Heroes and Villains

Anyone labouring under the misconception that Britain’s striking firemen would receive a hearing in accordance with the high levels of public goodwill traditionally enjoyed by the fire service must surely have been brought back to earth with a thump by the amount of vitriol levelled at firemen in the last few days by columnists and cabinet members alike. The Sun–as is usually the case–was first out of the traps.

“FIRE CHIEFS ARE SADDAM STOOGES” ran the front page headline of 14th November. “Two union chiefs who led firefighters out on strike went to Iraq and returned spouting Saddam Hussein’s propaganda” the Sun revealed. Employing the sort of sleight of hand which would make even the most seasoned of card sharks blush, a four page article concerning a solidarity visit to Iraqi firemen published in FireFighter magazine became “anti-British propaganda” and the fruits of a “treacherous, backside licking visit to Saddam’s dangerous dictatorship.”

The truth is predictably more prosaic: The “hard-left stooges” in question (FBU officials Bob Pounder and Howard Weston) made the mistake of criticising Britain’s questionable position on sanctions against Iraq on their return from a visit to fellow firefighters in Iraq. One of of the men, “unmasked as Britain’s 50,000 firefighters walked out at 6pm last night despite fears of terror attacks”, committed the cardinal sin of wearing Iraqi dress. Pounder, who “has risen through the ranks of the FBU by championing extreme left-wing causes” even invited a group of asylum seekers campaigning against repressive Turkish prison conditions to tea at his office. On Iraqi sanctions, Pounder wrote, “surely our government is not beyond reproach and accountability in contentious areas of foreign policy.” Hanging’s too good for ’em you might think.

The fact that FBU general secretary Andy Gilchrist has a photo of Che Guevara on his office wall was cited as evidence of his role as “a political activist; a classic Marxist-Leninist; a throwback to the Scargill eraGilchrist is putting lives at risk. People have ALREADY died. How much more damage can this man be allowed to cause?”

A companion piece cartoon to the previous day’s “Sun Says” editorial has Gilchrist sitting at his desk beneath the offending photograph. “If you’re looking for further inspiration, Andy, look what I’ve brought back from Baghdad” says an FBU member holding a poster of Saddam Hussein replete with the slogan “Saddam–In Solidarity” (Osama Bin Laden will doubtless make a cameo appearance should the strike become prolonged).

The “Evil Hun” and the “Soviet Menace” have been usurped in modern times by Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, Osama Bin Laden and–you guessed it–Saddam Hussein. Aligning striking firemen to such bogeymen however, is an alarming and worrying return to the sort of tactics employed to undermine former NUM president Arthur Scargill. Of course, that is to forget that Scargill too belongs to the aforementioned list of bogeymen–in other countries a flawed champion perhaps, in Britain a zero.

Serious journalists attacked Scargill with “a level of vituperation verging on the unhinged” wrote Seamus Milne in “The Enemy Within”, his account of the government campaign to crush the miners. During the strike, NUM leaders Arthur Scargill, Mick McGahey and Peter Heathfield were subjected to a protracted character assassination campaign instigated by Margaret Thatcher and ably executed by the media and MI5. Dame Stella Rimington, the former head of MI5, revealed in her memoirs that the counter-subversion branch targeted the leadership of the NUM during the miners’ strike because the union was led by “a triumvirate who had declared that they were using the strike to try and bring down the elected government and it was actively supported by the Communist Party.”

Allegations made by the Daily Mirror (then owned by disgraced embezzler Robert Maxwell) and Carlton Television’s Cook Report that Scargill had taken cash from Colonel Gaddaffi were instrumental in rubbishing Scargill’s reputation and reducing the miners’ cause to rubble. Despite the fact that Scargill’s name was subsequently cleared, the fact remains that Scargill’s legacy will be to be remembered as the hardline cheerleader of industrial insurrection that is the current common currency of the government and media alike (the man largely responsible for The Mirror’s Scargill baiting, Roy Greenslade, finally issued a half-baked apology to Scargill this year–that he couldn’t do it earlier is a question for his own conscience).

The Sun editorial of 14th November gave the beleagured FBU leader even shorter shrift. For Gilchrist, read Scargill:

IS the firemen’s strike simply about getting a hefty pay rise … Or is it really about politics? That is the question they should be asking on the picket lines.

Do rank and file firemen agree with–or even know about–the hard-Left views of their leaders?

FBU general secretary Andy Gilchrist proudly hangs a photo of the Marxist guerilla Che Guevara on his office wall. He glorifies the union’s rulebook which states that its ‘ultimate aim is the bringing about of the socialist state system.’ And he allows anti-British Iraqi propaganda to be blazed across four pages of FireFighter, the union’s official magazine, after two officials pay a treacherous, backside-licking visit to Saddam Hussein’s dangerous dictatorship.

