80th Anniversary British General Strike – 1926

Government Preparations

Within 2 months of `Red Friday’, a public announcement of the Government’s first step came in the form of a press statement on 25 September, 1925, that there had already been set up a body called the “Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies” – subsequently notorious under the initials OMS.

“Numerous suggestions have since [i.e. Red Friday] been made from various quarters for organising those citizens who would be prepared to volunteer to maintain supplies and services in the event of a general strike.

“It seems, therefore, that the moment has come to announce publicly that such an organisation has already been constituted and is at work in many metropolitan boroughs, while steps are being taken to create corresponding organisations in all the principal centres of the kingdom” (Quoted in R.Page Arnot, The General Strike, pp.48-49, – hereafter RPA).

The announcement claimed the organisation to be “strictly non-political and non-party in character”, stating that it represented “the community”, that it had not “aggressive or provocative aims”, that it had not been formed to oppose “the legitimate efforts of trade unions to better … the conditions … of their members”, and that it was “in complete sympathy with any constitutional action to bring about a more equitable adjustment of social and economic conditions”.

It went on to add that “certain funds … have been placed by a few patriotic citizens at the disposal of the Council”, and gave details of the local organisation and the categories of volunteers needed.

The names and social status of the originators of OMS, this allegedly “non-political” and “non-party” organisation, gave the lie to its above claims. Its titular head was Lord Hardinge of Penshurst, a former Viceroy of India. On its council were Admiral of the Fleet Lord Jellicoe, General Sir Francis Lloyd, Lord Ranfurly, Lord Falkland, Sir Rennell Rodd, Sir Alexander Duff, and other such pleasant characters, all of whom had at one time given notable service to the Government, but were now retired.. Such an arrangement was doubly advantageous to the Government.

“Since the OMS was unofficial, and employed nobody in Government service, the Government could not be accused of acting provocatively; yet the names of the Council members and of the President, who had been Viceroy of India, were sufficient guarantee that their unofficial activities had an official blessing” (JS, op cit, p.21).

So as not to leave any doubt as to the Government’s sympathy and involvement with the OMS, the Home Secretary, Joynson-Hicks, in a letter to an unnamed, and probably fictional correspondent, who had questioned the propriety of joining this organisation, made it clear that “… it would be a very great assistance to us [i.e. the Government] to receive from the OMS or from any other body of well-disposed citizens, classified lists of men in different parts of the country who would be willing to place their services at the disposal of the Government”.

Taking their cue from the Government, if that was needed, big industrialists loaned their private works’ railways and testing grounds for use, at weekends and in secret, for the training of locomotive and lorry drivers, with similar preparations for training volunteers in the telephone and telegraphic services (for details, see `The General Strike’ by Prof W.H.Crook, – hereafter WHC).

In its statement, the political bureau of the CPGB correctly characterised the call to form the OMS “as the most definite step towards organised fascism yet made in this country”, adding that an “examination of the leading personnel and its proclaimed purpose can only stamp it as an organisation for the defence of property against the lives of the masses of labouring people”.

Calling for the organisation of workers’ defence corps, the CPGB statement concluded:

“The Communist Party does not regard this development as unique. It simply indicates the inevitable lines in the development of capitalism already traversed in other countries, and confirms the Communist analysis of the class war. It will develop the class war here and convince the workers of the correctness of our policy and our demand for the organisation of workers’ defence corps” (RPA, op cit., pp.52-53).

The correctness of the CPGB’s stance was proved, inter alia, by the fact that the President and Vice-President of the British Fascist Organisation went over to the OMS for they considered that “at the present moment effective assistance to the State can best be given in seconding the efforts of the OMS” (Quoted in JM, op cit., pp.55-56).

In addition to the OMS, the Government had perfected its own plan. In November 1925, the Government’s scheme was made clear in Circular 636 from the Ministry of Health to local authorities. Under this scheme, the entire country was divided into divisions, each under a Minister as a Civil Commissioner; each division had allocated to it a staff of civil servants; each local area had its corresponding organisation.

“As the weeks of winter and spring passed, the general outline of the circular was filled in, with details such as the special air service arranged for important documents, the plans for naval personnel to move into power stations where necessary, and the detailed organisation of a convoy system for food. Stocks of food, coal and fuel were built up. By the spring of 1926 the Government was ready for any trouble that might come” (JS, op cit., pp.26-27).

TUC-Labour leadership talk

“The leaders of the Labour Party”, remarks Julian Symons, “seem to have been unaware of the preparations being made: or perhaps, of course, they silently approved of them” (p.26).

