Thatcherite zeal? Or just a re-enactment?

Boris Johnson and some Conservative backbenchers called for ‘Thatcherite zeal’ against the trade unions, as they renewed demands for tougher strike laws.

I’ve already had a go at Boris about this in a previous post but let’s just recap on what the current law on industrial disputes says:

  • No-one can be forced to go on strike;
  • No-one can be forced to be a member of a trade union;
  • Unions can’t discipline people for refusing to go on strike;
  • Pickets are restricted to six people so it is impossible to physically prevent people from going to work and there are criminal sanctions against threatening or intimidating behaviour;
  • Those wanting to strike can’t do so without a ballot and they need to get a majority of those voting to agree with them; but
  • (And this last one is really important) An apathetic majority can’t stop a committed minority from going on strike.

Now that, to me, all sounds very reasonable. If you want to go on strike, you can, if you can make a case to enough of those who give enough of a damn to vote. If you don’t want to strike, you don’t have to and no-one can force you to do so or discipline you afterwards. The old excesses of trade unionism – the closed shop, the mass pickets, the show-of-hands in the car park – have all gone.

This position is, by and large, the result of measures taken by the Thatcher and Major governments. The grandees of that period have advised the current government against changing any of it.

What Boris and the self-styled new right seem to have missed (perhaps deliberately) is that this is a battle that was won by their predecessors. Industrial disputes are a minor problem now and strikes with poor support will have little impact anyway.

Screen Shot 2013-04-08 at 17.01.16

Chart via FullFact using ONS data.

I wonder, though, if this is another symptom of the half-remembered Thatcher mythology that led to the ridiculous shares for rights legislation. Those of us that were at university during the Thatcher years, a cohort which includes many in the government, tend to have a stylised view about Margaret Thatcher. Whatever our views, we remember her government as being more ideologically driven than it actually was. It is only with the benefit of hindsight and the insights of older and wiser heads, that we realise the 1980s Tories were, in may ways, old-fashioned pragmatists.

As the Spectator’s Isabel Hardman says, the Conservatives have been gripped by
What Would Thatcher Do?‘ fever without really understanding the subtleties of the Thatcher years. She quotes the venerable T. E. Utley:

When talking to her friends or addressing a party conference, she is the philosopher queen, although the impression, as far as her public oratory goes, springs rather from the manner of its delivery than from its actual content; listen hard enough and you will always hear the qualifying clauses, often uttered rapidly and with an almost palpable physical revulsion. Then something happens in the real world — the need to bring the Rhodesian crisis to an end, the need to avoid a miners’ strike before the government is ready to cope with it, the need to placate a divided Cabinet over trade union reform — and Mrs Thatcher yields to necessity, often swiftly.

Much of the ‘Thatcherite zeal’ was in the rhetoric. What her governments did was usually more pragmatic.

Worse still, though, in their attempt to recapture this mythical Thatcherite zeal, today’s Conservatives haven’t even found anything new to which they can apply it. They seem to want to fight the same old battles on the labour market and trade union reform, even though trade union laws work and our employment regulation is among the lightest in the developed world.

This is rather like re-enacting a battle or watching a football match from the days when your team were good. It’s great; you can enjoy a good fight and you know that you get to win at the end of it. But, fun though it may be, it wins no prizes. For that, you have to  fight real battles and play real matches in today’s world.

That so many in our governing party want to go over old ground and re-fight old battles makes them look pretty desperate. Are they really so short of ideas that they have to summon up the ghosts of their enemies from the past? Is the ‘What Would Thatcher Do’ malaise just the sign of a party that really has no idea what to do next?

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5 Responses to Thatcherite zeal? Or just a re-enactment?

  1. Pingback: Thatcherite zeal? Or just a re-enactment? - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  2. As you say, it’s all rhetoric. Excluding the exceptional years of 1979 and 1984, the level of strike action under Thatcher merely reverted to the trend level of the 50s and 60s, between 3 and 4 million working days lost per annum. The big step down comes in the 90s and was less the product of legislation than structural changes in the economy: deindustrialisation, globalisation, the shift to services etc

    Talking of rhetoric, I can’t help noting your reference, in the category of “old excesses of trade unionism”, to “the show-of-hands in the car park”. I love this popular trope: participative democracy as a threat to our very way of life.

  3. John D says:

    A2E: any former activist would tell you that there were techniques to “work” show-of-hands situations. Put supporters at the front of the crowd so that when they put their hands up, others will follow their lead. If the ones at the front do not put their hands up, it is unlikely those behind them will put their hands up. Also, it is mainly the activists who actually bother to attend the car park meetings. Most others accepted that strike action would result and usually sloped-off early so as to be able to catch the next bus home before it filled up. Keeping the speeches going as long as possible also helped to thin out the ranks at such meetings, leaving mainly just activists to participate. I remember one canteen meeting that was called at short notice to call for a wild-cat strike. I actually got up and talked my fellow workers out of the action by pointing out that the assembly line was running slower than usual – which they all immediately grasped. I asked them why this was? None of them could answer so I pointed out that it was winter time, when sales of motor vehicles were at a much lower level than during the spring and summer. This meant management had plenty of stock piled up ready for sale and shipment so it was in the interests of management to provoke a strike, which would provide them with savings and keep their costs down. We were all within weeks of Xmas, which would mean that most workers – and, more importantly, their families – would end up having a very poor Xmas if we struck. I suggested that instead of calling a strike that we should empower the Shop Stewards Committee to demand talks with the management to get the matter (whatever it was – I can’t now remember what the point at issue was) resolved with our full support. The meeting agreed with my proposal and the strike never happened. We all had a really good Xmas too.

  4. bill40 says:

    The point is that left and right offer no new thinking at all. All we are fed is balancing budgets, even when it makes no sense, and ludicrous counterproductive austerity. For the love of God we can’t even get desperately needed houses built that all parties agree we need. So what hope does an original idea stand?
    Come the 2015 election there won’t be fag paper to squeeze between the economic policies.

  5. Thatcher also had a very different, and clearer economic ideology than current Tories. She was clearly pro-free market and understood what that meant. Since then there has been a drift to towards being pro-business, not unlike the neo-cons in the US.

    There is also a difference between lacking convictions, and compromising convictions for political necessity, and Thatcher’s pragmatism seems to be evidence of the latter.

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