For three decades, from the 1960s through the 1980s, the “labour question” was at the heart of British politics. The industrial role of trade unions, their impact on economic performance, their influence over public policy, and, perhaps most urgently, their role in provoking or limiting strikes, were central political issues, heavily discussed in party manifestos, media commentary, and even popular culture. A plausible case can be made that the strike capacity of the labor movement played a key role in bringing down three governments, two Labour and one Conservative, in the 1970, 1974, and 1979 general elections. Ultimately, it ushered Margaret Thatcher and a more radical, neoliberal Conservative Party into power.

The role of trade unions first took center stage in the second half of the 1960s (though there were plenty of skirmishes prior to that), when the Labour government of Harold Wilson tried to introduce a set of industrial-relations...

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