The General Strike of 1926

A miners’ Scotland to London hunger march, early 1930s.

“When men have to endure the insult of being idle, degraded and useless for years on end, not only is it impossible to forget that, it becomes an act of faith to cherish the memory of it every moment one lives, because one’s duty as a human being from that time on is to fight against the possibility of that insult being levied against oneself or against others again.”

The Sky of Our Lives, Gwyn Thomas (1:p49)

 

The BBC and the General Strike

Reading history books, the UK of 1926 feels like a foreign country: a black and white world which you visit as a tourist, where you speak the language fluently – but it’s a world without many of the reference points of modern culture. Many morals and values of that vanished world run along different axes than those we’re familiar with today.

For most of us, it’s the world of our parents’, or grandparents’ childhoods – and in a similar sense – the interwar period is ancestral to many of the structures and institutions still existent in the wider UK.

And no other institution better encapsulates this point than the BBC – born in 1922 from an impromptu liaison between the Post Office and a cartel of radio manufacturers (3:p5) – but already destined to win friends in high places, find global renown, and spin rich political narratives across the length and breadth of Britain.

But right from the moment of inception, the twin calling cards of the BBC – the licence fee and monopoly – were already there in earnest (3:p5). For ever since the Wireless Telegraphy Act of 1907, it had been UK law that all radio operators – both transmitters and receivers – had to be covered by a governmental licence (3:p5). These could only be issued by the Post Office, and could be subject to customary conditions on individual licence agreements if the powers-that-be so wished (3:p5).

(And as an aside, it’s worth pointing out that later justification for the licence fee in the name of funding ‘public service broadcasting’ was not the initial reason for this charge. Rather, the BBC subsequently came up with post-dated reasons for retaining what had started as an accountancy convenience for the Post Office.)

Instead of servicing each outfit individually, the paternal operators of the Beeb – Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Company, British Thomson Houston Company, General Electric Company, Western Electric Company, Radio Communication Company, Burndept Ltd (6) – were forced by the Post Office into a single unit so that licence fee revenues and royalties could be more easily extracted (3:p5).

Launched onto the virgin UK airwaves primarily as a vector to seduce the ingénue public into buying the newfangled hi-tech radio receivers, Auntie Beeb – or the British Broadcasting Company Ltd as she was officially christened (2:p249) – caught the eye of Presbyterian minister’s son John Reith right from the start. And just like his reverend father, the famously dour Stonehaven man had some strong opinions on how other people should be spending their free time.

Despite being a novice to the realm of broadcasting, as the BBC’s first ever Director General (or ‘Managing Director General’ as it was back in those heady days), Reith proved to be an energetic cheerleader for the betterment of the great unwashed, with an ideological zeal for providing the Beeb’s listeners with highbrow, moral, and virtuous fare that would inspire the hearts and minds of the Great British audience (7:p25), to furnish them with the knowledge needed to play their part as model subjects of the glorious Empire – whether they wanted to or not (7:p65).

But it wasn’t just John Reith’s starry-eyed gaze that the young BBC enraptured. The UK government itself was interested – very interested – as elite politicians recognised at once the power of this hitherto unavailable medium to reach out cheaply and conveniently to the street corners, living rooms, breakfast tables – and ballot booths – of the newly enfranchised hordes of Britain (3:p6).

As a consequence, in 1923 the Post Office commissioned Major-General Sir Frederick Sykes to look into future uses for the new medium of radio broadcasting, with the resulting report finding that “the control of such a potential power over public opinion and the life of the nation ought to remain with the state” (3:p6). In other words, the establishment felt that ability to sway public beliefs and manage the people’s political expectations should not be left to commercial interests (like it had been in the US). And yet the report nevertheless rejected direct state control of broadcasting – instead settling on a delivery of radio broadcasting in line with other public utilities, and administered by the Post Office (3:p6). They considered it an arrangement that would suffice – for now.

But to understand why the UK government was taking such a shine to the charms of this radio debutante, it is first necessary to consider something of the economic and political mess that the UK was left in at the end of the Great War…

For anyone wanting to skip this history lesson, feel free to fast-forward to the section on ‘The BBC gets its Big Break’, where we will rejoin Auntie Beeb on her much-vaunted vision-quest for notional political neutrality.

A worker’s demonstration in Hyde Park, London, May 1914.

The start of the British ‘long crisis’ of 1919 – 1929

Sadly for David Lloyd-George’s government, lower-class men returning from the Great War would be able to vote the next time a general election came around, as in 1918 the Liberals had reluctantly extended suffrage to include these men along with all women aged over 30 (8) – perhaps the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia had helped to train the minds of the upper classes, and it was felt supplication of the proletarian urban masses in the UK was a wise idea (1:p31)? But this compounded problems for his increasingly discredited Liberal-Tory coalition government.

Next time round, working class women would be eligible to vote against him too.

Adding to the post-war pressure, the relatively new Labour Party looked set to cash in at the next general election and perhaps win parliament for the first time ever. The Liberals and the Tories were worried. To their minds, the Labour party had to be ‘educated’ about the British system of government and brought into the ruling fold (1:p30), or else the entire British state – with all the privilege and status it endowed the wealthy landowner and capitalist classes – was at risk of coming undone in a Communist uprising.

In the febrile atmosphere of strikes and lockouts 1921 – 1922, membership of the Labour Party rocketed and the party flexed its muscles by calling for a general strike to protest military action against Soviet Russia (1:p31).

A smooth and charismatic Tory MP, Stanley Baldwin – who had good relations with several Labour MPs, including its future leader and Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald (1:p30) – understood that the Great War had extinguished the Liberal Party’s star, to the benefit of Labour. He began working hard to fashion the Labour Party into something more acceptable to the British establishment – a mission he later described as his ‘lifetime’s achievement’ (1:p30). Sensing that a new two-party, Tory-Labour dynamic was just over the horizon (1:p30), Baldwin persuaded ‘a sizeable amount’ of Liberals to ‘transfer’ to the Labour benches (1:p31), infiltrating it from within and stemming the worst of its socialist excesses.

But would rigging the Labour Party be enough to block the Bolshevik voices among its supporters?

The Great War had proven extremely costly to Britain, even if it was nominally one of the victors. The economy was shattered, and the pound had experienced rampant inflation throughout the war (1:p19). In 1918, UK prices stood at 224% of their 1913 level, and by the following year had risen to 283% – while the pound started simultaneously weakening against the dollar from $4.76 in March 1919 to $3.60 in March1920 (1:p19).

