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The General Strike

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May 3, 1926. House of Commons.

The Royal Commission on the coal-mining industry, under Sir Herbert Samuel's chairmanship, had reported on 11 March. Its principal positive recommendations were for the future; its short-term proposals involved a reduction of wages for the miners. The owners also wanted longer hours. These terms were unacceptable to the unions,  and deadlock occurred. On 1 May the miners were locked out, and a special trade union meeting approved plans for a national strike to take place on 3 May. Negotiations took place throughout 2 May, and were broken off by the Government late at night when it learned that the Daily Mail compositors had refused to typeset the newspaper in protest against a fiery leader (editorial) by the editor, Marlowe. In such confused circumstances Britain lurched towards her first general strike. The feeling that Churchill had been one of the ministers most hostile to a negotiated settlement seriously damaged his relations with organised labour until the Second World War, and to some extent even after it.

—Sir Robert Rhodes James


The right hon. Gentleman has certainly preserved the calm and restraint which he enjoined upon others and, indeed, the extreme self-control which the House has shown throughout this Debate is the measure of the deep anxiety and sorrow we all feel at the miserable turn which the fortunes of our country have taken. We gladly recognise the efforts for peace which have been made by the Trade Union Committee, by the right hon. Gentleman who spoke last and, of course, by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Derby (Mr. Thomas), who has striven with all the compulsive and persuasive powers of his nature and of his experience to bring about a warding-off of this shocking disaster in our national life.

We, too, have striven for peace, and we have deeds as well as words which can be quoted. We have the subsidy of £24,000,000 which we have provided, although it ruined and shattered the finance of two successive years and which we have paid for and which is there. We have also provided another sum of approximately £3,000,000 which could be used to ease the bump where the changeover from subsidy to no subsidy would have involved very serious grievance. A sum of £3,000,000 at the present rate of subsidy, applied to the districts where the change would have involved the greatest hardship would have been a very substantial alleviation for probably three months.

Then, apart from making this immense contribution in the money of the taxpayer, we have accepted boldly and frankly the recommendations of the Report as far as it falls upon us to do so. We did not pretend that we agreed with them. The very idea of finding £100,000,000 or more to buy out the owners of mining royalties implies an operation upon our credit deeply injurious to the whole of our conversion situation. We had our doubts about municipal trading in coal, and there were other points, but when it came to a question of this great hope of settlement passing away because, forsooth, while both the other parties adhered to the Report, the Government were not able to give its whole-hearted acquiescence, we said, “Never mind what our opinions on these points have been; we will make the sacrifice of those political opinions in order that the matter shall not fall to the ground through any failure on our part.”

The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) asked what would happen if the owners had not accepted and if the miners had accepted. Well, as far as I am able to state the case shortly, the owners have given a general acceptance with very small reservations, and I am quite certain that if these small reservations were the only outstanding points, negotiation, and if necessary, Parliamentary action, would ultimately have adjusted those very small outstanding points.

If I say that we on our side made great efforts for peace, and if we freely acknowledge the efforts of the Parliamentary leaders of the party opposite, I am not prepared, quite frankly, to extend that tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Carnarvon. I do not think his record on the subject entitles him to censure and criticise

the Government. What is the right hon. Gentleman doing today? He is criticising us for not making a further prolongation of the subsidy. He has criticised us for not doing that at a time when a general strike is actually about to take place in the country. What did my right hon. Friend say nine months ago in July last? I have no quarrel with the right hon. Gentleman opposite on that point. When we gave the subsidy in July last the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Ogmore (Mr. Hartshorn) said they were grateful and recognised it as a help. “If it is not a settlement,” they said, “thank God, it does tide us over.” And they accepted it with thankfulness.

But my right hon. Friend the Member for Carnarvon used it as an occasion for derision and scorn which he heaped upon the Government, and, not only did he criticise the subsidy, but he criticised the giving of the subsidy under a threat nothing like so definite as that which we have now—not a threat of a general strike. He said we had given the subsidy not because of any considered judgment, but because of the threat that was made, and added: “Quite frankly the Government were afraid of facing cold steel.” That was the line of argument used by the right hon. Gentleman nine months ago, when there was a great justification for the subsidy, namely, that the facts of the coal trade were not known, and had never been fully explored. I do not think it is possible for the right hon. Gentleman to justify that line of argument which he used nine months ago or reconcile it with the kind of appeal which he has made to us to be reasonable, to put aside any influence of threats and so on, which might be in our minds, and to extend the subsidy on this occasion.

