80th anniversary: British General Strike – 1926
The Nine Days of the Strike, May 1926
Realising that the workers were losing trust and confidence in it, the TUC leadership arranged for an editorial to be published in the Daily Herald on the morning of Monday, 3rd May. Entitled “Trust Your Leaders”, it said “Heed none of those who speak ill of those in command”; it warned “against spies, against scoundrels who incite a riot to attacks on persons or property”; it concluded: “Any who try to sow distrust are the worst foes of Labour, worse than any capitalist. For the capitalist can be recognised and fought with. These other foes are in disguise…”. Clearly, the TUC leadership feared the masses of workers far more than they feared the ruling class and its state machinery. Their endeavour throughout was to retain control of the mass movement of the workers, lest it should grow into something far more menacing to the bourgeois order. It was precisely for this reason, and with this end in mind, that the TUC leadership felt compelled to give voice to the demands of its affiliates. As John Murray says correctly: “The body had demanded action – and the head was compelled to provide it in some shape” (John Murray, The General Strike, p.110, referred to as JM).
The conduct of the Labour Party was even more – if such a thing can be imagined -disgraceful, cowardly and treacherous. On the afternoon of Monday, May 3rd, the House of Commons witnessed a debate on the coal industry, the coal dispute and the events leading up to the declaration of the General Strike. Baldwin, speaking for the Government, pulled no punches. He accused the TUC of acting unconstitutionally, characterising its actions as “a gross travesty of any democratic principle”, a proclamation of “Civil War”, threatening the very basis of “ordered Government” and “the freedom of our very Constitution”. In reply, the performances of MacDonald and Thomas were nothing short of abject grovelling, confined to denying the Government’s charges of the TUC inciting revolution and expressing sympathy for the Government’s difficult position. Thomas ended his speech, his arms outstretched across the bar of the Commons, with the words: “Do not let us have bitterness, whatever the immediate future might bring”.
Further into that week, Thomas was to say, in the same House of Commons, that “at one minute to twelve on Monday night, I would have grovelled for peace: I would have grovelled to the Chancellor of the Exchequer [Churchill] because I hated war”.
According to Julian Symons: “Thomas left the House of Commons in tears after a speech in which he said that in any challenge to the Constitution God help Britain unless the Government won” (Julian Symons, The General Strike, p.53, referred to as JS).
Thus, with the Government refusing to treat with the TUC on any terms short of an unconditional surrender, and the TUC leadership, although willing but yet unable to offer such a surrender in view of the mass pressure, was compelled to put into effect the decision of 1st May in favour of a General Strike. Doubtless, the TUC leadership intended all along to surrender at the earliest opportune moment. What is more, in making its strike plans, once the strike could no longer be avoided, the TUC’s overriding concern was to ensure a tight grip over the strike and to prevent control of it passing into revolutionary hands. “What I dread about this strike more than anything else was this”, wrote Thomas afterwards, “If by any chance it should have got out of the hands of those who should 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 [i.e. tame and servile] army” (quoted in JS, op cit, p.52).
In the hastily drawn up plans of the TUC Strike Committee, this overriding concern is all too clear. The trades and industries to stop work included all forms of transport; printing trades, iron and steel; metal and heavy chemicals, and any others engaged in the installation of alternative plant to take the place of coal; building trade workers, except those employed on housing and hospital work; electricity and gas workers. This, at first sight impressive, list omits such trades and occupations as the post office workers, including those handling telephone services; engineers and electricians. In addition, it was recommended that sanitary, health and food services should continue. Further, the workers were actually to be called out by their respective unions.
Notwithstanding the TUC’s total lack of prior preparations, the utter lack of conviction on the part of the leadership in the just cause of the General Strike, and the cowardice, hypocrisy, duplicity and timidity that were the hallmarks of its leading lights, the call for the General Strike evoked a magnificent response – a response acknowledged by the TUC’s own communiqué in the following glowing terms:
“We have from all over the country, from Lands End to John o’Groats, reports that have surpassed all our expectations. Not only the railwaymen and transport men, but all other trades came out in a manner we did not expect immediately. The difficulty of the General Council has been to keep men in what we might call the second line of defence rather than call them off. There are also no reports other than those of a quiet, orderly and good-tempered desire to keep the peace of all sections of the community” (quoted by R Page Arnot in The General Strike, p.195, referred to as RPA).
In terms luridly racist, the British Gazette, the Government paper brought out during the Strike under Churchill’s editorship, in its first issue, and giving the reason for its own birth, acknowledged the success of the Strike in silencing the capitalist lying press:
“Nearly all the newspapers have been silenced by violent concerted action. And this great nation, on the whole the strongest community which civilisation can show, is for the moment reduced in this respect to the level of the African natives dependent only on the rumours which are carried from place to place. In a few days, if this were allowed to continue, rumours would poison the air, raise panics and disorders, inflame fears and passions together, and carry us all to depths which no sane man of any party or class would care even to contemplate.
