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The Comedy of the Great English Strike

The whole truth about the recent general strike in Great Britain has not yet been told; and perhaps it never will be told until the memoirs of the chief actors in the struggle are published. But we know enough of it already to be sure that when it comes it will be a strange story, smacking more of the fencing school than of the duelling ground, of comic opera than of tragedy. The second of these metaphors is the more pertinent, for certainly this “great struggle” belonged rather to the stage than to the world of reality. It was a gigantic melodrama, written and acted for a worldwide audience and having as its main purpose to show “extremists” that “extremism” does not pay. It showed virtue triumphant and villainy defeated; and the actors on both sides, heroes and villains alike, played their parts almost to perfection. The play, therefore, though it is never likely to be played again, must be accounted to have been a notable success. Never at any rate have such plaudits reached British ears from across the Channel and the Atlantic.

The play has, however, a rather dull prologue which we would most gladly omit if it could be omitted. But it is necessary for the reader who is unfamiliar with the labor conditions of Europe to understand that for many years past “the General Strike” has been the battle cry of the left wing of the Labor movement, and the bugbear of the right wing—that is to say of most of the actual leaders of the British Trade Unions. To the latter it has been a bugbear because they realized its dangerous possibilities, the likelihood of its failure, and its inevitable costliness; yet it was difficult for them to prove that a weapon which, on the face of it (whether used to gain revolutionary or merely ameliorative ends) is the most powerful of all the weapons in the armory of the working class, and which, moreover, had been employed with at least partial success in Sweden and in Belgium, could not be employed with far greater success in a country where Labor is so completely and so efficiently organized as in Great Britain. They were unable therefore to rule it out altogether. But they disliked and feared it, and year after year have postponed the occasion for its use. However, it had to be used—once. And it has been used, by accident or design, in circumstances which made it almost certain that the play would have a happy ending.

The miners had an unusually good case. They were being asked to accept, at the point of the sword wages which would have reduced tends of thousands of them down to, or even in some cases below, the level of bare subsistence. And this reduction, as well as an increase of hours, was being demanded by a group of men who are notoriously the most stupid, stubborn and inefficient set of employers in Great Britain. The miners therefore had the sympathy of the greater part of the public and also of the press. Two Royal Commissions had investigated the condition of the industry since the War, and both had commented in the strongest terms upon its managerial inefficiency and the urgent need for its reorganization. The mine owners, however, repudiated all such criticisms and stubbornly rejected all proposals for amalgamation or technical improvement. The only cure, they asserted and reasserted, for the admitted troubles of the industry was lower wages and longer hours. The government, although it had had seven months in which to consider the main points of the problem, and six weeks in which to study the detailed proposals of the Samuel Commission, intervened only at the very last minute. It suggested a basis of negotiation actually only twelve hours before the lock-out notices of the mine owners were due to take effect, and naturally the time was insufficient for any sort of agreement to be reached. So on the night of April 30 a million workers were locked out.

On the morning of Saturday, May 1, the Trade Union Congress met and decided to call a general strike in support of the miners, who in their opinion, as in that of most people, were being very badly treated, in being asked to accept scandalously low wages without any promise or reasonable prospect of their industry being reorganized on more efficient lines. The Trade Union leaders were impelled to do this—much against the wishes of most of them—partly by a real sympathy with the apparently hopeless plight of the miners, but still more because there had long existed a sort of honorable understanding that they would support the miners in any really serious emergency. Of the seriousness of the present emergency there could be no doubt and they could abandon the miners therefore only at the cost of abandoning all hope of working class solidarity. They therefore declared what was not really a general strike—since the workers in several of the largest industries in the country were never called out at all—but a “sympathetic strike” on a much greater scale than had ever before been known. It was to begin on the evening of Monday, May 3.Then the real drama began. As soon as the decision of the T.U.C. (Trade Union Congress) was known, several of Mr. Baldwin’s colleagues urged him to break off negotiations and declare war. This, however, he refused to do and all through that Saturday and Sunday he continued negotiations, struggling for peace. By a late hour on Sunday night, acting in conjunction with Sir Arthur Steel-Maitland and Lord Birkenhead, he arrived at an agreement with the representatives of the T.U.C. upon a formula, which, though it might not, and probably would not, secure the assent of the miners, would certainly have averted the general strike. For whether the miners accepted it or not the strike notices were to be withdrawn. The formula having been agreed the T.U.C. leaders went off to discuss it with the miners’ executive council, hoping to secure its acceptance. This hope was not fulfilled; they returned, however, to Downing Street an hour or so later to inform the Prime Minister that the formula still held good as far as they were concerned and that upon its formal acceptance by the Cabinet the general strike, which was timed to begin twenty-four hours later, would instantly be called off. They found, however, only darkness and locked doors. The Cabinet had gone to bed.

