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The lost chord, correction, TUC booklet

Seated one day at the organ
I was weary and ill at ease
And my fingers wandered idly
Over the noisy keys

I know not what I was playing
Or what I was dreaming then;
But I struck one chord of music
Like the sound of a great Amen

The Lost Chord was an immensely popular song of the late nineteenth century. It described how the singer had found, then lost, a chord played on the organ that seemed to bring infinite calm.

I have sought, but I seek it vainly
That one lost chord divine
Which came from the soul of the organ
And entered into mine

In like fashion did I, my friends, linger in the library of Her Majesty’s Treasury in my lunchtime many years ago, seeking to put off the moment when I would have to go back to my humble office and do some actual work. Like the fingers of the weary organist upon his instrument, thus did my skiving fingers wander idly across the spines of the publications the Treasury thought might help its minions control public expenditure*. By a chance equally slim did I find the booklet issued by the Trades Union Congress that I am going to talk about in this post. And by a fate equally tragic did I fail to take note of the title, author, year of publication or even the colour of the cover, and lost it again forever.

Which is a bit of a bummer really. This post would have been a lot more convincing if you guys didn’t just have to take my word for it that the damn TUC book ever existed. Then again, it was nice to be reminded of The Lost Chord which was the favourite song of an old chap I once knew who fought in the First World War.

This booklet. For anyone still reading, it was about “Technology in the Workplace” or summat. I got the impression that it had been published in the last years of Callaghan’s government. (This story takes place during Thatcher’s premiership.) It did not bring me infinite calm. It brought me a Hard Stare in the Paddington Bear sense from another patron of the library, because I was going “mwunk” and “pfuffle” from trying not to laugh.

The booklet was all about how when the bosses tried to introduce new technology, workers could use the power that came from being a member of a trade union to block it. It did not go so far as recommending that all new devices such as “word processors” and “computers” should be rejected out of hand, but it made quite clear that no such new-fangled gadgets should be allowed in if it meant the number of jobs for typesetters or stenographers should go down. The power of the unionised worker to resist such impositions was, of course, greatest in our great nationalised industries.

The pages of the little book were clean and perfectly squared off. I do not think anyone other than me had ever read it. Yet it seemed to come from a long-ago time or a foreign country, probably East Germany, so great were the changes that had come to Britain in those few years since it was published.

Yes, Britain changed. And now it’s changing back.

Jeremy Corbyn promises free broadband under Labour.

Labour’s proposal seems very popular, although, hilariously, support drops steeply when the question moves from “Do you like Labour’s plan to give you free stuff?” to “Do you like Labour’s plan to nationalise BT Openreach?” – but even then a solid third of the country hear Jeremy Corbyn say, “we’ll make the very fastest full-fibre broadband free to everybody, in every home in our country”, and also hear that the Labour manifesto is to reiterate the radical 2017 commitment to ‘sector-wide collective bargaining’ – and seriously believe that the “very fastest full-fibre broadband” is going to be brought to them by the unionised workforce of a nationalised industry.

*Or as the Treasury Diary handed out free to staff members one year described it, pubic expenditure.

8 comments to The lost chord, correction, TUC booklet

  • Mr Ed

    I recall the 1970s Post Office-later-British Telecom’s phone service and the ‘party line’ – old Commies like Mr Corbyn note not ‘CPSU line’ – where we shared a phone line with a neighbour and only one of us could make or receive phone calls at a time. This was due to the State-owned Post Office not being able to do provide more lines. By memory, there was a waiting list for your own line of around 6-12 months. The only quirk of this was that you could eavesdrop on your neighbours’ calls by picking up the phone and listening in.

    I can see how this would suit a Labour government, not sure if it would mean snooping on a neighbour’s browsing.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Our family had a party line until I was about seven. Eavesdropping was not without its risks, though – there was a detectable change in the quality of the sound when someone else came on the line. I remember once picking up the phone and hearing a neighbour’s voice. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, I was just a little slow to put the receiver down, but the neighbour shouted at me and threatened to tell my parents.

  • Hugh

    The British Library Catalogue has:-
    Employment and Technology: Trades Union Congress, 1979
    and
    Employment and Technology:…interim report…Conference…1979.

    The latter can be had for £9.35 from abebooks.

    Or you could try youtube: Webster Booth, or Clara Butt.

  • “Do you like Labour’s plan to nationalise BT Openreach?”

    In fairness, BT have milked their last-mile stranglehold to death and effectively prevented massive structural improvements because they were still busily sweating their existing assets and implementing decent fibre (with none of this garbage about limits or contention) would seriously cut into their Business Broadband and other commercial offerings.

