Ian McKellen | Writings | Activism

24 April 2013 | Margaret Thatcher and the Unions

Continued from Ian McKellen's notes on the passing of Margaret Thatcher

In the 1980's, there were Thatcher's battles with  our trade unions. The public violence, defending and attacking the miners' strike, was shocking: I only saw it on television. But driving home to the East End of London, nightly I passed by the road blocks and the picketing at Wapping, where the print unions upheld old work practices at News International against the proponents of new technology, led by Thatcher and her fan Rupert Murdoch. It wasn't easy to take sides on that issue. Surely change had to come. As for the miners, Neil Kinnock has opined that their leader Arthur Scargill's intransigence didn't permit the compromise which perhaps Thatcher would have been open to.

My own union was also under attack and, I thought, carelessly by a government unable to think beyond the prejudice that organised labour was by its collective nature disruptive, and needed, on principle, to be reformed. Did it?

On the face of it, British Actors Equity was too powerful when I joined in 1961. We had a closed shop, so you couldn't work as an actor unless you became a member.  Even on joining, you were a "preliminary member" and not yet allowed to act onstage in the West End theatres nor on television nor in a feature film. You had first to have worked for 44 weeks non-consecutive weeks, only in those areas where you were permitted,  such as  theatre-in-education or anywhere outside London. These were the days of regional repertory companies each of whom could employ two new Equity acting members each year. This quota system worked well, training young actors like me and encouraging (even forcing) us to discover the delights and disciplines of working within semi-permanent acting companies. The day I achieved full membership was a proud one: it gave me the right to call myself a professional actor.

These days, anyone can act anywhere and union membership is voluntary. All well and good, but note the absence of those regional companies which trained so many of my generation. Thatcher helped destroy a workable system which enforced apprenticeships where now none exist. The union, representing the workers who cared more than the politicians about training, lost the argument. Once reduced subsidies had also disrupted the repertory theatres, audiences lost out too.  

-- Ian McKellen, Montreal, 24 April 2013

Ian McKellen on the passing of Margaret Thatcher

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