United We Stand: a history of Britain's trade unions by Alastair J Reid

The unmanaged decline of the unions
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The Independent Culture

The decline of the British unions is a melancholy feature of the last quarter century. In Robert Taylor's phrase, they became "scapegoats of national decline". Membership has fallen from 13 million in 1979 to barely half that number. The "Social Contract" of the Seventies - when the Strawbs' disc "Part of the Union" topped the charts - might never have been.

The decline of the British unions is a melancholy feature of the last quarter century. In Robert Taylor's phrase, they became "scapegoats of national decline". Membership has fallen from 13 million in 1979 to barely half that number. The "Social Contract" of the Seventies - when the Strawbs' disc "Part of the Union" topped the charts - might never have been.

Yet unions are central to our history since the dawn of the industrial era. They embody an alternative people's history: legendary names like Tolpuddle or Tonypandy, folk heroes like Ben Tillett or Arthur Cook, crusades for the "dockers' tanner", the iconic banners of the Durham miners' gala.

There is scant poetry in Alastair Reid's survey, but he does provide an admirably balanced account of the origins and aspirations of the three main categories of unions: voluntarist craft workers like the engineers; workers handling raw materials such as the miners; and unskilled "federal" unions, reinforced from the 1960s by white-collar unions.

The unions are rightly placed within a wider context of "working people", although the book tends to be as enclosed as the unions themselves. The emphasis is on individual unions, at the expense of the TUC. However, the sketches of key individuals are illuminating.

The book is strong on the periods of growth, especially the late 19th century. In the years 1890-1918, all types of unions surged ahead, as new classes of workers became unionised, including women. The Labour Party arose essentially to champion the objectives of organised labour.

After 1945, Reid's account shows how fragmented shop-floor bargaining flourished alongside national settlements, with the inevitable crises in industrial relations from the Sixties. On the "winter of discontent", much is made of media prejudice and the reactionary character of Thatcherism, but little of the hopelessness of officials like Moss Evans or Alan Fisher. Mrs Thatcher's anti-union measures all survive, by popular request.

There is little on the state apparatus, whether the Ministry of Labour or how the police and armed services used emergency powers as a strike-breaking weapon. We hear almost nothing of ideas on unionism, whether from an intellectual like GDH Cole or an apparatchik like George Woodcock. And there are no overseas comparisons: we urgently need an analysis of the unions' response to Europe, and of the contrast between their adversarial approach and continental works councils.

Continued decline is not inevitable. But Reid cites the essential tension, first noted by Tocqueville in 1835, between "the spirit of association" and the "spirit of exclusion". Will the unions, under globalised capitalism, work to promote shared ideals of liberal pluralism and social citizenship? Or will they stay inward-looking and defensive: to adapt Dean Acheson, losing an empire but failing to find a role?

Kenneth O Morgan

The reviewer's books include 'Callaghan: a life' (Oxford)

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