“The Government have, therefore, decided not only to use broadcasting for spreading information, but to bring out a paper of their own on a sufficient scale to carry full and timely news throughout all parts of the country” (quoted in RPA, op cit, p.179).
Regular newspapers vanished; of 1,870 newspapers in Britain then, only 40 managed to appear. On the morning of 4th May, the stoppage “in the industries affected was nearly universal … it was apparent that the General Council and its Industrial Committee had made quite inadequate preparations for carrying on the strike: and the burden of organisation fell mainly on the local Trades Councils or on improvised local Councils of Action, most of which showed a remarkable capacity for taking quick decisions and for putting them into effect” (G.D.H.Cole, A History of the Labour Party from 1914, – hereafter Cole).
The industrial heart of Britain had almost stopped beating. There were no buses or trams on the roads; electricity and gas were in short supply; police clashed with the strikers and pickets were attacked by fascist gangs. The inspiring energy of the spontaneously rising mass movement of millions of workers was countered, not merely by the unpreparedness, but by the downright treachery and sabotage, of the leadership. On 4th May, the very first day of the Strike, the Daily Herald carried this statement, calculated to demoralise the working class, of Ramsay MacDonald:
“As far as we can see we shall go on. I don’t like General Strikes. I haven’t changed my opinion. I have said so in the House of Commons. I don’t like it; honestly I don’t like it; but honestly, what can be done?” (quoted in RPA, op cit, p.173).
On the same day (4th May), the Times reported the following remarks made by the wife of Philip Snowden: “Mrs Philip Snowden, speaking yesterday at the Annual Conference of the National Federation of Christian Workers among Poor Children, at the Kingsway Hall, referred to the coal dispute, saying that the nation was on the edge of a grave crisis. She added: – ‘We must stand quietly behind the Government – any Government, for it would have been the same if a Labour Party had been in power – in all it does to maintain law and order. We must be very careful not to aggravate the position by any words of ours. We hope and pray that under God we may see a very speedy issue out of a very trying and in some respects a menacing situation’”.
It is worth remembering that her husband, Philip Snowden, was one of the three top leaders of the Parliamentary Labour Party – the other two being MacDonald and Thomas. The concern of this gentry throughout was to bring about the speediest defeat of the General Strike.
Small though it was, in many areas of the country it fell to the honour of the Communist Party to provide the leadership to the spontaneously rising movement of the workers. On the eve of the Strike it issued a clarion call, which ended with the slogans:
“Not a penny off the pay, Not a second on the day.
“A Council of Action in every town.
“Make friends with the soldiers.
“Every man behind the miners.”.
Recognising the danger represented by the Communist leadership of the working class in those turbulent times, the Government struck. On the first day of the Strike, Saklatvala, Communist MP for Battersea North, was arrested for his May Day speech in Hyde Part and given a two month prison sentence. Stoker, a leading communist from Manchester was given the same treatment. On the second night of the Strike, the headquarters of the Communist Party was raided by an army of special constables, who broke their way in using crowbars and jemmies, in the process scattering literature and ransacking the offices. They carried a warrant for the seizure of material relating to Workers’ Bulletin, a duplicated daily circulated from London by the CPGB.
Considering the third-rate and treacherous TUC leadership, it was a remarkable feat that in the first few days close to 3 million workers were on strike.
One of the extraordinary features of the General Strike was, that from day one of the struggle, the miners had no representation on the General Council, which was in continuous session during the nine days of the Strike. Of the two miners’ representatives on the Council, one of them, Tom Richards, was too ill to attend; Bob Smillie, the other representative, had gone to Scotland as his presence among the Scottish miners was of vital importance. Herbert Smith, Arthur Cook and the Federation treasurer were permitted to attend the meetings of the General Council merely in the capacity of observers – without the right to vote or intervene in the debate. Cook’s appeals to the Council for two substitute representatives to be co-opted were turned down. Several members, especially Thomas, very vehemently opposed such co-option on the spurious grounds that it was not allowed by the constitution of the General Council and that it would create a precedent for the future. It is a case of Hamlet without the Prince. Unbelievable though it may seem, the truth is that for the entire period of the General Strike, the miners, whose resistance to the further degradation in their standard of life was the root cause – the raison d’être – of the whole dispute, had no representation on the Council.
