The Worker 29 January 1916
Source: The Worker no. 4, 29 January 1916 p. 1-2;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
The Scottish Miners, according to the votes cast at the congress of the British Miners’ Federation, are supposed to be unanimously opposed to any form of conscription. Consequently it has been agreed, there being 100,000 organised miners in Scotland, they should be able to make conscription impossible, even if the other workers north of the Tweed remained inactive. Unfortunately it is not the case that all the Scottish miners are opposed to conscription, although it is apparent that a majority of them are. If this majority were to act in conjunction with the Clyde workers, who are opposed to military compulsion, this country would be saved from the worst feature of militarism at least.
The miners who will stand against conscription, if given the proper lead, are located in Lanarkshire and Fifeshire, which are the two vital coal producing areas in Scotland; consequently, if the miners in these two counties combined forces with the Clyde workers they could, in my opinion, make the Military Service Bill or Act so much scrap paper, and that without the loss of one hour’s working time. The Bill would be withdrawn if the Government was made to feel that the men who determine on action would be in earnest. And the men must be in earnest.
The Lanarkshire Miners are generally free from the jingoism which prevails in the towns. and cities. They have always been independent thinkers and have maintained their balance during the war as is proved by the way they have continued their Socialist propaganda during 1915. They are not thoroughly anti-war, but they do not understand the prolongation of a conflict which can only end in the defeat of Europe, and they are convinced that the conscription of single men cannot of itself achieve a military victory for the Allies who have already 20,000,000 under arms. They have borne many grievances patiently during the past eighteen months, but they are not likely to suffer conscription without a struggle.
The Fifeshire miners have always been sturdy rebels, and the active spirits among them have much in common with the Clyde Workers’ Committee in so far as they are anxious to win for organised labour a share in the control of industry. Their hostility to conscription may be gauged from the fact that their Member of Parliament, Mr, Wm. Adamson, M.P. did not vote for the Military Service Bill in deference to the feeling in the constituency. Among the rank and file are men capable of stirring up revolt, and the branch delegates, who are akin to the shop stewards in the Clyde area, may be trusted to lead in any movement against conscription. The Fife miners can be depended upon to act strongly given the right lead.
The miners in Ayrshire, Stirlingshire, and the Lothians cannot be depended upon in the mass to fight against conscription as can the miners in Lanarkshire and Fifeshire. In the three aforementioned areas the men are unfortunately swayed gently by their paid officials, some of whom are already at work undermining the vote of the British Miners’ Federation against conscription by holding small local meetings in favour of the Military Service Bill. Nearly all the officials in question are keen supporters: of the war, and some of them would support unlimited compulsion to bring the war to a “successful conclusion,” whatever that means. In the Lothians, however, there are many individuals who will resist conscription to the end, and it will be no easy matter to fetch them.
The conscription of single men does not appeal to the general mass of miners because, apart from the question of principle, it affects them financially. In this way the hardest work in the pits, such as “drawing” and kindred tasks, is done by young men, and if these men were conscripted the older men would be thrown idle in large numbers or would have their earnings reduced considerably as most of them are physically unfit to do the work performed by the young men. Moreover, most miners work in family groups of three or four, and if conscription is enforced these groups will be broken up by the withdrawal of the young men. Therefore the miners, particularly in Lanarkshire and Fife-shire, may be relied on to resist compulsion with the force at their command.
The members of the Clyde Workers’ Committee and kindred organisations will manage to organise the opposition in the Clyde area; but we want to send propagandists into Lanarkshire and Fifeshire to explain the situation to the miners. That propaganda has got to be started now and carried on extensively during the next three weeks. These propagandists would receive every assistance from the branch delegates and the I.L.P. and B.S.P. branches and would require to co-operate with them. The propagandists would find the miners ready and sympathetic listeners, and the effect of this insistent propaganda would be to create a common understanding between the Clyde men and the miners. Once that understanding is reached the rest is easy.
At the very earliest the Military Service Bill will not come into full operation for four weeks from now, and in that time it ought to be, and is, possible to arrive at an arrangement between the miners and the Munition workers whereby common action would be agreed upon to enforce the withdrawal of the Bill or repeal of the Act. That this is no impossible task is proved by (1) the miners’ refusal to accept the Munitions’ Act, and (2) the amendment of the Munitions Act following the agitation by the men on the Clyde. These two facts prove that the miners and the Munition workers have power if they will combine and use it.
Now the man who can effect unity of action between the miners and the Clyde workers is Robert Smillie, who is trusted by both sections. Therefore the Clyde workers should approach Robert Smillie and offer him their assistance and co-operation in any measures he may decide to take to make conscription ineffective. For, be it remembered, Mr. Smillie has declared publicly that he will do all in his power to render the Military Service Bill, if passed into law, ineffective; and the only way he can render it ineffective is if he has sufficient of the organised workers behind him to compel the Government to climb down. There is no other way. Robert Smillie alone would be an influence. Robert Smillie as leader of the united movement against conscription would be a triumphant force. And it is Force and not Influence that will win against a cowardly Government dominated, as it is, by an unscrupulous and prevaricating Welsh solicitor.
Among the National Trade Union leaders Robert Smillie has proved himself a Big Man in this hour of peril to Democracy. Alone, almost, he has stood out against conscription undismayed by the jeers of opponents and the callousness of “friends.” In taking a courageous stand against conscription he has been actuated by principle, and because he fears that conscription will mean a democratic standstill for fifty years. Robert Smillie fears neither friend nor foe, and he is the one man whom all the workers trust, and therefore the man to lead the forces combined against conscription. If he leads them he will lead them to victory or death – and death would be preferable to defeat.
But with Smillie in the van victory would be assured. Of that I have no doubt. Much as we may dislike the idea of leaders, we have to recognise the importance of having an outstanding man, a man of national renown on our side in a crisis like this of conscription or no conscription. A man like Smillie will not only inspire confidence in the miners and the Munition worker; he will inspire confidence in all others who are opposed to Military enslavement. It is that kind of man we want now.