History

The General Strike 1926

In May 1926 Britains' miners walked out and in a move of solidarity other industry workers joined them, creating the first ever general strike in Britain. Was Britain on the verge of a revolution? This Revision Bite will answer this question and more...

Chronology of events - the basics

Tuesday 4 May 1926: A general strike is called by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) to support the miners in their quarrel with the mine owners, who want to reduce their wages by 13 per cent and increase their shifts from seven to eight hours. Huge numbers of road transport, bus, rail, docks, printing, gas and electricity, building, iron, steel, chemicals and coal workers stay off work. JH Thomas, a trade unionist and MP, says: 'God help us unless the government wins'.

Wednesday 5 May: The government acts aggressively against the strike and tries to exert greater control over the media. It attempts to take control of the BBC and publishes a newspaper - 'The British Gazette'. The government also sends a warship to Newcastle, and recruits 226,000 special policemen.

Thursday 6 May: Middle-class volunteers get some buses and trains, and the electricity working. A few buses are set on fire, and there are fights between police and strikers in London, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Stanley Baldwin, the prime minister, declares the strike an attack on Britain's democracy.

Friday 7 May: Police and strikers clash in Liverpool, Hull and London. The government calls the army to London. It also seizes all supplies of paper, which hinders publication of the TUC's paper, 'The British Worker'. The TUC is embarrassed when Russian trade unionists send a large donation and it is sent back.

Saturday 8 May: Police make baton-charges on rioting strikers in Glasgow, Hull, Middlesbrough, Newcastle and Preston. The number of volunteers increases. The army escorts food lorries from the London docks. Secretly, JH Thomas has talks with the mine owners.

Sunday 9 May: The Roman Catholic Church declares the strike 'a sin'.

Monday 10 May: Some textile workers join the strike. Strikers in Northumberland derail the Flying Scotsman train. Baldwin declares that Britain is 'threatened with a revolution', and the government arrests 374 Communists.

Tuesday 11 May: The TUC, led by JH Thomas, calls off the strike. The strikers are taken by surprise, but drift back to work.

The miners struggle on alone until November when they are forced to go back to work for less pay and longer hours.

Why was there a general strike in 1926?

1. Trade Union militancy - 1910-1912 was a period of industrial unrest, and in 1913 the miners', railwaymen's and transport workers' unions formed the Triple Alliance. This included a promise to support each other if there was a strike, although, in fact, on 15 April 1921 - Black Friday - the railway and transport unions failed to support the miners when the mine owners reduced their wages and increased their hours of work.

2. Economic Depression - there were problems in the economy after the war, and in 1925 the government returned to the gold standard - it tied the value of the pound to the amount of gold in the Bank of England. This caused a depression and reduced exports, especially of coal.

3. Fear of Communism - in 1924 the 'Daily Mail' published a supposed letter from the Russian Communist leader Zinoviev to British communists, urging them to start a revolution. It was a forgery, but it frightened middle-class people, and made them determined to oppose the demands of the workers.

4. Problems in the Coal Industry throughout the 1920s -

  • The industry was out of date. Workers were still using pickaxes; only a fifth of the coal was cut by machine.
  • The mine owners response to the Depression was not to modernise, but to cut wages and increase working hours (1921).
  • In 1925, the mine owners tried to cut wages and increase hours again. The Triple Alliance threatened a general strike, so on 31 July 1925 ('Red Friday'), the government paid a nine month subsidy to prop up wages.
  • In March 1926, the government's Samuel Commission suggested cutting wages, but not increasing hours. Both miners and mine owners refused this compromise. Mine owners began drawing up plans to increase hours and cut pay.
  • At the TUC conference on 1st May 1926, a general strike was planned to start two days later. The TUC and the government began negotiations.
  • When print workers refused to print an edition of the 'Daily Mail' attacking the miners as 'a revolutionary movement', negotiations collapsed, and the General Strike went ahead as planned.

Results of the General Strike

  1. The miners were defeated.
  2. The TUC was ruined - membership fell from 5.5 million in 1925 to only 3.75 million in 1930.
  3. The Trades Disputes Act of 1927 made general strikes illegal.
  4. The Labour Party won the 1929 election.

The General Strike was a failure because:

  1. The Government was ready and had spent the nine months when it was paying the subsidy preparing. It set up the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies (OMS) under Winston Churchill to defeat the strike. It took a very aggressive line against the strike using both propaganda statements and army/police action.
  2. The middle class opposed the strike. The incidents of violence and evidence of support for the strike from communists frightened the middle classes. Many of them volunteered as strike-breakers, although others were just fulfilling boyhood dreams to be a train driver or bus driver.
  3. The Labour leaders betrayed the strikers. The Labour Party and the TUC leaders were frightened by the strike.

Activity and answer preparation

Activity

Play the activity - 'Bitesize Brief' to plot a map illustrating the failure of the general strike.

Answer preparation

As part of your revision, think about the arguments and facts you would use to explain:

  1. Why there was a general strike in 1926.
  2. What happened in the General Strike.
  3. Why the General Strike failed after only nine days.
  4. What the consequences of the General Strike were.

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