Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Britain at Work: Voices from the Workplace 1945-1995

I went along to Congress House last week for the launch of this new online resource, and had an interesting evening of it. I must have passed this building hundreds of times over the years, but I had never set foot inside until now. And I can't say that I felt the weight of history as I stepped through the doors; indeed I was struck by the mundanity of the interior (and it really should be forcibly pointed out to the concierge that reading the Daily Mail anywhere, but in this building of all places, should be a capital offence ...)

The backdrop to the lectern featured some astonishing pictures, and various speakers kept us entertained during the launch. Professor Mary Davis offered a particularly peppery view of things: the post-war consensus never existed outside the political elite (which included union leaders) apparently, and the warped genius of the Thatcher governments was not that they dismantled union power - obviously they didn't manage that in the way that is so often claimed - but the way that they curbed any room the unions had to manoeuvre effectively by using piecemeal legislation. Not for the Tories in the 1980s the single, and possibly doomed, attempt to contain the unions using one overarching and cumbersome law. No, the trick was to emasculate the unions step by determined step, until at the end of it all there was nowhere left to turn. Brendan Barber looked suitably wistful at that point. Professor Davis also took great delight in pointing out that the wesbite is not just celebratory: it's a warts 'n' all job, and the unions had plenty of ugly warts that needed treatment - 'union beauty pageants indeed!' snorted Professor D. in disgust.

But two pictures stuck in my mind: one featured the great Ricky Tomlinson from his days as a builder, and the other was of a multi-racial group of striking seamen; it looked to date from the 60s, and looking at the determined faces on show I thought how even back then we were on the right track. It's just a shame that we never quite seem to arrive.      

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