The 1926 General Strike and the Defeat of the Miners (Commentary)

This commentary is based on the classroom activity: The 1926 General Strike and the Defeat of the Miners

Q1: Why did people join the OMS and became Special Constables during the General Strike?

A1: People joined the OMS and became Special Constables for various reasons. Some were conservatives who wanted to see the trade unions beaten. Others did it because they found it enjoyable to drive buses and trains. Cass Canfield (source 4) commented: "I remember watching gentlemen with Eton ties acting as porters in Waterloo Station". Others did it for financial reward. For example, a Special Constable was paid £2 6s 3d per week plus food - miners had been locked out for refusing to accept wages of £1 11s 7½d.

Q2: During the strike, the Russian Trade Union Council sent a cheque of £200,000 to buy food for strikers. The British TUC sent it back. Can you explain why?

A2: By calling the General Strike the Trade Union Congress was accused of attempting to overthrow the government. See sources 5, 14 and 19. It was claimed that the Soviet Union was financing the TUC's struggle with the government. The TUC was afraid the public would believe this story if they accepted this money.

Q3: Extracts 8 and 9 both contain biased statements insofar as they were written by people with clearly stated points of view. Explain how the particular viewpoint, or bias, makes itself clear in each of the extracts.

A3: In the The British Gazette (source 8) it is claimed that the strikers failed "in their attempt to starve London". The newspaper compares the volunteers to a victorious British soldiers fighting in a war whereas the strikers are described as the "enemy".

The British Worker (source 9) attempts to explain why the General Strike has taken place. Trade unionists have withdrawn their labour in "order to protect the miners against a degradation of their standard of life". This refers to the reduction in the daily wage from 7s. to 6s.

Q4: Study sources 13, 17, 20 and 22. Explain if the cartoons are pro or anti the strikers.

A4: All four cartoons are opposed to the General Strike. In source 13, Bernard Partridge is suggesting the TUC is in conflict with the British nation. In source 17 he is claiming that the TUC is trying to overthrow constitutional government. Source 20 shows a striker returning to work. Partridge is implying that the employer might (or should) sack him. In his final cartoon (source 22) Arthur Cook is shown addressing a strike meeting. He is saying "Why work for your own sake when you can starve for mine". Partridge is arguing that Cook is keeping the miners out on strike for his own advantage.

Q5: Why was control of the media such an important factor in the progress of the General Strike.

A5: Printers was one of the trades that went out on strike in May 1926. The government began publishing The British Gazette to give their side of the story. Winston Churchill the editor, stated that "The field of battle is no longer transport but news".

The TUC responded by publishing its own newspaper, The British Worker, during the strike. Some trade unionists had doubts about the wisdom of not allowing the printing of newspapers that were friendly to the trade union movement: Daily Herald, Lansbury's Labour Weekly and the New Leader.

Local Trade Councils also published strike bulletins. The Government attempted to stop these local papers and of the 9,000 people arrested during the strike, the majority were found guilty of printing or distributing strike bulletins (see source 11).

People relied heavily on BBC radio for news. John C. Davidson, the Chairman of the Conservative Party, was given responsibility for the way the media should report the strike and took control of the BBC. People tended to trust the BBC news assuming it to be unbiased, but during the strike radio controllers did respond to the tremendous pressure exerted by the British Government. For example, after talks with the Government, the BBC decided not to broadcast the Archbishop of Canterbury's proposals for a settlement of the General Strike.

As part of the government propaganda campaign, the BBC reported that public transport was functioning again and after the first week of the strike it announced that most railmen had returned to work. This was in fact untrue as 97% of National Union of Railwaymen members remained on strike. Nor did the BBC report on the number of accidents taking place on the railways being caused by inexperienced drivers.

Several politicians representing the Conservative Party and the Liberal Party, appeared on BBC radio and made vicious attacks on the trade union movement. William Graham, the Labour Party MP for Edinburgh Central, wrote to John Reith, the BBC's managing director, suggesting that he should allow "a representative Labour or Trade Union leader to state the case for the miners and other workers in this crisis". Ramsay MacDonald, the leader of the Labour Party, also contacted Reith and asked for permission to broadcast his views. Reith, under orders from Davidson, rejected his offer.

Reith disagreed with this decision: "They are quite against MacDonald broadcasting, but I am certain it would have done no harm to the Government" (source 12). Reith feared that the BBC biased reporting of the strike would lead to the British public losing its trust of the organisation.

Q6: Give as many reasons as you can why the General Strike came to an end.

A6: Walter Citrine, the general secretary of the TUC, had always been opposed to the General Strike (source 23). Henry Hamilton Fyfe (source 5) pointed out the TUC was a conservative organisation: "There was not a single member of the General Council of the Trade Union Congress who would not have shrunk with horror from the idea of overturning the established order." The problem was that the TUC "had promised support to the miners, and they did not know what else to do".

Trade Union leaders such as Jimmy Thomas, the general secretary of the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) also wanted to bring the strike to an end. He had never supported the strike in the first place and was now worried about the decline in the financial state of the NUR. Strike pay was hemorrhaging union funds.

The leadership of the Labour Party had been opposed to the strike. Herbert Morrison (source 10) admitted that "in every working-class area, there was great sympathy for the miners, who had been treated abominably, and there was a universal and reasonably justified feeling that the mine owners were a wicked lot". However, most people believed "that political power could not, and should not, be won by industrial action".

Without telling the miners, the TUC negotiating committee met Herbert Samuel on 7th May and they worked out a set of proposals to end the General Strike. These terms were accepted by the TUC negotiating committee, but were rejected by the executive of the Miners' Federation.

To many trade unionists, Walter Citrine had betrayed the miners. The Workers' Weekly (source 15) claimed: "The General Strike would have won with ease, provided the leadership was effective. The General Strike was lost because it was betrayed."

Helen Crawfurd writing in The Woman Worker (source 18) agreed: "The calling off of the strike and the subsequent weeks of slow torture and suffering of the miners, their wives and children, are something that will go down in history as an infinitely greater betrayal than that of 1921. Not only was it a betrayal of the miners, but it was a gross betrayal of the whole Trade Union Movement."