The Legacy of the Hungry Mile
The Resurgence of Trade Unionism in the United Kingdom---1979 to 89
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
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
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
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
'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
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
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
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
Why HR Nicholls?