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General Strike of 1926

November 4, 2018 0 Comment

: The General Strike of 1926 lasted only ninedays and directly involved around 1.8 million workers. It was the short but
ultimate outbreak of a much longer conflict in the mining industry, which lasted
from the privatisation of the mines after the First World War until their
renewed nationalisation after the Second.
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Category:
History
Paper Title:
General Strike of 1926
Text:
The General Strike of 1926
Essay written by Michael Funk
Why did the General Strike of 1926 fail and what were the effects the strike
had upon industrial relations in Britain?
The General Strike of 1926 lasted only nine days and directly involved around
1.8 million workers. It was the short but ultimate outbreak of a much longer
conflict in the mining industry, which lasted from the privatisation of the
mines after the First World War until their renewed nationalisation after the
Second. The roots of the General Strike in Britain, unlike in France or other
continental countries, did not lie in ideological conceptions such as
syndicalism but in the slowly changing character of trade union organisation and
tactics. On the one hand, unskilled and other unapprenticed workers had been
organised into national unions since the 1880s to combat sectionalism and to
strengthen their bargaining power and the effectiveness of the strike weapon. On
the other hand, at the same time and for the same reason trade unions had
developed the tactic of industry-wide and ‘sympathetic’ strikes. Later during
the pre-war labour unrest these two forms of strike action, ‘national’ and
‘sympathetic’, were more often used together which in an extreme case could have
meant a general strike. The symbol of this new strategy was the triple alliance,
formed in 1914, which was a loose, informal agreement between railwaymen,
transport workers and miners to support each other in case of industrial
disputes and strikes. As G.A. Phillips summarised:
The General Strike was in origin, therefore, the tactical product of a
pattern of in-dustrial conflict and union organisation which had developed over
the past twenty-five years or so in industries where unionism had been
introduced only with difficulty, among rapidly expanding labour forces
traditionally resistant to organisation, or against strong opposition from
employers.


Therefore, a large majority of the British Labour movement saw a general
strike along the traditional ‘labourist’ view, which emphasised the separation
of the political and the industrial sphere, as a purely industrial act. This
notion was supported the developments in the 1920s when the depression and the
employers offensive weakened the militant and revolutionary forces , whereas the
success of the Labour Party and the reorganisation of the TUC General Council
further strengthened these ‘labourist’ forces.

The government’s and the employer’s view, of course, was a different one.

Since the French syndicalists in 1906 had drawn up the Charter of Amiens,
reaffirming their belief in direct political action and the general strike as a
means of overthrowing the Parliamentary system, governments and industrialists
all over Europe saw a general strike as a revolutionary challenge for the
constitution and the economic system. Although the British Labour movement had
never been really committed to this idea, during the post-war boom when it was
on the offensive, there were two examples of semi-syndicalist conceptions
concerning the use of industrial action against the war and British intervention
against the Soviet Republic. Government and employers were warned and did not
hesitate to condemn every notion of nation wide industrial action as
unconstitutional and revolutionary.

The mining dispute which caused the General Strike emerged after the First
World War when the triple alliance broke and the miners were left to fight alone
against the government’s plans to privatise the mines. As a result the mines
suddenly returned to their private owners and the miners faced demands for very
substantial wage cuts of up to 50 per cent . The dispute escalated because the
crisis was seen by all the key players -the government, the em-ployers and the
Trade Union Council (TUC)- as an example for future industrial relations in
Britain. The trade un-ion movement saw its opportunity to challenge the notion
that wage reduction could solve Britain’s economic diffi-culties and decided
therefore that a future united action in support of the miners would take the
form of a general strike. But as Margaret Morris emphasised. “It was the
absence of any possibility of finding an agreed solution to the difficulties in
the mining industry which made a confrontation on the lines of the General
Strike almost inevita-ble, not any generalised will to class conflict”.

The Conservative government, however, saw its role as a neutral, standing
between the contending parties and rep-resenting the British people as a whole.

