This week marks the 40th anniversary of the beginning of the ‘three day week’, which lasted from 1 January to 6 March 1974. The ‘three day week’ was an initiative by the Heath Government to avoid the stand-still of Britain’s industry in response to the Oil Crisis of late 1973 and the threat of a strike by the National Union of Mineworkers (who were on a ‘work to rule’ basis at the time). It involved cutting electricity supplies to three consecutive days per week to conserve coal stocks, which was threatened by a strike by mineworkers.
A search of the digitised Cabinet Papers available through the National Archives show how the Heath Government approached the looming threat of a strike by the NUM and the energy crisis faced by Britain in 1973-74. One Cabinet meeting from 20 December, 1973 outlined the problem facing the Heath Government and the basis for the implementation of the ‘three day week’:
Government must not appear to be working for a major confrontation with the unions on the issue of the Stage 3 Pay Code. It was possible that the Executive of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) wanted such a confrontation or that their actions would produce it. [The Secretary for State for Employment] believed that it was important for the Government to do all that they could to avoid a confrontation. They must be seen to be at once firm and reasonable…
Meanwhile the Government must go ahead with the arrangements to introduce the three-day working week. On this the trades union leaders and the Labour Party had moved closer together, Mr Jack Jones being the link, and were representing that the resulting hardships were wholly the fault of the Government. The Government must make it clear that the measures were wholly the result of the industrial action by the NUM and ASLEF, and that if that action were brought to an end the oil shortage would persist but the three-day working week would no longer be necessary. It was important that Ministers should co-ordinate their actions and their speeches closely in handling the current crisis, and he hoped that his colleagues would comment freely on the strategy that he had proposed…
In discussion it was argued that the Government should not appear to use the three-day week as a threat to the unions. The facts must be presented in a low key emphasising the overriding need to meet the fuel shortage. It might help to encourage public participation if more facts and figures could be made available. It would be unwise to disclose the amounts of fuel stocks or the current estimates of the period of possible endurance but the public might be encouraged to learn of the savings achieved by power economies, though the figures so far (which increased from 5 per cent on 14 December to 12 per cent on 18 December) were not taken from a typical period. It was also suggested that it could be helpful to involve the voluntary organisations.
After nearly four weeks of the strike (and two weeks before Heath announced a snap general election), the Government considered relaxing some of the restrictions, but did not want to look like they were relenting to the pressures of the NUM. In a Cabinet meeting on 24 January, 1974, the following debate was had:
[D]uring the past week, coal stocks at power stations had fallen by only 100, 000 tons. Stocks stood at 13.6 million tons at power stations, and 1.8 million tons elsewhere, and if circumstances remained unchanged could be expected to increase slightly over the next two weeks. Against this background some relaxation of the existing electricity restrictions could be allowed. The most effective pattern would be to let productive industry work a five-day week, restricting electricity consumption to 80 per cent of normal…
However, the likelihood that the Executive of the NUM would decide to hold a ballot of their members on the issue of strike action was a factor which could have a major influence on the nature and timing of the relaxations. The choice lay between going ahead with the planned relaxation but making it clear that a strike would lead to even more severe restrictions being imposed, or making minor changes to the incidence of the present restrictions to conserve fuel stocks in the face of the strike threat. It was estimated that, if a total strike occurred, the continuance of the present restrictions would enable stocks to last six to seven weeks. The relaxations would reduce endurance by three or four days if a strike occurred within the next three weeks. Endurance might be prolonged slightly by increasing the use of oil at power stations, or increasing the import of coal, but even the most stringent restrictions could not prevent the breakdown of electricity supplies within seven to eight weeks of the onset of a total strike.
In discussion, it was argued that any relaxation which led to increased electricity consumption would represent a major change of policy. Hitherto the aim had been to restrict consumption to prolong endurance. The miners had always sought to deplete stocks by action short of a strike, and then impose a total strike when the economy was least able to resist it. Relaxation now, would be seen as a sign of weakness on the part of the Government: the miners would be encouraged in their resolve, since a relaxation would be taken as firm evidence that the economy could not stand a three-day week and that the Government, rather than impose even harsher measures, would quickly settle with them. Public opinion would almost certainly see relaxation in face of the risk of a strike as an act of great imprudence.
On the other hand, it was strongly argued that the restriction of the working week to three days could not be endured much longer. There were signs that many companies, large and small, would soon be in difficulties, and this could have wide repercussions throughout the economy. The trade figures would inevitably get worse if short-time work continued. The ability of the economy to withstand restrictions was a much more critical factor for the endurance of the country than were the fuel stocks. Moreover to maintain the present restrictions would be seen as a tacit admission that the Government expected the majority of miners to vote for a strike. Such a policy would be interpreted as an intensified form of Government confrontation with the unions and it would provide a continuing excuse for the TUC to maintain their protests.
No decision was made by the Cabinet at that meeting and on 7 February, Heath called an election for 28 February. On 10 February, the NUM went on strike and the ‘three day week’ continued. Labour’s minority government victory brought an end to the strike and the ‘three day week’ in early March 1974.
The ‘three day week’ cast a long shadow over Britain during the 1970s and 1980s. After the collapse of the Labour’s ‘Social Contract’ with the Trades Union Congress in the mid-1970s, the outbreak of industrial action led many to fear a return to the ‘three day week’. Margaret Thatcher, who was part of the Heath Government that lost in the 1974 election, learnt from the ‘three day week’ and the NUM strike, making sure that coal supplies were plentiful in 1984 before confronting the NUM again. This 12 week period in early 1974 has become one of the symbols of Britain’s crisis during the 1970s and has been used as a shorthand for the economic troubles of the post-war welfare state.
Last week, a scholar in The Independent argued that 1973 was one of the most significant year in British history, but it might be argued that 1974, with the ‘three day week’, the NUM strike and the dual electoral victories of Labour, might pip its predecessor as being more significant.