Sunak thinks he is following Thatcher’s union-busting playbook. But he has fatally misread it
The biggest walkout by workers in a decade; schools shut and train stations empty in the closest thing to a general strike still allowed by the law; and passport desks at airports manned by soldiers. History is being made before our eyes. To understand what lies ahead, we have to look back to the start. Or rather, to the woman who started it.
The giant shadow looming over both workers and politicians sports hair as unyielding as a helmet, shoulder pads like ramparts and a handbag that doubles as an offensive weapon. If any single person is responsible for the way Britons work today, it is Margaret Thatcher. In the greatest political battle of this winter, she has lessons for both sides – and they are not what Rishi Sunak is expecting.
Let us consult her memoirs, in which the Iron Lady explains how she won the historic electoral landslide of 1983. Her story is most revealing in what it leaves out. The Labour party is barely mentioned and its leader, Michael Foot, gets an absent-minded pat on the head: “If I did not think it would offend him, I would say he was a gentleman.” Her real political enemy is the trade unions.
How she loathes them! “Overbearing” unions are stuffed with “communists and militants” whose only work is “callous strikes”, she says, blaming them for both high unemployment and low exports. Even while the economy tanked and 3 million Britons were unemployed, Thatcher drove through two anti-union laws within two years during her first term.
By the 1983 election bosses could sack strikers, and companies that forbade trade unions could bid for government contracts, even while workers faced far greater limits on their right to walk out. All this at a time when Special Branch police officers were spying so closely on union activists that the employment secretary, Norman Tebbit, knew where they went on holiday. It was an onslaught on organised labour not seen since the General Strike of 1926. It also became a cornerstone of modern Tory politics.
Sunak was only two when that second Employment Act passed, while Grant Shapps, somehow cast as the Tebbit de nos jours, was a teenager. They are the last generation of Conservatives that we might call Thatcher’s children. All both politicians have ever known is that when a Tory leader is in trouble, they copy Thatcher and pass laws to repress unions. Flailing John Major did it twice, while David Cameron clamped down on the austerity backlash with strike laws that made even Tebbit wince.
In finance Sunak traded derivatives; in politics he just is a derivative – an unimaginative but cursively neat copier of the textbooks and focus groups and social-media stratagems plonked on his wooden desk. This week he, too, is trying his hand at Bash a Union Baron, refusing to budge on pay for teachers and nurses, mocking Keir Starmer’s “paymasters” and pushing through yet another parliamentary attack on the right to strike.
Except he has not paid enough attention to his Thatcher. Despite the cliches of a deep-blue ideologue, the longest-serving prime minister of the 20th century obsessed over building public support for her policies. Through the early 1980s, she was sure the electorate, including rank-and-file union members, backed her against the union leaders. “Far from proving a political incubus it was one of our strongest appeals to the voters,” she writes in her memoirs. Forty years ago, her cabinet considered a version of the same law Sunak is ramming through right now – in her case, a ban on strikes in essential services – but “the practical difficulties … were immense” and great pains were taken to present her as wholly sensible. You would never have caught her on camera without a seatbelt.
Scroll forward to today, to a prime minister with no such nous and no direct mandate from either electorate or his own party. Sunak heads a government drained of interest in governing, and tries to marshal backbenchers busy lining up their next jobs. Still he stumbles on, into the very trap Thatcher saw would snap its metal teeth right into her foot.
His strike law faces the same fate as Suella Braverman’s one-way tickets to Rwanda: costly challenges in the courts from the TUC and others, and Starmer’s team putting on their best concerned expressions at the government’s loss of control. And, should the judges allow it through, Sunak might want to ask his rightwing counterparts in Spain what happens when workers are picked out as too essential for walkouts: volleys of lawyers’ letters so fierce they would fox an umpire on Centre Court.
After four decades, Sunak’s enemy bears no resemblance to the one faced by Thatcher. She kickstarted the process by which the UK ended up with some of the most repressive union laws of any major rich country and with feeble protections on such essentials as sick pay. Put atop an economic model that has been wrecked since 2008, plus more than a decade of austerity, and what do you get? The average British worker stuck in the longest wage freeze for 200 years. That is the reality of today’s workforce: not a platoon of mini-Arthur Scargills, but men and women who have spent years holding together failing public services, sacrificing a day’s pay and pension contributions on picket lines – merely to stop sinking further into economic misery.
My late mother was a primary school teacher who took me on rallies during the Thatcher years. I wonder how she would have reacted to the stories told me this week by an assistant head working the same patch, east London: of full-time teachers doing weekend shifts on the checkout at Tesco, and of others giving up their post and their dreams of home-ownership to move in with their parents. I think she would have struggled to believe such a decline was possible for the profession in which she spent decades. She might have asked how little we loved our children, to entrust them to such an ill-treated and disrespected workforce.
Meanwhile, government ministers admit the rail strike has cost more than it would have done just to give the workers what they wanted. Royal Mail reveals that just 18 days of strikes has wiped £200m off its bottom line. Poll after poll shows outright public support for nurses and teachers and postal workers, and at least a willingness to listen to the other sectors. Union officials and activists report their members feeling emboldened after seeing the leader of the RMT union, Mick Lynch, on telly or other workers sticking up for themselves. How long this sentiment holds up is anyone’s guess, but there is at least potential for a sea change in the public argument.
In any case, it’s not the strikers who look dogmatic and uncaring in this historic week – and Thatcher could have told Sunak what happens when the public and your party finally decide you’re in the wrong. You end up in a ministerial car heading the wrong way out of Downing Street, the world peering curiously through the windows at someone who all can agree is finished.
Aditya Chakrabortty is a Guardian columnist