Its industrial policy included the application of the principle of
co-partnership in industry, in the hope that workers and management would begin
to see their interest as identical, a policy which was ultimately challenged by
a general strike. The Government was completely aware that a trade union victory
would have important political implications such as government intervention in
the coal industry as well as encouraging further industrial action of a similar
dimension. Moreover, in 1926 the government was very well prepared for a major
industrial dispute, whereas unemployment and uncertain economically
circumstances forced the trade union movement in the defensive.

Due to this, the scene was set for a nation-wide strike in May 1926, which
was condemned to fail from the outset. After five years of struggle the miners
could not accept any wage cuts while the mine owners did not see any
possi-bility of running the mines profitable without any. Furthermore, the
owners’ case was supported by the government, which did not want to interfere in
industrial relations. Moreover, becouse the government saw the strike as a
revo-lutionary challenge to the constitution and the economic system it demanded
unconditional surrender from the be-ginning. But in fact, as Magaret Morris
emphasised, the General Strike was neither a revolutionary act nor an industrial
dispute. “Only if the Government had intervened by additional subsidies or
by coercing the coal owners could the difficulties of the coal industry have
been solved in some other way than at the expense of the miners. The General
Strike, therefore was a political strike and needed to be pursued as such if it
was to make any progress” . Therefore the General Council of the TUC, which
always emphasised the industrial character of the dispute, by the very nature of
the General Strike was not fighting the owners but the government, which was
forced into taking part in negotiations and put this pressure on the owners. As
the government refused to intervene and the TUC could not openly challenge the
government there was no chance for a successful end and the TUC had to call off
the strike.

A general confusion on the side of the trade unions and a principal lack of
communication between the different parties surrounded the circumstances of this
surrender. Sir Herbert Samuel lead the final negotiations based on his
memorandum, but he did not have any authority from the government. The
Negotiating Committee of the TUC was well aware of this fact but nonetheless it
expected Samuel to provide an accurate reflection of what the gov-ernment was
prepared to do. However, the trade union side thought that the strike was in
decline and was losing more and more of its faith in its success, and therefore
accepted the Samuel Memorandum without the miners ac-cepting, which, of course,
would have been crucial for the signing of a final agreement. Therefore neither
the government nor the miners, and of course, neither the employers were
involved in the negotiations which the Nego-tiating Committee thought to have
turned in its favour. Only after they had called off the General Strike did they
realised that they had nothing in their hands.

While the miners were left to fight alone until their humiliating defeat in
November 1926, the other workers re-turned to work where they faced their
strengthened employers. In some trades, such as railways and printing, work-ers
suffered widespread victimisation . The real extent of victimisation, however,
is very difficult to estimate be-cause besides the dismissal of militants and
the replacement of workers by volunteers, there was also an increase in
redundancy due to the reduced circumstances of many trades. Nevertheless most
employers tried to reinstate their men under new conditions which meant new
bargaining arrangements and some times substantial wage cuts. In the long term,
however, employers did not exploit their victory and showed an increasingly
moderate behaviour and the willingness to collaborate. The symbol of this new
climate became the Mond-Turner talks where the General Council together with
prominent industrials discussed the future of industrial relations. This
development was not only the result of the General Strike but, as Phillips
emphasised, also due to the “sectional conflicts which took place in the
early 1920s, which had been in many cases more costly to the firms involved, and
which certainly seemed a likelier mode of resistance to further attack on wages
now”.

After the end of the strike the Conservative government emphasised its
industrial neutrality again and continued to refuse any responsibility for
managing the economy. Nevertheless, after the General Strike it responded with a
new Trade Dispute Act which made general strikes illegal, tried to severe the
financial link between trade unions and the Labour Party and made picketing much
more difficult. The government’s intentions was to drive the trade unions back
into their ‘labourist’ line, but because the trade unions lost the General
Strike, among other reasons, exactly because they were too much committed to
this ‘labourist’ line, this policy was highly superfluous and in fact the new
legislation had virtually no effect. The government, therefore, was never able
to capitalise on its victory, but as the history of the strike showed that was
never its intention.

