RDN on “Call Kaye” BBC Radio Scotland

On a brief outing this morning, I was asked what I thought about unions, especially in the wake of Unite’s Grangemouth climb-down. I love them, I said, but let’s not imagine the Germanic socialised (or a socialist) approach is going to work in the Anglosphere…

Jim Ratcliffe, of Ineos, was quoted in the FT (I meant to describe it as the Guardian for capitalists but didn’t get the words out quickly enough) that he thought we ought to learn the German way of doing union relations. I said I suspected that neither workers nor capitalists are sufficiently disciplined to make that work in America or England (I meant to say, the Anglosphere). Kaye Adams (whose presenting style I very much enjoy) said that Scotland might well be different from England in that respect. Then maybe you’ll have to go your own way, and good luck with that, I said. (Of course, I might have added, from down South, Scottish leftist politics look quite seriously Neanderthal, and more widely one might add that the Scottish Establishment looks – from here at least – rather like the Welsh: provincial. Each country has a MacTaffia.)

Anyway, more generally. I wanted to say that I know unions are an important part of our history and are in a tense relationship with capital. Pitfalls await any strategy they adopt. Moreover, I accept that it is inevitable that they are blamelessly Luddite and conservative, unless they are dangerously cosy with and co-opted by employers. After all, they look after their members: those workers currently employed by existing entities, deploying existing skills. They are inevitably the opponents of capitalism’s tendency (not universal by any means) to enjoy Creative Destruction.

What’s more, it isn’t just the unions of the horny-handed which are problematic. Some teachers and most doctors are just as badly-led, if the positions of the NUT and BMA are any indication.

Anyway, I suppose that the German model won’t work here. The Anglosphere on the whole believes in the value of flexibility (in where capital is deployed and how workers work) whilst the Germanic model (I learned from one of Kaye’s callers that it was imposed on the Germans by the US after WW2, and is thus a hilarious irony) believes in big firms evolving in an orderly and slow way such that everyone can stay solidly well-off.  There’s a lot to be said for the model and the likes of Will Hutton have said it often.

The difficulty is, according to free-market Anglosphere preferences, that this model best serves big firms doing big things, in chemicals and automotive industries, for instance. It tends to the sclerotic and tends not be very good at fostering fast-and-loose entrepreneurship.

I would not like to say whether the German economic model is better than the Anglosphere’s, nor to insist that each is immutable. But I hazard that there are advantages to the latter, and that – more important – in these matters there is a curious matter of national style. The French style of industrial relations is different to Germany’s, but both are highly socialised. They are about large numbers of people accepting a sort of orthodoxy in which – in their very different ways – obedience is a key factor. (The Germans all agree to behave themselves and the French all agree to march). The Anglosphere has been predicated on not accepting that sort of discipline. I don’t see it changing quickly, or all that much. Nor do I see that it ought to.

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Publication date

28 October 2013


RDN's media outings