Domestically, the full employment caused by the Great War had left the labour movement powerful (1:p21). Strikes had become frequent – and in the mining sector increasingly acute as the miners started clamouring for nationalisation of the coal mines and the introduction of a national wage structure (1:p23). And theirs was a loud voice – around ten per cent of the British workforce was employed in mining, and coal was the UK’s only fuel source – making it strategically more important than other individual sectors (1:p23). But other industries had equally fractious, restless workers and even the loyalties of local Army and Navy units could be suspect – a newly demobbed shipment of the British armed forces – due to be sent to Russia to fight against the Bolsheviks and aid the ‘White Russian’, Tsarist forces – flat out mutinied (1:p22).

They didn’t feel that it was the Bolsheviks who were the enemy.

And it wasn’t just matters at home that were vexing the British establishment.

All over the British Empire, conquered peoples were likewise rebelling. In January 1919, Sinn Fein had challenged British Rue and the British Army responded by sending in a ‘formidable expeditionary force’ (1:p25) to launch a wave of violence against Irish civilians, in what became known as the ‘Black and Tan War’. In April 1919, the Indian National Congress had embarked on a campaign of peaceful civil disobedience, and the British Indian Army had responded by gunning down 800 unarmed civilians (mostly religious festival-goers) in Amritsar (1:p24). But perhaps more worrying than this, in May 1919, the city of Shanghai – the British banking headquarters of the Far East – had been brought to a standstill by a general strike organised by the Chinese nationalists (1:p25).

The British government was worried it was losing control of its globally-dominant position in banking and finance. After the war, they had plotted to step into the shoes of the now-defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire and open a British banking nexus in Vienna – adding financial control of Central Europe to London’s list of capital assets (1:p33). But now those plans seemed on the slide.

And to halt the slide still further, what the UK government badly wanted was the return of the pound to the gold standard – a status it had enjoyed before the war. And not only that, they wanted to return the pound onto gold at its 1914 value – ignoring the fact that the balance of international economic power had moved against the UK during the war, and this course of action would overvalue the pound by 10% (2:p112).

The government thought they could make Britain’s international trade pick up by ignoring the harsh new world order and carrying on regardless (2:p112).

The British Empire’s Chinese and Far Eastern clients were starting to ask for dollar payments (1:p33), and the unexpectedly generous American financial package to refloat post-war Germany and its Deutschmark currency alarmed the British greatly (1:p33). The only two serious global rivals of the British Empire now had their currencies linked to gold: the dollar and the German mark were back on it, and the pound wasn’t (1:p33) – and due to widespread, contemporary economic beliefs shared by the British government (which modern economics – and virtual currencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum show to be fundamentally wrong) – this was the single greatest threat to the stability and status of the UK that existed at the time.

As Baldwin had anticipated, the Labour Party made big gains in the 1924 general election, and went on to form a minority government with Ramsay MacDonald as Prime Minister – with Liberal support (1:p31). And yet this government was ousted after nine months following a vote of no-confidence initiated by the Tories and Liberals – left to take the blame for those post-war negotiations with the Americans that were turning so sour for the British (1:p32). In the second UK general election of 1924, Baldwin and his Tories were swept comfortably to victory on a slogan promising ‘social peace’; winning 415 seats, against the 152 won by Labour and the Liberals’ paltry 42 (1:p32).

And soon afterwards, after six years of itching to get started, the Tories finally heeded the call of their banking and finance lobbies.

Chancellor Winston Churchill announced in his March 1925 budget that the pound would return to gold immediately, despite the fact that the pound was overvalued against the dollar (and the mark) by more than 10% (1:p32). The stability of the UK currency was furthermore dependant on expensive American loans flowing into the UK Treasury, coupled with a high UK interest rate – and the expectation that UK wages would be slashed across the board (1:p32). But the domestic impact on the UK economy was of lesser importance to the Tories than the spoils of Empire, so the pound’s international status took priority.

Historians now reckon that this strategic folly proved to be the single greatest reason for the ensuing set of crises that Britain experienced in the period 1919 – 1929 (1:p34) – or the ‘long crisis’, as it’s sometimes termed.

Supporters of the miners, out on strike in 1926.

Those crises were chiefly caused by the UK government’s own economic policy, and its relentless pursuit of the golden mirage (1:p34). The damage done to British enterprises, the harm done to social cohesion, and the poverty, hunger and degradation suffered by millions of working-class British families – was all caused needlessly by the myopia of the UK government and its relentless pursuit of the self-interest of its upper crust members.

But the British working-classes were not going to roll over and accept further wage cuts of this magnitude, and they would fight back in the only way they could. And as with that other famous industrial battle, it was the miners who led the way…

 

The Miners’ Lockout of 1925

Like the 1984 miners dispute, its 1926 predecessor stands out as being a particularly fierce industrial conflict that was similarly sparked by a Tory government attempting to reshape UK capitalism – and in the process meeting large-scale, spirited defiance from the beleaguered mining communities (1:p50).

And again similarly, the full arsenal of resources at the British state’s command were brought to bear against the mining communities – while their erstwhile allies in the upper echelons of the labour movement offered them only lukewarm backing (1:p50). Those leaders – the TUC, the Labour Party – chose to emphasise concession and the need for political reforms as suited the governments of the day – rather than supporting their members, who were urged to sacrifice their wages and working standards to appease their employers.

Both conflicts ended in fragmentation of the miners’ unity. And both conflicts hastened the widespread emasculation of British organised labour (1:p50).

Obviously, the two industrial conflicts were different in context, aims, and objectives. But perhaps somewhat surprisingly – for all the confidence and articulacy of the 1984 miners as they took on Thatcher, it was the more downtrodden, deprived, and defensive miners of the 1920s whose conflict took longer to crush (1:p50).

 

The miners of the 1920s

The miners were represented by the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain (MFGB). This industrial behemoth was comprised of 26 autonomous district trade unions, and had only been completed in 1909, with the admission of the large Durham and Northumberland miners union (1:p50). It was a major achievement in itself to bring together all of these trade unions under one banner – despite major differences in their size, local traditions and product markets (1:p50).

