The Post-War Consensus, Thatcherism & Building Trades Unions in the 21st Century

Sir Luke Fawcett – Chairman of the 1948 Annual Conference of Trades Councils

Looking back over old Trades Council (TC) minutes, it’s hard not to reflect upon how the role of the state and the influence of trade unions have changed.

In the 1948 minutes, reference is made to the address at the Annual Conference of Trades Council (sic) by the Chairman Sir Luke Fawcett, considering unemployment. It is reported he said :

“Up to the present, serious unemployment has been avoided …..unemployment is at an all-time low record … in the light of the circumstances that is a remarkable achievement. Unemployment is an unmitigated evil …. Before the war the spectre of unemployment was always at the elbow of the workers….The more intelligent planning of work has been well demonstrated, especially in view of the fact that the highly complicated process of transforming industry from war to peace has proceeded.” 

Here we see the beginning of the post-war consensus in action : the state has a major role in managing the economy in terms of what is produced, and a responsibility to provide employment for everyone who is able to work. The economic theories of Keynes, developed in the 1930s, allied to a Labour government committed to radical redistribution of wealth to support the many not the few, made this possible.

Thus nationalisation of major industries, the establishment of significantly improved educational and welfare provision, and the birth of the NHS transformed society in a few short years. It’s worth noting too the transformation from wartime to peacetime production – ‘weapons into ploughshares’. (Cancellation of Trident needn’t lead to unemployment).

This post-war consensus lasted more or less until 1979 and the election of the Thatcher government. Throughout this period there was an assumption that wealth distribution should involve limits on wealth ownership. When Denis Healey was Shadow Labour Chancellor, he talked about squeezing property speculators ‘ till the pips squeaked’.

This was in 1973; Healey also proposed a 75% tax on the wealthy, prior to the election.  The Labour Party were elected and Healey became Chancellor.

Why Labour went on to lose in 1979 is not the purpose of this article. The point is to draw attention to the role of the state, and note the role the trade unions played in it, supported by the Labour Party still, as the consensus began to fray in the 1970s.

The minutes of Bolton Trades Council (TC) show many examples of successful collective bargaining, and a respect from employers (sometimes grudging) for the role of trade unions. There was a recognition that the overall share of GDP going to Wages should be somewhere around 60%. The job of trade unions was to increase that percentage, the job of employers to reduce it. Membership of a trade union was essential if your wages and conditions were dependent on collective bargaining. Thus in 1962 (a random choice from Bolton TC minutes available in the 1960s) there were 55 trade unions affiliated to Bolton TC (often sending delegates from more than one branch). In 1962 there were 89 delegates who attended regularly, and 78 of those attended every monthly meeting (11). 

The role of trade unions was clearly regarded as important in 1962. Hours worked and often conditions endured were generally more demanding  than today. So the sheer numbers committed to attending Bolton TC is testament to a different climate than now.

The other striking feature of Bolton TC attendance compared with today is the massive change in our economy over the years. Engineering, Construction, Electrical, Leather Work, Cotton (Weaving and Winding, Bleaching and Dying, Beamers Twisters and Drawers …. and other cotton work), Painting  and Decorating (2 branches), Rail, Sheet Metal Work, Vehicle Building ….. as well as Civil Servants , Journalists, Draughtsmen and other white collar workers. The economic profile of industry and work in Bolton in the 1960s is unrecognisable today. Indeed the Union of Jacquard, Gaiters and Fitters sounds more 16th century than 1960s (F. Worsley represented them 7 times in 1962)!

There are several lessons we might ponder from all this. In the first place, why didn’t Trades Councils and trade unions generally manage to retain their influence in a rapidly changing economy and how did Thatcherism succeed in smashing the post-war consensus?

Was the trade union movement eventually weakened by its relationship to government during this period, as it was drawn into attempting to solve economic problems at the expense of its members? 

And of course – is there a way back for the trade union movement, without developing an internationalist perspective, where global capitalism is confronted by global labour?

There are no doubt many more questions. But if we wish to understand the past in order to change it, we would perhaps do well to agree some answers to some of these questions to begin with. 

In the post-Covid period there is a massive opportunity for trade unions to establish an important role in helping to construct a new world order; globalised capital has never come under more scrutiny. Another world IS possible. We must ensure it’s a sustainable world with sustainable industry, where the well being of each person is valued equally.


Tom Hanley former President & Secretary of Bolton & District (United) Trades Council/TUC

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