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International Socialism, Summer 1984


Geoff Ellen

Labour and strike-breaking 1945–1951


First published in International Socialism Journal 2 : 24, Summer 1984, pp. 45–73.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


For Labour’s left and right, the 1945 Attlee government is enshrined in the party’s folklore. According to Roy Hattersley, it ‘presided over a transformation of Britain which was so radical that it amounted to a revolution’, while the leading figures of the left, Tony Benn and Eric Heffer, see it as the pinnacle of Labour’s ‘socialist tradition’. [1] Thousands of party members would no doubt agree that the government came to office on a landslide, carried out its election promises and, with the Welfare State, full employment and large-scale nationalisation, offered millions a welcome contrast to the bitter Thirties.

It remains the high point in Labour’s history. But was it, as supporters and opponents maintained, socialist? Most writers, struck by the way the Attlee government upheld rather than challenged inequalities of power and wealth, have had reservations. Even the most critical, however, have overlooked perhaps the most revealing test – Labour’s attitude to the struggle between employers and workers. [2]

At the hands of what many workers believed to be ‘their’ government, striking dockers, gas workers, miners and lorry drivers were denounced, spied upon and prosecuted. Two States of Emergency were proclaimed against them and two more were narrowly averted. Above all, the government used blacklegs against these strikes, often with the connivance of the strikers’ own trade union leaders. On 18 different occasions between 1945 and 1951, the government sent troops, sometimes 20,000 of them, across picket lines to take over strikers’ jobs. By 1948, it has been argued, ‘strike-breaking had become almost second nature to the Cabinet.’ [3]

That was in public. In secret, as recently-released Cabinet Papers show, the government revived the Supply and Transport Organisation which their Tory predecessors of 1926 had used to help crush the General Strike. And it did so with the active involvement of two of the most famous left-wing leaders Labour has produced – Aneurin Bevan and Sir Stafford Cripps. This little-known story is the subject of this article.

The Orderly Revolution

For those to whom the result of the General Election had signalled ‘the revolution without a single cracked skull’, there seemed in July 1945 ‘nothing to stand in the way of laying the socialist foundation of the new social order.’ [4] Labour had the mandate and, in the unprecedented state controls bequeathed by the Second World War, the means to carry through major change.

It also had leaders who were aware of the implications. Ten years earlier, as members of the Socialist League [5], Clement Attlee and Sir Stafford Cripps had drawn two lessons from the debacle of the 1929–31 Labour government and capitalism’s greatest crisis: that only socialism could satisfy the interests of the working class, and that the rich and powerful would seek to sabotage it, regardless of democratic niceties. [6] The answer, wrote Attlee in January 1933, was ‘to strike at capitalism’ when Labour was next ‘freshly elected and assured of its support’. The blow had to be ‘a fatal one’. [7] It could be done, Cripps had suggested, by passing an Emergency Powers Bill on the first day of the new Parliament. [8] Nothing less than a constitutional revolution was required:

Continuity of Policy – even in fundamentals – can find no place in a Socialist programme. It is this complete severance with all traditional theories of government, this determination to seize power from the Ruling class and transfer it to the people as a whole that differentiates the present political struggle from all those that have gone before. [9]

In the summer of 1945, with Labour ‘freshly elected and assured of its support’, with those whom one MP called ‘all the brilliant prophets of the inevitability of violence’ [10] – Cripps, Aneurin Bevan, Ellen Wilkinson, Emanuel Shinwell and John Strachey – bound for Ministerial office, with the Tories reeling from their worst electoral defeat in half a century [11], and with the armed forces arguably radical enough to have discouraged any would-be military coup, Prime Minister Attlee was well placed to strike his ‘fatal blow’ at capitalism.

By then, however, Attlee and his colleagues were talking a somewhat different language. ‘Let me remove at the outset’, Labour Party secretary Morgan Phillips had told voters, ‘any lingering impression of the outworn idea that the Labour Party is a class party’. [12] Socialism was now defined in terms of ‘overhauling’ the ‘nation’ rather than overthrowing a ruling class or an economic system.

It was a shift which reflected the Labour leadership’s war-time experience. Attlee’s socialist rhetoric had long since become muted when, in May 1940, he led Labour into a coalition government dominated by Tories and headed by the labour movement’s best-hated enemy – Winston Churchill, the villain of Tonypandy and of the General Strike. [13] Attlee, having briefly shaken his fist at the ruling class, offered it his hand: five years of coalition were to leave him with ‘very pleasant’ memories. [14] The Labour Ministers not only learned ‘a great deal from the Conservatives in how to govern’, they invariably found themselves in agreement with them. [15] Party conflict arose only ‘very seldom’, Attlee recalled. [16]

Here was emerging a consensus at the top of British politics in which capitalism was to be preserved by smoothing its rough edges with the ‘socialism’ of state supervision and welfare. In the war-time coalition it was a Tory, ‘RAB’ Butler, who re-shaped education [17] and a Liberal, Lord Beveridge, who outlined what became the Welfare State [18]; there were even Tories, Churchill among them, willing to countenance a degree of nationalisation. [19] When the bluster of the 1945 General Election finally disturbed this harmony, it was still difficult, one commentator noted, to find in the parties’ official literature ‘any basic conflicts separating the left from the right’. [20]

Behind the consensus lurked a fear. After two decades of sacrifice and suffering, the People’s War had restored working class confidence and expectations. Millions were demanding change. To ignore them was to risk a resurgence of the class conflict which had so unnerved Lloyd George’s Cabinet at the end of the First World War. ‘If you don’t give the people social reform’, a young Tory MP warned in 1943, ‘they will give you social revolution.’ [21]

There was little doubt which Attlee would choose. On the day he announced his full Cabinet, The Economist noted that ‘the dangers attaching to the new Government’ were scarcely those of ‘red revolution and rashness’. [22] At best, Labour – notably with the setting up of the National Health Service – would humanise inequality; at worst, it would buttress it.

In education, largely under the guidance of ‘Red Ellen’ Wilkinson, Labour Party Conference policy on comprehensive schooling was shunned in favour of Butler’s inegalitarian system of selection. In foreign policy, Labour helped to crush risings in, for example, Vietnam, Malaya and Greece; it took the initiative in establishing NATO; it made the first steps in taking Britain towards (though not into) the early Common Market; and in secret (most Ministers, even, were kept in the dark) it spent £100 million on developing atomic energy – as a back-up for the new atomic weapons programme, in the process cooking the government books to hide the fact. [23] Such was Labour’s conservatism that one backbench MP jibed at Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin: ‘Hasn’t Anthony Eden grown fat!’ [24]

This was ‘continuity’ with a vengeance and, despite the apparent radicalism of Labour’s various public ownership Acts, it was no less marked in industry. The nationalisation of the mines and civil airlines went through parliament in 1946; followed by road, rail and canal transport, and electricity in 1947; gas in 1948; and iron and steel in 1949. Twenty years earlier, George Bernard Shaw had disdainfully suggested that nationalisation need not affect the workers in the slightest: to them it ‘would only be a change of masters’. [25] So it proved. By 1951, a mere nine of the 47 full-time members and seven of the 48 part-time members of the Boards of the nationalised industries were trade unionists, and five of the Boards had no trade unionist among their full-time members at all. Most directors were simply drawn ‘from the existing managerial hierarchies’. [26] Nor was it any different outside the boardrooms: in the mines, for example, the ‘same old faces’ remained in charge at every level. [27]

Workers’ control – ‘an essential part of the new order’, Attlee had called it in the Thirties [28] – was dismissed as failing to ‘demonstrate good socialisation in its method of administration and management’. [29] The goal had changed, in the words of one writer, ‘from nationalisation to achieve Socialism and workers’ control over a basic industry to nationalisation in order better to affect technical rationalisation’. [30]

The scale of this unanimity became apparent when, in October 1946, a leading Minister let slip his belief that there was ‘not as yet a very large number of workers in Britain capable of taking over large enterprises ... Until there has been more experience by the workers of the managerial side of industry, I think it would be impossible to have worker-controlled industry in Britain, even if it were on the whole desirable.’ The speaker was Sir Stafford Cripps. [31]

In fact, Labour’s attitude towards workers’ control had always been at best ambiguous. Inevitably, workers’ control could be of little use to a government bent on ‘overhauling’ the ‘nation’ or, more bluntly, reviving British capitalism.

