Nine days that shook Britain
Review by Paul Feldman
Eighty years ago, in May 1926, millions of trade unionists staged an historic General Strike that brought Britain to a halt. It lasted for nine days before the leaders of the Trades Union Congress capitulated to the government and abandoned the strike.
Workers had come out in support of the miners’ union. For 12 months prior to the strike, the Tory government had subsidised the mine owners, who were in major economic difficulties. The subsidies were used to maintain wages at their current levels. A commission under Sir Herbert Samuel was set up to recommend long-term solutions.
The subsidy expired in May 1926, and the Tories led by Stanley Baldwin and Winston Churchill refused to renew it. So the mine owners acted, slashing wages and extending the working day. The miners’ union resisted and asked the TUC for support. The General Strike was the result.
Anne Perkins’ account of the strike* contributes to our understanding but her conclusions are way off the mark. She places the strike in context of the aftermath of the First World War and the Russian Revolution of 1917. Fear of a similar revolutionary uprising spread through the British establishment like wildfire.
As Perkins notes: “In the years from 1919, a bewildering number and variety of strikes by workers responding to inflation and the post-war boom soured the country’s early euphoric days of peace. Three times as many working days were lost to industrial action between 1919 and 1921 as in the years before the war, which had themselves been unusually disruptive. Many believed they were living in a revolutionary era that must be approaching a climax.”
A massive strike in Glasgow resulted in pitched battles between workers and police. Terrified that a revolution had actually begun, and concerned lest Scottish troops might mutiny, Lloyd George sent soldiers from England to put down the strike. In 1920, the cabinet secretary Sir Maurice Hankey wrote from the peace talks in Paris that there was “red revolution and blood and war at home and abroad”.
In 1924, the general election resulted in the election of a Labour government for the first time. Led by Ramsay MacDonald, Labour had been the official opposition since 1922. MacDonald saw it as his duty to help the ruling class out by taking office even though he had no parliamentary majority. No one needed to fear Labour – except those who had elected it to office. As Perkins notes: “The workers’ party would slip its puny body into the rigid confines of a parliamentary democracy that had been shaped by generations of use to fit the well-fed shoulders of the capitalist parties.” The government, which at one point threatened emergency action against strikes, collapsed before the end of the year, resulting in a Tory landslide at the polls.
British capitalism emerged from the war in economic crisis, having lost its pre-eminent position. The resistance of the working class to shouldering the burdens of the crisis shook the ruling class. Transport unions formed the Triple Alliance and in July 1925, the threat of a co-ordinated strike over miners’ pay resulted in the government subsidy.
After the deal over subsidies, the Tories consciously prepared to take on and defeat the General Strike that was now seen as inevitable. From the start, the government depicted this type of strike as a “constitutional outrage, a threat to the state”. The security services intercepted and leaked documents that purported to show that the British Communist Party was preparing for an uprising. The right-wing press urged the government to act and 12 leading party members were arrested and sent to prison for sedition in November 1925 and were in jail when the General Strike began.
At the TUC in Scarborough in September 1925, the chair spoke of the “new order of society… inevitable before we can remedy the existing evils”. A resolution demanding that the TUC itself prepare for revolution was carried by two to one. All this remained hot air, however, while the government readied itself for the confrontation.
It created a military-style apparatus called the Organisation for Maintenance of Supplies and started enrolling strike-breaking volunteers throughout the country. The army was organised for action. Chief constables were given permission to recruit up to 50% extra police in areas near coalfields. Civil commissioners were appointed to take control of local areas. “The energy the government expended in planning and propaganda was quite unmatched by anything heard or seen from Labour or the TUC,” says Perkins.
TUC leaders instead decided to await the Samuel commission report, hoping beyond hope that it would be the basis for a negotiated settlement. But when it was published in March 1926 – only weeks before the subsidy expired – it offered nothing to the miners. Despite weeks of subsequent pleading by the TUC, the government declined to get involved. Only on April 29 were union executives called together to approve the decision to call a General Strike. The next day the government declared a state of emergency and issued orders for the mobilisation of the armed forces.
Perkins remarks: “Apparently surprised by the government’s preparations, the TUC men challenged Baldwin with it… The union side declared that they had been betrayed; Thomas [right-wing leader of the rail union] spoke emotionally of being dragged into a whirlpool. ‘The State must win on an issue like this… I feel it is a desperate state… Our love of our country and our anxiety for the future of our country, not our politics, is the driving force, the impelling motive, that makes us plead’.”
His words fell on deaf ears. The General Strike began on May 4, with the first wave of strikers responding enthusiastically to the call to stand by the miners. In many towns, the organisation of the supply of food and energy soon passed into the hands of local strike committees. A transfer of power was effectively taking place and the state was powerless. Its strike-breaking forces were ineffectual, crashing rather than driving trains and buses. The peaceful nature of the strike avoided confrontations with the police and soldiers.
With the newspapers off the streets, the government launched the British Gazette. On day three, Baldwin declared: “Constitutional government is being attacked… The laws of England are the people’s birthright. The laws are in your keeping. You have made Parliament their guardian. The General Strike is a challenge to Parliament and is the road to anarchy and ruin.”
In fact, the objectives of the strike could only be achieved by bringing down the government and reorganising the economy on socialist lines. The strike was indeed a challenge to constitutional authority – the authority of capitalism to impose its will through its state machine. The inability of the TUC leaders to recognise or accept this flowed from their undying faith in the system and compromise solutions.
As Perkins says, the TUC thought the strike was merely a negotiating instrument. They were reluctant to consider what to do if the government did not comply. And that’s what happened. Baldwin refused to talk to the TUC until the strike was called off. This completely bewildered and then paralysed the TUC. Before long they were suing for peace, with Thomas conducting secret negotiations. The TUC abandoned the miners and called off the strike unconditionally, as Baldwin had demanded. In return he gave them absolutely nothing. Baldwin had called their bluff.
The end came after nine days. While the strike was being betrayed, millions more workers were actually coming out for the first time, following earlier instructions from the TUC which no longer applied. Many refused to believe the news that the strike was off. They had shown themselves capable of running whole communities and avoiding provocations. It was with an utter sense of betrayal that they returned to work. For the miners it was far worse. They stayed on strike until the end of the year. Thousands were victimised and sacked and could only work for lower pay and longer hours.
While Perkins deals with the strike itself in a detailed way, she misses the central point in her woeful attempt to show that the action failed because the British working class is not prepared to take revolutionary action. The issue then as now was one of leadership and strategy, not of the willingness of workers to struggle. This has been demonstrated in countless, heroic actions over the last 200 years, including the miners’ strike of 1984-85.
Baldwin and the Tories displayed leadership and had a strategy to defend the state and defeat the strike. There was no such thinking or preparation on the other side. As soon as the issue became one of political power, the TUC took off for the hills. Added to their craven behaviour was that of the British Communist Party. Already under the influence of the right-wing turn led by Joseph Stalin, the party had remained uncritical of the TUC leaders. In fact, its demand for the strike was “all power to the TUC General Council ”! This lent credibility to TUC leaders who, as Perkins shows, had no intention of leading a fight for power.
The issues of 1926, as now, come down to leadership, strategy and alternatives. Without those, the forces of capitalism will always have the upper hand. Without a plan to defeat the state and assume power, major confrontations will end with a victory for the status quo. Perkins' book, of course, did not set out to deal with these issues. Nevertheless, by documenting the background to 1926, the course of the strike and the weaknesses of the trade union leaders, A very British strike helps to deepen our understanding of this momentous event.
A very British strike, Anne Perkins, Macmillan, £20