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Welcome to a new era of British discontent

Maggie and I created the anti-strike laws that let Britain prosper. Now Europe threatens to destroy them. The rumbles of discontent from workers who see prices rising and taxes going up faster than their pay are getting louder. Most workers are not mad keen to go on strike. It costs them too much - and impacts on innocent parties they have no interest in harming. But we are now facing a summer of strikes, particularly by public sector employees who are being asked to accept pay rises well below the true rate of inflation. The result could be widespread chaos. It is little wonder that British workers and their unions are in a foul mood. As their pay is cut back, politicians in Westminster and Brussels are caught time and time again with their hands shamelessly in the till, while the clever fools who all but wrecked Britain's High Street banks pay themselves huge bonuses for losing their shareholders' money.

The police know they are being swindled through their pay packets, nurses feel cheated and both are growing angrier as they see tanker drivers, who already earn £30,000-40,000, but have the muscle to close down the country, walk away with a whopping 14 per cent rise. Many school teachers may not be able to teach their children algebra or geometry, as was also reported last week, but they do know that their taxes and their grocery bills are fast outstripping their salaries. And General Sir Richard Dannatt, the head of the Army, has told the Government that while paying soldiers less than parking wardens won't cause a full-scale mutiny, it will leave us without an effective fighting force in the end. It is all beginning to sound like the run-up to the Winter of Discontent that did for Labour PM James Callaghan 30 years ago - and could mark the beginning of an even worse crisis for Gordon Brown today.

Throughout the summer of 1978, Labour and the Tories were level pegging in the polls. Even as late as November, the Government had a 5 per cent lead and James Callaghan was preferred over Margaret Thatcher by most voters. Six months later, however, and waves of strikes had annihilated the Labour Party and opened the door to Thatcher. Gordon Brown take note. It was hard luck on 'Jim' Callaghan. A combination of bolshie union leaders and Labour's insatiable appetite for taxing, spending and wasting had busted the British economy. All attempts to control inflation through pay and price controls (Labour appears to know no other way) had failed, and as Callaghan tried to tighten the screws still further, the strikes ran out of control. That winter the rubbish lay uncollected in the streets, even in the West End of London. School gates were locked to keep teachers and pupils out, and even the dead lay unburied as gravediggers set up their own picket lines.

Callaghan tried to stand up to the cloth-cap colonels of the trades union junta, but in the end they beat him. As a result, the electors sacked him and gave Margaret Thatcher the chance to save the country. And so she did - for a while. But as her policies and economic successes are undone by European laws and Labour party mismanagement, her legacy is being squandered and Britain is returning to the grim old days of the late Seventies. In many ways, history is repeating itself - although seldom does it do so exactly. Many things are different. Gordon Brown is far more obstinate than James Callaghan - although far less popular with the country as a whole. He also has a majority of over 100, while Callaghan was dependent on a bunch of unreliable (some things never change) Liberals and wild nationalists. The unions have also changed. They have far fewer members and much less money than they had 30 years ago - but so does the Labour Party. In fact, Labour's shrinking membership and growing debt leave it even more dependent on union money - a dependency that keeps the unions relatively strong.

They have also modernised and consolidated. Big unions such as Unison dominate the public sector and could keep pressure on the Government through rolling strikes by one group of workers followed by another. But the biggest change, the one that meant Britain went from having the worst industrial relations in the Western world to the best, was the legislation which Margaret Thatcher and I enacted in the Eighties. Until then, union leaders had the power to force workers out on strike - often after a derisory show of hands by a few militants and against the majority's will. The law in those days even allowed secondary action, enabling workers who had no quarrel with their own employers to strike in support of employees in another industry. Railwaymen could refuse to move coal during a coal miners' strike, or Post Office workers could block mail from a foreign country whose government their leaders objected to. My legislation changed all that by giving workers the right to a vote if they were asked to go on strike - and while unions didn't require a majority by law to strike, they never dared without one.

The legislation also allowed strikes only if they were directly related to an employee's terms and conditions (ie they could no longer strike in support of another). As a result, it ended political strikes and secondary or sympathetic strikes, and stopped the violent picketing which used to prevent men and women from going to work. And it also had teeth, for unions which used to be above and beyond the law could now be sued if they broke it. For years, Britain enjoyed a virtually strike-free environment and prospered as never before. But unluckily for Gordon Brown, there is now growing doubt that those vital sanctions could still be made to bite. Labour has never dared touch my legislation, despite its promises to do so. But Labour has opened the door to EU legislation, which could now cast a long shadow across our industrial relations laws. And as Mr Brown's economic mismanagement creates both inflationary pressures and discontent in the workplace, he may live to regret such EU interference. I recently asked, via a Parliamentary question, whether any combination of newly implemented human rights and European law could now be used to undo my legislation and create a de facto 'right to strike', irrespective of whether the action was contrary to domestic law. I got a 'don't ask me, guv,' sort of reply - and certainly not a clear-cut 'no'.

This is deeply worrying. For if European law is used to enforce a 'right to strike', as many lawyers believe it could be, then it would no longer be possible to sue a union for supporting secondary strikes. Britain could once again be held to ransom by the unions. Already, unions are getting bolder in supporting secondary action - and neither employers nor the Labour Government are taking them to court. There was secondary action, for example, during the British Airways cabin crew dispute, when the baggage handlers came out in support as well. And so if there is widespread secondary action this year, my Eighties legislation will have to be tested in court. And the highest court in the land is no longer the House of Lords, but the foreign judges in a foreign court in Brussels. And I think I know how those judges would rule. Indeed, 30 years after Margaret Thatcher rescued Britain from the unions, Europe and the Labour Party may be about to hand them back their placards and cast us headlong back into another era of discontent.

Dit artikel van Lord Norman Tebbit verscheen ook in de Daily Mail.

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3 Reacties:

At 22:57 Joris Verdonk said...

Die Lord Tebbit heeft overschot van gelijk, ook al betwijfel ik het wel of hij van alle toenmalige MPs de belangrijkste pleitbezorger was van alle Thatcheriaanse ingrepen in de economie. Een succes heeft vele vaders, een mislukking blijft meestal wees, weet je nog...

Maar pas op! Ook de tegenstanders van de vrije markt roeren zich. Als zij hun zeg krijgen in een nieuw EU-verdrag kan dat nog nefaster uitdraaien voor de welvaart van Europa dan het verworpen Lissabonverdrag!

At 00:27 Geert Van Nauwelaerts said...

@ Joris

Lord Norman Tebbit is wel degelijk een economische libertariër. Na zijn carrière als journalist bij de "Financial Times" stapte hij in de politiek. Pas na zijn actieve politieke carrière werd hij trouwens in de adelstand geheven: hij is geen generatie-aristocratie als dat hetgeen is waarop je doelt. Hij gold als zéér conservatief (was bvb. lid van de Conservative Monday Club) maar verdedigde wel liberale accenten in de economie. Hij was tegen het "closed shop" systeem en voor vrijhandel met het buitenland. Als minister in de regeringen van Thatcher drukte hij wel degelijk zijn stempel op de hervormingen. Zijn tekst is dan ook een intellectueel eerlijke weergave van zijn carrière.

At 01:01 Canaris said...

Her Holyness Mrs Th.
Redder van Europa in bange dagen.
De laatste Regeerd(st)er die Europa heeft gezien.


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