The reason for this abnormal state of affairs is not difficult to perceive. The miners were the most implacable foes of surrender to the demands of the coal-owners and the Government alike; they were most resolute, determined, and steadfast, in their resistance to encroachments on their living conditions. They could, therefore, be expected to put up the utmost of stiff resistance to any sell-out on the part of the General Council. Since the General Council was, congenitally as it were, inclined towards a sell-out, they naturally did not want such an impediment as the miners’ representatives on the General Council, thwarting the latter’s plans for an unconditional surrender. Hence the General Council’s stubborn refusal to allow any representation to the miners.
In view of this, it is hardly to be surprised at that when push came to shove, the miners “were not consulted in the REAL negotiations and in the framing of the REAL decisions. For these were conducted behind closed doors, mostly in secret, with intrigue and deceit playing not a small part” (JM, op cit, p.127).
A.J.Cook has this to say on the General Council’s deliberations during the nine days: “It would not only be an education to the workers, but it would be material that could guide us in our future struggle if a verbatim report could be printed of all that took place. Unfortunately [intentionally would be a better expression] it was decided that no shorthand notes should be taken. So I am afraid the full truth will never be told” (The Nine Days).
In its newspaper – the British Worker – which appeared on the evening of Wednesday, 5th May, the General Council stressed that “this is an industrial dispute”. In contrast, Baldwin’s message, broadcast on the BBC and printed in the Government’s paper, the British Gazette, declared that “the General Strike is a challenge to Parliament”. In reply, an editorial in the British Worker meekly begged Mr.Baldwin to believe that this was not the case:
“No political issue has ever been mentioned or thought of in connection with the strike. It began over wages and conditions of working; it has never been concerned with anything else. … The General Strike is not a ‘menace to Parliament’, no attack is being made on constitutional government. We beg Mr.Baldwin to believe that” (quoted in RPA, op cit, p.185).
When, on the second day of the Strike, Baldwin stated in the House of Commons that: “No Government in any circumstances could ever yield to a General Strike. The moment it is called off unconditionally the Government were prepared to resume negotiations”, the TUC, instead of giving a fitting rebuff, declared with the utmost of servility that it was “ready at any moment to resume negotiations for an honourable settlement. It enforces no conditions for resuming preliminary discussion with the Government on any aspects of the case”. When the Home Secretary, William Joynson-Hicks, appealed, through the columns of the British Gazette and the BBC, for Special Constabulary recruits, the TUC, in a tone with which the reader is already too familiar, squealed thus: Don’t be “stampeded into panic by the provocative actions of the Home Secretary. The inference contained in his broadcast appeal for Special Constables on Wednesday evening, to the effect that the Trade Union Movement was violating law and order, is quite unjustifiable. Only on that same afternoon, in fact, the General Council … had officially urged every member taking part in the dispute to be exemplary in his conduct and not to give any opportunity for police interference” (quoted in RPA, op cit, p.181).
Every Government statement, bubbling with class venom, was answered by the TUC with replies begging the Government to believe that nothing could be further from the mind of the General Council than to challenge the constitution, the Parliament, or disturb law and order. With such leadership at the helm, the defeat of the working class is a foregone conclusion – even before the battle has been joined, for the main concern of these types of ‘Generals’, far from putting every ounce of energy, every effort, into directing warfare and winning victory over the enemy, is merely to find a suitable opportunity for a total and humiliating surrender.
Only the Communist Party, small though it was, through the Workers’ Bulletin, continued to stress the political meaning of the Strike, urging workers to form Councils of Action, to organise Workers Defence Corps against the government’s Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies (OMS) and the fascists, to put in place feeding arrangements, hold mass meetings and to familiarise the troops with the workers’ case.
“But the Communist Party warns the workers against the attempt being made to limit the struggle to its previous character of self-defence against the capitalist offensive. Once the battle has been joined, the only way to victory is to push ahead and hit hard. And the way to hit the capitalist hardest is for the Councils of Action to throw out the clear watchwords: –
“NOT A PENNY OFF THE PAY. NOT A SECOND ON THE DAY!
“NATIONALISE THE MINES WITHOUT COMPENSATION, UNDER WORKERS’ CONTROL” (quoted in ibid, p.180).
Notwithstanding the supine TUC leadership, the Strike was gaining momentum and strength. The Government’s attempts to break it through the use of blacklegs were proving futile. As to the international support for the General Strike, the Soviet trade unions were the first on the scene. The All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions (AUCCTU), in addition to sending stirring messages of support, issued instructions to its members to support British workers on vessels in Soviet ports and urged crews of Soviet ships trading with Britain to give active support. Further, the Soviet trade unions remitted 250,000 rubles to the TUC on 5th May, and, two days later, on 7th May, the AUCCTU sent to the General Council two million rubles (about £100,000) collected by the Soviet proletariat, only to be informed on 9th May of the General Council’s decision to refuse acceptance of this assistance. The TUC were extremely eager not to upset the British bourgeoisie and went out of the way to show their loyalty to British imperialism by turning down the Soviet assistance.