And another big MFGB victory came from the 1919 Sankey Commission – which had recommended the long-awaited nationalisation of the coalmines, and the imposition of a national wage structure on all British pits – to replace the previous piecemeal district system (1:p53). But due to falling profits within the mining industry, just two years later another national miners’ strike on ‘Black Friday’ (2:p123) failed to prevent the coal-owners from reverting back to the old district wage structure (1:p53). And the government, backing the coal-owners, failed to adopt its own report’s findings and nationalise the industry (2:p121). One of the pro-miner MPs asked Parliament at the time: ‘The miners will say that they have been deceived, betrayed, duped’ (2:p121).

Oakbank village, Scotland, 1920.

And they had been.

And up and down the UK, mining communities bore the brunt of this betrayal.

Following the failure of the Sankey Commission, miners’ wages were slashed by a half within the space of a year over 1921-22, although this colossal drop was offset to around 33% by the falling cost of living (1:p53). The MFGB was becoming weakened further by dropping levels of trade union membership among its founder members (caused by rising unemployment), and – with the notable exceptions of South Wales and Scotland – the elimination of miner militancy (1:p53).

The whole mining industry was in trouble, due to the government’s economic policies.

And these gold-chasing financial policies couldn’t have happened at a worse time for the coal-owners.

As the international appetite for oil was starting to pick up, the demand for coal was slowing – right when Poland was emerging onto the onto the export scene for the first time ever (1:p63). In the face of weaker demand and a glut in production, the market value of coal was in freefall (1:p63).

Coupled with the pound’s enforced return to the gold standard – which at this time meant inflating the pound, the coal-owners were forced to drop their prices still further to compete for international buyers. Research now suggests that in 1925, the pound was overvalued against other European currencies (those of the main export markets) by as much as 35% (1:p67).

The impact of the government’s economic policy on this industry was massive, and destructive.

So in June 1925, the consortium of mine-owners – the Mining Association of Great Britain (MAGB) had no choice but to try for a new settlement with their employees via the MFGB. The coal-owners wanted a guaranteed 13% of all the industry’s proceeds set aside as profit for themselves – regardless of the impact this would have on miners’ wages. They also wanted the 7 hour working day agreement to be dropped (the coal market was saturated so the mine-owners preferred their employees to work less) – and they wanted the permanent removal of the national minimum wage structure. To them, this would mean wages would return to their ‘natural’, district levels which had been dictated by market prices – not set by some arbitrary UK-wide formula (1:p69).

Needless to say, the miners were angry. And they had reason enough to be angry.

Life in the mining communities was precarious. In 1925, the unemployment rate among miners varied across the UK; but stood at 28.5% in Wales, 18.5% in Yorkshire , 35% in Lancashire, and over 20% in Scotland and the North-East of England – with the English Midlands doing a bit better at 8.5% (1:p67).

In real terms, wages from mining stood at roughly half of their 1920 levels.

The bodies of miners are brought up after an accident at Cadeby colliery, Doncaster, July 1912.

And the work was dangerous and exhausting: in 1924 alone, over 1000 miners were killed while working underground (a death rate of 1.11 per 1000 miners), while 180,000 were injured – and of those over 4000 were injured ‘seriously’ (1:p67). The Royal Commission found that almost 20% of the workforce had suffered an ‘incapacitating injury’ at some point down the mines.

It is estimated that for every million tons of coal sent to market at this time, four miners paid with their lives (1:p67).

Meanwhile, above ground the conditions were little better. Even in the North-East of England, where housing standards were considered the ‘best’, over 20% of miners lived in accommodation officially classed as ‘overcrowded’. In Scotland and South Wales, conditions were considerably worse – miners and their families were forced to live in “hovels unfit for human habitation” (as termed by historian John McIlroy) (1:p67). These insanitary conditions led to high infant mortality rates. In the North-East of England over 10% of miners’ babies died in their first year of life (1:p67).

As far as miners and their families were concerned, these conditions were bad enough, and even though their recent attempts to improve their lot had failed – they were determined they would accept no worse (1:p67).

Children in a mining community queue for food at a soup kitchen, Walsall Wood, 1926.

They considered the MAGB’s plans to be a step too far.

The MFGB calculated that accepting the MAGB’s demands would lead to uneven, but mostly harsh wages cuts on top of the hardship the miners had already faced. Table 1 gives details of the federation’s wage calculations for each UK district, with the amounts also rendered into 2017 values. The averages ranged from a cut of 9.2% for the Yorkshire and East Midlands miners, all the way upto 27.5% for miners in Durham (1:p67). Minimum subsistence rates for the lowest paid, including miners earning less because they were working on more difficult coal seams (2:p116) would also be further reduced in some districts (1:p67).

Table 1: MFGB calculations of 1926 average (pre-tax) mining wages and proposed changes (1:p68)

District Going rate per shift (in 2017 values) Going rate, weekly (in 2017 values) Proposed cut per shift (in 2017 values) Proposed new rate weekly (in 2017 values) Cut (%)
Scotland 10/4 (£28.83) £144.15 2/1 (£5.81) £115.10 20.2%
Northumberland 9/4 (£26.04) £130.20 2/4 (£6.51) £97.65 25%
Durham 10/0 (£27.90) £139.50 2/9 (£7.67) £101.15 27.5%
South Wales 10/9 (£29.99) £149.95 2/10 (£7.91) £110.40 26.4%
Yorks/ E. Mid 10/10 (£30.23) £151.15 1/0 (£2.79) £137.20 9.2%
Lancs/N. Staffs 10/0 (£27.90) £139.50 1/7 (£4.42) £117.40 15.5%
North Wales 9/2 (£25.58) £127.90 1/8 (£4.65) £104.65 18.2%
S. Staffs 8/5 (£23.48) £117.40 1/7 (£4.42) £95.30 18.8%
Cumberland 10/7 (£29.53) £147.65 2/7 (£7.21) £111.60 24.4%
Forest of Dean 8/11 (£24.88) £124.40 1/3 (£3.49) £106.95 14%

These are average values for all miners. Weekly rates are based on a five day week. The 2017 values are calculated using an online historical inflation calculator (http://inflation.stephenmorley.org). Old pounds, shillings (/), pence (l.s.d.) conversions use 1l. =20s.=240d.

The miners’ aims were simple: they wanted the status quo to remain in place for their wages, hours and for their national minimum wage rates to be upheld (1:p68).

