80th Anniversary of the British General Strike of 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 treimendous 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 three appears below.


The decision to stage the General Strike

If the miners, the Minority Movement and the Communist Party were urging preparation and organisational measures to meet the coming crisis, the TUC leadership’s conduct was criminally negligent and marked by a total lack of planning and preparation for what after all was one of the most momentous trials in the history of the British labour movement. Ernest Bevin admitted later that preparations for a national strike had not been made until Tuesday, 27th April, that is just THREE days before the decision to begin the strike.

At the inquest on the General Strike in January 1927, Ernest Bevin said this:

“With regard to preparations for the strike there were no preparations until April 27 and I do not want anyone to go away from this Conference under the impression that the General Council had any particular plan to run this movement. In fact, the General Council did not sit down to draft the plans until they were called together on April 27th …” (Report of Proceedings, TUC General Council, January 1927, p.10, quoted in John Murray, The General Strike, op cit, p.81 – referred to as JM).

“This dilatoriness”, remarks Julian Symons, “is attributable partly to the almost mystic belief in the certainty of a settlement, partly to the lack of enthusiasm among the majority of the General Council for any militant action” (op cit, p.41).

Although an examination of the events makes it clear that there was no likelihood of the issue being resolved without a showdown, without the victory of one or the defeat of the other side, nevertheless, a lot of people, especially the leadership of the TUC and the Labour Party, were “persuaded by the press, by speeches, by their own reluctance to face the issue, that there was BOUND TO BE A SETTLEMENT. It was in this happy-go-lucky atmosphere, generated by the press, that the miners’ lockout was approached” (R.Page Arnot, The General Strike, op cit, p.117 – referred to as RPA).

Events move towards a collision

Notwithstanding this mystic belief in a settlement and the happy-go-lucky atmosphere, events were moving inexorably to a collision following the Conference of Miners’ Federation on 9th April. Here briefly is the sequence of events.

On 13th April the miners met the coal-owners, with the two sides reaching a complete deadlock. The following day (14 April) the miners’ representatives met the Industrial Committee of the TUC; at this meeting the latter reiterated “its previous declaration to render the miners the fullest support in resisting the degradation of their standard of life, and in obtaining an equitable settlement of the case with regard to wages, hours, and national agreements” (quoted in RPA, op cit, p118).

On the same day (14 April), the Industrial Committee of the TUC met Baldwin and pleaded with him to grant a subsidy to the coal industry – a plea which fell on deaf ears – and to intervene to get the negotiations going between the miners and the coal-owners. Following this encounter, Baldwin did convene, and preside over, a joint meeting of the coal-owners and the Miners’ Federation on 22nd April. This was the last time the two sides met before the General Strike. As was to be expected, this meeting produced yet another deadlock with the two sides sticking to their positions. After this breakdown, with touching faith, the Industrial Committee visited Baldwin, the same night (22 April), asking him to take “a firmer control of the issue”, meet both sides again and “bring about a resumption of the negotiations under his direction”. The result was that Baldwin met the miners and mine-owners on 23rd April, and a committee of nine was appointed by each side for the purpose of negotiations, but it was pointless as the owners had already refused to discuss any minimum wage on the basis of a national agreement, or even to discuss, at a national level, the district wage rates. In the language of Arthur Pugh “matters were at a standstill”. It was at this moment that the Special Industrial Committee invited Ramsay MacDonald and Arthur Henderson to be present at all meetings of the Joint Council in charge of the mining crisis.

Last minute meetings between Baldwin and the Industrial Committee

The series of last minute farcical meetings continued between Baldwin and the Industrial Committee. For his part, wanting to present himself as “a peacemaker” and pretending to be a disinterested mediator between the miners and the owners, Baldwin went through the charade of these meetings. Even a fool could see that the Government was on the side of the owners, that it had made preparation for a final showdown and was ready to pounce on the working class, and that the negotiations were merely a ruse not only to hide the brutality of its own intentions but also to hoodwink and delude – if that was at all necessary – the leadership of the General Council of the TUC. Referring to the series of these last-minute farcical meetings, Baldwin said later that the entire issue revolved round the question of the subsidy – even for a fortnight – to provide a breathing space for some dramatic attempt to reach a settlement. In his characteristically pathetic and grovelling manner, J.H.Thomas admitted before the House of Commons a week later that the TUC had literally begged Baldwin to do something before the situation got out of control.

“For ten days we negotiated”, said Thomas, “for ten days we said to the Government `you force the coal-owners to give us some terms, NEVER MIND WHAT THEY ARE AND HOWEVER BAD THEY ARE. Let us have something to go on’. They said, `No, it cannot be done’! (Quoted in JM, op cit, p.79).

