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Gary Younge
Britain’s Winter of Discontent
If unions here are weaker and smaller than in Margaret Thatcher’s day, their strikes are also far more popular.Every Thursday at 8 pm during the spring of 2020, British people would emerge from lockdown for a few brief minutes and make some noise. Some of us bashed pots and pans, others cheered and whooped, others simply clapped. This display of national gratitude was for our “essential workers”—nurses, bus and train drivers, teachers and sanitation and Deliveroo workers—who had to do their jobs so that society could function. With Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles (as they all were then) joining in, we clearly weren’t all clapping for the same thing.I joined in, partly because I thought it significant that the public sector workers were being hailed as critical to our lives. To call them “essential” was no longer a rhetorical point but a literal and quasi-legal designation. The country couldn’t operate without them. But I also kept hoping, in vain, that this moment of collective appreciation might morph into moments of localized protest at the pitiful way in which the government was actually managing the pandemic.Last month Britain’s Conservative government—Johnson’s successors—introduced a law that would criminalize most of the very workers we were applauding if they had the audacity to seek their rewards not in claps but in hard currency and go on strike. The new law would enable bosses in what are deemed essential sectors—education, the fire service, ambulance drivers, rail workers and nuclear power—to sue unions and sack employees if minimum levels for public safety are not met.The unions have responded with a coordinated day of strike action across the public sector tomorrow—February 1—including 100,000 teachers, 100,000 civil servants, train drivers, train operators, security guards, and lecturers at 150 universities.Even as the bill was being debated in Parliament, 90 percent of teachers in England—and 92 percent in Wales—voted to strike, while the nurses’ union announced a further two days of strikes.They are in good company. Ambulance staff and firefighters, postal workers, bus drivers, border security agents, driving license examiners, physiotherapists have all been striking or are about to strike too.It says a great deal about how long it has been since we last saw this level of union militancy in Britain that it is being referred to in the media as “the winter of discontent.” The phrase, taken from the first line of Shakespeare’s Richard III, refers to the surge in strike action in the winter of 1978–79 that helped bring down the Labour government.Between November 1978 and March 1979, Britain saw the most pervasive wave of strikes—including gravediggers, hospital cleaners, truck drivers, school cafeteria workers, pilots and printers—since the general strike of 1926. Garbage piled up, bodies went unburied, and snow-bound roads went uncleared. Having taken union support for granted, the Labour Party was caught wrong-footed when workers refused to put its electoral prospects before their own financial well-being. Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives won the election in May and—after a significant period of accommodating and even submitting to organized labor,—she picked her moment for a showdown with the National Union of Mineworkers in 1984–85. Eventually, the miners returned to work defeated, marking a long term shift in the balance of power between workers and employers that has never been reversed, and accelerating both a negative popular attitude toward trade unions and a collapse in union membership.Spot the DifferenceSince it is still winter here—and there is a disproportionate amount of strike activity—comparisons with 1979 are not completely absurd. But the similarities pretty much stop there.Trade union membership peaked in 1979; recently, the numbers have been increasing slightly after a steep decline. Britain today has around half the number of union members it did in 1979, even though the workforce is considerably larger.In 1979, almost 30 million working days were lost to strikes—virtually a day’s strike action for every worker in the country. Last year, only a million working days were lost to strike action—which still made it the most militant in several decades. This year will be even more disruptive.But the current strikes are not indefinite, just inconvenient. Unions declare in advance which days they will be on strike: Usually, they are out for a few days a month. University lecturers (my union) have announced 18 days over the February and March. Newspapers produce color-coded calendars explaining who will be on strike and when. There has not, as of yet, been a major all-out strike lasting until the demands are met.However, if