Students from Keble College, Oxford, awaiting transport to Hull for some strikebreaking.

Interestingly, unlike their brethren in 1984 – who prioritised maintaining full employment over wage levels – the miners of 1926 preferred to accept mine closures and increased redundancies to a drop in their earnings (1:p68). Herbert Smith, one of the Yorkshire-based leaders of the MFGB, said at the time “If the Miners retained their position for no reduction in wages , they were going to put upwards of 200,000 men out of work. They realised all that… It was a big proposition, but as they told the Owners, they had to face it. They were determined that if the country wanted coal, it had to give the men who got it a respectable living.” (1:p68).

The arguments between the MAGB and the MFGB raged until April 1926, when a Royal Commission was set up to try to negotiate the impasse (1:p68). Chaired by Sir Herbert Samuel, it backed the coal-owners in proposing immediate wage reductions, alongside longer-term reorganisations, cooperative sales schemes, and state purchasing of mining royalties (1:p69). The Commission failed to reach agreement between the two sides, and left them further entrenched in their positions.

Meanwhile, the Tory government was losing patience. The strategic importance of coal meant that the mine owners in the MAGB were dominant over all the other ‘coal capitalists’, and they pursued this inherent advantage now in a zero-sum bargaining strategy with the other captains of industry via the National Confederation of Employers’ Organisations – and pressurised the Tory party itself. Prime Minister Baldwin had himself become convinced of the need for urgent wage reductions. In August, Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald wrote that that “The Cabinet … has been a very efficient, a very faithful and a very loyal sub-committee of the Owners’ Association” (1:p69) – and he meant this as praise.

Prime Minister Baldwin on holiday with his family at Chequers, late 1926.

And so they were. Tom Jones, the Cabinet secretary, noted the natural class-bias of the government thus: “It is impossible not to feel the contrast between the reception which Ministers give to a body of owners and a body of miners. Ministers are at ease at once with the former. They are friends jointly exploring a situation. There was hardly any indication of opposition or censure. It was rather a joint discussion of whether it were better to precipitate a strike or the unemployment which would result from continuing on present terms.’ (1:p71).

At no point did the government ever consider suspending its mission to put the pound back on gold. Rather, the government saw its job as ensuring the miners were returned to work as soon as possible, in acceptance of their reduced wages – for the good of the whole industrial and economic order that benefitted men like themselves.

The Emergency Powers Act was invoked, which gave the government wide powers over national utilities and civic rights: food, gas, water, electricity, land usage, railways, roads, the police and military, summary arrest, free speech and public assembly. And throughout the dispute, these powers were used against the miners (1:p71). MacDonald noted with some justification that in 1925 there was a ‘drift towards a police state’ (1:p71). The Cabinet spoke openly about prosecuting the radical South Walian MFGB leader Arthur Cook ‘law or no law’, and considered the prosecution of Tom Richards, a well respected moderate in the MGFB, just for describing a recent trial of miners as ‘a travesty of British justice’ (1:p71).

A military escort accompanies a food convoy during the General Strike.

The Mines Department declared that it would import coal from abroad in order to keep British industry running, and despite the fact that most miners were on lockout rather than on strike (the mine owners wouldn’t let them work, but the miners wanted to), the government saw that the collective application for unemployment benefit for MFGB miners was blocked (1:p72). The government moved to ensure no cash flow reached the miners or their families, either from Russia or America, claiming to concerned parties abroad that the miners were not experiencing any hardship (1:p72).

And notably, the government called on middle-class men (and women) to fill the gaps left by their striking social inferiors. The historian Patrick Renshaw explains: “Those self-confident strikebreakers, with their pipes and plus-fours, those debutantes peeling potatoes perhaps for the first time in their lives, knew nothing of the lives of ordinary people. For though the strike brought industrial life to a standstill, it was not allowed to interfere with the social life of the privileged classes. Cricket continued, while audiences flocked to opera, the theatre, or night clubs.” (9:p1)

The privileged classes didn’t let the General Strike spoil their fun.

In contrast, the government hardly made any attempts to coerce the coal owners to ameliorate their terms, and instead chose to “enhance their bargaining power and undermined the MFGB’s position” (1:72).

The British state knew whose side it was on, and turned the screw on the miners.

And with the government so involved – and neither the miners nor their employers feeling able to back down – the stage was now set for a widening of the conflict.

The 1926 General Strike

After the negotiations between the MFGB, Trades Union Congress (TUC), and the government failed, the TUC General Council issued notices for a General Strike to commence on 3rd May 1926.

Individual unions from all British industries would have their own democratic votes on whether they wanted to participate in this general sympathy strike – but the vast majority of workers up and down the UK were supportive of the miners (1:p74). They understood that if the miners failed, they themselves would be next in line for wage cuts.

This in turn prompted Baldwin’s government to walk away from the talks, and the stage was set for the showdown to commence (1:p72).

A police escort for a strikebreaking bus driver. Five people were killed during the general strike – all in accidents involving volunteer bus drivers such as these.

On 3rd May, the TUC called on the ‘first-line’ workers to strike, and they did. These 3.5 million workers, from the transport, railways, printing, iron and steel, metal and chemicals, building and power station sectors – all joined the coalminers in solidarity (9:p24). Based on ONS estimates of the 1926 UK working population being around 18,000,000 (10, Fig. 3) and its total population being 45,217,600 (11) – this single action meant nearly one fifth of the UK workforce (and 7.74% of the whole population) was on strike.

Other, non-‘first-line’ workers were told to remain at work, but even without them, the effect on UK daily life was immediate and powerful. Mines, mills, factories, and other heavy industry all fell silent – as did all train stations and tramways. Public transport ceased. Most newspapers and journals went unprinted (9:p24).

And with the newspapers out of action, the government turned its eye once more to the young BBC.

Perhaps the radio broadcasts could be used in the governmental quest to undermine the miners’ struggle and force them back to work.

 

The BBC gets its Big Break

More than 2 million people in Britain now owned a radio receiver (9:p25), and could tap into the BBC’s five daily news bulletins – mostly consisting of reports garnered from Reuters, for at the time the BBC lacked the authority to write its own news scripts (3:p42).

Public loudspeakers were erected to play BBC news broadcasts.

