Over recent weeks Socialist Worker has discussed the contrast between the victorious campaign against the CPE labour law in France and the capitulation by the trade union leaders over pensions rights in Britain.
The one-day action over pensions on 28 March has been described as the biggest in Britain since the General Strike of 1926. The 80th anniversary of the latter event reminds us that the eagerness of British trade union officials to call off action, even when they are in a position of strength, is not a new problem.
In her new book, A Very British Strike, Guardian journalist Anne Perkins argues that the General Strike demonstrates the deep-seated reasonableness and respect for the constitution at the heart of British society. She says, “On the whole, Britain conducted itself as it always had, with studied moderation.”
According to Perkins, the emergence of New Labour is a final recognition of the realities of British political life as demonstrated by the General Strike and subsequent – apparently inexplicable – outbursts of trade union militancy:
“Most voters, and most trade unionists, were inherently conservative. Only a party that recognised socialism’s limited appeal – and acknowledged the limitations of socialism – could triumph at the ballot box.”
At one level the book is a competent enough account of what happened in 1926. Unfortunately many issues, such as the politics of the Communist Party of Great Britain and its relationship to the movement and the Soviet Union, the struggle between left and right within the unions, the social basis of the trade union bureaucracy and the nature of the state, are incomprehensible to Perkins.
This lack of understanding allows her to draw conclusions which may be comforting for Guardian columnists, but bear little relation to reality.
The General Strike ended a 16-year period of intense industrial militancy on the part of the British working class, which began with the Great Unrest of 1910-14 and continued through the engineering struggles during the First World War.
This reached its climax in the mass strikes of 1919, the point of maximum danger for the British ruling class and its European counterparts more generally. The events of 1926 were less threatening, because they were far more defensive on the part of the unions.
In July 1925 the mine owners announced that they were tearing up all existing national agreements, increasing the working day and cutting wages.
They took the miners on first, in what was the beginning of a general offensive by the employers in order to restore profit levels.
The Trades Union Congress (TUC) ordered an embargo on the movement of all coal. Stocks were low. On 31 July 1925 – christened “Red Friday” by the Daily Herald – the government intervened to subsidise the mine owners for nine months until a commission under Sir Herbert Samuels could report on the condition of the industry.
During the next nine months the miners continued to dig the coal that was being stockpiled in case of a strike. The government organised, dividing the country into ten administrative districts and arresting the leadership of the Communist Party.
As Winston Churchill, who was chancellor of the exchequer during the strike, said later, “We decided to postpone the crisis in the hope of averting it, or if not averting it, of coping effectively with it when the time comes.” The ruling class was preparing for war.
The TUC was not preparing for anything. In February 1926 the TUC decided to do nothing until the Samuels Commission reported.
The report, as could have been predicted, called for wage cuts, but with vague references to reorganising the industry at some unspecified point in the future. In April, the subsidy ran out and the employers declared that they would begin a lock-out from 16 April unless the wage cuts were accepted.
For the next two weeks, the TUC tried to reach an agreement with the government. But Tory prime minister Stanley Baldwin used an incident at the Daily Mail – printers had refused to print a particularly inflammatory lead article – as an excuse to break off negotiations.
The TUC called what it titled a “national strike” in support of the miners, which began on 3 May.
Perkins claims, “Britain’s General Strike was an almost accidental byproduct of the fear of revolution – in a calmer atmosphere, there might have been no catalyst, no spark to ignite the unstable mixture of declining industries and burgeoning ideas about the political uses of industrial strength.”
For her the problem was caused by a minority of extremists on both sides.
None of this is true. The government wanted a strike – or a surrender without a fight – and it planned to win.
The leaders of the TUC did not want a strike. They only ordered it because they could not be seen to abandon the miners and possibly hand the initiative over to revolutionaries.
It is fairly clear that they were preparing to sell out from the beginning.
The intermediate social position of trade union officials between workers and employers, means that they have an interest in maintaining the system as it is. This does not rule out struggling for better conditions, but it does rule out overturning the capitalist system from which their position derives.
