The General Strike of 1926
Why did the General Strike of 1926 fail and what were the effects the strike had upon industrial relations in Britain?
The General Strike of 1926 lasted only nine days and directly involved around 1.8 million workers. It was the short but ultimate outbreak of a much longer conflict in the mining industry , which lasted from the privatisation of the mines after the First World War until their renewed nationalisation after the Second. The roots of the General Strike in Britain, unlike in France or other continental countries , did not lie in ideological conceptions such as syndicalism but in the slowly changing character of trade union organisation and tactics. On the one hand, unskilled and other unapprenticed workers had been organised into national unions since the 1880s to combat sectionalism and to strengthen their bargaining power and the effectiveness of the strike weapon. On the other hand, at the same time and for the same reason trade unions had developed the tactic of industry-wide and 'sympathetic' strikes. Later during the pre-war labour unrest these two forms of strike action , 'national' and 'sympathetic', were more often used together which in an extreme case could have meant a general strike. The symbol of this new strategy was the triple alliance , formed in 1914, which was a loose, informal agreement between railwaymen, transport workers and miners to support each other in case of industrial disputes and strikes. As G.A. Phillips summarised:
The General Strike was in origin, therefore, the tactical product of a pattern of in-dustrial conflict and union organisation which had developed over the past twenty-five years or so in industries where unionism had been introduced only with difficulty, among rapidly expanding labour forces traditionally resistant to organisation, or against strong opposition from employers.
Therefore, a large majority of the British Labour movement saw a general strike along the traditional 'labourist' view, which emphasised the separation of the political and the industrial sphere, as a purely industrial act. This notion was supported the developments in the 1920s when the depression and the employers offensive weakened the militant and revolutionary forces , whereas the success of the Labour Party and the reorganisation of the TUC General Council further strengthened these 'labourist' forces.
The government's and the employer's view, of course, was a different one. Since the French syndicalists in 1906 had drawn up the Charter of Amiens, reaffirming their belief in direct political action and the general strike as a means of overthrowing the Parliamentary system, governments and industrialists all over Europe saw a general strike as a revolutionary challenge for the constitution and the economic system. Although the British Labour movement had never been really committed to this idea, during the post-war boom when it was on the offensive, there were two examples of semi-syndicalist conceptions concerning the use of industrial action against the war and British intervention against the Soviet Republic. Government and employers were warned and did not hesitate to condemn every notion of nation wide industrial action as unconstitutional and revolutionary.
The mining dispute which caused the General Strike emerged after the First World War when the triple alliance broke and the miners were left to fight alone against the government's plans to privatise the mines. As a result the mines suddenly returned to their private owners and the miners faced demands for very substantial wage cuts of up to 50 per cent . The dispute escalated because the crisis was seen by all the key players -the government, the em-ployers and the Trade Union Council (TUC)- as an example for future industrial relations in Britain. The trade un-ion movement saw its opportunity to challenge the notion that wage reduction could solve Britain's economic diffi-culties and decided therefore that a future united action in support of the miners would take the form of a general strike. But as Margaret Morris emphasised. "It was the absence of any possibility of finding an agreed solution to the difficulties in the mining industry which made a confrontation on the lines of the General Strike almost inevita-ble, not any generalised will to class conflict".
The Conservative government, however, saw its role as a neutral, standing between the contending parties and rep-resenting the British people as a whole. Its industrial policy included the application of the principle of co-partnership in industry, in the hope that workers and management would begin to see their interest as