But this was evidently not enough Beeb exposure, so the government set up loudspeakers in public places all over Britain (9:p25), making sure nobody could escape from the broadcasts. Contemporary quotes reveal the BBC broadcasts captured, for many in the country, ‘the sensation of the General Strike’, and became the way that people came to know ‘what was really happening’ (9:p25).

Instinctively wary, the TUC’s Publicity Committee was unsure how to handle the BBC (2:p243).

It assumed the government would take over the broadcasting station like it had other state assets – after all, it had the legal powers in place to do so (2:p249). The TUC issued a warning to all its trade union members not to heed any radio announcements (2:p243), and initially boycotted all involvement with the Beeb. However, it later decided to test out the BBC’s professed impartiality, by sending it news items – and since sometimes these were used in the broadcasts, the practise was continued for the rest of the strike (2:p244).

South Walian MFGB leader Arthur Cook addresses a rally.

However, in the words of Margaret Morris, an industrial historian, the TUC “did not accept that the BBC was impartial. It gave out false reports of returns to work and failed to correct them despite protests from the unions concerned. It refused to allow any trade union leaders or Ramsay MacDonald to speak. It even refused to allow the Archbishop of Canterbury to make an appeal for a compromise until almost the end of the strike, although he asked to do so on 7 May.” (2:p244).

The trade union membership was highly sceptical of everything that the BBC broadcast.

And the labour movement were right to be suspicious. Winston Churchill and others on the government’s Transport and Supply Committee had indeed advocated using the BBC as a radio-transmitting offshoot of the ‘British Gazette’ (a pro-government journal), but Baldwin was a more subtle operator. He personally knew John Reith, the managing director of the British Broadcasting Company, and on 4th May took lunch with him to discuss what sort of role the Beeb would play in the strike (2:p249). Baldwin trusted Reith, and felt he could be “relied upon to reinforce the authority of Government without broadcasting anything which might exacerbate class tensions or appear overtly biased” (2:p249).

And for his part, Reith understood that the notional independence the BBC enjoyed might be conditional on his accepting the government’s bidding (3:p32). Disregarding his own personal feelings on the matter, at the government’s request John Reith refused permission for placatory speeches by both Labour and Liberal leaders Ramsay MacDonald and David Lloyd George to be broadcast (although Tory Prime Minister Baldwin was allowed on air) (4:p80), and deliberately delayed transmitting the appeal of the Archbishop of Canterbury (2:p249).

Prime Minister Baldwin broadcasting on the BBC.

The Archbishop of Canterbury and his entourage were shocked by the initial ban on his plea for conciliation to be broadcast (2:p327), which the Archbishop said seemed like ‘the adoption by the Government censors of the methods for which they blamed the strikers’, or, as Morris elaborates: “the strikers were responsible for stopping organs of the press from publication, and here was the Government stopping the mouth of the Churches” (2:p327).

But it was not just the great and good – all members of the TUC, the MFGB, and other trade unionists participating in the General Strike were similarly barred from the airwaves (2:p249). The BBC historians Scannell and Cardiff write: “This [BBC] position was, of course, far less innocent and disinterested than it professed to be, for what it systematically filtered out was any account or explanation of the causes that had put a large section of the population in conflict with central government. And they were bitter and angry about the BBC’s presentation of the strike” (3:p33).

Morris writes that by the 11th May, “the advantages of keeping the BBC nominally independent were becoming so obvious that even the intransigents [like Churchill] admitted the force of Baldwin’s arguments. Reith was not prepared to broadcast anything which might give encouragement to the strikers” (2:p249). Furthermore, “the inclusion of news items from the British Worker and the exclusion of provocative items from the British Gazette gave a veneer of impartiality to the news bulletins. These were broadcast five times a day from 10am to 9.30pm.” (2:p251).

Reith himself was happy to publicly endorse the government position against the strikers. In his own words: “There could be no question about our supporting the Government in general, particularly since the General Strike had been declared illegal in the High Court. This being so, we were unable to permit anything… which might have prolonged or sought to justify the strike.”

His point about the High Court presumably refers to the ruling on 9th May by Mr Justice Astbury, in which the High Court judge pronounced on a case brought by the leader of the Seamen’s Union, seeking to prevent one of its branches from participating in the strike given the union’s general membership had voted against engagement. Justice Astbury granted the union’s injunction, and also declared that in his opinion, the General Strike was “unlawful” – as no dispute existed between the TUC itself and the Government (2:p255).

Considering that the day before this happened, the Government itself had been preparing to launch a new Act of parliament – one which would ban all general strikes – and which they planned to rush through parliament in a day so the strike could be immediately and subsequently declared illegal (2:p255), John Reith’s statement here is disingenuous: the general strike was not illegal at the time. And after a few days, the government dropped the proposed act. It was worried about what the wider consequences would be around the country if it was seen to provoke the strikers, who had behaved in the main extremely peacefully (2:p256). A law that would have rendered the General Strike as illegal did not come into force until the 1927 Trades Dispute Act the following year (4:p80).

Although to be fair to John Reith, Baldwin and the rest of the British government repeatedly called the strike ‘unconstitutional’ (4:p80), and implied this meant it was illegitimate – so it’s quite easy to see how this could get amplified to mean ‘illegal’ if one failed to scrutinise government claims and passed unverified Ministerial opinions off as being fact.

John Reith: “not really impartial”

Despite all this, historians feel that the main contribution of the BBC in the government’s fight against the miners came from downplaying the strike’s importance – by portraying to the public that the government was unmoved. Morris explains: “The virtue of the BBC during the strike was not its impartiality – it was clearly acting to support the Government – but its calm tone. It helped dispel rumours of riots and violence and to undermine the influence of the belligerent elements on the Government’s side. It avoided any talk of Bolshevism or Revolution; it took a very down-to-earth approach to the strikers, and attempted to generate a cheerful, stoical spirit among the rest of the population” (2:p251).

And perhaps the most illuminating insight about the BBC’s role at the time of the General Strike, comes from John Reith’s own diary.

Writing about the inter-governmental dispute between Baldwin and Churchill, Reith mused: “They [the UK government] want to be able to say that they did not commandeer us, but they know they can trust us not to be really impartial” (5:p59).

 

The aftermath

After the long build up, the General Strike itself was over after only nine days. The TUC prompted its end on 12th May and called the whole thing off, supposedly because the MFGB would not accept the Royal Commission’s Samuel memorandum.