What the hell has the Cuban revolution, Marxist-Leninist philosophy or ‘the anti-Imperialist struggles of the Iraqi workers’ got to do with putting out fires? Not one damned thing.

The firemen are being treated like pawns in an old-fashioned class war.

Just like the doomed miners were by Marxist Arthur Scargill.

Gilchrist and his far-Left cronies never wanted this dispute settled.

They wanted a revolution. How Che would have loved it …

Gilchrist is most certainly as ambitious as the next man, but the Sun seems intent on bestowing him with powers quite possibly beyond the realms of his own imagination. Revolution? Using tried and tested tactics, The Sun hangs the FBU leader out to dry as a hard left militant with extremist sympathies–an aberrant reminder of bloody minded union leaders past. Lest we forget.

Tony Blair is similarly firm. “Tough on strikes, tough on the causes of strikes” is the cry currently emanating from Downing Street. Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon has warned of the possibility of picket lines being breached by the armed forces to get to fire engines. A new career in stand-up comedy surely beckons for Fire Minister Nick Raynsford who quipped “now’s the time to have your house decorated”–an allusion to firemen moonlighting in part-time jobs. Speaking on the BBC’s Breakfast with Frost programme (17/11/02), Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott–still remembered by some as one of the “tightly knit group of politically motivated men” who blockaded Britain in 1966’s seaman’s strike–called on the FBU to stop “pointing a gun at my head.” The popular and broadsheet press have, almost without exception, repeated the government line and then some.

A quick re-cap of the situation for those of you who do not take the Sun.

British firemen are currently striking for a ?30,000 wage for wholetime professional firefighters and emergency fire control staff. At present, professional firefighters are paid ?21,531 per annum–emergency fire control fighters receive 92% of that rate. The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) is aggrieved that firefighter pay is linked to a formula which was devised in 1977–a result of the only other previous national fire service strike. The FBU plans three eight-day strikes from 22-30 November, 4-12 December and 16-24 December. Further strike dates are possible if the dispute remains unresolved after these dates.

The FBU refused to take part in an independent fire service review led by Sir George Bain (former chairman of the Low Pay Commission) because of New Labour influence: former TUC president Sir Tony Young was only appointed to the panel–dubbed Camelot by the FBU because of its top heavy peers of the realm count–after government consultation.

The Bain inquiry took nine weeks to deliver its interim findings and announced its results just 24 hours before the called for 48 hour strike that began on the 13th November–this despite the fact that Young had already told Gilchrist that “the review team is not going to deliver what you want and the FBU will have to accept that.” True to Young’s word, the interim Report tabled an 11% pay rise over two years alongside “modernising” working practices including beepers which would call firefighters out from home.

According to the Sun, the strike “over a whopping 40% pay claim” represents the “biggest union challenge to a government since the heyday of maverick miners’ leader Arthur Scargill.” In a rare sin of omission, The Sun neglected to mention the fact that even if the FBU were to win their full claim, it would still only mean an hourly rate of around ?8.50. Even the most battle hardened PFI attending schoolkid knows the old maxim about lies, damned lies and statistics. The allusions to Scargill come thick and fast–sometimes in the least likeliest of quarters. Self proclaimed liberal commentators like The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee are likewise not above invoking the ghosts of Britain’s recent–and largely misrepresented–industrial past as a reminder of the folly of industrial action.

Writing in the Guardian on 23rd October, Toynbee had this to say about the threatened strike action:

“You’ve won the argument. Now get back to work. Most strikes are unnecessary, but few are quite as needless as this. The Fire Brigades union (FBU) is another sorry story of decent people with a good claim badly led into intoxication with the glory and heroism of a fight, seduced by the old romance of braziers outside every fire station.”

It is hard to see exactly how FBU members were seduced by the “old romance of braziers” considering that the call for an annual wage of ?30,000 per year was first made in April of this year; some 12,000 firefighters descended on Trafalgar Square in June to march in support of their pay claim; a proposed 4% pay rise was rejected in August; the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister blocked a tabled 16% increase made by local authority employers in September; threatened 48 hour strike action was called off twice in October and a proposed eight-day walkout was postponed on November 4. Drunk on the glory and heroism of a fight? If anything, the firemen’s desire to strike is to industrial action what the Band of Hope was to intemperance.