the unions are weaker and smaller today, their strikes are also far more popular. The very workers the government is currently targeting have the most public support. Nurses, ambulance staff, teachers, and firefighters all have high levels of public backing for their disputes. Perhaps all that clapping meant something after all.There is good reason for this. These strikes are fundamentally over pay. The unions’ pay demands are hardly excessive. Nurses’ salaries have fallen by 8 percent in real terms since 2010 and secondary school teachers’ by 13 percent. Across the board, public sector workers have seen their pay fall by 4.3 percent since 2010, when the Tories came in. Inflation currently stands at just over 10 percent. Nurses and railway workers are being offered 3 percent; teachers have been offered 5 percent. Most want raises just above or at inflation; most would settle for even less than that. Nurses—rightly seen as heroes for working through the pandemic—are asking for inflation plus 5 percent.The government claims that meeting these demands will fuel an inflationary spiral. But union leaders point out that since workers’ wages have been declining in real terms, it is not wages that are driving inflation.But pay is where the disputes begin, not where the discontent ends. The challenges faced by these public sector workers resonate with large numbers of Britons struggling to get by in what has been euphemistically termed a cost-of-living crisis.Real wages in the UK are below where they were 18 years ago. Energy bills went up 80 percent last year—and are set to go up again. A quarter of adults now struggle to keep warm in their living rooms and are going to bed earlier in order to keep themselves warm.Food inflation is more than 13 percent. Almost two-thirds of those in the most deprived areas of the country said they were buying less food and almost a quarter nationwide said they had either skipped a meal or eaten less because they couldn’t afford food. One in five people being referred to foodbanks are from households where someone works; a study of more than 1,000 nurses found that one in five had used food banks and two-thirds were having to choose between food and fuel.After more than a decade of austerity, public services here are on their knees, and the people who work in those services have risen up as the last line of defense. So these strikes are not simply understood as workers defending their sectional interests but as workers striking in the public interest.For much of last summer and fall, the public face of these strikes was the leader of the National Railway, Maritime and Transport workers union, Mick Lynch, a straight-talking left-winger whose incredible gift for clarity, calm, and deadpan putdowns made him a media sensation.In a public interview with Lynch in September, I asked him why, given the number of strikes in different sectors, the unions didn’t just call a general strike.“It would probably be illegal under current industrial legislation,” he said. “[But] what we have to do is generalise the discontent, generalise the industrial and political response. so that it is clear that working-class people are being mobilised, and we then support the actual industrial action with collective action on the streets.”A Show of IneptitudeThe government’s response to these strikes has not, thus far, been to negotiate with the unions. However, this is not a show of strength but of ineptitude; it doesn’t have a plan beyond coercion. After several months of staring into the headlights, demanding that leaders with overwhelming strike mandates order their members back to work with below-inflation offers, they decided to just outlaw the right to strike for essential workers altogether. This was an act of vindictive desperation. It was already difficult to strike in England. A union must attain at least a 50 percent turnout in a ballot and then receive at least 40 percent in favor of a strike from all eligible voters—a degree of electoral legitimacy no British government has enjoyed since the Second World War.Adding another layer of anti-union legislation—effectively banning strikes in certain sectors—will not solve the problem.Moreover, the rationale for the new law of “guaranteeing minimum levels of staffing for public safety” would be funny if the reality were not so grim. Minimum levels for public safety are seldom being met on days when there is no strike. Indeed, that is why a lot of people are on strike. Take health care. According to the National Health Service performance targets, responses to emergency calls—which include strokes or severe burns—should be made within 18 minutes. In July, when there were no strikes and very little flu, responses took on average 59 minutes. And when the sick get to hospital, they don’t fare much better. Almost one in four ambulance