Meanwhile the miners resolved to summon a Special Delegate Conference for Wednesday 28th April and the TUC decided to convene an Emergency Conference for all the affiliated Union Executives for Thursday 29th April. But before these two crucial conferences met, further meetings were held between the Industrial Committee and Baldwin – at the latter’s invitation – on 26th and 27th April.

Baldwin asked the TUC to assist him in creating conditions for the resumption of direct talks and to invite the miners to include representatives of the Committee on the negotiating council of nine which had previously met the owners under Baldwin’s chairmanship. According to Pugh, the TUC “had no difficulty in assuring the Prime Minister that we were willing and even anxious to adopt both these suggestions” (Quoted in JM, op cit., pp.79-80).

Nothing came of these meetings.

On 27th April, Baldwin told the TUC that, following talks he had held with the mine-owners, he had been informed by them that they would not agree to the presence of a “third party”. In the joint negotiations.

Special Conference of Trade Union Executive Committees at end of April

The memorable Special Conference of Trade Union Executive Committees met at Memorial Hall, Farringdon Street, London from Thursday 29th April until the afternoon of Saturday 1st May. This Conference was the climax of the `April Days’. No one could describe it as a gathering of the military strategists of the proletariat, ready, able and willing to put finishing touches to a scientifically thought out and detailed plan of action capable of mobilising the working class. Its leadership was in the hands of the most despicable and cowardly philistines and capitulators, who feared the victory of the working class even more than its defeat. It is, therefore, a tribute to the purposeful determination and resoluteness of the miners, their friends in the Minority Movement and the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), and the defiant and valiant spirit which characterised the British working class during those days, that this Conference made the fateful decision to strike – not because of, but despite, such a treacherous leadership saturated through and through with servility to the bourgeoisie. It is worth our while devoting some attention to its proceedings, if only to give the reader a glimpse of the revolting gentry who led the British working class then.

Implied acceptance of Report on Samuel Commission

On the opening day, the Chairman of the General Council, Arthur Pugh, in his speech traced the history of the coal dispute from `Red Friday’ to the publication of the Samuel Report, and the negotiations with Baldwin consequent upon this publication. In his speech, Pugh gave a broad summary of the position as compared with that which prevailed in the previous July, a narrative of events and activities in the period immediately preceding the Conference, and a statement of the General Council’s proposals on the Coal Question. In the first part of his review we find the following significant (ominous would perhaps be a better expression) sentences:

“That was the position last July. The situation today is different, because we now have before us the Report of the Royal Commission. … But the Commission’s Report is a new factor. … The Commission came to the conclusion:

“That it would be necessary to ask the mine-workers to agree, not to a permanent lowering of wage standards, but to contemplate a temporary modification in order to avoid the possible unemployment of hundreds of thousands of men. But the Commission, in making its suggestions for meeting the situation in May, laid down this clear condition:-

“`Before any sacrifices are asked from those engaged in the industry, it shall be definitely agreed between them that all practicable means for improving its organisation and increasing its efficiency should be adopted as speedily as the circumstances in each case allow’

“Now, clearly, all discussion of the problem should be governed by this condition. From that point negotiations should have started” (quoted in RPA, op cit, pp.122-123).

It is painfully clear that implicit in the above statement is the acceptance by the TUC General Council of the Report of the Samuel Commission, including its proposals for wage cuts, providing that the Report was carried out properly. What is more, the General Council had pinned a great deal of hope on the miners accepting the Coal Report – wage cuts and all.

In the last part of Pugh’s report, referring to the talks with Baldwin, he said: “The present situation is that nothing really definite has yet resulted from the negotiations, but personally I regard the position as hopeful”.

However, in the section of his remarks comprising the recommendations of the General Council, we also find the following passage which to say the least is in apparent contradiction with the views implicit in his earlier pronouncements:

“In our view, the wages and conditions of mine-workers are already so depressed as to render it imperative to seek for remedies other than a further degradation in their standards of life, or the abrogation of the present standard hours, a course which the Commission declared would not provide a remedy” (ibid).

One can only explain this by saying that whereas the earlier remarks represent the real views and stance of the General Council, the passage just cited was merely added under mass pressure from the working class.

Thomas moves endorsement of General Council’s efforts

After listening to Pugh, the Conference heard Thomas move that they endorse the efforts of the General Council “to secure an honourable settlement of the differences in the coal-mining industry”, that they instruct it “to continue its efforts”. Further, the Conference declared “its readiness for the negotiations to continue providing that the lock-out of the mine-workers is not enforced”. Finally the resolution stated that “this Conference hereby adjourns until tomorrow, and agree to remain in London to enable the General Council to consult, report and take instructions” (quoted in RPA, op cit., p.123-124).

