Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein

Marxism & Trade Union Struggle:
The General Strike of 1926


Chapter Nineteen:
Local organisation of the strike

THE LOCAL organisation of the General Strike was in the hands of councils of action or joint strike committees. Probably between 400 and 500 such organisations existed. In a great many cases these bodies were made up of the local trades councils, often with the addition of extra people.

Because of union leaders’ efforts to run the strike through the machinery of their individual unions, there was often considerable confusion locally, and many trades councils were bypassed. In some places there were a number of different strike committees with conflicting powers. The Northumberland and Durham Central Joint Strike Committee, set up at a conference on 4 May, suffered from a number of defects. First, the Durham Miners’ Association, patently the most influential union in the county, refused to join it. (It formed its own strike committee only two hours before the strike was called off.) Secondly, the joint strike committee had virtually no importance north of Ashington or South of Gateshead. [1]

In Darlingon there existed two strike committees: one was the Darlington Council of Action, a body centred on the local trades council; the other, representing far more workers, was the Rail and Transport Strike Committee. [2]


possessed no less than four rival strike committees, mutually jealous, and must have been the worst conducted town in England. The trouble was in part due to the possession by certain full-time officials of a direct telephone line to London. They clustered round this and remained isolated and superior. [3]

Frequently the representatives of the transport unions (or the railway unions alone) formed executives independent of the central strike committees, as for example in Birmingham, Glasgow, Darlington, Nottingham, Oldham, Crewe, Dunfermline, Gloucester, Stoke, Dorking and Llandudno. [4]

We have not been able to find one case of shop stewards being represented on the councils of action or joint strike committees.

So who were the key people in the councils of action – rank-and-file workers or full-time trade union officials? Margaret Morris sums up the situation thus:

district officials or branch officers of the main unions were usually the leading members of the local trades councils. [5]

In the case of the Northumberland and Durham Joint Strike Committee mentioned above, the chairman was James White, area secretary of the TGWU, and the secretary was Charles Flynn, northern divisional officer of the National Union of Distributive and Allied Workers. Another prominent member was James Tarbit, the district official of the National Union of General and Municipal Workers.

Birmingham’s strike organisation called itself the Trade Union Emergency Committee. Its leadership consisted of ‘long-standing trade union officials of maturity, responsibility and moderation’, according to the historian of the Birmingham labour movement. [6] The president, secretary and vice-president of the trades council occupied similar offices in the new committee. They were assisted by five executive members of the trades council, including one local magistrate. The nine union representatives had among their number another two magistrates, two local councillors and a former MP for the National Democratic Party. Two more people were co-opted to help with publicity.

This, then, was the general staff. A mild and respect able group of men ... four magistrates, two councillors and an ex-MP, amongst the score which made up the committee. [7]

Local strike committees were very much subordinated to the will of the TUC and the executives of their respective trade unions. The Northumberland and Durham Committee showed this clearly:

the strike committee was subject to the decisions of the TUC General Council and to those of the trade union executives and not to any decisions which that particular conference might take. [8]

In the words of Robin Page Arnot, who played a central role in establishing and running this committee,

the committee abided by the TUC’s whole approach to the strike situation – and it was their watchword that where they had no discretionary power, they must ‘carry out the Trade Union Congress decisions to the letter, no matter how many misgivings they might have’. [9]

In Sheffield the Central Dispute Committee saw its function as being:

limited to interpreting how best to apply locally a strategy determined by the TUC, and not to determining the strategy itself ... it saw ... its raison d’être – in being a subordinate agent of the General Council of the TUC. It was certainly not pushing for the power to be a ‘soviet’ in even the limited sense in which that had been discussed in Sheffield in 1919. Nationally and locally, things had changed too much since then. [10]

Middlesbrough’s strike body clearly conceived of its role as entirely circumscribed by bureaucratic red tape:

the Central Strike Committee would not interfere with the domestic policy of any union, in any other than a constitutional way. Having regard to the discussion which took place on this point, it became evident that the Central Strike Committee could only hope to act as a co-ordinating and not a directional body at the outset, whatever may have been possible as the strike continued. [11]

In a number of areas the strike committees were mere shadows of organisation. As Emile Burns writes of the Central London Strike Committee: ‘No effective contact was maintained either with the local councils of action or strike committees’. [12] Again, the official history of the London Trades Council sadly admits:

The Central Strike Committee became an organ without real power, its functions limited to convening meetings of local delegates and giving advice and guidance which it could not enforce. [13]

Strike organisation in Glasgow, the heart of ‘Red Clydeside’, might have been expected to be different. The Central Strike Coordinating Committee did choose Peter Kerrigan, a prominent Communist, as its chairman, but it also had 23 members ‘most of whom were full-time union officials’. [14] As its name implied, it saw its main function not as directing, but as co-ordinating the activities of the separate unions involved in the strike. The committee

was prepared to criticise the TUC’s decisions, but not to change the character of the strike from that determined by the TUC ... despite its Communist leadership, the [committee] does not seem to have issued any propaganda for the Communist demand for a Labour government and coal nationalisation, nor did it try to set up a Workers’ Defence Corps or Food Commissariat with the help of the Cooperative Societies. [15]

The Glasgow Central Strike Coordinating Committee did not even find it necessary to have a paper of its own separate from the official Scottish TUC paper, The Scottish Worker. [16] When Kerrigan suggested mass picketing, this was rejected by the committee, and he abided by its decision. [17]

Beneath this central coordinating committee were sixteen area committees. Divisional Labour Parties were asked to set these committees up, which they did. Many were chaired by Labour councillors. The central body

instructed the area committees to ‘maintain discipline throughout the parliamentary division ... prevent unauthorised propaganda ... give effect to any instructions that may be forwarded by the TUC, the Scottish TUC, or the Central Strike Coordinating Committee. [18]

Indeed, at no point throughout the nine days was the TUC’s authority questioned. [19]

Despite Kerrigan’s leadership, the committee followed, practically slavishly, the line coming from the TUC. Many years later Kerrigan wrote:

For the nine days of the strike I was to be busy, almost to the exclusion of all other activity, with the work of the Central Strike Coordinating Committee, of which I was first vice-chairman and then chairman. People ask me today: did I expect the betrayal of the General Strike? I always have to reply that, amid the struggle, I never thought of it. [20]

The role of the Glasgow Central Strike Coordinating Committee was merely to act ‘as a clearing house for information’, so it ‘issued bulletins, established a courier service, handled inter-union disputes and took up complaints with the police.’ [21] Strike committees by and large showed little independence from the trade union bureaucracy and Glasgow was no exception:

It is sometimes said in discussion of the General Strike that towards its end control was passing out of the hands of the General Council into that of local left-wing militants. This does not appear to have been happening with the Central Strike Coordinating Committee ... Indeed, at no point throughout the nine days was the TUC’s authority questioned. [22]

And to think that it was Peter Kerrigan, future national industrial organiser of the Communist Party, who chaired this committee!

So local strike organisations did not tug particularly hard on the leash held by the General Council. One historian summarises the attitude of local committees in this way:

Taken as a whole, [the] mass of local evidence suggests that the majority of trades councils and strike organs were no more aggressive in temper or lawless in their behaviour than the General Council itself. They displayed on the contrary a strong determination to preserve discipline and demonstrate obedience. [23]

The core of the local strike committees were, as we said, the trades councils. These bodies had very restricted powers. Negotiations over wages and conditions in industry were carried out either nationally or at the workplace. Trades councils brought together representatives of different trade union branches in a locality, hence did not relate directly to the workplaces, and could play no significant part in bargaining over wages and conditions. Furthermore they had no financial or other sanctions to bind their members in any way, only playing a role in issues away from the workplace such as health, education or housing – acting as pressure groups in the community.

During the great industrial militancy of 1910-20 the trades councils had at best played a marginal role. Thus one historian, Alan Clinton, writes of their role in the rise of the shop stewards’ movement during the First World War:

Trades councils were largely organisations of the trade union machinery itself, not in any way adapted to the workshop problems which arose in the period and expressed themselves in the shop stewards’ movement. Though largely ignored at the time by trade union leaders, the trades councils as a whole reflected their policies and attitudes, if usually in a somewhat more radical form. Thus the relationship between the trades councils and the shop stewards’ movement was one of occasional co-operation rather than active support. [24]

A book on the history of the Sheffield trades council states that the development of the wartime shop stewards’ movement owed nothing to the trades council. [25] Similarly, Clyde shop stewards assiduously avoided the Glasgow Trades Council. [26]

Only on matters away from industry – such as agitation against the long food queues during the war – did shop stewards collaborate with trades councils. It was on this issue that both the Sheffield Workers’ Committee and Coventry Engineering Joint Committee worked with their local trades councils. [27]

So trades councils, separated from the point of production, lacked the collective strength of rank-and-file organisations. Certainly they were geographically closer to the workers than the TUC, and their delegates were not primarily full-time functionaries, but they still saw themselves as part of the official machinery of trade unionism. Consequently they suffered from the sectionalism of the individual union delegations. The bureaucratic method was reproduced within them, just as it was in the TUC, though on a smaller scale.