That it was the latter, is perfectly clear from their behaviour during this crucial period. The leadership of the miners as well as that of the TUC were aware that the struggle was far from over; that `Red Friday’ merely marked a truce in a long battle; that battle would be joined in earnest as soon as the subsidy expired; and, most important, that the ruling class and the Government were making furious preparations for the battle which was bound to be renewed with great ferocity in the first week of May 1926. In a speech, two days after `Red Friday’, miners’leader A.J. Cook warned the Government that although the miners had accepted the appointment of a Royal Commission they would not be satisfied with one “composed of politicians, economists, lawyers and captains of industry”. In a letter sent out on `Red Friday’, the General Council of the TUC, too, emphasised the need for the trade-union movement to remain alert, “in case the necessity should arise for it to act in defence of its standards”.

At the Scarborough Congress of the TUC in the summer of 1925, Swales advocated a militant policy, which he said was “the only policy that will unify, consolidate and inspire our rank and file”.

The Scarborough Congress was characterised by the passing of militant resolutions accompanied by the consolidation of the grip of the most reactionary elements, even by the standards of the TUC, over the General Council. The Congress made verbal declarations of its “complete opposition” to imperialism and its support for “the right of all people in the British Empire to self-determination, including the right to choose complete separation from the Empire” (Quoted in RPA, op cit, p.69).

In a resolution on trade union aims, the Scarborough Congress declared that the “trade-union movement must organise to prepare the trade unions in conjunction with the Party and the Workers to struggle for the overthrow of capitalism” (ibid., p.61).

Having passed these resolutions, the Congress went on to entrust the implementation of these blood-curdling resolutions to the very people who were the most servile lackeys of the bourgeoisie, the people with a mortal fear of revolution – even of any independent activity on the part of the working class, namely, people such as Jimmy Thomas, Ernest Bevin and Arthur Pugh. It is hardly to be surprised at that these certified traitors to the working class made no preparations to meet the coming conflict: “The Industrial Committee of the TUC was told to keep in touch with the situation. No doubt it did so: but it did nothing more”, correctly observes Julian Symons. He goes on to add;

“Yet, when everything has been said, it does seem extraordinary that the General Council made no attempt to work out the skeleton plan of an organization dealing with food and transport, or even to consider how communications might be maintained between various parts of the country, in case of an industrial crisis. The signs of Government preparations were plain to see, although their full extent was hidden: in face of them the Industrial Committee contented itself with a pious statement, made after a meeting with the miners, that the position of the Trade Union movement was that `there was to be no reduction in wages, no increase in working hours, and no interference with the principle of National Agreements’. In effect the Trade Union leaders, like the leaders of the Parliamentary Labour Party, pinned their faith to the Royal Commission on the Coal Industry, rather in the spirit of impresarios who believe that, however unfortunate may have been the incidents at rehearsal, everything will be all right on the night” (op cit, pp.29-31).

If this was the pathetic state of unpreparedness of the TUC, what about the Party “in conjunction with which” capitalism was to be overthrown. Well, that party (Labour) at its conference, held in Liverpool two weeks after the TUC Scarborough Congress, voted down every left-wing resolution calling for preparation, concentrating instead on expelling the communists. Robin Page Arnot correctly observed that “So far as demonstrations were concerned, Liverpool may be considered as having cancelled Scarborough. How instantaneous was this effect may be judged from the fact that the Home Secretary and the Conservative Government only waited for its conclusion to set in train preparations for the arrest and trial of the leaders of the Communist Party” (op cit, p.65).

Persecution of Communists

Although the CPGB was numerically small, its demands for preparedness had great resonance in the working class and would thus constitute a great danger during a General Strike, should one materialise. The Conservatives held their Annual Conference in Brighton one week after Labour had held its at Liverpool. Having received from the latter the correct signals, Baldwin promised the Tory delegates that the Government was considering prosecuting the communists. A week after the conclusion of the Tory Conference, the CPGB headquarters in London were raided, documents seized and the Party’s twelve principal leaders arrested. Following a trial at the Old Bailey on a charge of seditious libel – “publishing the writings of Mister Lenin”, as the Attorney General put it – they were given prison sentences ranging from six to twelve months. Far from suppressing the Communist Party, the trial only served to increase its popularity, with the result that its membership doubled within six months, and the Minority Movement, which it led, continued to flourish, rousing workers, alerting them to the dangers and preparing them for the battles ahead.

