By DOUGLAS HYDE
THE long-drawn-out bus strike has caused hundreds of thousands of Londoners to walk, to beg lifts in cars, or to find some alternative means of transport for weeks on end. It has done something more.
It has demonstrated very effectively that what the socialist leaders call our present "mixed economy" may be a liability so far as the workers themselves are concerned, particularly at times when they are pressing for higher wages.
For years socialisation was seen by the members of the organised Labour Movement as the cure for all our industrial ills; only under public ownership, they believed. would the workers find justice. Recent experience, however, goes to show that even from the socialists' own point of view nationalisation may well be a two-edged weapon. It can be used against the workers just as easily as for them.
Leaving aside for the moment the rights and wrongs of the bus strike, it is reasonable to assume that had it not taken place in an industry which has been brought under public ownership, the workers would long ago have won their demands. No private employer could have resisted them without courting disaster.
There was never a strike in which the workers were more solid. They struck to a man. Throughout there has been no attempt at black-legging. Moreover, it is an official strike, which is exceptional these days.
The union concerned was the largest in the land, with funds which equipped it to fight for months, if necessary, in a trial of strength with the employers.
During the course of the strike the employers, who in this case were the publicly-owned London Transport, saw the number of potential passengers on their buses being visibly reduced. They watched their custom going to other forms of transport as tens of thousands of Londoners changed their travelling habits. People who for years had travelled by bus took to the tube or surface railways. Many will not return to the buses.
The sale of motor scooters is reported to have risen during this period by some 25 per cent.
Had the buses been owned by a number of private companies the probability is that in the face of such a landslide in their business. they would have panicked and granted the wage increases which the strikers were demanding. Better to have less profits than no profits at all. would have been their argument.
The chiefs of London Transport, as heads of a publicly-owned monopoly, can view such a situation with equanimity.
Sir John Elliot was able to take the line that if the London buses and their crews become redundant this represents, not a catastrophe, but a progressive development. After all, I.ondoners requiring public transport will still be conveyed by London Transport. It is no loss to the employers, therefore, if they switched from buses to tubes-it just helps to ease the congestion on the roads of the Capital.
Moreover. big as the union's funds may be, with the Government hearing the ultimate responsibility for the publicly-owned industries, the other side have the financial resources to fight it out to a finish.
This last point would be relevant in any situation in which a Government, no matter whether Labour or Conservative, wished to put the brake on wage increases.
When a government today desires, for political or economic reasons, to pursue a deflationary policy or one of national economy, it starts with an enormous advantage. The Labour Governments, by their nationalisation policies. made the State Britain's biggest employer of industrial workers.
On the strength of this, the Government can set the pace for industry as a whole by resisting wage demands in any or all of those industries in which it now employs hundreds of thousands of industrial workers. It can even, if it so desires, select that section of industry in which, for tactical reasons, it wishes the process to begin.
The British trade union movement has traditionally viewed the Conservative Party as the political organisation of the "class enemy". I very much doubt whether the early socialist pioneers, when they preached their socialisation policies at the street corners, foresaw that they were preparing the way for the employment of a large section of the workers by their political opponents. It was taken for granted that socialist governments would administer the socialised industries.
In practice they are just as likely to be administered by a government which has no taste for nationalisation at all.
The hard fact is that should an economic recession hit this country at any time in the future, it will be much easier for the government of the day to pursue a policy of wage restraint than was the case during the last economic recession -precisely because of the realisation of part of Labour's dream.