8 DECEMBER 1979, Page 13

The spirit of collectivism

Christopher Booker

It is probably premature to see the events of the past two weeks as having marked a significant turning point in the appalling psychological stranglehold which the unions and union ways of thinking have won over our national life in recent years. Nevertheless it cannot be denied that in the past days some very remarkable things have taken place, which not long ago would have seemed unthinkable.

Firstly, of course, there was the routing by nurses and doctors at Charing' Cross Hospital of the engineers' picket line. There was the collapse of the grand, advertised 'one out all out' stoppage at British Leyland, in protest against the sacking of Mr Robinson. Sir Michael Edwardes may no more be able — as Graham Turner was suggesting in this week's Sunday Telegraph --to save Leyland from eventual disintegration than any of his predecessors; but at least the refusal of the workforce to make any more sacrifices to save the dignity of a man whom they as well as anyone know to be a 'professional troublemaker' marks as striking a shift in opinion as the recent Leyland ballot itself. Then there has been the extraordinary spectacle of the falling out of two unions — the beleaguered steelworkers and the Mineworkers — over the attempts to stop Cheap American coking coal being imported into South Wales. The steelworkers are now only too well aware that the saving of some £135 million (against this year's anticipated deficit of £300 million) Which the foreign coal would produce for the British Steel Corporation, could well Mean the saving of thousands of steel industry jobs _ and they no longer see why Miners' jobs should be protected at the exrnse of their own. Lastly, *there has been the strangely muted response of the miners themselves to selne of their leaders' earlier trenchant demands for a 65 per cent pay rise. Whether e threat that the Central Electricity Generating Board might also take a good deal of its custom abroad was a factor or not, there is no question that the miners' refusal to strike and to accept a very much lower figure would seem, in contrast to the earlier squeaks and high-pitched cries from Mr Scargill, to mark a refreshing access of economic realism.

As I say, it would probably be premature to see all this adding up to any enormous shift in the prevailing fog of unpleasantness and unreality which has hung so low over Britain in the past few years — but it must be conceded that chinks of humanity and common sense do seem to be opening up in an area where both qualities have seemed Increasingly absent. And more important still, I think it is at last beginning to get through to a great many people what this whole union argument is really all about. What is at stake is ultimately a battle between two totally conflicting views of human nature. On the one hand, however unconsciously held, there is the view that man is essentially a collectivist creature, in the most important respects defined by his membership of a certain group, and that in the end loyalty to that group transcends all Other sources of value. In the eyes of a Derek Robinson or a Charing Cross picket, everything must in the end take second place to the interests of the group, and so long as the internal 'procedures' and democratically arrived at' rules are observed, then all else can and must be sacrificed to ensure that the 'group will' triumphs. On the other hand, there is the view that there is infinitely more to human life than just the membership of any group, however. Important; that there are all sorts of human values to which each of us owes loyalty as an individual, regardless of how the collectivity behaves. Of course individuals will and must make up groups for specific purposes, this view holds, but it is always potentially a dangerous procedure because it involves an Oyer-simplification of human relationships ('Us-Them') and there is always a tendency for group-interests to become an end in themselves, transcending all those other questions. What is most absurd of all, in the name of supposed 'issue of principle', they even end up by threatening the continued earnings and musical pleasure of many of their own members, who have become trapped by the union's bullying power-drive into a kind of timid acquiescence, terrified (not unnaturally) that unless they go along with the union's ham-handed bullying on this occasion, it will be in a position to make things even worse for them in the future.

If it was not so tragic, as has often been observed, it would be laughable. But if the 'Hogwood affair', like the great 'Battle of Charing Cross', have any justification it is perhaps that they have helped to show up a little more clearly to a few more people just what the real battle over collectivist thinking is all about. Its dangers are after all never more starkly illuminated than when it begins to stray into those ultimate domains of the individual human spirit — the arts and care for the sick and suffering. We then see what an utterly despicable and inhuman disease of the spirit collectivism is. We are not here to behave like that.