It’s June 1921, and British coal miners are about to end their three-month strike. Its failure means the end of worker solidarity after a string of bitter and violent confrontations with government and owners afraid of British Bolsheviks: https://youtu.be/NxPEaSFSnOM
British society emerged from the Great War profoundly changed, and this was especially true of the working class. The requirements of the wartime economy meant that miners, shipbuilders, and railwaymen had more responsibility and influence than ever before. Unions were able to improve their positions during the war, but once Russian revolution broke out and the war ended, government and labour were once again at odds. The workers wanted to keep what they’d gained, and government and owners were afraid of a Bolshevik-style revolution in the tense post-war UK. In this episode we’ll take a look at the situation of British labour, its connections to international socialism, and its bitter clashes with the state – and it all happened 100 years ago.
Prior to the First World War, the Labour Party acted as the vehicle for the interests of the political left and urban workers. Unlike other political parties, Labour consisted of a network of affiliated bodies, like trade unions and think tanks. Within the Labour network were groups like the Fabian Soc and the Independent Labour Party, both of which promoted socialist ideology.
Even though Labour included socialist thinkers and leaders, it generally pushed for reform, rather than revolution. They wanted improvements to workers’ lives to come from parliament, not from the overthrow of the system. That’s why Labour refused to affiliate itself with more radical groups like the Communist Party of Great Britain.
But the party did push international solidarity amongst workers – and that included working with labour organisations in Germany. With Anglo-Germans tensions spiking on the eve of war in 1914, the party was divided on the question of war with Germany. The pacifist Independent Labour Party and Labour chairman Ramsey MacDonald, opposed war with Germany, claiming jingoistic sentiments merely fueled militarism. The party’s newspaper also made this argument:
“...our duty is to speak up for peace, and our friendship with the German people. Our duty is to organise resistance to the panic, the falsehood, and the gluttonous greed of capitalism that is clamouring voraciously for armaments.” (Morris 26)
Other groups on the British left like the Social Democratic Party and the Clarion movement, felt that although war was terrible, it was necessary to protect what liberties British workers enjoyed. Henry M. Hyndman of the Clarion Movement argued this point:
“We are assuredly no patriots in the sense of desiring the workers here to concern themselves in the least degree in defending their masters’ land or their masters’ property. But we do desire to retain our national autonomy and such political rights as we already possess… the ascendency of Prussia [is] a menace to international democracy and Socialism.” (Morris 25)
When war came in August, the Labour Party generally rallied to the cause. A few of its pacifists did resign, like Ramsey MacDonald, but most stayed on.
So Labour was a rising political force for workers and the left in 1914, but was under pressure to support the war effort once the fighting broke out. Now, it would have to respond to a new political climate, and a supercharged wartime economy.
The war forced the Labour Party to shift its approach, and the new party leader, Arthur Henderson, worked to tone down the party's more socialist elements. Labour and many
many of its affiliated societies even went so far as to voluntarily halt industrial actions such as strikes. This was partly to prevent any stopped of war production, but also to maintain support from a public that was largely in favour of the war.
Labour organisations and trade unions also cut ties with internationalist socialist organisations, and the idea of new international socialist conference including labour leaders from Germany and Austria-Hungary. The Labour Party boycotted one such meeting in Stockholm, with the British National Sailors’ and Firemen’s Union explaining why in no uncertain terms:
“[The National Sailors’ and Firemen’s Union will not serve on any ship heading to Stockholm until the German government] make restitution to the relatives of the Allied and neutral seamen who have been murdered when endeavouring to escape from their sinking ships that were torpedoed by German submarines.” (Davis/Bland 210)
The war affected far more than politics – the mounting death toll on the battlefield also affected the economy. The war killed around 715,000 British men of working age, and wounded twice as many, resulting in the loss of 3.6% of the country’s human capital. 10% of Britain’s domestic assets, and 24% of its overseas assets were destroyed, while 25% of GDP was consumed by the war effort. The US and Japan now began to displace Britain on the global export market, and a 13-fold increase in the national debt resulted in rising inflation.
All this meant that the labour movement’s power and influence grew. With fewer skilled workers, and many more at the front, those who remained were even more important to the economy. Trade unions saw a huge influx in members, doubling from 4 million in 1913 to 8 million in 1919. After the war, smaller unions joined together to create powerful political entities like the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, the National Union of Railwaymen, and the National Transport Workers' Federation – which became known as the ‘Triple Alliance’ of British labour.
