Politics

Whatever happened to the brothers?

Cpt Mainwaring (indicates platoon): Do you see now the sort of men you’re up against?

German officer: Yes. Rather stupid ones.

Dad’s Army (BBC, 1968-1977)

Had there been no election pledge for an in/out referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, David Cameron would probably be in the middle of his miners’ strike round about now. Not an actual miners’ strike, of course – apart from anything else, there are almost no actual miners.

No, I mean a staged miners’ strike, faked, as is everything in the Cameron premiership: the disastrous fake Falklands War in Libya, the faked election rallies, the faked ‘renegotiation’ of Britain’s relationship with the EU. A not-very-popular group of workers with only limited potential to cause public disruption (i.e. not the Tube motormen or the nation’s air-traffic controllers) would have been set up, goaded into an ill-advised walkout and then crushed.

Dave, we would have been told, had triumphed ‘where even Margaret Thatcher had not’. Tick off another item on the list of pretend ‘achievements’.

As it is, the prime minister is not only not basking in the bogus log-effect glow of having trounced a straw-doll Scargill at a phoney Orgreave, he is actually being nice to ‘the brothers’. In late April, it emerged that, in return for a £1.7 million trade union donation to the Remain campaign, Dave and his colleagues had watered down the Trade Union Bill, which has just received the Royal assent.

For some of us, this is a spiteful piece of legislation that should have been ditched in its entirety, but that is quite another matter from the squalid deal-making we are talking about here. The question is not so much why Dave would go in for this sort of thing – as he has no beliefs, why not? – but what the trade unions think they are up to.

Sir Brendan Barber, Trades Union Congress general secretary from 2003 to 2012, joined forces with Dave to pen an article in the Guardian warning that employment rights would be at risk if Britain left the EU. Yes, apparently Cameron is now a big fan of employee entitlements. Who would have guessed it?

More of that in a moment.

Dave’s attachment to the EU (having no beliefs does not rule out instincts and deep-dyed habits) is unsurprising, given the organisation is explicitly beneficial to his own class, providing as it does for free movement of capital, goods and people. This reduces the manoeuvring room for governments, maintains constant pressure on domestic industry and, by providing a huge reserve army of labour, cuts wages, especially those at the bottom of the social scale. All this without mentioning the lavish subsidies available to Cameron’s friends with large farms.

Cameron is head of a bosses’ government operating in a bosses’ Europe. What could be more agreeable?

The attitude of the trade-union nomenklatura is far harder to fathom. With a few exceptions such as the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union under its splendid general secretary Mick Cash, the unions are, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, backing Remain. Why?

Conventional wisdom has it that it was Jacques Delors’ address to the Trades Union Congress in the autumn of 1988 that signed the (trade) union movement up to the (European) union movement. Brussels, ran the European Commission’s not-so-subliminal message, could guarantee social rights that Britain’s Conservatives (just elected for a third consecutive term) might well target for removal.

The previously sceptical brethren were wowed. ‘The only card game in town,’ declared Ron Todd, general secretary of what is now Unite, ‘is in a town called Brussels.’

But this conventional view can hardly explain why the unions are still on-side nearly three decades down the road, 13 years of them spent under Labour governments. After the ‘fiscal waterboarding’ of Greece, to use the striking phrase of its former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, one may have thought the unions should have rediscovered some of their old hostility to the ‘rich man’s club’ that has been run from its inception in 1957 mainly in the interests of bankers and industrialists. In particular, the shocking unemployment rates in the euro-zone – running on average at double those prevailing in Britain or the United States – ought at least to have given the unions pause for thought before they signed up for Team Dave.

Not a bit of it.

A second explanation is that the unions have no love for Brussels but are concerned only about jobs. Which may sound fair enough until you recall that the (largely) pro-euro propaganda emanating from the unions round the turn of the century warned of the job-destroying consequences of the UK’s refusal to join the single currency, warnings that proved not only to be nonsense but the very reverse of what actually happened.

likely lads

James Bolam and Rodney Bewes in Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? (BBC, 1973-4)

I fear the real explanation is rather more banal. Somewhat like Bob (Rodney Bewes) in Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?, the leadership of the trade unions has embraced middle-class respectability. For Bob, this involved marrying a librarian (Brigit Forsyth) and joining a tennis club. For the unions, it has involved espousing the joys of things that hurt their members: mass immigration, ‘green’ energy, state jihads against smoking and drinking and, of course, EU membership.

True, the unions can still field some plausibly proletarian frontmen, such as Unite’s general secretary Len McCluskey. But the officials, those who staff the administrative apparatus, are increasingly recruited from the graduate middle class, far removed from the shop floor and more interested in staying on the ‘right side of history’ (i.e. the right side of dinner-party opinion) than in giving much thought to where their members’ real interests lie.

Move from the individual unions to the Trades Union Congress, even more remote from actual union members, and the respectability becomes almost stifling. Back in the day, the general secretary put the likes of Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine in the shade when it came to demanding British membership of what has proved to be a catastrophic single currency.

In December 2001, on the eve of the introduction of euro notes and coins, John Monks said in his New Year’s message that it would be ‘disastrous’ if the government failed to hold a referendum on the single currency, adding ‘If the decision is put off again, the international community will conclude (probably rightly) that New Labour simply hasn’t got the bottle to face down the Eurosceptics, and that will have serious economic and political consequences.’

Re. those serious consequences, we’re still waiting, John old chap (sorry, Baron Monks of Blackley, ennobled 2010).

Disguising their real motivation for a pro-EU stance, that it identifies them as ‘people like us’, union officials conjure up a largely bogus ‘threat’ to employment rights should Britain leave. No matter that much employment-protection legislation was passed before the UK joined the European Community in 1973, or that it was the European Court of Human Rights (membership of which is obligatory for EU nations) that in 1981 sounded the death knell for the British unions’ closed-shop arrangements.

Apparently, the British people cannot be trusted, once outside the EU, not to elect governments that will embark on a deranged axe attack on workplace protections. In this, the unions mimic the line of some pro-EU business people, who suggest it is only membership that safeguards trade and competition.

Let’s end with a rare voice of sanity. On 21 April, the RMT declared, ‘The European Parliament’s decision this week to back the opening up of all rail routes across the EU to more competition for private operators was just one more reason to vote Leave on June 23.’

Added Mr Cash, ‘It is impossible to make changes to this privatisation juggernaut inside the undemocratic EU so the only solution is to get out by voting Leave on June 23.’

Hear hear, brother.

Guardian 09-09-1988

Jacques Delors welcomes the unions into the Union. (Les Gibbard in the Guardian, 9 September 1988)

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