This document stated that wages should not be ‘revised’ until after reorganisation of the coal industry, and in the interim, the government would provide a subsidy which would continue for an undefined ‘reasonable period’ – until a new wage scheme would be drawn up for the miners (1:p73). In exchange for these blandishments, the Samuel memorandum sought an immediate end to the General Strike – the mine-owners would withdraw the lockout notices, and the miners would return to work (1:p73).

To the leaders of the MGFB, the TUC move was a betrayal of the miners since these governmental promises lacked any legal guarantees – there were no assurances that the coal-owners would actually fulfil any of these conditions (and nor would the government). And perhaps more importantly – the miners feared that this retreat under pressure would dissipate and undermine the collective bargaining power of all workers and lead to trouble in the future (1:p72).

As for itself, the TUC had considered both the miners’ and the mine-owners’ positions to be intractable – and the trades union leaders were not convinced that either Baldwin or the MFGB would back down – yet it still remains hard to understand how their position could have changed so much within a nine day period – while their rank-and-file union membership remained massively in favour of backing the strike. Or why they caved in so completely, without a single legal guarantee of the memorandum’s terms. The historians McIlroy et al write: “It was a debacle. An unprepared General Council had used the general strike as a bluff, and Baldwin had called their bluff” (1:p74).

And now that the miners’ allied unions had been eliminated from the field of play, the government and MAGB were free to proceed full throttle against the miners. As the TUC turned its back on their struggle, the miners understood who was to blame: “the working class had supported them, it was the leaders [of the labour movement], not the rank and file, who were to blame” (1:p74).

Miners from Biltow, Staffordshire, returned to work after the failure of the General Strike.

The consequences of their failure were terrible for the miners. Morris puts it like this: “The General Strike was a traumatic experience for the trade union movement. The outcome was so disastrous for the miners and those who were victimized that a detached analysis proved to be impossible”(2:p274). And the reasons for this are unsurprising: “It was a total defeat. Wages were cut, and fixed on a district, instead of a national, basis. There was no longer a minimum wage… Two years later average wages were 15 per cent lower than before the General Strike; in some areas, miners’ wages were little above unemployment benefit level. It was years before the miners were able to recover from 1926” (2:p272).

And for the government itself, the delusion of victory was sweet – and short lived. For while the miners were defeated in their aims, so eventually was the government. McIlroy et al write: “The ultimate outcome, after the turmoil of 1926, was that wages in general did not come down and that after another five years of high interest rates and drastic deflation, the pound finally went off gold” (1:p34). The MAGB’s hawkish demands on miners’ wages and hours were tempered somewhat, and other UK workers’ escaped without having their wages slashed as per governmental plans (1:p15).

Overall the economic benefits to the UK were not existent, and the damage to the social cohesion of the UK was incalculable (1:p15). While the UK’s elite politicians had been “Pursuing a strategy based on a return to the gold standard which relied on market forces to undermine organised labour and cut wages, the governing politicians recoiled in the face of resistance…Ruling class strategists rather than coal capitalists were responsible for 1926; [but] supple politicians disengaged, leaving the coal-owners to take the blame.” (1:p7).

After the General Strike was over, in Commons debates and their dinner-party soirées, the government quickly moved to publicly blame the MAGB for the dispute, cold-shouldering their former class-allies. There was no way Baldwin or his government would admit to the electorate that they themselves were to blame for instigating the crisis that had threatened both the UK’s businesses and its workers. It is in this context that Lord Birkenhead’s famous comment should perhaps be understood (1:p15) – “it would be possible to say without exaggeration that the miners’ leaders were the stupidest men in England if we had not had frequent occasion to meet the owners” (1:p15).

The betrayal of their struggle left the miners angry for a long time. Will Lawther, a leader of the Durham County Miners’ Federation and later leader of the TUC writes: “When Churchill met the miners in the autumn they [the MGFB leaders] knew if this didn’t get settled it would leave generations of bitterness. That’s what you’ve got today. 1926 has always been on my mind – I used to judge everybody by what part they’d played.” (2:p283).

He also spoke of the miners’ continued quest for nationalisation – something which would take another 19 years and another World War – until Labour had another chance at government (2:p282): “I remember when Ernie Bevin brought in the Bevin boys [ie. conscripts drafted into the pits instead of the armed forces during the Second World War], I said it was the happiest thing that had happened, it would turn more families against the owners. We were always making appeals to the miners during the war and it’s still the filthiest, dirtiest, rottenest, worst paid job there is. People used to come and see you in the war, offering all sorts of bribes if they could get their sons out of the pits; they’d rather go and get killed in the forces” (2:p284).

After the strike, John Reith moved to quell any criticism of his handling of the whole affair by BBC staff. He circulated a memorandum, which defended the Company’s broadcasting of the crisis with the argument that it was in the ‘national interest’: “Since the BBC was a national institution, and since the Government in this crisis were acting for the people … the BBC was for the Government in this crisis too” (3:p33). Presumably, the 3.5 million strikers who had sacrificed their time, money and job security in fighting the miners’ cause – were not really ‘the people’ whose interests mattered.

But mainly the attitude among the BBC and its supporters was one of self-congratulation. The next couple of issues of the Radio Times were full of letters praising the BBC’s performance during the crisis – projecting a heroic and lofty handling of the dispute (3:p33).

 

Contemporary BBC Sources

Unlike the long-gone original radio broadcasts, historical editions of the BBC in-house magazine Radio Times are available publically online. And while these show the Radio Times made no mention of the General Strike while it was actually underway (see Issue 137: the May 7th 1926 edition), the two following issues are full of glowing praise for the BBC as an institution which saved the nation from peril.

The logo used on 1920s issues of the Radio Times magazine.

Since there is little surviving source material from what the BBC was actually broadcasting, it may be worth quoting at length from these editions in order to give a certain flavour of what the BBC’s output may have been like.

Here are some excerpts from the leading article from the 23rd May edition of the Radio Times, immediately following the end of the strike. It is worth noting the defensive tone of these comments, which suggest the BBC was under attack from certain elements of the public: “That the Government abstained from taking the drastic step of definitely commandeering the BBC was probably due to their realisation that the BBC could be trusted, and that the confidence and goodwill which it had built up during three and a half years, through its record of sincerity and impartiality, was an asset to the cause of good citizenship not lightly to be discounted. (12:p1)

And again: “Certain of our correspondents have expressed some doubt as to the veracity of our news because they have happened to witness some act of rioting or violence which was not mentioned in any of our bulletins, but we would remind these critics that important as such incidents may appear in the locality in which they happen, they are not of sufficient general interest or importance to warrant inclusion in a brief survey of the national situation” (12:p1)

Miners picketing in the city streets, 1926.

