Signals specialist who fought Thatcher’s ban on unions at GCHQ
Jack Hart, who has died aged 86, was a most unlikely, certainly most unexpected, trade union hero, thrust into that role on 25 January 1984 when he was summoned to a meeting of top officials at GCHQ, the government’s eavesdropping centre in Cheltenham. He was presented with an ultimatum that sent shockwaves throughout the trade union movement.
Hart, in his role as chair of the different civil service union branches representing staff at the large spy agency, was told that Margaret Thatcher had decided to ban all unions at GCHQ; staff must give up membership or face dismissal. This led to a campaign to restore the unions that united the TUC more than any other during the 11 years of the Thatcher government.
Year in and year out, until the Blair regime restored unions at GCHQ in one of the first acts after Labour swept into office in 1997, Hart, often with his wife Iris at his side, set up “roadshows” that accompanied the annual conferences of national trade unions. He ran his stall at the protest rallies held every year in Cheltenham that were addressed by union and political leaders. Hart was the indefatigable organiser and mediator, frequently helping to iron out disputes over a quiet beer. Following his retirement, after more than 30 years as a radio operator, Hart became secretary of GCHQ Trade Unions, established by those who refused to give up their rights, and ensured the regular production of the campaign newsletter, Warning Signal.
Hart was born in Rainham, Essex, and attended the Royal Liberty school at Gidea Park. In 1945, he was called up, joined the Royal Corps of Signals and was posted to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to train as a wireless operator with the intention of keeping in contact with allied agents planning to be dropped into Japanese-occupied Burma.
The war ended before the operations began, but Hart stayed until Indian independence in 1947, when he returned to Britain. A former Royal Signals colleague got in touch to suggest that he might be interested in joining “an obscure branch of the Foreign Office who do things with radios” – a reference to GCHQ, the successor of the wartime codebreaking centre at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire. Its peacetime eavesdropping role was not exposed until the late 1970s.
Hart took a six-week crash course in Russian and in 1952 was posted to Cyprus (where GCHQ still has a listening station). In his role as radio operator, earphones on his head, plugged into a receiver scanning the airwaves to listen to Soviet bloc communications, Hart was posted to Hong Kong and did further tours of duty in Cyprus. But his base was at GCHQ’s outstation, since closed, at Culmhead, near Taunton, in Somerset.
Hart was among many ex-forces signals specialists who joined GCHQ in the years after the war. Free from the constraints of army discipline, they regarded membership of trade unions as a welcome, indeed natural, outlet. They also loyally maintained the official secrecy surrounding their work, often even from their families. They deeply resented Thatcher’s claim that there was a “conflict of loyalty” between being a trade union member and working for GCHQ. For Hart and his colleagues, this was the ultimate insult.
Hart was a keen supporter of cricket, first of Essex, later of Somerset, and of Arsenal football club. He played skittles for the civil service. He was no great orator, but spoke with sincerity as he helped to keep the campaign going with dogged commitment. He was prevented by the government from giving evidence to MPs to challenge claims that industrial action in 1979 and 1981 had disrupted ” the constant day and night monitoring of foreign signals communications”. He said he would have told the MPs that GCHQ management had never suggested that any industrial action had threatened the agency’s operational efficiency.
As if to drive the point home, senior GCHQ officials went out of their way to praise the work of staff, including union members, for their work during the 1982 Falklands conflict. The union ban was almost certainly imposed under pressure from the US, though this has never been officially admitted.
Iris died three years ago. Hart leaves a son, Des, and daughter, Kate.
• Jack Hart, radio operator and trade unionist, born 18 February 1926; died 27 November 2012