So, their socialist rhetoric now suitably blended with the new vocabulary of ‘efficiency’ and ‘productivity’ and ‘Export or Die’, Ministers proceeded in effect to underwrite the status quo in industry, a point not lost on those critics on the left – few enough, in all honesty – who wondered what possible connection it bore to socialism. This feeling was strengthened by the sight of Labour’s extraordinarily generous compensation to the former owners of nationalised concerns – and by its activities in the field of industrial relations. [32]

Before Labour’s entry into the coalition government back in 1940, the war had brought little change in workers’ legal rights. Then, in almost his first act in office, Attlee produced an Emergency Powers Bill which gave Ernest Bevin, the new Minister of Labour, ‘sweeping powers to order anyone to do anything that he might require’. Pushed through in one day, it was ‘the most drastic Act ever passed by a British Parliament’. [33] Everything was to be subordinated to the war effort, and employers and employees, rich and poor, would sacrifice equally. Amid the Dunkirk crisis, there was little dissent.

As the country’s most powerful trade union leader, Ernest Bevin knew where and how to appeal for the production drive which could win the war. ‘I have to ask you’, he told a special conference of 2,000 union executive members:

Virtually to place yourselves at the disposal of the State. We are Socialists and this is the test of our Socialism ... if our movement and our class rise with all their energy now and save the people of this country from disaster, the country will always turn with confidence to the people who saved them. [34]

In return for damping down militancy and exhorting ever higher output, trade union officialdom now became ‘an integral part of the state’, helping employers and the government to draw up and carry out manpower policy. Meanwhile, Order 1305 outlawed strikes and lock-outs in favour of compulsory arbitration, and Essential Work Orders took away the freedom of workers to sell their labour to the highest bidder. In such circumstances even Whitehall was forced to recognise that

Compulsory arbitration and prohibition of strikes have made the trade union executives themselves both less sensitive to local feeling and less free in their handling of a difficult situation. They are apt to assume a dictatorial attitude to their branches and members and rely upon Government Departments to support them with, if necessary, the power of the law. Even when mistakes are made or a union fails to do its obvious duty the Department has to support the executive. [35]

The same process had, in the First World War, thrown up an unofficial shop stewards’ movement with revolutionary potential. This time it was to be very different. The Second World War, unlike the First, had not interrupted a period of titanic class conflicts or been interrupted by its own alternative, Bolshevism. It had followed a decade of working class defeat and passivity; it appeared to be conquering precisely the evils, fascism and mass unemployment, against which the Left had fought in the Thirties; and from 1941 it enjoyed the fervent support of the Communist Party, now at the height of its shop-floor influence. [36]

Crucially, though, it produced nothing like the onslaught on working class living standards that had been experienced in the First World War. There were more strikes, but they were on the whole smaller and shorter. [37] The material for mass working class struggle simply did not exist. There were two exceptions however: the mines and the docks. Both had strong traditions of local autonomy and solidarity, a legacy of intense bitterness towards the employers and, in the case of the dockers, towards their own union officials as well. Both were crucial to Britain’s economic performance during and after the war, a state of affairs which brought their workers both new pressures and new bargaining power. It was to prove an explosive mix.

The mines and the docks, along with the engineering industry, furnished most of the war’s biggest strikes. When, in early 1944, a flurry of disputes emerged on a scale not seen since the year of the General Strike, Ernest Bevin reacted nervously. With memories of the upheavals of 1917–20 still fresh, he moved quickly to try to head off the possible eruption of militant rank and file leadership. Regulation 1AA now outlawed the ‘inciting’ of strikes, and, for aiding a strike, four Trotskyists were prosecuted under the Trades Disputes Act, the Tories’ legislative reprisal for the General Strike. Thus Ernest Bevin, the Act’s long-time opponent, became the only Minister ever to invoke it. [38]

This was not, however, the precursor of another Red Clyde. The strike wave soon ebbed, and when the war ended a year later, the Trade Disputes Act, Regulation 1AA and a battery of other punitive measures, were repealed.

But Bevin and his colleagues could be far from complacent. His elaborate structure – the tripartism of state, employer and trade union officials, the direction of labour, and Order 1305 – was carefully retained for peacetime. And to it, by courtesy of Whitehall, would now be added an old dimension. Bevin was soon to discover, as Labour prepared to chart Britain’s bright new future, that he was not the only one looking over his shoulder at history.

‘A spontaneous rising’

On 19 June 1945, twenty-eight leading civil servants met in secret at the Home Office ‘to consider the question of resuscitating the Supply and Transport Organisation’ (STO), a secret emergency network which had been set up during the mass strikes of 1919 but allowed to lapse in 1939. They had been called together by Sir Alexander Maxwell, permanent secretary at the Home Office and an STO ‘old hand’, who told them that ‘one could not rule out the possibility of large scale industrial disturbances during the next few years.’ It was, he added, ‘the business of the government to be prepared for an emergency of that kind’.

The meeting agreed that the matter should be taken in hand quickly and quietly. For, as a briefing paper put it, experience had shown that the STO’s ‘main problem’ had always been that of maintaining ‘the nucleus of an organisation which would be ready to function at reasonable notice of large-scale industrial troubles without giving the organisation undesirable publicity’. The rebuilding of that nucleus should, said Maxwell, be discussed urgently: he would submit a paper to Ministers ‘after the General Election’. [39]

A month later, to the disbelief of ‘informed opinion’ [40], Labour came to office. Any apprehension Maxwell and his colleagues may have felt was surely eased when, within a week, the new government sent in troops to break industrial action by dockers – many of them Prime Minister Attlee’s own constituents – in London’s Surrey Commercial Docks.

By then nine weeks old, the dispute was one of many which followed the Nazi surrender of 7 May. In the mines, public transport and docks, workers often found peace bringing them the worst of both worlds – the abnormal working conditions of war-time remained but the high, bonus-inflated earnings which had gone with them now suddenly vanished.

Miners had been tied to the pits, in some cases conscripted back to them after leaving for better-paid jobs in other industries. Dockers had been given a guaranteed minimum wage and an end to the worst features of the casual labour system, but on terms which imposed an industrial discipline, often exercised by their own trade union officials, which some described as ‘like living under the Gestapo!’ [41] An eruption of anger against such conditions had led in March 1945 to a one week strike by 13,000 London and Tilbury dockers. The strikers went back to work after being promised an inquiry into the working of the National Dock Labour Corporation. Their anger could hardly have been assuaged when the inquiry sat under the chairmanship of Corporation chief Lord Ammon and proceeded to rebuke the dockers in terms that endless, subsequent docks inquiries would echo – their strike was wrong and they should use the agreed negotiating machinery. [42] Within weeks, the dockers found themselves under attack again.

On 28 May, a special piecework agreement was abruptly scrapped. ‘Overnight’, reported The Economist, London dockers ‘found themselves working on the same ship and the same cargo, and earning considerably lower rates of pay’. [43] An old docker summed up the resentment:

Eleven men were killed by a flying bomb which fell near the ship I was working on, but no-one stopped work then nor at any other time during the blitz, doodle-bugs or the rockets.

Before D-Day Montgomery came down and praised the work we were doing. But look how the employers are treating us now.

As soon as we beat the Germans, within 20 days of VE Day, they end the West Front Agreement without warning and slash our earnings. [44]

The dockers responded with a return to day work, in effect a ‘go slow’, and a demand for an increase in basic pay from 16 shillings (80p) to 25 shillings (£1.25) a day, only to find full-time officials of the largest docks’ union, the Transport and General Workers, denouncing the dispute’s unofficial leaders as ‘irresponsible elements’ and urging a return to work and acceptance of what some felt to be an insulting offer by the employers. Similar demands led to strikes by dockers in Glasgow, Grimsby, Immingham, Swansea, Cardiff and Plymouth. As in London in March, troops were sent into each port to unload ships. [45]

In London, the ‘go slow’ was already faltering when, on 31 July, about 300 troops moved into the Surrey Docks, the last major centre of resistance. Two weeks later, the dockers admitted defeat, an experience further embittered by the suspension of 900 men and the failure of the Labour government to answer the locked-out dockers’ appeal to intervene under Order 1305. [46]

It had been a minor episode, but it had shown that neither the advent of peace nor of a Labour government had broken the alliance of trade union leaders, employers and state against rank and file discontent: rather, as events would prove, it had strengthened it. The London dockers now set about forcing the TGWU officially to adopt the 25 shillings claim as part of a national Dockers’ Charter and, at the same time, establishing contact with dockers in Liverpoool. A national dock strike, exactly the sort of ‘large-scale industrial disturbance’ which so concerned Sir Alexander Maxwell and his civil servants, was only two months away.

