Bowler-hatted union barons and naked mandarins: Looking back at the first national civil service strikes

A trip back to the 1970s reveals the parallels – and some big differences – between the first ever civil service strike and current walkouts
24-hour civil service strikes in February 1979.Eileen Jackson, a Ministry of Employment official, on picket duty at the Horse Guards. Photo: Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy Stock Photo

By Andrew Southam

02 Jun 2023

Over recent months, we have seen some of the largest civil service strikes for a decade, with staff from the PCS union walking out in support of a 10% pay claim and improved working conditions, and Prospect officials joining them. However, the precedent for this action was set 50 years ago exactly.

In 1973 the two largest civil service unions, the Civil and Public Services Association (CPSA) and the Society of Civil Servants, launched the first ever nationwide strike by civil servants.

Never before had the country seen 250,000 officials striking up and down the land.

Conditions creating this precedent were similar to today. Britain in 1973 was gripped by an energy crisis mostly arising from the spring 1972 miners’ strike, inflation was moving towards 10%, and industrial strikes were pervasive.

Civil service status and pay had been declining for years and the 1955 system for agreeing pay rises on a “fair comparison with comparable work” outside the civil service had faltered. The principle was undercut by prime minister Ted Heath’s 1972 prices and incomes policy, which limited any rise to 4% to control ever-increasing inflation. There were better-paid jobs around in the early seventies, and civil servants knew it.

Other gripes included dirty and overcrowded accommodation, reduced promotion prospects, increasing workloads and sometimes mind-numbing repetitive work, continual government reorganisation and unfair malignment by the press.

CPSA general secretary Bill Kendall, a well-read clerk from South Shields who worked his way up in the union while flirting with communism before converting to Catholicism, led the way for change. His union adopted a strike policy in 1969 and began limited action in 1972 including a Department of Health and Social Security overtime ban and a refusal to work with agency typists. 

When November negotiations for retrospective increases frozen by the incomes policy got nowhere, the CPSA decided on the first civil service day of protest.

Head of the civil service Sir William Armstrong – the son of two Salvation Army officers whose influence was so prevalent he was publicly dubbed the “deputy prime minister” – tried stopping it. He wrote a personal message to civil servants instructing them not to strike.

A backlash ensued. Some DHSS staff walked out; and opposition MPs accused Armstrong of implied threats and demanded the letter’s withdrawal. The Ministry of Defence CPSA branch at Donnington even burned theirs in a ceremony around the departmental incinerator; they learnt that their printer colleagues had been asked to leave their jobs so that soldiers could print a top-secret document for issue. This turned out to be Armstrong’s very letter!

The strike went ahead just days later. Many went to London to protest outside the main ministerial departments. Union official Roger Willson-Pepper provided the press picture of the day when he picketed at London’s Somerset House in a pin-stripe suit, smart mackintosh, brolly, brief case and donning a bowler hat under the placard “CPSA demands fair pay”.

Not everyone came out and the other civil service unions didn’t provide support. However, this single day of action made a mark. Smugglers enjoyed a successful day swanning through unmanned customs counters, some openly carrying cameras and radios which were due duties. An honesty box at Heathrow airport hadn’t proved effective.

Unprecedented civil service feeling also moved the then-Civil Service Department and its second permanent secretary Ian Bancroft to establish a July 1973 review examining civil service discontent.

Bancroft, a grammar school scholarship boy at Oxford and a wartime captain, cared deeply about civil service morale and conditions.

His no-nonsense 1975 Wider Issues Review found that “civil servants feel that they have been mucked about a lot in the last five or ten years” and pushed for wide-ranging improvements including in facilities, departmental communication and flexible working. More regional DHSS press officers were even recruited to counter an “unduly bad press” from various newspapers.

A pay agreement had meanwhile been reached in December 1974, but Bancroft still warned that “the most important thing for the wellbeing of the service is to keep its pay right”.

And so it proved with pay causing other significant strikes in 1979 under James Callaghan and in 1981 under Margaret Thatcher, which lasted for 21 weeks.

After the 1973 strike, Kendall went on to become the general secretary of the Council of Civil Service Unions in 1976.

William Armstrong, in contrast, suffered from his own working conditions of stress a year later. Amid concerns that the Soviet Union was winning the Cold War, he stripped off his clothes one day in a Downing Street office, lay down on the floor and declared that the world was going to pot. He retired shortly afterwards to become chairman of the Midland Bank.

The 1973 strike highlighted the crucial importance all civil servants play in carrying out government practice and policy, which is even more the case in today’s complexity. Ministers might want to heed Bancroft’s 1970s advice to them to recognise their “responsibility as employers” and help “avoid discrimination against the public service in the application of their economic and social policies”.

Andrew Southam is a freelance history correspondent and writer

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