The Russian Revolution and World War I led to a surge in workers’ struggles in Britain, as an important new history of the miners’ strikes of 1919 shows, finds Lindsey German
Martyn Ives, Reform, Revolution and Direct Action amongst British Miners: The Struggle for the Charter in 1919 (Hardback: Brill 2016, Paperback: Haymarket Books 2017), x, 351pp.
The miners played a unique and important role in British industrial history. Today the number of coal miners across Britain would struggle to fill the Festival Hall. But at the end of the First World War they numbered one million workers, highly strategic in terms of their work and highly organised in their union federations. They were the most important group of workers and the most cohesive in terms of their industry. It seems hard to imagine now, but coal heated homes and fired industry and provided the majority of energy until the 1970s.
This book tells one very important aspect of their history: the struggle for shorter working hours, better pay and nationalisation, which dominated the struggles of 1919. That year saw a huge wave of strikes across industry; even the police went on strike. The miners were at the very centre of this industrial unrest which was coloured in their case by two distinct aspects. The first was the volatility caused by war demobilisation which existed across British society; the second the clamour for the nationalisation of the mines which was one of their central demands.
The First World War had a major impact on industry. The strikes of the Great Unrest which carried on right up to the outbreak of war in 1914 were ended once hostilities began and millions of men volunteered and were later conscripted. The mines and increases in productivity were central to war production. The discontent both at the front and domestically, which grew in the course of the four-year war, burst out shortly after its end, not electorally where prime minister Lloyd George's coalition was returned on a patriotic basis, but industrially.
The miners demanded in their Charter as early as January 1919 a radical set of improvements: the six-hour day, a 30% pay increase and the nationalisation of the mines. The coal owners had long been hated by the miners and their families, were notorious for their lack of investment and future planning, and for their disregard for safety, while the mines had been subject to major state intervention during the war. The post-war behaviour of the mine owners was as bad. Their scurrilous refusal to invest and their deliberate restriction of output to keep prices high were bitterly resented. They also used the big reserve army following demobilisation to hold down wages and keep hours long.
The government resisted the miners demands, who then balloted six to one in favour of a strike. Lloyd George then argued for a compromise: the Sankey Commission, which was to look at nationalisation as well as wages. There was compromise on hours and wages, but Sankey eventually recommended nationalisation in principle, which the government rejected outright.
The year 1919 was perhaps one of the most important in industrial history. It set the scene for further decisive conflicts between miners, coal owners and government in 1921 and 1926, which would eventually see bitter defeat for the unions. There were two huge sets of strikes in mining in 1919, and it is impossible to look at the militancy and determination of the miners without seeing in it two important strands. It was a reflection of the changes wrought by the war itself, and a sense that this monstrous slaughter must at least result in better conditions for those who had lived through it. It was also a reflection of the wave of left-wing politics which swept the world, leading to revolution in the defeated countries and in Russia, and to upsurges in countries like Britain and the US.
Nonetheless the strikes ended in defeat and the refusal of Lloyd George to implement Sankey and nationalisation proposals. It would be nearly thirty more years and an even more devastating war before that happened.
Martyn Ives has written an extremely good book which charts this story in great detail, looking at the different coalfields and examining the differences between them. He articulates the politics of the time in terms of direct action versus reformism within the mining union the MFGB. This is direct action in the sense of a left-wing syndicalist approach to industrial militancy, especially strong in South Wales, and was much preferable to the sort of narrow reformism which characterised many of the union officials and MPs. But ultimately it was the other side of reformism, because it lacked political strategy, and so when it failed in its immediate goals it led eventually to the victory of Labour-Party reformism.
How and why that happened is the story of different political strategies and the role of the trade-union officials, many of whom were extremely cautious in their approach. There were also political illusions in the Liberal leader, Lloyd George. Perhaps most importantly, the immediate militancy of the post-war period subsided. Capital was destabilised by the war and its aftermath, not least because of the Russian revolution and the short-lived revolutions in Hungary and Germany, but a combination of factors led to it regaining control by the end of the year.
Nonetheless, this is a highly important episode in British industrial history and Martyn Ives has provided a very valuable service by telling its story so clearly. There is one important postscript to this, at a time when we are often told that British workers have little interest in international affairs or solidarity. Central to the miners’ demands was ‘Hands off Russia’, or opposition to the British government’s role in trying to overthrow the revolutionary state militarily. In South Wales there was wide support for the Bolshevik Revolution, with capacity audiences on the issue at the Rink in Merthyr during that year. In July, when there were protest meetings across the country, over fifty thousand South-Wales miners struck for the day.
As we mark the anniversary of the Russian revolution, we should remember the hope that it inspired to a war-weary working class, and remember the very fine working-class tradition that is our history and hopefully our future too.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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