The Legacy of the Hungry Mile

The Resurgence of Trade Unionism in the United Kingdom---1979 to 89

Kenneth Minogue

The title 'Resurgence of Trade Unionism in Great Britain---1979 to 1989', was not mine, but I quite like any title I am given. With imposed titles of this kind you can accept them, turn them upside down, play them in three-quarter time, or do anything you like. The immediate question to focus on here is, has there been a resurgence of trade unionism in Britain?

There are, I think, two interpretations to be made. The first is an invigorating legend rather like those fireside stories the Vikings must have told as they plotted their next rape, pillage and plunder. It says that Britain was, during the 60s and 70s, held to ransom by a vicious and unpleasant trade unionism: a kind of dragon which grew and grew and caused terrible havoc. However an heroic prince (well, princess actually) turned up and engaged the dragon in set piece battles and the dragon expired, as dragons do in fairytales. Thereafter trade unionism resumed its normal, relatively minor, place in British social and political life.

That's one story and it would have been accepted, triumphantly, until last year. However the Britain that I left about three or four weeks ago does not seem to fit the story. It positively vibrated with industrial action. The railwaymen, the garbagemen, and various other people were on strike and it appeared as if we were in for a replay of the winter of 1979. Instead of a winter of discontent, we had the prospect of a long hot summer. A resurgence of strike activity has put a question mark over our first Story; and suggests a second interpretation which simply says that monopolies will be monopolies, and when opportunities arise to exploit monopoly situations, they will rarely be passed over. During the period from 1979 to very recent times, the unemployment level has been so high that the monopoly power of trade unions has been greatly diminished. With rising inflation and diminishing unemployment, however, the unions have found opportunities to return to their old bad habits. So what we have to establish is two versions, as it were, of the events of the last ten years; no doubt, in later times, historians will produce much more sophisticated accounts of what was actually going on.

The focal date of my subject is 1979, but nobody looking at events of this kind would be happy to begin with that deeply legendary year. What we need in order to understand the place of trade unions in Great Britain is to pay attention to two considerations: first a much longer perspective on the development of trade unionism in Britain and, second, some clarity about the general question of the relations between trade unions and the state.

You cannot really talk about trade unions without talking about their context and that context is basically determined by law and by the state: these two things are correlative. In other words a state will get the trade unions it deserves. Trade unions are intermediate institutions between individuals and the state. They are the kinds of things that Thomas Hobbes, three centuries ago, described as 'worms in the entrails of the body politic' meaning that they are, as it were, bodies within bodies, having their own principle of animation and therefore responsive both to the larger body of the state, and to the movement of their individual members.

Let's look at the first of our two requirements: the historical background. If we go back to the 19th century, to the period when trade unions developed, we will find that they served a number of important and useful purposes. One was insurance, i.e. they were friendly societies that helped individuals survive periods of unemployment, debt, and other forms of bad luck. To an astonishing extent (as it may seem today) the most important purpose of many of associations of working men was to provide the money for a decent burial, so that workers would not suffer interment in a pauper's grave. Unions also had some safety functions and some involvement in supporting people in old age.

One might thus conclude that unions, in that early period, corrected a market deficiency in a period when the labour market suffered from geographic immobility. As the 19th century progressed the labour market did become very mobile indeed, but it might be argued that employers extracted a rent from the immobility of an earlier period and that the trade unions corrected that.

A second stage of trade unionism developed later in the 19th century when unions were seen as the protectors of an interest: the interest of the workers. This view developed as part of a simple conflict model of society, i.e. society as essentially a field of conflict between differing interests. Those interests were, basically, capital on the one hand and labour on the other. This is the model of trade unions with which we are all familiar and it lingers right down to the present time. It is, I suppose, the most important part of trade union legendry and it depends on two basic beliefs which have become deeply entrenched. The first of these is collectivism and its basic slogan is the 'union makes us strong' a phrase repeated endlessly in story and in song. The corollary to that, of course, is that individually we are entirely weak. 'The function of the slogan 'the union makes us strong' is to suggest to people that without the union, outside the union, there is not only no salvation but no power. In other words the economic significance of individuals as consumers is completely ignored in this conception of trade unions. What the unions gain in higher wages is often nullified by higher prices to the consumer. This is one reason why it is not easy to make a judgement, particularly in recent times, as to whether trade unions have, in fact, benefited the standard of living of the working class. Different political tendencies make different judgements on that question.