Also of interest is the last couple of paragraphs, which actually contains a transcript of the BBC broadcast hailing the end of the strike: “We may conclude by quoting the words of our message broadcast on the night of May 12th: ‘Our first feeling on hearing of the termination of the General Strike must be of profound thankfulness to Almighty God, Who has led us through this supreme trial with national health unimpaired. You have heard the messages from the King and the Prime Minister. It remains only to add the conviction that the Nation’s happy escape has been in large measure due to a personal trust in the Prime Minister.

As for the BBC, we hope your confidence in and goodwill to us have not suffered. We have laboured under certain difficulties, the full story of which may be told one day. We have tried to help.

In going to work to-morrow or the next day, could we not all go as fellow-craftsmen, united in the determination to pick up the broken pieces, to repair the gaps and build up the walls of a more enduring city – the city revealed to the mystic eyes of William Blake when he wrote – [goes on to quote the four verses of the hymn, Jersusalem]” (12:p2).

Evidently, after another two weeks had passed the BBC felt the need for self-justification of its handling of the General Strike was over. It went back on the offensive in the May 28th edition of the Radio Times, with a polemical leading article and a letters page stuffed full of sycophantic praise from the British establishment: Viscount Burnham, Mr J C Squire (Editor of the London Mercury), Sir Landon Ronald (Principle of the Guildhall School of Music), The Rt Hon Sir Arthur Stanley (Chairman of the Wireless League), the Rt Hon T P O’Connor (MP), the Sir Oliver Lodge (Fellow of the Royal Society), the Rt Hon Philip Snowden (MP), Mr John Galsworthy (novelist and playwright) (13:p3).

But one letter on the page stands out from the rest – that of the sitting Labour MP for Middlesbrough, Ellen Wilkinson. Her words, surrounded by the pro-governmental and pro-BBC letters from the rest, shine out as being the sole voice of dissent the BBC allowed in these editions of the Radio Times – in order to show its famous impartiality, no doubt.

MP Ellen Wilkinson addresses a demo supporting the International Labour Policy on Spain,Trafalgar Square, London, 1937.

Her words are the closest thing the miners have to any voice on the Radio Times.

And in what could be the first instance of a common refrain that has henceforth echoed down the decades, she reflected on the BBC, stating that: “The attitude of the BBC during the strike caused pain and indignation to many subscribers. I travelled by car over two thousand miles during the strike and addressed very many meetings. Everywhere the complaints were bitter that a national service subscribed to by every class should have given only one side during the dispute. I felt like asking the Postmaster General for my licence fee back as I can hear enough fairy tales in the House of Commons without paying ten shillings a year to hear more.” (13:p3, italics mine).

Out of all the letters on the page, hers is the only one with a response from the Radio Times editor, who writes, rather tartly: “Miss Wilkinson is, of course, entitled to her views, but we do not believe that they are shared by many people, even among those who are of her political colour. We do not agree that we gave a one-sided view of the dispute. Throughout the crisis we made every effort to be fair and just to the strikers’ case, and we hope that Miss Wilkinson will agree that we said nothing that was untrue, and that no word was spoken which was likely to inflame public opinion against the strikers or to prejudice their case. – EDITOR, Radio Times” (13:p3)

To gain a sense of the level of impartiality and fairness involved, the leading article of the same Radio Times edition provides an insight. And it is worth quoting in full. From the hysterical claims that the BBC single-handedly saw of the Bolshevik ‘danger’ to the nation (represented by the miners’ quest for a living wage for themselves and their children), to the more surreal comparisons between the BBC editors and the international diplomats in the League of Nations, the whole article is staggering in its tone and content. It seems to be suggesting that the miners – who were consistently peaceful throughout the protests – were seeking to commit violent ‘atrocities’ against their fellow citizens and that that theirs was a ‘malign’ quest. Whereas the BBC was a ‘friend’ on the side of ‘Heaven’, and could be trusted to be ‘impartial’:

“It is the things we hear and read and think day by day that make the unity of a nation. Consequently, nothing distracts a nation more than to be entirely cut off from the news.

Oakbank Pithead, Scotland, 1910.

I was speaking a few days ago to a statesman, now in exile, from one of the countries which has been through a revolution and a dictatorship , during which the Press had been suppressed. He said that one of the most awful experiences of the time had been the complete absence of news. No one knew what was happening. No one knew what his neighbour was thinking, or whom to trust, or whether his friends were alive or dead. It was a sudden and utter darkness in which men groped bewildered. And, just as in darkness a man strains his eyes and imagines he sees monstrous and fantastic shapes, so, in the absence of news, there grew up wild rumours. Some, no doubt, were due to conscious lying, but most were just the natural results of the fear and the sense of ignorance.

That is what during the recent industrial crisis we were saved from by the BBC.

****

As soon as I heard of the suppression of the newspapers, the thing that I feared most was the lying rumour. Most of the atrocities in the war, most of the massacres in the Near East, have been directly caused by lying rumours. They were acts of revenge for rumoured atrocities by the other side.

Miners and their supporters appeal for charity to feed hungry children in the mining communities, 1926.

Now during the recent strike this was a perfectly real danger. Excitable persons on both sides took to inventing, as such persons generally do. I do not suppose that my friends are more imaginative than other people’s friends, but I certainly heard the beginning of rumours which, if they had once got going, would have done infinite harm and made reconciliation almost impossible. But they never did get really going, at least, not among the nation as a whole, and I think that was due chiefly to the BBC.

Of course, there were The British Gazette and The British Worker, and there were other fragmentary papers. But, for one thing, they had all quite properly taken sides and naturally did not carry any conviction to the opposite side; and also, one was never sure of getting them, on any particular day. But the millions of people who have wireless sets, and the many more millions who come in to listen to loud-speakers, were kept in the touch with the facts every few hours. The sort of rumour I speak of was seldom half a day old before people were saying, “Oh, but that was contradicted by the BBC,” or, “The account on the wireless was quite different.”