I must say that among all the very excellent sentiments which have been expressed this afternoon there has been no success in evading the grim, obvious, underlying facts of the situation. The first fact of the situation is that we are told we must now continue the subsidy. All this talk about withdrawing lock-out notices and giving time for further consideration and allowing negotiations to be continued, reduces itself down to this: that we are to go on paying the subsidy. There is nothing else in it. It is no good our saying, “Withdraw the lock-out notices” when the owners will ask how are they to conduct their business at a loss, provable, I believe, on the figures, of about £600,000 a week? Therefore, if the lockout notices are to be withdrawn, that is only another way of saying you must continue the subsidy.

I do not take up an unreasonable position about that matter. In the Budget I revealed deliberately and by design to the House the fact that I still possessed £3,000,000 which could be used as a taper, which could actually be used for a prolongation of a fortnight or three weeks, but that before we undertook that step it was essential that we should be in a position to say honestly that we believed reasonably there was some prospect of matters being further advanced at the end of that period. I can only give a general outline of what has passed, although I have followed with deep interest and close attention all the negotiations, I have not been involved in the actual personal conduct of these negotiations. My right hon. Friend opposite has seen me waiting about outside doors at critical meetings and keeping in the closest touch with events, but I have not been present myself, and therefore, it I state anything which is not precisely and exactly what occurred hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite will understand.

I have, however, a general view of the position and I have the information of my colleagues here in regard to particular  details and I say, without hesitation, that the impression left upon me is that for all practical purposes the miners have not budged one inch since July last. I do not see, and I do not know in what practical way they have at all receded from the position which they then held so strongly and intensely that there must not be one minute's prolongation of the time or one shilling’s diminution of the wage. If they will not accept a reduction of wages, and if the owners cannot be forced to carry on the business at a loss, it is perfectly clear the only alternative left is for the State to continue the subsidy for a prolonged period. [Hon. Members: “A fortnight.”]

Does anybody suppose that the continuance of the subsidy for a fortnight is going to allow this matter to be settled? I cannot believe it for one moment. How can we justify prolonging this subsidy while the coal trade is being reorganised?

Mr. Thomas: There is a very important point here. I only deal with the question of the fortnight. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the advisers of the Government actually told us on Saturday night that there might be a possibility of getting general agreement on a basis of the Report within another two days?

Sir A. Steel-Maitland: The Chancellor of the Exchequer [Mr. Churchill] allows me to speak. It was said it might be possible to get agreement. Some people, who were most optimistic, said “in a couple of days” and some said “in a fortnight,” and, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, ideas as to the time differed. The real question at issue was this: that there would be no real guarantee or assurance whatever that, if an extension was given, we should not be at the end of a fortnight's prolongation in exactly the same state as we are in at the present time, because the miners have never budged one inch from their attitude as regards accepting the Report.

Mr. Churchill: At any rate, however many differences there may be about the interpretation of what was said and what was inferred on a particular occasion, let the House look at the plain and simple facts. Is there anyone who does not believe that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has desired to avert this breakdown more than any other man in the whole country? Is there anyone who can dispute the fact that, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, I have as great a political interest in averting this disaster as any other Member of the House? Does anybody seriously hold the idea that the question of a small prolongation would have stood in the way if there had been any practical hope of settlement? We would gladly have made the sacrifice and, even if we had made a statement to the contrary, we would not have allowed that statement to stand in the way provided we were sure there was, not a certain, but a reasonable, hope of getting a permanent solution. Obviously, however, things cannot get into the position where we are committed to an indefinite prolongation of the subsidy while a somewhat vague reorganisation is going on laboriously in the coal trade as preliminary to any readjustment of economic conditions.

