Posts Tagged ‘T&GWU’

Labour’s Ernest Bevin and European Union

June 6, 2016

I’ve posted several pieces pointing out that the idea of a united Europe, or a European parliament, ultimately goes back to the Quaker William Penn in the 17th and 18th century philosophers and idealists, such as Immanuel Kant. In his essay, On Perpetual Peace, Kant advocated the creation of a federal European state as a way of preventing further European wars. The great Italian patriot and revolutionary, Mazzini, also believed in a federation of European nation states, dedicated to peace.

In the 20th century, one of the great advocates for European economic union in the Labour movement was Ernest Bevin. Bevin was one of the founders, with Harry Gosling, of the TGWU and the foreign minister in Atlee’s government after the War. At the TUC Congress in 1926, Bevin urged in the name of his union that a formal resolution should be passed

That notwithstanding the political divisions of Europe, this Congress instructs the General Council to further, through the international organisations, a policy having for its object the creation of a European public opinion in favour of Europe becoming an economic unity.
(Francis Williams, Ernest Bevin: Portrait of a Great Englishman (London: Hutchinson 1952, p. 149).

Bevin was a frequent visitor to the International Labour Office in Geneva, and helped to reform the International Transport Workers’ Federation after the War. His biographer, Francis Williams, considered that his experience of the profound economic links between workers in various countries right across Europe helped shape his internationalism and support for European economic union. Williams writes of his 1927 speech in favour of economic union for Europe

“Anyone who has had to follow the transport trades of the world”, he said, “realizes that while you may satisfy political ambitions by the establishment of boundaries the economic development of the world is often in total conflict with national aspirations. I recognise and my union recognises that national aspirations and national boundaries are bound to be a great handicap to us … but we also believe that if we are to develop nationally we have got to show our people unionism in terms of raw materials, in terms of harvests, cycles of trade and exchange…”

“We have,” he continued, “debated all this week as if Britain had no industrial problem to solve. But Britain has got a problem and it is no use attacking unemployment unless we try at least to make a contribution towards its solution and one of the complications throughout Europe has been the creation of a greater number of national boundaries as a result of the Versailles Treaty… The Labour Movement should carry on a great educational work in promoting the development of all forms of national culture even to the extent of political divisions and yet at the same time to inculcate the spirit of a United States of Europe on an economic basis… Cast your eye over Europe,” he went on, “with its millions of underfed, with its millions of people with a wretchedly low standard of living. We can have mass production, we can have intensified production, but we must, in order to absorb that mass production direct consuming power ot the millions of people in Europe whose standard of living is not far removed from the animal…. When we meet our international friends (let us) talk of the real problems of Europe in terms of materials, in terms of goods, in terms of the productive capacity of the peasantry, in terms of exchange, and drive along the line of endeavouring to create a feeling of interdependence between the production of the peasantry from the land of the craftsmanship of the workshop…”

Although in 1927 Bevin no doubt underestimated the political difficulties in the way of European Economic Union and was somewhat too facile in his belief in a United States of Europe this speech is interesting not only for its evidence of the widening of his own view of the duty of the trade unions but because the premises on which it was based remained all his life fundamental to his view of international affairs. They later deeply influenced his policy as Foreign Secretary, not least in his response some twenty years later to Mr. Marshall’s Harvard speech on European economic dislocation the full significance of which, as the Annual Register at the time commented, “was not realised on either side of the Atlantic” until Bevin “grasped with both hands” the opportunity it offered of American aid in initiating European co-operation and thus brought into being the Marshall Plan.

In 1927 he was thinking aloud, dreaming a little as he said because “to be a dreamer is sometimes necessary”, and his thoughts brought many angry responses from other delegates to the Congress. Some of them opposed him because they considered that it was the T.U.C.’s business to deal with practical matters and not waste its time on large visions of this kind, others because the idea of European union seemed to them to run counter to the old socialist ideal of an all-embracing international. To this latter argument Bevin replied belligerently that he was not less an internationalist because he was also a realist. It was fine to talk about a world-wide international. but that was far away. meanwhile trade barriers to Europe were keeping living standards low and big employers were developing cartels to safeguard their own interests at the expense of the community. His resolution was carried in the end by 2,258,000 votes to 1,464,000 although both the miners and the railwaymen opposed him. (pp. 151-2).

Williams also says of his idea for a united Europe that

In the past he had been preoccupied with the need to develop trade union power in order to establish a counter-weight to the organised power of employers. Now he saw the solution to many of the world’s economic problems in somewhat similar terms, preaching the need for Britain to develop, either through participation in an economic United States of Europe “spreading from the borders of Russia right to the borders of France”, or in a Commonwealth and European bloc or both, a counter-weight to the economic power of the United States and the potential economic power of Russia. (p. 153).

