No one could read Sir Denis Barnes's book, Governments and Trade Unions,[*] without a sense of deep depression. He himself foresees that a 'continuation of the existing relationship between governments and the trade-union movement ... could have unpredictable political consequences'. So could a discontinuity! Mr Harold Macmillan is fond of recounting how kings, barons, soldiers, landowners, industrialists and bankers have all in time been diminished by our institutions, and he speculates that trade-union leaders will go the same way. For my own part, I share the widely held belief that the trade-union leadership and its bureaucracy has got itself into a jam. As the Barnes book repeatedly says, they have failed to deliver what they had promised to government. They press their claim to be consulted, indeed to approve government policy, but are then unable to carry out their side of the bargain. This cannot go on for long, because the demand for reform will rapidly intensify in the period of dynamic industrial change in which we are now caught up. This is why trade unions in Britain require self-reform, and a new role. Was it not Sir Thomas More who predicted in the 16th century that if the Catholic Church did not reform itself from within it would be reformed from without? And so it was.
LRB 21 August 1980 | PDF Download