Shortly after the General Strike, the executive committee of the Comintern came up with the ludicrous notion that trades councils were fully-fledged soviets:

the councils of action organised by the trade unions actually developed into district soviets. The departments organised by the General Council already resembled in their structure and functions, the departments of the Petersburg Soviet in the period of so-called ‘dual power’ (February-November 1917). [28]

The attitude of revolutionaries to trades councils had not always been so inane. It was only with the collapse of the shop stewards’ movement that leading Communists started to augment their opinion of the trades councils. Take the example of J.T. Murphy, the best worker intellectual of the shop stewards’ movement during the First World War. He was once very clear that there was a radical difference between the trades councils and the workers’ committees. In 1917 he wrote:

... the trades council is only indirectly related to the workshops, whereas the workers’ committee is directly related. The former has no power, the latter has the driving power of the directly-connected workers in the workshops. [29]

In 1920 Murphy was still dismissive of the idea that the trades councils could be a ‘general staff’ at local level:

The trades councils are not the nuclei of soviets. Their ineptitude in all industrial disputes provides ample proof of this. They possess no executive power of the unions and action comes either through delegates from the workshops, etc., or the local district committees of the unions, which bodies improvise strike committees composed of stewards ... leaving the trades councils in the background or playing a reactionary part. [30]

But by 1922 Murphy and the rest of the CPGB leadership sang a new song. They became convinced that:

In times of crisis, these trades councils play a very important part ... it is easy to see that the importance of capturing these councils by the revolutionists cannot be over-estimated ... in the very near future the trades councils will play an ever-increasing part in the class war. Therefore our slogan must be: ‘Capture the trades councils!’ [31]

The same year Tom Quelch went as far as to describe trades councils as infant soviets:

This conception of the ultimate object of the trades council, or workers’ council, is supported by the available evidence we have of the further development of our movement. The rise of the soviets, or workers’ councils in Russia is the startlingly supreme example. [32]

In All Power Quelch wrote that trades councils

are the local central bodies of the working-class movement. There is a permanent quality about them. Their bona fides are without question. They are the bodies best fitted to bring complete local working-class solidarity into being. They can easily become the most important bodies in the movement. [33]

In the crisis leading to Red Friday the Communist Party argued that trades councils should set themselves up as councils of action.

The idea that trades councils could play a central role in class struggle was linked historically with the idea of a labour ‘general staff’ that dated back to Tom Quelch’s articles in the BSP’s newspaper a decade earlier. [34] The connection between the slogan of ‘All power to the General Council’ and a call for councils of action was an obvious one. If the TUC, a meeting of national trade union officials, could establish a general staff to fight workers’ national battles, then a local meeting of union branch officials was a logical corollary of this. The Councils of Action established in the ‘Hands off Russia’ campaign of 1920 were held to show the way forward. In reality they had done little more than issue propaganda or lead street demonstrations. The famous blacking of the Jolly George, a ship intended to transport armaments for use against Soviet Russia, was the act of rank-and-file dockers, and was unfortunately the unique example of industrial action in the Councils of Action 1920 campaign. Nevertheless the Communist Party threw itself into the trades council movement from 1922 onwards and played a leading part in the call for trades council representation at the TUC.

