During these awful and bleak times, I felt it would be the perfect opportunity to take a closer look to the careers of some political giants who don’t get the recognition or remembrance they deserve. One of my greatest interests is political history and every Friday I shall publish an article outlining the career and some interesting facts about some political heroes who are unfortunately no longer with us. Last week, I documented the remarkable life and career of Ian Gow who fell victim to an IRA terrorist attack outside his home in 1990.
This week I will be looking into the career of someone who was never elected to Parliament but had one of the most crucial parts to play in Mrs Thatcher’s government, this of course was Sir Ian MacGregor, the Scottish-American businessman who fronted both the British Steel Corporation and Chaired the National Coal Board during the miners’ strikes.
MacGregor was born into a middle class, devoutly Christian family on 21st September 1912 to Daniel MacGregor and his wife Grace, Ian’s father worked as an accountant at British Aluminium and his mother as a schoolteacher. His family were very much involved in the local community in his hometown of Kinlochleven in the Scottish Highlands, being prominent members of the local Calvinist United Free Church; although he would be born a far cry from Scotland’s two largest cities, he would be educated in both, firstly at George Watson’s College, a prestigious independent school in Edinburgh and then at Hillhead High School, a grammar school in Glasgow. He would grow up during a time of turmoil, first with the general strike of 1926 where his family would take a staunch anti-strike approach, to the extent where his elder brothers volunteered to drive trams in Glasgow to keep the city moving.
MacGregor would stay in Glasgow to study at its university in 1930, he would take a keen interest in science and chemistry, studying metallurgy which is a line of physical science explaining the behaviour and movements of metallic elements. The young MacGregor would be a keen engineer also, opting to study that with metallurgy at the University of Glasgow, he would pass both with distinction and move on to complete a diploma with distinction at the Royal College of Science and Technology at the University of Strathclyde.
By 1935, he had secured work in 1935 at the Kinlochleven aluminium plant, the same place where his father was employed as an accountant, but he was soon recruited as a junior manager by the Glasgow shipbuilding and engineering conglomerate William Beardmore and Company. With war looming, he was employed to research and develop vehicle armour. However, it was during this time in the East end of Glasgow that he would have his first encounter with trade unions and more particularly trade union leader and socialist politician David Kirkwood. Kirkwood has been one of the leading figures in the Red Clydeside movement, a trade union and radical socialist movement which engulfed the shipyards and other industries on the banks of the River Clyde. Kirkwood had left the Socialist Labour Party for the Independent Labour Party during the Great War and served on the Glasgow Trade Union Council as well as being a member of the Clyde Workers’ Committee, an organisation Chaired by the infamous Communist and trade unionist William Gallacher. Whilst MacGregor was serving in junior management, Kirkwood had arranged a walkout of crane drivers, a crucial component of industry on the Clyde. Infuriated and lacking support from the majority of workers, MacGregor would drive cranes himself for a fortnight which earned him the respect of the Chairman of the firm, Sir James Lithgow who would later serve as a wartime Lord Commissioner to the Admiralty, appointed by Churchill to oversee the expansion of the British merchant navy and shipbuilding in the country.
At the start of the war, MacGregor would have a hugely important role to play, even though he never actually fought on the front line, he was one of the most integral parts of the development of tanks and aircraft. He would begin his war time work at the Ministry of Supply, which had been formed by Chamberlain to ensure that all three branches of the armed forces were sufficiently supplied in all areas. His focus during the early years of the Second World War was to develop British tanks, capable of penetrating Axis lines and destroying the massively successful Panzer III tanks operated by the Nazis. Nevertheless, he would only stay at the MoS until 1940 when he would be recruited by another specialist department set up for the war, that being the Ministry of Aircraft Production. The man in charge was Max Aitken, better known as Lord Beaverbrook, not only was he a fantastically successful at mobilising industrial resources during the war, he was a newspaper tycoon. Beaverbrook’s contribution to the war through print may often be hugely underrated, the patriotic news editorials and columns in his flagship paper The Daily Express were only matched by the Prime Minister and King – the paper would rally socially conservative voters and act as a major recruitment source for the armed forces.
It was under Beaverbrook’s watch that Ian MacGregor, a now highly respected engineering manager, travelled to Canada and the US to carry out the highly important task of aviation procurement, with the special focus of aviation armour. He would spend the majority of his time in the States, becoming familiar with American industry and working on defence missions and developments, including the M4 Sherman Tank, named after the American Civil War General William Sherman. MacGregor’s contribution to this project were huge and it would be this machine which was one of the most successful allied weapons during the autumn years of the War, there would be close to 50,000 M4 Sherman tanks built between 1942 and the end of production in 1945, many of which were distributed to mainland Europe for use by the British and Soviet forces against the Axis powers.