Jimmy Thomas scuttles the Industrial Alliance

Apart from the CPGB, only the miners took practical steps to prepare for the arduous struggle ahead. They revived the attempt to form an Industrial Alliance, and on 5 November a Conference was called in London to consider and ratify the constitution for the proposed Alliance. The proposal received the support of several large unions, including transport workers, locomotive men, NUR, foundry workers, iron and steel trades, engineers and the electrical trades union. The proposed alliance was nothing short of an attempt “to create a Supreme War Council of Industrial Allies” (RPA, ibid, p.77).

The Alliance was, however, killed at birth, thanks to an apparently innocuous amendment tabled by Jimmy Thomas’ NUR. According to this amendment, a condition for membership of the Industrial Alliance was to be the acceptance of industrial trade unionism, that is, a single trade union to cater for a single industry. The amendment was directed at the Locomotive Engineers and Firemen, the hostility of whose Executive to such a policy was well-known. ASLEF’s refusal to accept the amendment provided the pretext for the NUR to withdraw from the Alliance, which, in any case, had never received the approval of Thomas. Most of the other Unions then declared that they would ballot their membership for a mandate. Not until well into March 1926 would the results of the unions ballots be announced. By this time it would already be too late to take measures of “counter-preparedness” for the battle was imminent. These tardy ballots, combined with an atmosphere of “no preparedness” proved conclusive, and the proposed Industrial Alliance, for which the workers had shown great enthusiasm, was strangled at birth.

19 February 1926: General Council endorses the Miners stance

Realising that the TUC were making no preparations for the forthcoming struggle, and realising further that time was not on their side, the Miners’ Federation pressed the TUC Industrial Committee for some action. On 12th February, Herbert Smith, President of the Miners’ Federation, in his statement to the Industrial Committee, defined the principles for which the Miners’ Federation would contend:

1.) The maintenance of wages at the present level.

2.) The maintenance of the present working day.

3.) The maintenance of the present system of National Agreements.

On 19th February, at a further Joint Meeting of nine from each side, the Industrial Committee representing the General Council, and an equivalent number from the Miners’ Federation, was held. An official statement issued at the close of the meeting included the following significant paragraph, giving full and unreserved support of the Trade-Union Movement to the Miners’ stance.

“The attitude of the Trade Union Movement was made perfectly clear last July, that it would stand firmly and unitedly against any attempt further to degrade the standard of life in the coal fields. There was to be no reduction in wages, no increase in working hours, and no interference with the principle of National Agreements. THIS IS THE POSITION OF THE TRADE UNION MOVEMENT TODAY”. (Quoted in RPA, ibid. p.104).

A week later, on Friday 26th February, this declaration cited immediately above, was confirmed in a statement which made no change in policy. Thus, the declaration of 19th February, reiterated on 26th February, represented the position of the Miners’ Federation as well as of the TUC prior to the publication, on 10th March, of the report of the Samuel Commission.

The Samuel Commission

The Commission took evidence between 15 October 1925 and mid-January 1926. Its composition gives a clue to the kind of report that might be expected of a body such as this. It was headed by Sir Herbert Samuel, who had held many governmental posts, in the Liberal Government of 1905 and afterwards, and had only recently returned from Palestine, where he had been the British Commissioner since 1919. He was persuaded by Baldwin to accept the Chairmanship of the Commission on the grounds that his lack of any special knowledge of the coal industry was a qualification, because “fresh minds should be brought to bear”. Mr Symons observes that “It was possibly also a qualification that he was known to be opposed to nationalisation of the mines” (op cit, p.32). The other members of the Commission were: Sir William Beveridge, well-known as an orthodox Liberal economist; Sir Herbert Lawrence, who had been Haig’s Chief of Staff during the war, was a managing partner in the banking house of Glyn, Mills, and held directorships in a dozen other important companies, including LMS Railway, Sun Life Assurance and Vickers Ltd., and Kenneth Lee, a cotton manufacturer, Chairman of Tootal, Broadhurst and Lee, and also of the District Bank. The new Royal Commission did not include a single representative of labour; nor did it include anyone who had even a remote knowledge of the coal industry. The following characterisation of the Commission is precise and to the point:

“The Government, of course, represented this Commission as an impartial body. It is true that it is not directly representative of the Mining Association, but it is difficult to imagine any small body of persons more completely representative of Capitalist interests, and more completely trained in approaching matters from the Capitalist standpoint” (The Coal Crisis, quoted in RPA, op cit, pp.89-90).

The Commission’s Report, published in early March 1926 (10 March), can be summed up as a proposal for reorganisation of the Mining Industry, to BE PUT INTO EFFECT AT SOME FUTURE DATE, together with proposals for the reduction in wages, TO TAKE EFFECT AT ONCE. Further, the Commission was strongly opposed to the continuance of the subsidy which, it said “should stop at its authorised term, and should never be repeated”. Finally, it recommended, not nationalisation of the mines, but state ownership of the royalties accruing to them.