The British Worker (May 8) stated : “The report in the foreign press yesterday that an offer had been made by the Russian Trade Unions was confirmed this morning by a definite contribution being offered to the General Council. The Council has informed the Russian Trade Unions, in a courteous communication, that they are unable to accept the offer and the cheque has been returned” (quoted in RPA, op cit, p.189).
Quite correctly, the Communist Party, in the Workers’ Bulletin of 10th May, stated that: “The refusal of Russian workers’ help is a blow at the wives and children of British workers and a wanton insult to the Russian workers” (quoted in RPA, op cit, p.204).
The spineless treachery of the TUC and Labour leadership was fully matched by the behaviour and actions of the Second International and the Amsterdam Federation of Trade Unions, who, while passing platonic resolutions in support of the Strike, refused to give any meaningful financial assistance to it. Only the equivocal conduct of these two bodies can explain the fact that all the trade unions of Europe and America donated a mere one-eighth of the amount which the Soviet proletariat found it possible to afford to the British proletariat. In addition, far from stopping the transport of coal, the Amsterdam Federation literally acted as strike-breaker.
The strength of the Strike and the mood of the workers can easily be gauged from the following facts. In Canning Town and Poplar, in order to prevent unauthorised lorries bringing in supplies, upwards of 50,000 workers picketed the roads which led from the docks – braving repeated charges by baton-wielding police. In Liverpool, the Government sent troop reinforcements and used warships to land supplies. Glasgow and Edinburgh witnessed street clashes, resulting in several dozen people being injured and arrested. Everywhere the tempo was rising. On the third day of the Strike (Thursday, 6th May) increasing numbers were coming out on strike, and the total was nearing the 4 million mark.
In response to the rising tide of working-class action in support of the Strike, the Government gave carte blanche to the army and the Home Secretary gave a renewed call for 50,000 Special Constables, to be used for picket breaking. Pickets were beaten up mercilessly by truncheon-swinging volunteer hordes – young Tory gentlemen, ripe for fascism – who were rushed to “trouble spots” and unleashed on the unarmed workers, which only served to create sympathy for the strikers in the most unexpected of quarters. But even in the face of these draconian measures, the Strike, far from subsiding, was continuing to spread. All power station workers in London were on strike and the London Strike Committee turned off power supplies to the House of Commons; the textile industry was badly hit; Glasgow journalists refused to blackleg; engineering and shipbuilding workers along the north-east and Yorkshire coast were supporting the Strike to a man. In many areas Councils of Action, functioning through the local Trades Council machinery, handled the organisation of the Strike by bringing together, and co-ordinating, a large cross-section of trades and industries. Newcastle Trades Council of Action even produced its own news-sheet – the Workers’ Chronicle. In Northumberland and Durham a General Strike Committee was set up to coordinate activity throughout that great industrial region. So successful was it that, in Newcastle, the OMS simply collapsed. Kingsley Wood, who was responsible for the Government apparatus in the north-east, was compelled to plead with the Strike Committee for help in the distribution of essential supplies. What a contrast all this activity represents with the scheming and treachery of the spineless and cowardly bunch of the TUC at Eccleston Square! John Murray give the following apt description of this renegade gentry:
“Politically they were ill-equipped: the knavery and ineptitude of their fumblings, and the impact of their treachery, were monstrous. Yet ‘these men’ were the figureheads of the labour movement of the day – men with clay feet and wooden consciences. In spite of them the great strike was hardening into bitter class war. On the streets and in the very houses of Britain the glint of social upheaval was sparking, and it was, indeed, because they were fearful of that spark that ‘these men’ scampered away in retreat, cringing before the mass of working-class righteousness and spirit which had arisen from the graves of sloth” (op cit, p.139).
On Friday (7th May), the Archbishop of Canterbury on behalf of the christian churches intervened and called on both sides to get together “in a spirit of fellowship and co-operation for the common good”. As Randall Davidson, the Archbishop, could not be suspected of being a progressive, his appeal was “all the more remarkable” and “showed so clearly the sympathy felt for the miners” (JS, op cit, p.182.
