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British Conservatism and Trade Unionism, 1945-1964
Published by EH.NET (October 2009)
Peter Dorey, British Conservatism and Trade Unionism, 1945-1964. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2009. xi + 200 pp. $100 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-7546-6659-2.
Reviewed for EH.NET by Jim Phillips, Department of Economic and Social History, University of Glasgow.
Peter Dorey, a Reader in British Politics at Cardiff University, extends his lengthy list of publications on post-1945 British politics with this study of the Conservative Party and trade unionism. Conservatives in Britain spent most of the twentieth century struggling against trade unions, exaggerating their strengths, stereotyping their characteristics, and seeking to weaken their rights. There were major confrontations between Conservative governments and trade unions, with the 1926 miners’ lock-out and General Strike, and the great miners’ strike for jobs in 1984-85. Of lesser drama but still pointing to underlying tension between Conservatives and unions were arguments about unemployment in the 1930s, inflation in the 1960s and then unemployment — again — and stagflation in the 1970s. So this book looks at a highly unusual period in Britain’s twentieth century development, when stable growth, full employment and the electoral advance and popularity of the Labour Party — trade unionism’s formal and ideological political partner in the UK — combined to alter Conservatism’s approach to economic and social management. Along with accepting the welfare state and the mixed economy of public as well as private enterprise, Conservatives broadly sought a more harmonious and cooperative relationship with trade unionism. This was pursued through the so-called voluntarist approach to industrial relations, where trade unions were free to conduct their affairs through negotiation and agreement with employers, subject to minimal state interference. Dorey’s discussion, part of Ashgate’s Modern British Economic and Social History series, consists of six chapters. An examination of the long pre-1945 period is followed by a chapter on 1945-51, and then two chapters each on the 1951-60 and 1960-64 periods.
The analysis illuminates especially the efforts made by Conservative governments between 1951 and 1964 to seek and maintain harmonious relations with trade unions. This involved ministers containing and indeed sometimes suppressing anxieties expressed within the Conservative Party about the dangers of working with rather than challenging trade unions, particularly once concerns were being articulated from the mid-1950s onwards about the supposed connection between Britain’s two main averred economic problems, relative decline and labor power. The discussion is fairly well written, and drawn from a very deep knowledge of documentary material in Conservative Party archives, Prime Minister’s files, and Ministry of Labour papers. Dorey shows an awareness of some key issues: the impact of full employment on industrial relations and the economy, changing social relations in the workplace, and the electoral advantage perceived in balancing the interests of business with those of trade union representatives. He tells us much in the process about Conservative attitudes to trade unions. But at the same time he tells us very little about trade unions, which appear one-dimensionally, essentially as uncomplicated institutions of economic and social management, to be manipulated into position by their officials and government ministers. There is little sustained analysis of how unions were changing, as influence moved to the shopfloor in the context of full employment, or how enhanced social expectations and increased post-1945 working class political confidence were pushing many unions leftwards. So the discussion of grassroots Conservative attitudes that emerges from Dorey’s reading of the party’s files is not balanced by corresponding shopfloor and social perspective on trade unions. This is partly a question of sources used, with no work at all undertaken on union material. This makes for a rather odd and one-sided history of the Conservative-trade union relationship.
The book also fails to engage with historical or social science literature, and in this respect its original contribution and impact is hard to establish. In the first half of the book, for instance, Dorey refers in several places to developing Conservative interest in the late 1940s and early 1950s in “Human Relations,” or “Industrial Relations as Human Relations.” Obvious opportunities to connect this discussion to debates in mid-twentieth century industrial sociology or early twenty-first century historical literature on post-1945 industrial relations are not taken. Nor, when dwelling on the views of Conservative activists and their decided rejection of accommodation with organized labor, does Dorey integrate in any effective way debates about the post-1945 consensus and the limited reconstruction of social relations in the 1950s. Dorey’s shortened horizons in this respect are further underlined by his highly curious bibliography, which features nothing published since 2000. The book that emerges from this unsatisfying juxtaposition of detailed but narrow archive work and limited historiographical engagement reads as an interesting and extended research note rather than an original contribution to post-1945 economic and social history.
Jim Phillips is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Economic and Social History at the University of Glasgow. His publications on post-1945 industrial politics in Britain include The Industrial Politics of Devolution: Scotland in the 1960s and 1970s (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008), and “Business and the Limited Reconstruction of Industrial Relations in the UK in the 1970s,” Business History, 51 (2009), pp. 801-16. He is currently writing a history of the 1984-85 miners’ strike in Scotland.