History of the Transport and General Workers’ Union

How not to write the history of the TGWU

by Joe Keenan

A history of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, by Ken Coates and Tony Topham, is currently being published by Basil Blackwell. The first volume (in two parts, a two-book boxed edition) appeared recently, entitled Emergence of the Labour Movement. It covers the period 1870 to 1922, from the origins of ‘new unionism’ to the year of the actual foundation of the T & G.

Though not described on the title pages or the cover as ‘official’, the fulsome terms of Ron Todd’s foreword, which speaks of the union’s “formal cooperation”, make it impossible to consider the work as anything other than an authorised biography. This makes it all the more galling to have to report that the price in the shops of these 900 or so pages is £95.00! Nothing can justify that price, certainly not the quality of the binding which is in fact below standard. After one steady reading and a fair bit of cross- referencing my copy is already beginning to come apart.

This first volume of the history of the T&G is not worth £95.00. The question is, is it worth anything? Was it worth publishing at all?

It is certainly worth something as an exercise in hagiography, giving as it docs an entirely new dimension to the idea of Christian Socialism. Thus we learn – something we had not known before – of the Catholic Church’s central role in the development of trade unionism:

“Cardinal Manning, as we have seen, had determined to identify his Church with the cause of labour, especially that of the unskilled, and to this end he had given active encouragement to the Knights. Thus the cause of Irish Nationalism, reinforced by the folk memory of an oppressed and persecuted Church and embodied in the person of the ‘ saintly old priest’ of London, was harnessed in the cause of trade unionism…. the impetus, the tradition, of the Irish Catholic stream were fused into the new flood to provide much of its vital dynamism. Manning’s intervention in London can now be seen as the most public manifestation of a consistent policy, which reached to the heart of the international Catholic Church in the years to come. The famous papal encyclical, Rerum Novarum of 1891, which determined Church initiatives throughout Europe and beyond, were [sic] ‘to some extent’ the work of Cardinal Manning. Forty years later, Quadregesimo Anno, promulgated by Pius XI, was to continue in the same vein” (page 83).

Actually, Rerum Novarum and Quadregesimo Anno were promulgated precisely to counter the spread of socialist ideas within the working classes of Catholic Europe.

Catholic apologetics apart, this history suffers grievously from the lack of any central organising principle.

It seemed from their Introduction that Coates and Topham intended to set the growth of the T & G in the context of developing ideas of workers’ control. There they wrote: “One Big Union was never far removed from the ideals of workers’ control and self- management” (page xxvi). It is hardly surprising that their meandering text does next to nothing to substantiate that thesis. Ideals of workers’ control and self-management are very far removed from the person of Ken Coates.

In the mid-1970s, when the Bullock Report was offering real measures of workers’ control, Coates (the politician of the duo) used his proprietorship of the Institute of Workers’ Control to encourage the conservative opposition within the trade union movement. Not only did the IWC not agitate in favour of workers’ control at that time, it went so far as to misrepresent the proposals on offer in order to disorientate the movement and undermine such support as was emerging. Coates muddied the waters and poisoned the pools. He prepared the way for Thatcher.

It is hard to resist the conclusion that Coates ’ involvement in this history is more of the same; that he is muddying the waters, poisoning the pools, interposing himself and his overpriced waffle between the members of the TGWU and the reality of its history.



This article appeared in September 1992, in Issue 31 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/ and https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/m-articles-by-topic/.