chapter  1
10 Pages

Introduction: Forces of conflict

A cake to fight over Is the United Kingdom a kingdom united? It is often difficult to decide when images of flaming buildings, violent street assemblies and baton-wielding police officers fiercely clashing with all manner of antagonists come stampeding across our television screens. Far from being united, the images depict modern Britain as a deeply divided society split by conflict and challenge. The main divisions have been evident in a number ofevents, although one stands out memorably: the Grunwick dispute of 1976, when the misfortunes ofa group ofworkers, mostly Asian women, came into prominence. This was an isolated conflict, but one reflecting broader themes. Exploited by a recalcitrant small-scale employer who refused to recognize their claims to unionize, the Grunwick strikers stood defiantly outside· the company's factory gates for over eighteen months. At times, they withstood a battering from the police and eventually they were snubbed by the unions. The chiefplayers in the drama were working class, female and Asian - yet it was never clear in what order of allegiance. They defended their rights robustly as workers, but also as members ofgroups the white working class had ridiculed and despised: women and ethnic minorities. Grunwick (which is covered in more detail in Chapter 7) was a product of the most divisive forces in postwar society. Together with events either side of 1976, it

formed a backdrop against which the unity often attributed to the UK has looked embarrassingly misplaced.