In seconding the motion, Ernest Bevin launched a savage attack on the Parliamentary Labour Party for its cowardice in failing to make a statement in the House of Commons regarding the miners’ wages. To the great enthusiasm of the 824 assembled delegates, he went on, with great emotion, to add: “You are moving to an extraordinary position. In twenty-four hours from now you may have to cease being separate Unions for this purpose. For this purpose you will become one union with no autonomy. The miners will have to throw their lot and cause into the cause of the general movement, and the general movement will have to take the responsibility for seeing it through” (ibid, p.125).

Bevin calls for “Conference to put force on one side”

Then came the notorious, `BUT’. Continued Bevin, “But at the moment we feel that to be wielding any sort of a threat [this is a mere two days before the General Strike and a whole nine months after the Government began meticulous preparations on a military scale to beat the strike] in connection with the negotiations, in the stage they are now in, would be to place a weapon in the hands of our opponents”.

He then went on to make plain, albeit in language designed to arouse much emotion, the General Council’s acceptance of the Samuel Report: “The men ought not to be asked to make sacrifices until the other cards have been put upon the table, and until the reorganised methods and their effect are put into operation. That is our view. That is where we stand. I beg of the Conference to record this fact, that the negotiating committee will go back to Mr.Baldwin strengthened by this decision, strengthened by this offer, strengthened by an expression of willingness of this Conference to put force on one side and enthrone reason in trying to find a solution. But if the enthronement of reason is refused, let it be refused by our opponents and let them take the consequences”.

Miners’ leaders not duped

The miners’ leaders were not duped by the emotion into which Bevin worked himself. Speaking to the resolution, which was rather vague and general in its terms, A.J.Cook said: “The resolution, if I understand it aright, means the confirmation of the statement of 26th February”.

No exception was taken by anyone present to Cook’s interpretation of it.

The only other speaker on Thursday was W.J.Brown, the General Secretary of the Civil Service Clerical Association, who, much to the irritation of the platform, pointed out the bitter truth that the Conference was not as enthusiastic as that of 30 July 1925. “I contrast the atmosphere of this meeting with the atmosphere which existed nine months ago. There is not a man who cannot feel the atmosphere is chilly”.

Accusing the General Council of not making its stance clear, of dogged refusal to take a clear and decisive position, on the pretext that to do so would be considered provocative by the other side, he went on: “The justification of the General Council is that they do not want, at this stage, to use the big stick, and it is evident that they fear the effect of using the big stick upon public opinion and upon those who are opposed to us. I want to ask them whether they have considered the effect which the absence of a definite lead this afternoon is likely to have upon our own people – a factor which is at least as important as its effect on the other side. If we are to go into this business; if it is in the mind of the General Council that the whole movement should back up the miners if peace cannot be got, then, in my opinion, the time has come to say it” (quoted in RPA, ibid, pp.125-126).

There is great truth in the above words of Mr Brown, who then occupied a more left-wing position than later on in his life.

The meeting ended with Thomas’ defence of the Parliamentary Labour Party and a plea “for efforts to get an honourable peace” and not to wield “a big stick”.

The entire night following the adjournment, and all of next day (30th April), the Industrial Committee, the Miners’ leaders and Baldwin were engaged in fruitless negotiations, from which two significant facts emerged. First, that now Baldwin was OPENLY siding with the coal-owners. Second, ever anxious to avert the final rupture, the Industrial Committee had persuaded itself into believing that the miners were prepared to consider wage reductions provided that the Samuel Report was properly implemented. In this belief the Industrial Committee was cruelly deluded.

Meanwhile, on the second day (Friday 30th April), the Conference of Trade Union Executives resumed at 11 a.m. and waited patiently for every bulletin of news which was announced from the platform by Purcell at regular intervals – the Conference adjourning between the announcements. To relieve boredom, the delegates sang popular songs and hymns (Lead, kindly light). According to Julian Symons, a young journalist “who spent much time around the gloomy Memorial Hall found the delegates … very respectful of the trade union great”, but he “… sensed also a fighting mood among them, a mood which infected those who stood waiting in the lobby and the street” (op cit, p.42).

