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Raymond Challinor

The General Strike

(November 1976)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.93, November/December 1976, p.31.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The General Strike
Margaret Morris
Penguin, £1.00.

The Great Lock-out of 1926
Gerard Noel
Constable, £5.25.

The General Strike
Robin Page Arnot
EP Publishing, £3.50.

As May 1976 approached, the BBC became uneasy. How should it commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the General Strike? The top boys at the Beeb feared that in the potentially explosive industrial situation then – and, incidentally, still – prevailing it would be unwise to screen a lot of material showing large numbers of workers going on strike. It might give some people ideas. So the Beeb approached some members of the General Council of the TUC for advice. Doubtless not wanting workers to be reminded of the way their predecessors on the General Council betrayed the miners in 1926, the union leaders recommended the anniversary be played down. So the BBC virtually forgot the General Strike ever happened.

Another possible stratagem would have been for the Beeb to have approached Margaret Morris to have produced some programmes. Clearly, from the book she has compiled, it is certain her efforts would not have harmed the Establishment. Ingrained into her very being is the bureaucratic approach. She fails to have any sense of struggle or feel for the workers’ standpoint. When she attempts to enliven her dull narrative with some personal remainiscences from actual strikers, she relies upon a small handful of people – Vic Feather, Jim Griffiths, Will Lawther, for example – who became so remote from the rank and file that they could have been living on a different planet. Even worse, Margaret Morris lightly brushes over the General Council’s decision to call off the General Strike. From her book, you gain no idea that the union leaders may have betrayed their members.

Ironically, Gerard Noel, a son of the fourth Earl of Gainsborough, has written a better, and far more left-wing, book than Margaret Morris, who is a member of the Communist Party. He has taken the trouble to interview far more workers; he has not limited himself, as she as done, to those who reached the upper echelons of the trade union apparatus. As a result, he conveys in human terms what the struggle was like. He does, moreover, extend his narrative beyond the General Strike to the period when the miners stood alone. If you want to read an account of what happened in those seven agonising months before the miners were eventually starved into submission, Gerard Noel provides the best description so far produced.

The weakness of his book arises from his lack of political understanding. Like Margaret Morris, he greatly understimates the role of the Communist Party. It had few members, but a lot of influence. Had the General Strike continued, this certainly would have grown. The logic of events was pushing the contestants into more extreme positions. The General Council was being made to see, with increasing clarity, that the struggle was against the State. In such a situation, the moderate union leaders had no heart for continuing the fight. To have done so would have involved walking along the road to revolution.

Duncan Hallas wrote an excellent article on the General Strike in IS 88. He provided a critical evaluation of the Communist Party. In it, he could have cited what happened in the North East, where the strikers’ resistance was probably more effective than anywhere else in the country. Under a Northumberland and Durham Council of Action, which gave the orders, local Councils of Action sprang up in all the localities. These secured real power: for a time, the government had little control over what happened in the region. And who was responsible for devising the plan that achieved this remarkable success? One man, Robin Page Arnot. Admittedly, the potential power was there; he was the person who harnessed it.

Just republished is Page Arnot’s book on the General Strike. Originally got out by the Labour Research Department, it is a collection of documents from all sources. As such, it is exceedinly valuable for anybody who wishes to know exactly what was said, and in what context, during the nine days.

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Last updated: 3.2.2008