Davidson’s appeal called for the resumption of negotiations, based on three points: renewal of Government subsidy “for a short definite period”; withdrawal by the coal-owners of the suggested new wage scales; and the cancellation of the General Strike. Agreement on these points was to be made “simultaneously and concurrently”. On being shown this appeal, MacDonald thumped the table in enthusiasm, saying the idea was “inspired”, suggesting, however, that it would be more tactful if the third point, concerning the cancellation of the Strike, was put first. The Government, bent on nothing short of an unconditional surrender by the General Council, saw to it that its own paper, the British Gazette, would not carry the appeal. John Reith, the Managing Director of the BBC, was informed by the Government that if he valued (don’t laugh!) the independence of the Corporation, he must not allow the Archbishop’s appeal to be broadcast – he being left in no doubt that otherwise the Government will take over the BBC. So the poor fellow managed to keep the ‘independence’ of the BBC, if only by turning it into a subservient tool of Government policy and an arm of the Government!! Only the British Worker carried this appeal on 8th May.
On the 6th day of the General Strike (Sunday, 9th May), while Archbishop Davidson, who was due to make an address that night at St.Martin-in-the-Fields which was being broadcast, was told not to use his address for dealing with the economic question, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Bourne, faced little difficulty in expressing himself in the following terms at High Mass in Westminster Cathedral:
“There is no moral justification for a General Strike of this character”, he said. “It is therefore a sin against the obedience which we owe to God. … All are bound to uphold and assist the Government, which is the lawfully-constituted authority of the country and represents therefore in its own appointed sphere the authority of God himself” (quoted in RPA, op cit, p.203).
On the same day, Thomas, speaking at Hammersmith, said: “I have never disguised that I did not favour the principle of a General Strike”. Remarks, such as these, at the height of the Strike, by people who were supposedly the workers’ leaders in those difficult days, cannot have any other purpose than to demoralise the working class, weaken its will to resist and fight, and thus to sabotage the struggle of the working class by stabbing it in the back.
By way of increasing pressure, the Government stopped the British Workers’ newsprint on Friday, 7th May. And to the TUC’s increasingly capitulatory statements, Baldwin replied in his broadcast of Saturday, 8th May, saying that the Strike must end before the Government would renew negotiations.
The British Worker of Sunday, 9th May, published the General Council’s response to Baldwin’s truculent and uncompromising broadcast in terms most docile and apologetic – denying that the Strike had any political significance: “The workers must not be misled by Mr.Baldwin’s renewed attempts last night to represent the present strike as a political issue. The trade unions are fighting for one thing, and one thing only – to protect the miners’ standard of life” (quoted in RPA, op cit, pp.210-202). And its idea of protecting the miners’ standard of life was through the acceptance of the Samuel Report – the very report which called for a reduction of wages, and was, therefore, rejected by the miners in terms most unequivocal.
Repeating that it was prepared to reopen discussions with the Government “at any moment”, the General Council’s reply went on: “The General Council does not challenge one rule, one law, or custom of the Constitution: it asks only that the miners be safeguarded” (ibid).
The rank and file were much irritated by such capitulatory statements by the TUC, and it was by way of giving expression to this irritation that the Workers’ Bulletin declared that “the anxiety of the ‘British Worker’ to assure everybody that the strike is a ‘purely industrial dispute’ is almost pathetic. So far as the intentions of the General Council went, the statement is true enough, but the Government every hour makes more of a political issue of it. Their seizure of the stocks of printing paper is not only evidence that they are driven to extremity but evidence also that under EPA the ‘Constitution’ is just what the Government choose to make it. Already there have been on official showing over a hundred arrests, and raids and arrests are reported hourly – so also with the movement of troops. …” (quoted in JM, op cit, p.144).
As it entered its second week on Monday, 10th May, it was clear that the Strike was spreading; it was more solid than ever before. Even the TUC had to recognise this reality through the following message to Trade Union Members, published in the British Worker of 10th May:
“We are entering upon the second week of the general stoppage in support of the mine workers against the attack upon their standard of life by the coal owners.
“Nothing could be more wonderful than the magnificent response of millions of workers to the call of their leaders.
“From every town and city in the country reports are pouring into the General Council headquarters stating that all ranks are solid, that the working men and women are resolute in their determination to resist the unjust attack upon the mining community. …
“The General Council desire to express their keen appreciation of the loyalty of the Trade Union members to whom the call was issued and by whom such a splendid response has been made.
“They are especially desirous of commending the workers on their strict obedience to the instruction to avoid all conflict and to conduct themselves in an orderly manner. Their behaviour during the first week of the stoppage is a great example to the whole world” (quoted in RPA, op cit, p.205).
The British working class had invested so much in the General Strike and it rightly entertained great hopes and expectations in its outcome. At the beginning of the second week of the Strike, the workers “were reaching out to fresh development. They were, as numerous reports put it, ‘just beginning’ and the full force of their attack was only commencing to be felt. Mass pickets, defence corps, propaganda, commissariat, federation over wider areas – all these were just coming into play” (Workers’ History of the Great Strike, by Ellen Wilkinson, J.F.Robinson, R.W. Posgate).