The miners, naturally, rejected the Report in unmistakably unequivocal terms. The miners revived the slogan that their Secretary, A.J.Cook, had coined some while ago: “Not a penny off the pay, not a second on the day”.

But the Report had served its purpose. What, then, was that purpose. In the words of Robin Page Arnot:

“It can be narrowed down to one thing. The parties to the Report wished to divide the labour movement, to convince those who were ready to be convinced, as well as those who were less ready, that the miners should suffer a reduction in wages and that the other Trade unions would not be justified in repeating their action of the previous July. In its purpose of weakening the Trade union morale the report was completely successful. Had it not been for the reserve strategy which began with the coal owners’ new proposals of the latter part of March, the history of the Coal Industry would have concluded its 1926 chapter with the Trade Unions accepting the Royal Commission report and refusing to back the miners in their resistance to reduction in wages” (op cit, p.94).

Ramsay MacDonald, reflecting the thinking of the Labour Party and TUC leadership, greeted the Samuel Commission Report as “a conspicuous landmark in the history of political thought … the stars in their courses are fighting for us”. (Quoted in JM, p.70). This statement would hardly surprise anyone acquainted with the long record of betrayal of the working class by MacDonald and his party. Only a year before, he had solemnly declared in the House of Commons that : “No greater calamity could come over the country than that there should be raised a great block of unions on the one side and capital on the other engaged in a suicidal fight in industry …” (Quoted in JM, ibid).

TUC Retreat from their 19 Feb Stance

Following the publication of the Samuel report (10 March), matters took a sharp turn for the worse as regards the TUC’s earlier support for the miners, which is hardly surprising because “… a peculiar atmosphere had been created round about the report of the Coal Commission, an atmosphere almost of religious reverence, of worshipfulness; an air that was extremely enervating to Trade Union leaders susceptible to that kind of influence. Some of this atmosphere was communicated to the Miners’ representatives” (RPA, ibid, p.105).

On 25th March a further Joint Meeting was held at which the Government’s decision, as communicated by Baldwin, to accept the Report, with the proviso that the miners and the coalowners also did so, and to provide financial assistance for a period of, say, three months was communicated.

Meanwhile, the Conference of the Miners’ Federation, which had been called for 9th April, was to discuss this proposal. Since, through speeches and “inspired leaks” in the press, an atmosphere had been diffused to suggest that the Report of the Coal Commission had caused a complete change of mind on the part of the General Council, the miners, therefore, felt the need to get a reaffirmation of the 19th February declaration. They approached the Industrial Committee of the TUC and asked if the General Council would continue to adhere to the three fundamental points to which they committed themselves in their declaration of 19th Feb., and its reaffirmation on 26th Feb. Finally, on 8th April, the Industrial Committee composed the following contradictory resolution, indicating a serious retreat from the stance taken by the General Council in February.

On the one hand, the resolution stated that “… this Committee reaffirms its previous declarations in support of the miners’ efforts to obtain an equitable settlement of outstanding difficulties”, on the other hand it went on to say that “This Committee is of the opinion that negotiations between the Mining Association and the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain should be continued without delay in order to obtain a clear understanding with regard to the report of the Coal Commission and to reduce points of difference to the smallest possible dimensions”.

The resolution concluded with these words: “that this Committee holds itself available to assist in any way possible to reach a satisfactory settlement”. Gone is the earlier commitment “to stand firmly and unitedly against any attempt to degrade the standard of life in the coalfields …”, gone is the opposition to reduction in wages, lengthening of working hours and interference with the principle of National Agreements. In come amorphous and meaningless phrases such as support for “an equitable settlement”, and advice to continue the negotiations and the offer of assistance in reaching “a satisfactory settlement”.

And this retreat, clearly evident in the above resolution, becomes a positive rout in the accompanying letter from Walter Citrine, its Acting Secretary:

“The Industrial Committee of the General Council have carefully considered the statements placed before them by your representatives at their meeting today (April 8) during which you asked for a declaration from the Committee as to the support they would accord to your Federation in respect of any attempts by the coalowners to enforce:

(a) A reversion to District Agreements.

(b) A lengthening of Hours.

(c) A reduction in Wages.

“The Committee fully realise the seriousness of the present position but they are of the opinion that matters have not yet reached the stage when any final declaration of the General Council’s policy can be made” (quoted in RPA, op cit, p.107).

