80th Annniversary of the British General Strike – 1926
The General Strike was the most momentous event in the history of the British working class since the defeat of the Chartist movement in the middle of the 19th century. The first question concerns the causes of the General Strike. How could the General Strike take place in Britain – the land of capitalist might and unparalleled compromises? A number of circumstances made the General Strike inevitable.
Causes of the General Strike
First, beginning with the 1860s, Britain’s industrial monopoly was under attack. Formerly, owing to her monopoly position in the world market and huge colonial possessions, Britain raked in huge super-profits, a portion of which went towards bribing the upper layer of the British working class. This upper stratum – the labour aristocracy – were suitably tamed by British capital. With the furious development of capitalism in the United States, Germany, France and, to a certain extent, in Japan, and their consequent entry into the world market, Britain’s monopoly position was seriously undermined. The First World War, and the post-war crisis, dealt further severe blows to Britain’s monopoly position, all which could not but undermine the ability of British capital to bribe the upper stratum of the labour movement. No wonder, then, that the period of prosperity and social peace was succeeded by a period of social conflicts – lock-outs and strikes.
The second circumstance which contributed to the General Strike was the restoration of international market relations, torn asunder by the war, and the temporary stabilisation of capitalism. In the immediate aftermath of the war, the two-fold task facing the European bourgeoisie was to suppress the rising tide of revolution unleashed by the Bolshevik victory in Russia and to restore production. The Great October Socialist Revolution sent tremors throughout the bourgeois world. The rule of capital all over Europe was under threat. The Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed. A Soviet Republic was established in Hungary which, after several months in power, fell to the bloody blows of the counter-revolutionary might of the imperialist allies. Bavaria witnessed the establishment of a Soviet Republic. Only the treachery of social democrats – Ebert, Scheidemann and Noske – in alliance with the army, prevented the revolts of the working class from developing into a broad national revolutionary sweep capable of overthrowing German imperialism. France and Italy witnessed a powerful strike movement and there were uprisings at places.
The British Government for its part was busy suppressing the revolts of the colonial people with ruthless severity. The Lloyd George Coalition enacted the heinous Amritsar massacre in India, deported and jailed Egyptian nationalists, and pursued the policy of wrecking the Irish countryside with Black-and-Tan terror, with fascist ruthlessness, producing Anglo-Irish bitterness not witnessed since Cromwell.
Across the channel, the leading imperialist statesmen, representing the victors in World War One, were busy plotting the Peace of Versailles and setting up the ill-fated League of Nations. As Europe lay prostrate – starving, disintegrating – right under their noses, Lloyd George, Clemenceau and Wilson conducted themselves at the Paris Peace Conference in an atmosphere of “empty and arid intrigue” (J.M.Keynes, Economic Consequences of the Peace).
Although the war was a major blow to British imperialism as it altered the balance of economic forces in the world to the disadvantage of Britain, nevertheless the British economy emerged from it relatively unscathed – partly because of the loot from the Empire. The British ruling class found itself in a peculiar situation in the aftermath of the War. On the one hand, the first major decline in the fortunes of British imperialism dictated a serious attack on the standard of living of the British working class, on the other hand, the persistence of the revolutionary wave throughout Europe militated against such an assault – particularly as the end of the War, under the direct stimulus of the October Revolution, caused an explosion within the British working class. Mutinies in the army, a massive strike wave in industry, and a phenomenal increase in trade-union membership to eight million, served to deter the ruling class from enforcing its will. For the time being then, the British Government’s main concern was to strengthen the counter-revolution against the incoming powerful tide of revolution unleashed by the Bolshevik victory.
As a result of these special circumstances, the year 1919 saw, in quick succession, actions taken by British miners, railwaymen, dockers, engineers and textile workers for higher wages and shorter hours. On the Clyde the Government became so alarmed that the Riot Act had to be read out (Jan. 1919).
