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Nine Days in May, 1926

Churchill’s fiscal lunacy created the conditions that led to the 1926 general strike.

25 May 2023

Nine Days in May, 1926

After the war, Prime Minister Lloyd George and other politicians promised a ‘nation fit for heroes to live in’. But such promises were thin stuff. A year later a wave of strikes swept through the country, with Scotland in the lead. Red Glasgow became a symbol of 1919. Even during the war, socialists such as John Maclean, ferociously hostile to the war, had demanded a Scottish Workers’ Republic.

Had this spirit and this intransigence spread after 1919, the outcome of the 1926 General Strike might have been different. It was not to be. Moreover, the state was prepared for action. On 31 January 1919, Churchill had ordered the deployment of the British Army to Glasgow. They were stationed in George Square with tanks and artillery at the ready. Force was used, and for many Scottish families the memory remained strong, transmitted from one generation to another.

Churchill symbolised the concordat that had been established between the landed nobility, agrarian business and the bourgeoisie, both mercantile and industrial, from the latter’s emergence onwards. He moved with infinite ease from one political party to another, from one cabinet position to the next.

In November 1924, Churchill was alarmed by the rise of Labour to office (albeit as a minority government). British Intelligence did its duty and engineered the fall of the government on the basis of forgeries designed to out Ramsay MacDonald, the prime minister, as a closet Bolshevik. Sensing a Liberal decline, Churchill became a Tory once again, and found his way to the Treasury. His knowledge of finance and economics? Nil. One of his first acts was to clash with his own civil servants, who thought his first budget was irresponsible. The permanent secretary at the Treasury, Sir Warren Fisher, confided to Neville Chamberlain that Churchill ‘was a lunatic . . . an irresponsible child, not a grown man’. Senior officials were despondent: ‘they never knew where they are or what hare W.C. will start’.

Churchill then argued with Chamberlain, now in command at the ministry of health, on social reforms that the latter regarded as necessary to improve the everyday lives of working people. Chamberlain had suggested reforms related to the poor law, local authority rates, health insurance and the creation of local health authorities. He had envisaged twenty-three bills over three parliamentary sessions. Churchill opposed the measures, telling Lord Salisbury that ‘the rich, whether idle or not, are already taxed in this country to the very highest point compatible with the accumulation of capital for further production’.

But this was just a warm up to his most significant act of fiscal lunacy: returning to the gold standard in 1925 on the basis of prewar parity resulted in the long economic crisis that followed. Churchill explained his conversion to ideas peddled by a bevy of top bankers – backed by Montague Norman, governor of the Bank of England – as being motivated by the need to prevent any drift of the British Empire: ‘If we had not taken this action the whole of the rest of the British Empire would have taken it without us, and it would have come to a gold standard, not on the basis of pound sterling, but a gold standard of the dollar.’ Primacy would exact a high price.

The leading liberal economist of the day, J. M. Keynes, denounced the injustice of what this entailed for workers – a 10 per cent reduction in wages – stating ‘On grounds of social justice no case can be made out for reducing the wages of the miners. They are the victims of the economic juggernaut.’

The trade unions had the best part of a year to discuss the proposal, prepare a proper response and mobilise public opinion. They failed. Not so the government. The Trades Union Congress, dominated by ultra-moderate forces, was reluctant to act for fear of losing what it had already won over the years. In the interim the mine owners had threatened to reduce wages, but in order to avoid disturbances the government had provided a subsidy to enable the bosses to pay the miners at existing rates. During this period the government made serious preparations for a class war. The TUC, meanwhile, had greeted the subsidy as a victory and did nothing to organise for the battle that lay ahead. By the spring of 1926 the period of subsidies had come to an end.

A Royal Commission report, released in March, further stoked the fires. It ruled that the owners had a case, that wages should be reduced by 13.5 per cent and that government subsidies should end. However, it declared against extended hours, arguing that this would likely lead to two out of every hundred miners being killed within twenty years. It also opposed the blatant attempt to split the Miners’ Federation.

Initially the TUC pushed the Federation to compromise and accept the Commission findings. But neither the miners nor their leadership were prepared to accept wage cuts. On 30 April they decided to act and issued the call for a strike.

That same day, the king, George V, signed a proclamation declaring that the miners’ strike constituted a state of emergency. What was termed at the time as the King-in-Council had the power to take charge of the country in times of peace and war. It was, effectively, a dictatorship. The government announced that troops were moving into South Wales, Lancashire and Scotland. The navy was on standby. Mutiny, sedition or creating disaffection within the army, the police or the fire brigade would constitute an offence without benefit of trial. Civil commissioners – military officers, civil servants, notables – were appointed to districts throughout the country.

By May Day 1926, one million miners throughout the country were locked out. Their SOS to their fellow workers could not be ignored. A specially convened conference backed the miners by a huge majority (99.87 per cent), and the TUC General Council called for a general strike, though it carefully avoided using precisely those words so as not to create the wrong impression: ‘co-ordinated industrial action’ or ‘a national strike’ were the preferred terms. There were no revolutionary undertones whatsoever.

But mass struggles have a certain logic, whatever their declared aim. The political consciousness of those taking part often transcends that of their leaders, and this was certainly the case with the miners and other sections of resistance on 3 May, when the action started one minute before midnight. Churchill feared the emergence of soviets, but the only revolutionary force embedded in the workers’ movement was the Communist Party. Its national membership was only 5,000, and while its influence extended beyond that, it did not have sufficient weight to launch anything significant except on a local level.

