wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Correlli Barnett

The Lost Victory

Few industries require the skills of so many different types of craftsmen (each necessarily working in the same confined area) or experience so much difficulty in keeping them continuously employed; it frequently happens that some of the skilled craftsmen are unable to get their work through to time whilst other types of craftsmen are insufficiently occupied. Owing to demarcation restrictions, however, the latter cannot help the former, although technically equipped to do so.
In unrelenting pursuit of such absurdities, worthy of a weird land of nonsense visited by Gulliver, the Amalgamated Engineering Union and the Boilermakers' Society refused to allow appropriately skilled members of the National Union of Railwaymen to work in shipyards; the Electricians' Union in one shipyard refused to work with a non-union electrician and threatened to strike; and the Boilermakers did go on strike in December 1944 in a dispute with the Shipwrights' Union over who should operate a flame-cutting machine. Even day-to-day interchangeability, like an electrician boring the hole for his own wiring, was not achieved on any scale. In the fabrication of ships' ventilators alone, no fewer than seven crafts were involved, some more than once. The men and the unions objected to interchangeability for much the same reasons that they objected to dilution, but even more keenly, for if a skilled man could do another's job then the mere labourer could do it too, and, they feared, at a labourer's rate of pay. Furthermore, they also feared losing the 'ownership' of some part of the production process to another union.

The craft unions in the shipyards also fought strenuously to prevent new technology being introduced that would render their traditional skills and manning levels redundant; and it was the Boilermakers' Society which provided the Old Guard in this largely successful last stand. A Ministry of Labour official groaned in May 1943: 'Whenever dilution is raised, we seem to be brought up against this ghostly squad of unemployed boilermakers.' The opening of a government riveting school was delayed for more than a year because the Boilermakers demanded a promise that the ratio of apprentices to journeymen should not exceed one to five. When and where pneumatic riveting replaced hand-riveting, employers and unions agreed that an additional man, as needed on pre-war hand-riveting, should also be employed. As a Mass-Observation report noted at the time, this man 'has nothing at all to do now, except sit all day beside the riveters. He draws full wages.'

And shipyard workers were not notorious for zeal; One investigating committee reported in 1942:
We have evidence of a lack of discipline, particularly among the younger men, and of a reluctance to work agreed overtime, and our attention was drawn to what has become a custom whereby workers delay starting work until 10 or 15 minutes after the due time, and begin making their way to the gates 10 or 15 minutes before stopping time.
Nor were the workers and unions in advanced-technology industries such as aircraft or precision engineering more conspicuous for zeal and concern for productivity. As early as 1941 sloth in aircraft factories was causing anxiety. A report on de Havilland at Castle Bromwich, for instance, found 'a marked absence of discipline', 'slackness' and 'difficulty in controlling shop stewards'. In April 1943 the new Production Efficiency Board reported after visiting Coventry firms on Ministry of Aircraft Production contracts that there would be no need for extra labour if the existing labour-force did its stuff. But timings and prices for piece-work made it possible to enjoy 'high earnings without a correspondingly high effort'. Wrote the board: 'in each factory there is evidence of slackness and lack of discipline. Operators are slow in starting work at the beginning of each shift and after each break, and there is a complete stoppage of work from 15 to 30 minutes before each break....'

And then there were the wild-cat strikes, usually over the same parochial grievances as bedevilled the 1970s car industry-for example, over an efficiency check on the use of a machine; or because two fitters had been transferred by management to a different section of the same shop; or over piece-rates for a new machine; or over canteen facilities; or because of the alleged victimisation of a shop-steward.

Meanwhile the craft unions in the aircraft industry and its sub-contracting firms hung on to their demarcations and restrictive practices as stubbornly as their brothers in the shipyards, and likewise despite the 1940 Restoration of Trade Practices Act, which guaranteed that the privileges of the craft unions everywhere would be fully restored after the war. Of all absurdities, the sheet-metal unions sought to maintain that, because for centuries metal had been shaped by craftsmen banging away with hand-tools, then metal shaping for the fuselage of a Spitfire or Lancaster by the power-press and automatic tool in a mass-production factory must be rated as craftsmen's work, and manned and paid as such. It is therefore no wonder that the rise in aircraft output during the Second World War was achieved not by a surge in productivity, but simply by deploying over 100,000 extra machine-tools and over a million extra workers.

Thus even a total war for survival had failed to remedy in British management and the British workforce that smug, stubborn conservatism of outlook and method that had been first identified a century earlier by Cobden and Lyon Playfair, and documented by royal commissions from the 1870s to the 1920s. In fact these failings had actually been encouraged by wartime conditions. For firms on government contracts were subject to no discipline of international or even home-market competition. Those working for the War Office or Ministry of Supply cruised comfortably along on a 'cost-plus' basis, whereby they received a fixed but certain profit on top of whatever their costs turned out to be. Even the fixed-price contracts preferred by the Admiralty and the Air Ministry (later the Ministry of Aircraft Production) were frequently negotiated after production was well advanced—hardly the most effective way to keep costs low and efficiency high. The workforce, for its part, enjoyed 'full employment' to the point where firms were poaching scarce labour from each other. This decisively swung the balance of industrial leverage from management to unions and shop-stewards, and left no effective sanctions to spur efficiency and effort.

Yet the Second World War reveals the survival of other long-standing British industrial weaknesses: a cripplingly narrow base in high-technology resources and skills; a concomitant difficulty in 'technology transfer' from original invention into series production of equipment; and hence a strong dependence on imports of foreign technology.