As the mining crisis drew nearer the idea of trades councils as Councils of Action received increasing attention. An article in May 1925 described what the Communist Party hoped for:

A council of action is a fighting committee composed of delegates from all the trade union branches in a given district catering for miners, metal workers, railwaymen and transport workers. The purpose of such a Council of Action is to carry out an intensive propaganda to secure united action between these workers in the impending wage struggles ... The necessity for Councils of Action is to unite all these workers in the localities and to exert rank-and-file pressure upon the officials. [35]

It became obvious in the General Strike that there was no practical alternative to the trades councils in terms of immediate broad strike committees. They became the natural foci for organisation. So there was nothing wrong in principle with stressing trades council work and the possibilities for agitation through them. The sad thing was that after the shop stewards’ movement disintegrated, the Communist Party leaders made a virtue out of necessity. The problem was not so much the tactic of working through trades councils in itself, but the beliefs of the Communists in pursuing their tactic. In this case, while the party sought to revitalise the councils (they did mean Councils of Action), the idea was not to prepare the rank and file for the necessity of going beyond the existing organisations when the possibility arose, but of using them to ‘exert rank-and-file pressure upon the officials’. So often when the party intervened, the action proposed was fine in itself, but the purpose to which it was turned led to dependence on the officials.

The tendency was underlined by the rest of the article quoted above:

Firstly, a concentrated and intensive campaign must be carried on at the factory gates. Meetings should be arranged outside all the important factories, workshops, garages, depots, at the pitheads, and at the docks. Every possible means of popularising the policy among the rank and file of a united struggle should be utilised.

Short and concise handbills should be distributed and mass demonstrations and processions, with banners, should be organised wherever possible.

Secondly, this factory gate agitation on behalf of joint action should also be utilised for a drive for 100 per cent trade unionism in the district.

Thirdly, the question of the formation of factory, workshop, pit, depot, garage and docks committees must be made a prominent feature of the general agitation. These worker committees can be of tremendous assistance in rallying the rank and file around the policy of a fighting Industrial Alliance. [36]

The final point gives the whole meaning of Councils of Action. They were not designed to replace union executives. Their aim was to be the rallying of the rank and file around a policy of ‘make the leaders – lead’, without warning of the risks of a sell-out. In 1925 an Industrial Alliance of selected trade union bureaucrats was the intention. In 1926 the slogan became ‘All Power to the General Council’. We see the result of such a policy when tested in the General Strike.

To recap: the Councils of Action or joint strike committees that arose during the General Strike were not embryo soviets, but largely a forum for bargaining between the different sectional interests of the local union bureaucracy. Although, in many cases, the union strike committees merged with the trades councils, this was never to the exclusion of accepting orders from above. The General Council successfully managed to restrict the role of local bodies to that of supporting the strike committees of the individual unions, and thus preserved the vertical, sectional, chains of command.

The low level of violence

The level of violence – in other words the degree to which workers were organised to resist government-inspired scabbing and challenge the state’s monopoly of physical force – was low during the General Strike.

Violence cannot be abstracted from its context. The October revolution in Petrograd was almost bloodless. This was the result of the overwhelming superiority of the workers’ forces and the passivity and disarray of Kerensky’s troops. In Britain in 1926 it was the TUC that sowed passivity and disarray, and the workers who lost as a result.

But it had not always been like this. Let us compare events in Liverpool in 1911, 1919 and 1926. In 1911, 70,000 seamen, carters and tramwaymen went on strike.

Fourteen thousand troops were sent together with police from Leeds, Birmingham and Bradford, and two warships were brought into the Mersey. The outcome was that violence appeared where none had been before.

A demonstration was held on the Plateau of St George’s Hall on Sunday, 13 August, to celebrate the strike victories and to cement the newly won solidarity. Though authorised by the police, it produced one of the most unhappy incidents in Liverpool’s history, an episode since commemorated locally as ‘Bloody Sunday’.

Eighty thousand workers, men and women, went on the demonstration. They were met by a volley of rifle fire.

Hundreds of people were practically shot out of the mouth of Lord Nelson Street, flying for their lives before a furious baton charge of dozens of policemen. People were knocked over like ninepins. Many were felled to the ground with blood streaming down their heads ... Hundreds required hospital treatment and the Plateau resembled a battlefield.

Two days later, on 15 August, two strikers were shot dead by troops during an attack on prison vans taking convicted prisoners to Walton gaol.

In 1919:

a strike of tramwaymen ... stopped all trams for five days, and during the great rail strike of the same year a battleship was brought to the Mersey and the main railway stations were placed under ‘military protection’. The difficulties of the authorities were increased still further when the police union went on strike in July 1919 in protest against the Police Bill, which had made trade unionism illegal in the force ... Reinforcements drafted into the city after the ‘orgy of looting and rioting’ which resulted, consisted of 2,500 soldiers, four tanks, a battleship and two destroyers.