This rout, as will be seen later, was to turn into a full-scale betrayal a month later when the General Strike would be called off by the same treacherous and pusillanimous gentry – just at the moment when it was forging ahead with great vigour and drawing enthusiastic support form millions of workers from all trades and in all parts of the country.

To make matters worse, in the second half of April the Industrial Committee arranged for Ramsey MacDonald and Arthur Henderson to attend meetings. “This had the effect”, observes Julian Symons, “of bringing leaders of the Parliamentary Labour Party closely into touch with the position for the first time. All of these leaders – MacDonald, Snowden, Thomas, Clynes, Henderson – were unequivocally opposed to the idea of a General Strike. Their experience of the railway strike when taking office had given them a poor opinion of Governmental ability to resist a general stoppage; and if they feared that defeat of the strikers would be a blow for Labour, they perhaps feared even more that a victorious strike would be a harder blow for the Labour leadership” (op cit, p.40).

Miners – supported by the masses – stand firm

In the face of the above developments, representing a retreat on the part of the General Council, what were the miners, due to hold their Conference on 9th April, to do? Were they to capitulate too? No, they did not capitulate. Their Conference rejected all suggestion of any wage cuts, lengthening of the working day and reversion to district agreements. In doing so the miners had decided to fight regardless of the capitulatory stance of the TUC and the Labour Party leadership. What made them do so; what made them take such a resolute, such a steadfast, and such a heroic stance? The answer to this question is to be sought in the mood of the masses. The miners knew that the masses of British workers were with them and confident that the masses would compel the trade-union leadership to support them. Each delegate attending the Miners’ Conference on 9th April was able to report on the evidence he possessed, by personal contact or hearsay, on the attitude of transport workers, railwaymen, etc., in his own locality. In addition, the Conference of the Minority Movement (MM) held on 20th March, furnished ample proof of the mood of the British working class. Tom Mann, who presided over it, spoke to 883 delegates, representing 957,000 trade unionists and a quarter of the Trade Unions affiliated to the TUC. The real significance of this figure becomes clearer still when one remembers that the Minority Movement, being led by the Communist Party, with Harry Pollitt its (MM’s) Secretary, was frowned upon and shunned by the `official’ labour movement; branches which affiliated to the MM were reprimanded, and in many cases unions went as far as to instruct their branches to withdraw from Trades Councils which had affiliated to it. In view of this, one may safely conclude that the measure of support received by the Minority Movement represented but a percentage of its total support.

Robin Page Arnot, observes correctly that “It was clear from this [MM] Conference of Action that the miners could rely on the mood of the masses, and that there was a readiness both to understand and to act to a degree that had not been previously known in the British working class. It was in these conditions and amid this atmosphere that the miners’ policy Conference of April 9th cast the die for resistance to [attack on] their standards of living” (op cit, p.111).

The MM Conference of 20 March 1926 is remarkable for the decisions it took. Through a resolution, moved by Arthur Horner, it called upon all the supporters of the MM and the workers generally to “urge each Trades Council to constitute itself a Council of Action by mobilising all the forces of the working-class movement in its locality” in order to “bring all the workers, men and women, organised and unorganised, into the struggle”; and it urged the General Council immediately to convene a “National Congress of Action”. Last, but not least, the Conference, in one of its resolutions, demanded and pledged itself to enforce the right:

(a) To organise the workers on the job into factory and pit committees; the workshop committees ultimately to become the organisational unit of the industrial organisation, under the auspices of the Trades Councils; and to set up Trades Councils where none now exist.

(b) To form (through and under the supervision of the Trades Councils) Workers’ Defence Corps, in order to protect working-class speakers from bourgeois terrorism, to protect the Trade Union headquarters from Fascist incendiarism, to protect strike pickets against police interference, and finally, build up a powerful working-class force, capable of defending the political and industrial rights and liberties of the workers.

(c) To demand the repeal of `Sedition’ and anti-labour laws.

(d) To resist strenuously any attempts by local authorities either voluntary or at the instigation of the Government to prevent free association and public expression.

(e) To demand the right of soldiers and naval ratings to refuse strike services” (quoted in RPA, op cit, p.115).

The following week a Conference of the Minority Movement Groups from the various coalfields gathered and passed a resolution for “the full and complete rejection of the Royal Coal Commission Report”, which is characterised to be “a subtle manoeuvre on the part of British Capitalism to be relieved of the subsidy to the mining industry, through lowering of wages and working conditions of the miners, which it hopes to achieve in consequence of the pseudo-socialistic bait embodied in the Report which is intended to divide the miners into factions for and against the Report”. The resolution concluded by demanding the “nationalisation of the mining industry without compensation, and with workers’ control” (ibid, p.116).

[to be continued in next issue]

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