In this and other ways, the simple model of a modern society as an arena of bi-polar conflict is deeply unconvincing. Unions were, indeed, one interest within the state, not at all to be confused with the interests of the working class as a whole; further each union was a distinct interest within the wider field of the union movement itself. All of these interests might well conflict not only with each other, but also with the general interest: the requirement that damage to other people's property should be recognised as a tort and given remedies at law.

It is a famous fact that from 1906 onwards, in the UK, trade unions had significant immunities from tort and could often cause great damage with impunity. Furthermore these unions were, from an early stage, quite likely to damage employers irrationally, not from direct conflict, but as the result of quarrels between the unions themselves.

The collectivist assumption of these developments violated the basic formula of constructing a modern state: that institutions and structures must be so arranged that the pursuit of self interest always conduces to the public good. Now this is the principle which was stated by Adam Smith in the famous passage about the invisible hand which I am sure you can all recite by heart. Montesquieu, writing about the same time as Adam Smith, in his treatment of the principle of honour, argued that the essence of the modern state is that the motives which lead people to do socially beneficial things are almost invariably indirect rather than direct, as they would have been in the classical republics. But in this remarkable trade union world, collectivist assumptions systematically led trade unionists, pursuing union interests, to courses of action which clearly damaged society at large.

The second belief on which this kind of trade unionism is based is that workers alone produce value and that the capital, which animates the workers, gets them going and supplies the surroundings and the context in which they work, is really something like theft. This is the view about which Karl Marx theorised in many writings and summed up in 'Das Kapital' as the Theory of Surplus Value. But all that Marx was doing there was putting into a rather pretentious theoretical form, what vast numbers of trade unionists of every generation had always taken for granted---namely that it is the workers who do the work and get the least reward, and it is the capitalist who, while getting the higher rewards, does the least work.

We might well call this the fallacy of believing that the visual is the causal. What you can see before you is workers producing goods from a factory line. You do not see capitalists doing anything at all. They make bad television and hence the work people can see being done seems to be the only work that counts.

These are features of the historical context. We must bring in the fact that after 1945 a new kind of state was palpably emerging in Great Britain. Its basic assumption was that states must step in to correct what is unsatisfactory about society. Such a belief came to be taken for granted by philosophers, intellectuals, civil servants, social workers, etc, i.e. people who believed that it was their business to do the stepping in. The assumption, in other words, is that if you leave people to their own devices, social problems and irrationalities will result and these must be corrected by a hand on the tiller here, or a touch of doctrine there.

I am sure it is an idea which will be entirely familiar to you but let me give you a few examples of the way in which it works. The basic arena is the economy. If you have millions of people exchanging goods and services and you turn all of this activity into an abstraction which is called the economy, the temptation soon arises for government to treat it as a bit of clumsy machinery which needs fixing.

The economy, so the interventionist argument runs, produces friction, overheats, sometimes breaks down, and (like the rest of us) falls into depressions. It seemed clear to people in the mid-century who were turning socialist doctrine into a kind of social science that what the economy needed was a guiding hand from above, which could even out the ups and downs of the trade cycle, for example. And it was, of course, John Maynard Keynes who provided the most significant theory which allowed people to do this, or at least to imagine that they were doing this.

Again if you look at society you find that people are divided by class barriers, barriers of education, barriers of interest etc. Many social divisions have been inherited from the past. This suggested to ingenious social planners that the schools to which people go could be used to break down these divisions. A whole new educational system was envisaged and, to some extent, brought into existence. The point of this new system was not so much to educate people as to engineer a society which would change what were taken to be the divisions and injustices of the past.