Maxwell’s promised brief was already on the desk of the new Home Secretary, James Chuter Ede, when he took up office on 3 August. By 22 August, Ede had consulted the Secretary of State for Scotland, Joseph Westwood, and was asking Attlee to put the question of the STO before the Cabinet, a request which clearly worried one of the Prime Minister’s advisers. In a note to Attlee, Norman Brook, deputy to the Cabinet Secretary, suggested that the issue was possibly too sensitive. Instead, there was ‘much to be said’ for ‘confining knowledge of the plans within the narrowest possible circle.’ He added:

The Government are proposing to repeal the Trade Disputes Act, which declared a general strike to be illegal: and it might be embarrassing if it became known, and could be alleged in debate, that at the same time the government were preparing plans for defeating a general strike if one occurred. [47]

Attlee complied. On 8 October, he held a private meeting with his most senior Ministers – Bevin, Herbert Morrison and Arthur Greenwood – at which it was agreed that Ede should head a small planning committee of Ministers. The minutes, taken by Attlee himself, stipulated: ‘No publicity’. [48]

The next day the Cabinet agreed, with no apparent dissent, to send in troops to unload strike-bound food at Liverpool Docks. [49] ‘A small affair’ – a lighting strike two weeks earlier by 60 dockers at Bidston – had proved, The Times commented, ‘a detonator for a great outburst’ [50], bringing out all 15,000 dockers on Merseyside and many more elsewhere in a spontaneous demand for the 25 shilling claim. [51] Even as the Cabinet discussed it the strike was spreading to London, Middlesbrough and South Shields. By 11 October, roughly 40,000 dockers were out and almost every port was at a standstill.

For Arthur Deakin, Bevin’s successor as general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, there was a Bevin-style explanation for this astonishing upsurge. Trotskyists, in the shape of the Revolutionary Communist Party, were behind it. [52] Though Deakin refrained from attacking the dockers themselves, his outburst betrayed the union leadership’s intense hostility to their action.

The feeling was mutual. A mass meeting on Merseyside passed a ‘vociferous’ vote of no confidence in the union’s leading docks’ official, Jack Donovan, while another at Manchester gave the same thumbs-down to all the union’s dock officials. [53] ‘For 20 years we have been dictated to by them’, said one striker. ‘They have become our masters instead of our servants’, claimed another. [54] As a strike leaflet complained:

We have pleaded, begged aid for the unions to fight for better conditions. The unions have pledged us that they are going forward, that the official machinery has been set in motion. It has been set in motion round and round, getting nowhere, nothing happening. This has been going on for years. And the dockers decided to take the matter into their own hands and demand government intervention. We don’t want the moon, just a little comfort and security. [55]

The dockers’ repeated appeals to ‘their’ government to step in went unheeded. To do so, Minister of Labour George Isaacs told the Cabinet, ‘would tend to weaken the normal procedure between the duly accredited representatives of workers and employers’. [56] It might almost have been Bevin speaking.

Isaacs, who, until joining the government had been due to chair that year’s Trades Union Congress, was a union boss of the Bevin ilk. General secretary of the print union NATSOPA since 1909, he had built and dominated a bureaucratic machine for which militancy – and especially unofficial militancy – was anathema. While Daily Mail printworkers were making history in 1926 by refusing to handle the editorial which finally sparked the General Strike, Isaacs, behind the scenes, was desperately and unsuccessfully ordering them back to work. [57] Years later one MP recalled listening with ‘interested horror’ as Isaacs again and again gave the Commons his stock Ministerial response to strikes – ‘that the strikers and not the employers were to blame’. [58]

On 10 October, Isaacs attacked the strikers in words which moved The Times to observe that ‘a censure so positive and unreserved has seldom been pronounced by the Minister responsible for the supervision of industrial relations’. [59] His refusal to intervene did not prevent him blacklegging by word – or by deed. Some 21,000 troops were drafted into eight different ports before the strike collapsed in early November.

But for Isaacs it proved a hollow victory. The strike eventually won the dockers an increase of three shillings a day, the biggest in their history: and it showed that direct action gained results seldom forthcoming from the slow and cumbersome negotiating machinery. [60] A deep sense of frustration remained – over living standards, security and above all, the discipline exercised against them by employers and union officials. But now the dockers had the beginnings of an organisation, the National Port Workers’ Defence Committee, with which to fight back.

Export or Die

For the Cabinet, the strike could hardly have come at a more pointed time. The war had cost British capitalism £7,000 million and the loss of two-thirds of its export trade. No sooner had it ended than the United States had cancelled Lend Lease, its financial backing for the British war effort. A new loan, negotiated in Washington as the dock strike raged at home, secured £3,500 million on humiliating and ultimately disastrous terms. The major condition attached, a return to sterling convertibility by mid-1947, ensured a future financial crisis and continued dependence on American aid. But these were the nightmare realities of trying to manage a capitalist system whose logic the Cabinet was only too ready to accept.

From the first it was insisted that exports were the key to economic revival and that their competitiveness should be financed by austerity. Since exports needed to outstrip their 1938 level by 15 percent merely to maintain a balance on trade, the task was bound to be fraught.

Thus, during the dock strike, Cripps, the President of the Board of Trade, had warned the Minister of War Transport, Alfred Barnes, that the level of exports was ‘catastrophically below recent experience’ and that ‘we cannot sustain interest in exports if it is known that they cannot be shipped’. [61] Barnes, the son of a docker, subsequently gained Cabinet approval for his proposal to extend the use of troops from unloading food imports to the loading of export cargoes. [62] The strike ended before his plan could be put into effect.

On 10 November, five days after the dockers returned to work, Maxwell’s team of civil servants met again for discussions which, he said, should be ‘treated as highly confidential’. [63] A brief was prepared for the first meeting of Ede’s committee on 29 January 1946. Following its guidelines, Ede proposed that the STO should be re-established, with a Ministerial committee deciding major questions of policy and priority. Routine administration would be handled by an official committee on which all relevant government departments would have a seat, while sub-committees would be responsible for food, fuel, transport, protection, finance, publicity and communications. Ede added that ‘while it would be wrong for the government to use troops as strike-breakers’, the essentials of life had to be maintained. The movement of ‘vital export cargoes and the discharge of incoming supplies of important raw materials’ might also be regarded as ‘essential’. [64]

Ede’s proposals ran into trouble in committee. Bevan accepted that ‘it was the government’s duty to ensure that the essential services of the community did not suffer during industrial disputes’, but he insisted that Ede’s initiative was ill-timed: the Bill to repeal the Trade Disputes Act was before parliament at that very time. Cripps agreed, and added that any organisation should be put together publicly and in consultation with, for example, the TUC, so as to ensure that it could not be ‘represented as a strike-breaking body’. It was decided that no further action should be taken while the repeal of the Trade Disputes Act was being debated. [65]

When the committee met again the following month, Bevan, no doubt emboldened, questioned the need for an STO at all. Instead, he said, each dispute should be tackled on an ad hoc basis. Deadlocked, the committee agreed only to send the Cabinet a statement of principle accepting the government’s responsibility for maintaining supplies and suggesting possible co-operation with employers and trade unions in establishing an emergency organisation, whether temporary or permanent. [66]

This last idea provoked another intervention by the deputy to the Cabinet Secretary. Briefing Attlee for a Cabinet meeting on 8 March 1946, Norman Brook told him that he could not see how the unions might be persuaded ‘to agree in advance that their members should help to operate such an organisation when the time came. Nor’, he went on, ‘do I see how in fact men who ex hypothesi would be on strike could, when the time came, be used to run an organisation which would make the strike less effective’. Rather than create an emergency organisation openly he would ‘take the risk of not making any arrangements at all.’ [67]

In Cabinet, both Brook and Bevan were swept aside. Attlee was adamant that effective plans could only be made in advance. Meanwhile, consultation with employers and union leaders was deemed as Bevin put it, ‘inexpedient’. If the unions ‘were asked in advance to collaborate in devising an organisation for this purpose, they might’, he said, ‘regard this as an invitation to assist in building up a strike-breaking organisation’. [68]

On 17 May, the day after the repeal of the Trade Disputes Act, the civil servants – now with Sir Frank Newsam, Maxwell’s eventual successor at the Home Office, at the helm – met for the first of a series of detailed planning meetings. Their work would be given fresh significance by events early in 1947. For the time being, despite the use of troops at London’s Smithfield Market in April, in Southampton docks in July and in Belfast’s bakeries in November, there were no major strikes to concern them.

On 6 January 1947, anger over the rejection, after nine months of talks, of a London lorry drivers’ claim for a 44-hour week led to an unofficial strike. In many respects, the dispute bore the hallmarks of the explosion in the docks 15 months earlier: the exasperation with the negotiating machinery and TGWU officialdom, the emergence of a central rank and file strike committee, the rapid spreading of the strike throughout the country, the bitter scenes between Deakin and the strikers, the accusations of RCP infiltration and, of course, the use of troops, in this case the Army, Royal Navy and RAF.

Public hostility fanned by the press – the strike threatened food supplies at a time of severe shortages and rationing – encouraged the government to take a hard line. [69] On 11 January, The Times commented:

In spite of the fact that the Minister of Labour has intimated his intention to break the strike the men are dissatisfied that he has given no assurance to them that he will take steps to modify or in any way improve the negotiating machinery of the Central Wages Board, which the unions and the men agree is out of date and cumbersome.

