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Support for workers’ control is not deeply embedded in the British labour movement. One reason for this is that, historically, it has shared many of the assumptions of the wider society. One of the most influential founders of British socialism as a mass ideology, Robert Blatchford, began with the ideal of restoring an English way of life that was being destroyed (the Merrie England of his 1893 book, which sold millions of copies). But, as he came to see that the standard of life of the English workers, poor though it was in many respects, would become much worse if the fruits of empire were lost, he became an imperialist and a strong supporter of the dominance of the royal navy in the world. The slogan ‘my country right or wrong’ is attributed to Blatchford. Blatchford understood the dangers of an economy that was already moving away from production, and for him this meant that England’s dominance in world trade through empire was the best strategy to secure prosperity for workers. This set in place a course that has since been followed by many in the socialist and labour movements; and this has had fundamental and lasting impacts on the ‘stony ground’ that we all feel today in trying to promote industrial strategy, a productive economy and industrial democracy.

In the period between 1945 and the rise of Thatcherism there were a number of significant opportunities for the union movement to take a strategic role at the heart of running the state and the economy. For example, according to John Monks, Ernest Bevin offered the TUC a central role in administering the National Insurance system. (6) Incredibly, the TUC found itself to be too busy with other things - too busy, in effect, to take responsibility for running the country! Had it taken up Bevin’s offer, the TUC would have put practical trade unionism at the heart of British social and economic life, helping make it central to people’s lives. It might have locked in the unions to an influential and respected position for generations. At the time the unions were widely regarded as a central player in the life of the nation, but when support for tripartite forms of governance (employers, trade unions, government) began to dwindle, there turned out to be few institutional safeguards for union voice in national affairs.

(6) See The minutes and records of this are in the TUC Library archive.

By the late 1960s, the post-war welfare and full-employment consensus was running out of steam, and there was increasing controversy about whether trade unions had ‘too much influence’ on government. Many people regarded wage inflation as a major contributor to the country’s economic problems and argued for an incomes policy. As an alternative, and in an attempt to stabilise industrial peace within the economy, Barbara Castle sought in her 1969 white paper In Place of Strife to restrict and harness what she saw as the enormous ‘negative’ or ‘blocking’ power of the trade union movement. The white paper proposed a new legislative framework for trades unions and employers, which included both legal restrictions on industrial action and the involvement of unions within alternative disputes mechanisms. However, In Place of Strife generated huge protests across the labour movement and was shelved. The Heath government of 1970-74 tried to co-opt the trade union movement through a tripartite policy of economic management involving the Government, the TUC and the CBI but was eventually defeated (7), and the Labour government of 1974-79 then returned to the fray with the voluntary 'social contract' and the Bullock Report on industrial democracy, which sought to put trade unions in an indispensable position in every boardroom in the country, private or public. (8) This was also rejected by trade unions.

(7) For a contemporary record of Heath's confrontation with the unions, 1973-4, see the articles under the heading The Labour Movement in the early 1970s at

(8) The Bullock Report: A Language for Life: Report of the Committee of Enquiry appointed by the Secretary of State for Education and Science under the Chairmanship of Sir Alan Bullock, HMSO 1975. The key proposal was that, in companies with over 2000 employees, there would be a right to have worker board representation. A company-wide codetermination referendum would be held, with the entire workforce voting. After approval, only union members would be able to vote for worker candidates to the supervisory board. Shareholders and unions would each appoint the same number of representatives. The two sides would jointly agree on an odd number of specialists to mediate in the case of deadlock. There would be an independent 'Industrial Democracy Commission' able to intervene in what was expected to be rare cases of unresolvable disputes.

The mainstream British trade union movement thought it could carry on as a simple, negative, blocking force. It couldn’t! The failure of the union movement to take some responsibility for addressing the economic logjam of the 1970s was in my view partly responsible for the defeat of Labour in 1979, and the subsequent anti-union legislation brought in by Margaret Thatcher. Since that time our movement has become ever more peripheral.