On International Workers' Day, Chris Bambery recalls the General Strike of 1926, the power of the working class and the lessons to be learnt in the struggle today
The carefully created myth of the 1926 General Strike was that it was a very British affair marked by moderation with strikers and police playing football rather than battling on the streets. That latter sort of thing was for excitable continentals not the tolerant and respectful British working class. Our rulers wanted that myth to dominate but so did the trade union and Labour Party leaders who wanted no repeat and to encourage the idea that British workers abided by constitutional means.
The reality was that for nine days in May 1926, Britain experienced the most dramatic industrial dispute in its history. Nearly two million workers took part in the General Strike, and a further four million were preparing to join them when the action was called off. Trains did not run. Buses and trams remained in their depots. Cargoes piled up in the docks, and mail went undelivered. Much of industry stopped. Shipyards and engineering firms were shutdown. The strikers were acting in solidarity with the million miners locked out by the coal owners for refusing wage cuts and longer working hours to save an industry in crisis.
Strikers confronted police and strikebreakers in many areas. There were riots in Plymouth, Swansea, Southsea and Nottingham. Five thousand stormed a police station in Preston to try and release a striker. In Edinburgh a football pitch was used to impound vehicles that did not have trade union passes.
Buses were overturned in Glasgow, the Flying Scotsman train was derailed outside Newcastle, while there were clashes in London, Middlesbrough, Edinburgh and other places.
The Conservative prime minister of the day, Stanley Baldwin, denounced the General Strike as “a challenge to parliament and the road to anarchy and ruin”. Accordingly, the government acted as if it was at war.
Troops were deployed to working-class areas, while Royal Navy battleships and destroyers were dispatched to the Clyde, the Tyne and the Mersey. The Royal Horse Guards were stationed in London’s Hyde Park, also ready for action throughout the strike. Army officers were given authority to use force they deemed necessary to maintain law and order. The state recruited young middle-class men as paramilitary reserves and strikebreakers, the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies.
On the second day of the strike in East London, strikers were baton charged by police in Poplar and Canning Town. The next day several people were injured by police as they forcibly dispersed crowds on the Old Kent Road.
The crucial London docks were put under the control of a regiment of the Guards. On the fifth day of the strike, a two-mile convoy of lorries, guarded by 16 armoured cars, cavalry and mounted police transported flour to the government depot in Hyde Park.
The director general of the BBC, Sir John Reith, allowed the government to control information about the strike broadcast on the radio. Reith denied the Labour Party access to the airwaves and even refused the Archbishop of Canterbury from broadcasting a plea for peace.
The government seized the printing presses of the Morning Post to produce a daily propaganda, the bellicose British Gazette, edited by Winston Churchill.
In Glasgow there were four nights of rioting followed by attempts to shut down tram depots manned by 7,000 “volunteer” strikebreakers. The Evening Times reported that “pots and pans, iron bars, pickheads and hammers were used as missiles.”
Mass picketing was the chief means used to try to keep scab transport off the roads and rails. In Irvine and Auchinleck in Ayrshire, pickets of up to 500 stopped buses taking workers to the local docks and obstructed railway lines to hold up trains. In the East Midlands, strikers attacked and overturned buses, smashed the windows of trams which ventured out onto the streets, filled the seats of private buses and then refused to pay the fare, or, in some cases, removed the carburettors of buses to immobilise them.
On 8 May, both the Northern Echo and the Newcastle Chronicle were reporting the obstruction of traffic by strikers in the Stanley area of North West Durham and on the Newcastle to Consett road all vehicles were being turned back by a large crowd of miners thought to come from Chopwell. In the early hours of 10 May, ‘an apparently organised attempt took place to stop road traffic on the main Newcastle-Durham road.’ Baton charges by the police dispersed the crowds.
One report read:
“The police were informed that large crowds were assembling along the Great North Road at various points between Chester-le-Street and Low Fell. Consequently about a dozen policemen set out from Chester-le-Street in a lorry and were joined by other police at Birtley. Before Birtley was reached, however, a baton charge was made to scatter a crowd which threw stones at the police. Just north of Birtley, at the Teams colliery, a further use of police truncheons was made. At this spot, pickets had attempted to block the road with railway sleepers. During a fight between the police and pickets, three policemen were injured.”