Results of Thomas’ grovelling

Finally, at 11.23 p.m. the Committee returned and Arthur Pugh read a letter from Prime Minister Baldwin to Herbert Smith, President of the Miners’ Federation, in which he said that the coal-owners were prepared to offer a national minimum wage representing a 13 per cent cut in wages, if the miners agreed to work an eight-hour day. The terms, which Baldwin passed on without comment, were far worse than those suggested even by the Samuel Commission Report, which had already been rejected by the miners. Let alone the miners, even Thomas was obliged to reject these as “degrading”. The offer now made by the employers, he said, “would have meant such degrading terms, that I refuse to believe there is any decent-minded man or women who would tolerate it”.

Revealing his cringing servility with nauseating candour, Thomas went on: “My friends, when the verbatim reports are written, I suppose my usual critics will say that Thomas was almost grovelling, and it is true. In all my long experience – and I have conducted many negotiations – I say to you, and all my colleagues will bear testimony to it, I never begged and pleaded like I begged and pleaded all day today, and I pleaded not alone because I believed in the case of the miners, but because in my bones I believed that my duty to the country involved it. Therefore, I shall be content for our case to be judged on the verbatim reports that will be produced. But we failed” (quoted in Julian Symons, The General Strike, ibid, p.132 – referred to as JS).

Thomas’ grovelling and begging had been given to asking, not for a settlement, but merely for suspension of lock-out notices, in order that negotiations could continue. But the Cabinet had refused to accede to this request.

Saturday 1st May 1926

Let Julian Symons take up the story from this point on: “The OMS [Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies] had passed over its roll of members to the Government, and one of its placards calling for recruits had been posted throughout the country. The Emergency Powers Act had been signed, and at about the time Thomas was making his speech John Reith, managing director of the BBC, received a message from Downing Street requesting that an announcement about the coal stoppage should be broadcast at once.

“On Saturday morning the General Secretaries of the various unions said whether or not they were prepared to hand over their autonomy to the General Council during the emergency, and whether they approved the proposal for a National Strike to begin at midnight on Monday, May 3. (The word `General’ was not used by the unions in reference to the Strike.) When the roll was called, the first on the list was the Union of Asylum Workers. They voted `Yes’ among some laughter. Great enthusiasm was shown at the result of the ballot: 3,653,527 in favour, 49,911 against. Bevin made a speech, John Bromley made a speech, Herbert Smith made a speech: very good speeches, most of them. Pugh made a short speech, pointing out that the scheme required that the Miners’ Federation hand over to the General Council the conduct of the dispute: a statement accepted unquestioningly, which was to cause much argument at a later time. MacDonald made a speech, not very good, about the sands being emptied in the glass, and the sword being drawn.

“They sang the Red Flag. MacDonald, although he had often said that the tune was a very poor one, joined in. It was all over” (op cit, pp.43-44).

Speaking, after Pugh had announced the voting results, Ernest Bevin revealed, as if to confirm the bankruptcy of the General Council, that the latter had not even prepared their strike memorandum until late the previous night (Friday), and, that too, after the Industrial Committee had come to know of the Government’s precipitate [!!] actions, such as signing an order for the use of the Emergency Powers Act and placing on the printing presses OMS recruiting posters and instruction to local authorities to put into effect the emergency measure – already outlined in the infamous Ministry of Health Circular 636.

“I desire to point out that, with a view to doing nothing at all which would aggravate the position, these proposals were not ready to hand to the General Secretaries, or rather the documents in the form in which you received it, until after we had received in our room the news that the Emergency Powers Act had been signed, and after the OMS had already placed upon the printing press their preparatory literature. We looked upon that, and I think rightly, while our people were down there and we did not know what was really happening, as indicating that the Government, behind the scenes, was mobilising the forces of war. I think it was a right deduction in view of subsequent happenings. Sometimes it is said, that he who draws the sword perished by the sword, and we all looked upon the action of the Government last night as equal in stupidity to the actions of the well-remembered Lord North and George III combined, and the result may be fraught with as serious consequences as the action of George III in the history of this country” (quoted in RPA, op cit, p.133).

Well, thanks to the cowardice, philistines, and, above all, the servility of the General Council, the Government’s actions turned out to be neither so stupid nor fraught with danger to the British ruling class. Nor did the latter, although it drew the sword, perish by the sword.

Bevin went on: “We are not declaring war on the people. War has been declared by the Government pushed on by sordid capitalism. …

“We look upon your `yes’ as meaning that you have placed your all upon the altar for this great movement, and, having placed it there, even if every penny goes, if every asset goes, history will ultimately write up that it was a magnificent generation that was prepared to do it rather than see the miners driven down like slaves”. The same could not be said of the leadership.

“I rely, in the name of the General Council, on every man and every woman in that grade to fight for the soul of labour and the salvation of the miners” (quoted in RPA, ibid, and JM, op cit., p.94).