Trade Unions embarked on a course of centralisation – culminating in the formation of the General Council of the TUC in 1920 – with powers considerably beyond those possessed by its predecessor – the Co-ordinating Parliamentary Committee. Trade-union membership rose from 4 million in 1914, to 6.5 million in 1918 and 8,344 million in 1920.
The Sankey Commission
The beginning of 1919 also witnessed the revival of the Triple Alliance (formed in 1915 it had remained on the shelf) comprising the miners, railwaymen and transport workers. Aware of the menacing development of militancy among the British working class, and keen to avoid any weakening of its bargaining position at Versailles as a result of serious industrial strife at home, the Lloyd George Government, having already been forced to compromise with the railwaymen after a week-long national strike, acted with great dexterity and speed in response to the miners’ strike ballot of 1919. It offered the miners a Coal Commission to report on the question of miners’ wages, hours and nationalisation, an offer which the miners accepted. And so, on 3 March 1919, under the chairmanship of Sir John Sankey, the Commission thus set up began its deliberations. The Commission had to act with great dispatch since the miners were in no mood to be fobbed off with dilatory tactics.
The Commission issued its Report in two parts. In the first part, made public just 17 days after the Commission had been set up, it conceded the miners’ demands for higher wages and a seven-hour day, and dangled the prospect of a six-hour day in the not too distant future. As to the question of the ownership of the miners, the Commission said nothing for the time being. The Miners’ Federation accepted the concession, called off the proposed coal strike, and agreed to wait for the second part of the Report. In the latter, the Commission expressed itself, by a bare majority, in favour of the nationalisation of the mines, but the Government never accepted this part of the Report.
Once the revolutionary wave in Europe had subsided, international market relations had been re-established, the temporary stabilisation of capitalism achieved and production restored, the question of the market came to the fore – markets and raw materials. The struggle for markets resumed with new intensity, and victory in this goes to that group of capitalists and that capitalist country whose technique is higher and goods cheaper. British capital, as indeed any other, could only secure reduced costs of production and a cheapening of commodities at the expense of the working class. It attacked the miners not merely because of the technical backwardness of the coal industry (and its need for “rationalisation”) at the time, but “primarily because the miners have always been, and still remain, the advanced detachment of the British proletariat. It was the strategy of British capital to curb this advanced detachment, to lower their wages and lengthen their working day, in order then, having settled accounts with this main detachment, to make the other detachments of the working class toe the line. …” (J.V.Stalin, C.W., Vol.8, p.167).
The course of events fully confirms the above observations.
Black Friday (15 April 1921)
The middle of 1920 saw the appearance of the first signs of recession. In mid-August, when a complete deadlock was reached over their wage claim, the miners voted to take strike action and called upon the Triple Alliance for support. This call for support evoked a response from J.H.Thomas, General Secretary of the NUR, which can only be characterised as a deliberate act of sabotage. As a condition for support, Thomas demanded that the Alliance be vested with the final authority to settle the miners’ dispute when the time for a negotiated settlement arrived. Quite correctly, the miners refused to give any assurance on this score. In the end the miners went on strike alone in October 1920 and made no further attempt at enlisting the support of the Alliance.
When, a few days later, the NUR declared that its members too would strike unless the miners’ dispute was settled, the Government responded by the enactment of the Emergency Powers Act (EPA) – a weapon used ever since against the working class.
In the middle of this industrial strife was born the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), as well as the Councils of Action to stop British intervention against Soviet Russia.
By early 1921, the recession had developed into a slump – the number of unemployed had risen to an unprecedented 1 million. On 15 February, the Government announced its intention to end war-time control of the mines. Emboldened by the vast reservoir of the unemployed, the mine owners demanded wage cuts. Just as the Miners Decontrol Bill became law on 24 March, 1921, the mine owners were busy posting up lock-out notices. A week later the lock-out began and the miners again called on the Triple Alliance for support. The NUR and the transport workers responded favourably and on 8 April issued a call for a railway and transport strike. The Government invoked the EPA and proclaimed a “state of emergency”; reservists were called up, machine guns posted at pit heads, and troops in battle order drafted into large industrial areas.