Following the end of the war, MacGregor would remain in the USA, attracted by the culture, lifestyle and the more hands off approach by the government, even though Roosevelt had been a fairly interventionist President, he and his successor Harry S. Truman were fairly liberal when it came to economics. This was a stark contrast to the newly elected Labour government back home in the UK, Clement Attlee’s programme of nationalisation and the expansion of power for trade unions would enrage MacGregor who had battled trade unions from a young age.
MacGregor would be very closely aligned with the principles of self determination and individualism, the values later promoted by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. He would remark that the Labour Party were in favour of the class system and it was in fact the Tories, under Mrs Thatcher, that were the Party of breaking down class barriers. In his later writings, he would remark on his decision to remain across the pond as “I don’t like unnecessary class distinctions. The Americans waste no time on them. They don’t care who your father was. If you make it to the top and it comes out that your father made moonshine in Tennessee, they admire you even more. Now, I like that system.” This would contrast to the later comments made about MacGregor by Vice President of the National Union of Mineworkers and leader of the Scottish miners, Mick McGahey, who described him as “viciously anti-trade union and anti-working class”, a comment MacGregor ferociously opposed.
During the 1950s, MacGregor built his life and business in the States, on the North East coast. However, his dealings in the States wouldn’t go as smoothly as he first expected, having encounters with the Mafia whom he was repeatedly threatened by and faced mass industrial strike action against his takeover of a Connecticut metal firm. This didn’t bother MacGregor as his takeover went ahead regardless and in the next decade he would work and rise to the position of Chief Executive of American Metal Climax in 1966, earning a reputation of a tough negotiator and being a shrewd businessman. Not only that, he would gain a reputation of being staunchly anti-trade unions and would often be criticised for his unempathetic as well as uncompromising approach to trade unions. He would later serve as Chairman of American Metal Climax for eight years between 1969 and 1977, all whilst working as an investment for Lehman Brothers and at Lazard Freres, where he would later go on to serve as a Director of the firm. Whilst serving as a Director of Lazard, MacGregor would be elected Chairman of the International Chamber of Commerce, based in Paris, a crucial role in working with the World Trade Organization and other international trade bodies such as the Economic Community, the precursor to the EU.
A massive advocate of free trade and international trading co-operation, he was critical of President Nixon’s decoupling of the Dollar from the gold standard in 1971 as a response to increasing inflation. This move worried the Scottish industrialist who saw the pending Burke-Hartke Bill as a move towards protectionist and interventionist measures in the country, this was reflected by the New York Chamber of Commerce who also opposed the Congress Bill, sponsored by Democrat Indiana Senator Vance Hartke and Democratic Massachusetts Representative James A. Burke. MacGregor’s time in the States would end in 1977 when Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan was being held to ransom by trade unions, he was brought in as a non-executive director of failing vehicle manufacturer British Leyland to deputise Chairman Sir Michael Edwardes. MacGregor’s influence on the newly appointed Edwardes was massive and it is widely believed that it was on his advice that Edwardes dismissed the notorious trade unionist, Derek Robinson, better known as Red Robbo. Robinson had a rocky relationship with MacGregor and Edwardes from the start, he was a known Trotskyist and Callaghan saw him as a threat to his government which had attempted to move away from Wilson’s appeasement of trade unionists – Callaghan would later crumble under the pressure of the unions during the Winter of Discontent. Margaret Thatcher would describe Derek Robinson as a “known agitator” who “needed to be dismissed” due to his role in initiating regular strike action.
MacGregor would leave British Leyland in 1980 to become Chairman of the nationalised British Steel Corporation as he was seen as the man to turn around the fortunes of the failing industry, in preparation for the privatisation. The Scot was seen as a staple of Thatcherism and someone who could be trusted by the Prime Minister; the Industry Secretary Sir Keith Joseph was a such great supporter of Ian MacGregor, so much so that he commissioned the near £2m pay out to Lazard which caused an outcry in the House of Commons but he would prove to be worth his weight in silver.
MacGregor brought his controversial but effective style of leadership to Britain and was very much a saviour of vast amounts of taxpayers’ money, when he took over at British Steel, it was producing just 14 million tonnes of steel at an annual loss of £1.8bn, equal to over £4m per day as well as employing over 166,000 staff. He was brought in by Joseph to reorganise and decentralise, a task he soon got on with, cutting over 100,000 jobs in the industry by 1982 – although this was unpopular at the time and often looked back as a decimation of the industry – it was a necessary measure which made British Steel both profitable and efficient, something which had never been achieved previously whilst in public ownership. By 1983, there were only 71,000 staff and several plants had been closed, resulting in a net annual loss of £256 million, becoming profitable by the summer of that year.
