A rare combination of journalist and scholar, Robert Taylor, who has died aged 77, was the leading historian of modern trade unions, often criticising their shortcomings but never doubting they were fundamental to a free society.
Two of his books, The Trade Union Question in British Politics (1993) and The TUC – From the General Strike to New Unionism (2000), debunked many of the hostile myths about union power while lamenting that British unions had not achieved a European-style tripartite relationship with employers and government “complete with rights and obligations” for both sides of industry.
A moving chapter in his still definitive 20th-century TUC history showed how this was – temporarily – achieved in the second world war through the alliance between one of Taylor’s heroes, Ernest Bevin, then the minister of labour, and the TUC general secretary Sir Walter Citrine. Another chapter described the union leaders Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon’s huge argument in 1969 at Chequers with Harold Wilson and Barbara Castle over the curbs on unofficial strikes demanded by the latter in her white paper In Place of Strife.
This was a high point of what Taylor identified as the big unions’ “voluntarist” pursuit of “free collective bargaining”, shunning anything but a minimal role in regulating their practices by the state – or even the TUC. Taylor unearthed Wilson’s record of the deadlock, which incidentally reported that after staying overnight at Chequers, the engineering union leader had left a note saying “Dear prime minister and first secretary. Sorry we could not find basis of agreement but thanks for an enjoyable and interesting evening. H Scanlon.”
The inclusion of this terse epitaph on the breakdown that helped to seal Wilson’s defeat in the 1970 election exemplified Taylor’s ability to supplement the rigour of the academic he had been with a reporter’s eye for occasional colour. For 30 years he was a successful journalist, on the Economist, New Society, the Observer, where he was labour editor during the tumultuous decade up to the mid- 1980s, the Sunday Times, covering politics, and the Financial Times, successively as employment editor and as the Stockholm-based Nordic correspondent.
Taylor was born in Bury, Greater Manchester, the older son of Mollie (Mary, nee Heaton) and Tom Taylor, a solicitor and wartime decorated (MC) artillery officer who became the town clerk of St Helens. He retained a trace of the cultural northerner, with a passion for watching rugby league, as well as for classical music.
After boarding at the Cumbrian private school St Bees, he took a history first at Wadham College, Oxford, where he first exhibited the book-buying addiction that eventually led to his acquisition of about 9,000 volumes, requiring a second flat to accommodate them. He was a strongly Gaitskellite member of the university Labour Club. Leslie Mitchell, the future historian, recalled that at meetings Taylor’s was “always the first hand to go up and he would give his views and then get round to asking a question”. His social democratic, “old Labour” views remained constant throughout his life. A trip to the Soviet Union in 1963 with Mitchell and two other Wadham students entrenched his dislike of communism. But he was also disdainful of Tony Blair’s New Labour, professing not to know what it stood for.
Taylor’s graduate thesis at Nuffield College – to which he returned as a visiting fellow in 2001 – which was supervised by the political scientist David Butler, led to his first book, a well-received biography of the 19th century Tory prime minister Lord Salisbury (1975) and to membership of Randolph Churchill’s research team on the monumental Winston Churchill biography later taken over by Martin Gilbert.
He taught unhappily for two years at Lancaster University, having little patience with less quick-witted students. He switched to journalism at the Economist with a glowing reference from Butler. Taylor’s wife Ann, whom he married in 1969, had been Butler’s secretary; her death from cancer in 1984 was a blow from which Taylor never fully recovered. His last flat was in the Oxford retirement block also inhabited by Mitchell and Butler.
The Fifth Estate (1978) was his first book on the unions, then at the 11 million-plus peak of their membership. Taylor challenged the popular view of “over mighty” unions, arguing instead that they were too weak, lagging behind those elsewhere in Europe in securing social justice. But he welcomed the social contract, in which the unions had struck a rare peacetime accord with the Labour government, keeping pay rises to £6 in return for (limited) legislation on workplace reform.
Taylor regarded Jones, who, despite his part in the 1969 showdown, was the social contract’s main architect, as the biggest figure among postwar union leaders. But he correctly predicted the contract might not last. Two decades later he incurred some leftwing union criticism for praising the then TUC general secretary John Monks’s vision of a new accord between employers and unions underpinned by employee rights legislation on the European social model.
Taylor’s sometimes untidy and shambling appearance belied his professional self-discipline. Often argumentative, he was a diverting companion, with an appetite for gossip, a mischievous sense of humour and encyclopedic knowledge, including of American politics. His 1982 book, Workers and the New Depression, presciently suggested that deindustrialisation was increasingly leaving manual workers without a union or political party to represent them.
Taylor contemplated writing what would have now been a highly topical book on working-class Conservative voters. But he never did. In his early 70s he told a friend he had reached an age when he would rather read books than write them.
He is survived by his brother, John.
• Robert George Taylor, author and journalist, born 11 January 1943; died 6 August 2020