Within days, however, the Minister, Isaacs, was forced to stand on his head. On 13 January, troops were sent into Smithfield Market, the centre of the strike, provoking sympathy walk-outs in other major London markets and by nearly 10,000 London dockers. [70] By 15 January, some 28,000 workers were out nationally and the possibility of a total stoppage throughout the country loomed.

The Cabinet now resolved in public to try to speed up industrial negotiating machinery, and in secret to pull together its plans for emergency organisation. The Industrial Emergencies Committee (IEC), formed during the autumn 1945 dock strike but never convened, had finally been activated on 15 January. Chaired by Ede, it was made up of the same Ministers as his review body, with the exception of Bevan and Westwood. After discussing the thorny question of recruiting volunteer labour, the committee sat again at 3pm the next day to consider a possible declaration of a State of Emergency: while it was in session, news arrived that the strike had been called off. [71]

Isaacs had convinced the Cabinet that the dispute should be put before a Joint Industrial Council specially created for the purpose. This done, the strike was called off and most of its major demands were eventually conceded. The Times concluded:

If there is one thing which can be more damaging to the orderly conduct of industrial relations than an unofficial strike, it is a successful unofficial strike. [72]

Ede now came forward with a telling suggestion. The strike had occurred during the worst winter in living memory, and troops had been used at the end of January when blizzards – not strikers – paralysed national transport. Here was a function for an emergency organisation which no-one would dispute: why not, then, extend the IEC’s terms of reference? Such a move, suggested Ede, ‘would incidentally help to counter any suggestion, should its plans become known, that the Supply and Transport Organisation was a strikebreaking weapon’.

The plan was accepted by the Cabinet on 17 April: in contrast to the lively argument of a year earlier, there was no dissent. The IEC was instructed ‘to supervise the preparation of plans for providing and maintaining in any emergency supplies and services essential to the life of the community; and in any emergency to co-ordinate action for this purpose’. [73] The ‘Emergencies Committee’, as it was to be called, would become a permanent feature of all Cabinets to this day. The STO was back – with a new name.

‘There’ll always be an England, while there’s still an America’

Labour and strike-breaking were hardly strangers. The 1924 government, Labour’s first, re-activated the Supply and Transport Committee in the face of a dock strike and declared a State of Emergency over a strike by London bus and tram workers. Both stoppages were led by Bevin, then leader of the TGWU. Years later he told a Labour Party Conference:

I know something about emergency powers. The first Labour Government rushed down to Windsor to get them signed in order to operate on me, and I have a vivid recollection of it, and we were only striking to restore a cut – not a very serious crime. I do not like emergency powers, not even when they are operated by my friends. [74]

Labour leaders remained silent over the existence of the STO even during the General Strike. [75] Their own use of secret state agencies had at first been hesitant. [76] No such nervousness appears to have troubled the Attlee government. From October 1945 it used Special Branch and other Scotland Yard detectives to exercise surveillance of unofficial strike leaders as a matter of course. [77]

The style of its approach was shown again when the Emergencies Committee met for the first time, ironically on May Day 1947. Another dock strike was in progress, this time in Glasgow, where the threat of 500 redundancies had sparked the dispute. In London, 10,000 port workers, mostly members of the stevedores’ and lightermen’s unions, had come out in sympathy. Troops had been sent into Glasgow three weeks earlier. The committee drew up plans to use military labour in London, considered the declaration of a State of Emergency and agreed to warn the TUC that the government intended to prosecute the leaders of unofficial strikes. The measures were stillborn: the strike ended the next day. [78]

There was another false start seven weeks later when a strike by 10,000 transport workers in the Midlands and the North was called off before more than a fraction of the military vehicles and drivers contemplated had been sent in to replace them. [79] For the rest of the year, in the absence of any national strikes, the committee was able to devote its attention to the building of its organisation, in particular the formation of regional committees.

On 15 July, as demanded by Washington nearly two years earlier, sterling became convertible. The 1945 loan, which the Cabinet had expected to see it through until 1951, was already fast being eaten up by a combination of dollar inflation and government spending on the armed forces and the occupation of Germany. [80] There now followed a run on the pound not seen since 1931. By 20 August, when the Cabinet gained American approval for a new suspension of convertibility, the crisis had drained nearly 900 million dollars from the gold and dollar reserve.

The government responded by backpedalling on any parts of its legislative programme, notably the nationalisation of steel, which smacked of radicalism and by straining the economy still further towards boosting exports and cutting imports. Food rations were reduced and, in concert with the TUC, direction of labour was brought back in certain industries and increases in the working week were sought. Agreement on wage restraint, which had been anathema to both Labour and the TUC in 1945, followed in March 1948.

Over the next two years, average weekly earnings would rise less than half as fast as during the previous 12 months [81], and TUC and Labour leaders would argue increasingly that, as Herbert Morrison had told the 1947 Labour Party Conference:

... there is little or no more to be got towards a better standard of living by squeezing the incomes of the rich ... From now on what we get in social benefits and higher wages we shall, broadly speaking, have to earn by higher production. [82]

Eventually, this policy was sunk by a rank and file revolt which also posed new challenges to the government’s secret emergency planning. In the meantime, from March 1949 to September 1950, it allowed the Cabinet to police wages while progressively abandoning its control over capital. [83] This was part of a more general move to the right summed up in Morrison’s dictum of ‘consolidation’. And in the process, the pronouncements of Labour and TUC leaders came to carry a shrill tone of anti-Communism. [84]

Certainly the British Communist Party turning left in late 1947 on orders from the newly-established Cominform [85], began to support strikes where previously it had opposed them and to abandon its loyal (if not uncritical) support for the government. The new line was not a complete break with the old, however. In the miners’ union, where Communist Party members occupied leading positions the call for more production and for no strikes continued. [86] This was scarcely enough to save the Communist Party from the Cold War hysteria of Labour Party headquarters or from the suspicion of militants.

The storm was about to burst over the Communist Party when the Grimethorpe affair blew up. A month-long sympathy strike which at one time brought out nearly half of Yorkshire’s 140,000 miners, the unofficial action which began at Grimethorpe pit in early August 1947 was the first major strike under nationalisation. It was a test case over the increased workloads demanded by the government in return for the miners’ five-day week.

To most of the strikers, however, the government was above criticism, unlike the National Coal Board or their own union officials. [87] The dream of nationalisation seemed to have produced a management which was as demanding as any under private ownership and yet which enjoyed the full support of the leadership of the National Union of Mineworkers. Arthur Horner, NUM general secretary and a prominent Communist Party member, accused the Grimethorpe men of being ‘reactionary’ and of ‘holding the country to ransom’. [88]

Six weeks after the strike ended, Horner successfully urged an NUM special conference to agree to suspend the five-day week. [89] Meanwhile, 40 Grimethorpe miners were prosecuted under the Employers and Workers Act of 1875 for breaking their contracts, and Horner uttered not a word of protest. [90]

Though further guerrilla warfare continued in the pits, the level of strikes throughout industry remained low. Nonetheless, the Cabinet moved quickly in September 1947 and March 1948 to send troops into London meat markets to move food supplies and into Buckingham Palace to keep the Royal boilers stoked: in each case, the strikes lasted only a week. For the government, strike-breaking was fast becoming almost routine.

In the last two weeks of June 1948, London’s docks were again brought to a standstill. The Zinc Oxide strike, so called over the ‘dirty cargo’ at the centre of the dispute, followed what was becoming a typical pattern. A relatively small incident – the 11 men handling the cargo had demanded a special payment – became a symbol of widespread resentment against disciplinary procedures when the men were in effect suspended for 14 weeks. The strike spread throughout London and then to Merseyside, reviving the unofficial committees and the dockers’ hostility towards TGWU officialdom. Union officials, it was believed, were in a majority on the tribunal which imposed the suspensions. [91] Deakin, denouncing the strike, found a new conspiracy behind it – the Communist Party. [92]

On the afternoon of 28 June, the government proclaimed a State of Emergency, the first since the General Strike. At 9 p.m. that day Attlee broadcast to the nation. It was not, he said

a strike against capitalists or employers. It is a strike against your mates; a strike against the housewife; a strike against the ordinary common people who have difficulties enough now to manage on their shilling’s worth of meat and other rationed commodities.

Then, echoing Deakin, he warned that the dispute was clearly political, having been fomented by ‘just a small nucleus who have been instructed for political reasons to take advantage of every little disturbance that takes place to cause the disruption of British economy, British trade, to undermine the government and to destroy Britain’s position.’ [93]

Twelve hours later, the dockers voted to go back.