Right at this moment, a meeting was taking place in the House of Commons which was to spell death for the Triple Alliance. Speaking at an inner-Party meeting of MPs, Frank Hodges, Secretary of the Miners’ Federation, was asked by a Tory MP if the miners would accept a compromise under which wages would not decline below the cost of living. Without the authority of the Miners’ Executive, he replied: “any such offer coming from an authoritative source would receive very serious consideration”. The Government seized on this reply. But the Miners’ Executive repudiated Hodges and persisted in their demands – a National Wages Board and a National Pool for equalisation of wages between all areas, profitable and unprofitable.
Disagreements among the miners were used as a pretext by the leadership of the NUR and the transport workers for scuttling the Triple Alliance. They stated that they would not strike in support of the miners unless the compromise offer, which Hodges had promised to consider, was discussed. Thus it was that at 3 o’clock on the afternoon of Friday, 15 April 1921, J.H.Thomas came out of the Conference Room at Unity House, ran down the steps, and handed reporters an announcement that the strike had been called off. His announcement plunged the British working class into such a state of despair, despondency and confusion that this day rightly came to be known in the working-class movement of this country as “Black Friday”. This betrayal by, and collapse of, the Triple Alliance was a precursor and a foretaste of the events which were to lead to the scandalous collapse of the General Strike in May 1926.
The miners struggled on alone until June when, driven by hunger and exhaustion, they were forced back to work, with their wages cut and agreements torn to shreds. The ramifications of “Black Friday”, as could be expected, were felt enormously across the entire spectrum of British industry. Encouraged by mass unemployment, disunity and divisions in the ranks of the leadership of the working class, and the backing of the EPA, the employers, with the tacit connivance of the Government, pressed their advantage. Wage reductions were forced on engineers, shipyard workers, builders, seamen, cotton operatives and agricultural workers. At the close of 1921, wage cuts averaging 8 shillings a week had been imposed on 6 million workers. The misery of the working class was compounded further by the “Geddes Axe” in February 1922 – the work of Sir Eric Geddes, and coinciding with the height of the recession, it made for drastic cuts in expenditure on social services.
The effect of the recession, and the betrayal by the trade-union leadership, had a dire effect on trade-union membership. Between 1920 and 1923 approximately 3 million workers allowed their membership to lapse.
Unemployment continued its inexorable rise. If by the end of 1921 it was over 1 million, by mid-1922 it had risen to 1.5 million – representing 13.5 per cent of the insured population. Such was the price that the working class had to pay for the defeat of the miners – a defeat which ushered in one of the darkest periods in nearly two decades.
Dawes Plan and the Gold Standard
The coming into office of the first Labour Government in January 1924, on which so many working people had placed so many hopes, made no difference whatever. It took little time for the Labour leadership to show its hideous bourgeois features. In the spring of 1924, London tramwaymen, followed by busmen, struck for higher wages. Faced with the tubemen’s threatened strike action in sympathy with the above two groups of workers, the Labour Government invoked the hated EPA.
The Dawes Plan, agreed by Ramsay MacDonald and Arthur Henderson with the United States, in order to assist recovery of Germany and thus prevent her “going Red”, combined with the return subsequently under the Conservatives to the Gold Standard, only served to exacerbate the economic crisis. Increased competition from Germany and the increased difficulties faced by British exporters, thanks in part to the reversion to the Gold Standard, could, under the conditions of capitalism mean only one thing – an attack on the wages and standard of living of the masses of the working class. The working class, however, were in no mood to accept the burdens of this crisis and a degradation in their standard of life – certainly not without a fight.
