[Book] In the Cause of Labour - A History of British Trade Unionism

“Bayonets don’t cut coal”

In early 1923, a crisis-ridden Germany had defaulted on her reparation payments stipulated by the humiliating Versailles Treaty. As a result, France sent 60,000 troops to occupy the industrial area of the Ruhr and seize coal, steel and other important resources. With German coal production disrupted, this led to an unexpected reprieve, followed by a brief period of artificial prosperity in the British coal industry. But with the withdrawal of French troops the following year, the short-lived revival of British coal exports soon collapsed. Exports fell from 42 million tons in early 1924 to just 35 million in 1925. The coal owners, to protect their profit margins, demanded that all previous concessions be rescinded and that wage cuts, ranging from 10 per cent to 25 per cent, be immediately imposed across the board.

“Britain today stands at a point of crisis – perhaps more so than any other capitalist country”, wrote Leon Trotsky. “The conclusion which I reach in my study is that Britain is approaching, at full speed, an era of great revolutionary upheavals.” This “crisis point” was clearly evident in the coal industry, a decisive part of the economy, which epitomised the general crisis of British capitalism.

An editorial in The Times thundered that general sacrifices had to be made to restore the situation. Matters were made worse in early 1925 when the newly-appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer, Winston Churchill, announced that Britain would return to the Gold Standard at pre-war rates (to restore the “dignity of the pound”). The decision was taken in light of the fact that the value of the pound had fallen to 90 per cent of its pre-war value and the City of London was anxious to maintain London as the world’s financial centre. The problem was that even at the old 1924 rate, British business found it increasingly difficult to compete on the world market. The revaluation of sterling would render exports profoundly uncompetitive unless costs of production were slashed. So the return to the Gold Standard started a clamour to cut costs – and this meant wage cuts.

“On the grounds of social justice no case can be made out for reducing the wages of the miners”, wrote John Maynard Keynes. However, this attack on the miners was about something more important than “social justice” – namely the owners’ private profit. “They are the victims of the economic juggernaut,” continued our learned economist, as if it were some invisible hand at work. With the 12-month mining agreement coming to an end, the battle lines were drawn.

The post-war years had seen a shift to the left in the trade union movement. Reciprocal relations had been established between the British TUC and the Russian trade unions. Alfred Purcell, a left-winger from the furnishing trades, was elected president of the TUC, and was joined on the General Council by fellow lefts George Hicks from the Bricklayers’ Union and Alfonso Swales of the AEU. The departure of Frank Hodges as secretary of the Miners’ Federation to become a minister in MacDonald’s government resulted in A. J. Cook, the miners’ agent for Central Rhondda, being nominated for the miners’ leadership. “Cook was a mountain torrent, a man governed almost wholly by emotion”, wrote his contemporary Francis Williams. “He was an agitator on the grand scale; the propagandist incarnate containing within himself all the passionate sense of injustice that had bitten deep into the hearts of miners for generations.” Cook had the backing of the newly established left-wing Miners’ Minority Movement. Although he had resigned from the Communist Party in 1921, he described himself as “a disciple of Karl Marx and a humble follower of Lenin,” and still gave support to the CP as he agreed “with nine-tenths of its policy.”

To great jubilation, Cook was elected Miners’ Federation secretary. Cook was an honest and sincere class fighter, and held in great esteem by the miners, but was deeply influenced by syndicalist ideas from his days in the Unofficial Reform Movement. Like many on the left, he believed that a British miners’ strike would lead, almost automatically, to the downfall of capitalism. Given the strategic position of coal in the British economy at the time, such a strike could have devastating consequences, and even act as a starting point for revolution in Britain – but only on one condition. That is, only if a bold far-sighted leadership was at the head of the working class, prepared to go to the very end, could such a movement succeed. The energy of the masses is colossally powerful, but like steam, can be easily dissipated. Directed through a piston-box, however, this steam can be concentrated to tremendous effect. The party acts in the same way as the piston-box, serving to galvanise and direct the energy of the working class towards its final aim: the socialist transformation of society. Without this prerequisite, even a general strike can become simply a protest with folded arms, which, in any event, cannot last indefinitely.

