Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein

Marxism & Trade Union Struggle:
The General Strike of 1926


Chapter Fifteen:
The TUC bluff is called

THERE WAS an enormous amount at stake in 1926. British capitalism was no longer the envied ‘workshop of the world’ as it had been fifty years previously. Despite its scramble for colonies, many rivals had grown up to challenge Britain’s monopoly. A bloody world war had been fought to crush Germany, its most dangerous opponent. The British state thought it had won a great victory in 1918, but in reality the USA gained most by the mutual impoverishment of Europe’s capitalisms.

Thus it was that by the mid-1920s the British ruling class as a whole wanted a readjustment of the economy. As in every capitalist crisis, the working class was expected to pay the price. So in some ways the battle of 1926 was no unusual event – the system has always and will always try to make the workers solve its problems. But the very depth of the crisis and scale of the struggle made 1926 exceptional. This was to be a battle of titans, with the ruling class ready to pit its combined economic, political and ideological battalions against the workers and their chief defensive organisations, the trade unions.

As we have seen, in July 1925 Baldwin had made it clear that all British workers had to become poorer so that he and his class could amass even more wealth. Meticulous government preparations for class war showed how the ruling class did not suffer from the blinkered sectionalism of the union leaders. It knew that if the confidence of one million miners organised in the MFGB, one-fifth of all trade unionists, remained intact, the entire offensive would fail. All their preparations were shaped by this broad class-conscious approach.

Much of the groundwork for facing an industrial emergency had been done a long time previously. The first permanent emergency machinery for maintaining services and supplies during national strikes was set up by the post-war Lloyd George government almost as soon as it took office. This was overhauled and improved in response to the national railway strike of October 1919, when a Supply and Transport Committee was formed within the Cabinet. The following year an Emergency Powers Act was enacted which gave the government wide powers in the event of a crisis. The plans were put into effect during the 1921 miners’ lockout. In May 1923 J.C.C. Davidson, who had been parliamentary private secretary to Baldwin during 1921 and 1922 , was appointed Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and immediately adopted the newly-created role of Chief Civil Commissioner, charged with designing ‘in strict secrecy’, an organisation to supply essential services in time of a general strike. [1]

When the first Labour government was formed in January 1924, Davidson was asked by another civil servant, Lancelot Storr, not to hand over the papers of the Supply and Transport Committee Organisation to the new Labour Minister, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Josiah Wedgwood. But his advice was ignored. However Davidson now urged Wedgwood to hold back the plans from his colleagues:

I told him that, whoever was in power, it was his duty to protect the Constitution against a Bolshevik-inspired General Strike ... I begged him not to destroy all I had done and not to inform his Cabinet of it. This did not concern party but was a national matter. [2]

When the Labour government went out of office and Wedgwood handed over again to Davidson, he said: ‘I haven’t destroyed any of your plans. In fact, I haven’t done a bloody thing about them.’ [3]

In fact the Labour government had used the strike-breaking machinery twice: during the dock and tram strikes called by the Transport and General Workers Union.

Red Friday made the government quickly overhaul and streamline the emergency machinery. On 6 August 1925 the Home Secretary, Sir William Joynson-Hicks, submitted a report to the Cabinet for the next national industrial dispute. The government effort would have one sole direction to prevent overlap of effort or internal confusion:

  1. Supply and Transport Committee of Cabinet – General direction of government arrangements for dealing with emergencies entrusted to Supply and Transport Committee of the Cabinet, to which all questions of policy are submitted for decision. [4]

While the general direction was determined centrally, individual government departments were given enough flexibility to take appropriate action. Strike-breaking was to be organised by a ‘Food, Fuel and Transport Sub-Committee’ which would be closely backed by physical force if necessary. Thus the ‘Protection Sub-Committee’ included

representatives of the Home Office, Scottish Office, Admiralty, War Office and Civil Commissioners’ Department, and is responsible for supervising and co-ordinating any resources which need to be taken by the central authorities for protecting persons at work, transport, vulnerable points, etc. and for checking disorder. [5]

New arrangements were made to recruit ‘volunteers’ – strike-breakers – and especially detailed attention was devoted to road transport:

The Road Commissioners were all appointed and each Commissioner had prepared a list of Road Officers for the various centres in his Division. On receipt of a telegram each Road Commissioner was ready to proceed to his Emergency HQ and to appoint his Road Officers – the majority of whom had had experience in previous Emergencies.