The Cabinet, with Deakin’s approval, had already sent in the Army, Navy and RAF five days earlier. The next day a special meeting of Ministers heard Bevin, the ‘Dockers’ KC as he was known in his trade union days, insist that

There must be no sign of weakness on the part of the government; they must show their determination to maintain the distribution of essential foodstuffs. They should not be deterred by threats that, if further troops were employed, the strike would spread to the meat markets. If the strikers got their way, the government would be at the mercy of unofficial strikes for many years to come. [94]

In a top-secret memorandum on 27 June, Isaacs’ deputy at the Ministry of Labour, Ness Edwards, suggested that a declaration of a State of Emergency would allow the dock labour scheme to be suspended and thus enable the employers to take on volunteer labour. This, he said, would put ‘the government on the offensive against the unofficial strikers’. [95]

The Cabinet was not yet prepared to go that far, but the strike sharpened the Emergencies Committee’s discussions on the thorny question of volunteer labour generally. On 23 June, a memo was sent to the chairpeople of the regional committees outlining guidance on the preparation of local emergency schemes by advising that, where needed, volunteer labour would be recruited through the Ministry of Labour’s local offices. (Chairpeople seeking further information were warned to maintain secrecy and address all communication in double envelopes to F3 Division of the Home Office. The outer envelope ‘should not be addressed “The Secretary, Emergencies Coordinating Committee”.’) [96]

The strike also prompted the Emergencies Committee to involve non-government bodies such as the Port of London Authority in its work. In July, it set up a fuel and power sub-committee on which were represented officials of the NCB, gas and electricity industries and leading petroleum interests. Five months later the sub-committee produced a report which laid the basis for emergency fuel and power planning. If a coal or transport strike appeared likely, said the report, coal stocks should be discreetly built up, for example by the railways, gas and electricity services cutting consumption, ‘if possible without assigning the reason for such action’. [97]

Meanwhile, Sir Walter Citrine, the former TUC general secretary and now head of the British Electricity Authority, was approaching Isaacs and Hugh Gaitskell, Shinwell’s successor as Minister of Fuel and Power, over the issue of lightning strikes. The matter was raised in Cabinet three months later. If the trouble stemmed from Communist activity then, it was felt, ‘steps might have to be taken to weed them out’.

On the possibility of prosecuting strikers, Isaacs noted in a subsequent memo to Attlee that ‘the difficulty is not lack of power to take proceedings but the impracticability of dealing in this way with large numbers’. [98]

The same consideration applied when, on 11 April 1949, a new docks’ strike swept London. Touched off by the dismissal of 33 ‘ineffective’ workers, the stoppage had the official backing of the stevedores’ union NASD but not of the TGWU, to which most of the sacked men belonged. [99] The Cabinet, told that the NASD was ‘under Communist influence’, discussed possible prosecutions but decided instead that they ‘might have the effect of stiffening the attitude of the rank and file’. It was agreed to instruct the Director of Public Prosecutions to collect evidence ‘so that, if the strike continued, the way would be clear to launch prosecutions about the time when military assistance was brought into the docks’. [100]

In the event, the strike was called off on 15 April. Within days, however, the press began to carry reports of an apparently obscure dispute among Canadian seamen which was to ignite Britain’s docks and bring together strike-breaking and anti-Communism on a wholly new scale.

Red menaces and red faces

By mid-1949, the anti-Communist campaign inside the Labour movement had been growing for 18 months. A drive against Communist Party influence in the trade unions, first mooted in June 1947, had begun in earnest the following December when Labour Party secretary, Morgan Phillips, appealed to affiliated organisations to combat Communist infiltration. [101]

In October 1948 the NUM Executive repudiated its general secretary, Horner, for speaking in support of a strike by French miners and the TUC General Council issued the first of two anti-Communist broadsides. In January 1949, Deakin led an anti-Communist walkout at the conference of the World Federation of Trade Unions and succeeded in July in proscribing the Communist Party within the TGWU. As the agitation heightened, Communist Party members found themselves being chased from union positions, meeting halls and, occasionally, from their jobs. [102]

In April and May 1949, dockers in London, Avonmouth, Liverpool, Southampton, Leith and Newport boycotted Canadian ships in sympathy with a strike by members of the Canadian Seamen’s Union. Possibly expecting the action to fizzle out, the government and the National Dock Labour Board adopted a ‘wait and see’ policy. At Avonmouth, however, the employers staged a lock-out which was followed by troops being sent in and by solidarity strikes in Bristol and Liverpool. Eventually, after a broadcast by Isaacs on 12 June, the men returned to work. Their mood changed when the government then proceeded to take a tough line against them.

Behind the government’s change of stance lay a number of factors. There was pressure from the fiercely anti-Communist American Federation of Labour which was, in conjunction with the Canadian ship-owners, waging war on the Communist-dominated Canadian Seamen’s Union and which threatened an American boycott of British ships in retaliation for the dockers’ action. [103] There was a belief in government circles that the British Communist Party were using the strike as a ‘carefully coordinated plan’ to ‘give rise to conditions in which Communist dictatorship controlled from Moscow, could take control’. [104]

Crucially, though, there was a mood among Ministers and within the National Docks Labour Board (NDLB) that this was the chance to settle once and for all the matter of unofficial activity in the docks. The London dockers’ boycott had in part been tacitly accepted because the government did not have the troops to work more than two ports. When the Avonmouth and Liverpool dockers returned to work, this no longer applied. Isaacs now ‘most strongly’ recommended that the government reverse its previous policy and allow the NDLB to act as it saw fit. ‘If we miss the opportunity of the collapse of the Bristol and Avonmouth strikes it will be some time before another opportunity arises’, he told Attlee. The Prime Minister agreed, and soon the NDLB was warning London dockers that unless they worked the Canadian ships they would be locked out. This precipitated a shutdown which the government then described as the result of a Communist plot. [105]

The NDLB ultimatum was delivered on 13 June and was due to take effect a week later. By the end of the month, all of London’s Surrey and Royal dockers had been locked out but the Emergencies Committee, meeting on 4 July, agreed to delay the use of troops lest it should provoke a walk-out by the majority of dockers still at work. Under pressure from Bevin and Ammon, who argued that ‘the matter should be fought to a finish’, the committee decided two days later to reverse its position.

This proposal provoked one Minister to comment that ‘the Act of 1920 appeared to be a somewhat heavy weapon to employ to secure the unloading of two Canadian ships’. [106] Meanwhile, the Cabinet, dissatisfied by a report that the police had found little evidence of a Communist conspiracy, resolved to order further inquiries into ‘the ramifications of the organisation which was causing disputes in ships and docks’. [107]

On 11 July, with most London dockers still at work, the Cabinet declared a State of Emergency. But first it discussed a remarkable proposal by the Attorney-General, Sir Harley Shawcross, on the legal aspects of the emergency regulations. A Port Emergency Committee should be set up, he suggested, with full control over the London docks, including the disciplinary provisions of the dock labour scheme. He doubted whether this latter power could be legally enforceable but added:

I do not think that matters ... It is, indeed, possible that other powers which the Regulations purport to give may not be strictly intra vires the Act. I have advised that this risk should be taken and that the Regulations should cover matters on which action is required without undue regard to the niceties of the law. In an emergency the Government may have, in matters admitting of legal doubt, to act first and argue about the doubts later, if necessary obtaining an indemnification Act. [108]

The Cabinet accepted the proposal without comment.

The Port Emergency Committee began work on 13 July, chaired – fittingly – by Sir Alexander Maxwell. A day earlier, further troops had arrived in the docks, bringing out more dockers, as the Emergencies Committee had predicted. Despite a powerful Red scare campaign, the dockers held firm, ending the strike on 22 July only after the Canadian Seamen’s Union had settled its dispute. [109] ‘It was not a meeting of defeated or repentant men which took the decision’ to go back, The Times reported. [110]

It had been a revealing episode. A ‘workers’ government’ which had come to office insisting that ‘the principles of our policy are based on the brotherhood of man’ had used almost every state resource – troops, MI5, a State of Emergency, legal skulduggery, even TGWU spies – to try to defeat one of the outstanding examples of international solidarity in British working class history. The port workers’ unofficial committee, meanwhile, had emerged with credit in the docks, despite being the target of virulent, Cabinet-inspired anti-communism. Now, armed with its own nationally-based rank and file paper, the Port Workers’ News, it established itself permanently. [111]

On 18 September, in response to the combined effects of a US recession and another run on the pound, Cripps devalued sterling by 30 per cent. [112] The resulting increase in inflation sparked a wages movement which eventually shattered the government-TUC pay curbs.