The need to maintain war production also meant that the government had taken a bigger role in many industries, including mining. It wasn’t full-on nationalization, but government ministries handled wage negotiations, and generally agreed to worker demands. The authorities even increased wages across the country, regardless of regional or productivity differences. Although strikes were declared illegal during the war, there was little the government could actually do to punish strikers when they occurred. When 200,000 men in South Wales downed tools in 1915, the government simply met their demands.
All these factors together helped further galvanize the trade union movement, and develop national solidarity.
So, throughout the war British labour movements had grown in number and power – advantages they wanted to keep once the war ended. But popular Prime Minister Lloyd George and the government were more interested in a return to the pre-war economic and social status quo.
In 1918, Lloyd George won the election thanks to an unusual alliance between his Liberal Party and the Conservative Party. The coalition turned in a landslide victory, even though Labour received a record number of votes.
Now, on one hand the election result gave Lloyd George a mandate to push through his policies. But Labour’s new role in opposition also gave voice to voters who wanted to preserve the more social policies introduced during the war. These divisions reflected the tensions in British society now that wartime solidarity had weakened.
One sign that politics had become more polarized was when the Labour Party added the openly socialist Clause 4 to their constitution:
“[Labour aims to] secure for the producers by hand and by brain the full fruits of their industry, and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible, upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry and service.” (Mowat 18)
The conservative media bitterly attacked the Clause, with headlines like “The Policy of Industrial Suicide” and “On the Road to Ruin”. The Fortnightly Review was one many newspapers which linked Labour’s Ramsey MacDonald to foreign, leftist revolutionary movements:
“...the Red Flag is the only flag which stirs [MacDonald’s] emotions, and the European Revolution will not, if he can help it, be confined to the Continent.” (Mowat 5)
The increase in political tension was a reflection on what was happening in Britain’s society and economy. Soldiers were frustrated by slow demobilization, and there was a serious coal shortage in the winter of 1919. workers were unhappy as well, and in 1919 alone, 2.4 million workers went on strike, resulting in the loss of 35 million workdays as against just 8 million lost days in 1918.
So post-war Britain was politically divided and suffering from social tensions that often took the form of strikes. To contain the strikers, the government introduced the Emergency Powers Act in late 1920. The act allowed for strong government responses to industrial unrest, and drew comparisons to wartime restrictions. In the eyes of the government though, it was a necessary tool to prevent revolution.
The British political establishment and intelligence community feared a Bolshevist-style workers’ revolution might break out in the UK. Scotland Yard’s Director of Intelligence Basil Thomson thought that worker unrest was a prelude to revolution, a scenario made all the worse by returned soldiers’ involvement. As one Home Office report stated:
“In the event of rioting, for the first time in history, the rioters will be better trained than the troops.” (Fowler - ebook)
What is not as clear-cut is to what extent these fears were justified, since not all British labour leaders wanted revolution. The movement was divided by the outbreak of Revolution in Russia in 1917. The Labour Party responded positively to the overthrow of the Tsar in February, but was much cooler towards the Bolshevik-led revolution in October.
Although many trade unions took inspiration from the more militant Bolsheviks, some Labour leaders became concerned about their anti-democratic practices. Henderson was even sent to Russia in mid-1917 to encourage the new Republic to continue the fight against Germany, but he did not come away with much optimism:
“Bolshevik is now the synonym for the noisiest and most extreme wing of the Socialists. They are certainly the most active party. They opposed participation in the Coalition Government and now violently attack the Socialist Ministers. Recklessly anti-war, pro-German, and anti-Ally. The followers of Lenin are even more extreme, but the two tendencies shade off into each other imperceptibly. German agents and reactionaries work under the Bolshevik flag.” (Davis/Bland 212)
But there were British socialists who were far more radical. After a trip to Russia, journalist Morgan Phillips Price was more than enthusiastic:
“The navy is magnificently revolutionary and so is the army at the front. The workmen in the factories are also armed to the teeth. It is a splendid thing to be able to use the armed forces of the country against the landlords and the capitalists. That is what armaments are for!” (Davis/Bland, 214)
Despite the differences within the labour movement in Britain, both moderates and radicals agreed that the country should stop its intervention in the Russian civil war and the Polish-Soviet War. The Labour Party launched the “Hands off Russia” campaign, and there was talk of a general strike – London dockyard workers even refused to service arms shipments to Poland.