Nonetheless, the image of pot-bellied Saddam sympathising snooker playing firemen with nothing better to do than jeopardise national safety is, sadly, an enduring one. The FBU’s refusal to cooperate with the government appointed and Bain led “independent review” leaves Toynbee in no doubt of the intransigent and backward looking mindset currently bedevilling the FBU membership:

“The real reason they baulk at joining the review is their refusal to consider any change in fossilised working practices, which show how unlike their working life is to most modern workforces. They work the same rotas as when my mother was in the fire service during the war: two nights (unlike in the blitz, mostly asleep) and two days, with time for other jobs. They are promised that no new changes to rotas will stop them taking second jobs.

No wonder no one leaves the virtually all-white, all-male service–scores of applicants queue for rare vacancies. They refuse to train to carry defibrillators to save more lives, refuse to be redeployed to areas where there are the most fires. They are underpaid compared with the police, but better paid than ambulance workers whose leaders roll their eyes at the FBU’s claim. The top rate for soldiers who will stand in for them (possibly before heading off for Iraq) is ?2,000 a year less. Firefighting is hazardous work–it is the 23rd most dangerous occupation.”

Do you remember the blitz? Thankfully, Toynbee’s mother is on hand to remind us. Professional modesty naturally forbids Toynbee from disclosing the doubtless higher ranking that newspaper columnist occupies in the dangerous occupation stakes. “Andy Gilchrist’s callow team of hard, white men have made a terrible muck of it already” writes Peter Preston’s in Monday’s Guardian (“Someone turn the heat off, please” 18/11/02).

Taking the baton and running with it, Preston casts the striking fireworkers as unreconstructed machos more in love with the trade unionism heritage past than present political reality (This can’t become one more myth in the musty museum of strike myth-making”). Warming to his theme, he adds, “it is a strike that should never have been allowed to begin and ought, on reflection, to be teaching a new generation of political and union leaders why talking is a damned sight better than walking.”

Refuting claims made by Deputy Prime Minister and reformed trade unionist John Prescott that the government had no agreement with the union on the availability of manpower for major incidents, Gilchrist reiterated that the FBU agreed to monitor the situation alongside the government:

“I must repeat that we have been trying to negotiate a settlement to our claim since May. It is not acceptable that the failure to provide adequate fire cover for the public should be laid at our door. It is not acceptable that contingency plans were still not finalized as late as 2.00pm yesterday [12/11/02]–4 hours before our strike began. We have been open and honest about our intentions in the event of a failure to reach a negotiated settlement. We suspended industrial action three times to try and reach a settlement. These people always go the extra mile for the public. The men and women of the UK fire service are devastated by these vindictive attacks upon their integrity. They deserve far better.”

Perhaps, but of course It had to happen. No sooner had the strike begun, than the media fuse was lit under the FBU for its actions. Britain’s first national fire service strike in a quarter of a century inevitably allowed the broadsheets and tabloids to dust down the ghosts of militant fears past: 1979’s Winter of Discontent, the Miners’ Strike, Militant. Mendacious appeals to patriotism and hysterical exposes of the threat posed to the British way of life have long been the Sun’s stock in trade. These are all strategies which arguably reached their zenith–or nadir–under the stewardship of “legendary” Sun editor Kelvin Mackenzie (responsible for a school of smear journalism which reached an all-time low with the Sun’s fictitious accounts of the 1989 Hillsborough football disaster).

The drawing up of clear battle lines between “them” and “us” goes some considerable way to reinforcing normalised moral and political values; and to the Great British public’s recognition of the predetermined and recurring cast of protagonists straight out of central casting. Debate about the legitimacy or otherwise of the firemen’s strike is reduced to hysterical personal attack and character assassination.

The Sun is at least correct in saying the firemen are being treated like pawns, but not pawns in “an old-fashioned class war” as it would like to imagine, but rather in New Labour’s attempts to eradicate the “last spasm” of the so-called hard left in the trade union movement.

Weasel worded attempts at positioning the British public as hostages to fortune (“Our brave servicemen proved last week they can do an admirable job” The Sun, 18/11/02) and Britain’s firemen as guileless dupes in a political game of brinkmanship masterminded by Saddam sympathising Marxists, have as much ring of truth as the now discredited Scargill/Gaddaffi connection. Mud, as the Sun’s highly paid reporters know from experience, sticks.

Press complicity in New Labour’s attempt at stifling future public sector disquiet by making an example of the FBU is nothing less than shameful. But as Scargill will testify, it was always ever thus. The plight of all British public sector workers is tied up in the outcome of the current stand-off between the government and the FBU: disingenuous press attempts at moving the moral goalposts only serve to confirm this fact.

Blair senses a belated opportunity to finally prove his mettle in the face of domestic militancy. The firefighters might do well to take their cue from future Sun editorials. The laddie’s not for turning.

William McDougal can be reached at: wmacdougall@msn.com