patients in Britain waited more than an hour with crews before they even being admitted to the emergency ward. In the wards, they are increasingly routed to trolleys in the corridors because there are no available beds. So government accusations that striking health workers are putting patients’ lives at risk ring hollow because most people’s experience of dysfunction in the health service does not coincide with strike days. Actually delivering “minimum levels for public safety” would be a huge improvement.Low Pay Is No AccidentThe source of this dysfunction is also the source of the grievances that prompted the strike action in the first place: low pay. In almost every sector now on strike, there is a chronic labor shortage—a common problem throughout the West, aggravated in Britain by large numbers of European workers’ going home after Brexit and early retirement.This is no accident. Since the Tories took over after the financial crisis, it has been government policy to suppress wages and investment in the public sector; now a combination of higher fuel prices and a huge spike in inflation have now made their positions untenable. Wages are so low in these sectors that people are leaving and new workers cannot be recruited. Turnover is high and morale is at rock bottom. The situation is particularly dire in the National Health Service—which has always been reliant on migrant labour. The two nurses whom United Kingdom prime minister, Boris Johnson, singled out for praise after they helped him back to health in 2020 were from Portugal and New Zealand. A year later the New Zealander, Jenny McGee, quit. “We’re not getting the respect and now pay that we deserve. I’m just sick of it. So I’ve handed in my resignation,” she said.The NHS currently has a 6 percent vacancy rate for medical posts and 12 percent for nursing. Meanwhile, the adult social care sector is limping along with more than 10 percent vacancies. One in eight new teachers leave within a year, and 8 percent of all teachers quit in 2021, leaving a record number of vacancies since 2010.When you consider that the retail grocery chain Sainsbury’s has raised its hourly wage by 38 percent in the past six years, it becomes clear why more than two-thirds of hospital trusts say nurses are leaving for hospitality and retail, while care workers are becoming truck drivers.That’s also why the government has not been able to undermine these strikes with scab labor—they couldn’t find people desperate enough to do the work at the rate being offered. Meanwhile those who still work in the health service say they are too short staffed to do their jobs properly. A friend who quit the NHS last year said she would often be in teams of three or four doing the work of six or seven, constantly worried that something crucial would be missed and never fully able to provide the care for which she had been trained.On the picket line at Great Ormond Street Children’s hospital in December, another nurse said, “More money for us would be nice. But we’re striking for the future of the service, really. We just can’t carry on like this.”The Tories have few options. They are currently 22 points behind Labour in the polls, while favorability ratings for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak currently stand at -29—and half the country believes they do not have a clear idea of what they stand for.Embroiled in a series of financial scandals, exposing both their venality and corruption, they are on their third prime minister in six months. Economically, they have misgoverned themselves into a corner. After more than a decade of austerity, public sector borrowing in December hit the highest level on record. Taxes are going up while cuts in services are continuing, aggravating both their base and their opponents.Unable to win with the hand they were dealt, they’ve tried to change the rules, banning strikes for key workers. The unions have responded with the united action on February 1, which marks an escalation in coordination and activity. But it seems increasingly clear that the government is happy to subject the country to a state of permanent disruption rather than hammer out a settlement, in the hope that strikers will be exhausted into submission.But the unions also have their backs against the wall. Their only option now is to escalate, calling the kind of indefinite strikes and united action the government can no longer pretend to ignore; to engage with communities to convert the broad sense of frustration and desperation into protests that are even more disruptive; to bring the country beyond the stage of inconvenience to a state of crisis that might actually force a reckoning. Not all the lessons from the original winter of discontent are negative. But in order to become more effective, the striking workers may have to risk becoming less popular.
