June 27, 2019 3.51 pm This story is over 29 months old

Barry Turner: Brexiteers demand eternal life

We never seem to learn from history

It has always been a strange phenomenon in human affairs that in spite of our meticulous recording of it, we never seem to learn from history. Every generation seems to make the same mistakes — but never gains from the experience.

The last three years have driven this home to us all once again. Just over three years ago, the British people voted to leave the EU, as if we need reminding. The previous three months were characterised by political lies on the most colossal scale from both sides of the argument. From £350m hand-outs to the NHS, to the warnings of catastrophic economic disaster on the other hand. The propaganda machines of both sides excelled themselves to a degree that Dr Goebbels himself would have applauded.

The three years since have been lamented as a time of unprecedented disharmony in the country, of splits, factions, betrayals and ever increasing demands with ever decreasing probability of them ever being met.

But is this really something new? Have we really not been here before? Is it so long ago that people have really forgotten? No is the short answer. No, we have been here many times before and we need to either remember it or get a good book on recent UK history. Let’s just look an example from not so long ago.

The 1970s is a decade that is fast fading into history, probably because it was one with little good to remember it for. In contrast with the ‘white heat’ of the 1960s and the hedonistic decadence of the loads ‘o’ money 1980s, the 70s were drab and miserable in spite of glam rock, flares and gaudy tank tops.

One of the political characteristics that we would recognise today is that the 1970s was the decade of demands. At the end of the 2nd decade of the 21st century, we are still there. The demands may be different in nature but they are so similar in style.

The 1970s was characterised by the age of the trade union, or we should perhaps say the trade union gone bad. This was an era of all powerful trade unions, undemocratic trade unions run by ‘president for life’ bosses on a destructive collision course with government, and employers epitomised by ever increasing and ever more implausible demands.

Those demands led eventually to economic stagnation verging on collapse and division in the country every bit as raw and inflamed as the current Brexit row. Put plainly, the UK was a laughing stock in the world and a place that many were losing patience with. Feels familiar so far?

Today our political vista is also characterised by demands. Demands in many cases of the instant gratification kind. The infantile “I want, I want” kind of demands that simply are not going to be met. In the 1970s the unions made ever increasing demands. Today they are made by an oddball bunch that we have come to call populists. Ironically, militant trade unionists and these populists have been on opposite sides of the political spectrum, but here they find common purpose.

The trade union demands were eventually utterly impossible to meet but they kept coming all the same. Ever increasing pay rises, ever increasing variances to contracts. Those demands and holding the country to ransom led to the Thatcher government of 1979 and the demise of union ‘absolute power’.

Now the demands come from Brexiteers and populist politicians, and like the union demands of old, they are just as unachievable and damaging to the UK’s prestige and eventually its economy. Boris Johnson makes demands that “come what may” we will leave on the 31st October. He tells us that GATT24 will save us from ruin, even though every sensible commentator has repeatedly told us this will not work and never could have. Just like the old style trade union demagogues of the 1970s, the fact that his demands are unachievable matters not, he just keeps on making them.

A spoof newspaper headline from the 1970s once announced “Railwaymen Demand Eternal Life”. Today Boris and fellow travellers demand from the EU what they can never have. The old saying attributed to philosopher George Santayana “those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it” echoes in every Brexiteer soundbite.

The unions lost their immense power during the 1980s and Margaret Thatcher is frequently credited with that victory. In reality, it was just as much the consequence of EU employment law granting legal rights to employees that undermined the imperious power of the trade union bosses. So Arch-Brexiteers need to think on. Some of them would very much like to diminish those worker’s rights that we have so much to thank EU law for.

Should that be a consequence of our leaving the EU, then the anti trade union laws of the Thatcher years will not be enough to save the UK from a return to Red Robbo and Arthur Scargill trade unionism. Those who have not heard of Mr Robinson and the legendary Arthur Scargill might want to read the history books. It will be a lot more comfortable than reliving it.

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Barry Turner is Senior Lecturer in Media Law and Public Administration at the University of Lincoln.