The 1970s were not the best of times for British industry.
It saw trouble in the car industry, the closure of deep mines and the contraction of the steel industry. For the first time since the war, the number of well paid jobs for working class men declined significantly. Coventry saw the loss of 46% of its jobs between 1974 and 1982 and many other cities found similar fates.
The defence industry suffered too, at that time it was almost wholly dependent on domestic consumption and Britain was a declining power. No longer the master of a great empire, Harold Wilson’s defence cuts were long overdue, but it spelled job losses for the sector.
In 1974 Lucas Aerospace was one company feeling the pinch, being dependent on military contracts for half its output. With the workforce facing significant job losses, 34 trade union shop stewards from across the company’s 15 plants, met with the then Secretary of State for Industry, Tony Benn, to try and persuade him to include Lucas in his government’s nationalisation of the aerospace industry. Whilst Benn explained this was not possible, he suggested the group, by then known as The Combine, started work on an alternative for the company: a way to utilise existing skills and facilities to allow Lucas to fully transition to ‘socially useful production’ avoiding the deskilling of the workers into lower paid, more menial tasks.
After a full year of work and extensive consultation with the workforce, The Combine put forward their plan. The six volume plan included 150 product ideas in the categories of medical equipment, transport vehicles, improved braking systems, energy conservation, oceanics, and robotic systems. The proposals included developments in vehicle hybridisation, solar panels, fuel cells, heat pumps and a 40% expansion of the company’s production of dialysis machines, the Combine stated in their report that it was “scandalous that people could be dying for the want of a kidney machine when those who could be producing them are facing the prospect of redundancy”.
Benn describing the plan as “one of the most remarkable exercises that has ever occurred in British industrial history” but, amid mixed support from the traditional trade unions, the Lucas management rejected it out of hand. Over the next decades the company entered many years of slow and eventually terminal decline. To this day it remains one of the great ‘what-might-have-beens’ of British industrial history.
Whilst the workers at Lucas were largely unsuccessful, they sparked a movement that lead to similar efforts at other companies, changes to policy in many labour councils and the setting up of research institutions in London and Coventry. They were even nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
In 2017 the defence industry accounts for 10% of UK manufacturing and the successor to that nationalisation of the aerospace industry, BAe Systems, is the UK’s largest industrial employer. Far from focusing on ‘socially useful production’, in the forty something years since the Lucas Plan the industry has focused even more on military production. BAe have divested their civilian division that once built the Comet and Concorde. In an attempt to become less exposed to the whims of the British government the industry have moved towards exports, but nearly 50% of these exports, around 25% of total output, are currently being sent to just one country: Saudi Arabia.
That regime is currently using British munitions in Yemen, where, according to the UN, the Saudi led coalition has been responsible for 119 “clear violations” of international law and 37% of their airstrikes have hit non-military targets.
But Yemen isn’t the first time this focus on exports has raised ethical questions: British munitions have been used on both sides to fight wars in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, and to quell peaceful protests in Bahrain, West Papua and Turkey. In the last decade alone, the UK government has issued licences to twenty nations on its own list of human rights abusers.
But independent of ethics, the defence industry, and particularly BAe, face another, more practical problem; it builds a solution to yesterday’s problem. Tanks, missiles, ships, submarines and fighter jets are no deterrent to the modern military threats of cyberwarfare, counterinsurgency and counterterrorism. These threats need a very different solution, staffed by white collar workers, requiring skills very different to those of the current workforce.
The real threat today is climate change. It’s a threat that will claim more lives than any war. Billions will be left without water, food and land, and the solution (or mitigation) will need revolutions in many of the areas raised by the Lucas Plan. Maybe forty years on the time is right for a new Lucas Plan.
It wouldn’t even be very difficult. Shipyards that today build warships and nuclear submarines could be repurposed overnight to the manufacture of wind turbines, as Siemens have in Hull’s Alexandra Dockyard. Rolling back the veil of secrecy that comes with military production would allow the civilian proliferation of technology that has long been restricted to use only in defence. Rolls Royce’s Nuclear division, which builds nuclear reactors for submarines, is one of the most secretive sites in the world. Employees are searched on their way in and out, they can’t take their phone in or communicate with the outside world when they are inside, and anyone who does enter must first undergo a rigorous vetting procedure. As such the small reactors cannot be used for zero emissions cargo ships or cheaper, small scale, zero emissions power plants.
The original Lucas Plan attempted to prevent the deskilling of that workforce, to keep working men in good jobs. It was a reaction to the decline of imperial power, to refocus production to forge a better world. The challenge of climate change gives us a better tomorrow for which to strive.
Maybe a new Lucas Plan is what we need to reach it.
Previously our Editor in Chief, Tom Harrison is now our webmaster and has written extensively on topics surrounding climate change. You can find his column here.