Again, any particular society will geographically have some regions which are more prosperous than others. It is clearly unjust (so the argument runs) that the less prosperous regions should suffer while the prosperous regions are living well. Therefore a government must step in and redistribute wealth from south to north, or east to west, from the coast to the hinterland, or whatever geographical pattern seems appropriate.

This was the conception of the state which led to the creation of welfarism in Britain after 1945. You might describe it as the corrective state, or the rationalising state, or the regulatory state. The point is that in every area of life the state was prone to move in and interfere with more and more social processes, and therefore this was a state which had to grow bigger and bigger. It is said that when the sun eventually explodes it too will grow bigger. The sun in its last throes of activity will increase enormously, and its increase in size will be a function of diminution in potency. A law of similar import has turned out to apply to the British Welfare State---as, in an even more extreme form, it applies also to Communist regimes. As the British Government took upon itself, step by step, more and more functions, so its capacity to determine things seemed to get less rather than more.

This led, by the late 1960s and early 1970s, to what was called the paradox of ungovernability in Britain. Britain has always been a kind of experimental laboratory, ahead of the rest of the world, and the same process seems to have been happening, after an appropriate time lag, in other countries.

As the conception of the corrective state spread into ever wider spheres of life our notion of the state also began to change. The earlier and more traditional notion was of an institution which made the rules within which subjects could pursue their individual and collective interests in an orderly way. What began to emerge in mid century was a conception of the state as an arbitrator and participant in the processes of society. I think we can understand what happened by saying that the new conception of the state was very close to being despotic. Only one thing could save this conception from being unambiguously repugnant to a free people, and that was a vast increase in consultation. The state could only be regarded as non-despotic, if most of its decisions could be seen to emerge from what people actually wanted.

In other words one version of democracy came to preside over the necessary concealment of despotic tendencies, and in the course of the 1960s political scientists were to be found discovering the thing called 'pluralism'. Instead of the old model of democracy as majorities and minorities emerging in elections, modern democracy came to be seen as government responding to the organised interests of a society. From the original theory of the rationalising state emerged a change in the range and extent of the functions of the state; this in turn facilitated an increasing involvement in the political process, not only of trade union, but of many other groups as well: employer groups, single issue organisations, etc. Everyone began to organise and shout because that was the way to exert influence under the new dispensation.

As a consequence the government had to become a kind of arbitrator---but an arbitrator which had its own interests to protect. The paradox however, is that by taking more power the government eventually lost control. It happens that for nearly everything I am talking about there is an image in the legendry of British politics over the last 20 or 30 years. The image of this impotent yet omnipresent government is beer and sandwiches at No. 10 Downing Street. Every time a major strike broke out, it was treated as a major social crisis. Instead of shrugging its shoulders and allowing the participants to get on with it, the Prime Minister had to rush in and take a hand. There would be the much photographed arrivals of the parties at No. 10 Downing Street and dramatic stories of last minute agreements reached at 2am or 3am in the morning. It certainly created a sense of drama among all those involved. They loved it, and were bitterly disappointed when it stopped. These developments were justified by a theory of the social contract. It was a new version of that old 17th century theory of how society was constructed. The new version had it that there was now a contract between the two sides of industry, capital and labour, on the one hand, and the government itself on the other. A benign government was facilitating the decision making process in society. The word that presided over it all was 'consensus'. The word came to be used in many of the contexts where previously people would have talked about democracy.

Government thus became an interaction of corporations. But government in this situation is at a severe disadvantage. The trade unions and, to some extent industry, have relatively long term goals. They are interested in wage increases and betterment of conditions, but what above all trade unions seek is a legal entrenchment which would be beneficial to them as institutions. To some extent industry is after similar things: tariff protection is a typical benefit.

The government, by contrast, is usually bound by relatively short term considerations. What governments are primarily concerned about is political support, and the governments of the sixties and seventies were particularly concerned with the question of the next election: how not to lose a seat here, or the support of a group there. Consequently, in a corporatist state, in which the three players are government, industry and the trade unions, the one player which is perennially going to miss out is the government.

