The General Strike
The year 1926 was a most momentous one in working class history. It was the year of the greatest battle ever fought by the British trade union movement—the general strike.
The great world war of 1914-1918 created a vacuum in the world’s markets and during the trade boom that followed British workers were able to wring a few concessions from their employers. As markets again became saturated with goods and trade declined, the tables were turned and the employers launched an attack to reduce wages and depress conditions of work.
The reparation terms imposed upon Germany after the war caused German coal to be diverted to markets that had previously been the prerogative of British coal traders. This aggravated the slump in the British coal industry and the wages and working hours of coal miners became the prime target when the employers took the offensive. In 1925, when their wages were already reduced to miserable limits, the miners were threatened with a further wage reduction, extension of their hours of work and the break-up of their national negotiating machinery.
The Miners’ Federation of Great Britain rejected the employers’ demands and received the support of the Trades Union Congress which arranged with the railway and transport unions for united action. The employers, lined up behind the Government, were unprepared for such action and beat a hasty retreat. The day the coal owners withdrew their demands passed into history as Red Friday.
The trade unions were jubilant but the employers and the Government set to work making detailed preparations for the show-down that they intended to bring about. A few trade unionists, like Mr. A. J. Cook, the Miners’ Secretary, realised that only the first round had been fought and they called for preparations for the next struggle, but nothing was done.
Meanwhile, an Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies (O.M.S.) was set up under the control of a number of military and naval commanders and prominent capitalists, whilst the Government stalled off the trade unions with a Royal Commission, under the chairmanship of Sir Herbert Samuel, to inquire into the coal industry.
When the Samuel Report was issued in march, 1926, it was specific only in its assertions that the miners should accept lower pay and longer hours. Some members of the General Council of the T.U.C. argued that the miners should accept the terms of the Commission’s report pending a reorganisation of the coal industry that the report recommended, but the miners adopted a slogan, “Not a penny off the pay, not a second on the day.”
The General Council of the T.U.C. entered into negotiations with the Government, trying by all means, even “almost grovelling” as Mr. J. H. Thomas of the National Union of Railwaymen admitted, to find a way to divert the head-on crash that was ahead. Finally, Mr. Baldwin the Prime Minister, turned his back on the workers’ leaders and refused further negotiations on the grounds that a general strike was threatened and that certain overt acts had already taken place, including gross interference with the freedom of the Press. This referred to the action of certain printers who had refused to print some anti-working class statements. The fight was on.
On Friday, April 30th, the King signed a Proclamation declaring a State of Emergency. Orders in Council were issued in the form of Emergency Regulations under the Emergency Powers Act. Local authorities were reminded by a Ministry circular of the measures that had been previously arranged to cope with a national stoppage. Troops were moved to South Wales, Lancashire and Scotland and arrangements made to call in the Navy. The O.M.S. placarded the country with a poster calling for recruits.
On the third of May the General Council of the T.U.C. issued a manifesto and the following day the General Strike commenced. The stoppage exceeded expectations. All workers called upon responded magnificently, as did many who were not called upon. There were no evening papers and no passenger trains. All army leave was cancelled and the Government took over the B.B.C.
At midnight the taxi drivers came out and the next day saw seamen, transport workers, printers, journalists, engineers, dockers and many others all solidly on strike. The Government took over the Morning Post and issued the official British Gazette under the editorship of Mr. Churchill, whilst the T.U.C. took over the Daily Herald and published The British Worker.
By the third day of the strike 82 unions were involved and, considering the lack of preliminary preparation, the workers’ organisation was splendid. Each succeeding day more and more workers joined the strike and the Government took further action including the formation of a “Civil Constabulary Reserve,” composed of ex-soldiers with wages higher than those paid to miners. On the eighth day the High Court of Justice declared the strike illegal. The Government prepared to confiscate money sent by overseas trade unions to help their striking colleagues in Britain. The B.B.C. announced “There is as yet little sign of a collapse of the strike.” There was no rowdyism, and clashes with the police and other authorities were of a minor nature.
At midday on the ninth day the General Council of the T.U.C. arrived at Downing Street and informed the Prime Minister that the General Strike was being terminated that day and the news was broadcast at 1 p.m. followed by the publication of an order by the General Council for a cessation of the strike. Sir Herbert Samuel had issued a personal unauthorative memorandum to the members of the council and they had seized upon it as an excuse to call off the strike. The miners were left to carry on an heroic struggle on their own till they succumbed in December, not even having been notified of the intending surrender.
Throughout the strike the General Council closed its eyes to the class conflict in which it was involved and insisted that the issue was purely an industrial one. Not so the Government. It realised clearly the class character of its own acts and called for support from the un-class conscious by addressing them as “the nation” and telling them that Parliament and the constitution were threatened.
The Labour Party acted and spoke similarly to the General Council of the T.U.C. It blamed the Government but did not want to see the Government defeated. Hypocritically, it said that had it been in office it would have avoided such a situation, conveniently forgetting that only two years earlier it had been prepared to evoke the Emergency Powers Act in similar circumstances when it was faced with a transport strike.
The Communists went wild and were responsible for many of the clashes with the police. They cried that Parliament was finished and demanded all power to the General Council. They saw a revolution every time a lorry was overturned or a policeman lost his helmet. After the strike they laid the blame for the capitulation to the cowardice of the members of the General Council and demanded the replacement of the cowards.
It is not easy to analyse an event immediately it has taken place, yet, such is the nature of Socialist analysis, that we would not amend one paragraph, alter one sentence or delete one word of what the Socialist Party of Great Britain said about the General Strike at the time. The twenty-eight years that have elapsed have only served to confirm what our comrades of those days wrote in the Socialist Standard.
The two outstanding lessons of the General Strike were, firstly, that while political power is in the hands of the capitalist class, and until such time as the workers take it into their own hands, they must expect defeat in industrial struggles that threaten the interests of the whole capitalist class. Secondly, the evils of leadership. To blame the General Council or call them cowards and traitors solves nothing. To replace them by other leaders is merely to invite continuous repetitions of similar debacles. To be free of cowards, traitors, hypocrites, fakirs, and even well intentioned mis-leaders, the workers must see to it that their representatives are their servants, not their masters, carrying out instructions, not giving them.
When the workers are prepared to put as much effort and heroism into the struggle for Socialism as they were prepared to devote in support of the striking miners in 1926, there will be a grand story to tell.