A foretaste of this was already at hand. On 16 September the government sent troops into a Belfast power station, an action that was repeated at three power stations in London on 12 December, and at a fourth the day after. The strikes were brief, but to Citrine, the former TUC general secretary who was now head of the nationalised Electricity Board, they represented ‘part of an organised movement and must be met as such’. A Cabinet meeting on 15 December urged Gaitskell to discuss with Citrine the possibility of the Electricity Authority initiating civil proceedings against the strikers so as to help extirpate ‘the political forces which were at the root of the present strike’. [113] On Christmas Eve, after meeting Citrine, Gaitskell wrote to Attlee:

There is a good deal of evidence to show that this strike was deliberately fomented by ‘unofficial’ elements after careful preparation. I am told that in such circles it is regarded as a rehearsal. [114]

Ironically, these ‘elements’ were members of the Electrical Trades Union whose official leadership was Communist-dominated but not especially enamoured of strikes. In the event, the strike for which this was claimed to be a ‘rehearsal’ – expected by Ministers to coincide with the General Election campaign of February 1950 – failed to materialise.

Gaitskell raised the issue again, however, at a meeting of Ministers on 24 January at which Aneurin Bevan agreed that civil proceedings against strikers were to be preferred to criminal prosecutions. They had, he said, ‘worked as an effective deterrent in the mining industry, and unless their use was adopted wherever else they were appropriate, it would be hard to continue taking them against miners.’ [115] Gaitskell failed to win Cabinet backing for a legal ban on power strikes, however, and after the meeting he confided his disappointment to his diary. [116]

The General Election reduced Labour’s majority to six, but if the mood and the outcome of the campaign stood in marked contrast to that of 1945, the Cabinet soon found that one thing at least had not changed: it began its second term, as it had its first, by falling foul of a docks’ strike. The action which Deakin had been threatening against the unofficial leaders finally became reality on 19 April. Three of the major figures in the previous year’s strike in support of the Canadian Seamen were expelled from the TGWU, thereby threatening their livelihood, and 6,000 dockers immediately walked out in sympathy.

Since the strike was a dispute between union officials and union members, it fell outside the terms of Order 1305 and was not technically illegal, a fact which did not escape the notice of the Emergencies Committee. [117] Nonetheless, the Cabinet, convinced that the strike was ‘clearly caused by Communists’, moved with exceptional speed: troops were sent into the London docks on 24 April. Four days later, with 14,000 now out, the strike was called off. The expulsions failed to break the unofficial London Port Workers’ Committee, the three victims continuing to work in the docks despite the closed shop and eventually joining the NASD.

Two months later, troops were back in action when 1500 Smith-field-based meat drivers struck over a pay claim. The real reason for the stoppage, the Emergencies Committee suggested to the Cabinet, was political, since the drivers ‘had secured a substantial increase in wages in September last’. [118] On 3 July, troops were drafted into Smithfield and various London cold stores, provoking – exactly as the Committee had feared – sympathy strikes. With the prospect of more troops also being sent into cold stores in the docks, the Cabinet earmarked 20,000 additional servicemen in readiness for a complete shutdown in the Port of London. [119]

On 6 July, the Cabinet, fearing that that would only be ‘playing into the hands of Communist agitators’, toyed instead with the idea of persuading the TGWU to issue special permits to van drivers collecting from the cold stores. ‘While this might place a strain on the cohesion of the union’, it was felt that ‘it was unreasonable that the government should assume responsibility for breaking an unofficial strike which was largely directed against the principal officers of the union. Two days later, the Emergencies Committee was told that the increased use of troops could lead to a general road haulage strike. No sooner had this threat receded than on 10 July, the day before troops were due to move into the docks, strikes loomed among petrol tanker drivers and workers at Billingsgate and Covent Garden. Late that night, Deakin literally saved the government’s bacon: a settlement was reached at Smithfield. [120]

The use of troops in industrial disputes now became subject to a new consideration – they were needed in Korea for a real war with Communism. Apart from a brief episode in October, when 68 servicemen were drafted into three strike-bound gasworks in London, the army were never again called upon by the Attlee Government. The action switched to the courts.

On 14 September, the Cabinet, having just ordered an MI5 investigation into Communist influence in Britain’s power stations, discussed the question of ‘Communist endeavours to cause industrial unrest’ and again considered the possibility of legal sanctions. On 5 October, ten leaders of the London gasworkers’ strike were sentenced to one month’s imprisonment under Order 1305 and the 1875 Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act. [121]

And on 8 February 1951, seven members of the London and Merseyside dockers’ unofficial committee were arrested by the Special Branch while meeting in an East London pub to discuss a wages strike. The strike which had looked set to collapse, immediately mushroomed, more than 6,000 London dockers walking out when news of the arrests became known. Lightning stoppages, nine in all, followed each time the men appeared in court. Finally, after an eight-day conspiracy trial at the Old Bailey, the Attorney-General, Shawcross, was forced to drop the charges.

For the government, it was a humiliation, and the beginning of the end for Order 1305, under which the charges had been brought. For the dockers, it was their biggest victory since the great strike of 1889. As Minister of Labour, Aneurin Bevan was directly involved in the affair. He had taken over from Isaacs in January, having been moved from the Ministry of Health, and had accepted his new job in full knowledge of the government’s approach to strikes: indeed, he had supported it. Once in office, he gave tacit backing to a new anti-Communist outburst by Deakin and, shortly before the Old Bailey trial, rounded on a group of heckling dockers at Bermondsey, calling them ‘a lot of skulking cowards hiding behind your own anonymity’. Three days after the dockers were freed, Bevan resigned – over the famous issue of Gaitskell’s introduction of health charges. Complicity in state prosecution of working class militants he could countenance: complicity in the imposition of health charges he could not. His resignation, which made him the focus for left-wing opposition within the Labour Party throughout the 1950s, was not a rejection of the Labour Party’s reformism but a sign that reformism was running out of breath. Change from above – inevitably opposed to change from below – Bevan still accepted as fundamental. On that he had no disagreement with Attlee and the Old Guard. Where they differed was on how far it should go.

The same was true of the Labour Left generally. Their ‘rebellions’, Keep Left, launched in April 1947, and Keeping Left, which followed in January 1950, sought to criticise the practices of social democracy while upholding its principles. This, far better than the loss of Bevan and its other leaders to the Cabinet, explains the extraordinary feebleness of the Labour Left in the years of the Attlee government.

Strikes spotlighted that impotence. In so far as they implied rank and file dissatisfaction with the impact of the government’s policies, they offered potential for the Left. But by their very nature they demanded a struggle outside parliament, so breaking social democracy’s cardinal rule. On the few occasions where the Left tried to organise even minimal support for strikes, as in the Manchester Docks in May 1951, the power of the trade union and Labour bureaucracy proved strong enough to bring it back into line. [122]

That dispute, and another in the London and Tilbury Docks in October, led the Emergencies Committee again to consider the use of troops – but now it decided against this. The decisions were tactical rather than on principle.

Simultaneously, a report was commissioned on the problems of accommodating the 27,000 troops thought necessary to work the London docks in the event of a major stoppage. When the committee met to discuss the report on 29 October, a Tory Home Secretary, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, took the chair. Attlee’s government had fallen three days earlier. In the secret world of emergency planning, however, nothing had changed.

The Logic of ‘Change from Above’

Though, by a quirk, the Tories won more seats in the 1951 general election, Labour’s vote remains the highest in British history: and, 12 months later, its individual membership, which had set new records during most years of the Attlee government, reached an all-time peak. Both measures of support were overwhelmingly working class, reflecting the changes in ordinary people’s lives since the Hungry Thirties. To millions, there seemed no doubt that the way to a better society lay through the Labour Party and parliament.

The mood of 1951 was, however, very different to that of 1945. Gone was the hopeful radicalism, and the word ‘socialism’ had gone from Labour’s manifesto. Capitalism had not merely survived at the hands of a supposedly ‘socialist’ party: it had been given a new lease of life, and now stood poised for its greatest-ever boom. True reforms had been conceded on a scale which Labour has never, before or since, remotely approached, but they were – considering the stability they helped to ensure – a modest ransom for a ruling class which, in 1945, had had its back to the wall.

This was, and still is, the logic of Labour politics. For those who want to reform society from above, pressure from below is at best an embarrassment, at worst a menace. In 1953, the Labour opposition supported the Tories’ use of troops against an unofficial strike by London tanker drivers. In 1955, when the Tories declared a State of Emergency over an official rail strike, Labour’s sole criticism was of the ‘new doctrine’ of issuing an ultimatum to trade union officials. And, back in power, Labour showed in 1966 that it, too, was prepared to act against an official strike. A State of Emergency, the Special Branch and a Red scare – all the tactics that had been deployed against unofficial strikes between 1945 and 1951 – were wheeled out against the seamen’s union. In 1977, troops were brought in on a large scale when Labour took on another official strike, this time by firemen.

On such occasions, the Emergencies Committee structure fashioned under Attlee seems to have proved invaluable. The man who had once contemplated emergency powers against capitalists bequeathed them instead for use against workers.