Chairmen of Haulage Committees had been approached to act at 82 sub-centres and were prepared to set up their Committees on receipt of a telegram.

Detailed instructions had been prepared and were ready for immediate use ... Within the limits of the instructions the arrangements for the organisation of road transport by the Ministry had been fully developed. [6]

The next day a decision was taken to:

set up in each district a permanent headquarters where the emergency arrangements could be worked out in greater detail by the Emergency Staff. [7]

The country was divided into ten districts, each under the control of a Civil Commissioner. For the purpose of recruiting labour for the emergency, the country was divided into 80 areas, each under the chairmanship of an influential local person. Each division had its own Civil and Road Commissioner, plus Coal, Finance and Food Officers, appointed by the Ministry of Transport. Beneath the ten Divisional Road Commissioners were 150 Road Officers. The Food Officer had 102 Divisional Food Officers awaiting his orders. All this was done just one week after Red Friday and with eight and three-quarter months of the coal subsidy still to run! What a contrast this would be to the TUC’s preparations. As W.M. Crook, a historian of the strike, sums up:

the government had prepared its weapons against possible industrial warfare; the railroads and the large industrial firms had laid in vast stocks of coal; and the output at the mines had been immense. [8]

The government’s formal and secret plan for dealing with a future industrial emergency was supplemented by the informal but more public activities of the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies (OMS). The OMS was an unofficial body and was supposed to employ nobody in government service. In fact it was headed by men of the Establishment: its president was Lord Hardinge of Penshurst. On its council were Lord Ranfurly, Lord Jellicoe, Lord Falkland, Sir Rennell Rodd, Sir Alexander Duff, Sir Francis Lloyd, and other men who had at one time given notable service to the governmnent but had now retired from official participation in public affairs.

The OMS was defined as:

an association of loyal citizens organised in the public interest to provide the government in times of emergency with classified lists of those who will assist in maintaining essential public services ... food, water, light, power and transport, and who, when called upon by the constitutional authority, will cooperate in upholding law and order. [9]

In short, its purpose was to organise scabbing. OMS Committees were formed in 22 of the 28 Metropolitan boroughs, and efforts were made to spread this to the provinces. Volunteers in five categories were called for: Special Constables (under 45 years of age); workers to maintain public services; transport drivers; messengers and cyclists; and an unclassified group who would do clerical work or anything else not requiring technical skill.

Between Red Friday and the start of the General Strike, the OMS registered 100,000 volunteers, most of them in South East England. [10] So well advanced were government activities that the Home Secretary reported to the Cabinet on 22 February 1926 that ‘little remained to be done before the actual occurrence of an emergency.’ [11]

Yet in spite of everything the government did, the unions had the potential advantage. Workers vastly outnumbered capitalists. They alone had the skill and capacity to produce and transport the necessities of life for any length of time. Even the bulk of the army was recruited from the working class and in a major confrontation could well be expected to refuse to shoot its own class. The upper class was composed of parasites and so, despite its preparations, had to depend on the feebleness and treachery of leaders in the opposing camp to succeed. Only the TUC could snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

The trade unions do nothing

The government was not alone in regarding Red Friday as no more than a temporary truce. Herbert Smith, president of the Miners’ Federation, told its delegate conference in August 1925: ‘We have no need to glorify about a victory. It is only an armistice.’ [12]

What preparations did the leadership of the TUC make in the months before 1 May 1926, when the government subsidy to the mining industry came to an end? The answer is None. Thus the historian Alan Bullock, in his biography of Ernest Bevin, writes:

In the seven months between [October 1925] and the crisis at the end of April 1926 which led straight into the General Strike, the full General Council did not once discuss what was to happen when the government subsidy came to an end on 30 April nor concern itself with preparations for the support of the miners – apart, of course, from receiving the reports of the Special Industrial Committee in the normal course of its monthly meetings ...

