Sunday, October 30, 2005

You've got strife

Here's a nice streak of piss and vinegar from Peter Jenkins's The Battle of Downing Street, a venerable quickie book on the "In Place of Strife" controversy. We are operating from the point of view of the Prime Minster, Harold Wilson. It is June 1969, and we are attempting to get the TUC, newly led by Vic Feather, to create rules against unofficial strikes strong enough to save us from a doomed attempt to legislate against them. Lucky us:

One of the most effective weapons in the TUC's armoury is boredom. It has the capacity to deliver boredom by the megaton, the desolation it can inflict on the other side of a negotiation table can be terrible to behold. Many a rapacious capitalist had laid down his arms and put up his money at the rumbling of trade union leaders going nuclear. What a prospect for Prime Minister to awake to on a summer's morning with the birds singing in St. James's Park -- four hours with the General Council! The sight of them shuffling in, settling round the table in strict order of senility -- so many of them! Harold Wilson would struggle with matches and pipe trying to remember some of the dreary fellows' names -- who was that one, Alf, Bert or yet another Bill? Listening to them -- "speaking from long experience" (tendentious reminiscence); "plain words" (cliche); "making it quite clear" (unnecessary reptition); "brief intervention" (long-winded monologue); "point of information" (fatuous question); "expediting the proceedings" (wasting more time); "useful suggestion" (red herring); "summing up" (going over it all gain); "valuable progress" (hours wasted); "another meeting?" (Oh God!). "The TUC doesn't like rush", Feather had said. It was a war of attrition; the TUC's tactics: grind the enemy down, wear him to a standstill, bore him into submission.

The violence of the tone here is uncharacteristic: for the most part an ironic equanimity is maintained. And the portrait of Vic Feather is mostly admiring.

[The Battle of Donwning Street, by Peter Jenkins (Charles Knight & Co, 1970). Not exactly an enduring classic -- it's repititious in places, and prone to misprints even when not retouchtyped quickly by a blogger. On the other hand, refreshingly free of Thatcherite or Labour-movement's-big-missed-chance hindsight, which makes it easier to see how limited the measures in "In Place of Strife" were, and how farcical and contingent on tactics was their collapse. Probably my last trade union book for a while.]

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