There is a further and rather more subtle point: in increasing its involvement with society, and thereby appearing to increase its power, government had insensibly shrunk to being simply a negotiator, one party amongst others, in determining social and political outcomes. This was the fatal, and in the end decisive, reason why the Callaghan government collapsed in such extreme disarray in 1979. It had, as it were, handed over its essential sovereign power to the baronies, the trade unions, these 'over-mighty subjects' as they came to be called, and to some extent, to industry. Such is the general theory which I am using to understand what happened in 1979, and to comprehend the position of the trade unions.

Let me now turn from these relatively general considerations to draw your attention to a number of the high points of the history of this particular period. Insofar as we want to use this analysis as a reference point for a general discussion of trade unions, these considerations will clearly be of importance to us. The first point is that way back as far as the 60s, at least, it was recognised that the trade unions were a decisive drag on Britain's industrial capacities. You can go back much further, but the Labor Government of Harold Wilson made the first official attempt at reform, in the 60s, by producing a paper called 'In Place of Strife'. In this paper the Government proposed to change the legal conditions of trade unionism but the proposal ran into passionate opposition and was quickly sunk. The document had been provoked, in part, by the seamens' strike, which Harold Wilson described as being led by a 'tightly knit group of politically motivated men.' 'In place of strife', then, was a signal, a marker, that things must be done, and the clarity with which this was seen in the 60s was all the more remarkable given the extent to which there was drift throughout the 70s.

The Heath government was elected in 1970, it should not be forgotten, with a program not altogether different from that of Mrs Thatcher. But after the celebrated U-turn of 1972 the Heath Government produced an Industrial Relations Act which entrenched job rights and job security in law. One of the significant echoes behind that Employment Protection Act of 1974 was a kind of neo-feudalist attitude, which had grown up in the trade unions, and which was found in Arthur Scargill's view of what a coal miner who accepted redundancy pay, was doing. It was not merely that he was selling his own job down the river but he was selling generations of jobs down the river. You may remember that George Orwell, about 1945, wrote:

    'I don't know whether future generations will be able to get people to go down the pits and mine the coal, this is something that no human being should have to do'.

A generation later coal miners appeared to be fighting desperately to retain that supposedly outmoded situation. In some ways that is a slightly cheap point because the technological conditions of coal mining have changed immensely, but I think it has a certain force.

The great traumatic event of this period occurred in 1974. It was a coal strike in which secondary picketing was extremely effective. The people of Britain were reduced to working for three days a week. Nonetheless, they produced in three days pretty much what had previously been produced in five---a humiliating revelation of the level of efficiency reigning at that period. It was this coal strike which led directly to the election which ousted Mr Heath. He asked the electorate who was running the country? and the electorate decided it wasn't going to be Heath. The election brought in Mr Wilson and then in 1976 Wilson was replaced by James Callaghan. All through this particular period we had a time of drift, rising inflation, and we also had the trade unions pushing for, and getting, more and more power.

The significant point is that trade unions, in contracting with the government, were promising to keep their workers under control and the carrot they dangled before government was the thing called an 'incomes policy'. Wage levels would not rise significantly, it was hoped, so long as the government allowed trade unions a variety of privileges and concessions.

In the end, of course, the trade unions could not deliver. The point about 1979 was that the unions failed, in inflationary conditions, to control the actions of their members. One of the cards in this entire house of cards which collapsed was the significant relationship between trade unions and government. It collapsed because there is, of course, a great difference between the trade unions as organised interests and the interests of the members for whom they were notionally speaking. And there is a supplementary point which needs to be made about this situation which I think is very important. A trade union leader who turns up to No. 10 Downing Street can say 'I represent my members and they want x%'.

A Prime Minister facing that leader cannot, in the same sense, say 'I represent the nation, and the nation is determined that you will not get more than (x-y)%', because the wider nation does not speak in that sort of direct representative way. In other words there is a difference between the representative strength of trade union leaders in a corporatist situation, and the politicians who face them. This is the paradox of collective action which is brilliantly explored by Mancur Olsen in a number of his books.