Several bayonet charges were made, occasional shots were fired, and some bloodshed occurred. [37]

In 1926 things were radically different. It is true that two battleships and three destroyers entered the Mersey, the former landing food supplies. A troopship arrived from Plymouth and two fully equipped battalions marched off under sealed orders, [38] but the navy and the army did not take an active part in the dispute. There were ugly scenes at the tram and bus depots on the Cheshire side of the Mersey, but these were isolated. Altogether in Liverpool there were not more than seven arrests under the Emergency Powers Act. [39]

Two thousand scabs worked in Liverpool’s docks. ‘They were met with hostility, but rarely with open violence’, [40] and this at the same docks that had witnessed the most violent scenes in 1911 and 1919. ‘In general, and again contrary to previous experience on Merseyside, the amount of violence and disorder in the area was minimal.’ [41]

Further evidence comes from the Police Review:

Liverpool has an unenviable reputation so far as strikes and labour troubles are concerned. But anyone visiting the city during the last great stoppage of work would have wondered where, when and how its bad name had been obtained. [42]

The reason: the high level of passivity inflicted by the discipline of trade union leaders from above. ‘Whilst we are fighting for our very existence and liberty, we can still conduct ourselves like gentlemen,’ said McLeod, secretary of the Bootle TGWU branch. [43] According to the local Labour MP, Jack Hayes, ‘there was a large amount of co-operation between the authorities, the strike leaders and the strikers themselves.’ [44]

Railwaymen, it seems, were everywhere amongst the most placid of workers:

Of nearly 400,000 members of the NUR on strike only 174 were arrested. Of these, fifty-four had their cases dismissed, fourteen were found not guilty, fifty-four were given fines, mostly of £1 or £2, thirty-four were imprisoned, eleven bound over to keep the peace, whilst ten cases against the remainder were withdrawn.

The low level of arrests was the result of the non-aggresive nature of the picketing mounted by railwaymen. Thus

the members of the Stratford Branch of the NUR were given the following instructions: ‘Pickets’ duties are that they must not lay their hands on anyone and they had best keep them in their pockets, they must not impede anyone, but they can converse with anyone by being at their side or walking at their side but not in front of them. If at any time they are interfered with by the police by (sic) carrying out the above duties, then they MUST not reply, but take the number of the policeman and report at this committee room or to the Chief Picket.’ [45]

We have already looked at the low overall figures for arrests in 1926. It would be wrong, however, to assume that there was no violence. In certain areas it was highly significant. One historian of the General Strike, Patrick Renshaw, writes:

The weekend of 8–9 May, with the strike six days old, saw police baton charges at a dozen places in London alone. Outside the capital there were ugly riots at Plymouth, Southsea, Swansea and Nottingham. Shots were fired at a passing train at the important railway centre of Crewe, while the Flying Scotsman, the nation’s most important express, was derailed. At Preston, a mob of 5,000 people who tried to storm the police station and release an arrested striker were only beaten back by repeated baton charges. There were similar scenes in such important industrial centres as Middlesbrough, Newcastle and Hull, where there were 25 arrests and 41 hospital admissions. At York another mob tried to release a prisoner, while Edinburgh and Glasgow both saw violent scenes stretching over four or five nights with missiles being thrown and hundreds of arrests. [46]

Another historian, C.L. Mowat, writes:

There were violent outbreaks in Glasgow, where buses were over-turned and the police charged the crowds, on 5 May; there was trouble in Leeds and Barnsley over attempts to run buses. At Doncaster, on the last day of the strike, a crowd of about a thousand, mostly miners, interfered with traffic, and the police made several baton charges to clear the roads. In many other places, particularly in Scotland and the North of England, pickets interfered with the running of lorries carrying food. In London there were several clashes between police and strikers, in Canning Town, Poplar, Old Kent Road and elsewhere; in the provinces there was violence in Preston, Hull, Middlesbrough, Liverpool, and also in Edinburgh. The police retaliated with arrests ... At Glasgow over 200 men were arrested, and 100 sentenced for impeding traffic to terms averaging three months’ imprisonment. After the fight at Doncaster 84 men got three months’ sentences. Three men at Aberavon received two months’ imprisonment at hard labour for having in their possession copies of the Workers’ Weekly and other Communist literature ...