... the Industrial Committee took no more active steps than the General Council itself. It met twice between 1 October 1925 and 1 January 1926, resolving on the first occasion (25 October) to watch the course of events and meet again in 1926 ‘if circumstances warrant it’, and on the second occasion (18 December) not to seek additional powers as suggested at Scarborough. [13]

The question of what measures were necessary in the event of a general dispute was first discussed on 27 April 1926 – three days before the day of reckoning. Bevin confirmed this at a Conference of Trade Union Executives in January 1927:

With regard to the preparations for the strike, there were no preparations until 27 April [1926] and I do not want anyone to go away from this conference under the impression that the General Council had any particular plan to run this movement. In fact, the General Council did not sit down to draft the plans until they were called together on 27 April. [14]

Before this the only preparations had been in building bureaucratic structures to deal with the mining crisis. In 1925 the Industrial Alliance was established between organisations representing workers in all forms of transport (railways, docks, waterways, road, sea, air), engineering, shipbuilding, iron and steel production, mining, and all forms of power production and distribution. This was the body that the Communist Party pushed for so vociferously, but it too did nothing.

Why did the trade union leaders not prepare for the showdown? First, being shortsighted, the General Council did not regard a further struggle as inevitable, unlike the mine-owners and the government, who obviously did. The trade union leadership, encouraged by the government, also preferred to wait for the outcome of the Royal Commission inquiry into the coal industry. They were induced to believe that somehow a solution would emerge. Some of the union leaders drew the wrong conclusion from Red Friday: they hoped that their dealing with the government would be like a poker game, that by bluffing they could avoid a real struggle.

The Samuel Commission

On 5 September 1925 Baldwin appointed a Royal Commission into the Coal Industry, chaired by Sir Herbert Samuel. Baldwin decided not to repeat the mistake committed in the composition of the Sankey Commission of 1919. The Sankey Commission had consisted of a chairman and twelve members, six of whom were miners or acceptable to the miners, and six mine-owners or acceptable to them. In the new Royal Commission working-class representation was completely excluded. Its chairman was Sir Herbert Samuel and its three other members were Sir William Beveridge, General Sir Herbert Lawrence, and Kenneth Lee.

Samuel himself had extensive family connections in the financial world, and considerable experience in government, having been Secretary of Sate for Home Affairs in the Liberal government after 1905 and British High Commissioner in Palestine 1920–25. Lawrence was managing partner of the bankers Glyn, Mills and Company, and on the board of several other companies. Kenneth Lee was chairman of the big cotton manufacturers Tootal, Broadhurst, Lee and Company and chairman of the District Bank. Beveridge was a well-known economist and a Liberal.

Sheer kowtowing to men of substance must have led the General Council to pin their hopes on the Samuel Commission, that it would deliver them from the threatening struggle.

On 10 March 1926 the commission issued its report. This recommended the reorganisation of the mining industry: nationalisation of royalties, amalgamation of existing mines, closer co-ordination of mining with electricity and gas production, improved research into the use of coal through new processes such as smokeless fuel, and organisation of the cooperative selling of coal. To bring all these changes ‘into full operation must need years’, it said.

What about government subsidies to the coal industry? The answer of the report is clear:

We express no opinion whether the grant of a subsidy last July was unavoidable or not, but we think its continuance indefensible. The subsidy should stop at the end of its authorised term, and should never be repeated [otherwise it] would constitute in many cases a door to the inefficient to the disadvantage of the efficient. [15]

The immediate needs of the industry, said the report, demand wage cuts:

If the present hours are to be retained, we think a revision of the ‘minimum percentage addition to standard rates of wages’, fixed in 1924 at a time of temporary prosperity, is indispensable. A disaster is impending over the industry, and the immediate reduction of working costs that can be effected in this way, and in this way alone, is essential to save it.

Yet while the verdict that rates of pay should be reduced was clear enough, the nature and conditions of the reduction were inadequately answered. How large were the cuts proposed? In an Annexe to the Report, the commission suggested that a 10 per cent decrease in the total national wage bill would ‘nearly, though not quite, bring about a balance of costs and proceeds.’ But because of the varying fortunes of the different Coalfields, they concluded that ‘greater reductions are almost certainly needed to give any chance of equilibrium in the exporting districts, and smaller ones would still leave a profit elsewhere.’ [16]

Roughly speaking, the report can be summed up as proposing a reorganisation of the mining industry to be put into effect some time in the future, together with a reduction in wages to take effect immediately. While vague in its suggestions concerning state intervention, the report was precise in asserting that the miners should accept wage reductions or longer hours.