At this time, a number of initiatives were undertaken by the Communist Party to pursue a United Front policy, drawing on the support of other lefts for a common purpose. This policy was encapsulated in the adage: “march separately, and strike together”. The application of the United Front to the trade unions resulted in the creation of the National Minority Movement. This important initiative came after the British Communist Party leadership attended a conference on British affairs in Moscow in July 1923. From this meeting sprang the Industrial Committee of the Communist Party, which decided to draw together the existing rank-and-file movements, starting with the miners, into one unified “Minority” Movement. The aim of the “Minority” was to eventually become the “Majority”. The general ferment already taking place in the trade unions helped to guarantee the success of this initiative.

Prior to this time, no socialist group had undertaken systematic work in the trade unions with a view to winning them to a revolutionary policy. Some work had been done by the SLP and the BSP, but it was limited in scope, and was mainly conducted by small isolated groups of individuals. The CP was to take a qualitatively different approach. “Every factory, a fortress of the Revolution”, stated Lenin. Work in the trade unions and the factories was now seen as a priority in building up the party’s base amongst the industrial working class. Before the party could conquer majority support in the working class, it would first have to win over its advanced layers in the trade unions and Labour Party. In the words of Gallagher, the aim of the Minority Movement was “not to organise independent revolutionary trade unions, or to split revolutionary elements away from existing organisations affiliated to the TUC… but to convert the revolutionary minority within each industry into a revolutionary majority.”

The Minority Movement

The National Minority Movement was officially launched in August 1924 at a conference attended by 270 delegates, representing some 200,000 trade unionists. Tom Mann was elected its president; Harry Pollitt became its national secretary, and George Hardie its organising secretary. The aims of the new organisation were

“to organise the working masses of Great Britain for the overthrow of capitalism, the emancipation of the workers from oppressors and exploiters, and the establishment of a Socialist Commonwealth; to carry on a wide agitation and propaganda for the principles of the revolutionary class struggle, and work within existing organisations for the National Minority Movement programme and against the present tendency towards social peace and class collaboration and the delusion of the peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism; to unite the workers in their everyday struggles against the exploiters; to maintain the closest relations with the RILU.”

The Minority Movement, in the bitter industrial climate of the time, rapidly built up fractions amongst the engineers, transport workers and railway workers. Its main forces, however, were still concentrated in the powerful Miners’ Federation, the largest union in Britain. The growth of the left went hand in hand with calls by the CP for increased powers for the TUC General Council, to transform it into a genuine General Staff of the trade union movement. “A real General Council must be established”, wrote Pollitt in the Labour Monthly, “with power to direct the whole movement, and not only with power, but under responsibility to Congress to use that power and direct the movement on the lines laid down each year by Congress.” Despite the important advances made by the left however, the TUC General Council was still dominated by the right wing.

At the same time, the lefts on the TUC General Council unfortunately had a mixed track record in defence of left principles. An ominous sign of their future role was the stony silence of Hicks and Purcell at the 1925 Liverpool Labour Party Conference when the decision was made to exclude Communists from Labour membership. “The Lefts in the conference”, noted J. T. Murphy, “fearful of being classified as communists, rendered them no support.”[1] On international issues, however, the left-wingers were exceedingly revolutionary in their speeches.

Meanwhile, the Communist Party, through the pages of the Workers’ Weekly and its leadership of the Minority Movement, built up great hopes in the left union leaders, largely due to their radical stance on the Soviet Union. Alfred Purcell (president), Fred Bromley (secretary), Hicks and Swales had led an official TUC delegation to the sixth All-Russian Trade Union Congress in December 1924. The following April, the General Council reinforced its left credentials when the Anglo-Russian Joint Advisory Council was established to promote unity between the Russian trade unions and the Amsterdam Bureau. The Communist Party became the most enthusiastic supporters of Anglo-Russian unity, and the campaign to unite the Amsterdam International with the RILU. This position began to reflect a new line emanating from Moscow, with the emergence after Lenin’s death of the triumvirate of Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev.