He had proved his strategy to be successful to the government and Thatcher saw him as a champion of and a leader of Thatcherism, subsequently he was recommended for role of Chairman of the National Coal Board by Trade and Industry Secretary Norman Tebbit, an appointment Mrs Thatcher personally approved. This appointment infuriated the President of the National Union of Mineworkers, Arthur Scargill, who saw MacGregor as someone who was “intent on destroying British industry and trade unionism for good”. MacGregor wasn’t actually the first choice of the then Secretary of State for Energy, Nigel Lawson who had advised the appointment of former Labour Defence and Northern Ireland Secretary, Roy Mason who had a long running conflict with Scargill and they despised each other. However, Thatcher preferred the former British Steel boss and he would soon forge his own conflict with Scargill, their verbal ping pong in the media was a regular feature in the newspapers, Scargill calling MacGregor the “American butcher of British industry” which headlined the Daily Mirror, the British Coal Board Chairman replied by pointing out his proven record of success in both British and American industry describing himself as a “plastic surgeon, attempting to rebuild and restructure damaged features”.
Scargill rallied troops against not just the Thatcher government but also in protest against MacGregor, he had said how he planned a similar approach to the coal industry to that which was rapidly successful in the steel industry, that being the closure of unprofitable pits, a programme of first voluntary redundancies and then redundancies. Whilst Scargill vowed to bring down Thatcher’s government, MacGregor pressed on with his closure of unprofitable pits, a programme implemented first by Labour PM Harold Wilson in 1965; it was in fact Mr Wilson who closed more coal mines singlehandedly, than Mrs Thatcher, her Tory predecessor Edward Heath and her eventual successor John Major. He would engage in several discussions with Scargill and other union reps during the early days of the miners’ strikes in 1984 but both refused to compromise, something Scargill wasn’t used to. It was due to the incredible foresight of Nigel Lawson to start stockpiling coal from 1981, when he was first made Energy Secretary, that allowed MacGregor to remain so firm in his position during the negotiations in April 1984.
In his position as Chairman of the NCB, MacGregor would stubbornly remain in his position and would enjoy antagonising the NUM and other trade union leaders, but non more so than Mr Scargill. He argued that it was pointless to keep unprofitable, inefficient coal mines open to the cost of the British taxpayer when it was far cheaper to import from Poland and Australia, this matched with the fact that the Thatcher government was investing in alternative energy sources, especially in the renewables sector. MacGregor knew there was no changing the stance of Scargill and his loyal supporters, there was little room for pay rises for an already high paid industry and as previously mentioned, the move towards renewables meant a natural end for the coal industry.
MacGregor was criticised for his lack of empathy towards the miners and his tough stance in negotiations, matched with his refusal to compromise and give in to Scargill’s demands. He would retire as Chairman of the NCB in 1986, over a year after the miners would go back to work – this was seen as MacGregor’s greatest achievement, all be it his last, Scargill failed to topple Margaret Thatcher’s government and the handling of the miners’ strikes was largely in the hands of Sir Ian. By the time the coal industry was privatised in 1994 by John Major, it was eventually profitable, mainly down to MacGregor’s leadership of the NCB. The public opinion soon turned against the miners during the strikes and firmly in line with the government, this consequently boosted MacGregor’s reputation as a proven and successful boss, switching failing industries to successful ones which would be later successfully privatised. This led to calls for MacGregor to return to public life after his retirement as the boss of first British Gas and then later the NHS; he would continue in more of hands off roles as a non-executive of Lazard, the investment banking firm which he had left to join British Steel in 1980. He would work into his 80s but in non-executive roles with more of an advisory position than the day-to-day running, one of those being as Chairman of Goldcrest Films who had previously produced titles such as ‘Gandhi’, ‘Escape From New York’ and ‘Chariots of Fire’ – it would also later produce ‘The Iron Lady’ in 2011, documenting the life of Margaret Thatcher.
MacGregor would pass away at the age of 85 on 13th April 1997 at his home in Taunton, Somerset where he would finally retire to after previously splitting his time between his birthplace in the Scottish Highlands and his former area of business in the North East of the US. Although at the time, Thatcher had been critical of MacGregor’s handling of the PR of the miners’ strikes, she described him as a man who “brought a breath of fresh air to British industry and he had such a genial personality. He had a tremendous way of putting things. He made a real difference and I was very grateful when he came back to this country.” He will always be remembered as a flag bearer of Thatcherism, privatisation and as a staple of the demise of militant trade unionism in Britain.
In loving memory of Sir Ian Kinloch MacGregor, a true Thatcherite and reformer.
Ethan Thoburn is a student from the North East of England, studying Economics, Government & Politics and Business. In the 2016 EU referendum he campaigned for a Leave vote, and actively campaigns for the Conservative Party as well as currently serving as Chairman of South Tyneside Young Conservatives and has supported Leave Means Leave. He aspires to a career in journalism, politics and economics but more importantly he understands the need to change Britain by leaving the EU and adopting free trade policies.
This article was first published on the Bruges Group website, and is republished with permission. You may not use, copy, distribute, publish, syndicate, sub-license and transmit the whole or any part of such material in any manner and in any format and/or media without the permission of the original publishers.