At Birmingham the entire strike committee was arrested. [47]

The highest level of violence was in the North East after the breakdown of the negotiations between the strike committee and Sir Kingsley Wood.

The Board of Trade daily bulletins are littered with examples of the problem which was presented by large scale picketing in the Northern Division. A few examples must suffice. On 7 May, the Home Office Situation Report noted that ‘Police can protect the unloading of ships, but the difficulty is to get the convoys through the district just outside the city boundary.’ Again, bus services were being withdrawn due to the activities of the strikers and ‘in the North West area strong pickets have stopped private cars and refused them passage without a permit. Food transport was practically stopped at Consett last night but today the police organised convoys and got all traffic through successfully’ ...

On 8 May, both the Northern Echo and the Newcastle Chronicle were reporting the obstruction of traffic by strikers in the Stanley area of North West Durham and on the Newcastle to Consett road all vehicles were being turned back by a large crowd of miners thought to come from Chopwell. In the early hours of 10 May, ‘an apparently organised attempt took place to stop road traffic on the main Newcastle-Durham road.’ Baton charges by the police dispersed the crowds.

The police were informed that large crowds were assembling along the Great North Road at various points between Chester-le-Street and Low Fell. Consequently about a dozen policemen set out from Chester-le-Street in a lorry and were joined by other police at Birtley. Before Birtley was reached, however, a baton charge was made to scatter a crowd which threw stones at the police. Just north of Birtley, at the Teams colliery, a further use of police truncheons was made. At this spot, pickets had attempted to block the road with railway sleepers. During a fight between the police and pickets, three policemen were injured. [48]

In the House of Commons on 2 June, the Home Secretary reported that 1,389 of the arrests for offences under the Emergency Regulations between 1 and 12 May came under the heading of actual disorder or violence. There were 583 cases of violence in England, of which 183 occurred in the County of Durham, and 103 in the County of Northumberland. [49] In other words, of all the cases of violence brought to court in England, 49.1 per cent occurred in Durham and Northumberland.

It was not only the number of arrests and prosecutions resulting from the General Strike that were low. So were instances of physical injury. On 13 May BBC radio was able to announce that during the whole period of the strike ‘the total casualties arising from disturbances and accidents are less than those caused in the recent fracas between Royalists and police in Paris on Joan of Arc Sunday.’ [50]

The relatively limited spread of violence by the police was a result and a cause of the restricted number of Workers’ Defence Corps set up by strike committees. The Labour Research Department Survey reported the largest Workers’ Defence Corps to be in Methil, Fife. It was 700-strong and organised in companies under former NCOs. Other Workers’ Defence Corps were set up in the London boroughs of St Pancras, Willesden, Croydon and Battersea; at Selby and Sowerby Bridge in Yorkshire; at Denny and Dunipace in Scotland, and, more surprising, in the labour movement back-waters of Chatham, Aldershot and Colchester. Altogether only eleven out of some 140 strike committees examined by the Labour Research Survey had Workers’ Defence Corps. Once formed, the Workers’ Defence Corps created little trouble, and may actually have prevented it. The object of the Sowerby Bridge contingent, for example, was declared to be ‘maintaining peace in the streets and highways’. [51]

The Battersea Strike Committee formed Special Pickets’ Corps whose tasks were stated to be:

  1. To see to the efficient picketing of those [places] where the individual organisations are unable to deal with same.
  2. To prevent interference by irresponsible persons, with those who are permitted to work in accordance with the General Council instructions.
  3. To assist in maintaining order at meetings and places where people on strike gather, and prevent any attempt to create disturbances.
  4. For the purpose of acting as stewards at strike meetings and signing on centres. [52]

The Methil Workers’ Defence Corps grew into a large organisation after a violent clash between pickets and police, during which arrests were made. As one participant recalled: ‘There was an immediate demand that we assault the police cells in order to get the three lads out.’ [53] Mass recruitment into the Methil Workers’ Defence Corps served to divert this anger away from direct physical confrontation. It is true that henceforth picketing in Methil was very effective while the General Strike lasted: ‘From the time that the Defence Corps became an organised body there was no more police interference with pickets.’ [54] But this did not stop the increasing number of arrests of local militants. Even this most militant of Workers’ Defence Corps stepped back from offensive action which challenged the right of the state to rule.

