Socialist Worker

How a general strike in the Isle of Man shook the British state in 1918

The 1918 Isle of Man general strike showed the power of organised workers, says John Callow

Issue No. 2612

Protesting at Tynwald Hill

Protesting at Tynwald Hill


On 4 July 1918 a red flag flew from Tynwald Hill on the Isle of Man. All transport stopped, the lights went out, shops shut and ports closed.

The crowds on the streets of the capital Douglas grew in numbers and confidence as the hours went by. Farm labourers joined the strike in the north and women stocking knitters came out in support in the south.

A 48-hour general strike had begun. It became the only successful general strike waged—to date—in the islands of Great Britain and Ireland.

The Strike Committee ensured that essential food supplies were delivered to the poor, the old and the hungry.

A coal yard that tried to break the picket lines found itself under siege and its gates stormed by protesters.

Retired naval officer Captain Moughtin tried to coordinate strike breakers. He was dragged from his office and mauled by the crowd.

Everywhere, women were reported to be particularly prominent in the protests, together with wounded ex-servicemen.

And the police force openly fraternised with strikers while some serving officers joined the demonstrations.

The First World War had widened the gulf between rich and poor. Profiteers flourished and considerable fortunes were made from the conflict.

Yet unskilled labourers, farm and shop workers and many tourism workers faced ruin. Wages were frozen, the holiday trade ended and food prices rose by more than 60 percent on pre-1914 levels.

More than 300 older women and men received poor relief in Douglas. In rural communities, starvation threatened. It did not have to be that way. The free market ideology espoused by the island’s governor, Lord Raglan, exacerbated hardships and highlighted the lack of democratic accountability.

The territory was directly controlled by the Crown, as opposed to the Westminster parliament. As British law did not apply, chancellor Lloyd George’s budgetary reforms of 1909 weren’t enacted on Man.

There were no pensions or direct taxation on income. Revenues were collected indirectly through tariffs on food stuffs.

And exporting food to the rest of Britain put staple foodstuffs beyond the reach of growing numbers.

Subsidy

Raglan’s decision to withdraw the subsidy on bread ignited the general strike, with bakeries declaring that they could no longer afford to produce loaves.

The reach, breadth, solidarity and swiftness of the strike took the authorities completely by surprise. Control of the island began to fall to the Strike Committee.

This was led by the Workers’ Union, which represented an impressive alliance of unions.

Union density had been rising dramatically since the spring of 1917 under the energetic leadership of print worker Alf Teare.

Teare, together with young activist Harry Emery, was committed to a form of industrial syndicalism.

This espoused direct action and sought political solutions to economic grievances. It was immediately understood, and celebrated, by trade unionists across the Isle.

Fisher folk negotiated their catches with the Strike Committee and pledged to deliver fish to the families of strikers. A handful of returning holiday makers—but no goods—were shipped back to Liverpool.

Optimism and an almost carnival spirit hung in the air.

Raglan’s administration crumbled and conceded to the Strike Committee’s demands on the afternoon of 5 July.

The victory democratised taxation, swept away the high-handed administration of Lord Raglan, enabled the payment of pensions and prevented starvation.

It also shook the British government and forced its hand in entrusting the Ministry of Food to a trade unionist, J.R. Clynes.

A century later, the strike is a cause for pride—not just for those on the Isle but for all who believe in economic and political democracy.


Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'

Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.