In disussing the public sector strike today the British newspapers have divided into two camps. One is a large group of right wing newspapers (the Times, The Daily Telegraph, the Financial Times, the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and the Sun). This group unequivocally condemns the strike often in the harshest terms. The other is a much smaller group of left and centrist newspapers (the Guardian, the Independent and the Mirror), whose editorial pages have to accommodate the fact that many of their readers support the strike. These too oppose the strike whilst expressing some pallid words of sympathy for the strikers.
It needs to be said clearly that whether the strike succeeds or fails the strikers deserve sympathy and support. As someone who has worked in the same field in both the public and the private sector I can unequivocally say that workers in the public sector have to work harder for far longer hours and for much lower pay than equivalent workers in the private sector. This is so despite the fact that the work the great majority of public sector workers do is more difficult and more important for society than most of the work done in the private sector. This reality has over the last thirty years been clouded by the exponential growth within the public sector of an overpaid and inefficient managerial class. The point that is rarely made or admitted is that this managerial class is the product of the unending “reforms” of the public sector which since the 1980s have sought to introduce into the public sector the cultural mores and practices of the private sector. Despite this development my underlying point about the greater necessity and importance of the work the public sector still holds true. That this is so can be easily illustrated by the fact that though it is difficult to imagine any class or group of private sector workers so indispensable that modern society could not function without them it is absolutely impossible to imagine a modern industrialised society without such public sector workers as teachers, health workers or policemen and women.
Once upon a time this fact was well understood. In the heyday of British power Victorian public servants were well regarded and well paid. Victorian civil service salaries were much higher than equivalent salaries today and Victorian civil servants enjoyed lifestyles of a sort that no equivalent civil servant today could even dream of. Thus William Michael Rossetti, brother of the painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti and of the poetess Christina Rossetti, could maintain a large family in some style by working full time as Senior Assistant Secretary of the Inland Revenue whilst still having the time to be a founder member of the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood, a member of the Shelley Society, a prolific literary editor and critic and the person who introduced Walt Whitman to a British readership.
Lest anyone suggest that this difference in attitude applied only to the upper tiers of the Victorian civil service, let me say that on the contrary it extended all the way down to the lowliest public sector worker or clerk. There is simply no comparison between the high regard in which the Victorians held such supposedly lowly officials as police and postal workers and the barely concealed contempt in which they are held today. The modern practice of scapegoating such workers as the cause of the country’s problems would have struck the Victorians as counterproductive and absurd.
This scapegoating has now reached the point where public sector workers though comparatively low paid and overworked are expected to make the biggest sacrifices in order to get the country out of an economic crisis which they have in no way caused. This demand goes hand in hand with overblown and ridiculous claims about “gold plated pensions” in the public sector, which are typically made by right wing journalists and commentators whose rates of pay and pensions are many times higher and who can of course be counted on to resist any suggestion that they make sacrifices for example by paying more in taxes. In the meantime those who are actually responsible for the crisis, the millionaires in the City with their multi million pound bonuses, walk off free.