It was from such evidence that Postgate affirmed that:

In no case were [the Workers’ Defence Corps] armed, or intended for conflict with the police. They were of use, firstly, for keeping the labour forces steady and preventing a crowd going into conflict with the police unprepared; secondly, for stiffening and directing mass pickets. [55]

Postgate was probably unaware of the situation in Methil where pickets were armed with ‘pickshafts, pokers, railway distance pieces and anything that would be useful in a dust-up’, [56] but this was very much an exception to the rule.

To talk about maintaining order and preventing conflict at a time when the ruling class had gone on the offensive, locked out one million miners and systematically organised scabbing on the solidarity strike in their defence, is effectively to leave capitalist ‘order’ intact. Compare this to the Petrograd Soviet’s slogan in 1905: ‘Eight hours and a gun!’

In the major working-class areas of London, Glasgow, Edinburgh and many other cities there were cases where the police perpetrated vicious attacks on workers. The army, on the other hand, played a very small role – although the threat of direct army involvement was never hidden for a minute. All leave for soldiers was stopped:

Army units were moved into, or near to, all the big industrial districts, and if a revolutionary situation had arisen no doubt they would have been used to deal with it; but the police and specials were able to handle all the outbreaks of violence that occurred, without army assistance. By deliberate government policy, the army remained in the background. They trained for the possible violence to come. [57]

The army played only a small part in the strike. Naval ratings were used in considerable numbers at the docks and power stations; the RAF provided, among other things, a shuttle service for urgent documents; but the army’s role, with one or two exceptions of which the most notable was the London docks convoy ... was passive. [58]

This is what happened in the case of the London docks convoy:

The first convoy of 105 lorries moved out of Hyde Park in the cold wet dawn of Saturday morning. The convoy was escorted by twenty armoured cars manned by men of the Royal Tank Corps, and men of the Welsh Guards and Coldstream Guards were on the lorries ... The breaking of the docks blockade was of great practical and moral importance. Practical, because the exercise, once performed, was repeated and extended – on the second night the convoy numbered 267 lorries, and after two or three days lorries went to some of the docks without escort; moral, because of its effect on the dockers and on the trade union leaders. [59]

But this demonstration of force was in fact a sham, as no real opposition met the convoy. The British Worker of 9 May carried the following entry:


A convoy of 140 flour and other food lorries was taken yesterday from the London docks to Hyde Park. For no reason whatsoever except to delude the public mind, the Cabinet gave those lorries an ‘escort’ of sixteen armoured cars, cavalry and mounted police. There was no risk of attack whatever. The lorries were as safe as at ordinary times. The object of making this ridiculous, unnecessary demonstration was clear. It was to make people afraid, by making them believe that the strike has violent revolutionary aims. [60]

Next day the paper reported:

The men, whose normal work is to handle thousands of tons of such cargo each day, lined the streets with arms folded, smiling and chatting, some waving a greeting to the soldiers. [61]

A few days earlier it had carried the following item :


... The police are having a very easy time – no traffic whatever to attend, no crowds to move on. I saw many of them chatting to the strikers, the best of friends, and with the best of good humour. [62]

If anything, the above items from British Worker make it crystal clear that the General Council had no serious intention to impose its authority over anyone except the rank and file.

What about the Royal Navy?

During the period of the strike the navy manned power stations, operated docks and cold storage plants, maintained the mail service across the Irish Sea, protected and distributed gasoline supplies, carried the essential commodity of yeast to English ports (to the amount of 250 tons daily), and provided war vessels of different sizes in the various ports, canals and harbours, for aid to the civil powers if required. [63]

As the strike tightened its grip at the end of the first week and the economy was grinding to a halt, there was clear evidence of a hardening-up of police measures throughout the country:

Wholesale arrests, mounted and foot-police charges, and a general increase in severity of sentence dealt out to those brought into court, in the last few days of the strike, all pointed to more than accidental or local action by the authorities. [64]

The most fundamental weakness in the strike was created by large-scale blacklegging in the commercial road transport services. This was the bloodstream of the government emergency scheme. It could have been stopped only by mass picketing, obstruction and the use of direct force. Thus the success of the General Strike would have demanded a physical challenge to the state – a revolutionary political struggle. Restricting the strike to the economic field inevitably meant its defeat. Had the strike gone on much longer than its nine days, it would either have raised the level of police and army action against the strikers, or the violence of the strikers against the police and army, or both. However the sudden ending of the strike after nine days set both alternatives aside.


