From Heath to Cameron: plus ça change?

UCU, in common with other unions in the professional and public sectors, is facing huge challenges, both objective in terms of the financial crisis, and ideological in terms of the opportunity which capitalism’s crisis has given the Cameron government to impose its deeply divisive agenda, with our core public services taking the hit for the financial sector’s greed and incompetence.

The severity and precise character of the current crisis may be unprecedented, but in some ways we have been here before. I have just retired from work as a Senior National Official of UCU having worked for UCU, and its predecessors, NATFHE and the Association of Teachers in Technical Institutions (ATTI) for not quite forty years, starting with the fight against Edward Heath’s government and their assault on education and health in the interest of business and ‘rolling back the public sector.’ Some things don’t change . . . But, coming as the first challenge to the post-war Keynes-Beveridge consensus, Heath’s government of tycoons and asset-strippers seemed to us in our naivety, as bad as it could get.

The long Thatcher years showed us how wrong we could be, and as her era moves into the middle distance it is instructive to reflect on just how divisive her years in power were, and how damaging – the Thatcher-Reagan axis having set us on the course of klepto-capitalism that took 20 years to come to its full fruition, in the crisis we are still struggling to come to confront. Yet already the Cameron government has shown itself to be more ideological and more damaging – and on the basis of a far weaker electoral mandate – than all the Thatcher years. In comparison with Cameron’s apparent recklessness, both Thatcher and Heath moved with what now seems like relative caution in their policies on schools and post-school education and on the NHS.

Yet at the time, both to us in the United Kingdom and to trade union observers in Europe and elsewhere, Thatcher seemed the arch-enemy. I was involved with the European and global teacher trade union structures which were emerging in the late 80s and early 90s, the European Trade Union Committee for Education (ETUCE) and Education International (EI). Our colleagues in the European Trade Union Committee for Education angrily accused us of failing to stand up to her more effectively. What has changed since then? A major part of the answer is with the declining strength of the trade union movement as a whole.

Thatcher herself made the unions a target of almost pathological hatred, ‘the enemy within’ and with the support of the majority of the media was able to demonise them in the minds of much of the population, marginalising a major force for reasoned resistance. To its enormous credit, UCU and its predecessor organisations have generally bucked the trend towards a decline in membership and levels of density that has weakened unions in a number of other sectors, but we have not been immune to the overall trend towards diminished influence, or to the widespread perception that successive UK governments, of all political persuasions, have been able to promulgate about the public sector and public sector workers.

I have been privileged to represent UCU and before it, NATFHE, on the trade union structures for post-school education at the European and International levels as they have developed from their fragmented and limited beginnings in the 1970s. From that broader perspective, the developments in the UK and the changing character of post-school education, seem out of step. While other countries in Europe felt the influence of Thatcherism and have moved some way in the same direction, none have gone so far or so fast, and most have retained a more committed sense of the place of the public sector and the role of ‘social partners’ in underwriting social cohesion and economic justice. It is alarming how far we have abandoned those core concepts.

But another core concept which we have always paid lip-service, has become far more of a reality since the Thatcher years – European and international solidarity. One of the core myths that Thatcher and her toady press perpetrated was that the United Kingdom could operate in a Churchillian isolation, that our polity and economy could in some way ‘stand alone’. This even as transnational corporations were coming to dominate the economy, and as the global economic institutions, OECD, IMF and World Bank, were playing an ever increasing role in national economic policy – and as Thatcher herself, in signing the Maastricht Treaty, recognised that our fortunes are closely bound up with the European Union. For a time, a substantial part of the trade union movement bought into the negative vision Thatcher offered, with its nasty undercurrents of xenophobia and ‘little Englandism’.

However, when the TUC Congress in 1988 publicly embraced the President of the European Commission as ‘Frere Jacques’, and Delors set out to us a different, more humane and socially driven vision of a European society, the tide turned. At both the European and world level, the trade union movement has found a new agenda and a new voice – and the teacher trade unions have been in the forefront of this development. It has to be hoped that the unions don’t follow historic precedent and shrink back into a narrow nationalistic perspective in response to capitalism’s deep crisis.

One of the most satisfying areas of my work has been as secretary to the British and Irish Group of Teachers (BIGTU), helping it to develop from a rather limited talking shop for the general secretaries of the UK and Irish unions in EI, into an authentic collective voice at European and global level for the 11 unions concerned. I think it has helped build domestic relations between the unions too.

I cannot finish without commenting on the issue of Palestine, which has played such a significant, and for some, controversial, part in our union’s history over the last decade.

I have felt a personal commitment to the cause of Palestinian education since NATFHE sent me on a study visit to the West Bank and Gaza in 1989, during the first Intifada, which pitted children and teenagers against troops and tanks on the streets of Palestinian towns and villages, filling hospital wards with kids with spine and head injuries.

There are two strands to UCU’s involvement with Palestine – one the high profile public dialogue around the issue summarised as ‘boycott, divestment and sanctions’ which has dominated our Congress debates and which has become a mainstream issue for the British trade union movement. It is the other strand that I have been concerned with – the ongoing work in supporting capacity building for the Palestinian people’s education opportunities and the Palestinian teacher trade union movement. We have played a modest part in this capacity building process, which while its success depends on the achievement of a geo-political settlement, must be part of a positive outcome; and I hope UCU will go on finding the commitment and resources to sustain this support.

For teachers in Palestine, as in Colombia, Burma or Zimbabwe, we have a responsibility to let them know they are not alone, just as we are not alone. My involvement for a number of years with the Trade Union Network Committee of Amnesty International (UK), convinced me of the importance of the British trade union movement, both as a global human rights defender and in giving added value and a new dimension to the work of AI.

The different strands of UCU’s European and international work remain an important part of the union’s profile, reflecting both the interests of members and their collective solidarity with trade unionists worldwide. In the current financial crisis as in previous ones, we are seeing the dangerous emergence of xenophobia and a narrow perception of national self-interest, against which our practical solidarity is an important countervailing force.

I hope that in the ongoing struggle to sustain UCU’s core values and those of our public education system, the union continues to draw strength from our international connections, and to work to build a shared vision at European and global level.

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