    I’m not big on nationalisation to say the least, but BT have painted a huge target on their back and that is their fault, no-one else’s (possibly OFCOM or the UK Gov, maybe)

  • Nullius in Verba

    “In fairness, BT have milked their last-mile stranglehold to death and effectively prevented massive structural improvements because they were still busily sweating their existing assets and implementing decent fibre (with none of this garbage about limits or contention) would seriously cut into their Business Broadband and other commercial offerings.”

    They have a stranglehold on the last mile because the last mile is hugely more expensive than all the other miles. Digging up the road is expensive. If you can share that expense among a few thousand customers, you can find people willing to pay it. Shared between a few tens of customers, it’s a hundred times more expensive. People will pay £30/month for broadband, they won’t pay £3000/month.

    “I’m not big on nationalisation to say the least, but BT have painted a huge target on their back and that is their fault, no-one else’s”

    It’s the fault of the popular belief that technology and services happen by magic. Everyone sees goods and services being provided in shops, and the shopkeepers charge them money for it. And they secretly resent the fact, the shopkeepers are getting all this money and doing nothing for it, because the goods just appear in their shop by magic. They ought to stop being so greedy themselves and lower prices. Everyone sees how they go to work and work hard all day, for which their employers pays them a measly and inadequate amount of money. And they resent that. The employers should stop being so greedy and hand out more money, which just appears by magic.

    Nobody thinks about all the machinery behind the scenes that makes it work, and how it’s all interconnected. They never think about the cost, and how they will pay for it. Money comes out of a slot in the wall. Milk comes from shops. Fibre broadband just happens. Somebody else pays for that. The government. The rich. It never occurs to them that *they* pay for it. And it never occurs to them that when life gives them a kicking (or slow broadband) that they and their demands for services could be responsible.

    And that’s what Socialism sells. Don’t worry about it. You can have all the goods and services and luxuries you want, and not have to pay for any of them. The government will pay. The corporations will pay. The rich will pay.

    No. *You* will pay. And when you can’t get a decent service, it’s not because someone else is being greedy, it’s because *you* didn’t want to or couldn’t pay for it.

  • John

    Does BT have last mile competition? I don’t know how it works in the UK, but in many places in the US (most??) local authorities have granted a last mile monopoly (or duopoly) and other competition is excluded.

    This is the root of why ComCast is so universally despised, but people have easily forgotten that Comcast bought their monopolies “fair and square” from local authorities decades ago and wish those authorities to “stay bought”.

    I’m completely in favor of free market solutions to most problems and this one is not an exception, but I think, in the US at least, there’s a mistake in seeing it as a choice between status quo (perceived as a market solution) and a socialistic solution when in reality most of the discussion is between kinds of socialistic solutions. I’d have a hard time getting very excited about Comcast being more heavily regulated or replaced by a gov agency. It’s not the direction I’d like to see it go, but, as Galt says above about BT, they’ve painted a giant target on their own backs.

  • Does BT have last mile competition? John (November 17, 2019 at 3:45 pm)

    In the literal sense, some, from the tubes of the old pneumatic air company in London through the not-so-old cables of cable TV. In another sense, the rules oblige BT to give rival broadband providers last-mile access over their equipment. However there remain advantages when it is your equipment, and the issue of relative scale – of already being in-situ everywhere – helps.

    seriously believe that the “very fastest full-fibre broadband” is going to be brought to them by the unionised workforce of a nationalised industry

    Good line. I think most parents/grandparents will laugh uproariously at the very idea. One hopes their children, too young to remember, will listen to them, but I would have thought a far higher proportion of those children will be enjoying viable broadband already. So who is in the prime target audience for Corbyn’s scheme?

  • Rudolph Hucker

    So who is in the prime target audience for Corbyn’s scheme?

    My guess? The live-at-home age group (not left home yet), plus the living-at-home-again age group (left home to go to uni, and then returned to the nest). In between, those at uni may be getting get free broadband included in the rent of their uni accommodation.

    All accustomed to getting everything for “free”, even after they become a registered voter and (technically) an adult.

    Some might say that many students think Student Loans are money for free as well.

    There may well be a PhD written on the topic of cognitive dissonance and how people convince themselves services like these are infinitely “free”.

    Has the National Amalgamated Union of Sixth-Form Operatives and Allied Trades voiced an opinion on the subject yet?

    Incidently, isn’t it the fault of exactly those age groups that we got the Brexit Referendum result we did? IIRC, if they hadn’t been so bloody lazy, and had turned-out and voted at least in the same proportion of population as older groups, they would probably have swung the result in the opposite direction.

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