The commission admirably achieved its main purpose – that of giving an excuse to the Labour leaders to distance themselves from the miners. While the miners’ leaders showed complete opposition to the report’s findings, Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald rushed to declare that the report was ‘a conspicuous landmark in the history of political thought ... the stars in their courses are fighting for us.’ [17] Using less flowery language, Ernest Bevin also recommended the report:

I must confess that the report had a distinct fascination for me; I felt that if minds were applied with the right determination to give effect to it, what with reconstruction, regrouping and the introduction of a new element in the management of the industry, there would in the end be produced a higher wage standard. It may have meant some adjustments in varying forms, but this is nothing new; everyone of us has had to face these problems in other industries across the table and met and overcome similar conditions over and over again. [18]

Alan Bullock, quoting this, comments:

To put it more plainly than anyone cared to at the time, the mining industry would never be able to pay a proper wage until it had been reorganised – and reorganisation meant closing uneconomic pits and drastically reducing the number of miners employed. To those outside the industry this was obvious, and if a thorough reorganisation could be secured, Bevin and other trade union leaders felt that a temporary reduction in wages was a price worth paying for it. [19]

Another recommendation for the Samuel Report came from Arthur Pugh, chairman of the TUC:

It appeared to me that sound tactics implied an acceptance by the miners of the report in substance, subject to subsequent negotiations on any point of reasonable modification, thus throwing upon the mine-owners the responsibility for the rejection of the report. [20]

To understand the impact of the Samuel Report on the General Council, let us compare the General Council’s position towards the miners’ demands before and after its publication. On 19 February 1926 a joint meeting of the Industrial Committee, representing the General Council and the Miners’ Federation, had issued a clear statement of support for the miners’ opposition to any cut in wages or extension of the working day:

The attitude of the trade union movement was made perfectly clear last July, namely, that it would stand firmly and unitedly against any attempt further to degrade the standard of life in the coal fields. There was to be no reduction in wages, no increase in working hours, and no interference with the principle of National Agreements. This is the position of the Trade Union Movement to-day. [21]

However, in the days and weeks following the publication of the report, speeches by trade union leaders were published in which they distanced themselves from the position of the miners. The miners approached the Industrial Committee and asked them whether the General Council would continue to stand by the three fundamental points to which they were already committed. A letter from Walter Citrine, acting secretary of the TUC, to Miners’ Federation secretary A.J. Cook was not reassuring:

The committee fully realise the seriousness of the present position, but they are of the opinion that matters have not yet reached the stage when any final declarations of the General Council’s policy can be made.

It appears to them that negotiations are yet in a very early stage, and that efforts should be made to explore to the fullest extent the possibility of reducing the points of difference between your federation and the coalowners, and for that purpose they advise the immediate continuance of negotiations. [22]

At a meeting of the Industrial Committee on 21 April, both Arthur Pugh, its chairman, and J.H. Thomas gave their opinion that some sacrifices by the miners were unavoidable. ‘On wages,’ said Pugh, ‘as a committee they could not see the miners getting out of that without some adjustment ... The miners’ slogans would get them nowhere.’ Of their colleagues only Alonzo Swales objected to the assumption that such wage cuts must be faced. [23]

The TUC leaders showed themselves to be very reluctant allies of the miners. The miners’ leaders nonetheless insisted on their three principles: no reduction to wages, no increase in working hours, and no interference in the principle of national agreement between union and employers. The miners’ leaders alone showed angry defiance of mine-owners, government and TUC.

Behind the scenes leaders of the General Council, above all J.H. Thomas, were telling members of the government that they were ready to give way. Thus Tom Jones, the deputy-secretary to the Cabinet, wrote in his diary on 14 April 1926 that Baldwin

had had a long talk with J.H. Thomas after dinner. JHT had described how for four hours he had fought with beasts at Ephesus upstairs, how he had taken the precaution to have a shorthand-writer, and everything had gone down on the notes. If that is true, it will be racy reading. JHT wants the PM to bring the two parties together, and to preside over their discussions. [24]

On 15 April Jones noted that Sir Alfred Cope, a coal-owner and managing director of Mond Industries,

rang up and told me that Ramsay MacDonald and Clynes were passing the word along that the Miners were [to be] reasonable and conciliatory; otherwise public opinion would be alienated and in the event of a strike the prospects of the Labour Party severely damaged. [25]