This was a more important influence than trying to protect Labour from electoral defeat, which was not an issue in 1926.
Jimmy Thomas, leader of the railwaymen and a Labour MP, said, “The state must win on an issue like this… I feel it is a desperate state. Our love of country and our anxiety for the future of our country, not our politics, is the driving force, the impelling motive, that makes us plead.”
Given attitudes like this it is unsurprising that the government felt confident enough to provoke a strike.
One issue is rightly highlighted by Perkins – the declaration by Sir John Simon during day three of the strike that it was in breach of the 1906 Trades Dispute Act and consequently illegal.
Individual union members and union funds were vulnerable. This, rather than the slur on their law-abiding respectability which Perkins stresses, was a key concern for the officials.
The other consideration was the militancy of the working class. British workers wanted a strike. The enthusiastic response to the strike call took the union leadership by surprise, and the actions of workers were far from peaceful.
As Perkins records, “An attempt to run trams in Camberwell in south east London was abandoned because of threatening crowds:
“In Hammersmith, Poplar and Canning Town other violent attempts were made to stop buses. A handful did operate, but only with a policeman sitting beside the driver and with netting over the windows.”
Even the episode most often used to demonstrate the moderation of the British working class conceals a different picture. Many readers will have heard of the famous football match at Plymouth Home Park on Saturday 8 May between strikers and the police – the strikers won 2-1, incidentally.
While the match was going on 4,000 strikers and supporters were battling scabs and police with sticks and rocks to prevent trams moving from Drake Circus in the town centre.
As Charles Dukes of the GMWU union complained, “Every day that the strike proceeded the control and the authority of that dispute [were] passing out of the hands of responsible executives into the hands of men who had no authority, no control, and [were] wrecking the movement from one end to the other.”
Councils of action were set up, often under Communist leadership, to organise picketing, food distribution and information. Naturally, these “were frowned on by the TUC as threats to their own central control”.
Churchill edited the ferociously class conscious British Gazette for the government. In response, the TUC produced the tepid British Worker, which was censored by apparatchiks to prevent inflammatory material appearing.
British workers wanted to fight, but their leaders did their best to stop them doing so effectively. In the end, after nine days, the TUC abandoned the miners for the figleaf of a non-binding agreement, which included wage cuts.
At the time the surrender came, there were more people on strike than when it began. Indeed, 100,000 more came out after the announcement.
The British state took the Communist Party (CP) very seriously indeed. Although relatively small, the CP was a serious organisation with influence far beyond its membership.
But it adopted a policy that was to cripple its ability to effectively intervene. The CP had raised the slogan of “All Power to the General Council [of the TUC]”. This made sense in so far as it was important for the general council to overcome sectionalism or rebuff attempts to withdraw from action.
But two other conditions needed to apply. One was that the general council itself could be relied upon to act decisively in workers’ interests. The other that there were forces on the ground which could carry out action from below, such as the councils of action.
Neither of these applied. The CP and its supporters expected the “left” officials and general secretaries to keep the TUC in line. They did not devote the necessary time to building the movement from below that could have intervened when the betrayal came.
The bulk of the responsibility for this failure lies with the increasingly Stalinised Communist International which encouraged illusions in the left officials to aid the Soviet Union’s foreign policy. Perkins’ book contains the material that undermines her own thesis. There are two important lessons for today from the General Strike.
The first is that the British state treats with utmost seriousness any challenge to its authority and that our side must be equally serious in response.
The second is that there is nothing inherently peaceful or constitutional about the British working class. In order for its militancy to find a focus it has to find a way not to be held back by trade union leaders.
That means that the left today has to build a political rank and file movement that will work with left wing trade union leaders but not rely on them in the way that led to disaster in 1926.
Neil Davidson is an activist in the Scottish Socialist Party and the PCS union. He is the author of the Deutscher prize winning Discovering the Scottish Revolution