1990s >> 1991 >> no-1041-may-1991

Rise and Fall of a Pitboy

  A great future was once forecast for Michael Eaton, not least by himself. He might have made it to the top, to become a recognisable man of power and influence. Instead he is someone dominated by a feeling of “gloom and failure”, of no longer being in charge of his life. Once he was a firm supporter of the professed free market principles of the Thatcher governments. a disciple of the creed that hard work, ingenuity and experience were enough to build a fortune. Now he complains bitterly about the government which undermined him. with policies which brought the recession and his own failure and which, he says, could and should have been changed a long time ago.

 Eaton’s finest hour was during the coal strike of 1984-5, when he was called in to run the Coal Board’s public relations. His appointment was widely welcomed in those places where the defeat of the miners was seen as an urgent need. Eaton came of a family of colliers and he himself was a pit boy at the age of 15. He took a degree in mining engineering and, as he climbed the managerial ladder, was sent by the Coal Board to the Stanford Business School in California, where they aim to hone their students’ techniques of worker exploitation. Only the highest of high flyers get that kind of schooling; at 50—seven years ago—Eaton was in the top flight, the youngest and longest serving Coal Board area director.

 When the strike started Eaton was in charge of the mines in North Yorkshire. He soon showed his hand by stopping the pay of mine officials who declined to supervise the few miners who went in to work— a policy which, had it been applied nationally, would have been disastrous for the employers. But the blunder did not dent the Eaton reputation as Mr Fixit, a boss whose direct style and rough-hewn Yorkshire opinions ensured that he was “good at dealing with people”—which really meant cunning at screwing the maximum possible profit out of the labour of others.

 When it became clear that Coal Board chairman Ian MacGregor was unable to put the case for making useful and productive workers redundant without threatening the Saatchi brothers with simultaneous heart attacks, Eaton was given the job of trying to repair the Board’s public relations. MacGregor, as we all remember, had been taken on by the government mainly to devitalise the unions, at first in the steel industry and then in the coal mines, and to slash the industries back to a size more in keeping with their profit-making capabilities.

 He was very good at that, as Arthur Scargill will agree, and anyone who doubts his abilities need only consider what has happened to the mines since the strike. What MacGregor was not good at was putting himself across as other than someone imported to impose lower standards of poverty on selected groups of workers. His low point came when he appeared in public with his head in a carrier bag; it was never completely clear why he did this but what was clear was that it was conduct unbecoming the holder of a high public office in the midst of a savage struggle with his employees.

 Eaton was very different. He had known Scargill, in one way or another, for over 12 years and had played a large part in working out the government’s strategy which eventually beat the miners. But things did not turn out as planned because he clashed with MacGregor on many issues and his presence was resented by the man whose job as communications chief he had taken. His career was more or less stopped in its tracks; he did not. as many people had expected. get to be chairman of the Coal Board and had to be content with the award of the QBE for his services to British capitalism. In 1986 he resigned from the Board and with his family bought a building firm which, as the economy boomed, grew into an employer of nearly 200 workers and a valuation of about £6 million.

 So far so good—at least for Eaton as he contemplated this apparent proof of the adage, which the striking miners had regarded with such scepticism, that hard work and initiative must bring success. Whatever Eaton had learned he had missed the fact that we live under a social system of economic rises and falls, a system which will not be controlled by any skill or industriousness and which takes no account of the predictions of the experts. Eaton’s business suddenly collapsed, with debts of about £2½ million and likely, when the receivers have chewed it over, to be left owing about £700,000.

 This blow to Eaton’s self-esteem, and to all he believed in, has been worsened by the fact that he and his family may be made homeless by the crash. And he is not happy about it:

  ”  What most upset me was when I heard John Major as Chancellor say. “if it isn’t hurting it isn’t working”. People like him don’t appreciate—they    can’t appreciate—the abjectness of failure and the consequences on your family.”

 He seems to have forgotten that during the miners’ strike many miners were describing the effects of the pit closures in similar terms. They talked fearfully about the depression of unemployment, about the stress of getting by on the dole, about the feelings of being worthless when they could not find an employer to exploit their labour. They, like Eaton now, felt out of control of their own lives.

 The official response, which Eaton was employed to announce, was that the miners must face economic reality—that if the pits were not profitable they had to be closed, whatever the effect on the miners, because only the profitable deserves to survive. And if the miners argued for changes in government policy to keep the pits open they met the kind of implacable opposition to subsidising the unprofitable which Eaton’s company got from the firms it owed money to.

An idiot
 There are probably quite a few miners, redundant or still in work, who are gloating at how things have turned out for Eaton. It would be more helpful if there was a better understanding of what happened to the miners, and to Eaton’s business. Capitalism does not operate from sentiment or from any obligation other than to produce wealth—like coal, like houses— for sale and profit. The market where goods are sold is neither predictable nor controllable but when it is booming people like Eaton, and millions of workers, misinterpret this as the results of their own skills and hard work. When it slumps they assume this is the fault of the government or the City or foreign financiers or whatever. Remembering how different he saw things during the strike, Eaton said:

    If anyone had suggested then that the country would he in the position it is now, they would have sent you to the Tower as an idiot.

What is the “sanity” of capitalism worth, when a man who once personified it admits the idiots got it right after all?


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