Attlee’s government has left its mark in other ways. Nuclear weapons, NATO, American bases such as Greenham Common, peace-time wage controls, even attacks on the National Health Service – most of our current nightmares, in fact – can be traced back to the 1945 Labour government. Are these the legacies of a socialist government? Even its record of full employment, a Welfare State, improving standards of living and nationalisation, on which its claim to socialism rested, continued throughout the 1950s under the Tories. No-one has yet claimed that Winston Churchill and Harold Macmillan were socialists!

Attlee’s Cabinet did what all Labour governments have done – it managed capitalism while using the rhetoric in a way that made reforms both possible and even desirable. But once the post-war boom petered out, the bottom fell out of this strategy. Under the Wilson and Callaghan governments, the carrot gave way to the stick: theirs was reformism without reforms.

In other words, the difference between the Labour Party in Attlee’s day and in the 1980s is not one of policies but of circumstances. Capitalism’s greatest boom had given way to its present, protracted slump, but Labour’s commitment to managing the capitalist system is as strong as ever. So is its commitment to parliament, and its hostility to working class struggle as a means of change. The strikebreaking record of the 1945 Labour government shows what Labour’s politics meant when capitalism was relatively healthy. With recession making working class struggle more crucial than ever, we can imagine what it will mean in the future.


[Transcripts of Crown-copyright records in the Public Record Office appear by permission of the Controller of HMSO.]

1. Attlee: The Reasonable Revolutionary, BBC-2, 19 September 1983

2. Of which the best are R. Miliband: Parliamentary Socialism; D. Coates: The Labour Party and the Struggle for Socialism; and D. Howell: British Social Democracy. Each devotes a chapter to the Attlee government. Two full-length studies have just been published, Kenneth Morgan’s Labour in Power and Henry Pelling’s The 1945–51 Labour Government.

3. K. Jeffery and P. Hennessy: How Attlee Stood Up to Strikers, in The Times, 21 November 1979

4. A Manchester Labour journal, quoted in A. Calder: The People’s War, pages 673–4.

5. The Socialist League was a left-wing ginger group inside the Labour Party whose task, wrote Attlee, was ‘to create advance guards of the revolution’. Quoted in B. Pimlott: The Socialist League: Intellectuals and the Labour Left in the 1930s, in Journal of Contemporary History, 1971, page 27.

6. Cripps’ view in Can Socialism Come by Constitutional Methods? (1933) page 2, that ‘the ruling class will go to almost any length to defeat Parliamentary action if the issue is ... the continuance of their financial and political control’ was shared by Attlee: see W. Golant: The Emergence of C.R. Attlee as Leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party in 1935, in Historical Journal, 1970, page 319 .

7. Quoted in Golant, page 322.

8. It would, he said, need to abolish the House of Lords and restrict the movement of capital and the power of the press. For these proposals, and Attlee’s support of them, see Labour Party Conference Report, 1933, pages 160–2

9. Cripps, page 1.

10. Richard Crossman in New Statesman and Nation, 15 June 1946.

11. Their Chief Whip wrote: ‘I feel that my entrails have been pulled right out of me’. Quoted in P. Cosgrave: R.A. Butler, page 82.

12. Quoted in L. Panitch: Social Democracy and Industrial Militancy, page 10.

13. Ernest Bevin, Arthur Greenwood and, it is believed, Attlee had all recently expressed virulent anti-Churchill sentiments: see P. Addison: The Road to 1945, page 76.

14. C.R. Attlee: As It Happened, page 163. Cripps, a member of the War Cabinet from 1942, found that the experience ‘restored his early belief in the fundamental decency of British polities’: see C. Cooke: The Life of Richard Stafford Cripps, page 326.

15. Herbert Morrison, quoted in Miliband, page 272.

16. Attlee, page 163.

17. His 1944 Act was, he said later, ‘a true child of the war-time Coalition spirit’. Quoted in G. Sparrow: R.A.B.: Study of a Statesman, page 78.

18. For Beveridge’s hostility to socialism, see B. de Jou, Problems of Socialist England, page 44.

19. Albeit of ailing but crucial industries. See M.P. Jackson, The Price of Coal, page 61.

20. Quoted in Calder, page 663. See also Churchill’s speech in the Commons on 16 August 1945

21. Quinton Hogg (now Lord Hailsham), quoted in Addison, page 232.

22. 4 August 1945.

23. Unfortunately, there is not one good book on the Attlee government’s foreign policy. On atomic energy, see M.M. Gowing: Independence and Deterrence.

24. Quoted in R. Eatwell: The 1945–51 Labour Governments, page 89. On the day the election result was announced, Bevin said: ‘British foreign policy will not be altered in any way under the Labour Government.’ Evening News, 26 July 1945.

25. G.B. Shaw: The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism, page 394.

26. Coates, page 49.

27. Coates, page 49. See also H. Francis and D. Smith: The Fed, pages 437 and 442, and W.W. Haynes: Nationalisation in Practice: The British Coal Industry, page 158.

28. C.R. Attlee: The Will and the Way to Socialism (1935), page 109.

29. Morrison, quoted in Miliband, page 280.

30. R.A. Brady: Crisis in Britain, page 45.

31. Quoted in E. Estorick: Sir Stafford Cripps, pages 347–8. Nine years earlier, Cripps had urged: ‘Workers use your strength in the factories to get power yourself’: quoted in C. Harman: Tribune of the People, Part 1, in International Socialism, 1 : 21, Summer 1965, page 7.

32. See in particular D Rogers: Strikes and the Labour Government (1947), an Independent Labour Party pamphlet.

33. A. Bullock: The Life and Times of Ernest Bevin, vol. 2, page 15. The Daily Herald and New Statesman and Nation both hailed it as ‘War Socialism’.

34. Quoted in Bullock, vol. 2, page 20.

35. Public Record Office, LAB 10/281: Facts to be faced in the present state of industrial relations, autumn 1943

36. Devotees of CP horror stories (the Party opposed strikes from 1941 to 1947) will enjoy S. Bornstein and A. Richardson: Two Steps Back: Communists and the Wider Labour Movement, 1935–1945 or, even more splenetic, R. Black: Stalinism in Britain. Much the best book on the subject is R. Croucher: Engineers at War 1939–1945.

37. R. Hyman: Strikes, page 27.

38. And earning him a famously forthright condemnation from Aneurin Bevan, quoted in M. Foot: Aneurin Bevan, vol. 1, page 452.

39. Public Record Office (PRO), T.221/19. The account which follows of the Cabinet’s deliberations is based on a wide range of Cabinet Papers recently released under the 30-year rule at the PRO. A similar interpretation can be found in K. Jeffery and P. Hennessy: States of Emergency, pages 143–221.

40. See The Economist, 4 August 1945. Few even of the Labour leaders expected to win, let alone by a landslide.

41. New Leader, 10 and 17 March 1945.

42. The Times, 27 April 1945; The Economist, 5 May 1945.

43. 18 August 1945.

44. Quoted in Daily Worker, 31 July 1945.

45. The Times, 10, 12, 16, 18 and 19 July, and 1 and 11 August 1945.

46. As, after all, the Order required it to do.

47. PRO PREM 8/673.

48. [Reference missing in the original]

49. CAB 128/1/39(45)

50. 5 October 1945

51. The Times, 13 October 1945.

52. In all probability, the RCP had no more than one docker among its membership of between 300 and 500: see M. Upham: The History of British Trotskyism to 1949 (Hull, Ph.D., 1980) page 413.

53. K. Knowles: The Post-War Dock Strikes, in Political Quarterly, 1951, page 276; The Times, 10 October 1945.

54. K. Knowles, page 276.

55. Quoted in K. Knowles: Strikes: A Study in Industrial Conflict, page 38.

56. Cabinet meeting, 15 October 1945, PRO CAB 128/1/41(45).

57. J. Moran: NATSOPA, page 80; G.G. Eastwood: George Isaacs, page 48. The incident clearly still rankled 25 years later: see G. Isaacs: Churchill and the Trade Unions, in C. Eade (editor): Churchill by His Contemporaries, page 380.

58. D.N. Pritt: The Labour Government 1945–51, page 86.

59. 11 October 1945.

60. ’The really interesting point about this dispute’, felt the London strike committee, ‘is the alacrity with which TU officials and employerscan negotiate when they feel a sense of urgency’: Common Wealth Review, November 1945. The role of the government went uncriticised. ‘We know that the government has its hands full with the colossal task of rebuilding the country’ commented the first issue of The Portworker, the paper of the National Portworkers Defence Committee (Southern Area), in January 1946.

