber Company began trading in 1915 selling imported condoms before beginning to manufacturer their own ‘Durex’ brand in 1929. Durex condoms manufactured by LRC in the 1930s used the new liquid latex dipping manufacturing technique. In 1950, LRC was registered as a public company and began the first fully automatic production of condoms in 1951. By 1953, LRC engineers had devised a way to simplify the quality testing of Durex condoms. They introduced electronic testing as part of the condom production process…

I remember the electronic testing machine. I could (just about) still draw a sketch of it and explain how it worked. I could do the same for most of the production processes and machines. So when I found this comment on my blog (below the photo of the J Allen Engineers), I was able to give a partial reply about the use of asbestos around the vulcaniser units on the rubber glove machines.

I am a solicitor acting for the family of a former worker at the J Allen factory in Lydney who has very recently died of mesothelioma, an asbestos related disease. I came across your photo of the engineering dept circa Nov 1978. I would like to get in touch with any now living former maintenance workers from J Allens who can describe asbestos lagging on the furnace, boilers and pipes. Can you help or put me in touch with someone who can?

– and suggest the solicitor got in touch with a Forest of Dean/ Lydney old photographs website which had the same photo. I remembered that when two of the old London Automatic Glove machines were scrapped to make way for the newer ones from Lydney, a specialist contractor was brought into remove the asbestos.
[Probably due to legislation about the disposal of asbestos. The machines were shrouded in plastic and the contractors used breathing masks and put the asbestos in sealed skips.] But when the Lydney machines were being deconstructed to be sent to London, the asbestos panels around the vulcanisers would not have been scrapped but re-used. So, just as in ordinary maintenance when no special precautions were taken when working around the vulcaniser, the Lydney workers could have been breathing asbestos dust as they took the machines apart. Likewise the London workers when they were re-assembled. To be fair, the chlorine used to give the rubber gloves a ‘silky’ feel and other chemicals including strong acids used in the production process were pretty dangerous too.

The destructive legacy of Scotland’s oil.
I have strayed from my starting theme, which was inspired by this pro-Yes poster. It jolted me back to the grim years of 1980-82.

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Sharing Scotland’s oil…

If it would help to undo the damage done in the 1980s when the wealth which flowed from the North Sea was used to finance a class war, I would happily share the £ trillion with the rest of the UK. But the damage is done, the factories are gone and with them the communities they supported . Now, here we go again.

Mr Osborne’s handling of the tax regime for shale gas exploitation suggests he thinks it could be his equivalent of Margaret Thatcher’s North Sea oil bonanza, an economic cushion that would allow him to pursue his ambition for a radical redrawing of the welfare state. [Guardian editorial 20 August 2013]

Without ‘Margaret Thatcher’s North Sea oil bonanza’, without ‘Scotland’s oil’, the 1980s neo-liberal class war would have been much harder or even impossible to pursue. We may even imagine that a stronger ‘yes’ vote in the 1978 devolution referendum would have thrown a big enough spanner in the UK machine to make it break-down. But will a ‘yes’ vote in 2014 damage neo-liberalism in England, Wales and Northern Ireland? Will a ‘yes’ vote limit neo-liberalism’s continuing destructive impact on Scotland?

The struggle against neo-liberalism is at the heart of the Radical Independence Campaign. While winning a ‘yes’ vote in 2014 may well be part of this struggle, in proclaiming our vision that ‘another Scotland’s is possible’ we must never forget the destructive legacy of ‘Scotland’s oil’. As I experienced at first hand, it was the economic bonanza provided by Scotland’s oil which allowed the Thatcher government to rip-apart the lives and communities of working class people across the whole of the UK- not just in Scotland.

It is difficult to put into words the bitterness and despair of that time, but the scream which begins this 1980 song by an English punk group and the lines ‘Stubbing out progress where the seeds are sown, killing of anything that’s not quite known….idle plans for the idle rich, knitting the economy not dropping a stitch…still living with the English fear, waiting for the witch-hunt’ just about do.

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4 thoughts on “The Destructive Legacy of Thatcher’s Oil

  1. Alistair, I fancy myself as an intellectual… Until I read one of your well argued, well researched essays and realise I am only a beginner. Congratulations, this is a very fine piece. Memo to self: must try harder.

  2. Just for clarity, the 20% (and worse) inflation in the seventies was a legacy from the previous Conservative Chancellor’s quantitative easing (though it wasn’t called that then) and not due to Labour mis-management of the economy…Barber was his name.
    Blessings
    ed

  3. this piece is brilliant. i first read it while skiving in a call centre the other day, which I think is somewhat fitting

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