Already at the Fifth Congress of the Comintern in 1924, Zinoviev had put a question mark over the future role of the British Communist Party: “In Britain we are now going through the beginnings of a new chapter in the Labour movement. We do not know exactly whence the Communist mass party of Britain will come, whether only through the Stewart-MacManus door [Bob Stewart and Arthur MacManus were prominent British Communists] or through some other door. And it is entirely possible that the communist mass party may appear through still another door – and we cannot lose sight of that fact.”[2]

It was in reply to these doubts and confusions that Trotsky wrote his book Where is Britain Going? in 1925. In a preface to the second German edition, written during the British General Strike, Trotsky graphically analysed the situation facing the British workers and the revolutionary implications of the unfolding crisis:

“Capitalism has been portrayed as a system of continual progress and consistent improvement in the lot of the working masses. This used to be the case, at least in some countries during the nineteenth century. In Britain the religion of capitalist progress was more potent than anywhere else. And it was just this that formed the foundation of the conservative tendencies in the Labour movement itself, and especially in the trade unions. Britain’s wartime illusions (1914-18) were, more than anywhere else, the illusions of capitalist might and social ‘progress’. In the victory over Germany these hopes were supposed to find their highest fulfilment. Yet now bourgeois society says to the miners: ‘If you want to ensure for yourselves at least the kind of existence you had before the war, you will reconcile yourselves to a worsening of all your conditions of life over an indefinite period.’ Instead of the perspective of an uninterrupted social progress recently held out to them, the miners are invited to move down one step today so as to avoid tumbling down three or more steps tomorrow. This is a declaration of bankruptcy on the part of British capitalism. The General Strike is the answer of the proletariat, which will not and cannot allow the bankruptcy of British capitalism to signify the bankruptcy of the British nation and of British culture.”[3]

In the meantime, on 30 June 1925, the coal owners gave a month’s notice to terminate the existing contracts, substituting drastic wage cuts, the abolition of the principle of a guaranteed wage and national agreements. The Miners’ Federation rejected these attacks outright and referred their case to the TUC General Council, which had promised the miners their full support. The struggle that was to be unleashed was no ordinary struggle concerning the coal industry, but one that affected all workers.

The Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, in his negotiations with the miners’ leaders made the situation crystal clear: “Yes,” he said. “All the workers in the country have got to face a reduction in wages.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean all the workers of this country have got to take reductions in wages to help put industry on its feet.”[4]

The Home Secretary Sir William Joynson-Hicks underlined the point the following day when he told an audience at Althorp Park that “we have got to find a remedy [for the industrial depression] and if need be, however disagreeable it may be, I am going to say straight out what the Prime Minister is alleged to have said in conference yesterday – namely, it may be that in order to compete with the world the conditions of labour, hours and wages will have to be altered in this country.”

The ruling class had declared all-out war on the working class. They were being told unequivocally it was their lot to shoulder the entire burden of the capitalist crisis. However this unprovoked attack by the coal owners and government served to rally the whole trade union movement behind the miners. The TUC met the executives of the railway and transport unions, who indicated, in the event of a miners’ lockout, they would stop all movements of coal. This position was endorsed by a conference of trade union executives, who also pledged their full support. This was the night the General Strike was conceived.

Stanley Baldwin, who treated the class war very seriously indeed, convened an emergency Cabinet meeting to assess the situation. Having weighed up the balance of forces, Baldwin decided to play for time to enable adequate preparations before taking on the miners, and through them, the whole labour movement. The strategists of capital were not confident at this stage of defeating the movement and imposing the reductions across the board. In making this tactical retreat, the government announced a nine-month subsidy to the coal industry as well as a Royal Commission to investigate the industry’s problems. The views of the Cabinet were summed up by Maurice Hankey, the Permanent Secretary to the Cabinet, in his report to the King: “The majority of the Cabinet regard the present moment as badly chosen for the fight, though the conditions would be more favourable nine months hence.” The nine-month subsidy was introduced to maintain wages while the Commission investigated the industry. After the pregnant pause of nine months, the General Strike was born.

Nevertheless, the trade unions met this government retreat with wild jubilation, and the Daily Herald displayed billboards with the immortal words: “RED FRIDAY!” What a contrast to the setback of “Black Friday”. Everything seemed as it should have been. However, the Miners’ President Herbert Smith warned about rejoicing too soon. “We have no need to glorify about a victory. It is only an armistice, and it will depend largely on how we stand between now and 1 May next year…” Cook also expressed himself forcefully:

“Next May we shall be faced with the greatest crisis and greatest struggle we have ever known, and we are preparing for it… I don’t care a hang for any government, or army, or navy. They can come along with their bayonets. Bayonets don’t cut coal.”

