W.G. Runciman

In my last Diary I remarked that the game of plus ça change can be played, with the help of selective quotation and anecdote, to point almost any moral you choose. But if there is one topic in the sociology of 20th-century Britain on which the conclusion that nothing changes is inescapable, it is trade-unionism. Ever since 1875, when a Conservative administration removed collective action in furtherance of a trade dispute from the law of criminal conspiracy, successive governments have veered between conciliation and confrontation, successive employers have veered between concession and resistance, and successive union leaders have veered between moderation and militancy. The state of play at any one time has varied with the state of the economy, the competitive pressure on different industries, and the mood of the electorate. The issues have remained the same.

I have been particularly struck by this on following up a reference to a paper by Alan Anderson published in the Bulletin of the Society of labour History in 1971 on the deliberations of the Legislative Committee set up by Baldwin’s Cabinet in the aftermath of the General Strike of 1926. Then, if ever, you might expect to have seen legislation enacted which would leave Margaret Thatcher’s industrial relations policy far behind in left field. But as Anderson documents, the 1927 Act is remarkable not for what it includes, but for what it omits: the compromises on which the Committee eventually agreed are as much an echo of the Act of 1906, which Baldwin had no intention of repealing, as they are a foretaste of the Act of 1971, which showed what can happen if even a carefully-planned extension of the influence of the state in free collective bargaining is pressed too far. The identical arguments have been going round and round from 1901 to the present day: legal immunities, secret ballots, closed shops, cooling-off periods, compulsory arbitration, the prohibition of strikes in industries of ‘key’ national importance, and, above all, the problem of how to curb the excesses of ‘irresponsible’ trade-unionists without thereby driving their fellow members into their arms.

Against this background, militancy has risen only to subside, and subsided only to rise again, in a series of cycles to which employers and governments alike have responded with the same wary pragmatism. It is, I agree, ‘startling’ (the word used by Alan Sked and Chris Cook in their Post-War Britain: A Political History) to find the Director-General of the CBI saying during the General Election campaign of 1974 that the 1971 Act had ‘sullied every relationship at every level between unions and employers and ought to be repealed’. But is it any more startling than to find Aneurin Bevan willing (as I have just learned from John Campbell’s Nye Bevan and the Mirage of British Socialism) to see force used in 1948 against dockers seeking to defy Cripps’s wage freeze? Even the most right-wing employer cannot risk industrial relations being made unworkable. Even the most left-wing cabinet minister cannot risk the Government’s authority being made unsustainable. Lloyd George was perhaps the consummate practitioner of the pragmatic art of switching from sticks to carrots and back again. But Thatcher gave in to the mineworkers in 1982 before facing them down in 1984, just as Baldwin gave in to them in 1925 before facing them down in 1926. And the threat to prosecute strikers in accordance with an Order of 1940 was last used in February of 1951, by the Attlee Government.

All this may be familiar and even obvious. But it is not seen as quite so obvious by David Marquand, whose newly-published The Unprincipled Society[*] tells the history of 20th-century Britain in terms of the rise and fall of a ‘Keynesian’ consensus in which, for a few short, happy years, the unions collaborated with everybody else in seeking to preserve full employment and the welfare state within a mixed economy. For Marquand, the ‘collapse of consensus’ is due to the regrettable failure of Keynesian political economy to come to grips with the problem of the state. Once sectional coalitions of producers start to exploit the bargaining power which the system gives them, governments unable or unwilling to intervene effectively in the workings of the market lose out in terms not only of the maintenance of productive growth but of the maintenance of their own political authority, and the ideological running is made by a ‘liberalism’ which tries not to intervene in the market at all and a ‘socialism’ which wants to do away with it entirely. But was it not ever thus? There was equally little consensus on these matters in 1901, or 1911, or 1921, or 1931. As Marquand himself describes, there was always argument over what the state should or should not do to arrest our relative economic decline, and the answer in practice was always a half-hearted one. Moreover, Keynes, as Marquand is also well aware, was concerned, not to alter the political framework, but to hold it together by resolving one particular problem which had arisen on the demand side of the economy. Through all the chops and changes of governments and policies, unions and employers alike have continued to bargain as aggressively as they have felt able to do in their short-term sectional interests as they have perceived them.

