Rail strikes: Boris Johnson's inaction amid looming 'summer of discontent' risks fracturing the UK's social contract – Scotsman comment

Asked to picture an English barrister, most people would conjure up a bewigged individual oozing the confidence that comes with a first-class intellect, the finest education, and significant wealth.

So many will doubtless be outraged by their threat to go on strike over pay, until confronted by the fact that the average salary for a criminal barrister down south is just £12,200 in their first three years of practice.

As strike action brought further chaos to the railway network yesterday, angry commuters may have found themselves making similar assumptions, following justified outrage over the ScotRail drivers’ pay dispute.

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However, many of the railway workers currently taking strike action are not anything like as well paid as drivers. For example, track maintenance staff can earn as little as £16,000.

According to the RMT union, some have not had a pay rise for three years, a cut in real terms, and spiralling inflation means people already struggling to make ends meet are being put under increasingly severe pressure.

This problem is by no means confined to the railway industry. With NHS staff, teachers, Royal Mail workers and others feeling the pinch, unions are warning of a potential “summer of discontent” in the weeks ahead.

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The UK Government’s response can perhaps be best caricatured as akin Jacob Rees-Mogg’s somnolent slouch in the House of Commons and his cosplaying as “the honourable member for the 18th century”.

Boris Johnson's government needs to be more active in solving problems like the railway strikes (Picture: Ben Stansall/WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Just as The Scotsman urged the Scottish Government to intervene in the now-settled train drivers’ dispute, UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps should be moving heaven and earth to find a solution and get the trains back on track.

Instead, Boris Johnson’s Cabinet appears intent on harnessing commuter anger to absolve themselves of any responsibility and turn the public against the strikers. We should be wary of populist politicians who have little inclination to try to solve practical problems and fewer ideas about how to do so.

One reason for this is that failing to address growing discontentment and increased divisions between haves and have-nots, risks a systemic problem: the unravelling of the social contract that binds society together.

Functioning societies need at least a sense that we are ‘all in it together’. If the 18th century taught us anything, it’s that the most iniquitous societies can pay a high price.

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