Thursday, 28 January 2016

The General Strike, May 1926

The General Strike of May 1926 was short, and a failure, but it had a profound effect on how trade union leaders and members regarded themselves and their place in the economic life of the United Kingdom.

The causes of the General Strike

The General Strike of 1926 is looked upon as the “gold standard” by some of today’s militant unionists who regard it as a triumph that they would like to repeat. Bringing the vast majority of working people out on strike at the same time would be seen by them as a good way of asserting their industrial muscle.

Ironically, it was a real “gold standard” that was the root cause of the strike. The Conservatives, under Stanley Baldwin, won the General Election of 1924 and replaced Ramsay Macdonald’s short-lived minority Labour government. The new Chancellor of the Exchequer was Winston Churchill, whose greatest desire was to return Britain and the pound sterling to the gold standard that it had left on the outbreak of war in 1914.

The Gold Standard Act of 1925 had the effect of over-valuing the pound and making it more difficult for British goods and services to be sold abroad. Prices rose sharply, as did unemployment in such labour-intensive industries as coalmining and shipbuilding. The owners of mines and factories wanted to cut wages (and lengthen working hours) in order to lower export prices, whereas their employees sought increased wages to compensate for the higher prices of food and goods.

An added pressure on the mine-owners was the renewed production of coal from mines in Germany that had been closed after the 1914-18 war. This extra competition meant that British mines needed to keep their prices as low as possible, even if this meant being bribed with government subsidies so that they avoided the need to cut wages.

A Royal Commission was established in 1925 under Sir Herbert Samuel to investigate the economics of coal production, and it reported in March 1926 by recommending that subsidies be withdrawn and wages be cut, but that miners’ hours should not be increased. This compromise pleased nobody, with the mine owners and trade union leaders subsequently taking more entrenched positions.

The miners’ leader, A J Cook, came up with the slogan: “Not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day”. Lord Birkenhead, who was a notable lawyer and a friend of Winston Churchill, remarked that he had thought the unionists to be the stupidest men he had ever met, until he met the mine owners.

The course of the Strike

It was the mine owners who brought matters to a head on 1st May, in what certainly looks like an act of stupidity, by locking union members out and refusing to let them work until they accepted a wage cut. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) then called on all union members in affiliated unions to come out on strike on 3rd May. The General Strike had begun.

One myth associated with the General Strike is that it was truly “general” by being a united strike by all members of TUC affiliated unions. It is true that around one and a half million workers downed tools, but ninety percent of them were miners and the rest came out in their support. Some important groups of workers were not called out on strike, including those in the vital sector of power generation. Given that virtually all the electricity and domestic gas supply was produced by the burning of coal, the lights would stay on and food would be cooked for as long as the coal stocks held out.

However, the public transport unions did strike, and the popular image of the General Strike is of upper-class students from Oxford and Cambridge manning the buses and trains to keep them running. However, there is another myth here, because most of the strike-breakers came from the same working-class background as the strikers.

There were fears among some in high places that the General Strike would turn into a “British Revolution”, but this also proved to be far from reality. The strike was pursued with hardly any violence, certainly not against the Police and armed forces who guarded the power stations and other key facilities, and not even against the many strike-breakers. Apart from suffering the inconvenience caused by interruptions to transport and various other services, the British public took the General Strike in their stride and patiently saw it through.

The legacy of the Strike

The General Strike ended as suddenly as it had begun, with the TUC calling it off on 12th May, having gained nothing from the nine days that it lasted. Far from being the class war that had been anticipated, the strike proved to be little more than a bloodless skirmish.

The country was little different at the end of the nine days than it had been at the beginning. Most of the miners stayed on strike for some time longer, but coal supplies held up well enough to allow the infrastructure of the power and transport systems to continue. Britain stayed on the gold standard for another five years, but was eventually forced to leave it for ever in 1931.

Worse conditions were to follow for working people during the Great Depression that was not far away, starting in 1929, with its rocketing unemployment and hunger marches.

However, although the General Strike was a failure, from the working class point of view, it did mark a major step forward for the trade union movement in that it showed how working people could act together and demonstrate solidarity against oppressive owners and managers of factories and mines. The unions now knew that they had a powerful weapon at their disposal in the battle for workers’ rights and improved conditions, and later union leaders were to make full use of their growing power as the century progressed.

The General Strike also did much to accelerate the growth of the Labour Party at the expense of the Liberals, with Labour winning the largest number of seats at the 1929 general election. The mining areas of Britain would be rock-solid territory for Labour for decades to come, and that legacy continues to the present day, especially in South Wales.
Whether there will ever be another general strike in Britain is a matter of conjecture, given the relative weakness of the trade union movement at the present time. However, the 1926 example is still one that many on the left-wing fringes of trade unionism look back on with misty-eyed fondness.

© John Welford