The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

THE GENERAL STRIKE OF 1926

Category: 20th century

The General Strike was a great class action, the highest stage reached in the workers’ struggle against the capitalist exploiters. It was a strike not only against the employers, but also against the Baldwin Government, which quite openly represented the employers.

For nine days there existed inBritaintwo Governments. The bourgeoisie and their hangers-on looked to and took their orders from the Baldwin Government. The organised working class fought the Baldwin Government, ignored its orders, looked to and took its orders from its own Govern­ment — the General Council; and proceeded to set up its own administrative machinery throughout the country. The main areas of the country were in the hands of the workers.

But the leaders of the working class were not prepared to face up to the logic and responsibility of such a situation.

Thomas, Bevin and Company dreaded what might happen as much as Churchill or any member of the bourgeoisie.

The consequences of such a leadership could be foreseen. When the morale of the workers was at its highest, when the organisation was going from strength to strength—the strike was called off.

The great lesson of the General Strike is that for the suc­cessful carrying through of a class action there must be a reliable, unshakable class leadership.

* * *

On the morning of Tuesday, May 4, the stoppage was com­plete. The industrial heart of the country had almost ceased to beat. The great machines were still and quiet; the whisper of the light May wind round the factories gave to the atmos­phere a touch of Sunday morning. Trams did not run; buses were lined up in their garages. Gas and electricity burned low in a glum flicker. But the nation did not stand still.

There were no evening papers — since they were the first to suffer from the stoppage — no passenger trains, very few buses or trams anywhere in the country, and even taxicabs were few and far between on theLondonstreets. Regular newspapers disappeared; but the Government published the “British Gazette” by using blackleg labour. The TUC gave permission for work to be carried out on their own pub­lication, the “British Worker”; but apart from these two, all the great national newspapers were silenced.

The working class had made a tremendous response — they had in fact surprised their leaders.

The Party’s Central Committee had issued a dramatic eve-of-strike call declaring:

“Not a penny off the pay,

Not a second on the day.

“A Council of Action in every town.

“Make friends with the soldiers.

“Every man behind the miners.”

It was indeed the Communists who for nine months had warned the workers of the impending attack on the miners and later on the whole working class. That was why the leading Communists were now languishing in jail.

On the second night of the General Strike two detectives from Scotland Yard and an army of special constables raided the Communist Party headquarters inCovent Garden. They brought with them crowbars, jemmies and other instruments for forcing open the doors: they broke into the bookshop and scattered all the literature: they rifled and ransacked the offices from top to bottom. They had with them a warrant for the seizure of any material for the publication of a strike paper or duplicated sheet (the Communist “Workers’ Bul­letin”, a daily duplicated document circulated fromLondon, was worrying the Government more than the “British Work­er”.)

But all the police found at the Communist H. Q. was an old worn-out model of a duplicating machine which had not been used for years. No arrests were made nor were any arrest warrants produced. The police stalked out sullenly.

In the meantime a General Staff was being set up to deal with the situation at the headquarters of the TUC. But the fact that these plans were drawn up two days after the battle had commenced is illustrative of the organisational chaos that existed at top level. It is almost unbelievable that for the complete period of the General Strike the miners — the root of the whole dispute — had no representation on the General Council. The miners were not consulted in the real negotiations and in the framing of the real decisions. For these were conducted behind closed doors, mostly in secret, with intrigue and deceit playing not a small part.

Support for the strike was by this time pouring in from all over the world. From as far away as Japan the world trade union movement was sending messages of support and greet­ings. InGermanythe leaders of theRuhrworkers said they would cease work if the British T.U.C. asked for their active support. The All-Russian Central Council of Trade Unions was one of the first to come forward. They issued instructions to give support to British workers on vessels in Soviet ports and called upon the crews of Soviet ships trading withBrit­ainto give active support. The Soviet T.U.C. also offered 2 million roubles (about 100,000 at that time) to the Strike Fund of the General Council, which was refused because the leaders of the T.U.C. were fearful of invoking the stigma — “Moscow gold”. Even fromIndia, where British imperial rule was at its most ruthless stage, trade unionists were send­ing their support. The international working class was stand­ing by the British workers in their hour of need: the great traditions of international solidarity were being upheld.

At home the battle was growing more fierce, more brutal. The unarmed workers were charged time and again by the police wielding batons. Hundreds were injured. InGlasgow streetfighting had resulted in sixty-six arrests and many injured, and in Edinburgh twenty-two arrests. The tempo was rising — and as the third day approached (Thursday, May 6) more workers were coming out. The total was nearing the 4 million mark.

In London, particularly, the volunteer-police were vicious, indiscriminate and as much a reflection of their class position as the workers’ solidarity was of theirs. Police guarded buses and tube trains at front and back. Windows of buses were either boarded up or covered with wire netting and the bonnets covering the engines were strapped with barbed wire. Pickets were beaten up ruthlessly by mobs of volunteer-police — young Tory gentlemen, ripe for fas­cism — who were rushed to “ trouble spots” in lorries and unloaded, with their truncheons swinging, on to unarmed strikers.

