In (TUC) shown by the General strike. There

In essence, the general strike can be seen as an act of
revolution, not simply due to the possible envisagement from the Communists in
Russia. However, the question must also be asked if economic depression and the
unemployment problem added to the overall deplorable weakness of the Trade
Union Congress (TUC) shown by the General strike. There should also be much
focus upon looking at the problems of the coal industry and how this caused
great militancy from the miners. This could be said to have been greatly caused
due to communist influence, and also instigated due to the commitment of the Conservative
Baldwin government to cut the wage cost of miners. However there was also much
determination from the General Council to defend all workers’ rights if this
was not represented by the TUC completely.

Some historians have perceived the General strike of 1926 as
a culmination of the militant period in activity from miners which had started
in 1910. The vision of the general strike had been conjured up due to the
syndicalist activities that had begun around this time amongst all industrial
unions. This gave the working majority a unity which would eventually lead to
the mass population of people pushing for strike, they aimed to create a method
in which they could overthrow British capitalist society, a revolution of their
own that followed and was inspired by The Great Russian Revolution. Despite
this, there came much industrial conflict after 1920 as unemployment rose
quickly, this surely a trigger for the conflict, due to the failure of British
Trade to recover to the level it had been before the war. Faced with strong
foreign competition, employers attempted to restore output by trying to reduce
monetary wages which was eventually encouraged by Baldwin’s Conservative
government which, in 1925, reflated the pound and returned Britain to the gold
standard. Certainly it was these arrangements that increased the price of
British exports, in turn encouraging employers to try to reduce the workers’
wages, which unfortunately for the government caused the coal lock-out of 1926
and the resultant strike. During war years a galvanised trade union that was
determined to raise wages for miners was unavoidably going to come into
competition and conflict with both employers and the government due to their
wage reducing policies. Even worse, these made the workers feel oppressed and
fraught by the government. Baldwin’s conservative government was clearly compromising
workers’ living standards by making large cuts in their wages for the recovery
of their economy which was slowly but surely falling to pieces and would only
become worse after the events that were sponsored by these actions, such as the
strike itself and general militancy and therefore a greater ability for the
workers to accept communism and influence from Moscow.

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The TUC was expected to defend the workers due to all this,
this being ironic as it was the view of the successive political leaders that
the mass of workers had gone ‘red’
and it was the TUC leaders that were holding back the threat of revolution; in
February 1919 Winston Churchill bemoaned that ‘The curse of trade unionism was that there was not enough of it, and it
was not highly enough developed to make its branch secretaries fall into line
with head office.’1This
shows greatly the failure of Baldwin’s government, as even prior to him it was
visible that Unionism was not the problem nor really a revolution, and they
should be worked with, not opposed, as Baldwin did with his policies and cuts.
But as H. A. Clegg has suggested, a coalition of local leaders could control
national decision-makings that would occur and prevent union leaders from
reaching compromises which would be acceptable for both employers and
government, possibly due to the much higher expectation of what was possible to
be achieved by industrial actions. By the end government activities had
prevented the TUC from assuming the kerbing role which some in government hoped
they could adopt. In all, this shows how the determination of Baldwin and his
government to make cuts in the pay of the workers and focus on opposing the TUC
and communist instigators was the flaw that stirred the strike in the hearts of
the workers and industries.

