The railway strike which begins today invites comparison with the 1970s. This is not, however, everyone's view, for reasons this constructive article by Will Hutton makes clear.
Whether or not these comparisons with the 70s are valid, what is clear is that we have learned so little in the last half century. Britain's basic problem, than and still now, is that both our political and our economic institutions are organised to promote confrontation rather than co-operation.
In our politics, our "winner takes all" electoral system narrows our choice to two major sides, which sit opposite each other in parliament, jeer at each other and try to impress their sporters by acting tough. Confrontation rather than co-operation results. This was damaging enough when the winners' arrogance was tempered by deference to the largely unwritten rules of the "good chap theory of government." Now that these conventions are routinely ignored by the present government, or, if they are written, torn up and re-written to suit the present incumbents, we are staggering further and further away from the true democracy of which we are pioneers, and which, among other things, assumes the rule of law and respect for the views of minorities.
The same confrontational structure dominates our economy. Put at its simplest, private company boards represent solely the shareholders, and have the legal duty to maximise their profits. Excluded from formal representation, workers band together in trade unions and unite to try to achieve better wages and conditions.
When I first campaigned as a Liberal way back in the 1960s we proposed new structures in both politics and economics in order to replace competition with co-operation. In politics we proposed that our parliaments should be chosen using an electoral system based on proportional representation achieved by single transferable votes in multimember constituencies..
To promote co-operation in industry (and there still was lots of it) we argued that company boards should, broadly speaking, represent not just the shareholders, but also the employees and some form of community representation. Each should have one third of the seats so that, crudely, neither owners nor employees could have it "all their own way" but would need to gain the support of some of another group, or maybe both of them, for their ideas to be implemented.
This, of course, made little progress, though some companies, such as the John lewis Partnership, have adopted the allied idea of profit sharing with great success, and similar structures exist in the Scandinavian countries, Germany and France, all of which now have higher levels of productivity and standards of living than the UK.
The present rail confrontation illustrates the weakness of the government's position. It is a nonsense to claim that the issues are for the management and unions to sort out for themselves. Of course the government has a stake and should exercise it. After all, railways are a public service and are heavily subsidised from the public purse.
The managements have the genuine case that railway usage now, party as a result of the increase in home working, has reached only 80% of its pre-pandemic level, and adjustments need to be made. The unions argue that their members have kept the service running in the dangerous times of the pandemic, their wages have remained static and need to reflect the present levels of inflation, and that adjustments should not involve compulsory redundancies reduce safety levels
The government, representing society, should be involved so that a suitable compromise is reached.
Instead of acting constructively in this way, one suspects that Prime Minister Johnson is delighted to have a "national emergency" which takes attention away from Partygate and the shambolic performance of his government, and the official opposition is terrified of any move which might enable the right wing press to identify it as on the side of the workers.
Both our political and economic structures need urgent reform. Instead we are still trapped in the confrontational grooves which existed fifty years ago. We have learned nothing and, sadly, there is little sign that serious ideas about reform are anywhere near the surface of current political discussion.