Thomas was publicly doing his damnedest to dampen down the expectation of a general strike. Thus, on 18 April, speaking in Monmouthshire, he referred contemptuously to the current talk of industrial war:

To talk at this stage as if in a few days all the workers of the country were to be called out was not only letting loose passions that might be difficult to control, but it was not rendering the best service either to the miners or anyone else ... instead of organising, mobilising, and encouraging the feeling that war was inevitable, let them concentrate on finding a solution honourable and satisfactory to all sides. [26]

The right wing of the General Council were not the only ones who feared a confrontation. The most verbally radical of the lefts, A.J. Cook, a man who appeared on Minority Movement platforms and partly owed his position as MFGB secretary to its canvassing, was not exempt. From public platforms he inspired audiences with his vigorous championship of the slogan ‘Not a penny off the pay, not a second on the day!’. In private his behaviour was rather less praiseworthy. Behind the backs of his own union’s executive he was manoeuvring for a compromise.

Thus Jones wrote in an entry to his diary dated 14 April 1926 that he was wandering in the House of Commons:

when I ran into Cook. Cook turned aside and whispered to me ‘I’d like to see you tonight.’ I whispered back my Hampstead telephone number. [27]

Next day, 15 April, Cook told Jones:

We are economically in the weakest position we have ever been, and while a lot of our chaps won’t agree with me, we shall have to have a national minimum not only with plusses above it, but minuses below it. I asked him what was the most helpful thing I could do in the interests of peace. He said, to get the owners to meet the PM as early as possible, next week, then to bring the miners to meet them, a joint conference with the PM presiding, and to keep them together while they thrashed out the wages issue. [28]

Despite all these manoeuvres the government and the coalowners left little space for compromise. On 16 April the coalowners declared a total lockout to start on 1 May. The General Council was crushed between its fear of a repeat of Black Friday, and nervous forebodings of the coming struggle. In the end it was pushed into the General Strike by government intransigence.

On Thursday 29 April a Special Conference of Executives of all trade unions affiliated to the TUC met in the Memorial Hall, Farringdon Street, and did not disperse until the afternoon of Saturday 1 May. This conference declared the general strike to start at midnight on 3/4 May in support of the miners. The decision was carried by 3,653,527 to 49,911. (Trade union executives representing 319,000 members did not vote as they did not have the opportunity to consult their organisations.) Only the Seamen rejected the strike call. In addition the National Union of Journalists, the Firemen’s Union, and the Electrical Power Engineers Association did not join the strike.

The conference heard many fiery speeches. Ernest Bevin emphasised the historic importance of the occasion in his opening remarks:

We look upon your ‘yes’ as meaning that you have placed your all upon the altar for this great movement, and, having placed it there, even if every penny goes, if every asset goes, history will ultimately write up that it was a magnificent generation that was prepared to do it rather than see the miners driven down like slaves.

I rely, in the name of the General Council, on every man and every woman in that grade to fight for the soul of Labour and the salvation of the miners. [29]

John Bromley, secretary of ASLEF, roused cheers when he said:

As far as my own people are concerned, every member of our union, without exception, will be thrown into the battle at once. That is rather a proud position to hold, that we shall at least be part of the shock troops ... How proud I am to be a part of this great movement and to see this splendid response. We have comrades not only worthy of the name, but worth fighting for. [30]

There were, however, less sure voices. J.H. Thomas said:

My friends, when the verbatim reports are written, I suppose my usual critics will say that Thomas was almost grovelling, and it is true. In all my long experience – and I have conducted many negotiations – I say to you, and all my colleagues will bear testimony to it, I never begged and pleaded like I begged and pleaded all day to-day, and I pleaded not alone because I believed in the case of the miners, but because in my bones I believed that my duty to the country involved it. Therefore, I shall be content for our case to be judged on the verbatim reports that will be produced. But we failed. [31]

Straight after the conference, the TUC General Council’s Industrial Committee, undaunted by the fiery speeches, again took up the task of persuading an unwilling government to make peace with the miners. On 1 May Walter Citrine wrote to Baldwin that the General Council was willing to open negotiations with the government immediately. Following the receipt of the letter, the prime minister invited the TUC representatives to meet him at 10 Downing Street at 8pm. The miners’ leaders were kept in the dark. As A.J. Cook recalled in his best-selling pamphlet, The Nine Days:

I had arranged to keep in constant touch with the TUC, and to be at my office ready to give any information that was needed. To my surprise and alarm I heard quite by accident, on Saturday evening, at about 9 p.m. that the Negotiating Committee of the TUC were closeted in Downing Street with the prime minister.

