Dispute awakens sweet memories of discontent: David Lister hankers after a time when industrial disputes were a very British custom

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The Independent Online
FOR THE true lover of nostalgia and romance A Year In Provence lacks the poignancy of A Week On The Paris To Lille Motorway. Watching from this side of the Channel, the disruption, the cursing, the threats, the indignation, all bring back dim memories of a phenomenon once as British as roast beef, the industrial dispute.

What a blow it is to the national psyche to see the French not just stealing a British patent, but robbing it of its intrinsic subtlety.

Bringing a country to its knees is a sophisticated operation. It involves strategic planning committees, support funds and allied fund raising, union solidarity, breaches in union solidarity, healed breaches in union solidarity and schisms in the Labour Party.

The Gallic approach, ignoring all the basic precepts of Marxist / Leninist theory for a half completed three-point turn, lacks finesse. But it nevertheless stirs the senses of those who remember the national breakdowns in this country, be they of transport, coal, post, docks, even newspapers.

Elections were fought, not over percentage points on tax bands, but over battles between trades unions and the government of the day. The miners brought down Ted Heath in 1974, 10 years before they were defeated by Thatcher. Heath's three-day week, and the later Winter of Discontent under Callaghan, were two of the best known phrases in the Seventies, and the last time trades union power overwhelmed government.

And it must ignite envy in the children of the Thatcher years who cannot recall a single nationwide industrial dispute and wondered during the election campaign why people cryptically referred to the opening line of Richard the Third - 'Now is the winter of our discontent . . .'.

It is a sad fact, though never bewailed by ministers, that few teenagers now can name a single trades union leader. Twenty years ago not a news bulletin passed without one. They tended to seem composites, usually called Jack, though occasionally Tom or Clive, and were obliged to speak with regional accents.

Max Morris, a former president of the National Union of Teachers and co-author with Jack Jones of The A To Z of Trade Unionism and Industrial Relations, said: 'National disputes are not necessarily bad. The teachers' dispute of 1969-70 electrified the profession. And for young people a big dispute provides massive political education. The big disputes became discredited by the excesses of Scargill but before that they were quite different. Mind you, I am driving through France next week so I have no sympathy whatsoever with this one.'