Across the country, some communities gained reputations as socialist hotbeds, like the Rhondda Valley and along the Clyde River. The press nicknamed these areas “Little Moscows” and claimed they were run by Soviet-style councils. This wasn’t true, but some town councils used radical rhetoric and one even named streets after Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin.
So in post-war Britain, fear of Bolshevism was in the air, and even though this was an exaggeration, socialist ideas had taken root among workers. In 1919, the city of Glasgow would take center stage in the clash between left-wing unions and the government.
In January 1919, the Scottish Trade Unions Congress and Clyde Workers’ Committee demanded a reduction of the recently agreed 47-hour week to a 40-hour week, partly to create more work for demobilising soldiers.
On January 27, workers at Glasgow’s most important factories went on strike to force the issue. They were joined by other workers in sympathy strikes, including at the power stations and tram service, and union leaders promised more of the same if their demands were not met.
On the 31st, 30,000 workers gathered in front of the City Chambers in George Square to hear the government’s reply to their demands. Instead, violence broke out between the crowds and the police. Most accounts claim police charged the crowd from behind with their batons. The City Sheriff then attempted to read the Riot Act, but it was ripped from his hands as the crowd pelted him with bottles. Open fighting broke out, and the ‘Battle of George Square’ began.
Back in London, the government held a panicked emergency meeting, and the Minister for Scotland did not mince words:
‘…It was more clear than ever that it was a misnomer to call the situation in Glasgow a strike–it was a Bolshevist rising’. (Barclay 278)
Glasgow City Council called on London for help, and the government sent up to 10,000 troops and 6 Medium Mark C Hornet tanks armed with machine guns. English and Scottish units arrived the next day, but by then the violence had begun to die down. The soldiers were put to work guarding important buildings, and when the tanks finally made it to the city, they were never used other than as a psychological deterrent. Still, the press was invited to photograph them as a substitute for actual action.
The authorities had contained the violence, and the Glasgow strike ended February 12. Despite government fears, it’s unlikely the strikers planned a revolution. Unlike in some European countries, British socialists and trade unions supported parliamentary democracy. Communist theory was more of a rhetorical tool than a practical goal, as miner Bob Selkirk explained:
“It has been correctly said of the [local Communist] Party in this period that our members were weak in theory and militant unionists instead of conscious Communists. As a matter of fact, I have recollections of Comrade Joss, who was taking an educational class, asking us ‘What are the basic Leninist principles on which the Party is built?’ No one at the class could answer.” (Macintyre 58)
Just because British workers like the Glasgow strikers were not revolutionaries didn’t mean there were no dramatic changes in British society after the war. Unions influence resulted in new laws to protect workers, like the Unemployment Insurance Act of 1920, a law that would have been unthinkable for the government before 1914. And events in 1921 would put the new legislation to a tumultuous test.
By 1921, the brief post-war economic boom had definitively ended. The government wanted to return to pre-war financial practices, so they brought back the gold standard, which had been abolished during the war. This dramatically lowered the value of the Pound sterling, so to stabilize the exchange rate, prices and wages had to be cut, often by almost half.
The result was a massive decrease in productivity and employment - exports plummeted, as did the production of iron and steel. In January 1920, 5% of insured workers were claiming unemployment benefits, but by June this figure rose to almost 18% by June 1920, 18%.
Trade unions, especially the Miners Federation of Great Britain, called heavy industry to be nationalized – an idea that a government commission had also proposed in 1919. However, by 1921, Lloyd George wanted to reduce government control of the mines. The Prime Minster’s close friend Lord Riddell remarked on the change in Lloyd George’s position:
“I notice that L[loyd] G[eorge] is steadily veering over to the Tory point of view. He constantly refers to the great services rendered by captains of industry and defends the proprietary of the large share of profits they take. He says one Leverhulme or Ellerman is worth more to the world than say 10,000 sea captains or 20,000 engine drivers, and should be remunerated accordingly…His point of view has entirely changed.” (Riddell 179)
The government set up councils to moderate between the miners and the mine owners, but in March 1921 the owners announced wage reductions and abolished the national wage minimum. Miners who refused the new wages were to be locked out of employment until they accepted. In South Wales, some miners responded by flooding the pits, resulting in clashes with and a declaration of a state of emergency.
