When the lights went out

In the early 1970s, power blackouts were an occasional feature as militant unions of nationalized industries used industrial muscle to force governments to capitulate to their wage demands. The National Union of Mineworkers would picket the power stations to prevent coal and oil reaching them, supported by secondary action from the National Union of Railwaymen, so power cuts were implemented.

In December 1970 hospitals were forced to function on batteries and candles during a "work-to-rule" strike. The most damaging power cuts came in 1973, when an oil shock from the Middle East coincided with a miners’ strike. Petrol was rationed, there was a 50mph speed limit on roads, and there was a heating limit of 63F (17C) in office and commercial premises and a reduction in street lighting. A three-day working week was introduced, and a 10.30pm shutdown for TV. The electricity often went off, leaving people with no heat or light.

Naturally many people improvised. I bought a small calor gas stove and a calor gas lamp, both powered by little cylinders of “Camping Gaz.” When the power went off, it was still possible to boil water for tea or coffee and to cook, and there was enough light to avoid total darkness.

When my colleagues and I returned to the UK to found the Adam Smith Institute, the unions were still rampant, so the portable stove and lantern were transferred to London to cope with any power cuts. After the famous “Winter of Discontent” of mass strike action in late 1978 and early 1979, Mrs Thatcher was elected, and introduced measures that gradually brought the unions within the law. There were no more power cuts.

Forty years later, we have just taken the dust-stained stove and lamp from the cupboard and cleaned them up in case there is a Jeremy Corbyn government. Astonishingly both still work, which is just as well, because if he returns powers to the unions, they will probably both be needed.