Heavy Is the Head
The British Royals in the age of streaming.I was in Barbados, visiting relatives, when Princess Diana died. That afternoon I met an Englishwoman on a walk. “I feel so awful just being out enjoying myself,” she told me.“I’m sure if you died, she’d have no problem going on with her holiday,” I replied. The woman was appalled and offended. I was genuinely baffled. It was the first and last conversation I had with a stranger on the topic.In both my personal and professional life, I don’t do royals. There is more to this than a simple lack of interest; mine is a far more proactive ambivalence. I will go out of my way to avoid any and all talk about the British monarchy. Conversations about the royal family don’t upset me for the same reason that conversations about Barack Obama’s birth certificate didn’t upset me when I lived in the United States: I just make it my business to live my life so that I never have to be around anyone who talks about them. After Queen Elizabeth II died, I merely didn’t watch the news for 10 days, until the period of mourning was over.It’s not that I dislike the royals themselves; I don’t know them personally and really don’t think about them much. But I do think about race, class, power, and postcolonial inequalities quite a bit, and so I harbor an unwavering contempt for an institution that stood at the pinnacle of empire and places inherited privilege at the very heart of the British establishment.There is also, if I’m honest, a lack of understanding on my part. I have never fully comprehended the monarchy’s popular appeal. Why would hundreds of thousands of people queue for hours and miles for a glimpse of the coffin of a leader they never elected, or get excited about the wedding of two wealthy people they are never going to meet?But while I loathe the monarchy, I love the Netflix series The Crown, which has now completed its fifth season. I don’t enjoy it as a guilty pleasure, like singing along to Michael Jackson or eating a chocolate éclair—a small sin for which I know I’ll pay a price, be it karmic or calorific. Nor do I enjoy it ironically, as a show so bad and problematic that I think it’s somehow good, like Old School or Dodgeball, which I would never defend but often watch. Instead, I enjoy it because it is informative and evocative, elegantly relating some versions of Britain’s past that are known but rarely told, let alone screened, and because the series is driven by a compelling dialectical tension between individual freedom and structural responsibilities.The Crown spans two-thirds of what’s been spun as the second Elizabethan age. It starts with King George VI coughing up blood, presaging his death and the start of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, and ends with Lady Di packing for one of her final holidays.Period dramas of this nature are generally too monochromatic and parochial to appeal to me. Renditions of postwar Britain all too often fail to take into account that by 1955 there were enough Black people in the country for Winston Churchill to suggest to his cabinet that the Conservative Party run on a “Keep England White” campaign. The fact that by the end of World War II there were 10 times as many people living in colonies under the British flag as lived in Britain itself, and that the overwhelming majority of these people were brown and Black, also manages to elude them. My mother came from Barbados to England in 1962, when Barbados was still a British colony. So when I see stories that ignore those realities and portray England as a small white island hermetically sealed from the outside world, I tend to switch them off.But that is not the case with The Crown. Empire is an essential element of the story it seeks to tell about postwar Britain, and that alone is refreshing. There’s a low bar here. The Crown offers no criticism, let alone critique, of what the British Empire did; its center of gravity, of course, is not empire but monarchy. And many people in Britain have a peculiar ability to wallow in their country’s former glory without ever really examining how Britain came by it and why it lost it. As George Orwell observed in his 1941 essay “England Your England,” “It is quite true that the English are hypocritical about their Empire. In the working class this hypocrisy takes the form of not knowing that the Empire exists.” A decade later, at a time when Britain still controlled much of Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean, the UK government’s social survey showed that nearly three-fifths of the country couldn’t name a single British colony.So for The Crown simply to present the empire in this era sets it apart. Early on, we see the queen arrive in Kenya in the early 1950s to deliver a speech—one in which she describes Nairobi as a recently “savage” place that has now been civilized—to a segregated reception committee that, local dress notwithstanding, could have been gathered in the Deep South. We hear the beplumed governor whisper, “Independence is sweeping across the continent. Their support is important more than ever,” and see Elizabeth’s husband, Prince Philip, insult the local dignitaries. The fifth-season episode that profiles Mohamed Al-Fayed, his