To cheering delegates, John Bromley of ASLEF, who was soon to stab the members in the back, declared: “As far as my own people are concerned, every member of our Union, without exception, will be thrown into the battle at once. That is rather a proud position to hold, that we shall at least be part of the shock troops. … How proud I am to be a part of this great movement and to see this splendid response. We have comrades not only worthy of the name, but worth fighting for” (quoted in RPA, op cit, p.133).

Ramsey MacDonald’s posturing

Ramsey MacDonald made a meaningless speech, at the end of which we find the following sentence which makes plain his opposition to the decision just made, his lack of conviction in the cause of labour and his total dislike for direct action, let alone revolutionary struggle, on the part of the working class:

“On Monday, we will raise a debate in the House of Commons, but I hope, I still hope, I believe, I must believe, that something will happen before then which will enable us to go about our work cheerily, heartily and hopefully during the next week” (quoted in RPA, op cit, p.134).

The delegates listening to MacDonald, and mesmerised by his oratory, may have allowed themselves the cruel delusion that MacDonald was speaking in support of the General Strike decision. The reality was just the opposite. One of MacDonald’s biographers correctly observes: “It was not known to his audience [in the Memorial Hall on that fateful day, Saturday 1st May 1926] that almost alone of all that great gathering he was absolutely opposed not only to the purpose of the conference but to the decision that had just been taken with such clamorous enthusiasm. There seemed to be no one there who by any form of suggestive intuition or telepathic insight was warned that they were all being misled, that the speaker was not doing what they though he was doing. Not until afterwards did any of them realise that they had been imposed upon, and some have not yet appreciated the method or measure of the imposture. … MacDonald’s speech was expected to inspire his hearers in support of a motion calling for a sympathetic strike: yet neither at that conference nor afterwards in the House of Commons did he say one word in favour of such a strike” (L.MacNeill Weir, The Tragedy of Ramsay MacDonald, quoted in JM, op cit, pp.95-96).

Being so opposed to the General Strike, why then did MacDonald accept the invitation to speak? Why, for the same reason that Thomas, who too was opposed to the Strike, acquiesced in it. MacDonald’s biographer, Weir, again: “He [MacDonald] could not do otherwise [than speak]. The entire labour movement had gone over to the side of the miners. Mr.Thomas was also opposed to the strike but the National Union of Railwaymen wholeheartedly approved it. If Thomas wished to retain his position he had to acquiesce in their policy. If he had not done so his dismissal from the post of General Secretary would have come in 1926 as surely as it did five years later when he joined the National Government” (ibid. p.96).

Intrigue and Sabotage

Thus, as the decision to stage the General Strike was made, there was an utter contrast between the magnificently fighting mood of the masses and the faint-heartedness of the TUC/Labour Party leadership. The latter had been forced by the sequence of events into a position which it never wanted, and to which it was bitterly opposed by instinct, training and material interest, with the result that the mass movement was led by timorous, not to say treacherous, elements who were mortally afraid of the victory of the working class.

“The TUC stood as a combatant in a war”, says Kingsley Martin, “which had been forced upon it and which it feared to win. The forces of Labour were commanded by socialists, reformists and the forces of the Government by class-conscious believers in the inevitable conflict” (The British Public and the General Strike, Kingsley Martin).

Whereas the Government had made every preparation – ranging from food and coal stocks, to police and army reinforcements – the TUC, apart from handing out the strike memorandum to the Union leaders on the midnight of 30th April, and printing strike notices, had made no preparations of any kind.

“Everywhere in the movement Communists had urged preparation for the struggle”, adds Kingsley Martin. “They demanded the formation of a Workers’ Defence Corps, increased propaganda, especially in the army and navy, the formation of committees in factories and workshops and private agreements between co-operative societies and trade unions. In their view the TUC should indeed attempt to act as a rival government” (ibid).

But the TUC, by their stubborn refusal to prepare had created the clear and incontestable impression that they were hostile, from the very beginning, to the very idea of a General Strike in support of the miners. And, when events forced the decision on them, their sole purpose was to find a quick compromise – any compromise, however harmful to the miners – before the mass movement grew to proportions really dangerous to the bourgeoisie and its rule. In the words of John Murray: “As London celebrated that May Day 1926 by one of the greatest demonstrations ever seen – Hyde Park was one vast sea of marching workers – the morale of the workers’ `army’ was magnificent. But behind the scenes the `Field Marshals’, Thomas and MacDonald, were already plotting unconditional surrender” (op cit, pp.97-98).

[to be continued]

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