ONE wonders what Mrs Thatcher, were she still around at the moment, would make of this relentless wave of public-sector strikes. Having faced down the miners in 1984-85, and witnessed much other industrial unrest, she set about reducing trade union power and curbing restrictive practices as part of her effort to turn Britain into an enterprise economy.

She noted with pride that in her final year in office, thanks to compulsory balloting, there were fewer industrial stoppages than in any year since 1935; fewer than two million days were lost during those last 12 months, compared with an average of 13 million during the dank days of the 1970s.

It is hard to keep track of all the current UK pay disputes, especially since they don’t all necessarily affect the entire country. Nurses, teachers, Border Force officers, ambulance staff, rail workers, Royal Mail workers, university staff, driving examiners: all have signalled their intention to withhold their labour on selected days. Civil servants, and junior doctors in England, might yet follow suit.

The Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association has announced a further day of targeted strike action, on January 11. Three airports that serve Scotland’s remote island communities will be closed when staff strike for two days later this month. ScotRail warns rail users to expect significant disruption during the latest round of strike action by RMT members of Network Rail, even if the dispute does not involve ScotRail staff.

Across the UK, just over 205,000 working days were lost to strikes in September, and though this of course is considerably less than the record during Mrs Thatcher’s final year (and a mere flea-bite when contrasted with the 11.7m lost during 1979, the peak of the‘winter of discontent’), one senses that it is not the end of the story. Parallels have been drawn with the events of 1978-79, with the early 1980s, and even with the general strike of May 1926.

Some union leaders have recently admitted co-ordinating strike action for maximum impact. There are dark grievances in some Conservative quarters that their aim is to get rid of a government that, after 12 long years in power, is apparently bracing itself for defeat at hands of Keir Starmer. The fateful question as to who governs Britain has been raised again. Another general strike, however, is unlikely, thanks to curbs that were introduced after the events of 1926, and tightened up by Mrs Thatcher.

Rishi Sunak, responding to what he sees as trade union intransigence in seeking inflation-breaking pay rises, has promised tough new laws to make strikes more difficult. He insists that if union leaders cannot act reasonably then it is up to him to ensure people’s safety and minimise disruption. But the Prime Minister cannot ignore the UK’s international legal obligations and the fact that the right to strike is protected by the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Social Charter.

All of these might make it difficult for him to decide what is reasonable. Even a mooted parliamentary Bill that would seek to ensure minimum service levels during strikes might run counter to the international obligations. Should he seek to follow through, he will trigger fierce union opposition.

There is no doubt that with inflation of 10 per cent, millions of people are facing profound challenges – in heating their homes, paying their rent or mortgage, feeding their children, putting petrol into their cars. Wages have fallen behind in real terms. The disruption caused by strikes will be felt more keenly in some cases than in others, but the strikers themselves are ordinary people who have had enough and have run out of options. They cannot be expected to tolerate effective pay cuts year after year while the rich get richer.

The government has played hard ball, perhaps fearing that to do otherwise will open the floodgates. It hopes that inflation will fall dramatically by January and February 2024, and insists that agreeing to high pay demands now could lock in high inflation. A reported offer by the Department of Transport to rail workers, which would have been worth between 8% and 9% , was stymied by the Treasury. Mr Sunak claims that every family would have to pay £1,000 in taxes if he yielded to public-sector pay demands, but his figure has been disputed by, amongst others, the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

The rail unions have been belligerent when it comes to defending pay and conditions, and there are concerns that not only are most rail workers well-paid as it is, but that strike action over Christmas might affect some £120m worth of long-planned engineering works. Their level of pay contrasts with that of the army of care workers, whose real worth to society really ought to be rewarded with higher salaries, and with people in the private sector, whose wages have signally failed to keep pace with inflation and who in many cases have lost their final pension salaries.

But public sector workers are at the sharp end of things, doing vital jobs and delivering services that the country depends upon. Poverty pay is a grim fact of life for too many of them. The regard in which they are held comes from the fact that, despite the multiplying inconveniences caused by withdrawal of labour, the public supports the striking workers. Uppermost in the public’s mind are stagnant wages, the widespread use of foodbanks, the ceaseless disparities in wealth between top and bottom and, not least, the Conservatives’ ingrained habit of starving many public services of key funding over the years.

Mr Sunak came to office determined to put the economy right, and made a point of his stringent fiscal conservatism. By channelling Mrs Thatcher he has shown that he is disinclined to seek a compromise with union leaders. He also scents an opportunity to wrong-foot the Labour opposition over such a sensitive issue. If the strikes go ahead, they will render a recession-plagued winter even worse, but Mr Sunak’s intransigence is to be regretted. He has no sympathy for the plight of badly-paid public sector workers. One leader, Mark Serwotka of the PCS, says that 40,000 of his members are using foodbanks and that 45,000 have to claim benefits. Public sentiment is clearly on the side of the strikers. Mr Sunak would do well to heed this and seek compromise. It will be a missed opportunity should he decide otherwise.



Buffer zones at abortion clinics

THE Scottish Government must prioritise the establishment of buffer zones outside abortion clinics, following this week’s Supreme Court ruling. Intimidation of women outside clinics by anti-abortion protesters is utterly appalling. The protesters have every right to make their voices heard outside Holyrood, where laws are made. But women attending clinics need to be shielded from their contempt.