Section - the road to the general strike

Issue date
12 Mar 2001

The short-lived Labour Government had more or less consistently cold-shouldered the TUC and .its leaders. And the Conservative Government, which took office in November 1924, saw no reason not to continue this conveniently cool policy, and preferably improve on it. So when, in 1925, the dictates of 'orthodox economics' impelled Winston Churchill, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, to land Britain back on the gold standard at the old pre-war parity - a move which inevitably played havoc with British exports, Stanley Baldwin, as Prime Minister, was quick to spell out the logical consequences: 'All workers in this country have got to take reductions in wages'. The coal-owners demanded that the miners should do just that, and that they should accept, also, a return to the eight-hour day.

The Miners’ Federation leaders sought the assistance of the General Council of the TUC, who successfully urged the railwaymen and the transport workers - the miners’ old partners in the Triple Alliance - to agree in principle that, if it came to a crunch, they would refuse to move any coal, stocks of which were now superabundant.

At this, Baldwin recoiled, and introduced a stalling subsidy to sustain miners’ wages until the Royal Commission which he now set up, devoid of miners’ representation, under Sir Herbert Samuel’s chairmanship, should have time to report. The eventual report recommended substantial wage cuts, such as the miners’ leaders, notably the veteran syndicalist, A. J. Cook, were in no mood to accept. The General Council of the TUC then took a hand at attempting to negotiate a fair settlement of the miners' claims with the exceedingly self-confident Government.

But the Government, which for many months had been making precautionary strike-breaking preparations, saw no reason to consider any concessions. Nevertheless the General Council had almost managed to negotiate a satisfactory settlement when an incident at the 'Daily Mail', where the machine men refused to print the leading article attacking the strike, gave the Government a pretext for breaking off discussions, on May 3rd. On May 1st, the miners lock-out had started. And on May 4th there began the general strike - as it was commonly called - for which the General Council had indeed been making precautionary preparations, but only during the previous few days.

In fact, the 'general strike' was not, in any real sense, general. (The trade unions themselves preferred the name 'national strike'.) The only principal unions initially called out in support of the miners were those of the railwaymen, the transport workers, the builders, the iron and steel workers‑and the printers, engineers and shipyard workers were called out after the first week, when it was almost all over bar the recriminations.

The Government, with the help of some people at the 'Morning Post,' contrived to print and publish an official newssheet called the 'British Gazette'. The General Council, none of whose members were allowed to broadcast on the BBC retaliated with their own newspaper 'The British Worker.' And it soon became clear that the sympathetic strikes were close on 100 percent solid. What was much less clear to the strikers and their leaders was the question of who among them was entitled to arrive at a settlement of the dispute. Should the Miners Federation have the final word, or the TUC General Council. 'The only question at stake - except those connected with the legal and political aspects of the conflict - was that of the terms under which the miners were to work, 'wrote G. D. H. Cole. However, 'the General Council insisted on its right to act on behalf of the entire movement: the Miners’ leaders insisted that they were solely responsible to their own Delegate Conference and could not go against its wishes. Neither side would budge, and in the end this was the ground on which the General Council called off the strike, leaving the miners to fight on alone.'


 

Contents    Next section...