Among historians the most controversial issue concerning the General Strike
is its impact on the development of the Labour movement. For Marxist historians,
such as Martin Jacques and Keith Burgess, the General Strike marked a central
watershed in this development. They emphasised a shift to the right of the whole
Labour movement and a further strengthening of traditional ‘labourist’ forces ,
whereas the left and especially the Communist Party was isolated and lost its
influence. Jacques described this new direction as a general rejection of
militancy and the use of industrial action for political ends, the strict
separation of the political and the industrial spheres, the notion of solving
Labours’ problems within the capitalist system and finally the acceptance of the
common interest between wage-labour and employers. For Burgess, the idea of
class collaboration which was symbolised in the Mond-Turner talks especially
marked a sharp watershed. “The extent to which the TUC as a whole was won
over to these ideas marked the final stage in the containment of the challenge
of labour to the existing social order”. Besides the impact of the General
Strike both historians also emphasised other factors for this shift, such as the
changing eco-nomic environment , but as Jacques suggested:
“Mass unemployment, structural chance and the rise in real wages do not
them-selves explain the politics and ideology of working-class movement during
the inter-war period. Nevertheless, they provide an essential explanation. For
they help to reveal what might be de-scribed as the objective basis of the shift
to the right on trade union movement”.


Although mass unemployment influenced the Labour movement from the beginning
by forcing the workers on the defensive, undermining multi-sectional
consciousness and weakening sectional solidarity, it was not until the Gen-eral
Strike that it played a crucial role in determining the politics and ideology of
the trade union movement.

This notion of a watershed has been challenged by several other historians,
above all by G.A.Phillips. He suggested that the General Strike had “a
significant short-term effect upon union strength -measured primarily in terms
of membership and its distribution- but almost no lasting consequences. On
industrial tactics, and especially the use of the strike weapon, their impact
was rather to provide a further restraining influence where inhibiting factors
were already in evidence, than to initiate any change of conduct”.

Furthermore he emphasised this the reinforced trend towards industrial peace was
happening anyway, as well as the long-established faith in a regulated system of
vol-untary collective bargaining. Thus he described the shift to the right of
the whole Labour movement and the isola-tion of the Marxist left more as a
further strengthening of already familiar principles than as a significant
watershed. Moreover, the strike itself and especially its failure was the result
of the structural development of the trade union movement along these familiar
principles -especially the ‘labourist’ one- over two generations. Altogether,
from this point of view it seems that the pattern of trade union activity and
industrial relations was not altered by the General Strike. The only thing that
really changed was the Labour movement’s rhetoric style and as Laybourn
Emphasised, the isolation of the rank and file activists from the trade union
officials and therefore the final decline of the shop stewards’ movement.

However, there is little doubt that the 1920s saw a transition of the whole
Labour movement towards the separation of the political and the industrial
spheres, collaboration and moderation. At the end of the 1920s the Labour Party
was much stronger and even the trade unions, despite their defeat in the General
Strike and their reduction in both finances and members, were now much more
effective. The General Strike, of course, played an important role in this
transition, but more for its final consolidation than as a crucial watershed.

Moreover, its origin and its failure seem today like a paradigm of this
transition. Nevertheless, in the long term the General Strike left some marks
upon the Labour movement, which determined its future fate. Most importantly,
after defeat the miners lost their crucial position within the Labour movement
and great bitterness and frustration emerged among the miners in particular, but
also within the Labour movement as a whole.

Bibliography:
Burgess, Keith: The Challenge of Labour. Shaping British Society 1850-1930,
London 1980.

Clegg, Hugh Armstrong: A History of British Trade Unions since 1889. Volume
II 1911-1933, Oxford 1989.

Jacques, Martin: Consequences of the General Strike, in: Skelley, Jeffrey
(ed.): The General Strike 1926, Lon-don 1976.

Laybourn, Keith: a History of British Trade Unionism. Ch. 5: Trade Unionism
during the Inter-War Years 1918-1939, Gloucestershire 1992.

Mason, A.: The Government and the General Strike, 1926, in: International
Review of Social History, XIV 1969.

Morris, Margaret: The British General Strike 1926, The Historical association
1973.

Phillips, G.A.: The General Strike. The Politics of Industrial Conflict,
London 1976.

Renshaw, Patrick: The General Strike, London 1975.

Wrigley, Chris: 1926: Social Costs of the Mining Dispute, in: History Today
34, Nov. 1984.


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