Frances O’Grady: “Our goal is not just the betterment of workers but the fulfilment of human beings”

The General secretary of the TUC takes the NS Centenary Questionnaire.

What is the most important invention of the past hundred years?
The Pill – one small step for a woman to take control of her own life but a giant step for womankind. And at least as important as the invention that put men on the moon.

What is the most important scientific discovery of the past hundred years?
That global warming is real, and a direct result of our use and abuse of the planet.

What is the most important sporting event of the past hundred years?
The 1968 Mexico Summer Olympics, when the medal-winning athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, with Peter Norman’s support, raised black-gloved salutes to protest against racial segregation in the US and South Africa, and racism in sport. Their subsequent vilification by some governments and the Olympic establishment belies the myth that sport can be a politics-free zone.

Which book has had the greatest impact on you?
Socialism Made Easy by James Connolly, a gift from my grandad. The film: Nostalgia for the Light by Patricio Guzmán (2010).

Who is the most influential or significant politician of the past hundred years?
Clement Attlee, for his recognition that the greater the economic difficulties, the greater the need for social justice.

Who is the most significant author or playwright?
Roy Williams, author of the play Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads, who can transform the audience as well as the stage.

And which artist has had the greatest impact on you?
Francis Bacon, whose brilliance offended the taste of the narrow-minded.

How about anyone in business? With the centenary year of the Dublin Lockout, I will interpret this broadly and give the honour to “Big Jim” Larkin. His promise that new unionism could lead to new hope and inspiration still holds true.

And sportsperson?
The former Arsenal Ladies captain Faye White, who also won 90 caps for England. For the record, she retired because her knees were dodgy – not because she had a baby.

Who is the most influential philanthropist of the past hundred years?
I am struck by research which shows that, as a proportion of income, the more money people have, the less they give. A pinstriped philanthropist is hard to find. But the lifelong dedication to people’s well-being and rights shown by the former president of Ireland Mary Robinson offers a good example of the original meaning of the term.

What is your favourite quotation?
From the poem “London” by William Blake – which explains why we need the power of imagination to free ourselves:

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.

What is your favourite speech?
The Clydeside trade union activist Jimmy Reid’s speech to Glasgow University in 1972, because it serves as a reminder to trade unionists that our ultimate goal is not just the betterment of workers but the fulfilment of human beings.

What do you think will be the most significant change to our lives in the next hundred years?
The development of artificial intelligence. As with any new technology, how it will shape our lives depends on whose interests it is used to serve.

What is your greatest concern about the future?
That unpopular governments will resort to conventional methods of digging themselves out of an economic hole: war.

What will be the most dramatic development in your own field?
There will be a movement for economic democracy in the 21st century akin to the Chartist movement for universal suffrage in the 19th century. The global concentration of power, wealth and capital is unsustainable.

What is the top priority for the future well-being of people and our planet?
Greater equality and democracy. As the book The Spirit Level: Why Equality Is Better for Everyone by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett demonstrated so profoundly, it is our best chance of liberating the human spirit.

This article first appeared in the 15 January 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 1914 to 2014

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.