1926 United Kingdom general strike

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Tyldesley miners outside the Miners Hall during the strike

The 1926 general strike in the United Kingdom was a general strike that lasted 10 days, from 3 May 1926 to 13 May 1926. It was called by the general council of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) in an unsuccessful attempt to force the British government to act to prevent wage reduction and worsening conditions for 800,000 locked-out coal miners. Some 1.7 million workers went out, especially in transport and heavy industry. The government was prepared and enlisted middle class volunteers to maintain essential services. There was little violence and the TUC gave up in defeat. In the long run, there was little impact on trade-union activity or industrial relations.

History[edit]

Causes of the 1926 conflict[edit]

The Subsidised Mineowner—Poor Beggar!
from the Trade Union Unity Magazine (1925)
  • The First World War: The heavy domestic use of coal in the war meant that rich seams were depleted. Britain exported less coal in the war than it would have done in peacetime, allowing other countries to fill the gap. The United States, Poland and Germany and their strong coal industries benefited in particular.[1]
  • Coal production, which was at its lowest ebb. Output per man had fallen to just 199 tonnes in 1920–4, from 247 tonnes in the four years before the war, and a peak of 310 tons in the early 1880s.[2] Total coal output had been falling since 1914.[3]
  • The fall in coal prices resulting from the 1924 Dawes Plan that, among other things, allowed Germany to re-enter the international coal market by exporting "free coal" to France and Italy as part of their reparations for the First World War.
  • The reintroduction of the gold standard in 1925 by Winston Churchill: this made the British pound too strong for effective exporting to take place from Britain, and also (because of the economic processes involved in maintaining a strong currency) raised interest rates, hurting some businesses.
  • Mine owners wanted to maintain profits even during times of economic instability, which often took the form of wage reductions for miners in their employ. Coupled with the prospect of longer working hours, the industry was thrown into disarray.
  • The miners' pay had gone down from £6.00 to £3.90 in the space of seven years.

Mine owners therefore announced that their intention was to reduce miners' wages. The MFGB rejected the terms: "Not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day." The TUC responded to this news by promising to support the miners in their dispute. The Conservative government under Stanley Baldwin decided to intervene, declaring that they would provide a nine-month subsidy to maintain the miners' wages and that a Royal Commission under the chairmanship of Sir Herbert Samuel would look into the problems of the mining industry.

This decision became known as "Red Friday" because it was seen as a victory for working-class solidarity and Socialism. In practice, the subsidy gave the mine owners and the government time to prepare for a major labour dispute. Herbert Smith (a leader of the Miners' Federation of Great Britain) said of this event: "We have no need to glorify about victory. It is only an armistice."

The Samuel Commission published a report on 10 March 1926 recommending that in the future, national agreements, the nationalisation of royalties and sweeping reorganisation and improvement should be considered for the mining industry.[4] It also recommended a reduction by 13.5% of miners' wages along with the withdrawal of the government subsidy.[5] Two weeks later, the prime minister announced that the government would accept the report provided other parties also did.[6] A previous royal commission, the Sankey Commission, had recommended nationalisation a few years earlier to deal with the problems of productivity and profitability in the industry, but Lloyd George, then prime minister, had rejected its report.

After the Samuel Commission's report, the mine owners declared that, on penalty of lock out from 1 May, miners would have to accept new terms of employment that included lengthening the work day and reducing wages between 10% and 25%, depending on various factors. The Miners' Federation of Great Britain (MFGB) refused the wage reduction and regional negotiation.