1. Mason, pp. 22–3.

2. Letter from Darlington Trades and Labour Council to Walter Citrine, 9 May 1926, in TUC Library, Box HD 5366.

3. Postgate, Horrabin and Wilkinson, pp. 46–7.

4. Burns, pp. 15, 123, 154 and 171; A. Clinton, The Trade Union Rank and File: Trades Councils in Britain 1900-1940 (Manchester 1977), pp. 217–9; and Phillips, p. 197.

5. Morris, p. 46.

6. R.P. Hastings, Birmingham, in Skelley, p. 212.

7. J. Corbett, The Birmingham Trades Council 1866-1966 (London 1966), p. 125.

8. Mason, p. 25.

9. Page-Arnot, in Mundy, p. 277.

10. Benton, in Morris, p. 438.

11. Burns, p. 146.

12. Burns, p. 139.

13. J. Jacobs, London Trades Council 1860-1950 (London 1952), p. 129.

14. Bhaumik, in Morris, pp. 397 and 409.

15. Bhaumik, in Morris, p. 401.

16. Peter Kerrigan, From Glasgow, in Skelley, p. 324.

17. Kerrigan, in Skelley, p. 322.

18. Bhaumik, in Morris, p. 400.

19. Bhaumik, in Morris, p. 410.

20. Kerrigan, in Skelley, p. 316.

21. Carter, in Skelley, p. 130.

22. Bhaumik, in Morris, pp. 402 and 410.

23. Phillips, pp. 205–6.

24. Clinton, p. 75.

25. J. Mendelson, W. Owen, S. Pollard and V. Themes, The Sheffield Trades and Labour Council 1858-1958 (Sheffield 1958), p. 67.

26. James Hinton, The First Shop Stewards Movement (London 1973), p. 138; and W. Kendall, p. 140.

27. Hinton, pp. 223, 237, 248 and 263.

28. Theses on the Lessons of the General Strike, adopted unanimously by the Executive Committee of the Communist International on 8 June 1926, Communist Review, vol. 7 (1926), p. 126.

29. Murphy, The Workers Committee, p. 23.

30. The Socialist, 6 May 1920.

31. Document issued by the London Committee of the Red International of Labour Unions in 1922, written by Harry Pollitt and quoted in Pollitt, Serving my Time (London 1940), p. 161.

32. Tom Quelch, The Trades Councils: The need for the extension of their scope and work, in Labour Monthly, March 1922, quoted in Clinton, p. 94.

33. All Power, March 1922.

34. See Tom Quelch’s articles in The Call of 28 June 1917, 14 February 1918, and 16 October 1919, for example.

35. Workers’ Weekly, 22 May 1925.

36. Workers’ Weekly, 22 May 1925.

37. D.E. Baines and R. Bean, The General Strike in Merseyside 1926, in J. Harris (ed.), Liverpool and Merseyside (London 1969), pp. 242–4.

38. Baines and Bean, in Harris, p. 254.

39. Baines and Bean, in Harris, p. 258.

40. Symons, p. 85.

41. Baines and Bean, in Harris, p. 265.

42. Police Review, 28 May 1926.

43. Reported in the Bootle Times, 14 May 1926, quoted in Baines and Bean, in Harris, p. 273.

44. Baines and Bean, in Harris, p. 275.

45. Minute Book, 8 May 1926, in TUC Library, quoted in Phillips, p. 343.

46. Patrick Renshaw, The General Strike (London 1975), p. 18.

47. Mowat, pp. 317–8.

48. Mason, p. 66.

49. Hansard, 2 June 1926.

50. Bagwell, p. 481.

51. Burns, p. 176.

52. TUC Library, Box HD 5366.

53. Quoted in I. MacDougall (ed.), Militant Miners (Edinburgh 1981), p. 91.

54. MacDougall, p. 92.

55. Postgate, Horrabin and Wilkinson, pp. 43–4.

56. MacDougall, p. 92.

57. Symons, pp. 111–112.

58. Symons, p. 111.

59. Symons, pp. 193–4.

60. British Worker, 9 May 1926.

61. British Worker, 10 May 1926. Emphasis in the original.

62. British Worker, 6 May 1926.

63. Crook, pp. 422–3.

64. Crook, p. 422.

Last updated on 20 August 2014