Royal Mail: Lions led by donkeys?

lions_donk_haig_cartoon.jpgA second one-day strike at Royal Mail is announced for Friday 13th of July. Letters are exchanged between the Union and Management. In that curious way of industrial disputes, the letters seem intended to avoid constructive dialog. The battle looks more and more like the Somme, or perhaps Little Big Horn and General Custer’s last stand.

Events at Royal Mail grind forward, painfully slowly. Billy Hayes and Dave Ward are in there somewhere battling for the Union side, Allan Leighton and Adam Crozier also somewhere for ‘Management’.

Sometimes the general shape of a battle-field has old warriors reminiscing of past triumphs and disasters. Two historic possibilities occur to me, one from The First World War, and one from the early days of American History.

Despite rumors to the contrary, I do not have first-hand experience of either, although my father survived the Somme, an experience that stayed with him for the rest of his life. He rarely talked about it. There were no real survivors. Poets and military historians give us a picture of the bloody futility of it all.

Appeals to Patriotism

The first world war was a war of patriotic slogans, sometimes wrapped up in the noble ancient language of the ruling class.. Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori… Lions led by donkeys. Two or three generations later and there is cultural residue, a nagging awareness in Great Britain, going back to Dr Johnson’s maxim that patriotic rhetoric is the last resort of the scoundrel.

While patriotism remains more desirable and contested ground in the USA, two American journalists are worth mentioning for a modern gloss.

In Dr. Johnson’s famous dictionary, patriotism is defined as the last resort of a scoundrel. With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer, I beg to submit that it is the first.”—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary, at entry for patriotism, The Collected Writings of Ambrose Bierce, p. 323 (1946, reprinted 1973).

H. L. Mencken added this to Johnson’s dictum: “But there is something even worse: it is the first, last, and middle range of fools.”—The World, New York City, November 7, 1926, p. 3E.

Lions led by Donkeys

Historians argue over the origins of the term. Alan Clark wrote a book which helped popularize the expression. A reviewer noted:

The title comes from the German view of the English soldiers who charged into their machine guns and barbed wire: “Lions led by donkeys.” The donkeys were the professional officers of the British army which was destroyed in those battles, officers who were unable to adapt to the awful technology that changed the face of war forever

Back to the Royal Mail dispute

From the outside, events since the last one-day strike are baffling. Maybe they are as baffling on the inside as the battle orders were to the front-line troops on the Somme, or to General Custer’s men.

As the troops hunker down for the next planned push, the generals exchange letters. The tone of the letters is that of civilized beings engaged in diplomatic speak. Dear Allen, Dear Dave they begin.

But are the generals struggling and ‘unable to adapt to the awful technology’?

There is no alternative

Royal Mail claims it needs a billion pounds for the new technology, rather than meeting payclaims they compute as roughly the billion pounds for modernisation. There is no alternative. Or is there? It seems cruel to quote words associated with Margaret Thatcher, a general who waged war with another great Union two decades ago.

Today we have a new generation of political leaders. Dave the toff an open admirer of Tony Blair trying to drag the conservatives to a safe place for their political survival. Gord of the clunking fist is busy recruiting talented capitalist heroes to advise him.

Maybe the outcome will eventually attract more political attention. But for the moment, Dave and Gordon are united in their silence over the Royal Mail dispute. The BBC is curiously uninterested. The business has not yet cast any leader in a particularly heroic light. Creative leadership is at a premium.

6 Responses to Royal Mail: Lions led by donkeys?

  1. Tudor,

    It seems (from Australia, at least) that a certain ‘fatalism’ about ineviatble conflict is in-play on both sides of the Royal Mail issue. The same was the case in the lead-up to WW1. Does this mean that “leaders” have given-up? If so, why? Does fatigue (over time) leed to wanting a result — any result — and all communication becomes about covering backsides!


  2. Oops, leed as lead! But the serious issue is this (and it also applies to our personal lives): is “uncertainty” so uncomfortable that any solution will do, that any leader will do (even if he his a dictator, at least it is certainty for most people). Is leadeship — at least for most peole — about suggesting certainty?


  3. Tudor says:

    Had some transmit problems as I await a new sets of transmitters and PC. Thought I had replied suggesting there’s a lot that could be worked up around discomfort, uncertaintly, anxiety, denial and so on. My influential ‘thought lraders’ would include members of The Tavistock School (institute and clinic) and Giddens who introduced my to R D Laing’s work on anxities and the dread of ‘ontological insecurity’ (wow, that always get’s the argument going at Old Trafford).

    PS Speling. Should we leave the white-hot spontaneity of a ‘must send’ messgae, or tart it up? It’s not a bit deal although it adresses one of those things about the relaibaility of blog citations. (I just left accidental spellng mistakes in this papagraph but deliberately speedd up my typing).

  4. scottcarless says:

    I like the way you’ve termed this, for once someone is not attacking the troops but both sets of leadership.
    I’m stuck right in the middle of this, hunkered down in a trench with a tin helmet and a crappy pair of boots and I for one wish that both sides could just compromise, meet in the middle and come to an agreement.
    Also you are correct in full in the BBC being uninterested in this matter, it is difficult to find any coverage whatsoever.
    As for fatalism this could have something to do with both sides indulging in actions which spell doom for Royal Mail as a business.

  5. Tudor says:

    Thanks, SC. I’m not a specialist in these massive industrial conflicts (not that the ‘experts’ seem to be offering much that is constructive). One crumb of consolation is that The Royal Mail, like the Health Service has an invaluable asset in the good will of the public towards those in the trenches, be it nurses or posties. But this is a tricky asset, because actions that appear to harm the sort-term needs of the public (‘customers’?) also appear to risk that asset.

    Don’t know if there’s any parallel, but I was fascinated by the Indian Rail culture of ‘family’ portrayed on the BBC TV4 documentaries this week. Employees number one and a half million …

  6. sorry for a belated post, but I wanted to point out your rather lengthy introduction is rather inaccurate. Clark’s book is regarded as a joke by serious historians. The phrase ‘lions led by donkeys’ was never used by German soldiers about the British in WWI. British generals certainly made their share of mistakes in the conflict, but far from being ‘unable to adapt’ to the requirements of modern war, it was they – specifically the always benighted Haig – who _created_ modern warfare by reforming the ill-trained, poorly equipped conscripts of 1916 into the most powerful army in the world in 1918. Not bad for a bunch of donkeys!

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