I could feel no other than apprehension, seeing I had not been informed, and they were there presumably discussing the miners’ case in the absence of the miners’ representatives. [32]

As a matter of fact, according to Cabinet minutes, the Negotiating Committee had been discussing a formula for agreement that signified a cut in miners’ wages:

The prime minister has satisfied himself, as a result of the conversations he has had with the representatives of the Trades Union Congress that, if negotiations are continued (it being understood that the notices cease to be operative) the representatives of the Trade Union Congress are confident that a settlement can be reached on the lines of the report within a fortnight ... in the view of the Trades Union Congress representatives the miners’ representatives would agree to negotiate on the basis of the Report of the Royal Commission, recognising that this meant accepting a reduction of wag[e]s. [33]

The leaders of the TUC and Labour Party hoped – no, prayed, that the government would come up with some face-saving formula that would get them off the hook. But the government was totally intransigent. The Cabinet minutes record of that Sunday evening, when the Negotiating Committee met the prime minister and his colleagues in private, states that:

... the representatives of the Trades Union Congress had been asked what was the uttermost point to which they could go, and Lord Birkenhead had written down the following words of their reply:

‘We will urge the miners to authorise us to enter upon a discussion with the understanding that they and we accept the report as a basis of settlement and we approach it with the knowledge that it may involve some reduction in wages.’

As regards telegrams sent by unions to strike, ‘they maintained that no irrevocable step had been taken, and said that all would be withdrawn at once if the conversations resulted in a resumption of negotiations’. [34]

The miners’ leaders knew nothing of these negotiations. As Cook recalls:

I had my second surprise when, ’phoning to Eccleston Square [TUC headquarters], I learnt that the whole General Council was at Downing Street, with Messrs Ramsay MacDonald and J.H. Thomas. I further learnt from other sources that a small sub-committee were meeting the prime minister and his colleagues. I believe this sub-committee consisted of Mr Pugh, Mr Citrine, and Mr J.H. Thomas. This again created in the minds of myself and my colleagues a great deal of apprehension. We waited some time at Russell Square until we were informed about 11 o’clock that we were wanted at once at Downing Street.

We arrived there to find the whole General Council with the Negotiating Committee. Immediately Mr Pugh, the chairman, placed before us certain questions that they had been discussing, seeking our opinion in regard to certain formulae, all of which would commit us to reductions in wages. Again Herbert Smith, our president, with no uncertain voice made it quite clear to the General Council that the miners were not prepared to resume work on a reduction of wages or any other sacrifices. [35]

The underhandedness and treachery of the Negotiating Committee knew no bounds.

Although the Labour and TUC leaders had accepted that miners’ wages must be reduced, the government threw down the gauntlet nevertheless, using the excuse that printers in the Daily Mail, members of the union NATSOPA, had blacked an editorial entitled For King and Country which attacked the miners. On 2 May representatives of the General Council were asked to see the prime minister. Baldwin told them that the negotiations must stop, and handed them the following document:

His Majesty’s Government believe that no solution of the difficulties in the coal industry which is both practicable and honourable to all concerned can be reached except by sincere acceptance of the Report of the Commission.

If the miners or the Trade Union Committee on their behalf, were prepared to say plainly that they accepted this proposal, the government would have been ready to resume the negotiations, and to continue the subsidy for a fortnight.

But since the discussions which have taken place between ministers and members of the TU Committee, it has come to the knowledge of the government not only that specific instructions have been sent (under the authority of the Executive of Trade Unions represented at the conference convened by the General Council of the TUC), asking their members in several of the most vital industries and services of the country to carry out a General Strike on Tuesday next, but that overt acts have already taken place, including gross interference with the freedom of the press.

Such action involved a challenge to the Constitutional rights and freedom of the nation.