rise from the Egyptian middle class to the status of wealthy outsider among the British upper class, and his relationship with his Bahamian butler, Sydney Johnson, is particularly strong in this regard.Not only do the producers make vivid a set of power relations that are rarely made visible, but they also give a sense of how that power dynamic was shifting. Complaining about the pantomime futility of their forthcoming royal tour of 1953 to ‘54, Philip observes:Twenty years ago, Britain had influence and control over one-fifth of the world’s population. Look where we are now in India, Pakistan, South Africa, Iraq, Jordan, Burma, Ceylon—all independent. But nobody wants to face it or deal with it, so they send us out on the Commonwealth road show. Like giving a lick of paint to a rusty old banger to make everyone think it’s all still fine. But it’s not. The rust has eaten away at the engine and the structure. The banger is falling apart. But no one wants to see it. That’s our job. That’s who we are: the coat of paint.Within a decade, the banger is all but ready for the knacker’s yard, as Cyprus, Ghana, Jamaica, Kenya, Kuwait, Malaysia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Somaliland, Sudan, Tanganyika and Zanzibar (later to become Tanzania), and Trinidad and Tobago all break away.This sense of fragility as to the purpose and viability of the monarchy and the popular consent required to sustain it is a constant theme of The Crown. Central to that anxiety is the abdication of Edward VIII in 1936 over his marriage to the twice-divorced Mrs. Wallis Simpson, which forces his younger brother, George VI, and his progeny from the wings to center stage. But while the abdication is key to the royals’ sense of precarity, it is not the only source of it. Philip, born the prince of Greece and Denmark, repeatedly tells the story of how he was smuggled out of Greece and into exile as a baby when the country turned against the monarchy. Just four years earlier, his relatives the Romanovs—who were also distantly related to Elizabeth—were executed en masse by the Bolsheviks, an episode explored in depth in season five. (Indeed, Philip’s DNA would be used to identify Maria and Alexei Romanov, two of the Russian royal children, whose bodies were found in a field in 2007.)Such recent history leaves deep scars. It turns out the royals live in perpetual, mortal fear of losing the very popular appeal that I find so incomprehensible. When Philip urges Elizabeth to have her coronation televised, he warns her: “You forget I have seen firsthand what it is like for a royal family to be overthrown because they were out of step with the people. I left Greece in an orange crate. My father would have been killed. My grandfather was.”These varied efforts of the royal family to sustain a sense of tradition, superiority, and mystery while adapting to a society demanding greater transparency and equality provide engrossing story lines. But it is their efforts to parse their lives as human beings, along with their roles as figureheads, that create the drama. Shortly after George VI’s death, Elizabeth’s grandmother tells her, “While you mourn your father, you must also mourn someone else: Elizabeth Mountbatten. For she has now been replaced by another person, Elizabeth Regina. The two Elizabeths will frequently be in conflict with one another. The fact is the Crown must win. Must always win.”Elizabeth is not alone in this split personality: Prince Philip, Princess Margaret, and Prince Charles all have to wrestle with the lives of ceremony and futility assigned by their specific roles. But the series is called The Crown, and Elizabeth is the one who wears it, so this is effectively the struggle that will define her and, through her, the rest of the family throughout. When Philip requests that he not kneel before her at the coronation because to do so would be humiliating and emasculating, she responds, “You won’t be kneeling to me. You will be kneeling before God and the Crown.”“Are you my wife or my queen?” he asks. “I’m both,” she replies. “I want to be married to my wife,” he complains. “I will not kneel before my wife.” Her answer is firm: “Your wife is not asking you to.” “But my queen commands me?” “Yes.”The queen relates to other family members the same way. Margaret, her younger sister, intends to marry the man she loves, Peter Townsend, and as Margaret’s sister, Elizabeth is happy for her. But she also cannot allow it, because Townsend has been divorced. Margaret could marry him if she were to give up her royal privileges, but privilege is all she has. And when Edward VIII made the choice to give up the throne, he dealt a near-fatal blow to the institution. The unhappiness is bequeathed from generation to generation, each apparently more miserable than the last, producing a litter of peevish, entitled libertines, almost all unhappy in love.The royals’ individual travails are the stuff of soap opera—the occasionally racy, often tawdry, but not particularly interesting or original peccadilloes of everyday noble folk. But beyond the rarefied setting, the challenges they face are essentially a philosophical and universal one: What must we be ready to give up to assert our