It has been said, “What does it mean—it is taxpayers’ money.” It is money taken from the pockets of the people of the country; it is taken from the necessities and comforts of the working classes. Agriculture, steel, iron, shipbuilding, are all suffering too, and in some cases and in many parts, the conditions both of hours and labour are worse in those industries than they are in the coal industry, or parts of it. How can you justify the whole country being forced to pay this particular levy almost indefinitely, when there is no prospect of any solution? Anyhow, whether it is just or not that there should be a continuance of the coal subsidy to the miners and mineowners in the pressing circumstances, that is a question which Parliament and Parliament alone can competently decide. This Parliament representing 45,000,000 is the only body that can judge of the correlation of all the interests in the country.

If that be so, if I have given a fairly accurate account of the situation, what is the position created by the decision to call a general strike? That decision is the second fact in the situation. The first fact is the demand for a continuance of the subsidy; the second is the terrible, blasting, devastating menace of a general strike throughout the country. The right hon. Gentleman drew distinctions between general strikes. He said there were general strikes to force legislation, and that these were shocking and unconstitutional, but a general strike out of mere sympathy in a wages dispute, apparently, he regarded as legitimate. I see no difference whatever between a general strike to force Parliament to pass some Bill, which the country does not wish for, and a general strike to force Parliament to pay a subsidy.

There is a great distinction between a trade dispute, designed to bring about a solution as between masters and men, and a general strike of this character. We all deplore strikes, but the strike has been found almost the only way, when other means have failed, of getting to a conclusion in regard to trade disputes, and organised labour has repeatedly repulsed the idea of compulsory arbitration. We have recognised it for years as a lamentable method of adjusting disputes when everything else has failed.

Suppose we have a miners' strike; as we have seen twice before it is a process of reducing people, by cruel losses on all sides. Government, miners and mine-owners all are reduced to the same position where, after the lapse of time, they come into a more reasonable frame of mind and offer in weakness or in sorrow to make a settlement. That is the process, and it is the process that British labour has always claimed to have the right to exercise. But that is an entirely different thing from the concerted, deliberate, organised menace of a general strike in order to compel Parliament to do something which it otherwise would not do. A general strike in a great number of trades, which have been selected, and of which we have been informed, in the very elaborate and thorough accounts which have been given in the papers, obviously means, if it were continued for any length of time, the ruin of the country.

Therefore, the country and Parliament, which represents the nation, are confronted quite simply with the choice either of being ruined or of submitting to pay very large sums of the taxpayer’s money to one particular trade, which they do not think justified. It is really not possible.

I am not going to use one single provocative word, for, after all, what is the use of provocative words on such an occasion, here in the House of Commons? Probably our words may go no further than the House of Commons, but all the more should they be sincere and unprovocative.

It is absolutely impossible to justify the submission by Parliament to such a demand. We know how hard the leaders opposite have tried to get the miners to make some concession, but the miners were unable to. Time and again, my colleagues inform me, they were not able, their leaders, to give any practical acceptance of the Commission's Report. But whether or not the miners are right really does not arise for the purpose of the argument. You may think they are right, and we may think they are not right, but anyhow, right or wrong, the position we are in tonight is that we have either got to face the ruin of the country or submit to a demand which is placed on us under duress. Therefore, it seems that the general strike turns, not upon the decision of the Trade Union Congress even as to whether the claims of the miners are just—it turns on the failure of the Trade Union Committee to persuade the miners to accept some modification. [Laughter.]

Mr. Thomas: This is not a laughing time. If there is a genuine desire to find the facts, I am going to do it. The right hon. Gentleman is not correct, and I had better correct him. It is true that the General Council were empowered, and I speak officially on their behalf in saying they will accept all the responsibility, and while we were at a critical moment, a critical letter was handed to us. The Prime Minister knows we were then engaged in finding, and had already said that we believed that we could find, a formula for acceptance. That was our mutual word between us, and it was an unfortunate fact that this other incident happened that burst it up, just when we were likely to succeed. Do keep that in mind.

Mr. Churchill: I am bound to say I do not share the hope that the right hon. Gentleman had at that time, because I have been up against these very grim facts, that the miners are not prepared to accept any modification of their conditions at the present time. I am not blaming them a bit, but they are not, and, on the other hand, we are not prepared to continue the subsidy unless we see some swift finality in that process. But in this position, when it is our view and the view of Parliament that we are confronted either with acquiescing in the ruin of the country or submitting to the dictation of one particular industry, itself the interested party in the dispute, I cannot conceive of any Parliament worthy of the name, let alone the oldest and the strongest Parliament in the world, which would so completely abdicate its position, which would submit to such dictation, without making every exertion, and undertaking every expense, and running every risk, and taking every measure in its power that circumstances may require.