However, the Home Secretary, Sir William Joynson-Hicks, asked sneeringly: “Is England to be governed by the Cabinet or by a handful of trade union leaders?” Ramsay MacDonald, Snowden and the other right-wing Labour leaders seem to share the same cynical outlook. “The government has simply handed over the appearance, at any rate, of victory to the very forces that sane, well-considered, thoroughly well-examined socialism feels to be probably its greatest enemy”, stated MacDonald.

The capitalist press reacted to the government’s retreat with a howl of protest. The contemptuous editorial in the Daily Express was simply headed “Danegeld”. This was a reference to the blackmail tax used to bribe the Vikings to desist from raids on England. The coal-owners too were itching for a fight. For instance, the chairman of the South Wales Coal-owners’ Association described the settlement as a terrible disaster. There had clearly been a split in the Cabinet over the issue. The more hot-headed and bellicose representatives of the bourgeois believed the showdown should have immediately taken place. The more sober-minded representatives understood the need to stage a partial retreat, better to deal with the working class later. This view was summed up by Neville Chamberlain in his diary: “a stoppage of such magnitude and accompanied by such bitterness would inflict incalculable and irreparable damage upon the country”, and that the subsidy was therefore justified. Although there were divisions, it was not about the principle of attacking the working class, but simply a tactical dispute over timing. “So, thank God,” the King wrote in his diary, “there will be no strike now.”

The September 1925 TUC Congress, still rejoicing at Red Friday, echoed to the rafters with “revolutionary” speeches. The new president, Alonzo Swales, brought the Congress to its feet with the words, “We are entering upon a new phase of development in the upward struggle of our class. All around are signs of an awakening consciousness in the peoples of all countries that the present system of society is condemned.” Tomsky, head of the Russian trade unions, attended the Congress as a fraternal delegate. Minority Movement-inspired resolutions were carried by large majorities, especially on international questions. The resolution asking for greater powers for the General Council was, however, remitted for further consideration. The right wing had argued that the General Council had already sufficient powers. This was true and the left’s arguments were somewhat of a diversion. The key problem was the calibre of leadership. As always, J. R. Clynes summed up the real unspoken feelings of the right wing: “I am not in fear of the capitalist class. The only class I fear is our own.” The grovelling Mr J. H. Thomas, the railway union leader, rejoined the General Council after two years absence (he had originally left to join the MacDonald government), together with Ernest Bevin of the transport union.

While the union leaders huffed and puffed a great deal in public, the Baldwin government moved swiftly in its preparations for the approaching showdown. “We were confronted last week”, said the Prime Minister, “by a great alliance of trade unions. If we are again confronted by a challenge of that nature let me say that no minority in a free country has ever yet coerced the whole community.” The fact that the trade union movement, together with their families, represented a majority of “the community” never entered his head.

As part of the plans, the government proceeded to divide England and Wales into eleven divisions, each under an appointed Civil Commissioner armed with the Emergency Powers Act. They were in turn under the direct control of Sir W. Mitchell-Thomson, Baronet, Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire, M.P., and Chief Civil Commissioner. Serving under the distinguished Mitchell-Thomson were such important personages as Major Sir Phillip Sassoon, Earl Winterton, the Earl of Clarendon, Earl Stanhope, Sir Kingsley Wood and Lieutenant-Colonel J. T. C. Moore-Brabazon. Scotland had its own organisation directed by the Lord Advocate. These government forces were to take charge of emergency administration and ensure the maintenance of essential supplies and law and order. As an auxiliary, a volunteer strike-breaking organisation was established at the end of September, the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies (OMS). Generals and Lords, such as Lord Jellicoe and Sir Francis Lloyd, who had direct links with the government, led the paramilitary OMS. It had the complete support of the ruling class both in terms of finance and facilities. Leading fascists also joined its ranks as the most “effective assistance to the state”.