The miners went on strike and asked their sister unions in the Triple Alliance to join them. In solidarity, the transport unions agreed to a general strike for April 12, which aimed to bring the country to a standstill. This forced the government into negotiations, which resulted in a delay of the planned strike until midnight of April 15. Such worker solidarity perplexed Lloyd George was frustrated at this display of worker solidarity, as he told Lord Riddell:
“Do you mean to say that men who are getting £3 per week are going to strike in order to enable men who are getting £4 10 shillings to get £4 18 shillings?” (Riddell 241)
Lloyd George invited the miners’ unions to discuss a temporary wage agreement, but refused to bring back the national wage. The transport unions encouraged the miners accept the offer, but the miners refused to negotiate. This disagreement split labour’s Triple Alliance, and the transport unions called off the general strike set for April 15.
The powerful Triple Alliance had fallen apart, and among leftist groups, April 15, 1921 became known as Black Friday. Without their fellow workers behind them, the miners had no chance. They had lost the sympathy of other unions and the public, and finally ended their strike on July 1.
The defeat of the miners in 1921 would not be the first struggle that British unions would lose in the 1920s. There were more strikes, but they usually failed to sway the government, which handed power back to the mine owners. Government policy aimed at dividing the unions, and bringing union leaders closer to owners. Worker solidarity wasn’t completely destroyed in 1921, but after the failure of a general strike in 1926 after just two weeks, British labour never attempted a general strike again.
- Barclay, Gordon, “‘Duties in Aid of the Civil Power’: The Deployment of the Army to Glasgow, 31 January to 17 February 1919”, Journal of Scottish Historical Studies, 38(2) (2018)
- Church, Roy A & Outram, Quentin, Strikes and Solidarity: Coalfield Conflict in Britain 1889-1966, (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2002)
- Church, Roy A, Outram, Quentin & Smith, David N, “The Militancy of British Miners, 1893-1986: Interdisciplinary Problems and Perspectives”, The Journal of Interdisciplinary History,
- Vol. 22, No. 1 (1991)
- Court, W. H. B, “Problems of the British Coal Industry between the Wars” The Economic History Review, Vol. 15, No. 1/2 (1945)
- Crafts, Nicolas, “Walking wounded: The British economy in the aftermath of World War I”, Vox EU CEPR, (27 August 2014), https://voxeu.org/article/walking-wounded-british-economy-aftermath-world-war-i
- Davis, Jonathan, “Russia’s war and revolutions as seen by Morgan Phillips Price and Arthur Henderson” in Bland, Lucy and Carr, Richard (eds.) Labour, British radicalism and the First World War, (Manchester : Manchester University Press, 2018)
- Davis, Jonathan, “‘A new star rises over Europe’: what British Labour thought about the Russian Revolution”, The Conversation UK, (6 November 2017) https://theconversation.com/a-new-star-rises-over-europe-what-british-labour-thought-about-the-russian-revolution-86352
- Fowler, Simon & Weinbren, Daniel, Now the War Is Over: Britain, 1919–1920, (Barnsley : Pen and Sword Military, 2018)
- Hatton, Timothy J & Mark Thomas, “Labour Markets in Recession and Recovery: The UK and the USA in 1920s and 1930s”, Centre for Economic History, The Australian National University Discussion Paper Series, Discussion Paper No. 2012-1 (2012)
- Macintyre, Stuart, Little Moscows: Communism and Working-class Militancy in Inter-War Britain, (London : Croom Helm, 1980)
- Morris, Marcus, “Peace, but not at any price: British socialists’ calls for peace on the eve of the First World War” in Bland, Lucy and Carr, Richard (eds.) Labour, British radicalism and the First World War, (Manchester : Manchester University Press, 2018)
- Mowat, Charles Loch, Britain Between the Wars: 1918-1940, (London : Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1955)
- Riddell, George Lord Riddell’s Intimate Diary of the Peace Conference and After: 1918-1923, (London : Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1933)