To arrive at the 100th Trades Union Congress in the Winter Gardens, Blackpool, shortly after leaving the frontiers of Czechoslovakia, as I did last week, was a frightening experience, a transition from brutal reality to dreamy deja-vu.
On the border by Bratislava had lounged six Red Army soldiers, uncouth, formidable machine-pistols slung over shoulders, intentions uncertain. There and elsewhere. distraught Czechs arrived tearfully in Austria, worried about relatives or decided on exile.
For myself, as one who 20 years ago controlled a similar stretch of Russian demarcation line, it was a moment of truth. There once again began the empire of aggressive. atheistic Communism with the casual shootings, killings, looting and, in Prague, interruption of Masses. Despite all our comfortable assumptions, nothing, it was suddenly clear, had changed.
And at Blackpool, a world apart, nbthing much had changed either. There, in the crowded auditorium, were all the old familiar faces. the same old sentiments and, with rare exceptions, the same old slogans.
It is, of course, one of the few pleasures of attending a Congress to see the old familiar faces. Trade union leaders are mostly kindly people, who are genuinely pleased to see old friends again. Everyone knows each other, and the amused understanding of personal prejudices and foibles gives, warmth to debates which is' hard to transmit on paper.
But the reality of the Blackpool Congress was characterised by its lack of real ism. Not only were most debates marked by a stupefying dullness from which the only escape lay in the lobbies filled with noisy gambling machines and gawping holidaymakers. Too many speeches were composed in a kind of emotional limbo, barely related to the seriousness of Britain's economic situation. the increasingly invidious role of the TUC itself and the need for future planning and reform. On the main issue of incomes policy. the result was negative and selfdestructive.
Sadly, its centenary year which should have been full of honour for the TUC as a great British institution has shown its influence and standing as seldom lower.
Still bound by Its collective and individual loyalties to the Labour Government, the TUC has found itself almost totally disregarded by it. The Prime Minister and his colleagues meet the TUC chiefs, hear their views and then continue unmoved with antiunion policies such as no Conservative Government dare contemplate. Until the TUC ceases to let itself be taken for granted. its decline will continue.
Unfortunately, to quote a German proverb, this is like jumping over its own shadow. This year, for example. Congress voted overwhelmingly against any form of Government wages restraint.
Mrs. Castle, Secretary for Employment, who heard the debate, promptly announced the Government would carry on regardless. Then, at the very end of conference, a few realists like Mr. Cousins who argued strongly against expressing lip-service loyalty to the Labour Government were easily defeated after appeals to fundamentalist sentiments by less perceptive delegates.
On voluntary incomes policy, Mr. George Woodcock, soon to retire as general secretary, argued as cogently as ever on the need for the TUC to have its own effective alternative. But this time, the policy barely survived by a majority of only 34,000 votes, against nearly seven million in spring, 1967. Its opponents, however, had nothing to offer but a return to the free for all.
The few other highlights included the unexpectedly strong support by Congress for militant action to secure earlier implementation of equal pay for women. A decisive contribution was made by Miss Joan O'Connell, a beautiful but fiery young delegate from Dublin.
The other notable episode was the short debate in which Congress condemned Russian aggiession against Czechoslo vakia. Typically tough against Communism, the General Council had already ended all contacts with Russian and other unions, which it had been cautiously cultivating in recent years.
But an attempt to salvage these links by two Left Wingers was thunderously demolished by Mr. Danny McGarvey, Boilermakers' leader, who, as a battlescarred Left Winger himself, movingly asked what the suffering Czechoslovak people would think if the TUC took no action.
Lord Carron, for long a pillar of the General Council, took a graceful farewell this year. Another Catholic stalwart, Sir Torn O'Brien looked surprisingly well after his serious illness.
--Probably the most significant development of the Centenary Congress was underlined by Mr. Woodcock in his final remarks. It was the Inclusion of nine new members, out of 40, in the enlarged General Council.
The entry of Mr. Scanlon, Engineering, Mr. Jack Jones, future 'Transport Union chief, and Mr. Doughty, Draughtsmen, means an appreciable strengthening of the Left. Against this, Mr. Jack Peel, the Dyers' leader who provoked the wages vote, is a rising star on the Right.
Whatever the outcome, the infusion of new blood will give the General Council badly-needed vitality. What is also needed is some realistic thinking on the TUC's role, its structure, inter-union coordination and relations with Governments during the next ten, if not 100, years.