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Socialist Review Index (1993–1996) | Socialist Review 170 Contents

Socialist Review, December 1993

Brian McDonald


Follow my leader

From Socialist Review, No. 170, December 1993.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

The Trade Union Question in British Politics
Robert Taylor
Blackwell £13.99

‘The first comprehensive one volume analysis of the crucial relationship between Britain’s governments and the country’s trade unions.’ That is the publisher’s claim and up to a point it is a justified one.

This is a solid account by a bitter enemy of workers’ self activity and militancy. It is mercifully largely, although not entirely, free of ‘post-Fordist’, ‘farewell to the working class’ nonsense. The author’s position as labour correspondent of the Financial Times has left him in no doubt that the unions are potentially a force to be reckoned with.

He quotes Sir Denis Barnes, a top civil servant at the Department of Employment:

‘Since 1945 all governments have been concerned about the consequences of trade union power. Between 1969 and 1979 three successive prime ministers have been prevented from pursuing policies they declared essential in the national interest. All lost the elections which followed.’

Taylor concentrates very much on the relations between government and union officialdom. There is little or nothing of the sound of the battle at Saltley Gate, Grunwick, Orgreave, Wapping and all the other victories and defeats that have determined the balance of forces between bosses and workers. He isn’t blind to the conflict between the rank and file and the bureaucracy. Taylor details the efforts of postwar Tory and Labour governments to deal with the problem of shop stewards, all of which involved an attempt to shift control towards the officials.

But when he regrets the weakness of British unions he has in mind their ‘lack of authority and control over their own members.’ His ideal is the German model of highly centralised union organisations in ‘partnership’ with employers. Ironically this is a model in the process of breaking down as the German boom grinds to a halt.

This perspective produces some grotesque judgements. The Social Contract of the mid-1970s is lamented as a lost opportunity, with the greedy rank and file again thwarting a sensible outcome. The familiar right wing lies about the 1984 miners’ strike are given another outing. Scargill’s ‘irrational element ... in defiance of economic logic and common sense ... condemned his members to total defeat.’

All of this limits the book’s usefulness, but the focus on the higher ups in the unions does produce some interesting insights. The barrage of anti-union laws in the 1980s, far from being the unstoppable juggernaut of TUC rhetoric, emerges as a much more tentative operation accompanied by considerable Tory infighting. James Prior, Thatcher’s first employment secretary, feared that further laws ‘could become the cement of union solidarity.’ Unfortunately the union leaders’ consistent cowardice left those fears unrealised.

Taylor’s conclusion, that the tensions between the state and organised labour will ‘not be spirited away during the 1990s’, is underlined by the comments of Labour’s Denis Healey, describing a previous period of wage controls:

‘Adopting a pay policy is rather like jumping out of a second floor window: no one in his senses would do it unless the stairs were on fire. But in postwar Britain the stairs have always been on fire.’

Regrettably, though unsurprisingly, this is not a book that will help fan the flames.

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