The Strike was not only spreading but also beginning to assume a decidedly political character. In the second week, engineering and shipbuilding workers were called out. With more and more workers coming out, and with the Strike threatening to become political – where would all this end? These thoughts, while invigorating the workers and bringing cheer in their camp, tortured, frightened and shook the General Council to a man. Their main concern was to keep a tight rein on the Strike, to maintain their conciliatory, more correctly capitulatory, tone, to lose no opportunity for calling off the Strike on the pretext of a negotiated solution – any solution, even a bad one – rather than risk revolutionary outbursts with their fearful consequences for the bourgeoisie and the bourgeoisified leadership of the TUC and the Labour Party alike. “This was their [General Council’s] philosophy and this was their guiding star which” observes John Murray, “in three days’ time, was to navigate them into the Government’s safe harbour of unconditional surrender and the trade union movement on to the reefs of disaster” (op cit, p.146).
Meanwhile, on Thursday, 6th May, Sir Herbert Samuel, returned from Northern Italy, where he had gone (after submitting the Coal Report) “to work on that book which was to clear his own mind of confusion and help others to arrive at some body of belief” (JS, op cit, p.187).
Obviously, it was far more important for a member of the ruling class to look after the latter’s material interests than waste time on ‘spiritual’ trivia at a time when these material interests were under grave threat. On his return he ensconced himself comfortably in the Reform Club in Pall Mall and immediately got in touch with Jimmy Thomas. He also saw Baldwin, Lane-Fox and Steel-Maitland. The last-named went so far as to write a letter emphasising that the Government could not possibly agree to “procure the end of the General Strike by a process of bargaining”:
“I am sure that the Government will take the view that, while they are bound most carefully and most sympathetically to consider the terms of any arrangement which a public man of your responsibility and experience may propose, it is imperative to make it plain that any discussion which you think proper to initiate is not clothed in even a vestige of official character” (quoted in JS, op cit, p.188).
Julian Symons makes this correct observation on the above-quoted remarks: “That was plain enough: but it should not be thought that the Government was opposed to such discussions. It had everything to gain by receiving the TUC’s suggestions for ending the strike, as they were filtered through Samuel, while remaining on its own side completely uncommitted. The negotiations were all on one side. Samuel’s suggestions, as he made clear from the start, carried only the weight of his own personality and influence” (ibid).
On Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday (7th to 10th May inclusive), Samuel and the TUC Negotiating Committee met in the Bryanstone Square house of Thomas’ friend, Sir Abe Bailey, the South African millionaire and mining magnet. Their meetings, at which they worked on a basis for a settlement, were held in complete secrecy, for the “labour movement was in no mood to hear talk of a settlement, except upon equal terms” (JS, ibid). Ominously, Smith and Cook (the miners’ representatives), were not invited to these meetings – they only heard of them as late as Sunday morning (9th May).
Nothing more clearly reveals the hypocrisy, the cynicism, and the treachery of the TUC leadership than its duplicity in apparently extending the strike at the same time as it intensified its efforts a hundred fold to prepare the conditions for a total and unconditional surrender. Just as it was close to accepting the Samuel Memorandum, on the basis of which it called off the Strike the same evening, the General Council issued Strike Orders to take effect from midnight of 11th May to all Engineering and Shipbuilding workers hitherto not affected by the Strike. More likely, this “order was in part the acknowledgement of a fact, since many men in these industries had already come out, and the strike was also beginning to exert pressure on factories and workshops through transport difficulties, shortage of coal and raw materials. Some had closed down, and many more were working on short time” (ibid, pp.198-199).
Even the BBC was compelled to admit in its broadcast of Tuesday, 11th May (8th day of the Strike): “There is as yet little sign of a general collapse of the strike” (quoted in RPA, op cit, p.207).
The New York Herald Tribune wrote of “the strike’s throttling grip on industry” beginning to be felt by the end of the first week of the strike.
Thus, while giving the APPEARANCE of preparing for an intensification of the struggle, the General Council was ACTUALLY preparing for a surrender. And, in its Strike Order of Tuesday, 11th May, the TUC gave not even a hint about the secret negotiations it had been conducting with Sir Herbert Samuel since the previous Friday.
By Monday, 10th May, the General Council had made up its mind to accept the Samuel Memorandum as a basis for settlement. On Monday morning the General Council informed the miners that it regarded the proposals contained in the Samuel Memorandum as a satisfactory basis for opening negotiations, which the miners rejected forthwith. The coal-owners had no objection to the latest proposals. The TUC Negotiating Committee had assured Sir Samuel that the miners, too, would find them acceptable. That this was not so, Samuel discovered when he met the miners on Monday afternoon. That the miners’ refusal to accept the latest Samuel proposals was hardly surprising since they were merely the revamped version of the original proposals, enshrined in the Samuel Coal Report, which had already been rejected by the miners.
