Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Thatcher & the Trade Unions

WHAT is the legacy of Thatcher? The defeat of the British trade unions in the 1980s? She said of herself the 'One doesn't win by being against things, one wins by being for something!' In the end Margaret Thatcher was a conviction politician with a vision, her enemies in 1979 didn't have a vision but essentially they wanted to preserve the status quo, and she left them reacting to her agenda.

Today, so far as the the British left and the trade unions are concerned little has changed, they prevail as hopeless reactionaries jumping around like grass-hoppers to the tune of HM Government. The Ken Loach film 'The Spirit of 45' is a memento to our hopeless political impotence on the left as a progressive force: leaving us with a simpering nostalgia for a bygone age and a hankering for the clapped-out concept of nationalisation.

The thing is that Thatcher had a vision and a strategy, and she worked to bring them about and to successfully enforce them against the unions. Her enemies, like Scargill, were clever tacticians but imbued with a short-sightedness, sectarianism and parochialism. At that time the trade unions were rooted in a deep conservatism which gave them a degree of power without responsibility. The trade unions leaders then were the smug shufflers of expediency in the workplace, who merely wanted the right to veto management and government, and feared the burden of full-blown workers' control of the workplace.

So it was that the British trade unions and their leaders were marginalised. From once being a major voice in a land in which they were treated to beer and sandwiches by the great and the good at Number Ten, and from a time when the Financial Times had a full page daily dedicated to labour disputes, they suddenly shrank in size both numerically and in terms of political influence until they were, like the Church of England in secular society, just another voice among the babble of commentators. Thus, the labouring masses may be allowed a word via the Secretary of the TUC, just as the voice of God has his say at the discussion table as interpreted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, before moving on quickly to Simon Jenkins or some other political pundit on Radio Four

So it was that under Thatcherism, the TUC and the whole of the British trade union movement became a busted flush, totally discredited because by that time it's leaders had no radical mission or progressive project to fulfil beyond protecting their own fossilised fiefdoms and narrow, backward-looking ideas. The thing is the Thatcher and Nicholas Ridley knew what they were doing and they knew what they wanted, their enemies on the left and in the unions didn't. It is still hard to believe that the British left has yet understood this failure, or realised the need for a more radical vision. 

1 comment:

barry said...

This analysis by Bammy re the conservatism of the British Trade union movement is spot on. The latter has never challenged the structures and essential elements of capitalism. It has since its inception been tied to the coat tails of the Labour Party. Succesive Labour governments from Atlee to Blair have been preoccupied with managing capitalism rather than transforming it. In this they have been ably served by a whole host of trade union leaders and functionaries.

It is true that Thatcher dealt the final death blow to British trade unionism but one shouldn't forget the attempts by the Wilson government to shackle the unions with "In place of Strife".

In conclusion Ken Loachs references to the glorious years under Atlee is a complete myth as trade union leaders such as Bevin were key members of this government and resolutely opposed any genuine rank and file activity which threatened the status quo.