For British Conservatives, some freedoms are much more important than others. Those of the free market system, consumption or not having to account for anything to Brussels are sacred, while those of demonstrating, being able to vote easily, protesting and going on strike are much more uncomfortable.
Boris Johnson, a right-wing populist who wrapped himself in social democratic approaches to survive the pandemic, had already curtailed civil rights and imposed penalties, including jail time, on those who demonstrate illegally and disturb public order (in the subjective opinion of the police). , and made it difficult for young people to vote by requiring a photo document to go to the polls (in the United Kingdom there is no identity card). Now Rishi Sunak has gone a step further, campaigning to obstruct strikes in the public sector as much as possible, impose minimum services, fire those who break them and allow companies to sue unions.
Sunak, the invisible prime minister (he has been seen in public on a few occasions since he came to power), intends to imitate his beloved Margaret Thatcher when she declared war in the eighties on the then all-powerful union leaders, who in her opinion were held hostage to the country. The Iron Lady won that conflict, clipped the wings of the unions, closed the mines and newspaper presses, wrecked the textile and manufacturing sectors, and transformed the economy into a service one dependent on the speculative success of the City.
If it were a sequel to a Hollywood movie, it would be called War on the Unions Part Two. Sunak, with few political and electoral assets at his disposal, believes that he can win followers among the tens of millions of Britons affected by strikes that have lasted six months and reached their peak the day before yesterday on the so-called tragic Thursday, when practically no trains circulated in across the country (barely 10 percent), commuter townspeople were unable to go to offices, either taking the day off or working by zoom even more than is customary since the start of the pandemic.
But when it is not the railway workers it is the nurses, or the doctors, or the ambulance drivers, or the postmen, or the midwives, or the public defenders, all of them affected by the increase in the cost of living and the increase much lower than wages. The economic model that has operated in recent decades, focused on consumption, low inflation and interest rates, and moderate salaries, has stopped working with the increase in prices due to the war in Ukraine and public debt to finance the pandemic aid. It has also changed the mentality of many people, less willing to work if they have to go to the office and it is not in the conditions they want. One million Britons have withdrawn from the labor force, some to live on pensions, others to care for children, because the money the couple earns is enough for them. More and more importance is given to the quality of life and the convenience of reducing the working day from five to four days a week is debated.
Thatcher persuaded voters that unions were the bad guys and Sunak wants to do the same. But in his war he has not dared to push the nuclear button. It has settled for presenting a law that imposes minimum services (decreed by the Government for railway employees, firefighters and ambulance drivers, and negotiated with teachers, nurses, customs agents and those in charge of security at nuclear facilities). But the need for notice to go on strike has not increased, or for the majority among the workers necessary to declare it. It is likely that the Lords would have blocked these measures, and he wants to get the law through as soon as possible.
The prime minister sees an additional benefit in this confrontation, that of putting Labor leader Keir Starmer in a bind, who sells moderation as his great virtue and is between two waters on the issue of strikes, who does not support them, but nor does he criticize those who make and call them (he has said that if he came to power, he would ipso facto repeal the new legislation, "symptom of the impotence of a dying government").
The unions consider the Sunak law not only immoral and unenforceable, but also illegal, and are threatening to go to court. But the prime minister believes that many citizens affected by the strikes will side with him, and even vote for him in 2025. If he has to kill some freedoms to do so, so be it. Those of consumption and the market will always remain.