80th Anniversary British General Strike – 1926

After the defeat of Chartism in the middle of the 19th century, the General Strike of 1926 was the most momentous event in the history of the British working class with tremendous revolutionary potential. However it was defeated by the combined forces of the British state, the TUC and the Labour Party. To mark the 80th anniversary of this event LALKAR is publishing a series of articles to explain the background to the Strike, its actual course and the final betrayal and surrender by the treacherous leadership of the TUC and the Labour Party and the lessons to be drawn therefrom. Part four appears below.

Part 4

The decisions of the May Day Conference were regarded differently by the miners, on the one had, and the General Council, on the other hand. In the words of Robin Page Arnot, “Whereas the miners’ representatives apparently regarded the May Day Conference as setting a gulf between the workers and the capitalists, the General Council regarded this same Conference as a means whereby to bridge that gulf” (R Page Arnot, The General Strike, p.145 – referred to as RPA).

Twenty-six and a half hours separated the declaration of the General Strike from the moment it became effective. The use made of these crucial hours by the miners and the TUC, respectively, give us an insight into these differences. As soon as the Conference was over, the miners’ leaders left London for the districts to make the necessary preparations for the struggle. The General Council, however, no sooner had the miners’ leaders left London, than they were in correspondence with Baldwin offering fresh negotiations. As the TUC met Baldwin on Saturday, the Government was busy putting the finishing touches to its preparatory “defence measures”.

On 1st May at 8 pm, Baldwin invited the TUC to Downing Street.”The leaders trooped in and the two sides took stock of one another. One ready, prepared – anxious: the other, timorous, half-hearted, but willing to carry their bluff into the lion’s den” (John Murray, The General Strike, p.103 referred to as JM).

Throughout Saturday night, into the small hours of Sunday, May 2nd, and into the early hours of Monday, May 3rd, the General Council played with one escape clause after another. In the end it was Baldwin who arrogantly slammed the door in their faces.

During their discussions with Baldwin, the TUC team (composed of Thomas, Pugh and Swales) reached agreement for settling the miners’ dispute on the basis of the Samuel Report – the very Report which had been rejected by the miners and which the General Council had itself condemned somewhat. The formula accepted by the TUC ran as follows:

“We will urge the miners to authorise us to enter upon a decision with the understanding that they and we accept the Report as the basis of a settlement, and we approach it with the knowledge that it may involve some reduction of wages” (RPA, op cit, p.147).

When Cook learned of the TUC approaches to the Government behind the backs of the miners, he protested violently to the General Council, first against the Negotiating Committee having discussion with Baldwin in the absence of the miners’ representatives, and secondly “against the acceptance of a formula which was contrary to the declared policy of the miners, contrary to the policy of the TUC as expressed in their declarations of February 26th, and after, and contrary to the instructions given to the TUC by the Union Conference of May 1st” (The Nine Days, A.J.Cook).

Cook adds bitterly: “For the moment I will not write all that is so vivid in my mind of what took place, but the statements of Bromley and Thomas I shall never forget.

“One of these statement demanded clearly and definitely that the miners accept the Commission’s Report with full consciousness that it meant a reduction in wages. Both urged that THEY had had to accept reductions in wages, and the miners would have to do the same” (ibid).

The miners’ leaders, who had been invited to Downing Street at 11 pm on Sunday, arrived to find the entire General Council sitting with the Negotiating Committee. Herbert Smith, the miners’ President told them bluntly that the miners would not resume work on reduced wages, nor would they be prepared to make any other sacrifice. As Baldwin was awaiting their reply, something took place in Carmalite Street, at the back of Fleet Street, which had a dramatic effect on the events. The first edition of the Daily Mail was about to go to press. It carried a leading article, written by its editor, Thomas Marlow, an extreme Right-wing Tory. Entitled ‘For King and Country’, it stated, inter alia, that:

“A general strike is not an industrial dispute. It is a revolutionary movement intended to inflict suffering upon the great mass of innocent persons in the community and thereby to put forcible constraint upon the Government.

