Who is responsible for the inconvenience being visited upon the British public by the rail strikes? Boris, will be the knee-jerk response of many, since the Prime Minister, having been caught out in past delinquencies, has now attained the status of universal scapegoat, a position that public caprice rotates between a member of the royal family and other public figures, as the mood takes it. More literal-minded people will blame Mick Lynch, of the RMT union, on the reasonable premise that he called the strike.

The thinking man, however, especially if he takes the long view, will trace the responsibility back to Naram-Sin of Akkad who, around 2230 BC, decreed the standard weights and measures to be observed by the artisan guilds in each Mesopotamian city. Trade guilds have been around for a very long time and enjoyed their peak influence in Europe in the Middle Ages. The question remains: were trade guilds the ancestors of modern trade unions, or of employers’ organisations?

Of both, seems to be the answer. Although the old trade guilds in Britain, regulating trade to a degree that Adam Smith thought damaging, were more obviously the predecessors of the CBI than the RMT, some of their functions at artisan level, such as welfare, organised by friendly societies, presaged the later trade union. The guilds fell out of favour in the 19th century, just as trade unionism rose. It is exactly 150 years since trade unions were legalised in Britain: the question stranded commuters will be asking themselves is whether the unions have, as used to be said of effete dynasties in imperial China, exhausted the mandate of heaven.

Globally, trade unionism is in decline. An OECD table of “union density”, the percentage of a national workforce that is unionised, up to 2018, shows huge variation across OECD member states. Startlingly, France, with just 8.8 per cent of its workforce belonging to a trade union, a 2 per cent decrease since 2000, is third-bottom on the list. Yet France is commonly perceived as strike-ridden and continually disrupted by protests. It seems French farmers do not feel the need to join a union before blocking roads with their tractors.

Unsurprisingly, the highest union density is in the Scandinavian countries, averaging 67 per cent. The United Kingdom comes in at 17th, with 23.4 per cent of workers in trade unions, a 6.4 per cent decline from 2000. Clearly, the climate is not favourable to trade unionism and it is difficult to see a major strike on the railways helping to rehabilitate it.

Yet revulsion against union militancy should not be allowed to obscure the fact that no British government, in the period of grace since Margaret Thatcher faced down Scargill’s militant miners, has properly addressed the need to create an industrial relations framework fit for the 21st century. Conservative politicians and some employers referred wistfully, from time to time, to how the German economic miracle (dated though that phrase may be now) was made possible by the collaboration between workers and management. There was, however, a defeatist consensus that the German model could not be transplanted to Britain.

And small wonder, considering the character of British trade unionism. As long ago as 1959, Peter Sellers’ portrayal, in the film “I’m All Right, Jack”, of Fred Kite, the caricature shop steward with his rule book, pompous vocabulary and knee-jerk instinct to call a halt to work at the slightest opportunity, painted an accurate picture of the politically motivated militancy that acted as a drag-chain on Britain’s economy and competitiveness for decades. There was a truly sinister element involved; long after Leslie Cannon and Frank Chapple liberated the ETU (electricians’ union) from Communist control by ballot-rigging in 1961, Marxist influence persisted elsewhere in the trade union movement.

While the Thatcher era and the decisive defeat of the NUM ended the aspirations of union militants to negate general election results that installed a Conservative government, the dwindling union movement still throws up Fred Kite figures such as Bob Crow. The latest union leader to inflict misery on the public is Mick Lynch, also of the RMT. Is he a dinosaur or does he see a political opportunity?

The strike is, by any objective criteria, unjustified. With inflation at 9 per cent and heading for 11 per cent, it is understandable that workers should seek a pay rise. Much of Britain’s workforce is suffering badly: one of the most concerning phenomena of recent times is the rise in poverty among people who actually hold jobs – sometimes two. But the membership of the RMT is hardly to the forefront among the needy.