I am told this is not a strike to starve the nation into submission, and I readily recognise the offer which was made to convey food and necessaries by the Trade Union Committee, but what difference does it really make to the issue whether the country is immediately to be starved into submission or whether ruin is to be brought upon it out of which famine will emerge in a few weeks or months? There is no difference. It may have been a wise thing for the trade unions to have done, but as far as affecting the situation is concerned, it affects it in no way, and what Government in the world could enter into partnership with a rival Government, against which it is endeavouring to defend itself, and society, and allow that rival Government to sit in judgment on every train that runs and on every lorry on the road?

Our title deeds in this House—and, after all, we represent a great mass of electors— [An Hon. Member: “Not the majority!”]—We do not represent a majority, but we represent a larger number than hon. Members opposite. Our title deeds do not allow us to contemplate such a situation. We cannot by any means divest ourselves of the responsibility of maintaining the life of the nation in essential services and in public order, and in pursuance of that we are bound to take every measure, and even perhaps, as time goes on, measures which, if they were ventured to-day, would seem very drastic, but which in a few weeks everyone might consider necessary.

In the nature of things that is what is so serious about the situation. It is a conflict which, if it is fought out to a conclusion, can only end in the overthrow of Parliamentary Government or in its decisive victory. There is no middle course open. Either the Parliamentary institutions of the country will emerge triumphant, and the nation, which has not flinched in the past through many ordeals, the nation, which indeed has always shown itself stronger and nobler and more generous in its hours of trouble, will once again maintain itself and be mistress in its own house, or else, on the other hand, the existing constitution will be fatally injured, and, however unwilling hon. Members opposite may be to produce that result, the consequences of their action will inevitably lead to the erection of some Soviet of trade unions on which, whether under Parliamentary forms or without them, the real effective control of the economic and political life of the country will devolve.

Such a transference could only mean the effectual subversion of the State, and, therefore, weighing all the consequences, we feel bound to act as circumstances may require. It is hardly to be conceived that any considerations of weakness or fear would prevent Ministers or Members of Parliament from doing their duty to the end.

No one can doubt what the end will be, but let me say this one last word before I sit down. If the executive Government of the country were at this crisis, and face to face with the situation which has now, for the first time, developed in our land—for never before has it emerged in this form—if we were in this crisis to show ourselves incapable and impotent and unable to make head and to carry on the control and authority with which the nation has entrusted us, that would not end the conflict.

The Government may be brushed out of the way, but other forces, enemies to the Parliamentary constitutional system of this country, forces which deserve and require the consistent control of democrats in every land, would emerge and carry on the struggle in infinitely more disastrous and tragical forms than that with which we are now threatened. From every point of view, including that of our duty in the long interests of the working classes of this country, we are bound to face this present challenge unflinchingly, rigorously, rigidly, and resolutely to the end.

The right hon. Gentleman opposite said: “Is this then the end?” The position of the Government is not changed in any way. We are seeking peace, we are defending ourselves, we are bound to defend ourselves from the terrible menace which is levied upon us from tomorrow morning, but we are still perfectly unchanged in our attitude as it was last week. The door is always open. The negotiations were interrupted, as they had to be interrupted, because we were getting into the closing hours before this new situation supervened, and a clear and definite statement of the Government's position was essential before possibly all means of public communication were cut off.

There is no question of there being a gulf across which no negotiator can pass—certainly not. The right hon. Gentleman asked me, “Is the Government taking the position that it will not negotiate?” Anyone can approach the Government who has authority, and can parley with them, and it is our duty to parley with them. But the Trade Union Congress have only to cancel the general strike and withdraw the challenge they have issued, and we shall immediately begin, with the utmost care and patience with them again, the long, laborious task which has been pursued over these many weeks of endeavouring to rebuild on economic foundations the prosperity of the coal trade. That is our position. No door is closed; but, on the other hand, while the situation remains what it is, we have no alternative whatever but to go forward unflinchingly and do our duty.