His Majesty’s Government, therefore, before it can continue negotiations, must require from the TUC Committee both a repudiation of the actions referred to that have already taken place, and an immediate and unconditional withdrawal of the instructions for a General Strike. [36]

Cook commented on the reaction of the leaders to the government’s statement:

This created consternation among many of the General Council, and some of them were ready to immediately disown or to protest against the action of the Daily Mail printers. The Negotiating Committee were instructed by the General Council to again see the prime minister to explain to him the position, etc., but they found that he had retired. And we were politely informed that our presence was undesirable as everybody had retired, so at midnight or just after we left Downing Street for Eccleston Square. [37]

The grovelling of the Labour leaders did not stop. Worst were the speeches of Ramsay MacDonald, J.H. Thomas and Arthur Henderson in the House of Commons on 2 and 3 May. Henderson, secretary of the Labour Party, said on 2 May:

I was a witness, night after night ... using all the influence I could and giving all the experience I have to assist those responsible in trying to bring about an avoidance of this great disaster ... We all thought at 1 o’clock on Monday morning that they were just about to get that slight move forward which would have enabled us then to call off the whole thing, and to have called a settlement ...

I am as alarmed about the position as any honourable member on the other side of the House. I have striven to advise and to avoid this catastrophe as much as possible. [38]

On 3 May MacDonald stated:

With the discussion of General Strike and Bolshevism and all that kind of thing, I have nothing to do at all. I respect the Constitution as much as the right honourable gentleman, the member for Hillhead [Sir Robert Horne, Minister of Labour]. [39]

And Thomas surpassed all. When making his final effort in the House of Commons on 3 May, he stated:

I am not going to make a party speech. I am not going to attempt to make party capital, nor do I believe that the prime minister has done so. Like him, I believe ... the interests of the country and of those involved here are more important than any party.

He then went on to explain that over the previous weekend he had done his best to prevent public discussion of the issues:

I did not want any ultimatum from the employers, and I did not want any speeches from the miners’ side, because it might have rendered it more difficult to get peace.

The thought of a general strike filled Thomas with horror:

I ask this House whether it is still too late to avert what I believe is the greatest calamity for the country.

Foreseeing a possible triumph for the workers, he added,

I have never disguised that, in a challenge to the Constitution, God help us, unless the government won. That is my view. [40]

Years later, Thomas remembered this speech of 3 May:

When I made that speech for peace, I felt in my heart that a general strike would do more harm to the cause of Labour than anything else. I don’t mind confessing that when I left the House that night, realising that all had been in vain and that a strike was inevitable, I gave way to tears. It was like seeing the fabric you loved smashed to fragments. [41]

J.R. Clynes, deputy leader of the Labour Party, explained after the event how much he and other party leaders had detested the thought of the general strike:

In an atmosphere of growing uneasiness and obstinacy, April drew towards its end. Thomas, Snowden, Henderson, MacDonald and I moved about behind the scenes, trying to find some way out of the impasse, hindered on the one hand by the armed preparations of the government, and on the other by the ferocious statements and wild promises of Cook and his following.

No General Strike was ever planned or seriously contemplated as an act of trade union policy. I told my own union, in April, that such a stroke would be a national disaster, and a fatal step to union prestige; and such it eventually proved to be. [42]

Clynes’ actions were dictated by such beliefs. His grovelling reached a peak on 2 May when:

With other union leaders, I sought an interview about midnight with the prime minister and his colleagues in a last-minute effort to show that the compositors’ strike was isolated and unofficial, without our approval, and to plead, almost on our knees, for a less cruel arbitrament than he was now forcing upon us – an open fight between the workers and the Cabinet. [43]

We, the leaders, had never sought the strike; our men to some extent ran away with us. [44]

Clynes implored the executive of his union, the National Union of General and Municipal Workers, to oppose the general strike, but failed. Thomas attempted to do the same at the NUR, where he

urged and pleaded with the NUR executive to keep out of it. Many asked me afterwards why I did not resign my position as leader of the railwaymen when I realised that my advice would not be taken. I had to recognise that I was one of the strike leaders, and if I had resigned it would have given the impression that I sided with the government. That would have made matters worse for our men. [45]

At the beginning of the strike MacDonald declared:

As far as we can see we shall go on. I don’t like General Strikes. I haven’t changed my opinion. I have said so in the House of Commons. I don’t like it; honestly I don’t like it; but honestly, what can be done? [46]

The same day he confided to Citrine: ‘My hair has gone greyer than when I started this morning.’ [47]

Until the last minute the Labour and trade union leaders continued to negotiate behind the backs of the miners, trying to avoid the ‘catastrope’. Even after the General Strike had begun they did not stop plotting in an effort to put an end to the strike at the earliest possible moment.