61. PRO CP (45) 248, 25 October 1945.

62. CAB 128/1/46(45), 26 October 1945.

63. PREM 8/673.

64. PREM 8/673.

65. PREM 8/673.

66. PREM 8/673.

67. PREM 8/673.

68. CAB 128/7/22(46), 8 March 1946. Bevan told the Cabinet that ‘the government should rely on improvising arrangements at the last moment to meet the particular kind of situation with which they were faced.’

69. A letter in the Socialist Leader, 1 February 1947, claimed that ‘few strikes have received so much antagonism from the general public as this one.’

70. Some 24,000 London dockers eventually came out: The Times, 20 January 1947. ‘An additional particularly obnoxious aspect of this week’s strike-breaking efforts by the government,’ commented the Socialist Leader on 18 January, ‘has been the use of German prisoners-of-war to prepare the accommodation for the troops and to attend to their catering. It is despicable that a Labour government should use slave labour to help break a strike of British workers.’

71. PRO CAN 134/353.

72. 17 January 1947.

73. PRO CAB 128/9/37(47).

74. Labour Party Conference Report, 1933, page 161.

75. R.H. Desmarais: The Supply and Transport Committee 1919–1926: A Study of the British Government’s Methods of Handling Emergencies Stemming from Industrial Disputes (University of Wisconsin, Ph.D., 1970) pages 135–153.

76. See, for example, T. Barnes: Special Branch and the First Labour Government, in Historical Journal, 1979, pages 941–951.

77. For the autumn 1945 docks strike, see The Times, 20 October 1945; for the January 1947 lorry drivers’strike, see PRO RO 45/23174. The practice has been a regular feature of Bevin’s regime at the Ministry of Labour during the war: see N. Stammers: Civil Liberties in Britain During the Second World War (Sussex, D.Phil., 1980) page 359.

78. The Times, 10 and 29 April, 2 and 5 May 1947; CAB 134/175 EC (47) 1.

79. CAB 134/175 EC (47) 2, 3 and 4.

80. ‘If 1946 was Annus Mirabilis, 1947 was Annus Horrendus,’ wrote the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Hugh Dalton, of the vanishing dollars. Only ‘sleeping pills could stop the mental arithmetic’. H. Dalton: High Tide and After, pages 187 and 254.

81. Panitch, page 26.

82. Labour Party Conference Report, 1947, pages 134–7.

83. On, for example, Harold Wilson’s November 1948 ‘bonfire of controls’ at the Board of Trade, see P. Foot: The Politics of Harold Wilson, page 64.

84. See, for example, the Cabinet’s discussion on 5 March 1948 of Soviet ‘expansionism’ in which it was decided that ‘the campaign against Communist penetration of the trade unions should continue.’ It was also felt that ‘some of the BBC staff had Communist sympathies ...’ CAB 128/14/19(48). Meanwhile, Morrison concluded from the events in Czechoslovakia that trade unionists should be ever more vigilant against ‘anti-democratic conspirators who would use industrial power to undermine the democratic State’: quoted in B. Jones: The Russia Complex, page 183.

85. The Cominform was set up in September 1947. The Daily Telegraph commented on 13 October: ‘At the very moment when Britain is confronted by its darkest peace-time crisis, the CP, in another of its periodical somersaults, seeks to disrupt the nation. This, and no less, is the meaning of the statement of the party’s executive yesterday, expressing full agreement with the declaration of Moscow’s new international organisation.’

86. This period in the CP’s fortunes forms the basis of Edward Upward’s novel The Rotten Elements.

87. ‘We are striking out for a principle against a new kind of officialdom,’ said one striker. Another felt: ‘We asked for nationalisation and now see what we’ve got. Nationalisation is the first step to dictatorship.’ Quoted in The Times, 5 September, and Yorkshire Post, 28 August. On 30 August, The Times reported: ‘Symbolic of a feeling of bitterness among Grimethorpe strikers is the slogan “Burn Will Lawther” stamped out in glaring, crudely drawn white letters on a wall at the entrance to the pit yard. Above the slogan is drawn a gallows.’ Lawther was the NUM president. At the same time, RCP members organising around the strike could not find a single miner willing to criticise the government: RCP Party Organiser, October 1947, Modern Records Centre, Warwick University, 75/3/4/151/16.

88. Yorkshire Post, 9 September.

89. NUM: Report of Special Conference, 10 October 1947.

90. Twenty-four were ordered to pay £10 damages and costs, the other 16 £4 each, the money being deducted from their wages at 10s a week: The Times, 20 December 1947. This was the first of a number of NCB prosecutions indifferent parts of the country.

91. Socialist Leader, 3 July 1948. The Times reported on 28 June: ‘A crowd gathered round the loudspeaker van to hurl abuse at the union leaders and when Deakin stepped down he was besieged by angry dockers. Deakin entered a waiting car. One docker shouted “Tip it up” and there were jeers as the car drove off.’

92. The Times, 25 and 26 June.

93. The Times, 29 June. Attlee had, however, already been told by Scotland Yard that there was no evidence of a Communist conspiracy: HO 45/23174.

94. CAB 130/38 GEN. 240.

95. CAB 129/28 CP (48) 168,

96. T.221/20.

97. CAB 134/175 EC (48) 2 and 3; T.221/20.

98. PREM 8/1082; CAB 128/15/21(49).

99. Ede told the Cabinet: ‘This creates a precedent in the post-war period. It is official in that it has been called by the Executive of the NASD ... this is the first strike since the making of the Order (1305) which is both official and illegal.’ CAB 129/34 CP(49)88.

100. CAB 128/15/27(49).

101. A similar move had been considered nearly two years earlier, but dropped. See The Times, 30 March 1946. For Phillips’ statement, see The Times, 22 December 1947.

102. CP members were banned from certain ‘sensitive’ jobs in the civil service. The John Lewis Partnership also banned Communists.

103. The AFL had played an important role in the split in the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) and in promoting anti-Communism within the European labour movement. Its leadership appears to have worked closely with that of the TGWU during the Canadian Seamen’s strike. See P. Weiler: British Labour and the Cold War: The London Dock Strike of 1949, in J.E. Cronin and J. Schneer (editors): Social Conflict and Political Order in Modern Britain, pages 159‐160.

104. [Reference missing in original]

105. Ede told Deakin on 30 May that the dispute gave the government a chance to deal with ‘the elements which fomented these continual strikes’. The government privately accepted that the Canadian Seamen’s Union had a strong case and so felt that Isaacs’ 12 June broadcast should not dwell on the origins of the strike lest it should prove counter-productive, perhaps even supplying the grounds for a complete stoppage. PREM 8/1081.

106. PREM 8/1081; CAB 134/176; CAB 128/16/44(49).

107. CAB 128/16/44(49).

108. CAB 129/35 CP(49) 148; CAB 128/16/46(49).

109. Some idea of the hysteria can be glimpsed from the East London Advertiser, 8 July 1949, which reported that four local Labour MPs were placing evidence before MI5 to show that the strike was Communist-inspired. On 22 July, the same paper reported that Harry Van Loo, a former unofficial leader turned TGWU official, had told a mass meeting that until 17 July ‘he was as solid as anybody behind the dispute’. The next day, however, ‘he saw a man who was with another man who said he was a chief detective inspector from MI5 Scotland Yard. He said: “We have evidence that leads us to believe that this is an international political move to break down the economic structure of this country”. Van Loo said he asked for facts, but he was told all the information was of a confidential nature. “I then became a little wavery as far as the dispute was concerned,” he said.’

110. 23 July 1949.

111. The astonishing extent of TGWU spying for the government is clearly revealed in file IR 931/1949, LAB 10/832 at the Public Records Office.

112. Cripps had succeeded Dalton as Chancellor on 13 November 1947.

113. CAB 134/176; CAN 128/16/72(49).

114. PREM 8/1290.

115. CAB 130/58 GEN 314/1. On Aneurin Bevan’s increasing antipathy towards strikes see his speeches reported in The Times, 9 September 1946, 20 January 1947 and 6 June 1949.

116. ‘The fundamental issue is still unresolved ... When the Election is over the government ought really to face up to the issue of Power Station strikes, and decide whether they can afford to treat them as ordinary industrial disputes. In my view they cannot.’ P.M. Williams: The Dairy of Hugh Gaitskell 1945–1956, page 159.

117. PREM 8/1287 and CAB 134/178.

118. CAB 134/178.

119. CAB 129/41 CP(50)158.

120. A number of the strike leaders were later expelled from the TGWU.

121. Later reduced on appeal to £50 fines.

122. As shown by the exchange of letters in May–June 1951 between Deakin, Morgan Phillips and Labour regional organiser, Reg Wallis. Labour Party Archives, LP/UN/51/24-30. Deakin had also warned a left-wing Liverpool MP not to allow the Merseyside dockers’ unofficial committee to use her office: M. Toole: Mrs Bessie Braddock MP, page 165.

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