November 16, 2002

John O’Farrell
Saturday November 16, 2002
The Guardian

It has been 25 years since the last firefighters’ strike but those trusty old headlines and cumbersome puns that haven’t seen active service since 1977 were dusted down and wheeled out once again. “Blazing Row!” “Burning Question!” “Fanning the Flames!” – they were all trundled out, despite fears that they were no longer up to the job.

Television news crews were eager to get some dramatic pictures of the first day of the strike and they weren’t disappointed when a spectacular blaze broke out at a fireworks factory in Manchester. One eager young TV crew seemed to be on the scene particularly quickly, getting all the best footage of rockets shooting out of the windows, pausing only to cover up the petrol can sticking out of their bag. The blaze spread rapidly; burning timbers crashed all around while the intense heat sparked hundreds of explosions as the inferno tore through the massive stockpile of fireworks. But still the bloody Roman candle wouldn’t light.

Military fire crews rushed to the scene, armed with mulled wine and parkin cake, and then stood back going “Oooooh! Aaaaah!” as the multicoloured rockets lit up the sky. They did their best to stop the fire spreading to the jacket potato warehouse next door, and one or two soldiers attempted to get closer to the blaze, if only to try and give a nudge to that Catherine wheel that wasn’t spinning properly. But it was striking firefighters who came off the picket line to rescue a man trapped inside – he had made the mistake of returning to a fireworks factory once it was alight.

This is a peculiar dispute in that the strikers are withholding their labour except when it is most needed. Despite a generally hostile press, the firefighters have managed to keep the moral high ground. They are not dealing with the smaller, less dangerous incidents; indeed in most news footage of picket lines there have been small fires in oil drums right under their noses that no one has made the slightest effort to put out.

At this time we should of course all be taking extra care, and I for one almost unplugged my television before going to bed. Nobody wants a house fire, but if it means having to reset the clock on the video because you pulled out the wrong plug by mistake then it’s a risk most of us are going to take. Somebody ought to be using this opportunity to persuade more people to get smoke alarms fitted – after all, there is no surer way of finding out when someone is making toast in the kitchen. (If these “toast alarms” do go off accidentally then it’s a very simple operation to turn them off. You stand on a chair in the kitchen and yank out the battery, leaving a useless bit of plastic hanging from the ceiling until it is finally destroyed in the fire that burns down the entire house because you were too cheapskate to buy a decent one.)

Other extra safety precautions taken this week brought severe disruption on the London underground, which so delayed exasperated commuters that they almost made eye contact with one another and tutted. Meanwhile, al-Qaida terrorists have been asked not to detonate any nuclear bombs in Britain until the strike is over.

But despite all the worry and inconvenience, public support for the firefighters remains high. Nobody believes that people who save lives for a living would suddenly become greedy or go on strike just for the sake of it. Forty per cent of a healthy wage would be asking too much, but that’s not what firefighters have been paid in recent years. All they are asking is for £8.50 an hour, and if we think that’s too expensive then we deserve to see what life without them is like for 48 hours.

It’s at times like this that Labour party supporters would be so much more comfortable if the Tories were in power. The left can’t really cope with being cast as management; we’d much rather be oppressed and victimised by a ruthless Tory government than find ourselves trying to be responsible and even-handed. The only way forward is to appoint an independent pay review body consisting of Norman Tebbit, Jim Davidson, Frederick Forsyth and a Dalek. Then when the firefighters’ wage demands are turned down, we can boo these tight-fisted Tories for their typically miserly response and reassure ourselves that things would be very different if it was Labour making the decisions.

The alternative is having to face up to the unsettling reality that Labour, since it has been in government, has not done enough to reward public sector workers. And I thought the “Flaming Idiots!” headlines were a cliche! John Prescott should remember his roots and announce a decent pay rise for Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble and Grubb.

And while we are being nostalgic he might want to ask Jim Callaghan about the last time Labour took on the public sector unions. Because if we thought having no firefighters was scary, you should see what follows next.