12 JULY 1957, Page 9

Arthur Deakin

By CHRISTOPHER HOLLIS T CANNOT lay claim to any sort of intimacy with LArthur Deakin. As a general rule, no one in the world is less interesting than an `interesting' person—that is to say, a person who holds some important and responsible post, because such a person is always in his conversation intolerably on his guard. But Arthur Deakin was not only a generous host but a singularly pleasant and stimulating companion over a dinner table. No doubt it would have been a different story if I had been either an employer with whom he had to negotiate or a trade union colleague or sub- ordinate. But it was my good fortune that when I met him he was off parade. I enjoyed the in- cidental asides of his conversation—such as that he was the first person in history to pretend to be a Welshman when he wasn't because it would be to the advantage of his career. In order to sustain the pretence he. made his son play football for Wales instead of England. So he said. I have no notion whether this was strictly so or not.

It is naturally with the official side of Deakin's life that Mr. Allen* is concerned, nor is his con- cern with a mere biography. He has set himself the task of giving us the whole picture of the trade union in modern society and of the growth of the Transport and General Workers' Union in particular. It is a fascinatingly interesting and important picture, containing much detail upon which I would not at all claim the competence to comment.

I was always particularly interested in Deakin's influence on the decline of the prestige of Par- liament, and it is on what Mr. Allen has to say —some of it by implication—on this that I par- ticularly fasten. In former days the trade unionist fought out his battle with the private employer—and Government and Parliament Minded their own different business. The two rarely impinged on one another. A trade union in those days, according to the formula of Sydney Webb, should limit its members to those who could exchange jobs with one another. Then with Ernest Bevin came the new conception of a gigantic union with members drawn from the practitioners of every sort of trade. Mr. Allen has a good deal to tell us about the advantages of such a large union. He does not perhaps quite sufficiently insist that its effectiveness depends on its psychological strength. It can only work if its members can be persuaded to feel their loyalty to it. Now it is perfectly true that all Bevin's amalgamations were carried through in correct constitutional form and that no smaller union could be amalgamated except by a vote of at least 50 per cent. of its members in favour. Still it was not all quite as simple as that, and emotions cannot be destroyed merely by being voted against. Even before . the war Ernest Bevin, Powerful as he was, was not quite as powerful as he pretended to be. He could not speak for all his members with quite the unchallenged authority that he would have had us believe, and * TRADE UNION LEADERSHIP: BASED ON A STUDY OF ARTHUR DEMON. By V. L. Allen. (Longmans, 30s.) the unofficial strike was not a mere act of wanton wickedness but the logical consequence of a feeling that the official union was too impersonal and gigantic to care for the individual's griev- ance. Ernest Bevin knew very well that he could only °reserve the nominal unity of the union by at times sacrificing its real unity. Take Mr. Allen's account of the.way in which he handled an unofficial dock strike as early as 1923 :

The strike lasted for seven weeks. During that time it was discussed by the national delegate conference of the Union. The matter was one of great delicacy; an uncompromising repri• mand of the dockers' action might have severed them from the Union; on the other hand appro- val of the strike might have destroyed the newly established collective bargaining machin- ery in the dock industry and weakened the Union's ability to conduct its own business. Eventually the delegates agreed to sympathise with the dockers' grievance, remind them of the need to use constitutional machinery and appeal to their sense of solidarity. The strikers were not criticised nor were they instructed to return to work.

The gap between leaders and men was de- liberately widened by the patriotic action of Bevin and the trade union leaders during the war in devoting themselves wholeheartedly to the increase of production. But it existed because of the elephantine nature of the TGWU. So Arthur Deakin when he came to full office found this difficulty of disloyalty among certain sec- tions of his members—particularly among the dockers and the London busmen. Mr. Allen is able to argue interestingly that precise defects in the union's constitution or in Deakin's tem- perament may have contributed to this dis- loyalty. For us the important thing is that it existed. Naturally the Communists exploited it. Naturally Deakin hit back at the Communists and came characteristically to glory in the title which the Communists gave him of Public Enemy No. 1. The intrusion of the Communists into the controversy caused Deakin—particularly towards the end of his life—impatiently to dismiss liberal arguments against closed shops and in favour of minority rights. Those who used such arguments, he would say, did not understand what they were talking about nor that these minority rights were being claimed not by genuine lovers of freedom but by Communists anxious only to rock the boat. Yet there is no doubt that the consequence or Communist opposition was that Deakin came too easily to think that a grievance must be unreal so long as there was a Communist voicing it. He would have said with all sincerity that he was a democrat and would have argued that democracy meant that the rule of the majority must prevail. That was true enough as far as it went, but I think it can be said that though he was meticulous in admitting the necessity to collect a majority of votes before he imposed his will, he was a little less meticulous about how that majority was collected or about the rights of the minority after it had been collected. He habitually spoke with excessive optimism about the weakening of the opposition to him. I re- member once lunching with him and he ex- plained to me over the luncheon table that he did not think that there would be any more trouble with unofficial strikes in the docks. We came out of the dining-room and, looking at the tape, saw that an unofficial strike had broken out in the docks while we were at lunch. Deakin, to do him justice, laughed quite a lot. I was never able to decide whether the cause of his optimism in conversation was that he had to some extent deceived himself or whether he had deliberately decided that he would be able to exercise more influence if he habitually talked of himself as more powerful than he was. Possunt quia posse videntur.

As I have said, a generation ago the political world and the trade union world only occa- sionally overlapped. Then after the war the legis- lation of the postwar Socialist Government vastly increased the area of the Government's industrial responsibility. It was with such a situation that Deakin was called upon to deal. A pragmatist innocent of abstract political theories, he was clear that, if the Government in one form or another was the employer, then conditions of labour could only be settled by negotiation between the trade unions and the Government. Negotiation was an expert and technical business. Interference by parlia- mentary question and parliamentary debate could only create confusion. For that reason the less the detail of any industrial problem was debated in Parliament the better pleased he was. On the pragmatic plane I dare say that he was quite right, but his influence was, I think, more potent than that of any other man in establish- ing the modern law that the more that the Government controls industry the less can Par- liament control the Government. He never would have said so in so many words, but he did not really see where Parliament came in in the modern State.