Town halls all over the country became temporary recruit­ing stations for strike-breakers — but the response was not what the Government had hoped for.

The workers were firm. The feeling throughout the country among the workers was one of tremendous vigour, and great expectations. They were, as numerous reports put it, “just beginning” and the full force of their attack was only com­mencing to be felt.

It was, indeed, this very feeling which caused so much anxiety among the leaders. They knew perfectly well that the strike was assuming a political character and that as more workers came out — the engineering workers and the shipbuilding men were called out in the second week — the political nature of the struggle would become more fierce. In what fearful result would all this culminate? Would the workers, on a crest of revolutionary enthusiasm, sweep away not only the invisible bonds of discipline but also their lead­ers? These terrible questions invaded the minds of many a General Council man, in the opening hours of the second week. No opportunity should be lost for meeting the Govern­ment and bringing the dispute to a conclusion — even an unsatisfactory conclusion — in order to hold in check the rampagings of the “wild men”. This was their philosophy and this was their guiding star which, in three days’ time, was to navigate them into the Government’s safe harbour of unconditional surrender and the trade union movement on to the reefs of disaster.

From Saturday, May 8 onwards the General Council was almost wholly concentrated on “behind the scenes” nego­tiations which were aimed at ending the strike. While these highly secret talks were going on the workers’ struggle, far from relaxing, grew stronger. This brought warnings by trade union leaders for the workers to keep off the streets, to occu­py themselves by playing games, or to stay in their back gardens. A typical example of this advice was given by the Central Strike Committee of theCardiffarea in an appeal for trade unionists to keep the peace. “Keep smiling”, it urged. “Refuse to be provoked. Get into your garden. Look after the wife and kiddies. Do not hang about the centre of the city. Get into the country, there is no more healthful occupation than walking”.

The ostensible line of the General Council was so fantas­tically dishonest that on the very day before the strike was called off the “British Worker” ran a front page panel in large bold type demanding —“No slackening” — “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”.

There was no decline in the ferocity of the strike and while behind the curtain of slogans and exhortations the T.U.C.’ s Industrial Committee was planning its retreat, up and down the country men were being arrested and impris­oned. On Tuesday, May 11, the number of arrests had risen by374 inthe last few days: inGlasgowalone the total since the strike began was now over 200. The day before the strike was off Mrs Marjorie Pollitt, wife of Harry Pollitt who was already in Wandsworth gaol with the other Communist lead­ers — was arrested for publishing the Communist fly-sheet “Workers’ Bulletin”. But the police were unable to find the publication place of the “Bulletin” and it continued to appear.

At midday on Wednesday, May 12, the General Council met Mr Baldwin and told him that they had decided to call off the General Strike. Baldwin called his Cabinet and then went to the House of Commons to announce his triumph as a “victory for common sense”. The “British Worker” ran three editions that afternoon and evening, each one des­cribing in growing detail the calendar of events. But in none of the editions did the T.U.C.’s newspaper reveal the fact — the crucial fact — that the Miners’ Federation had issued a statement declaring that they were “no party in any shape or form” to the calling-off of the strike. The “British Work­er” ’s last edition on Wednesday evening ran streamer headlines — “Strike Terminated Today” — “Trades Union Congress General Council Satisfied that Miners Will Now Get a Fair Deal”.

When the notices calling off the strike began to be deliv­ered to the various districts there was complete chaos and confusion. The suddenness of the order dropped like a thun­derbolt on men who were ready not for retreat but advance. In the hearts of the workers there was dismay, anger and a fuming mixture of bitterness and disillusionment. The Com­munist Party made every effort to keep the strike alive and to raise the spirit of the organised workers. The “Workers’ Bulletin” appealed for them to “Stand by the Miners”.

But the tide was ebbing.Baldwinspoke of the duty of the nation to “forget all recrimination”. Let employers act with generosity, he declared, and workers put their whole hearts loyally into their work. But the Prime Minister had overlooked some of the basic characteristics of the capital­ist class. Now that the workers were in retreat, employers all over the country attempted to wring out the last ounce of retribution. Millions of workers were offered their jobs back — but at reduced wages. Some were denied employment alto­gether. The War Office announced that men who had remained at work, or who had returned to work by Wednesday, would be given preference of employment irrespective of their form­er length of service or record.

On the railways, in the docks, in passenger transport and printing trades, employers were taking advantage of the situation. Humiliating documents were thrust before work­ers for their signature, while the threat of reduced wages and longer hours hung over their heads like an axe. The result was that the strike continued unofficially for several days.

It was on Monday morning, May 17 — the final issue of the “British Worker” — that the newspaper carried a front­page story revealing that the miners were still locked out. The impact of what had happened was slowly dawning on the misled, dismayed workers. They had all gone back — but the miners? The miners were alone again.

From The General Strike of 1926 by John Murray with a fore­word by William Gallacher

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