The Industrial Society

By Gunnell, Barbara | New Statesman (1996), February 7, 2000 | Go to article overview

The Industrial Society


Gunnell, Barbara, New Statesman (1996)


Once, it pressed for workers' canteens; now, the messiah of stakeholding comes to change the state it's in

Margaret Thatcher almost consigned the words "industrial" and "society" to lexical history in the 1980s and even now the two together do not make a phrase that sings of modern Britain. Those who have heard of the Industrial Society - people under 45 usually have not - tend to know only that it has something to do with the world of work. They associate it with the 1970s, a decade when people had permanent jobs rather than "portfolio careers", and managements and unions met government in tripartite economic development committees or "Neddies". Wages councils regulated the working hours and conditions of millions, their levels fixed by negotiation and enforced by law; and the main obstacles to equality of opportunity at work seemed to be a few die-hard Tories and a similar number of unreconstructed male chauvinist trade unionists.

The Industrial Society thrived in this co-operative period, bustling between moderate managers and moderate trade unionists, persuading each to make modest demands of moderate listening governments. But, in Thatcherite parlance, the Industrial Society was as wet as wet could be, and the 1980s was not its decade. If it has made remarkably little noise since, that is probably because it became used to cowering below decks, hatches firmly battened down.

This month, Will Hutton, author of The State We're In and former editor-in-chief of the Observer, hopes to coax the Industrial Society back on deck. As the new chief executive officer of the society, he inherits a financially healthy and recently downsized organisation, a staff of about 300 and an annual income of around [pounds]20 million. But, good housekeeping apart, Hutton joins the organisation at a time when its role in civil society is as ill-defined as it has ever been and when the only certain thing about the future of work-the society's core concern - is that it will be uncertain.

For the moment, the Industrial Society occupies two London sites: cramped but elegant Georgian headquarters in Bryanston Square, near Marble Arch, whose lease expires early in 2001, and a conference centre overlooking the Mall, on long-term loan from a benefactor. The boardroom of the latter gives a hint of the sometimes contradictory world of the society. Floor-to-ceiling windows lead on to a vast terrace where dukes and duchesses once partied and promenaded. But, on the fireplace wall, where you might expect to see a portrait of the Duke of Somewhere, you find a red wall-hanging inscribed with a speech by Nelson Mandela. The mug that Hutton drinks his coffee from is decorated with feel-good words such as "equity", "values", "dignity", "practical", "boundless", and "potential".

The society has always operated with a big heart and a shifting purpose, defined over the years by successive directors. The most enduring theme has been along the broad lines of "be good to your employees and your employees will be good for your company". Currently, the society believes in "the boundless potential of people at work" along with "the dignity of people at work" and the importance of promoting "integrity, fairness and equity in all actions concerning work".

When the Reverend Robert Hyde started the Boys' Welfare Association in 1918 to improve working conditions in the munitions factories, a major purpose was "to save young boys from degeneration". Workers' welfare and deliverance from the pressures of poverty that led the poor into temptation went hand in hand. The following year, the organisation was renamed the Industrial Welfare Society - a name it kept until 1965 -and its purpose was redefined as campaigning among employers "on questions affecting the welfare of male persons engaged in industry". Women and girls presumably looked elsewhere for moral rescue.

For many years, welfare reform boiled down to organising healthy camping holidays for young workers and persuading employers to provide canteen and lavatory facilities. …

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