The general strike, May 1926[edit]

Foraging for coal in the strike

Final negotiations began on 1 May, when an agreement was almost reached. However, one million miners were locked out, it being impossible to get them back to work without firm assurances concerning their wages. Last-minute negotiations failed to achieve this, leading to announcement by the TUC that a general strike "in defence of miners' wages and hours" was to begin on 3 May,[7] a Monday, at one minute to midnight.[8]

The leaders of the Labour Party were terrified by the revolutionary elements within the union movement or at least worried about the damage association with them would do to their newly established reputation as a more moderate party of government and were unhappy about the proposed general strike. During the next two days, frantic efforts were made to reach an agreement with the government and the mine owners. However, these efforts failed, mainly owing to an eleventh-hour decision by printers of the Daily Mail to refuse to print an editorial ("For King and Country") condemning the general strike. They objected to the following passage: "A general strike is not an industrial dispute. It is a revolutionary move which can only succeed by destroying the government and subverting the rights and liberties of the people". When Baldwin heard of this, he called off the negotiations with the TUC, saying that the printers' action was interfering with the liberty of the press.

King George V took exception to suggestions that the strikers were 'revolutionaries' saying, "Try living on their wages before you judge them."[9]

The TUC feared that an all-out general strike would bring revolutionary elements to the fore and limited the participants to railwaymen, transport workers, printers, dockers, ironworkers and steelworkers, as these were regarded as pivotal in the dispute.

The government had prepared for the strike over the nine months in which it had provided a subsidy, creating organisations such as the Organisation for the maintenance of supplies, and did whatever it could to keep the country moving. It rallied support by emphasizing the revolutionary nature of the strikers. The armed forces and volunteer workers helped maintain basic services. The government's Emergency Powers Act—an act to maintain essential supplies—had been passed in 1920.

On 4 May 1926, the number of strikers was about 1.5–1.75 million. There were strikers "from John o' Groats to Land's End". Workers' reaction to the strike call was immediate and overwhelming, and surprised both the government and the TUC; the latter not being in control of the strike. On this first day, there were no major initiatives and no dramatic events, except for the nation's transport being at a standstill.

“Constitutional Government is being attacked. Let all good citizens whose livelihood and labour have thus been put in peril bear with fortitude and patience the hardships with which they have been so suddenly confronted. Stand behind the Government, who are doing their part, confident that you will cooperate in the measures they have undertaken to preserve the liberties and privileges of the people of these islands. The laws of England are the people’s birthright. The laws are in your keeping. You have made Parliament their guardian. The General Strike is a challenge to Parliament and is the road to anarchy and ruin.”

S Baldwin (5 May 1926) British Gazette

On 5 May 1926, both sides gave their views. Churchill (at that time Chancellor of the Exchequer) commented as editor of the government newspaper British Gazette : "I do not agree that the TUC have as much right as the Government to publish their side of the case and to exhort their followers to continue action. It is a very much more difficult task to feed the nation than it is to wreck it". Baldwin wrote that "The general strike is a challenge to the parliament and is the road to anarchy". In the British Worker, the TUC's newspaper: "We are not making war on the people. We are anxious that the ordinary members of the public shall not be penalized for the unpatriotic conduct of the mine owners and the government". In the meantime, the government put in place a "militia" of special constables, called the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies (OMS). They were volunteers to maintain order in the street. A special constable said: "It was not difficult to understand the strikers' attitude toward us. After a few days I found my sympathy with them rather than with the employers. For one thing, I had never realized the appalling poverty which existed. If I had been aware of all the facts, I should not have joined up as a special constable".[10] It was decided that Fascists would not be allowed to enlist in the OMS without first giving up their political beliefs, as the government feared a right-wing backlash, so the fascists formed Q Division under Rotha Lintorn-Orman to combat the strikers.

On 6 May 1926, there was a change of atmosphere. The government newspaper British Gazette suggested that means of transport began to improve with volunteers and blackleg workers, stating on the front page that there were '200 buses on the streets'.[11] These were, however, figures of propaganda as there were in fact only 86 buses running.[12]

On 7 May 1926, the TUC met Sir Herbert Samuel and worked out a set of proposals designed to end the dispute. The Miners' Federation rejected the proposals. The British Worker was increasingly difficult to operate because Churchill had requisitioned the bulk of the supply of the paper's newsprint so reduced its size from eight pages to four.[13] In the meantime, the government took action to protect the men who decided to return to work.