It might still be said that under the post-war Labour Government, there was, at least to some degree, a consensus not achieved before or since. Did not the unions explicitly co-operate in a policy of wage-restraint? And did not their leaders genuinely subscribe to the same political priorities as Attlee and his ministers did? But the co-operation was strictly limited, and the circumstances of the period for which it was effective altogether exceptional. The TUC never surrendered the principle of free collective bargaining, and the prolongation of wage restraint was only made possible by the severity of the economic difficulties which the country faced. The rank and file were as suspicious as ever: there were, for example, more unofficial strikes in the coal industry in the year after nationalisation than in the year before it. The Cabinet, as I have remarked already, was prepared to contemplate the possibility of recourse to coercive sanctions, just as Ramsay MacDonald had been when faced with a transport strike back in 1924, Ministers and their officials were no less concerned at the prospect of wage increases not matched by productivity than their predecessors of the Twenties or successors of the Eighties, and they were well aware that such concessions as they could offer in the way of price controls and food subsidies could only be of limited efficacy. By 1950, Vincent Tewson, the then General Secretary of the TUC, was telling Cripps that no concessions could guarantee that restraint would hold. Nobody at that time was using the term ‘Social Contract’. But the contract, such as it was, was as unsustainable as Harold Wilson’s much-trumpeted version was all too rapidly exposed as being in 1974.

The constant in all this is the inviolable attachment of the unions to free collective bargaining and the cautious respect of all governments for it. Of course, there has always been a minority of trade unionists on the far Left who would surrender collective bargaining in return for a nationalised economy and a change in their function to that of a transmission-belt, in Lenin’s phrase, between the Party and the workers. Likewise, there has always been a minority of employers on the far Right who would surrender their corresponding freedom in return for a ‘corporatist’ system in which strikes were forbidden in the national interest. But each of these minorities has had as little influence as the other. Employers’ associations have always been as jealous of their autonomy as have unions of theirs; and both have known equally well that even if they want to do a deal with the government of the day they are powerless to carry their members with them. Governments, meanwhile, have kept studiously to their role of holders of the ring, with ACAS (as it is now) or the Board of Trade (as it was up to 1914) helping the parties to reach negotiated settlements on a strictly voluntary basis. Anyone who thinks the unions have ever welcomed intervention even by a left-wing government except to the extent that it serves their sectional interests has only to read about Bevin’s refusal in ‘24 to call off the transport strike simply because a Labour government was in office. And anyone who thinks the employers have ever welcomed intervention even by a right-wing government has only to read about the Clydeside engineering companies’ refusal to co-operate with Lloyd George in imposing ‘dilution’ on the craft unions during the First World War.

Nor is it only the attitudes of the parties directly involved in trade disputes which reproduce themselves from one generation to the next. So do the opinions and nostrums of politicians, academics and journalists. Profit-sharing as a device to harmonise the interests of capital and labour was being mooted well before the turn of the century. High-level consultative talks on neutral ground have a history going back through the so-called Mond/Turner talks of 1928 to the Joint Industrial Conference convened by Lloyd George in 1919. Mergers of unions to avoid costly disputes over demarcation have long been urged (and sometimes achieved) while at the same time local breakaways from national unions have repeated themselves too – most notably in the Nottinghamshire coalfields. Even the idea that the Japanese might offer a model which British industry would do well to follow is foreshadowed in Beatrice Webb’s diary for December 1904, when she remarks of them how they ‘have suddenly raised the standard of international efficiency’. But what ever the merits of the arguments – and they are often very well-informed arguments – for participation, consultation, rationalisation and all other high-sounding aims of industrial policy, a major institutional change is no more likely today than it was in the after math of the General Strike. Rulebooks can be rewritten, employees issued with shares, worker directors elected onto boards and single-union, strike-free deals negotiated. But it is all just tinkering at the margins of a system in which both sides have been entrenched for over a century as much by an underlying identity of long-term interests as by the inevitability of a literally interminable succession of short-term conflicts.

It could be argued that it is the threat of unemployment rather than legislative (or any other) action by governments which determines the ratio of moderation to militancy. Certainly, it would be hard to dispute that there is a connection between the high unemployment and low incidence of strikes of the past few years, just as it would be hard to dispute a connection between the high incidence of strikes from 1911 to 1914 and the combination of low unemployment and falling real wages. But again, I wonder. No doubt union leaders would like both lower unemployment and higher earnings for their members. But where the two conflict, they are virtually bound to go for higher earnings even at the price of jobs, simply because those who lose their jobs are no longer part of the constituency to which, as leaders, they are answerable. I can’t, I admit, quote documentary evidence for this. I can only say it is an impression which I have found nothing to contra diet in the twenty and more years in which I have earned my living as a private sector employer. For as long as free collective bargaining is the central institution round which our whole system of industrial relations revolves, all that really matters is the mutually perceived negotiating strengths of the parties to it. Unemployment and the threat of it are, like government legislation and the threat of it, relevant only to the extent that they can be used by one or the other side to advance the sectional interest which it is their sole and proper function to represent.

The topic of unemployment does, however, raise wider issues too, about which I shall be writing in the same vein next time. Meanwhile I will, if I may, leave you to guess which General Secretary of the TUC said – in my hearing – of which Minister of Labour: ‘Mind you, we were miles apart politically. But we agreed on one thing: Barbara.

[*] Published by Cape on 4 February (292 pp., £18, 0 224 01929 5).