Work to rule

United We Stand: a history of Britain's trade unions

Alastair J Reid <em>Allen Lane, the Penguin P

Any author who aspires to recount the history of organised labour from the Black Death in 1348 to the introduction of the statutory minimum wage in 1998 sets himself an exacting task. In one sense Alastair J Reid achieves his object. United We Stand covers the ground. But it moves at such a speed that it barely touches the surface of some crucial parts of the story. And there are some amazing omissions.

Reid claims, with some justification, that he deals extensively with the trade unions' political response to changing circumstances. He mentions - albeit in an aside - the creation of the Labour Representation Committee in 1893, which altered the pattern of British politics. But the drama that followed - the Taff Vale decision, making it possible to sue striking unions for damages, and the consequent upsurge in political affiliation, which rescued the LRC from collapse - is not dealt with. Neither is the Osborne judgment, prohibiting trade unions from making contributions to political parties.

Despite the emotional title, United We Stand rarely catches the romance of working-class solidarity - the pride in principle as well as the pursuit of self-interest - which collective action inspires. Reid is right to point out that the miners' strike of 1984 was a disaster at least in part because "Arthur Scargill had imbibed little or nothing of the industrial realism and political constitutionalism of the postwar British Communist Party". But that hardly does justice to the spirit of the defeated men who marched back to work at Corton Wood behind their colliery band and lodge banner.

Despite the desiccated quality of much of the narrative, Reid's portraits of trade union leaders are unashamedly sympathetic. Jack Jones - "caught between his strong sense of the need to support a precarious Labour government and his clear awareness of the growing economic discontent among his members" - comes very near to being the hero of United We Stand. The pages devoted to him make clear what a powerful and principled figure he was.

A long quotation from his speech to the 1977 Transport and General Workers' Union conference reminded me of a dinner at 11 Downing Street long ago. The conference, despite Jones's pleading, had refused to back another year of income restraint. As a result, the Labour government's incomes policy was in tatters and the six senior members of the TUC general council dined with the cabinet's economics ministers to see how the damage could be rectified. Denis Healey urged Moss Evans (Jones's successor) to recall the conference and force the union to co-operate with the government. Evans's reply was a tribute to his predecessor. "You saw what they did to Jack. What do you think they would do to me?"

The thesis of United We Stand is that the British trade unions are far more than a homogeneous movement committed to improving wages and conditions by industrial action. They are part of the complicated texture of British life. The book is not sufficiently detailed or profound for an academic audience, but lacks the sparkle of "popular" history. Yet there are moments of incisive revelation. As a result of "the immense police operation" during the 1984 miners' strike, the government "succeeded in maintaining long-term access to the collieries and by doing so turned mass picketing from the ultimate weapon of trade unionism into a mere public order nuisance comparable to football hooliganism". What an important book United We Stand would have been if it were all as clear, concise and instructive as this.

Roy Hattersley's The Edwardians: the story of Edwardian Britain is published by Little, Brown this autumn