Friday, May 05, 2006

Nine Days in 1926; Britain on the brink

ARMOURED ESCORT for supplies coming through London.

THIS week sees the 80th anniversary of an event that shook Britain and shaped the thinking of an entire generation for decades. For nine days in 1926 millions of workers from every industry came out on strike in solidarity with the miners. From a stand against wage-cutting employers it became a confrontation between the working class and the State. It continued for six months in the mining areas, where the colliers held out.

In later years, Establishment writers and teachers, if they could not entirely avoid mentioning this episode, would emphasise how 'amusing' and "typically British"it all was, with plus-foured fools driving trams, and strikers playing football with the police. Listening to the old boys who recalled a machine gun nest by the railway bridge, or told how they had derailed a train, you heard a different story. In fact, the 1926 General Strike was the nearest modern Britain came to revolution.

In 1925, facing competition from the Continent and handicapped by Churchill's decision to restore the Gold Standard, which made British goods expensive, Britain's mine-owners announced that they intended to cut miners' wages. In contrast with "Black Friday", April 15 1921, when transport and engineering unions had backed off from striking together with the miners, the TUC announced that it would back them. This was "Red Friday".

Stanley Baldwin's Tory government intervened, announcing a nine month subsidy to the mining industry and setting up a Royal Commission chaired by Sir Herbert Samuel to look at the problems of the Mining Industry. While the union leaders were congratulating themselves on this victory that was really a truce, the state prepared for a confrontation, setting up the Organisation for Maintenance of Supplies, stockpiling emergency supplies, and moving the armed forces into readiness.

The Samuel Commission published its report in March 1926. It recognised the industry needed reorganising, but rejected the suggestion of nationalization. The report also recommended that the Government subsidy should be withdrawn and the miners' wages should be reduced.
The mine-owners published new terms of employment, including longer hours, district agreements, and pay cuts ranging between ten and twenty-five per cent. If the miners did not accept their new terms of employment they would be locked out from the beginning of May. So far as Baldwin was concerned, not just the miners but all British workers would have to accept cuts in their pay.

The TUC conference on May 1, 1926 announced a General Strike "in defence of miners' wages and hours". Different sections of workers were to come out in stages. Meanwhile TUC and Labour leaders frantically sought an agreement with the Tories and the mine-owners. The TUC leadership tried to take the place of the Miners Federation in negotiations, which went late into Saturday night. But Baldwin broke off the talks, blaming the printworkers at the Daily Mail. Under the heading "For King and Country" the Tory paper wanted to run a hard-line editorial denouncing the miners. The workers refused to print it, as a matter of conscience. Trades unionists censoring the capitalist press - whatever next?! The TUC negotiators, led by Walter Citrine, apologised for the printers, but Baldwin did not want to know. The strike was on - and the printworkers were out with transport workers, steelworkers, railwaymen and dockers in the first wave.

The TUC General Council thought it could impose a compromise on the miners, but the miners' executive rejected it, and so did the government, which was determined to break the unions. Proclaiming a State of Emergency, it sent out a telegram putting the troops on alert, and bringing warships into the Mersey, Tyne, Humber and Clyde, and off Cardiff, Bristol , Swansea, Barrow and Middlesborough.

As the strike spread, with nearly five milllion workers eventually out, the authorities despite their shows of strength, could not cope. Upper-class volunteers might have enjoyed playing trains and buses, but they needed heavy protection and could not substitute for regular staff. Naval crew were brought in to run and guard London Transport's Neasden power station - but it was said the boilers and turbines never quite recovered.

In many places where the strike was strong authorities had to negotiate with the strike committees and local Councils of Action to get food and essential supplies and services through. In effect the workers' Councils of Action were being cast into a dual power role. In some places where there were clashes with police, workers' defence guards formed.

Baldwin announced that we have been "challenged with an alternative government... I do not think that all the leaders when they assented to ordering a general strike fully realised that they were threatening the basis of ordered government, and going nearer to proclaiming civil war than we have been for centuries past..."

The Tory premier correctly understood that the leaders were in terror of such thoughts. J R Clynes of the General and Municipal Workers union, admitted "I do not fear on this subject to throw such weight as I have on the side of caution. I am not in fear of the capitalist class. The only class I fear is our own." Jimmy Thomas, railway union leader and Labour MP, expressed his fears in the Commons on May 13 "If by any chance it should have got out of the hands of those who would be able to exercise some control, every sane man knows what would have happened...That danger, that fear was always in our minds, because we wanted at least, even in this struggle, to direct a disciplined army."