After the war, immediate actions were taken which greatly
undermined and limited the power of trade unions. John Foster claims that the
orthodox Marxist line that was faced by the post-war governments prompted a
crisis in capitalism and imperialism, following World War One. He further
argues that this could only be revived by an attack on wages; ‘The attack on the miners was part of a
general drive to reduce wages, to force all workers to bear the costs of British
banking hegemony’2.
Despite Foster’s succeeding arguments being conditioned by an inflexible
Marxist ideal, his general argument that successive governments were committed
to reducing wage cost is seeming very viable and respectable as there is much
evidence to support it. In element they were so committed to this course of
action because of their commitment to the application of the report on The
Cunliffe Committee on Currency and Foreign Exchange (1918)3.
The report encouraged Britain to strengthen their currency and restore is to
its parity pre-war against the dollar and for the gold standard to be returned
to the nation’s economy within the next seven years – which in 1925 it did. In
time the implementation caused a number of actions, such as the balancing of
the budget (which was in a very dire state), the limitation of the legal ‘note
issue’ and the repaying of the National Debt which was seemingly unpayable in
Britain’s 1925 economy. One could not really be surprised then when in 1925
Conservative Prime Minister, would suggest that wages must fall. A Yorkshire
newspaper proposed after textile workers had fought off wage cuts: ‘Wages, said Mr Baldwin, have to be brought
down. This is not simply an incautious and unconsidered statement by Mr
Baldwin, a slip of the tongue: it is the settled and deliberate policy of the
governing class’4.
This illustrates how many of the working people all across the country saw
the cuts in wages as a class war imposed from above and they had the choice to
either respond with certainty and force through unionism or in their eyes be
economically oppressed by who they saw as the ruling class, represented by
figure head Stanley Baldwin. However we can also interpret from this that
Baldwin did not in fact have much choice in the actions he had to make, the
economy was in such a poor state he could not choose to not make cuts in wages.
Despite many workers believing that the governing class had ‘entered upon a course of action which has
for its object the deliberate intensification of unemployment as a method of
forcing down wages’5,
due to the undesired and seemingly unfair wage cuts, Baldwin’s options were
very limited and considering the state of the economy at the time one could
argue that his actions are not unbelievable but simply the course of action
from a conservative ideological perspective in the position of governing a
country in economic crisis.

The coal industry was also the cause of a great number woes
for the miners and was nevertheless key factor in the construction of
industrial relations which led to the General Strike, even prior to the abrupt
crisis of 1925 and 1926. During the First World War, in 1914, the Defence of
the Realm Act had been introduced (also known as DORA) which amongst other
things made industry subject to government control. The question remained when
the war ended; would the government give control of the coal mines back to coal
owners, as it had been before the war? Resolutions had been passed that both
favoured nationalisation of the coal industry and workers control, by the MFGB6,
however they still supported the continuation of state control and so not to
instigate industrial conflict, the Lloyd George Coalition Government sponsored
a royal commission, chaired by Lord Sankey, that would investigate the
industry. Despite the Sankey commission releasing four reports, the majority
report recommended that the coal industry should stay under control of the
national government. Lloyd George, remembering his promise to contrivance the
Majority report, came to the decision to return the mines to their owners and
so de-nationalise them. Immediately after this there was a mining strike in
York, which was unsuccessful, 200,000 miners in South Wales and Monmouth
threatened sympathetic strikes, in July 1919 although it never actually
occurred. In the end this support for the strikes did not occur. This
‘betrayal’ would dominate the coal miners in the industry for many years after.
C. L. Mowbat noted: ‘The bitterness and
the troubles of the coal miners for the next seven, or for that matter
twenty-seven years, derived in great part from the feeling of both miners and
owners that they had been betrayed’7.
This shows how problems in the mine industry dated back even far before the
immediate crisis in 1925 began. There had been problems and tensions looming
for a great number of years. Although
there were several disputes in the coal industry which slowly weakened its
integrity and solidarity, which would lead to the workers having eventually
enough, the real problems began Twenty months later when the mines were handed
back to the coal miners, on the 31st March 1921. The very next day
coal owners locked out all those miners who refused to work at lower pay rates
– which was up to forty-nine percent off in the seriously affected export parts
of South Wales – and tried to suspend the national agreements that had been
made. Problems in the industry became so bad that in the 1920 Emergency Powers
Act many troops from Ireland were recalled to subdue the miners and those that
supported them. This shows how the coal industry was in such distress that
military actions were required. The building up and building up of tensions
like this could only really result in something large. The working men all
calling for change and enough money to simply live on. There calls were only
being responded to with military and firearms.