On 8 May 1926, there was a dramatic moment on the London Docks. Lorries were protected by the army. They broke the picket line and transported food to Hyde Park. This episode showed that the government was in greater control of the situation. It was also a measure of Baldwin's rationalism in place of Churchill's more reactionary stance. Churchill had wanted, in a move that would have proved unnecessarily antagonistic to the strikers, to arm the soldiers. Baldwin, however, had insisted they not be armed.

On 11 May 1926, the Flying Scotsman was derailed by strikers near Newcastle.[14] The British Worker, alarmed at the fears of the General Council of the TUC that there was to be a mass drift back to work, claimed: "The number of strikers has not diminished; it is increasing. There are more workers out today than there have been at any moment since the strike began."

However, the National Sailors' and Firemen's Union applied for an injunction in the Chancery Division of the High Court, to enjoin the General-Secretary of its Tower Hill branch from calling its members out on strike. Mr Justice Astbury granted the injunction, ruling that no trade dispute could exist between the TUC and "the government of the nation"[15] and that, save for strike in the coal industry, the general strike was not protected by Trade Disputes Act 1906. In addition, he ruled that the strike in the plaintiff union had been called in contravention of its own rules.[16] As a result, the unions involved became liable at common law for incitement to breach of contract, and faced potential sequestration of their assets by employers.

On 12 May 1926, the TUC General Council visited 10 Downing Street to announce their decision to call off the strike, provided that the proposals worked out by the Samuel Commission were adhered to and that the Government offered a guarantee that there would be no victimization of strikers. The Government stated that it had "no power to compel employers to take back every man who had been on strike." Thus the TUC agreed to end the dispute without such an agreement.

Aftermath of the conflict[edit]

The miners maintained resistance for a few months before being forced by their own economic needs to return to the mines. By the end of November most miners were back at work. However, many remained unemployed for many years. Those that were employed were forced to accept longer hours, lower wages, and district wage agreements. The strikers felt as though they had achieved nothing.

The effect on the British coal-mining industry was profound. By the late 1930s, employment in mining had fallen by more than one-third from its pre-strike peak of 1.2 million miners, but productivity had rebounded from under 200 tons produced per miner to over 300 tons by the outbreak of the Second World War.[17]

The Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Act of 1927, among other things, forbade sympathetic strikes and mass picketing.

It was the only general strike in British history, for union leaders such as Ernest Bevin—who had coordinated the strike—considered it a mistake. They decided that action through political parties was a better solution.[18]

In popular culture[edit]

  • The poet Hugh MacDiarmid composed an ultimately pessimistic lyrical response to the general strike, which he incorporated into his long modernist poem of the same year, "A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle". His imagistic depiction of how events unfolded occurs in the extended passage beginning "I saw a rose come loupin oot..." (line 1119).
  • The strike functions as the "endpiece" of the satirical novel, The Apes of God, by Wyndham Lewis. In that novel, the half-hearted nature of the strike, and its eventual collapse, represents the political and moral stagnation of 1920s Britain.
  • In James Hilton's 1934 novel Goodbye, Mr. Chips, the retired schoolmaster Chipping calls the strike "a very fine advertisement" since there was "not a life lost" and "not a shot fired".
  • The failure of the strike inspired Idris Davies to write "Bells of Rhymney" (published 1938), which Pete Seeger made into the song "The Bells of Rhymney" (recorded 1958).
  • In the 1945 novel, Brideshead Revisited, the main character, Charles Ryder, returns from France to London to fight against the workers on strike.
  • The LWT series, Upstairs, Downstairs, devoted an episode entitled "The Nine Days Wonder" (Series Five, episode 9; original airing date, 2 November 1975) to the general strike.
  • In the 1970s and 80s, "Strikes 1926" was a short-lived restaurant chain in London. The interiors of the restaurants were decorated with photographs from the strike.
  • Touchstone, a 2007 novel by Laurie R. King, is set in the final weeks before the strike. The issues and factions involved, and an attempt to forestall the strike are key plot points.
  • A BBC series entitled The House of Eliott included an episode depicting the general strike.
  • In the novel Any Human Heart by William Boyd the protagonist Logan Mountstuart volunteers himself as a special constable in the 1926 general strike.

