No more closed shop unions.

First Published: 2004-11-25

This article is reproduced here with the kind permission of This England Magazine. It was originally titled A Silver Cross for the torch-bearer of freedom, by David Leake.

It is a scenario that could come straight from the despotic regime of the worst form of dictatorship.

Before being allowed to earn a living, job applicants are told that, like it or lump it, they must join a workers' collective.

Not only that. They must pay for the privilege, obey without question the diktats of the collective's hierarchy, and are denied one of the fundamental freedoms of democracy – the right to a secret ballot.

If they refuse to toe the line then they do not get the job, because by terrorising employers the collective has in effect taken over the authority to hire and fire.

Firms that use non-collective labour face strike and blockade by pickets. Browbeaten and helpless, they can be forced into bankruptcy.

So they, too, are made to do as they are told. Not only that – they must sack upon demand anyone who breaks ranks.

It is a picture that, thankfully, the modern generation will find almost impossible to comprehend. But four decades ago it was harsh reality.

Welcome to a precise depiction of the infamous "closed shop", a trade union stranglehold that once regularly choked the life out of Britain and its industry.

Now picture, if you will, the sort of breathtaking courage needed not only to stand virtually alone against such tyranny but to mount a crusade to bring it crashing down.

It is rare indeed for This England to award the Silver Cross of St. George posthumously. But we readily do so for Roger Webster, a man whose name deserves to be honoured by everyone who today enjoys the right to join or not to join a union and to obey their own conscience and convictions.

In the mid-1970s the then Labour government had bowed the knee to relentless union coercion by taking the craven step of enshrining trade union power within law. It meant that, for millions, the "closed shop" had become a cold reality.

After almost 20 years' service Mr. Webster, who died in March this year at the age of 88, was sacked from British Rail for refusing to join the closed shop which, as a state-run enterprise, it had slavishly embraced.

But Southampton-born Mr. Webster was not a man given to easy surrender. He fought as an officer with the Royal Artillery in the Second World War before joining Air Intelligence, and had a fighter's taste for battle as well as a brilliant mind.

Instead of resigning himself to his fate Mr. Webster, backed by two colleagues who found themselves in the same boat, wrote and circulated 3,500 copies of a letter robustly attacking the system's iniquities and protesting the loss of basic freedoms.

In it he insisted that if he could not find a remedy in British law he would seek one at an international forum – the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

By happy chance a copy fell into the hands of two influential figures who agreed with every word.

John Gouriet, co-founder of what is now the Freedom Association, and fellow-campaigner Ross McWhirter were both working at the time to combat the march of communo-socialism in trade unions and the excessive influence of union leaders over the Government.

They decided to give Mr. Webster and his colleagues – Noel James and Ian Young – their support.

Tragically, Ross McWhirter was murdered by IRA assassins in 1975 – but his brother Norris, with whom he had launched The Guinness Book of Records, and leading economist and writer Robert Moss, joined in taking up the cudgels.

They invited Mr. Webster to fill a key post in the National Association for Freedom – later the Freedom Association. Crucially they also provided the resources and access to expert legal advice that opened up the road to Strasbourg.

Thus Mr. Webster and his colleagues were able to make history – by taking the unprecedented step of placing a British government on trial.

The charge: that it had removed freedoms guaranteed for the individual citizen enshrined under the European Convention on Human Rights.

The case of Webster, James and Young v. the United Kingdom Government is still seen as one of the most important in British constitutional history.

The full story of the action, its background and its consequences is graphically told in When Britain Waived the Rules…and Sampled Anarchy, a book that, with typical bravery, Mr. Webster wrote during his long final illness and was published 18 months before his death.

It took almost six years before victory was finally won – victory that paved the way for the lasting union reform introduced by the first Thatcher government.

The fight did not come without cost. To pay his legal bills Roger and his devoted wife Joan had to sell their beloved oasthouse at Southborough in Sussex – though not before Roger, a dedicated ecologist and conservationist, had founded the Southborough Society for the preservation of historic buildings.

John Gouriet, recommending him for the Silver Cross of St. George, recalls: "Roger Webster's triumph had enormous repercussions throughout industry. Virtually single-handed at first, but later supported by the National Association of Freedom, he made a signal contribution in helping to break the stranglehold of the closed shop. As a result of his historic action millions of workers today can thank Roger Webster for their freedom to join or not to join a trade union as they wish."

And he adds: "His book is very relevant for those who are now engaged in an even bigger struggle – to save Britain from being swamped by the 'Closed Shop' of the European Union."

To Roger Webster, a man who lit the way to freedom and justice for millions, we are proud to award a posthumous Silver Cross of St. George.

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