What had happened was that Mr. Baldwin and his two fellow-negotiators had returned to the Cabinet room in triumph with the agreed formula (drafted by Lord Birkenhead) in their hands. They expected immediate and almost automatic acceptance. They found instead that during their absence the bellicose minority of the Cabinet, headed by Mr. Churchill and Mr. Neville Chamberlain—who were determined to seize this opportunity of “having it out, once for all”—had gained the ascendancy and become a majority. News had come through by telephone that a score of irresponsible but indispensable machinists at the printing office of the Daily Mail (Lord Rothermere’s popular newspaper) had refused to print a certain article which they considered unfair and provocative, and that since the editor rightly refused to give way a million breakfast tables would be deprived next morning of the journalistic pabulum to which they were accustomed. This action on the part of the Daily Mail machinists was of course not only unauthorized, but was contrary to the whole spirit of the orders which they had received from the T.U.C, and contrary also to the advice of the compositors and others of their fellow trade unionists in the same building. It was merely a piece of foolish and sporadic mutiny which had no bearing whatever upon the great issues at stake and would instantly have been condemned and repudiated by the Trade Union leaders—if they had heard of it. Mr. Churchill, however, had persuaded most of; his colleagues that this was the actual beginning of the general strike and that to continue negotiations of any kind would be an act of weakness and folly. The first act of war had been committed, he urged; the government must accept the challenge without a moment’s delay.

Mr. Baldwin refused to take this view, refused, that is to say, to admit that his successful efforts to secure peace ought to be rendered null and void by the unauthorized and essentially irrelevant action of twenty or thirty workmen. But it was one o’clock in the morning and he was a very tired man, and when he found himself faced with the threat of the immediate resignation of not less than seven of his leading colleagues—and this on the eve of a great strike which might still possibly not be averted—he gave way and consented to the drafting and issue of the formal declaration of war.

Then the lights were turned out and everyone went home—leaving the Trade Union leaders, or most of them, to read the Churchillian ultimatum for the first time in next morning’s papers.

So the great strike began. Its most notable features from the first were the remarkable loyalty and discipline of the rank and file of the Trade Unionists, and the contrasting half-heartedness of most of the Trade Union leaders. The railwaymen, and other transport workers in the docks and on the roads, came out almost to a man and remained out until the strike was officially called off. But the leaders had no stomach for the fight. They had wished not to coerce the government m any way, but merely to bring such pressure to bear upon the mine owners as might induce them to offer more reasonable terms to the men, and to agree to the measures of reorganization recommended by the Royal Commission. They were startled and dismayed to find themselves represented as dangerous revolutionaries, attempting to subvert and destroy the British Constitution, and to find also that owing to their own foolish mistake in calling out all the newspaper workers, the government had a practically unchallenged command of all the available forms of publicity. The government commandeered first the broadcasting service and then the offices and plant of the Morning Post, and used all its transport facilities by road and air to scatter copies of the governmental organ—the British Gazette—all over the country.

Of the British Gazette, edited by Mr. Winston Churchill, the less that is said the better for the honor of British journalism. It was a mere propaganda sheet, as shamelessly unfair and untruthful as it was technically incompetent. Called upon in the House of Commons to defend some of its grosser misrepresentations, Mr. Churchill frankly declared that he had no use in wartime for truth and impartiality; the government was fighting for its life and the British Gazette was one of its most effective weapons. It was certainly a weapon rather than a newspaper, and to a large extent no doubt it served the purpose for which it was designed. At any rate it persuaded the majority of the nation—against all the plain facts of the case—to regard the strike as a “constitutional” rather than industrial” struggle, and to make the ultra-conservative Mr. Thomas and his colleagues of the T.U.C. appear as something very like anarchists, who were threatening all those ancient liberties which Englishmen hold most dear.