This was one of the reasons the EEC, the EU’s precursor was founded – so that through an economic union European trade and industry could compete with the US and Soviet blocs. Moreover, the Social Charter in the EU safeguards some basic workers’ rights, rights that are severely threatened by the Brexit campaign.

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Vox Political on Yvette Cooper Condemning Renationalisation

February 23, 2016

Mike over at Vox Political also has a piece from the Independent about Yvette Cooper. Apparently, she is set to make a speech attacking the nationalisation of industry as an old, discredited idea. It will not help modern workers, according to her, or those trying to ‘build an app’. Mike therefore asks if she’s deliberately trying to mislead people about the issue in defending ‘wasteful’ privatisation. See http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2016/02/23/is-yvette-cooper-deliberately-misleading-people-about-nationalisation/.

Now I agree with Mike that privatisation is wasteful. It also led, paradoxically, to a massive increase in bureaucracy. This expanded massively when the utility companies, including that for water, sewage and the environment, were sold off and separate regulatory bodies had to be set up. In order to try and keep to their promise that selling off Britain’s family silver would reduce bureaucracy, they had to cut down on the regulatory bodies so that they wouldn’t have so much power, and wouldn’t represent the interests of the consumers. And there was also the usual revolving doors between the civil service and the privatised utility companies, where the mandarins who were supposed to be watching them in the public interest did no such thing, and later got a job with them after they left Whitehall. I can remember reading report after report on this, fortnight after fortnight, in Private Eye in the ’90s. It was all part of the sleaze surrounding John Major’s administration.

I’ve also heard that, despite the impression given by privatisation that all aspects of energy generation, and its supply, and that of water and gas, the actual infrastructure remains the concern of the state. The private utility companies get to cream off the profits, but the actual maintenance of the national grid, pipes and so on remain the duty of the state, which bears the financial burden. Now I’ll have to check on this, but if it’s true, then privatisation really has been just a scam with minimal benefit to the consumers. Quite beyond the very obvious profiteering we’ve seen by the energy companies themselves.

Now let’s come to the example of the information technology industry she used. It won’t help workers developing an app, according to Cooper. Now, the free marketeers just love the computing and information technology. Look, they say, at the way a group of private individuals in the 1970s – Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and others, built a whole industry from sheer private enterprise, all in the garages or spare time or whatever. The Financial Times had a go at this myth, as did Adam Curtis in his documentary, All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace. The Financial Times pointed out that the kids, who were able to create the modern computing industry, were able to do so not because of the free market, or because their part of California had excellent schools, or indeed any of that. They were able to get ahead and develop it because they were all already very wealthy, and could afford to develop their creations. And Adam Curtis in his documentary went and showed that the mathematical basis behind the suggestion that private enterprise gives better results through allowing people to co-operate independently and form a coherent strategy without a central planner was also baloney.

And if you want a real counter-example, then try France. The French computer industry was created in the 1970s through the efforts of the French state. And the French have been very successful in their efforts. So central planning, nationalisation and state investment can help create jobs in the high technology sector. Even in America, my guess is that much of the technology sector is supported by generous state subsidies, regardless of what Cooper believes or think she knows about the benefits of laissez faire industry.

Now I have to say, I think Cooper genuinely believes that private enterprise is superior to nationalised and state-owned industry. It’s a basic item of faith of the New Labour clique. And she also has a point about nationalisation not necessarily benefiting workers. Harry Gosling, the founder of the T&GWU with Ernest Bevin, made a speech in Bristol stating that nationalisation wouldn’t do so unless it involved a degree of worker’s control. And proper representation of the workforce in the workplace is what trade unions are for. It’s also what the Labour party was set up to do. Unfortunately, Blair, Broon and New Labour decided that they didn’t. Just before one of the two left office – I can’t remember which one – they passed a whole tranche of legislation actually weakening the unions. Moreover, on the government website telling you what rights you had under the law as a worker, there was also a secret section for employers that told them how they could circumvent all this. So there’s an element of hypocrisy there. Cooper’s against nationalisation, because it wouldn’t help the workers. But Blair wasn’t keen on organised Labour either. I can remember how he threatened to cut the ties between the unions and the Labour party.

And there’s more, much more to be said about this. I’ll blog about the foundation of the nationalised industries some other time. But for now, the opposite of what Cooper said is true: privatisation is discredited, and the privatisers of New Labour have also shown themselves unwilling to act for the poor or the working class either. It’s why UKIP took off so spectacularly. And while their leadership are privatisers on steroids, most of the grassroots members actually want the utilities nationalised. The Angry Yorkshireman wrote several pieces about this, all of which are worth reading.