Over the decade 2011-2021 train drivers’ average pay rose from £42,484 to £59,198 – a 17 per cent real-terms increase; rail operatives have seen their remuneration increase from £34,904 to £49,893, a 20 per cent increase, over the same period. Some RMT members pay higher-rate tax. On average, workers in Britain have seen their full-time earnings increase to just £31,285, a 1 per cent rise, over the same decade.

There lies a huge danger. If the RMT members, fat cats by comparison with other workers, are awarded anything near to the 7 per cent they are demanding, workers paid much less would learn the lesson that only militancy brings rewards and the floodgates to general industrial unrest would be opened. Nurses and teachers have suffered real-terms cuts in their pay over the same decade that saw railway workers’ remuneration rise by 20 per cent – the fifth largest pay increase out of 376 major occupations.

Beyond that, £16bn of taxpayers’ money was spent on subsidising the railways during the pandemic; those same taxpayers are receiving scant consideration from the RMT. Yet it is those who have done well and who are best equipped to survive the cost-of-living crisis that are resorting to the strike weapon. That betrays political motivation. The wage-rise domino theory dictates that the RMT must not be allowed to realise its extravagant ambitions – or anything close to them – or chaos will ensue and inflation run rampant.

There are further worrying features regarding the public and government response to this trade union aggression. Commentators who rightly deprecate the RMT’s action are seeking reassurance in the claim that the union can no longer hold the country to ransom, that many people can revert to the now familiar practice of working from home, that far fewer passengers now travel by rail, that the essential freight transport to power plants, supermarkets, etc, will get through. In some quarters of the Conservative Party there is a buoyant belief that an infuriated public will rally behind the government.

An opinion poll from Savanta ComRes suggests otherwise. It reports that 58 per cent of respondents thought the rail strikes were justified, with only 34 per cent taking the opposite view. The same poll showed 60 per cent generally supportive of workers striking, with 35 per cent unsupportive. A slightly saner response to a YouGov survey showed only 37 per cent of respondents supportive of the strike, with a less than resounding 45 per cent opposed.

This is the inevitable outcome of the Conservative government’s creation of a socialist polity in Britain. The Savanta ComRes poll reported 66 per cent of respondents thought the government had not done enough to prevent the strikes. (“I have a problem – what is the government going to do about it?”) What is the government supposed to do? Hand Mick Lynch a 7 per cent increase, mugged from those deluded respondents in their capacity as taxpayers, quickly followed by similar largesse to the butchers, the bakers and candlestick-makers? With stagflation to follow?

A public that has been led to believe the state is the first recourse for every problem and that it has unlimited funds to disburse to anyone who makes difficulties is not well motivated to resist union militancy. Tory hopes that an unjustifiable strike crippling the country is manna from heaven, a great photo opportunity for Boris in a grease-top cap at the controls of a train – better still, make it the Hogwarts Express from Platform 9¾ – may be delusive. The first mental association the public makes between Boris and trains is the £107bn – and rising – cost of the HS2 white elephant.

What is to be feared is that the public, battered by lockdown, energy prices, inflation, the cost of living and the economic effects of the war in Ukraine, has settled into a sullen post-1992-style hostility towards the government that will be very difficult to reverse. But Labour is hugely vulnerable on the rail strike. Over the past decade the RMT has donated more than £1m to Labour: £239,325 to the central party and more in donations to individual MPs, 16 of whom are currently sitting members. “Labour – a wholly owned subsidiary of the RMT” is the line of attack, with photographs of MPs on picket lines to feature in Conservative literature at the next election.

We have an opposition that cannot condemn one of the most unjustifiable and potentially damaging strikes in post-War history because it is not a free agent, cannot say what a woman is, and cannot be sure its leader will be in post after the police report on “Beergate” – what a shambles. If Boris can recover the flair he displayed as mayor of London and at the last election, he might – just might – save the day. For that, the Conservatives will need to communicate, straightforwardly and clearly, the true facts of this Scargill-style strike. Otherwise, Britain is in danger of reverting to the Third World conditions of the 1970s.