By the return of the pound to “parity”, the industry hit most was coal. It can indeed be stated without the least exaggeration that, since the First World War, coal was symbolic of the battle between capital and labour. This for two reasons. First, because the Miners’ Federation emerged from the war as the strongest trade union in the country; second, because of the unpleasant and dangerous nature of their work, the miners wage claims enjoyed widespread sympathy. The average person felt that the miners should be well paid, and was aware that, with wages at an average of 50 to 60 shillings a week, they were not. So it has been an article of faith with the class of employers and the British Government to attack the miners first, as a prelude to attacking its other sections.
When Churchill tried to assert that the crisis in the coal industry had nothing to do with the return to the Gold Standard, he was answered in the following terms by Keynes, who cannot be suspected of being a friend of the working class, and of the miners in particular.
“On grounds of social justice no case can be made out for reducing the wages of the miners. They are the victims of the economic Juggernaut. They represent in the flesh the fundamental adjustments engineered by the Treasury and the Bank of England to satisfy the impatience of the City fathers to bridge the moderate gap between 4.40 dollars and 4.86 dollars [the pound-dollar exchange rate at that time]. They [the miners] and others to follow are the moderate sacrifice still necessary to ensure the stability of the Gold Standard. The plight of the coalminers is the first but not – unless we are very lucky – the last of the economic consequences of Mr.Churchill. The colliery owners propose that the gap should be bridged by a reduction in wages irrespective of a reduction in the cost of living – i.e. by reducing the standard of life of the miners. They are to make the sacrifice to meet circumstances for which they are in no way responsible and one over which they have no control. Thus Mr.Churchill’s policy of improving the exchange by 10 per cent was sooner or later a policy of reducing everyone’s wages by 2s. in the pound. In doing what he did in the actual circumstances of last spring he was just asking for trouble. For he was committing himself to force down wages and all money values without any idea of how it was to be done” (The Economic Consequences of Mr.Churchill, J.M.Keynes).
Red Friday (31 July 1925)
Early in 1925, while Churchill was busy preparing his Gold Standard Budget, the workers were busy planning the formation of a new industrial alliance, composed of miners, railwaymen, transport workers and, this time, engineers, in order to beat the divide and rule tactics of the bourgeoisie and its government. With the assumption of office by the Baldwin Government, the miners had correctly anticipated that when their one-year agreement with the coal owners came to an end in July 1925, an unprecedented crisis was bound to ensue. Precisely for that reason they were keen to make early preparations for the coming trial of strength by forming a new industrial alliance.
When in March 1925, the miners met the owners, the latter demanded wage reductions and longer hours, demands to which the miners refused to yield. Negotiations were fruitless and, with the deadlock reached, on 30 June the owners gave notice terminating the existing agreement, proposed swingeing wage cuts, refused to recognise even the principle of a minimum wage, demanded the abolition of the national agreement and a return to district agreements.
Faced with such brutal audacity from the coal-owners, the miners appealed to the TUC, and the latter, in a resolution, pledged “their complete support of the miners”, with the promise to “co-operate wholeheartedly with them in their resistance to the degradation of the standard of life of their members”.
A day earlier (14 July), faced with total obstinacy on the part of the owners, and a grim determination on the part of the miners to resist encroachments on their conditions of work and pay, Baldwin announced the setting up of a Court of Inquiry to look into this question. The miners boycotted this Court, and therefore the sittings of the Court of Inquiry “… had about them something farcical; yet about the miners absence there was also something ominous, a threat of concerted action” (Julian Symons, `The General Strike’, p.12, – hereafter JS).
The report, produced a fortnight later, was a total condemnation of the owners. Meanwhile, the two sides intensified their efforts to strengthen their positions – the Government worked feverishly to put into place strike-breaking mechanisms, and the miners leaders, A.J.Cook (General Secretary) and Herbert Smith (President) got on with the task of enlisting union support in furtherance of the miners cause.
