Monday, 27 January 2020

The General Strike 80 Years On (2006)

The General Strike 80 Years On
Written By: Keith Flett
Date: May 2006
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 27: Summer 2006 

May sees the eightieth anniversary of the British General Strike. Already a new book by Guardian journalist Anne Perkins has been published to mark the event and no doubt there will be much media commentary.

Many will try and claim that it was a unique event in British labour history. That isn’t true. The Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions called one day general strikes around the struggles against the Industrial Relations Act in the early 1970s, and they were highly effective. Some others will suggest that the world of work has changed and that general strikes belong to a world that is past. Again history is not on their side. Not only are general strikes a regular feature of labour struggles around the world, but as the Unions involved reminded us, the recent British public sector strike over pensions was claimed to be the biggest in terms of numbers involved since 1926.

If we manage to get even these points across to wider audience we will have done well. However as socialist historians we will want to go quite a bit further.

Anne Perkins book focuses on several major themes. Firstly that if we forget for a moment the benefit of hindsight the authorities and perhaps some of the left did genuinely believe that the events of 1926 could lead to a revolution. Perkins argues that there was a genuine threat from Moscow to fund and organise such an outcome but then again she has an established reputation as rather a right-wing labour historian.

Perkins also argues that this led nowhere because the Prime Minister Baldwin was successfully able to persuade the TUC that a sense of ‘Britishness’ where fair play ruled was essential. Except of course, as Perkins herself has to admit there was not much fair play when it came to the miners, the reason for the strike, many of whom were victimised as their own action against wage cuts dragged on into the winter months of 1926. The parallels that Perkins makes with the 1984 miners strike are probably the most interesting aspect of her book.

It is doubtful if there is now anyone left alive who played a significant role in the events of 1926- although there may be some who participated and were eye-witnesses to what took place. That means that it is time to move beyond oral history.

Several works have recently been published. A book edited by Alan Campbell, Keith Gildart and John McIlroy looks in detail at the 1926 miners strike. It raises many interesting questions not least an essay by John Foster about what exactly the employers and the Government’s strategies actually were. There is also a short volume by Barry Johnson on Mansfield, which uses local Trades Council papers to highlight in particular the preparations that the local State made before the strike started and how they dealt with it once it had begun.

We could do with many more local studies and more work on official papers from 1926.

Anne Perkins book has the particular strength of making historians think again about what a General Strike of 80 years ago has to say to people coming to its history anew. More research in archives and records may throw light on issues that will interest a new audience. For example the specific role of women in a labour movement even more dominated by men than it is now.

At the same time there is a duty on socialist historians to make sure that some of the historical lessons learnt in earlier generations are learnt again in May 2006. Namely that for workers to win a battle solidarity can be crucial; trade union leaders whether left or right should not be trusted too far; the independent preparation and organisation of the left is hugely important to an outcome of any key industrial battle.

As we know, for reasons which historians can throw some light on, too much faith was placed in union leaders in 1926 and the left, which was largely responsible for that, was badly prepared in comparison to the Government. These lessons of 80 years ago are still valuable ones for public sector workers involved in the current fight to defend hard won pension rights.

Books cited in the text:
Anne Perkins, A Very British Strike (Macmillan, 2006)
Barry Johnson, Nine Days That Shook Mansfield: The General Strike in the Mansfield Area (The Ragged Historians, 2003)
Alan Campbell, Keith Gildart & John McIlroy (Editors), Industrial Politics and the 1926 Mining Lock-out: The Struggle for Dignity (University of Wales Press, 2004)

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