“It is a movement which can only succeed by destroying the Government and subverting the rights and liberties of the people.

“This being the case, it cannot be tolerated by any civilized Government and it must be dealt with by every resource at the disposal of the community.

“A state of emergency and national danger has been proclaimed to resist the attack.

“We call upon all law-abiding men and women to hold themselves at the service of King and country” (quoted in Julian Symons, The General Strike, p.49 – referred to as JS).

The stereotypers had cast the plates, but the printers, belonging to NATSOPA, refused to print the paper unless the offending editorial was deleted. In this they were backed by workers in the other departments. Allen Hutt writes of this incident: “Perhaps no other single act of the whole General Strike evoked such universal delight throughout the whole working-class movement” (The Post-War History of the British Working Class, Allen Hutt, pp.133-134).

The effect of the Daily Mail printers’ struck across the tense negotiations at Downing Street, where the miners were locked in bitter arguments with the TUC General Council. In the middle of all this the representatives of the General Council were asked to see Baldwin, who told them that the proceedings must come to a close, and handed them a document which having stated that “no solution of the difficulties in the coal industry which is both practicable and honourable to all concerned can be reached except by a sincere acceptance of the report of the [Samuel] Commission”, went on to drop this bombshell on the TUC:

” … but since the discussions which have taken place between the miners and the members of the Trade Union Committee it has come to the knowledge of the Government, not only that specific instructions have been sent under the authority of the Executives of Trade Unions represented at the Conference, convened by the General Council of the Trade Union Congress, directing their members in several of the most vital industries and service of the country to carry out a general strike on Tuesday next, but that overt acts have already taken place, including gross interference with the freedom of the Press.

“Such action involves a challenge to the constitutional rights and freedom of the nation.

“His Majesty’s Government, therefore, before it can continue negotiations, must require from the Trade Union Committee both a repudiation of the actions referred to that have already taken place, and an immediate and unconditional withdrawal of the instructions for a general strike” (quoted in RPA, op cit, p.148).

Since the Government’s note called for a reply, after lengthy discussions, a deputation left the Treasury Room, where the TUC had been meeting the miners’ leaders, and went downstairs again to see Prime Minister Baldwin and to tell him that the TUC dissociated itself from the printers’ action. They were astounded to find the Cabinet Room, indeed the whole house, in darkness. A servant informed them that the Prime Minister had gone to bed. Broken-hearted, dejected and panic-stricken, the leaders of the TUC left Downing Street well past midnight. At 3.30 a.m. on Monday, 3rd May, the General Council delivered its grovelling reply to Baldwin’s midnight missive. As to the General Strike, the TUC letter stated that there was “nothing unusual” about it, for it had merely been called “to secure for the mineworkers the same right from the employers as is insisted upon by employers from workers, namely, that negotiations shall be conducted free from the atmosphere of strike or lock-out” With regard to the printers’ action, the TUC expressed ignorance of the incident, which in any case was “independent and unauthorised”, and in violation of the TUC decision. The Council could therefore accept no responsibility for this action, however, it did promise to take “prompt measures to prevent any acts of indiscipline”. In sickening terms the letter expressed the Council’s “regret” at the Government’s “precipitous and calamitous decision” – this “unprecedented ultimatum” which had wrecked “sincere work which the Council has been engaged in to obtain an honourable settlement”.

John Murray sums up the hypocrisy and the duplicitous conduct of the TUC’s leadership in these apt terms: “The double face of the General Council was one of the most alarming features of the whole dispute. On the one side its leaders spoke in vibrant tones about the tremendous struggle which was now about to burst upon the country: with words that came right out of the mouths of some of the greatest socialists pioneers, the Thomases and the Bevins urged on the trade union movement to fight by the side of the miners. On the other hand, once away from the vigorous atmosphere of a workers’ conference, they grovelled before Baldwin: in words meek and mild they sought desperately a compromise – any compromise, as Thomas later admitted – that would have saved them from having to lead a massive workers’ struggle” (op cit, p.109).

[to be continued]