‘The General Strike’, declared Prime Minister Baldwin on 6 May 1926, ratcheting up the rhetoric, ‘is a challenge to Parliament and is the road to anarchy and ruin’. The TUC’s response to this open declaration of war by the Conservative government was characteristic: ‘The General Council does not challenge the Constitution . . . The sole aim of the Council is to secure for the miners a decent standard of life. The Council is engaged in an industrial dispute.’ This was no doubt true. And yet, timid as the TUC was, limited in its structure and aims, and with no capacity or intent for revolutionary action, the government’s response was rabid.

Two and a half million workers came out on strike. Printworkers at the Daily Mail refused to print the Establishment’s daily lies, and the print operation was temporarily transferred to Paris. Churchill took charge, launching a government newspaper, the British Gazette, with newsprint commandeered from the traditional Tory press, much to the irritation of the proprietors. This was one of the first examples of a newspaper expressly designed to create fake news for the purpose of engendering an atmosphere of fear. Churchill’s ideological assault depicted the strike as a challenge to the state by Bolshevik-inspired agitators. It was, he insisted, ‘a deliberate, concerted, organised menace’, whose aim was nothing less than the creation of ‘a Soviet of Trades Unions’ that would take over the ‘economic and political life’ of the country.

This was pure fantasy. Trotsky, responding from Moscow on 6 May, painted a somewhat different picture: ‘We must look facts straight in the face: the chief efforts of the leaders of the Labour Party and of a considerable number of the official trade union leaders will not be directed towards paralysing the bourgeois state by means of the strike, but towards paralysing the General Strike with the aid of the bourgeois state.’ A prediction confirmed by the TUC itself with its demand that ‘[a] strong warning must be issued to all localities that any person found inciting the workers to attack property or inciting the workers to riot must be dealt with immediately’, and by the Labour newspaper the Daily Herald in an editorial titled ‘Trust Your Leaders’.

In addition to the daily propaganda sheet, Churchill helped mobilise blackleg labour via far-right organisations, including the League of St George among others. In the main, however, it was the army and navy that supplied the largest contingent of blacklegs and kept the docks operating to secure food supplies. The universities were at that time dominated by conservative students, many of whom answered Churchill’s call to keep the country moving, and boasted of their role in defeating the strike, their first whiff of class war. Baldwin would later claim that appointing Churchill editor of the British Gazette had been one of his cleverer moves. It kept him too busy to provoke more acts of violence. Churchill would boast in turn that it was the Gazette that won the day for their side. Did he really believe that?

In fact, despite Labour Party/TUC pusillanimity, the country was seriously divided. Only a minority of workers were ever on strike. Beyond this, a million workers were unemployed. Yet only tens of thousands of them volunteered to help the government. Special constables were drafted like sheriff’s deputies in the American West. Otherwise, the mix opposing the strikers was unsurprising: professionals of all sorts, ex-army officers, young brutes from the Stock Exchange. A sizeable section of the middle classes was hostile to trade unionism per se, and this was a chance to punish the workers.

A distinctive feature of the strike was the number of local bulletins and newssheets that emerged to counter Churchill’s propaganda. Some had a daily circulation of around 10,000 copies, their effectiveness demonstrated by the unceasing attempts by authorities to suppress them. Most of these rank-and-file publications ignored the TUC’s instructions to stick to the facts and not engage in comment or interpretation. In Newcastle, the Workers’ Chronicle challenged the sanctity of private property, with one headline demanding ‘Nationalisation of the Mines Without Compensation Under Workers’ Control Through Pit Committees’.

The TUC’s advice to keep the strike passive provoked roars of laughter spiced with anger in many working-class communities.

East Fife in Scotland was a stronghold, having created a Defence Committee. Elsewhere, clashes with the police and blacklegs were increasing. Trams that were still running were overturned and burnt, while buses simply could not operate in Poplar and Bermondsey. In Edinburgh the football ground was used as a parking venue for impounded vehicles that were not validated by the unions. In Leeds a blackleg-operated bus was stopped by strikers carrying guns.

None of these actions reached national proportions. A minority was prepared to fight, but it was bereft of a political instrument. And its own leaders were preparing to capitulate in the most abject fashion. They did so nine days after the strike began. It was a shameless and unconditional surrender. 

Embittered and angered at what they perceived as a betrayal by their fellow workers, the miners finally submitted rather than starve. Yet they would never forget those who had done them so much harm. Churchill became an object of hatred in Scotland, Wales and Northern England, as well as in large parts of London and a few other big cities, a hatred that was passed down from one generation to the next. The trade unions lost half a million members within weeks of the miners’ defeat. When elected in 1929, the Labour government refused even to consider nationalisation of the mines. Ramsay MacDonald, the prime minister, said the timing was not quite right.

With the crash of 1929 in the United States and the depression that hit Britain in 1931, the Labour leaders, genetically incapable of understanding – let alone combating – the capitalist crisis, simply decamped to form a coalition government with Tories and Liberals, leaving an isolated rump of party members in the House of Commons.

— An edited excerpt from Winston Churchill: His Times, His Crimes by Tariq Ali.

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