Thursday, 8 July 2010

Tim Evans on Llanelli 1911

“A dim spectre of revolution hung over Britain”
Llanelli 1911: The Great Unrest in a Welsh Town

By Tim Evans
From LSHG Newsletter #39 (July 2010)

“Until lately, the news of industrial violence on the Continent has affected the British public much as the howling of the storm outside affects a man comfortably sitting by his own fireside. Any fear that the dangerous forms assumed by labour revolts abroad might be imitated at home has been tranquilised by the belief that our trade union system and the traditional common sense of the nation would be a sufficient protection against industrial revolution. The outbreak this summer (1911) has dispelled this confidence, and has shown that here, as elsewhere, the never-ending conflict between Capital and Labour has entered upon a new and alarming phase which menaces the prosperity of trade and the social institutions of the country.” 1
- Sir Arthur Clay, 'Public Opinion and Industrial Unrest'

Sir Arthur Clay’s ruminations expressed cogently the alarm of the British ruling class at the wave of industrial insurgency that began to gather force in 1910 and by the summer of 1911 was sweeping the country. George Askwith, a conciliator with the Board of Trade, wrote, “One ship owner in Hull spoke of revolution, and so it was. I heard one town councillor remark that he had been in Paris during the Commune but had never known anything like this.” 2
In August 1911 the militancy of the general transport strike in Liverpool impelled the lord mayor to ring Lord Derby at the War Office to say: “This is no ordinary strike riot — a revolution is in progress.” The government rushed two warships to the Mersey, their guns trained on the centre of Liverpool. King George V sent a message to Winston Churchill the Liberal Home Secretary:

 “Accounts from Liverpool show that the situation there is more like revolution than strike. Trust that the Government, while inducing strike leaders to come to terms, will take proper steps...(Troops) should not be called upon except as a last resource, but if called upon, they should be given a free hand and the mob should be made to fear them.” 3

This was not just the hyperbole of a rattled ruling class. Professional revolutionaries saw Britain in 1911 as in a potentially pre-revolutionary situation. Lenin wrote at the time: “... the railway strike of 1911 displayed the ‘new spirit’ of the British workers...In Britain a change has taken place in the relation of social forces, a change which cannot be expressed in figures, but which everyone feels"4 "...the British proletariat is no longer the same. The workers have learned to fight. They have discovered the path that will lead them to victory. They have become aware of their power.” 5

Leon Trotsky, writing in 1924-5, said: “1911 to 1913 were years of unparalleled class battles by miners, railwaymen and other transport workers. In August 1911 a national, in other words, a general strike developed on the railways. During those days a dim spectre of revolution hung over Britain.” 6

The journalist and historian George Dangerfield, although no revolutionary, in his 1935 study of the collapse of Liberal hegemony in Britain, observed that: “The workers of England (sic), united neither in their politics nor in their grievances, with no single desire for solidarity, yet contrived to project a movement which took a revolutionary course and might have reached a revolutionary is this to be explained?” 7

While the rail and transport strikes of 1911 saw several major near-insurrectionary challenges develop between workers and the forces of the State, notably in Liverpool and Hull, the bitterest and most protracted confrontation took place in Llanelli, a largely Welsh-speaking industrial town in the far reaches of south west Wales, where the shooting dead of two men by troops provoked a general uprising. While soldiers, bayonets fixed, struggled to clear the streets, strikers and their supporters fought back, torching the wagons and trucks of the Great Western Railway Company, laying siege to a police station where a scab was being held and attacking and looting the shops of the magistrates who had called in the troops. A soldier refused to fire on the crowd, was taken into military custody, escaped and went on the run, the charges against him being eventually commuted from ‘desertion whilst in aid of the civil power’ to the much less serious ‘absent without leave’ for fear of class reaction to a punitive sentence.

A very British insurgency

Sir Arthur Clay believed that in British society the fear of continental-style revolutions had been “tranquilised by the belief that our trade union system and the traditional common sense of the nation would be a sufficient protection against industrial revolution”. Yet during the period from 1910 to 1913 these comforting beliefs were found to be wholly illusory. The great wave of industrial insurgency had far-reaching effects: Dangerfield and others identify it as a major precipitating factor in the ongoing breakdown of the liberal consensus and the rise of Labourism. As Cliff and Gluckstein put it:

“Labour’s final emergence from the cocoon of liberalism owed nothing to its own efforts, or even to those of the left. It arose from the second, and far more serious alternative to Labourism, the ‘Labour Unrest’ of 1910-1914...(in which) the working class returned to the stage of history with a ferocity which terrified the Labour Party as much as the ruling class.”8

‘Ferocity’ was indeed a feature of this period of heightened class conflict. In his study of British syndicalism, Bob Holton contrasts the features of earlier periods of working class militancy, such as the ‘explosions’ of 1871-73 and the ‘new unionism’ of 1889- 91, with 1910-1914.