The Negotiating Committee was to see Sir Samuel again at 3 p.m. on Tuesday (11th May). Before that time the TUC leaders sent him a message to the effect that they were proceeding without the miners, and that the General Strike was to be withdrawn. Although the General Council had made its decision by Tuesday afternoon, nevertheless its meeting with the miners on Tuesday night was extremely crucial. At this meeting, the treacherous leadership of the General Council attempted to secure the miners’ agreement, in the interests of ‘unity’, to a decision, in the making of which they had had no part to play and, to which they were irreconcilably opposed. During this stormy session, Herbert Smith (Miner’s President) asked: “Do you people realise the serious position you are putting yourselves in? Are you going back without any consideration for the men who are going to be victimised in the movement? Are you not going to consider that at all?” (quoted in JS, op cit, p.204).
When asked by Smith and Cook as to what guarantee was there that the Samuel recommendations would ever be carried out, with characteristic servility, Jimmy Thomas declared: “You may not trust my word, but will you not accept the word of a British gentleman who has been the Governor of Palestine?” This was supposed to impress and overawe the miners!
After this meeting, Smith, Cook and Richardson (Miners’ Treasurer) retired to consult with their Executive. They returned after midnight to announce their Executive’s rejection of the Samuel proposals. In their resolution, rejecting the proposals, they miners regretted that they had not been consulted, and pointed out that the acceptance of the Samuel Memorandum meant a reduction in wages, which was what the General Strike was declared against. In view of its crucial importance, this resolution is reproduced here in full:
“The EC of the MFGB [Miners’ Federation of Great Britain] has carefully considered the proposals elaborated by the Negotiating Committee of the General Council and approved by the General Council itself, and which represents in its word, the best conditions which can be obtained for the settlement of the present crisis in the coal industry. The EC of the MFGB expresses it regret that no opportunity was afforded to the representatives of the MFGB by the General Council to take part in the working out of this project and in the discussion which apparently preceded its elaboration. The proposals of the Negotiating Committee would even on the best case call for a reduction in the wages of a large number of miners, which is contrary to the repeated declaration of the Miners’ Federation; the MFGB, moreover, recalls that it was exactly on this issue that the General Council helped them in their struggle by declaration of a General Strike. In view of this, the MFGB, while cognisant of the seriousness of the consequences which may ensue from its decision, all the same regret that they are compelled to reject the proposal put before them. Moreover, if such proposals are put before the MFGB as a reason for calling off the General Strike, then the General Council must take this latter step exclusively on its own responsibility” (quoted in RPA, op cit p.208).
The General Council made one last effort to get the miners on board for a united surrender. On Wednesday morning (12th May) MacDonald asked for a meeting with the miners and was told: “We do not want you to come to our meeting”. However, a General Council deputation, headed by Bevin and Purcell, saw the miners at their headquarters in Russell Square. When all other arguments proved of no avail, Ben Turner, a member of the TUC deputation, used the dishonest argument that the strike was “on the slippery slope”, as the men, especially the railway workers, were drifting back to work. This was untrue, as was evident from the TUC’s own Intelligence Committee reports, and has since then been confirmed by the figures from the Ministry of Transport files of the locomotive engineers who had returned to work. Smith rejected the pleas of the TUC deputation in a bitter reply, in which he accused the General Council “of having been on the Prime Minister’s doormat without the miners’ knowledge, and said there was more enthusiasm for the strike amongst the rank and file than in their leaders. The deputation withdrew. Within an hour it was with the Prime Minister” (JS, op cit, p.205).
On their arrival at Downing Street, the TUC leaders met with a cold reception. They were asked their business. Sir Horace Wilson asked them if they had come to negotiate, or to declare the withdrawal of the strike. On being told that it was the latter, Wilson ushered them into the Cabinet Room, where Baldwin and several members of his Cabinet awaited them. On being asked to make a statement, Arthur Pugh, delivered the surrender in this meandering ramble:
“As a result of … the possibilities that we see in getting back to negotiations and your assurance, speaking for the general community of citizens as a whole, that no steps should be left unturned to get back to negotiations, we are here today, sir, to say that this General Strike is to be terminated forthwith” (quoted in RPA, op cit, p.221).
At the end of Pugh’s circular platitudes, Baldwin said: “That is, the General Strike is to be called off forthwith?” Pugh, Thomas and Bevin assured him that it was so, stressing how they had been impressed by Baldwin’s vague broadcast on Saturday night (8th May). When Bevin grovellingly asked about the resumption of negotiations, Baldwin merely retorted non-commitingly: “You know my record. You know the object of my policy, and I think you may trust me to consider what has been said” (ibid, p.222).