In East London on 4 May in Canning Town, there was fighting between strikers and police, after crowds stopped cars and smashed their engines.
The next day at Canning Town Bridge, strikers pulled drivers off trams, leading to a pitched battle as two to three thousand strikers fought police at the corner of Barking Road and Liverpool Road, after police baton-charged a crowd.
In Hackney on Wednesday 5 May. One eyewitness recalled:
“The whole area was a seething mass of frightened but nevertheless belligerent people. The roads and pavement were jammed, horse vans, lorries and ‘black’ transport were being manhandled; police were there in force and I suppose that for a time things could have been described as desperate. The crucial point came when a fresh force of police arrived on the outskirts, I heard an officer call out, ‘Charge the bastards. Use everything you’ve got’. And they did. I saw men, women and even youngsters knocked over and out like ninepins. Shades of Peterloo. If they had been armed, apart from their truncheons and boots, Kingsland Rd would have gone down in history as an even greater massacre.”
The Hackney Gazette, the local newspaper, did not appear in its usual format as the printers had joined the strike. Instead, the editor brought out a single sheet which on 10 May, under the headline “Military Arrive in Hackney,” reported:
“Victoria Park has been closed to the public. In the early hours of Saturday morning, residents in the locality were disturbed by the rumble of heavy motor lorries and afterwards found that military tents had been pitched near the bandstand . . . We understand that detachments of the East Lancashire Fusiliers, a Guards Regiment and the Middlesex Regiment have encamped in the park . . . another body of Regulars is stationed in the vicinity of the Marshes at Hackney Wick.”
South of the Thames, there was fighting in the street in Lambeth on 8 May while in Vauxhall people built barricades on the south side of the Bridge with police fighting strikers in the streets, chasing them through back streets near the Embankment, where women threw down bottles on the heads of the police.
There were fierce battles with the police in the streets of Southwark all through the nine days of the Strike.
“The young people would wait on the roofs of the tenements along New Kent Rd in an opportunity to rain stones and bottles on the heads of the specials and strikebreakers in their protected vehicles below. The police would respond with waves of violence: there were ugly scenes day esp. around Bricklayers Arms where dockers and railwaymen gathered. A bus was stopped, emptied of passengers, turned over and burned in the face of the police and the specials. There were barriers everywhere and the Trades Council had control over vehicles passing through Southwark.. The atmosphere was magnetic, men and women and children determined to stand united. It was a family affair.”
Meanwhile across the country grassroots Councils of action were set up across the country to organise picketing, food distribution and information.
The TUC worried about these because the young Communist Party had influence in many. It feared that its control over the strike was slipping.
In the West Fife coalfield, in Scotland, the local Communist Party had prepared initiating local grassroots, directly elected Councils of Action across the coalfield in April, prior to the strike. In Methil a leading Communist miner, David Proudfoot, reported after the strike:
“The organisation worked like clockwork. Everything was stopped - even the railway lines were picketed. The Council had a courier service second to none in Britain with three motor cars… 100 motor cycles and as many push bikes as were necessary. The covered the whole of Fife taking out information and bringing in reports, sending out speakers as far north as Perth.”
After police attacks on pickets, a Workers Defence Corps was formed which grew to 700 members organised in military fashion. Proudfoot recalled, “The police did not interfere again.”
While the Tory government and the ruling class were on a war footing expecting the worst, the trade union leaders had made no preparation for such a confrontation and from the first day tried to find ways of ending the strike.
Compare and contrast these two statements:
"It is a conflict which, if it is fought out to a conclusion can only end in the overthrow of parliamentary government or its decisive victory."
"I have never disguised that in a challenge to the constitution, God help us unless the government won."
The first is from Winston Churchill, Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer. The second is from Jimmy Thomas, Labour MP and Secretary of the National Union of Railwaymen.
Thomas’s fellow union bureaucrat, J. R. Clynes of the General and Municipal Workers union, stated in similar vein, "I do not fear on this subject to throw such weight as I have on the side of caution. I am not in fear of the capitalist class. The only class I fear is our own."
After nine days the Trades Union Congress claimed that the strike was weakening, despite all evidence to the contrary.