See also[edit]

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^ Graph of UK coal production
  2. ^ Peter Mathias, The First Industrial Nation: An Economic History of Britain, 1700-1914. London: Routledge, 2001. Page 449.
  3. ^ "Forgotten (or conveniently forgotten) reason for 1926 miners strike recalled - Dr Fred Starr | Claverton Group". Claverton-energy.com. Retrieved 2010-08-28. 
  4. ^ Robertson, D. H. 'A Narrative of the General Strike of 1926' The Economic Journal Vol. 36, no. 143 (Sept., 1926) p.376
  5. ^ Griffiths, D. A History of the NPA 1906-2006 (London: Newspaper Publishers Association, 2006) pg. 67
  6. ^ Robertson, D. H. p.377
  7. ^ Renshaw, P. The General Strike (London: Eyre Meuthen, 1975) pg. 157-160
  8. ^ "What was the General Strike of 1926?", BBC News UK (London: BBC), 19 June 2011, retrieved 27 April 2012 
  9. ^ David Sinclair, Two Georges: The Making of the Modern Monarchy. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1988. Page 105.
  10. ^ "Nottinghamshire NUM Area History". Nottinghamshireexminer.com. Retrieved 2010-08-28. 
  11. ^ 'Why Walk to Work?' British Worker Issue 2 (May 6th 1926), p.1
  12. ^ Symons, J. The General Strike (London: Cresset Press, 1957) pg. 158
  13. ^ 'The British Worker and Paper Supplies,' The Times (8th May 1926), pg.4
  14. ^ Patrick, Renshaw (1975). Nine days in May: the general strike. Taylor & Francis. 
  15. ^ Lee S. J. 1996 Aspects of British Political History 1914-1995 p 90]
  16. ^ "The Legality of the General Strike in England," A. L. Goodhart The Yale Law Journal, Vol. 36, No. 4 (Feb., 1927), pp. 464-485 Published by: The Yale Law Journal Company, Inc.
  17. ^ Mathias, The First Industrial Nation, pg. 449.
  18. ^ J. Graham Jones, "Ernest Bevin and the General Strike", Llafur: Journal of Welsh Labour History/Cylchgrawn Hanes Llafur Cymru (2001) 8#2 pp 97–103.

Further reading[edit]

  • Barron, Hester. The 1926 Miners' Lockout: Meanings of Community in the Durham Coalfield (2010)
  • Gildart, Keith. "The Women and Men of 1926: A Gender and Social History of the General Strike and Miners' Lockout in South Wales", Journal of British Studies, (July 2011) 50#3 pp 758–759
  • Gildart, Keith. "The Miners' Lockout in 1926 in the Cumberland Coalfield", Northern History, (Sept 2007) 44#2 pp 169–192
  • Laybourn, Keith. The General Strike of 1926 (1993)
  • Morris, Margaret. The General Strike (1976) 479pp; detailed history
  • Perkins, Anne. A Very British Strike: 3 May–12 May 1926 (2008)
  • Phillips, G A. The General Strike: The Politics of Industrial Conflict (1976)
  • Reid, Alastair, and Steven Tolliday, "The General Strike, 1926", Historical Journal (1977) 20#4 pp. 1001–1012 in JSTOR, on historiography
  • Robertson, D. H. "A Narrative of the General Strike of 1926", Economic Journal (1926) 36#143 pp 375–393 in JSTOR by a leading economics professor
  • Taylor, Robert. TUC: From the General Strike to New Unionism (2000) 313pp
  • Jeffrey Skelley: The General Strike 1926. Lawrence and Wishardt, London 1976
  • Harold Smith: Remember 1926. A book list. Remember 1926, Coventgarden 1976
  • Tommy Turnbull: A Miners Life The History Press 2007

Video[edit]

  • The 1975 BBC series Days of Hope depicts events that led up to the 1926 strike.

External links[edit]