There is a further point relating to this late 1970s situation which may be very topical in Australia. One of the things that is always on the mind of councils of trade unions is the thing called 'low pay'. The trade unions are keen to push it up. There is a familiar dog chasing its own tail aspect to the way in which the unions attempt to get low pay up towards the average and then find themselves delightfully under pressure to restore the differentials which will recreate 'low pay' *****. What is gained at the bottom will soon be lost at the top. This exemplifies the kind of mischievous floating idea. This is one of the ways in which corporatist policies can create a vicious inflationary circle.

The great legend of this period is, of course, the breakdown of 1979. The important thing is that its importance did not result from its extent. How significant it was depended, crucially, on interpretation. And the real point is that the 'winter of discontent' destroyed many of the hopes which had been so incautiously raised by the belief in a social contract.

Even more important, however, the winter of discontent destroyed, after one generation, the belief that the welfare state was a morally more elevated kind of society than that which preceded it. The strikers were mostly people working in public service industries; they were people working in the so-called caring and compassionate professions, the socially serving professions.

These people were now greedily, as it seemed, in hot pursuit of more cash, and it was the destruction of the moral basis of the welfare state which paved the way for Mr; Thatcher to come to office.

I have gone into all of this because it seems to me that 1979 is the crucial year to be understood, and, in terms of the argument I have presented, Mrs Thatcher's great achievement is to have restored an old notion of the state: the state as something which determines the rules on the basis of general interest, and leaves society to make its own responses. The general theory on which she operates is that the range of government must be drastically reduced so that government can do the things that government alone can do, and that governments alone must do.

It follows from my argument that if the nature of the state changes then the nature of trade unions must also change. I am therefore suggesting there is a four fold correspondence between two conceptions of the state and two conceptions of trade unions in Great Britain and, indeed, everywhere.

In 1981 there was a big steel strike, and the government stood back and allowed it to go on for thirteen weeks. In the end the government got its way without seeming to be a player. In the beginning of 1984 the government intervened to remove trade union rights from the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and there was a big fuss about that. Above all, there was a coal strike in 1984 which as the set piece battle against the trade unions in which the Government, as it were, stood back and allowed the Coal Board to fight it out with Mr Scargill, with the aid of a reorganised Police Force. This was the Waterloo of trade union obduracy of the old fashioned kind.

Now the notion of the Government standing back in all these cases was, of course, a kind affliction. Government was directly involved all the way and it illustrates one of the many paradoxes of the situation that in order to get out of social involvement the Thatcher Government seems to have been drawn more and more into it. In this particular case it was a kind of beneficent Machiavellian illusion by which the Government stood to one side. It mainly contributed by determining the economic and industrial content within which the battle was fought. It kept other industrial disputes, such as with the railways, from breaking out into serious industrial action. It acquiesced in higher wages for the railwaymen in order to concentrate all attention on Mr Scargill and the coalminers. The Government was clearly orchestrating the background.

I don't think that this paradox is significant. The crucial thing is that Mrs Thatcher was seen to have operated in terms of an older and more limited conception of government. Although, in the transition from the old rationalising conception of government to the new, limited, strong, rule-giving form of government, many eccentric things have happened, I think we must keep our eye on the main drift.

Let me move rapidly towards a conclusion. Although strikes have broken out, like a rash, in Britain in the course of this year, largely as a result of the fact that the government has allowed the inflation rate to go up to something like 8%, I do not think that we have returned to the period of the winter of discontent. The basic point is that a strike in Great Britain, no matter what its apparent economic and social disruptions, is no longer a moral and social crisis. It is simply an event in the industrial life of the country and the government can and must stand back from it.

One of the great figures in contemporary British politics is Enoch Powell, who has a propensity for evoking the classical Greeks. The classical Greeks, you will remember, had a belief in Hubris and Nemesis, those whom the Gods wished to destroy they first make mad. First they are afflicted with Hubris and then Nemesis strikes them down. That I suppose is the pattern which we could easily impose on the history of industrial relations from 1979 to 1989. The trade unions had acquired an unmistakable kind of arrogance, indeed virtual insolence, in the 1970s, in their relation to governments and they have been struck down by Nemesis in the form of Mrs Thatcher.