In fact, a report by the TUC intelligence committee admitted, “There is a small return to work in some outlying areas, this was due to lack of information by the TUC and was easily offset by those joining the strike and industries closed by it.”
On that ninth day, the TUC called-off the strike for a non-binding agreement, which included wage cuts.
Yet hundreds of thousands remained out on the tenth, unofficial, day—and 100,000 more joined. But, workers were not confident enough to stay out without union support. Tens of thousands of trade unionists faced victimisation with many facing criminal charges.
The miners were left to fight on their own and were eventually forced back to work in October on humiliating terms.
The union officials saw their social position resting on their ability to arbitrate between labour and capital. In the context of the General Strike that meant they had no interest in achieving success.
The Communist Party was young. It was small but its 5,000 members constituted a serious force made up of seasoned working-class activists. In August 1924 it had taken the initiative to launch the National Minority Movement (NMM) with 270 union delegates attending its launch.
In the months leading up to the General Strike the NMM built Councils of Action. Its March 1926 Action Conference was attended by 833 delegates with 52 Trades Councils present. Alongside this, by April 1926 the Communists had built some 300 workplace branches – a five-fold increase in 10 months.
But a strategic weakness had appeared. A number of left wing trade union leaders had emerged, in particular the miners’ leader, A.J. Cook. They defended the besieged Soviet Union and the post-Lenin Russian leadership valued this, increasingly more than the need to develop independent rank-and-file organisation. Stalin was not yet in control, but the state and party apparatus put their needs above those of the international working class. Accordingly, the British Communists followed Moscow’s lead and gave uncritical support to the left trade union leaders.
Cook and the left union leaders talked left, very left often, but as union officials they were not prepared within the TUC to break with their right wing colleagues.
Rather than taking up the Fife call “All Power to the Councils of Action”, the leaderships of the Communist Party and the Minority Movement raised the slogan “All Power to the TUC General Council,” the very people who would sabotage the strike.
After the General Strike ended, the TUC turned on the Minority Movement. In April 1927, the TUC refused to recognise any Trades Council affiliated to the NMM, and a year later it was totally proscribed by the TUC. Thereafter the organisation collapsed.
Meanwhile the working class as a whole were having to swallow the bitter pill of defeat. The defeat, or more accurately surrender, led to the introduction of vicious anti-trade union legislation in the form of the Trade Union Bill of 1927, where sympathetic strikes were outlawed and trade unionists had to opt in rather than opt out of the political levy.
Five months after the strike ended, 45,000 rail workers had still not been allowed to return to work. Some unions had to promise not to strike in support of other workers before they were allowed to return to work. The miners paid the highest price; they would be starved back to work six months later.
Union membership fell as did the number of strikes. Working class confidence fell through the floor.
If the strike had won, the British ruling class were in trouble. British industry lacked investment and was old fashioned compared to its rivals. Its only solution was wage cuts to restore profits. If Baldwin had been defeated, he would have had to go but there was no real alternative. The once mighty Liberal Party had fallen apart and Labour was, despite a brief spell in office in 1924, largely untested and suspect in ruling class eyes. The return of a Labour government, in that context, could have only increased working class expectations.
A victorious general strike would not have meant revolution but it would have created a revolutionary crisis, as in Lenin’s words, the ruling class could not rule in the old way and the working class would not be ruled in the old way.
The left wing Daily Herald summed up the role of the trade union leadership this, 'We shall never have another revolution for Mr Baldwin has announced that the strike is unconstitutional, and so the TUC packed up and went home.'
 Chris Bambery, A People’s History of Scotland, Verso, 2014, P182-183
 Andrew Gamble, Britain in Decline: Economic Policy, Political Strategy and the British State, Macmillan, 1994, P91
 Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein, Marxism & Trade Union Struggle: The General Strike of 1926
 Julian Symons, The General Strike, Ebury Press, 1987, P213
Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.
More articles from this author
- The anti-Irish racism rooted in Scotland's elite
- Forty Lost Years - book review
- Transforming the past: Walter Scott and the historical novel
- Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe - book review
- Remembering Otelo Carvalho: from colonial war to revolution
- Northern Ireland: Donaldson and the DUP in disarray
- 32 Counties: The Failure of Partition and the Case for a United Ireland - book review