Desperate Responses

Richard Hyman

  • Industry, Unions and Government: Twenty-One Years of NEDC by Keith Middlemas
    Macmillan, 240 pp, £17.50, January 1984, ISBN 0 333 35121 5
  • Strikes in Post-War Britain: A Study of Stoppages of Work Due to Industrial Disputes, 1946-73 by J.W. Durcan, W.E.J. McCarthy and G.P. Redman
    Allen and Unwin, 448 pp, £20.00, November 1983, ISBN 0 04 331093 1
  • Picketing: Industrial Disputes, Tactics and the Law by Peggy Kahn, Norman Lewis, Rowland Livock and Paul Wiles
    Routledge, 223 pp, £5.95, April 1983, ISBN 0 7100 9534 1

The incredible frequency of these strikes proves best of all the extent to which the social war has broken out all over England. No week passes, scarcely a day, indeed, in which there is not a strike in some direction, now against a reduction, then against a refusal to raise the rate of wages ... sometimes against new machinery, or for a hundred other reasons. These strikes, at first skirmishes, sometimes result in weighty struggles ... They are the military school of the working-men in which they prepare themselves for the great struggle ... And as schools of war, the Unions are unexcelled. In them is developed the peculiar courage of the English.

Some strange allusions yet some familiar resonances in the conclusions of the young Friedrich Engels after his first eventful contact with the labour movement in Lancashire at the height of the second Chartist upsurge. His diagnosis of a close nexus between trade unions, strikes, economic disruption and political disaffection was not merely the wishful enthusiasm of Marx’s future collaborator: the same connections have long been made by enemies of trade-unionism, and the charge of subversion of the social order has formed a central theme of Thatcherite Conservatism. Within the mainstream labour organisations, meanwhile, militancy has long ceased to represent a cause for celebration: on the contrary, strikes more commonly engender apologetic embarrassment.

The argument that unions are constructive rather than disruptive – inconceivable when Engels wrote, and absurd to the exponents of the new right – has by now a considerable ancestry. Until the 1970s, for roughly a century this more sanguine interpretation was widely endorsed. Strikes were regarded as regrettable but inevitable expressions of divergent interests and at the same time as incidents which, through appropriate institutional arrangements, could be limited in their incidence and effects. Within this institutional containment, trade unions had a vital role to perform. ‘The executive committees of all the chief unions are to a very large extent hostile to strikes, and exercise a restraining influence,’ reported the Board of Trade in 1889. ‘Of recent years the control of the central executives over strike movements has been gradually becoming more rigorous, and strikes entered into without their consent are not recognised.’ A few years later, the Royal Commission on Labour concluded in similar vein: ‘peaceable relations are, upon the whole, the result of strong and firmly established trade-unionism ... Powerful trades unions on the one side and powerful associations of employers on the other have been the means of bringing together in conference the representatives of both classes enabling each to appreciate the position of the other.’

For most of the 20th century, public policy has been founded upon such sentiments. Collective representation and collective bargaining, while by no means preventing strikes, were nevertheless regarded as the best means of neutralising the explosive or radical potential of workers’ discontents which Engels had emphasised. The parties to collective negotiation, concerned to sustain their mutual relationship, became committed to a search for the peaceful resolution of disputes and to the observance of agreements reached. It seemed self-evident – certainly it constituted a fundamental principle of the old Ministry of Labour for the fifty years of its existence – that a system of industrial relations predicated on the relative autonomy of employer and worker-representatives was more likely to secure assent and compliance than one in which the role of the state was more overt and more directive.

This principle of ‘voluntarism’, so fundamental (at least until recent times) to modern British industrial relations, was matched in academic analysis by the thesis of the ‘institutionalisation of conflict’. Left to their own devices, so the argument ran, the parties to any conflict relationship could scarcely avoid ‘rules of the game’, either in the form of tacit understandings or of explicit procedures. In defining the area of their mutual antagonism, they would implicitly identify a realm of mutual agreement, and in this way impose a broader and more harmonious perspective upon their disputes. Thus ‘mature’ collective bargaining was interpreted as a source of stability and integration, rendering industrial conflict increasingly marginal and antiseptic.

Though the relative acceptability of each has varied, the subversive and integrative visions of trade-unionism have repeatedly competed for primacy in public debate. Underlying this competition have been three rival images of the working class held by employers, politicians and the formulators of popular opinion. The first may perhaps be termed the ‘high Tory’ conception of the ‘dangerous classes’ as volatile, irrational, potentially hostile. Strikes here represent latter-day peasants’ revolts, always liable to get out of hand. On this view, effective containment of the lower orders could well require intermediaries able to ‘speak their own language’. Leaderless, workers appeared a rabble prone to erupt into anarchy: organised, they could more readily be kept in line, even if the price was the negotiation of modest material concessions. This was clearly the interpretation which inspired the 1894 Royal Commissioners under the noble Duke of Devonshire; and it has obtained the endorsement of most modern Conservative governments.

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