So why did they call the General Strike at all if they did not want it?

First, they hoped that the call would serve as a ploy in new negotiations with the government. They did not understand that the government actually wanted the battle with the unions so that it could cut them to size.

Secondly, they saw in heading the strike a means of preventing the movement getting out of control. As Ernest Bevin later put it in his union journal, The Record:

It must not be forgotten that apart from the rights and wrongs of the calling of a General Strike, there would in any case, with the miners’ lock-out, have been widespread unofficial fighting in all parts of the country, which would have produced anarchy in the movement. [48]

Similarly, Ramsay MacDonald said:

After the conduct of the government it was perfectly evident that had no general strike been declared, industry would have been almost as much paralysed by unauthorised strikes.

The TUC lefts may have been less vocal than the likes of Thomas or Bevin, but they in no way distinguished themselves from the right in the run-up to the strike. Trotsky’s warning that in a crisis they would act no differently from the right was coming true in every respect.

The General Council as a whole was extremely wary of indulging in general strikes. These are by their very nature political as well as industrial acts. Victory would have demanded an all-out mobilisation of the trade union movement and a rigorous picketing of all scab transport. This would have challenged the government on the question ‘Who rules?’. For the General Strike to succeed it had to be used as a revolutionary instrument – something which was obviously repulsive for the union leaders.

It was the government that had willed the confrontation, seeing in the defeat of a big stoppage the opportunity for a general attack on wages and the reduction of the trade unions to impotence. In May 1926 the union leaders’ bluff was called. They staggered with heavy hearts into the strike.


1. R.R. James, Memoirs of a Conservative: J.C.C. Davidson’s Memoirs and Papers 1910–37 (London 1969), pp. 178–9.

2. James, p. 180.

3. J. Symons, The General Strike (London 1957), p. 19.

4. British Government Cabinet Papers, CP390 (25).

5. CP390 (25).

6. CP390 (25).

7. CAB 23/50 44 (25) 2 (7 August 1925).

8. W.M. Crook, The General Strike (Chapel Hill 1931), p. 356.

9. Page-Arnot, The General Strike, pp. 48-54.

10. British Government Home Office Papers, HO 45 12336/2130.

11. CAB 81/26.

12. Quoted in A. Bullock, Ernest Bevin (London 1960), vol. 1, p. 281.

13. Bullock, vol. 1, pp. 289–290.

14. TUC General Council, Report of Proceedings at a Special Conference of Executives, 20 January 1927, p. 10.

15. Report and Minutes of Evidence of Samuel Commission on the Coal Mining Industry (Cmnd 2600, 1926), p. 236. (Samuel Report)

16. Samuel Report, pp. 228 and 294.

17. Hutt, pp. 123–4.

18. The Record, May–July 1926.

19. Bullock, pp. 295–6.

20. Bullock, p. 295.

21. Page-Arnot, The General Strike, p. 104.

22. Page-Arnot, The General Strike, p. 107.

23. TUC Library, GC 123, 13/6/13a, SIC 21 April 1926.

24. T. Jones, Whitehall Diary (London 1969), vol. 2, p. 15.

25. Jones, p. 15.

26. The Times, 19 April 1926.

27. Jones, p. 13.

28. Jones, p. 16.

29. Page-Arnot, The General Strike, p. 133.

30. Page-Arnot, The General Strike, p. 133.

31. Page-Arnot, The General Strike, p. 132.

32. A.J. Cook, The Nine Days (London, June 1926), p. 9.

33. CAB 23/52 21 (26).

34. CAB 23/52 23 (26).

35. Cook, p. 11.

36. Cook, pp. 12–13.

37. Cook, p. 13.

38. Hansard, 2 May 1926. (Minutes of proceedings in the British parliament)

39. Hansard, 3 May 1926.

40. Hansard, 3 May 1926.

41. J.H. Thomas, My Story (London 1937), p. 104.

42. J.R. Clynes, Memoirs (London 1927) pp. 75–6.

43. Clynes, p. 78.

44. Clynes, p. 82.

45. Thomas, p. 104.

46. Quoted in the Daily Herald, 4 May 1926.

47. Citrine, Men and Work (London 1964), p. 173.

48. Hutt, p. 134.

Last updated on 20 August 2014