Spartacus Blog

David Cameron's Trade Union Act and fascism in Europe

Wednesday, 23rd September, 2015

John Simkin

David Davis, recently caused some controversy when he attacked parts of the government’s trade union bill, by claiming that proposed restrictions on pickets were like something that would have been found in Spain under the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco. Davis, a Conservative Party MP, argued that he was especially opposed to the requirement for unions to tell police the name, contact details and location of those on the picket line. Workers would also have to wear an armband or badge to identify themselves. Speaking on Sky News, Davis said: "I agree with most of the trade union bill. I think it’s very sensible … but there are bits of it which look OTT, like requiring pickets to give their names to the police force. What is this? This isn’t Franco’s Britain, this is Queen Elizabeth II’s Britain." (1)

Conservative governments are always sensitive to the claim that their policies are similar to those imposed by fascist dictators. This is especially embarrassing when these attacks come from their own MPs. In the 1930s, Winston Churchill tried to warn the public about the dangers of fascism. His problem was that the government led by Neville Chamberlain, was very sympathetic to the policies of Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany. These views were also supported by the right-wing press that was owned by several neo-fascists. It was also true of British intelligence. It is no coincidence that Soviet spies such as Kim Philby and Guy Burgess were instructed by Moscow to join pro-Nazi groups such as Anglo-German Fellowship, because they knew that MI5 and MI6 were recruiting from these organizations. (2)

The view of Lord Rothermere, the newspaper baron, was that Hitler offered the best chance of destroying communism in the Soviet Union. When Adolf Hitler became Chancellor on 30th January 1933, Rothermere produced a series of articles acclaiming the new regime. The Daily Mail criticized "the old women of both sexes" who filled British newspapers with rabid reports of Nazi "excesses." Instead, the newspaper claimed, Hitler had saved Germany from "Israelites of international attachments" and the "minor misdeeds of individual Nazis will be submerged by the immense benefits that the new regime is already bestowing upon Germany." (3)

Most of the British press were highly supportive of the measures that Hitler took to control trade unions in Germany. People like Rothermere, rightly believed that trade unionists posed a serious threat to their power. Of course, it is not only right-wing dictators who pass anti-trade union measures soon after they take control of a government. It was also very difficult for workers to go on strike in the Soviet Union. The same is true in China today. Trade unionists always pose a threat to the power of dictators.

The main point of Cameron's bill is to introduce a 50% turnout requirement for industrial action ballots, and a minimum positive vote by at least 40% of all those eligible to do so if the strike involves “important public services”. This is being fiercely opposed by trade unionists, who say it threatens their right to strike, but there are a number of other measures that are also causing alarm. These include the suggestion that unions will have to give two weeks’ notice to the police if they plan to campaign via social media.

The TUC’s General Secretary Frances O’Grady said these new laws would benefit the country’s “worst bosses” and that they would “make legal strikes close to impossible”, adding “union negotiators will be left with no more power than Oliver Twist when he asked for more.” Unite’s Steve Turner has argued: “It is a terrible shame and a big mistake that one of the government’s first acts is to attempt to reduce rights for working people that even past Tory administrations have upheld... Many of the electors, who provided the Tories with their slim majority, are working people concerned about justice and fairness in the workplace. They won’t understand why this proposal is coming from a new administration with just 36.9 per cent of the vote to underpin its legitimacy." (4)

One union boss, the train drivers' leader Mick Whelan, also attacked this legislation: "I think it's shameful that this Tory government is coming after the one group of people - the trade unions - who are able to stand up for ordinary working people as well as the poor and the weak, the oppressed and the dispossessed. The Nazis banned unions, and strikes, in 1933, and that is what the Tories are trying to do now. They want to effectively neuter the unions - the only part of civil society now able to fight back - in Britain.” (5)

The Tory MP, Peter Bone, was appalled by these comments and said: “It is outrageous and reprehensible. To compare this government to the Nazis is appalling. I'm not going to give him the credence to suggest that there is any connection. I really think he should resign and if he doesn't, they should get rid of him. I am almost speechless."

Bone is a long-time campaigner for legislation to reduce the power of the trade unions. Bone was also opposed the introduction of the National Minimum Wage, which he claimed would "condemn hundreds of thousands to the dole queue", and later backed a private member's bill proposing to enable employees to opt out of the minimum wage. (6) Bone is not always in favour of paying low wages. Until he was exposed, he used his parliamentary expenses to pay his wife, Jennie, as his part-time secretary, £40,000, a year. (7)

The Daily Mail, following in the tradition of its 1930's support for Hitler's anti-trade union laws, attacked Whelan for his extremist views. "But for Left-wing dinosaurs such as Mr Whelan, there is no difference between the Nazis and the Conservatives.... What all this makes very clear is that the union bosses are spoiling for a fight." The newspaper goes on to argue that Cameron should continue with the proposed legislation and that he needs to show "guts and gumption... in the months ahead. The article then goes on to claim that "history has shown the consequences of appeasement". Of course, it was this newspaper that was the main supporter of appeasement in the 1930s. Nor did it give any support to the victims of Adolf Hitler in Germany. (8)

Mick Whelan's comments about the comparisons between Cameron's trade union bill and the actions of Hitler's Nazi government has obviously upset the right-wing press but are they historically inaccurate. Whelan is clearly right that the Nazis banned unions and strikes in 1933. (9) He is also correct to suggest that the reason for this was that the trade unions in Germany attempted to "stand up for ordinary working people as well as the poor and the weak, the oppressed and the dispossessed". For that reason, Hitler had to destroy them. Whelan suggests that trade unions still play that role today. That is why he believes it is important to stand up to the government over this issue.

As Andrew Brady points out in the International Business News that this is part of the programme to leave the European Convention on Human Rights: "Make no mistake: the Conservative's new Trade Union Bill represents the most severe assault on UK employment rights since the 1980s and hits at the heart of a fundamental right of workers to withdraw their labour. This is a right enshrined in international conventions that the UK is a signatory of, and will be in breach of when the proposals become law. The new law is part of a dangerous strategy designed to recalibrate human rights firmly in favour of the Conservative government's ideological stance rather than universally accepted rights." (10)



(1) Rowena Mason, The Guardian (13th September, 2015)

(2) Ben Macintyre, A Spy Among Friends (2014) page 43

(3) Lord Rothermere, The Daily Mail (30th January 1933)

(4) The Labour List (12th May, 2015)

(5) The Daily Telegraph (13th July, 2015)

(6) The Guardian (13th May, 2009)

(7) The Times (17th July 2008)

(8) The Daily Mail (14th July, 2015)

(9) Richard Evans, The Third Reich in Power (2005) page 456

(10) Andrew Brady, International Business News (15th July, 2015)

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