Margaret Thatcher once said that, "the trouble with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people's money." Britain's Labour Party may have shed much of its socialist baggage since it returned to respectability and power in 1997, but with the country running a deficit that will reach 13 percent of GDP this year, the next British government must navigate a path through an Era of No Money that will test its resolve in ways not seen for a generation.
For the first time in decades, strikes are back on the public consciousness, with both the employees of British Airways and the national rail network taking to the picket lines and British Gas employees threatening to follow. Adding to the government's whiff of decay was the revelation that three former cabinet ministers had been pimping themselves out like, as one put it, "a cab for hire" available to any business interest or pressure group prepared to pay $7,500 a day for the questionable privilege of their "strategic" advice. The shamelessness of their lobbying activity was revealed in a TV documentary and prompted their suspension from the Parliamentary Labour Party. Stephen Byers, a former transport secretary, offered a novel defense of his activities: He was not guilty of any improper conduct, he insisted, because he had lied to would-be clients about the extent of his influence and ability to persuade ministers.
The unions are putting the next government—whether led by Gordon Brown or David Cameron—on notice that a year of strife and discontent awaits them.
All in all, however, this shabby affair was reminiscent of the last days of John Major's government when an exhausted Tory party was battered by "sleaze" allegations en route to its annihilation at the polls in 1997. The strikes call to mind an even more depressing era—the 1970s, which culminated in a humiliating bailout from the IMF and a year of industrial unrest and strikes that reached their apogee in the so-called Winter of Discontent in the months before the 1979 election that swept Thatcher to power.
If the situation facing Britain this year isn't quite as bleak as it was then—no gravediggers have yet gone on strike, for instance—the country is still grumbling through a Disenchanted Spring. Back then, the Iron Lady tamed the over-mighty unions as ruthlessly as a medieval monarch. But now, after more than 15 years in the shadows, the labor unions are flexing their muscles again, and Gordon Brown is ill-equipped to tame them.
That’s because the British Airways strike is being organized by the trade union—Unite—with the closest, deepest links to both the Labour Party in general and Brown's inner-circle in particular. Unite has donated more than $16 million to Labour since 2007 and, in the process, become the party's single most important source of income. Without a guarantee from Unite that it would continue to fund Labour, the party would have slipped into bankruptcy three years ago. The union also runs Labour's largest phonebanks and will be responsible for squeezing the maximum number of votes from the party's traditional constituencies on Election Day.
Just as significantly, Unite's political director and strategist is Charlie Whelan, formerly Gordon Brown's personal spin doctor and hired muscle. Branded a "serial killer" by civil servants with whom he crossed swords, Whelan was forced from government a decade ago for briefing against Brown's rivals in the cabinet, but he has retained his master's ear ever since and now, with an election just two months away, is once again a frequent visitor to Brown's Downing Street bunker.
The labor unions' interests are not necessarily the same as the government's, creating an exquisite dilemma for the prime minister. In the weeks leading up to the strikes, Brown kept his counsel. He could neither condemn British Airways' management for fear of seeming to be in the union's pocket, nor denounce the union for fear of damaging relations with his most important financial backer. The resulting indecision left Brown seeming weak and a follower of events rather than a leader.
Eventually the prime minister, who has been nicknamed after T.S. Eliot's poetical cat Macavity for his tendency to disappear when there's trouble about, broke his silence to urge both parties to reconvene talks. But the damage had been done.
Meanwhile, David Cameron's swift and vigorous condemnation of the strikes cheered up the Tory grassroots to no end. Since he became leader in 2005, they've been forced to swallow rather more modernization than many party members find truly palatable. Here at last was an opportunity to belt out some of the old, much-cherished Tory tunes. Few things lift Tory spirits quite as keenly as a spot of union-bashing.
They remember in their bones how, 25 years ago the National Mineworkers Union tried to topple Thatcher's government, and they still thrill to the memory of her implacable determination to break the unions, busting closed shops, making secondary picketing illegal, and requiring unions to ballot their members before striking. The Iron Lady's eventual victory was total and overwhelming.
The British Airways dispute is hardly as serious as the union militancy Thatcher faced down. But it came at an opportune moment for Cameron, allowing him to please the base without alienating swing voters, who, in this instance, are themselves annoyed by the inconveniences imposed upon them by this recent flurry of industrial unrest.
The significance of this strike lies in what it suggests is coming down the pipe. The unions are putting the next government—whether led by Gordon Brown or David Cameron—on notice that a year of strife and discontent awaits them. The large public-sector labor unions are expected to take umbrage at demands for wage restraint that will, in many cases, amount to real-terms pay cuts. Today British Airways; tomorrow nurses and teachers and government civil servants.
During the long years in which he waited, with increasing impatience and fury, for Tony Blair to step aside, Gordon Brown was happy to insinuate that he, not Blair, was in tune with the Labour Party's core principles. Whereas Blair boasted that the party was at its best when it was "at its boldest," Brown thundered that "Labour is at our best when we're Labour."
Now, with the money running out and the prospect of yet more inconvenient industrial action looming, all that's needed to complete this minor caricature of the old 1970s style is a punk revival.
Alex Massie is a former Washington correspondent for The Scotsman and The Daily Telegraph. He currently writes for The Spectator and blogs at www.spectator.co.uk/alexmassie.