The 1926 General Strike

It's 80 years to the day since the end of the 1926 General Strike, which lasted just nine days. It had long been anticipated or feared (depending on ideology) as the precursor to a socialist revolution, on the 1917 Bolshevik model, but this turned out not to be the case. It was begun, in somewhat half-hearted and disorganised fashion, by the Trades Union Congress on 3 May in support of the miners who were facing steep pay cuts; it ended on 12 May without any promise by the government to preserve wages. Several million workers went out on strike. But the TUC's position was virtually censored; civilian volunteers and the armed forces kept transportation and basic services going; and the peace was generally kept apart from localised and small-scale incidents. The strike did not appear to be achieving anything other than alienating middle-class opinion; and far from being revolutionary in intent, the TUC were worried about its constitutionality, which is why they were anxious to reach a compromise with the government. The miners stayed out for another 6 months or so, and gained little apart from worse conditions or losing their jobs altogether. The possibility of another general strike receded, not only because of the failure of the 1926 one, but also because of new legislation which banned sympathetic strikes.

While the possibility of an actual revolution was a bit of right-wing myth, and despite the failure of the General Strike to achieve its ends, it has been enshrined in left-wing mythology as shaking 'the British ruling class out of their thrones' and showing 'brilliantly how collective working class action can change society'. From my perspective though, it doesn't seem like the ruling class were shaken much at all. Most of the works I've read from the early 1920s display fear of the working class or socialist revolution; for example Hugh Addison's The Battle of London (London: Herbert Jenkins, n.d. [1923]) where a general strike paralyses the country ahead of a bloody worker's uprising in London and (naturally) a knock-out blow by the Germans. However, it is very noticeable that after 1926, there is a sudden drop-off in concern about the working class. This may start to to pick up again in the 1930s during the Slump, but to me this suggests that the failure of the General Strike demonstrated to the 'British ruling class' that, despite their fears, Britain was actually pretty safe from revolution. Perhaps it had deeper or longer term effects that don't show up on the level of popular literature, though.

A good, short (but old) overview of the General Strike is Geoffrey McDonald, "The defeat of the General Strike" in Gillian Peele and Chris Cook, eds, The Politics of Reappraisal 1918-1939 (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, 1975), 64-87.

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