I ask myself – and I hope the question is not offensive – how did we know that the wireless was telling the truth? Well, we did not; but somehow, in general, we felt really sure of it. Of course, the BBC gave the official messages, marking them as official; and we suspected that other messages had been scrutinised by someone.

****

But allowing for all that, the BBC has already built up a tradition and a habit of impartiality which in this crisis enabled its listeners to feel that they were listening to friends who had never deceived them before, and could be trusted now. And that feeling of confidence spread in waves from every wireless set. One can see now, what a blessing it is that during the past three and a half years the BBC has been kept strictly and completely free of party politics and controversy and propaganda.

It seems to me that the BBC has had, consciously or unconsciously, the same training in impartiality as the officials of the League of Nations. The League officials, when they issue their statements know that they will be read by all parties concerned, they have to be perfectly fair in what they say, and the only way to do that successfully is to be fair in what they think. I do not know the BBC as I know the League; but I should guess that it simply will not do to take sides with one set against the other. There is nothing for it but to get the facts right and state them fairly. So that is what they have always done.

As a matter of fact, the masses of the people, instead of being cut off, have actually been brought nearer than ever before to the centre of national life and knowledge. What an extraordinary thing it was on the on the night of Saturday, May 8th, 1926, that plain and simple people all over the country should hear the Prime Minister himself explaining exactly what he intended to do! Almost the same applies to Mr J H Thomas’ speech on Friday, May 14th, about the Railway question, and to the broadcast of the reports of Parliamentary debates.

As one listened, and felt that some millions of one’s fellow-citizens, whatever their opinions, were listening at the same time and getting the same knowledge, one felt comfort in the thought of that living voice which could pass from end to end of the nation and amid the noises of discord make us one.

A 1929 banner from Seaham Lodge Colliery, East Durham.

****

The BBC has had resting upon it a responsibility and a privilege such as have rarely fallen to any company of men. Whatever trouble or dangers came upon this country, in the long run a people that knows the truth will do the right [sic.]. Lies can destroy; ignorance can destroy; knowledge of the truth will steer a nation through to safety.

And if, by any malign chance, a danger like that through which we have passed should ever return, it will rest on the BBC more than on any other organisation to make sure that day by day the nation knows the truth.

Heaven grant that it be as little censored as possible!” (13:p1)

Several months later, in August 1926, Scottish MFGB and TUC General Council member Robert Smillie addressed the parliament on behalf of the miners at Westminster. His words:

“In this fight we have everything against us. The fight is absolutely unequal. It is not of our seeking. There will be no hunger in the homes of the colliery owners, their children will be fed and clothes, housed and educated, just as usual, no matter how long the stoppage continues. On our side there is privation, there is hunger, and there is untimely death caused by this dispute. Therefore we are not on equal terms… there is another force against us besides the employers. The Government of the country is on the side of the mineowners and against the miners in this dispute… Then, we have the Press practically unanimous against us” (1:p100).

He was correct is his analysis of the situation, and it is significant that he felt the need to single out the media as one of the forces working against the miners on behalf of the government.

The BBC’s first mission had proven a success for its government backers.

And though the miners themselves would never forgive or forget its hostility towards them, successive generations would have to relearn the same lesson through bitter experience.

 

References

1 = Industrial Politics and the 1926 Mining Lockout: The Struggle for Dignity, edited by John McIlroy, Alan Campbell and Keith Gildart. Published by University of Wales Press, Cardiff 2009.

2 = The General Strike, by Margaret Morris. Published by Penguin Books, 1976.

3 = A Social History of British Broadcasting: Volume One 1922 – 1939; Serving the Nation, by Paddy Scannell and David Cardiff, published by Basil Blackwell, 1991.

4 = The General Strike of 1926, by Keith Laybourn, published by Manchester University Press, 1993.

5 = Social Media at BBC News: the Re-Making of Crisis Reporting, by Valerie Belair-Gagnon, published by Routledge, 2015.

6 = The Pirate Radio Hall of Fame: UK Offshore Radio – Precursory Timeline 1917 – 1959, compiled and written by Dr Eric Gilder and Mervyn Hagger, at http://www.offshoreradio.co.uk/hist03a.htm

7 = The BBC and national identity in Britain, 1922 – 53, by Thomas Hajkowski, published by Manchester University Press, 2010.

8 = Lowering the voting age to 16: Timeline, website published and maintained by the Citizenship Foundation, available at http://www.citizenshipfoundation.org.uk/main/page.php?82

9 = Nine Days in May, by Patrick Renshaw, published by Eyre Methuen Ltd, 1975.

10 = A century of labour market change: 1900 to 2000, by Craig Lindsay, Labour Market Division, Office for National Statistics, pdf available for download at https://www.google.co.uk/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=2&ved=0ahUKEwju06SN2ufUAhWNaVAKHa6eBREQFggzMAE&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.ons.gov.uk%2Fons%2Frel%2Flms%2Flabour-market-trends–discontinued-%2Fvolume-111–no–3%2Fa-century-of-labour-market-change–1900-to-2000.pdf%3Fformat%3Dprint&usg=AFQjCNEIeBgXu7kleRwpdE86KBVtnSIyhg

11 = United Kingdom Total Population 1851 – 2013, spreadsheet compiled by the Office for National Statistics, excel file available for download at https://www.google.co.uk/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=6&ved=0ahUKEwi-np-J3efUAhULYlAKHd6MCyYQFghOMAU&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.ons.gov.uk%2Fons%2Fabout-ons%2Fbusiness-transparency%2Ffreedom-of-information%2Fwhat-can-i-request%2Fpublished-ad-hoc-data%2Fpop%2Fseptember-2014%2Fuk-population-estimates-1851-2013.xls&usg=AFQjCNHkoeXA3OW-p3-2fXTtTg-9-4lMCw&cad=rja

12 = Broadcasting During the Fourteen Days, author unknown, front page leading article of the Radio Times, 21st May 1926, Issue number 138. Available online at BBC archives http://genome.ch.bbc.co.uk/page/e836ca0b111e404d9e77ff4bfd953ca3?page=2

13 = Broadcasting the News, by Prof Gilbert Murray, front page leading article of the Radio Times, 28th May 1926, Issue number 139. Available online at BBC archives http://genome.ch.bbc.co.uk/page/f3a3c5b748cb40779c971ee883033cbf