On 26 July the transport and railway unions pledged that, in the event of the coal-owners failing to withdraw lock-out notices, they would place an embargo on the movement of coal throughout Britain. This decision received the endorsement, on 30th July, of a Special National Conference of the Trade Union Executives in Central Hall, Westminster.
In giving its support to the miners, the Special Conference was considerably influenced by the report of the miners’ leaders on the latter’s encounter with Prime Minister Baldwin earlier on the same day. During this meeting, Baldwin, in answer to a question, replied:
“I mean all the workers of this country have got to take reductions in wages to help put industry on its feet”.
On leaving the Ministry of Labour, where the miners’ leaders had met Baldwin, A.J.Cook observed that they took the Prime Minister’s above-quoted remarks as a declaration of war. “That evening the instructions for the embargo on coal were given. They concerned railways, docks and wharves, waterways and locks and road transport, and amounted to a complete stoppage of the nation’s transport. The Government had no effective organisation to counter this embargo, and when the order went out Baldwin must have known that he was beaten” (JS, ibid, p.15)
Faced with this situation, and following further meetings between Baldwin and the coal-owners, and later with the miners, it was announced from Downing Street in the early hours of Friday, 31 July, that the Government would after all grant a subsidy to the coal industry for nine months (until 1st May 1926). During that period there was to be a full inquiry into the miners’ conditions of work. These terms were finally accepted by both sides at 3.45 p.m. on Friday, 31 July. A quarter of an hour later, at 4 p.m.; telegrams were sent out to General Secretaries of all district organisations in the coal industry:
“WORK AS USUAL.
This was Red Friday, a tremendous demonstration of the strength of a united working class.
Why did the Government give in?
The Government’s decision to grant a subsidy flatly contradicted its earlier stance that there could be no question of a subsidy to the miners. “Speaking with a sense of extraordinary difficulty”, said the Minister of Labour, Sir Arthur Steel-Maitland, “I can say quite openly and categorically that I do not think the coal industry ought to look for a subsidy to carry on” (Quoted in JS, ibid., p.12).
Why, then, had the Government given in? Not because it had suffered a change of mind on the need for a reduction in wages, but primarily because the Government was then not fully prepared for a trial of strength with the organised labour movement.
“The advice of … Churchill was that the Government should yield temporarily – and in the meantime prepare a strike-breaking machine that would wreck the trade unions the next time they went into action, as he knew they would when the subsidy ran out and the coal crisis was resumed. The sabre-rattling triumvirate of Churchill, Lord Birkenhead and Joynson-Hicks convinced Baldwin that it was in the interests of the ruling class to stall – and then smash back at trade unionism when the state forces were fully marshalled and properly organised” (John Murray, The General Strike, p.43, – hereafter JM).
It is worthy of note that Baldwin, Churchill and Joynson-Hicks were not the only ones to feel the discomfiture caused by a “humiliating defeat of the Government by the organised workers”. They were joined by Ramsay MacDonald, who expressed his disgust at the outcome of Red Friday in the following renegade terms at an Independent Labour Party (ILP) Summer School on 3rd August;
“The Government had simply handed over the appearance, at any rate, of victory to the very forces that sane, well-considered … socialism feels to be probably its greatest enemy” (Quoted in JM, ibid., P.44).
Learning its lesson from Red Friday, the Government started preparations forthwith. Refusing to learn anything from it, the TUC talked and refused to make any contingency plans for the inevitable conflict. In fact the very thought of workers’ strength assuming revolutionary proportions filled the trade-union leadership, with the sole honourable exception of the miners leaders, with terror. “This dreadful thought”, says John Murray, “haunted the leaders of the TUC. No less that it did the Government. Perhaps this was why the General Council, following `Red Friday’, abdicated from any responsible spirit of preparedness, when the Government, urged on fire-eaters, Churchill, Birkenhead and Joynson-Hicks, vigilantly and steadily mounted guard” (ibid., p.48).
[To be continued]