As a further precaution, on 14 October, the Home Secretary ordered the arrest of twelve leaders of the Communist Party. They were charged with seditious libel and incitement to mutiny, under the Act of 1797 and received sentences ranging from six to twelve months imprisonment. This was long enough to keep most of them out of the way in the run up to May 1926, although plans had already been made within the party to create a second-line leadership.

Royal Comission

As a foretaste of the violence that was to come, 50 miners were arrested during a fierce strike in the anthracite belt of West Wales. While the government was taking serious measures, the trade union leaders were lulling the movement to sleep, and placing their hopes in the Royal Commission headed by Sir Herbert Samuel. The TUC had established, it is true, an Industrial Committee made up of five right-wingers and three lefts, but they did nothing in the way of making real preparations. For them, the best way to avoid a conflict was not to prepare for it!

The Samuel Commission reported on 10 March 1926. The Report was framed in such a way as to cause the maximum division and confusion on the eve of battle: recommending a reorganisation of the industry through wage reductions and longer hours. The miners’ leader Hartshorn declared the Report “impossible”, while Ramsay MacDonald described the Report as a “landmark”. The Industrial Committee, eager to avoid confrontation, urged using the Report as a basis for negotiations between both sides. The Miners’ Federation conference however stuck to its demands: “Not a penny off the pay, not a second on the day!” The miners were in no mood to capitulate or compromise and were determined to take action on their own if necessary. On 20 March, a further national conference of the National Minority Movement was held to discuss the impending conflict and render whole-hearted assistance to the miners. The attendance was massive, and reflected the groundswell of support for the miners, with 883 union delegates representing almost one million organised workers – or nearly a quarter of total trade union membership.

After a series of negotiations between TUC representatives and the government, positions became deadlocked. Incredibly, the General Council called a meeting for the first time on 27 April, three days before the end of the nine-month subsidy, to decide plans in the event of a breakdown in negotiations! Ernest Bevin only admitted this astonishing fact at the inquest of the General Strike in January 1927, some eight months after the event:

“With regard to preparations for the strike there were no preparations until 27 April and I do not want anyone to go away from this conference under the impression that the General Council had any particular plan to run this movement. In fact, the General Council did not sit down to draft the plans until they were called together on 27 April …”

At the end of April, the executives of the trade unions were called to London’s Memorial Hall to hear the General Council’s report. The General Council had chosen a “negotiating committee” of three right-wingers – Thomas, Citrine and Pugh – to conduct negotiations with the government, which would refer back to the full Council. After discussion, the three from the union side decided to accept the Samuel report as a basis for agreement, but the miners refused to countenance the idea and the government refused to budge. After hearing the report, the conference of trade union executives voted “to place their powers in the hands of the General Council”, and to conduct a general stoppage, by 3,653,527 votes to 49,911. The General Council had simply stumbled by accident into a General Strike that the majority did not want nor believe in.

The General Council was given the sole authority for running the proposed strike, including the terms of its termination. The Miners’ Federation would be consulted, but the General Council would decide. In the opening shot of the battle, Bevin announced that those unions deemed in the “first line” of the General Strike, would cease work from midnight on Monday 3 May.

“We look upon your ‘yes’ as meaning that you have placed your all upon the altar of this great Movement, and having placed it there, even if every penny goes, if every asset goes, history will ultimately write up that it was a magnificent generation that was prepared to do it rather than see the miners driven down like slaves.” Bevin’s oration ended: “I rely, in the name of the General Council, on every man and every woman in that grade to fight for the soul of Labour and the salvation of the miners.”

The TUC leaders, fearful of the mandate placed in their hands, reluctantly picked up the gauntlet thrown down by the Baldwin government. “It [the movement] was the first of its kind in this country: there had been no preparation for it at all: it was an improvised organisation”, stated Bevin later. Despite all the bold speeches, TUC leaders were entering into the struggle blindfolded and with one hand tied behind their back. If it had been left up to them, the fight would have ended before it had started. It was the magnificent response from below that stunned the government, and above all, shocked the leaders of the TUC.


[1] Murphy, op.cit, p.233

[2] Quoted in Communism in Britain, Woodhouse & Pearce, p.139, London 1975

[3] Trotsky, op. cit, pp.143-4, London 1974

[4] Daily Herald, 31 July 1925