Interpreting the interpreters’ strike
‘Know your own strength!’ the historian and intellectual E.P. Thompson told the biggest central London demonstration for years, on 25 October 1992. But we’ll never know whether the 150,000 who marched that day did know it, since they were protesting against the Major government’s emasculation of Britain’s coalmining industry.
It would seem they were dimly aware at best. For, after a raucous day out for the usual suspects, the pits eventually shut anyway and those notorious breeding grounds for labour militancy became part of history. As a governmental strategy, ‘Ignore them and they’ll disperse’ often works a treat, just as it did when two million vainly marched against the second Iraq War.
It’s an odd memory to dredge up, but the phrase ‘know your own strength!’ popped into my head unbidden in connection with - of all things - the courtroom interpreter fiasco. For what we have here is an old-fashioned public sector strike, against a hubristic government, which looks like it might succeed (or at least not fail) because the workforce is united.
Except it isn’t a public sector strike at all. Self-employed freelance interpreters have individually decided they are not going to put up with the Framework Agreement and have collectively told the Ministry of Justice and its contractor, Capita-owned Applied Language Solutions, to shove it. They have withdrawn their labour without needing to submit to a time-consuming member ballot and engage with Britain’s restrictive trade union legislation.
Result - hamstrung courts, enraged wigs and panic at the MoJ. At least one magistrates’ court has had to resort to Google Translate; it’s hard not to laugh, if only sardonically. What was the MoJ’s contingency plan after being warned two years ago by the Professional Interpreters’ Alliance that its members just wouldn’t put up with lower paid agency work? ‘They can lump it’ would be my guess.
Of course, employers incommoded in this way will often resort to what unreconstructed Trotskyites still like to call ‘scab labour’. But the interpreters are in a rare position of strength, because there doesn’t seem to be any in this instance. Hard to see the home secretary breaking the strike by throwing open the ports to English-speaking foreigners. Wouldn’t play well in the Daily Mail.
Meanwhile, it is mildly surreal to see pictures of interpreters brandishing placards, because they make such unlikely subversives; but then, as a breed, so do lawyers. Still, who was it who said governments derive their legitimacy from the consent of the governed? What would happen if solicitors and barristers across the land simply downed tools and refused to countenance the legal aid cuts, for example?
But that’s not how we do things here. We leave that sort of thing to the French.
Paul Rogerson is Gazette editor-in-chief