In long, grovelling, servile and rambling speeches, truly befitting flunkeys, Pugh, Bevin and Thomas sucked up to Baldwin, appealed to his non-existent magnanimity and good will, offered him their assistance, expressed the hope that “the big thing [the treacherous withdrawal of the strike] would be responded to in a big way”, and asked for his assistance “by asking the employers … to make the position as easy and smooth as possible, because … we must not have guerrilla warfare”. To all these pathetic pleas for assistance and nauseating declarations and professions of class peace, Baldwin replied curtly:
“Now, Mr Pugh, as I said before, we have both of us got a great deal to do and a great deal of anxious and difficult work, and I think that the sooner you get to your work and the sooner I get to mine the better” ( ibid, p.224).
In other words, why don’t you buzz off and leave me alone. Thus ended the proceedings, entailing the most shameless surrender in the history of the British working class. Nothing was said during this meeting about lock-out notices, wages and hours; the Samuel Memorandum was not even mentioned. “It is not surprising”, writes Symons, “that Birkenhead, Neville Chamberlain and some of the others listening wore triumphant smiles. No wonder, either, that several members of the General Council looked bewildered and depressed as they left Downing Street” (op cit, p.207).
Might well they have looked bewildered and depressed. They had committed the greatest act of betrayal against the British working class, and for this treachery the victorious and triumphant British bourgeoisie offered them nothing in return except a brutal and humiliating slap in the face. As the Chinese saying has it: “The drooping flowers pine for love, but the heartless brook carries on”!
For a day or two, the leaders of the TUC deluded themselves into believing that they had negotiated a settlement which implied the Government’s commitment to the acceptance of the Samuel Memorandum – which would be bad enough. In the British Worker of May 13, the General Council announced that “through the magnificent support and solidarity of the Trade Union Movement”, it had “obtained assurances that settlement of the mining problem can be secured which justifies them in bringing the general stoppage [this is the respectable expression that the TUC leadership stuck to throughout those fateful days, being too frightened to use the expression General Strike, which was used freely by the bourgeoisie, on the one hand, and the masses of the working class, on the other hand] to an end”. A circular sent out on the same day (May 13th) to the trade unions stated that the strike had been ended “in order that negotiations could be resumed to secure a settlement in the mining industry; free and unfettered from either strike or lock-out”.
As a matter of fact, “There was no shadow of justification for these statements. The Government had given no assurances; Samuel had emphasized his lack of official standing. The miners, on the other side, had made it clear, in Cook’s words, that they were ‘no party in any shape or form’ to the TUC decision. Yet Thomas told the Parliamentary Labour Party that the Government was bound by the Samuel Memorandum and would carry it out, while George Hicks [supposedly a left-winger] said that ‘the strike had been called off on this binding understanding’. Those who really believed that an understanding existed were soon to be undeceived” (JS, op cit, pp.212-212).
The reason for the withdrawal of the General Strike was not that the strike was weakening. On the contrary, the fact that, with each passing day, it was gaining in strength, frightened the day-lights out of the TUC/Labour Party leadership. It was not the fear of defeat which caused their capitulation, rather it was the prospect of victory, which could have had such devastating consequences for British imperialism, which motivated the leadership – a leadership filled with reverential awe for British imperialism and brought up on the crumbs from the imperialist banqueting table – to beat a shamefully hasty retreat in complete betrayal of the miners and the British working class alike. Julian Symons correctly observes:
“It was not fear of a breakdown, but fear that the strike might get out of their own hands that primarily moved the most influential members of the General Council. As Thomas said frankly in the House of Commons on May 13: ‘What I dreaded about this strike more than anything else was this: 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’. A few months later Charles Dukes of the General and Municipal Workers (not himself a member of the General Council) spoke to the same effect:
“‘Every day that the strike proceeded the control and the authority of the dispute was passing out of the hands of responsible Executives into the hands of men who had no authority, no control, and was wrecking the movement from one end to the other’.
“‘The intensity of the struggle will increase’, the leaders had been told. They preferred surrender to such an intensified struggle, with its implicit threat to their own power” (op cit, pp.210-211).
With the TUC’s surrender firmly in his bag, Baldwin called his Cabinet and thereafter went to the House of Commons to announce his triumph as a “victory for common sense”; the King issued a proclamation from Buckingham Palace, calling on his people to set aside all bitterness now that the struggle was over, and the country had passed “through a period of extreme anxiety”; the BBC broadcast the joyous news and expressed its “profound thankfulness to Almighty God who” had “led us through this supreme test with the national health unimpaired”, concluding with an epilogue from William Blake about building Jerusalem in England’s Green and Pleasant Land.
[Concluding part in the next issue]