Aspects of British Political History, 1914-1995

By Stephen J. Lee | Go to book overview

6

THE GENERAL STRIKE

The General Strike of 1926 was the only occasion in British history when most of the nation's workforce stopped work in support of the cause of one particular union.

In outline, British miners were in dispute with the mineowners who, in 1925, proposed to increase working hours and reduce wages to make the coal industry more competitive. Baldwin's Conservative government tried to prevent a conflict by providing a nine-month subsidy to maintain the existing level of wages; at the same time it appointed the Samuel Commission to propose a longer-term solution. In March 1926 the Commission recommended the ending of the subsidy, along with the introduction of temporary wage cuts until the owners could reorganise the mines more effectively. This was rejected by the owners, who announced a unilateral reduction of wages in April 1926. The miners resisted and appealed to the Trades Union Congress (TUC) for support. The TUC negotiated with the government to try to avert a general strike, which it was prepared to call, if necessary, to back the miners' cause. When these negotiations broke down between 2 and 3 May, the TUC General Council called out transport and railway workers, printers, gas and electricity workers, and those employed in heavy industry. The remaining workers were to follow in due course. The government, in the meantime, had taken special precautions to combat the effects of the strike. These proved so effective that on 12 May the TUC decided to end the General Strike and accept the Samuel Memorandum. This was, however, rejected by the miners, who were left to fight alone until the end of the year, when the threat of starvation forced them back to work.

This chapter deals with three main issues related to the events of 1925-6. Why did Britain fall over the brink into a general strike in the first place? What was the range of views within the country concerning

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