freedom in the world? How do we balance whatever structural roles we occupy—at work or elsewhere—with our human needs and responsibilities? What would we sacrifice for love? Admittedly, these are the least sympathetic characters through which to examine such questions; fortunately, they are engaging, perennial questions.It is primarily for this reason that the fifth season of The Crown was the least satisfying. In previous seasons, Queen Elizabeth agonized over her structural obligations and personal life—but Prince Charles, who dominates the fifth season, doesn’t. Most of the scandals involve him either briefing against his mother, in the hope that she will stand down and allow him to save the institution with his modernizing zeal, or getting exposed as an adulterer, caught in a private phone call telling his mistress that he would like to be her tampon.The only problem Charles can see with dating the married woman he is in love with—while being married himself to the future queen and waiting impatiently for his mother to either die or abdicate—is that nobody else seems to understand why it’s all so unfair on him. The two Charleses, regal and personal, aren’t in conflict here, because there is only one Charles and he wants it all. That doesn’t make for particularly interesting television.Some of this may be untrue, and all of it may be unfair to Charles. It may also be completely accurate. I really don’t care: The Crown is a docudrama, not a documentary, although its episodic introduction of actual news footage does blur the genres. For those heavily invested in the personal dynamics of the royal family—who said what to whom, when, and why—this might be confusing and even upsetting. (More on this in a bit.) Since most of what is known about the royals has already been filtered through the tabloids and self-interested briefings anyway, truth was long ago an early casualty.However, as I was not remotely invested in taking sides between Charles and Diana, Diana and the family, the queen and Charles, or any of the other permutations, the veracity of these depictions didn’t concern me in the slightest. Throughout the series, it seemed fairly clear that the major events portrayed—wars, tragedies, elections, strikes—had in fact happened; that the private conversations and intrafamilial rivalries were fictionalized and dramatized for effect; and that the dominant story arcs had some basis in reality.There was also another layer to the new season: It premiered just two months after the queen’s death signaled the end of the so-called second Elizabethan age and the ascent of King Charles III to the throne. Buckingham Palace, no doubt, hoped for a more endearing and forgiving introduction to the new monarch. His defenders came out in force, as though The Crown were not a TV show but a government report, and a parade of the imperious and pompous lined up to trash the series, including two former prime ministers (John Major and Tony Blair), two biographers (Jonathan Dimbleby and Sally Bedell Smith), and The Daily Mail, which had done more than most to spread the scandalous rumors in the first place. Dame Judi Dench, esteemed actor and friend of the royals, wrote a letter to the London Times describing the series as “an inaccurate and hurtful account of history” and demanding that Netflix add a disclaimer to the new season “for the sake of the family and a nation so recently bereaved.”They needn’t have bothered. For in the prelude to the fifth season’s release, Britain’s political class made a better case for the monarchy than the monarchs ever could. The last picture taken of the queen showed her greeting Liz Truss, the new prime minister, in Balmoral Castle and inviting her to form a new government after Boris Johnson was forced to resign for partying through the pandemic. Truss was the third prime minister Elizabeth had seen in six years. Her first three premiers—Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden, and Harold Macmillan—spanned 12 years; Truss lasted just 50 days, the shortest tenure ever (it would have been even shorter were it not for the 10 days of public mourning), during which she managed to crash the economy, tank the pound, jack up interest rates, and lose a chancellor and a home secretary. If this is the best democracy can do, the monarchy’s defenders argued, then where is the harm in a figurehead, answerable only to God, whom we can look to for stability?The United States answered this question fairly conclusively in 1776, France in 1789, and Russia in 1917. History has already delivered its verdict on those who inherit power and remain unaccountable; The Crown merely illustrates the degree to which the institution doesn’t even work for the people who run it.As I type, Prince Harry is touring studios selling his book, leveraging his personal story as part of family’s new business model following the couple’s Netflix documentary. Tales of fisticuffs with William at Kensington Palace, his frostbitten penis at his brother’s wedding, and his taking out Taliban fighters suggest that his next booking might be with Maury. The monarchy produces no end of drama; only The Crown provides entertainment.
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