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In 1926 the army and the middle classes broke the General Strike

Posted in Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Industry, Institutions, Labour Party, Politics, Trade on Thursday, 20 February 2014

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This edited article about the General Strike first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 559 published on 30 September 1972.

The General Strike of 1926,  picture, image, illustration

Volunteer bus drivers were protected during the General Strike of 1926 by John Keay

Overnight, the country seemed to have died. Docks, factories, mines and power stations were idle. There were no trains, buses or newspapers . . . half of Britain was on strike against poverty, but the other half was determined to keep the country alive.

The soldiers stood with their guns at the ready, their eyes wary and watchful. There had been no trouble yet, but the tenseness, the almost eerie calm of the strikers lining the roads to the London docks might explode into violence at any moment.

Inside the dock gates, some of the older men loading lorries with meat and flour were wilting under the effort, for they were quite unused to this strenuous labour that hardened the hands and mesmerised the mind with its tedium. The undergraduates who worked with them were naturally more energetic, but were just as obviously strangers to dock-work. Their expressions lacked the sullen glower of the strikers in the crowd outside. Their faces were free of the undernourished grey, and the lines stamped by poverty and restive envy of those to whom life had been less generous.

This strange reversal of roles, in which solicitors, stockbrokers, students and other members of the middle class temporarily assumed the tasks of labourers, occurred on 9th May, 1926, at a time when want and insecurity still marked the lives of many British working men.

All over Britain, overcrowded slums polluted towns and cities, spawning a population whose health was suspect, whose work was menial and could be dangerous, and whose diet sometimes barely skirted starvation level.

After World War I, it was to people like this that employers addressed demands that wages should be cut.

The protests were, naturally, vigorous and, at first, seemed successful. After strike action by railwaymen in 1919, proposals to reduce their wages were withdrawn. And though miners’ pay was forced down in 1921, the mine-owners three years later conceded a rise and a seven instead of an eight-hour day.

The basic conflict however, remained; and it remained at its most aggressive in the mining industry where, despite sporadic flickers upwards, exports were falling in the face of European competition.

In this situation, employers and employed took firm and stubbornly opposing stands.

The former insisted that wages, which ranged from £2 to £4 a week, should be cut by up to twenty-five per cent.

The latter, declared with equal conviction that the problem could be solved by reductions in profits and rationalisation of the industry.

It was worse than stalemate, for it was more than just an argument over money.

The revolution of 1917, which had brought the Communists so bloodily to power in Russia, had planted in middle class minds a terrible fear that Britain’s workers, too, might rise and murder their masters.

In this context, when the old dispute arose again in July 1925, many people thought they saw in the general strike that now seemed likely the same sinister signs that had heralded the Russian revolution.

When the General Council of the T.U.C., which now handled the miners’ case, threatened to paralyse industry by banning the movement of coal, such people were naturally frightened to see the government respond in what seemed a conciliatory fashion.

The Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, announced a nine-month subsidy for the mines, something which previously, he had hotly refused, and appointed a Royal Commission to investigate wages and costs.

The government, however, was really buying valuable time, and while the General Council waited, mollified for the moment, they perfected their emergency plans.

The Commission, which reported in March 1926, penalised both sides, recommending that miners accept smaller wages, and mine-owners a certain amount of pruning and reorganisation.

The miners categorically refused.

The desultory talks that ensued between government and unions reached an abrupt end on 2nd May, when news reached Baldwin that machine men at the “Daily Mail” had refused to print a leading article describing a general strike as a “revolutionary movement.”

The union leaders, distressed at the effect of so trivial an incident, tried frantically to keep negotiations going. They failed, for the government now seemed stubbornly set on confrontation.

It began on 4th May, when Britain awoke to strangely silent towns and cities. Three million men had struck in support of the miners, leaving docks, factories and power stations idle and deserted. There were no trains, no buses, no trams, no newspapers. Overnight, the country seemed to have died.

It was, in fact, in a temporary trance, for the government’s preparations had been thorough, and the people, while vaguely sympathising with the miners, were equally determined to neutralise the strike.

Volunteers enlisted in their thousands to act as special constables, to drive trains, buses and lorries, to operate power stations, work printing presses and load and unload ships.

The sight of so many people eagerly undertaking the most strenuous, most disagreeable jobs shocked the strikers: few of them had envisaged professional men and “white collar” workers soiling their hands and clothes with the toil of the working classes.

In doing so, however, volunteers placed themselves in a certain amount of danger. Strikers broke bus and tram windows, or put rods down the centre rails to stop trams from running. They overturned buses and dragged the drivers from the cabs. Some hurled bricks at trains and others stoned the special constables.

However, in the London docks, the strikers’ reaction was totally passive. Daunted by the presence of the army in all its panoply of force, they stood churlishly, but quietly by as a two-mile convoy of lorries drove off towards Hyde Park, which the government had commandeered as a distribution centre for food and other supplies.

After nine days, the General Council realised with dismay that, far from being paralysed by the strike, essential services were running, if not as normal, then with sufficient success. And they were doing so without the help of millions of working men.

The inference was painfully obvious and on 12th May, at noon, the Council cancelled the General Strike.

The miners, however, remained obstinately on strike for another six months. When hunger, cold and despair finally drove them back to the pits, these men, whose slogan had been “not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day” found they now had to work longer hours for less money.

This naturally provoked a deep, at times malign, resentment, but the General Strike of 1926 proved in many ways a valuable, as well as a bitter lesson.

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