JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 26.9.09
THE MONTH IS OCTOBER 1995, and the scene is a bus winding through the dangerous countryside of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in the immediate aftermath of the Bosnian war. I am part of a British delegation on its way to a citizens’ conference in Tuzla; and as our convoy moves through the spectacular landscape, up past ruined Mostar, I am outlining to a posh young chap in the next seat the makeup of the Scottish group on the bus.
I explain about the composition of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, and about the alliance of green groups, women’s groups, churches and trade unions that has come together in its work; our delegation reflects much the same cross-section of civil society. “Well that sounds great”, says this young man, who fancies himself as a charity worker. “Except for the trade union chap. What have trade unions got to do with human rights?”
And I’ve had cause to remember this conversation more than once this week, not least because the “trade union chap” on the bus was Bill Speirs, later General Secretary of the Scottish TUC, who died on Wednesday at the age of only 57. At that time, Bill was only an assistant general secretary. But he was already so well connected in Bosnia, following five years of humanitarian help to workers’ organisations there, that later in the trip, when our bus was held for many long hours at the Bosnia-Croatia border because we had Serbs from Belgrade aboard, he was able to make direct calls to the British Embassy in Sarajevo which helped to ease us through the border post, and on toward our homeward flights.
So I tried to explain to this young man that in Scotland, as in most of western Europe, independent trade unions are considered a vital part of civil society, and that they have, in fact, a track-record second to none in being on the right side in most of the great political movements of the last century. Of course, some parts of the trade union movement – particularly before the reforms of the 1980’s – were corrupt, chauvinistic, and covertly racist; some failed to distance themselves from Soviet Communism long after it had lost all moral credibility.
But if some unions handed huge propaganda victories to their political enemies between 1945 and 1979, there are many more that can stand proudly by their long political record of solidarity with those in greatest need; and it’s a measure of how ideologically divided British society has become, since the 1970’s, that this reasonably well-educated young man clearly knew nothing about trade unions at all, except that they were bad guys who “held the country to ransom”, and ought to opposed by all decent people.
And all of this matters a great deal, as we enter the week of the Labour Party’s last annual conference before the UK general election. Ever since the 1970’s, when the negative view of trade unions expressed by the young man on the Tuzla bus became dominant across British politics and the media, the Labour Party has been struggling with its inheritance as the a party created by and for the trade union movement. The Blairite response, of course, was to try to create an image of the Labour Party that was somehow post-Labour-Movement, and as likely to be funded by middle-class individual members and wealthy business donors as by union political funds.
Now, though, that Blairite strategy lies in ruins. The business donors have melted away with the diminishing prospect of power. Individual members have vanished in their scores of thousands, notably over Iraq and Afghanistan. And the trade unions – well, they are still there, with a substantial 7.5 million members. But thanks to the Blair-Brown love-affair with the financial sector and its ethos – and their failure, over a decade and a half, to make the case for a better balance between free enterprise and social solidarity – trade union support for the party is now lukewarm at best; and trade unions are still so unpopular in middle England that the very fact of union support is likely to help seal Labour’s electoral fate, even as it keeps the party afloat financially.
At the moment, in other words, it’s difficult to resist the conclusion that anyone who dreams of a more socially just Britain might as well take to drink as cast a vote for any existing mainstream party. The Tories are Tories, constitutionally incapable of slapping and taxing those in our society who most richly deserved to be slapped and taxed. New Labour sold their soul to the markets in an age of aggressive hyper-capitalism, and now lack either the energy or charisma to work with the best of the unions on developing a more effective politics of social justice. The Liberal Democrats, in Blackpool last week, talked some sense about the need to slash taxes for low-paid workers; but were promptly dismissed by the media as having blown their chance to be taken seriously, in a Britain now apparently determined to respond to recession by lurching sharply to the right.
And in Scotland, of course, we have the option of voting for the SNP. Frankly, at the moment, I can see little evidence to support their belief that any of these issues would be more eaily solved in an independent Scotland. I suppose it is just possible, though, that in the more convivial social climate of a smaller nation, we could at least come together to celebrate the contribution of a trade unionist like Bill Speirs as part of the rich fabric of national life. It wouldn’t be much of demonstration of national unity, heaven knows; but it’s more than the UK has managed, in the last 30 years. And it’s on these small remaining shreds of solidarity and consensus that we will have to build, and soon, if we are to have any chance of creating a society that is strong enough to navigate its way through the shocks of the next half-century, and to survive with at least some of its values intact.