“There is...a vivid contrast between the London dock strike of 1889, when dockers marched peacefully through the City of London to gain public sympathy, and the 1910 Welsh miners’ strike when miners clashed violently with civil power at Tonypandy and elsewhere...what Eric Hobsbawm called ‘the evangelistic organising campaigns of the dock strike period’ as against the ‘mass rebellions’ of the later explosion... what most disturbed middle class interests about the ‘labour unrest’ was undoubtedly its violent, unofficial and insurgent character,” characterised by “the apparent failure of the trade union movement to channel industrial grievances through the increasingly acceptable institutions of collective bargaining and conciliation...The spirit of compromise fostered within collective bargaining mechanisms was being replaced by direct action.” 9

This new spirit was much in evidence in Llanelli in August 1911, where militant action led to violent confrontations with the forces of the state. The combativity of workers during this period does much to undermine the myth, current during periods of low struggle, of the docile,
passive British worker who has bought into the system and will not fight. Phases of high or low class struggle are not determined by such ‘national characteristics’ as Sir Arthur Clay’s “traditional common sense of the nation”, but by the material factors which comprise the balance of class forces at any given historical moment, shaping the prominence, form and intensity of class conflict.

Key to the whole question is the pressure of economic factors, although there is no simple, mechanical or
automatic relationship between economic conditions and the level of working class resistance. What has been the impact of past defeats or victories? What is the relative strength of the trade union bureaucracy as opposed to rank and file organisation? What is the state of development of the trade unions and the mass reformist parties? What is the influence, if any, of revolutionary and left groups, and what is their relationship to the trade unions? Factors such as the historical traditions of the class, the degree of consciousness and organisation, and the quality of its leadership all have their effect.

The industrial uprisings came about from a constellation of factors, both economic and political, some of which might sound familiar. Real wages were declining. A new government strategy of incorporation was being exercised in an attempt to meet the challenge of growing trade union membership and militancy. A layer of trade union bureaucrats was being formed and cultivated by the government and employers in order to defuse the strike wave. The emergent Labour Party was already disappointing its working class supporters with its studied lack of militancy and huge appetite for political incorporation.

Direct action of the kind called for by the syndicalists showed a way out of this impasse. By being present at the point of production at a moment of rising struggle, the syndicalists punched above their weight,
having more of an effect than their numbers would warrant. For some years, despite their clear political weaknesses, their arguments about workers’ control and the general strike absolutely cut with the grain with a significant number of workers.

Although there were no named syndicalists in Llanelli itself at the time of the strike, there were in other parts of south Wales. Ben Tillett, transport union militant sympathetic to syndicalism and close associate of the syndicalist Tom Mann, was the star speaker at a huge demonstration in Llanelli to protest against the
shootings. Events there are evidence, says Holton, of “a proto-syndicalist mood of direct action and solidarity ... Joint action by railwaymen and tin-plate workers at Llanelly was paralleled by cases of solidarity (elsewhere)... The deep impact of the strike within working-class communities was also reflected in the unprecedented wave of schoolchildren’s strikes ... in at least 62 towns throughout Britain.” 10

In Llanelli in August 1911 what was remarkable was not that governments sent in troops to break strikes but that the strikers and their supporters refused to be cowed by bayonets and bullets. What is really worthy of note is the courage of the nameless ones who, living on poverty wages, shook off what Edward Thompson called “the condescension of history” and had the temerity to come out on the streets and fight back. I shall attempt in the next issue of the London Socialist Historians Newsletter to see why this happened at the time that it did.

Although the syndicalists and other militants failed in their ultimate aims, what remains is still an important contribution to the development of anti-capitalist revolt.

“The working class militants of the ‘labour unrest’ deserve to be remembered and honoured by posterity for their persistent aggression against the centres of capitalist power, and the sheer vitality and sense of
creative purpose brought to bear in conflict with employers, politicians, the judiciary, the police and the armed forces.” 11

It is in this spirit that in Llanelli we are organising a commemoration for the centenary of the strike: five days of meetings, with music, theatre, film and poetry. We are also planning a statue for the town centre and calling for an official apology from the Home Office for the killings. It is worth noting that in other parts of the country — notably Liverpool and Hull — similar events took place, and similar events could be organised.

1 A. Clay, 'Public Opinion and Industrial Unrest', Nineteenth
, vol LXX, December 1911, p1005, quoted in Bob Holton
British Syndicalism 1900‐1914 Pluto Press 1976 p 73
2 G.R. Askwith Industrial Problems and Disputes 1920, quoted in
John Edwards Remembrance of a Riot Llanelli Borough Council
1988 p24
3 Home Office documents, quoted in Edwards p25/218
4 V.I.Lenin On Britain Progress Publishers 1973 p151‐2
5 Lenin p 151 and 154
6 Leon Trotsky Collected writings and speeches on Britain Vol 2
New Park Publications 1974 p8
7 George Dangerfield The Strange Death of Liberal England
Paladin 1935 p 196
8 Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein The Labour Party – a Marxist
Bookmarks 1988 p 47
9 Bob Holton British Syndicalism 1900‐1914 Pluto Press 1976 p
10 Holton p106
11 Holton p212

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