It is not a moral issue

As Robert Taylor recalls on page 15 of this issue, Sir George Bain, when he became principal of the London Business School in 1989, secured for himself one of the most lucrative remuneration packages in the whole of academia. There, and in his subsequent position as vice-chancellor of Queen's University, Belfast, he has also left himself ample time to moonlight as a director of Blackwell Publishers, the Economist Group, Canada Life and Bombardier Aerospace Shorts Brothers, to name just a few. Sir George, who is chairing the inquiry into firefighters' pay, would no doubt argue that, as a distinguished economist and industrial relations specialist, his skills have high market value. He takes six-figure salaries because he can, as do many other executives (often to a far greater extent) in both public and private sectors.

Such people would be indignant if it were suggested that they were "irresponsible" in not selling their services for lower sums. They have high individual bargaining power, and they use it. The firefighters - most of whom, in Sir George's view, should be content with salaries of well under £30,000, and who are often criticised for having second jobs - enjoy collective bargaining power. If their strike threatens to leave the country defenceless against terrorist attack, that is simply a measure of their collective importance to society - a bargaining counter that is not open to Sir George, without whom even Queen's University could function perfectly happily for a good deal more than 48 hours.

None of this is to suggest that Sir George is a specially bad man, or the firefighters specially good ones. On the contrary, the inquiry is right to suggest, albeit opaquely (Sir George's prose, it may be estimated, does not have high market value), that the firefighters are the kind of old-fashioned, white, male trade unionists who oppose all change on principle. The carefully fostered image of fine professionals who risk their lives rescuing children from burning buildings is a misleading one. Directly fighting fires accounts for less than 10 per cent of the service's activities, and many night shifts are spent soundly asleep or playing cards.

It is this combination of heroic image and cushy working conditions that no doubt explains why the fire service, unlike other public services, has few recruitment problems. It is one of the last strongholds of restrictive practices, with the union stubbornly opposing more flexible shift patterns, wider responsibilities (for first aid, for example) or a pay and recruitment structure that contains any fast track for high flyers. By no stretch of the imagination can firefighters be regarded as representative of those who suffer real poverty and injustice - who are mostly brown or black, female and non-unionised.

But that is not really the point. What the firefighters do represent is a growing mood among working people, of which the government should take heed. For a good 20 years, capital has held the upper hand. With unemployment high and manual work in declining demand, employers have been able to hold down the wages, lengthen the hours and scare potential strikers. This is why the gap between rich and poor grew steadily wider after the 1970s. It is why, despite Gordon Brown's efforts through the tax and benefit system, and despite new Labour's sincere wish to end child poverty, the gap has failed to close significantly since 1997. And it is why shareholders, apart from a few blips, enjoyed a 20-year bull market, as did company executives, fund managers, brokers, analysts and all others whose outsized pay packages (often including bonuses and share options) caused politicians to wring their hands (before they proceeded to sit very firmly on them once again).

Now that full employment has returned - and technology has probably gone, for the time being, about as far as it can in substituting for human employees - labour has a better hand to play. So politicians trot out the old cliches about responsibility, restraint, the national interest, and so on. (As it happens, the firefighters have already tried restraint, following in every detail the advice from Jim Fitzpatrick MP, a government whip, in a letter to the New Statesman on 21 October, that they should give Bain a chance and then go on strike if he didn't deliver.) Strikes are always discussed by Westminster and the media in the language of morality and justice. But through 18 years of Tory government, only partially modified by five years of new Labour, Britain learnt to live by the morally neutral rules of the market. The bosses took full advantage. The workers can hardly be blamed if they now follow their example.

There must always be an inquiry

Have you got the answers yet? Have you demanded a full report? Have you set up an independent inquiry? Are you utterly committed to openness? If the royals are indeed our first family, and role models for the nation, we must all now look afresh at ways of conducting our domestic affairs. The au pair may be ringing her boyfriend in California at your expense; the cleaning lady may be raiding the piggy bank; your teenage son may be making dubious searches on the internet; and it is highly likely (according to one of those surveys that are disarmingly vague about who was questioned in what circumstances) that your partner is cheating on you. Do not deal with it quietly. Do not, on any account, do anything so common as talking to other members of the family about it. Ring your best mate and ask him/her to hold an inquiry. Issue a pompous statement about it. Some tabloid, somewhere, expects it of you.

This article first appeared in the 18 November 2002 issue of the New Statesman, NS Interview - Jack Straw