There was some settlement in the industry. Although they
were forced to accept significant wage reductions and sliding scale
arrangements. Despite this wage levels remained relatively reasonable due to
the French invasion of the Ruhr land and the American coal Strike of 1924. The
1924 wage agreement meant that the wage percent on net proceeds rise to
eighty-seven per cent. This clearly exemplifies how there was some certainty
and stability in the coal industry at this time and not all was chaos despite
most interpretations deeming the coal industry a complete and utter mess. This
certainty however was very short lived it was in 1925 that the pressure down
upon wages began gain, which again produced the threat of a major coalfields
industrial conflict once again. Although one could discuss much about how
important the long term causes for the General Strike are, there is also a huge
amount of importance in the short term. The 1925 Coal Crisis that emerged from
all the pressures prior and the nine month respite were problems due to the
coal industry which needed to be dealt with urgently, the way this was dealt
with was of course eventually the General Strike that followed. ‘Red Friday’
that happened on 30th June 1925 was what happened after the coal
mine owners happened to decide they would completely abolish the national
minimum wage agreements made in 1924, and cut wages by ten per cent. They had
foolishly said they would maintain standard profits no matter how low wages
fell and their state of affairs would be much more pleasing if the accepted the
eight-hour day and pre-Sankey conditions. The Macmillan Inquiry Report was published on the 28 July which
suggested greatly that the coal industry needed much reform, ‘wages at some agreed minimum rate must in
practice be a charge before profits are taken’8
was the conclusion of the report. This depicts successfully how one can
easily interpret that the state the coal industry was in was that coal miners’
wages were really not very thought upon or were sacrificed for the economy.
First in the 1910s under Baldwin when the country was suffering a great
economic crisis, then when the mines were given back to the owners by Lloyd
George after the war. In fact the situation in the industry was so bad that on
the 10 July after a riveting speech from Cook described as ‘very animated and vigorous and hammered his point home’9,
The General Council of the TUC would ‘give
their complete support to the miners, and to cooperate wholeheartedly with
them in their resistance to mine owners’ proposals’10. This shows the passion and commitment
behind his words that was clearly obvious, it seems that the frustration and
need for change had been summoned in him to move the people to act upon their
feeling of being overlooked. The very fact that the TUC was so easily able to
stand up for the miners shows the extent to the problem as they represented all
unions and on top of this they were more wanting to work with the government
that anything else as it would help them achieve their aims and become more
respectable. However the problem was so bad that a ‘General’ Strike was called
meaning all industries went out on strike almost completely all for the sake of
the miners (and textile industry).

In 1920 the communist party in Britain had been formed, and
in 1921 was reformed in Leeds. The government, through these years had always
been extremely worried about the revolutionary actions the party ensued. What
made the party so dangerous to the government at this time was the creation of
the National Minority movement which highly encouraged workers in the trade union
movement to develop its power in terms of population and support. Despite this there
is much evidence to suggest that the communist instigators in Britain just
before the strike had not either not been successful in advertising a
revolution or they had simply wanted to focus on the strike and its benefits in
terms of communist ideology. This is shown in the words of one of those present,
James Klugmann, a committed and lifelong Communist; ‘They the strikers were
ready to fight on economic issues, to show their solidarity with the miners to
defy the threats of government – but they were not ready to challenge the social system’11.
This is enough evidence to confidently say that revolution really was not
in the minds of the strikers, there first and for most concerns were with ‘economic issues’, and the militaristic
attitudes they portrayed in

 

 

CONCLUSION

Successive governments felt the need to reduce wages more
and more as to make Britain more competitive in production and the
international market, however it is equally clear that the TUC was moving
slowly but surely towards a situation where they felt it was their duty to take
a stand again what they saw as Capitalist Imperialist economics that
compromised workers living standards. Despite there being nothing specifically
inevitable concerning the fact that the strike occurred in 1926 – and is in
fact odd that it did not occur in 1921, the Government and the TUC were on a
slippery slope of conflict towards it. Both sides did not actually want the
Strike to take place, the Baldwin government trying to defuse major conflict by
intervening in disputes. It was the vested safeties of both the TUC and the
Government drove them to conflict. Once all evidence is taken into account it
is difficult to argue that the strike was a big plot from either the
government, the TUC or even the communist party instigators or Moscow.

1
Quoted in K. Middlemass, Politics in
Industrial Society: The Experience of the British System since 1914, Andre
Deutsch, 1979, pp.143-4.

2 J.
Foster, ‘British Imperialism’, p.50

3
HMSO, London, 1918

4 Yorkshire Factory Times, 13 August 1925

5 Yorkshire Factory Times, 13 August 1925

6
Miners Federation Of Great Britain

7 C.
L. Mowat, Britain between the Wars, Methuen,
London, 1968, p.34.

8 Macmillan Inquiry Report, London, 1925,
p. 19.

9 Cook speech, 10 July 1925

10
W. Citrine, Men and Work, London,
1964, pp. 133-4

11
J. Klugmann, ‘Marxism, Reformism and the General Strike Committees’, p. 79

x

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