Section - mines for the nation

Issue date
12 Mar 2001

A brief but spectacular boom followed the Armistice, generating gigantic profits for the manufacturers concerned-a fact which did not escape the notice of the trade unions, whose own strength had increased during the war years from 4,145,000 members in 1914, to 6,533,000 members in 1918. The Wages Temporary Regulation Act for which the unions had lobbied during the last months of the war, provided a temporary shield against wage cuts; but many shop stewards and militant unionists felt that, with large profits and little unemployment, they could do better than simply hold what they had.

Unofficial strikes erupted in Yorkshire, on the North-East Coast on the Clyde and in Belfast. In Glasgow, police were brought in to control the strikers; but in London and Liverpool the police them­selves went on strike. As did many of the troops, returning home to Folkestone and Dover from the slaughter-fields of Flanders, on failing to recognise the officially promised 'land fit for heroes to live in'.

More serious, perhaps, for the Government, was the probability of an official national coal strike, arising out of the unsatisfied demands of the Miners’ Federation for higher wages, a six hour day, and the nationalisation of coal-mining, with a degree of workers’ control of the industry exercised through Miners' Federation representatives. The question of whether or not the mines should be handed back to private ownership now became a major issue.

The Government in alarm reached for a Commission: half of whose membership was conceded, in order to avert a strike, should be nominated by the Miners' Federation. The president was to be Mr. Justice Sankey.

The Sankey Commission, which included Sidney Webb, R. H. Tawney, and the miners' leader Robert Smillie among its members, though divided on various matters, came down as a majority on the side of the principle that 'the State ownership of coal mines be accepted.' A principle which, predictably, proved repugnant and unacceptable to Lloyd George's Coalition Government, which duly passed the mines back into private control in 1921. Meanwhile the TUC and the Labour Party had started a crusade for the nationalisation of coal, under the banner slogan 'The Mines for the Nation.'


 

Contents    Next section...