The easy-going constitutionalist leaders of the Trade Union movement trembled with dismay when they found themselves thus portrayed; they writhed under the foul blows of the British Gazette. They wanted peace at almost any price, and while keeping up some sort of appearance of coolness and determination were chiefly concerned from the very first day of the strike to find some excuse for surrender which would save them from utter discredit in the eyes of their own followers. On the seventh day of the strike (Sunday, May 9) they were informed, upon authority which they accepted, that the Cabinet had decided to repeal the Trades Disputes act, confiscate all Trade Union funds, and arrest all the leaders of the Trade Union which were on strike. They understood that this decision had been taken by the bellicose majority of the Cabinet against the wishes of the Prime Minister, hut that the latter had succeeded in obtaining only a two days’ respite, and that if they did not surrender by noon on Wednesday these measures would be put into effect. This news greatly increased their perturbation. Fighting in a cause, or rather by methods, in which they did not really believe they found themselves face to face with disaster.

Their distress was aggravated when they found on Tuesday (May 11) that 75 percent of the engineers, who had been called out only on the previous day, had remained at work. They concluded the strike was breaking up, and did not learn after the surrender that the failure of the leers to respond to the strike call was due to an accidental miscarriage of the strike notices which had failed to reach more than a very few of the members. This, added to Mr. Bevin’s belief that he could not hold his Transport Workers very much longer, created consternation at the headquarters of the T.U.C.; and the only question the leaders were asking themselves was, how can we get out of this without palpably betraying the miners or admitting utter disaster?

Then Sir Herbert Samuel came to their rescue. As chairman of the late Coal Commission he was in a position to make concrete and authoritative proposals and he drew up a memorandum (which is said to have been privately submitted to the Prime Minister) upon the basis of which the general strike could be “unconditionally” called off any serious loss of “face” on the part of T.U.C, and without it being possible for them to be accused by the miners of flagrant desertion.

Meanwhile the government also had its troubles, arising mainly out of the incorrigibly warlike activities of Mr. Churchill. He spoke and wrote exactly as if the country were in a state of civil war and the government were really fighting for “King and Country.” Everyone, according to his view, who asked a question or offered a criticism regarding the government’s policy was to be treated as a traitor, as a Bolshevik in disguise. But he failed to realize that the country did not feel like that at all, that the prevailing public emotion was not either fear or anger, but rather pity for the miners, and wonder that such an absurd and tiresome situation should have been allowed to arise; and so his fulminations for the most part fell flat. Then came the most comic incident of the whole struggle. The Archbishop of Canterbury, after consultation with the leaders of all the Protestant Churches in Great Britain, issued an urgent and most sensible appeal for peace and the renewal of negotiations. The government refused to allow this appeal to be broadcast and Mr. Churchill refused to allow it to appear in the British Gazette. The Archbishop of Canterbury is personally a strong Conservative and officially is the greatest personage in the kingdom after the royal family. He takes precedence constitutionally even of the Prime Minister and the Lord Chancellor. Yet he was suppressed by the Constitutionalist party! Explaining the matter in the House of Commons, Mr. Churchill said it was impossible to find room in the British Gazette for everything. The Archbishop was naturally annoyed and is understood to have conveyed his annoyance to the King. At the same time a petition was drawn up and signed by many of the most influential people in the country, including heads of colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, captains of industry, famous ex-statesmen, powerful newspaper editors and proprietors and so on, praying that the Archbishop’s appeal should be published. The King is believed to have taken the same view, and on a hint from him and a strong speech by Mr. Lloyd George in the House of Commons, the appeal was first broadcast and then published. But it was published five days late—on the day on which the T.U. C. threw down its arms. Thus was the Established Church treated by the state at a moment of “constitutional crisis”!

