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Opinion

Rail strikes signal a growing roar of discontent our government won’t be able to silence

A large number of people support the RMT strikes, whatever Tory MPs might claim. And it looks like more are on the horizon. Something’s got to give, writes Big Issue editor Paul McNamee.

The problem with asking people what they think is that they’ll frequently tell you. It’s what makes democracy the best of all possible means of government. No matter what those in power do, or claim they’ve done – whether parish council or Westminster – when it comes down to it, an individual going into a polling booth can make their single voice roar. Spin won’t defeat them. We’re not at a general election period, yet – but it still feels like there is a growing roar reacting to the difference between what we can see and what we’re being told.

This week the rail strikes were pitched as a leftist plot to stop the nation functioning, that those reds under the bed didn’t care for the wellbeing of the country, and, led by porcine union barons, they were trying to foment rebellion. But the noise and fury against the strikers didn’t quite materialise. Around 25 per cent of those polled by YouGov were completely in support of the strikes. (An Ipsos poll put the figure at 35 per cent.) If you think this is not a high number, Britain’s favourite ice lolly, the Magnum, polled only 28 per cent to top its list. 

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A government policy of pointing the finger of blame, without accepting responsibility for the state of things, wasn’t landing. And it’s particularly hard for people to swallow ministers’ call for wage increase restraint across the public sector while the basic salaries of MPs leap by over £2,200 this financial year. It’s clear the rail industrial action isn’t a one-off led by the RMT as some kind of Fifth Columnists. The Bar Council announced that criminal barristers in England and Wales had voted to strike in a longstanding row over legal aid funding. Strikes will come for 14 days from late June into July. Legal proceedings will grind to a halt. 

There are mutterings that police in Glasgow could take strike action too. Members of the NHS are also considering walkouts. They can’t ALL be having their strings pulled.

At some point the need for bold intervention will come. There is a groundhog day feel to a call for some kind of government of national unity. That would genuinely serve the greater good. Though there is more chance of a Magnum remaining frozen after a minute out in the sun.

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In Scotland, the SNP government have had enough and are looking to instigate their own version of dramatic change. They have launched their bid for another referendum on independence. They are looking towards autumn 2023 for the poll. We just can’t take it any more is their basic pitch. They say that post-Brexit, post-Covid, post-Boris Johnson’s premiership, the time for self-determination has accelerated back into view.

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The pro-indy parties – the SNP and Greens – form a majority coalition in Holyrood. This, they say, provides a mandate for the referendum. They need the Westminster government to green-light the referendum, and this seems unlikely. Pro-union parties say it’s because such a poll would be too soon after the last one, and people are focused on the cost of living. However, it could be that they fear people telling them what they actually think. Who wants to be the PM who split the union? It’s one union they do like.

This will very likely end up in the courts. Though who knows if strikes will keep them open or closed. Living through febrile history may be interesting, but it isn’t always comfortable.  

Paul McNamee is editor of The Big IssueRead more of his columns here. Follow him on Twitter

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