Talk of a "disciplined army" should not confuse us into thinking these men envisaged leading their troops to victory, though the phrase used of the British Army in World War I, "lions led by donkeys", may spring to mind. In fact it was worse. Not only did the leaders not know how to win, some definitely did not want to win. Jimmy Thomas again: "I have never disguised that in a challenge to the constitution, God help us unless the government won."

There was no attempt to co-ordinate and encourage the Councils of Action, no thought of going on to the offensive. The TUC leaders did not like the irreverent local publications which Councils of Action produced, it had the staid "British Worker" to insist the aims of the strike were wholly respectable and tell the workers, on May 10: "Stand firm. Be loyal to instructions and trust your leaders."

These leaders were desperate for a means of retreat. It was provided by Sir Herbert Samuel once more. On the 7th May, he approached the TUC and offered to help settle the strike. Without telling the miners, the TUC negotiating committee met him and worked out a set of proposals which included a National Wages Board with an independent chairman; a minimum wage for all colliery workers; workers displaced by pit closures to be given alternative employment; and the wages subsidy to be renewed while negotiations continued. However, Samuel warned that subsequent negotiations would probably mean a reduction in wages. These terms were accepted by the TUC negotiating committee, but not by the Miners Federation.

On the 11th May, the TUC General Council decided to accept the terms and call off the General Strike. The following day, they went to 10 Downing Street to announce that the General Strike was over, and ask the government to support the Samuel proposals and guarantee there would be no victimization of strikers. This the Government refused to do.
On the day after the strike was called off there were another 100, 000 workers joining it.

Lord Birkenhead, a member of the Government wrote later that the TUC's surrender was "so humiliating that some instinctive breeding made one unwilling even to look at them." On 21st June 1926, the Government introduced a Bill that suspended the miners' Seven Hours Act for five years - thus permitting a return to an 8 hour day. In July the mine-owners announced new terms of employment for miners based on this. The miners were furious, and although the General Strike was over, they decided to stay out.

It was during this ongoing steadfast, heroic struggle that some miners in the North East pulled up a length of railway track and derailed the famous Flying Scotsman express. Workers in the cities who still sympathised with the miners tried to send food and cassh to stop them being starved back. By November however, hardship and isolation had forced most miners back, and the strike ended. For those who found work again there were longer hours, lower pay and worse conditions. Others faced widespread victimisation. Jenny Lee, then a student, described how her father walked from one pit to another, always being refused work. The unemployment and blacklisting persisted. So did the miners' bitterness and feeling of betrayal.

Though the miners were left to fight valiantly on their own, they had not been the only ones in combatitive mood. Fenner Brockway wrote from Manchester when the TUC called off the general strike: "The Gazette...(Churchill's strikebreaking British Gazette) chortled over the great surrender but the temper of the workers was more militant than ever and in Manchester there was no thought of going back...For the first time feeling was bitter - bitter against employers who were everywhere victimising the local strike stalwarts, and bitter against the TUC General Council. It looked as though the end of the strike might be the beginning of the revolution."

There had been an alternative to the Clynes and Thomases in the making, in the Communist Party. It had around it growing rank-and-file industrial Minority Movement, and during the strike its members often came to the fore in the local committees and Councils of Action. Emile Burns collated their experiences in a book "Trades Councils in Action" published immediately after the strike. Party membership increased from 6,000 to 10,000. But influenced by the Soviet leadership's search for friends and allies, and pessimism about revolutionary prospects (Radek dismissed the 1926 strike as "just a wages movement"), the party had begun to focus much of its hopes on the "left" union leaders in the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Committee, and continued doing so even after the betrayal of the strike.

The government's 1927 Trade Disputes Act made sympathy strikes illegal, required trade union members to expressly 'contract in' to pay the political levy, forbade Civil Service unions to affiliate to the TUC, and made mass picketing illegal.

Though weakened, Labour won the 1929 general election, only for Ramsay Macdonald's government to be engulfed by the capitalist crisis and slump. Mines, mills and factories were closed, millions unemployed, and Macdonald went into a coalition in 1931 -the "National Government" so as to introduce the Means Test and dole cuts.

Not till after the Second World War did the working class regain its strength. For the generations that had come out in the general strike, that moment of pride and solidarity when they started to realise what they could do was overlaid with the subsequent sense of betrayal and defeat, first in 1926 and then in 1931, with all the misery of the depression. So conflicting feelings, of confidence and doubts, shaped their consciousness and responses.

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