So the strike was called off—just before noon on Wednesday. And immediately thereafter the Samuel memorandum—to the terms of which the Prime Minister, though he was understood to have accepted them privately and provisionally as a basis of negotiation, was not formally committed—was thrown into the waste-paper basket. It had served its immediate purpose; it had enabled the T.U.C. to end the unwanted strike and reappear as a body of faithful and loyal constitutionalists—-as indeed they are. The miners of course might have taken advantage of the situation and have insisted upon the adoption of the Samuel proposals, but, with the stupidity which seems to be characteristic of everyone who is engaged in coal mining in Great Britain, owners and hewers alike, they failed to recognize their opportunity and by rejecting all proposals for compromise, relieved Mr. Baldwin of the certainly embarrassing obligation of giving effect to the Samuel terms.

When the strike ended Mr. Baldwin found himself in an extraordinarily strong position. He was the idol of the country and could afford to ignore almost altogether the views of his fight-to-a-finish colleagues. The fight was over and they might resign if they chose. All over the country employers were seeking to seize what they regarded as a heaven-sent opportunity of reducing wages and ham-stringing the Trade Unions. Men were being refused re-instatement unless they accepted cuts of ten shillings a week or unless they became nonunionists; and a section of the Cabinet strongly supported this attitude on the part of the employers. Their motto was “Woe to the vanquished”; Mr. Baldwin’s motto, on the other hand, was “Let bygones be bygones.” And Mr. Baldwin won. Within forty-eight hours of the calling off of the strike his policy was accepted by all the leading employers in the country. He demanded peace with an authority which could not be denied and he obtained it—thus giving effect to the wishes of what was certainly an overwhelming majority of his fellow countrymen. For in this extraordinary strike there was never any bitterness. Strikers and volunteers fraternized, in full agreement as to the unfortunate situation of the miners, though doubtful alike as to what remedies were likely to be effective. For the general strike there was widespread, indeed general disapproval; but for its objects there was nothing but approval. Mr. Baldwin understood this superficially paradoxical attitude on the part of the public, and thus he was enabled to remain throughout the most powerful and effective leader of public opinion. In spite of his moment of weakness he has scored a wonderful personal success and is now without doubt the most influential politician in Great Britain and therefore in Europe.

It remains to consider the consequences of the great strike. We have likened it to a comic opera. The likeness depends upon the fact that the issue was unreal from the beginning to the end and that all the most powerful of the Trade Union and Labor party leaders were quite as anxious as Mr. Baldwin or Lord Oxford to demonstrate the futility of the general strike as either an industrial or a political weapon. So both sides have won and are satisfied with the result; and since both sides had the most virtuous aims, virtue is doubly triumphant. Only the miners are angry, believing that they have been badly let down. And they are not likely to come to terms with the mine owners until they reach the starvation point—which lies some weeks or months ahead. In that direction the outlook is still black.

Meanwhile we have all learnt one quite invaluable lesson—and this is why the play, for all its elaborate and costly setting, may he considered to have been a success—we have learnt that the famous weapon of the “General Strike” is worthless unless it is accompanied by violence—such violence as the general mass of Trade Unionists would never agree to. Accompanied by violence, that is to say) by concerted attacks upon all volunteers or strikebreakers, it would be omnipotent; no government could stand against it. But when it is adopted as a mere measure of, so to say, passive resistance it becomes almost a contradiction in terms. The Trade Union leaders ordered their followers day after day to do nothing that could possibly bring them into conflict with the police; and with that order they ordained their own overt, though perhaps desired, failure. The general strike is essentially a revolutionary weapon which can be successfully wielded only by leaders who have revolutionary aims, and are willing to stick at nothing to achieve them. In this case neither followers nor leaders had the smallest idea of revolution, or of challenging in any way the authority of Parliament; and so the fiasco, was pre-doomed. The general strike, in short, has been shown to be not a dangerous weapon at all unless and until there already exists a revolutionary majority in the country which it is to be used—and then, since we have a quite efficient system of ballot boxes, it would be unnecessary to use it. Great Britain contains so few revolutionaries that their existence need hardly be admitted. The outstanding result therefore of the general strike is to show that the sooner illusions as to the power of that weapon are lost the better for everybody. Probably it will be years before we shall hear anything more of it. The play accordingly must be adjudged to have been a great success.

This article originally ran in the July 7, 1926 issue of the magazine.