27th May, 1926


(Due to arrive Melbourne-26.6.26)

My dear P.M.,

As I did not feel competent to write up the inner history of the General Strike and the events which led up to it, I asked Tom Jones [1] if he would put something on paper for me to send you.

He responded very nobly in the shape of the carefully considered document (marked 'A') which I am able to enclose with this letter.

[2] No one knows the real story of it all as well as he and I think you can take this paper of his as being very near the truth, not only as regards facts but as regards motives and influences that actuated both sides.

As you will see, his name does not appear on it at all and he asks that his name be not mentioned as being the author of it.

I have also talked to S. G. Tallents, the Secretary of the Supply and Transport Committee of the Cabinet, who had quite a considerable insight into the conduct of the measures taken to combat the strike during its course. I have set down in another paper the points on which he laid stress, but through pressure of other work I have not been able to get this typed to go to you by this mail.

I am, Yours sincerely, R. G. CASEY

[Enclosure A]

The project of a General Strike is one with which the more ardent spirits of the Labour movement have toyed for some years, and various unstable Alliances of the bigger Unions have prepared the way for it. Successive measures have been deliberately taken to concentrate power more and more in a central executive which could act swiftly and without consultation. The Unions vary in the degree to which they have surrendered their initiative, but there is no doubt that large numbers of the rank and file were astonished to find that they were called out without a ballot.

This exercise of overriding authority, while it did not prevent men coming out in obedience to instructions, did undoubtedly cool their ardour and make many of them disinclined to remain out.

In July 1925 the Government were threatened with a concerted attack by the big Unions. The country was ill-informed as to the merits of the coal dispute and the Government was uncertain as to how far it could rely on its emergency preparations. A breathing space was obtained by means of a subsidy and the appointment of a Royal Commission.

The Royal Commission reported in March 1926. The Report was wellreceived at first. It was a fair and persuasive document and the Government secured for it a wide circulation by issuing it first at a shilling and then at threepence. But when one sat down closely to apply the recommendations of the Report, it was found to be either nebulous or ambiguous at crucial points. Especially was this the case with the question of wages and a national minimum. The ambiguity was due to the Report being the work of more than one hand and to the hurry to complete and publish it before the different parts were properly harmonised. Had the 'Samuel Memorandum', which the Chairman prepared during the General Strike, been embodied at the end of the Report many of our troubles, and perhaps the General Strike itself, would have been avoided. [3] In the course of the negotiations between Owners and Miners, the Government did not call upon the Commissioners to clear up the disputed points. This is regrettable because the Commissioners' view was nearer to the men's interpretation than to the owners', and the Miners' Executive had learnt this privately.

Broadly the Commission intended that- (a) The subsidy should cease;

(b) That there should be genuine guarantees that the mining industry would be thoroughly reorganised in the immediate future;

(c) That the miners having satisfied themselves as to (b) should agree to a temporary reduction of wages in the neighbourhood of ten per cent.

The Owners thoroughly disliked the reorganisation proposals; the Government believed the relief they would bring was exaggerated but were prepared to go ahead with them provided the wage reduction was secured.

The reorganisation proposals are largely the result of criticism advanced by 'intellectuals' behind the Miners' Leaders from the days of the Sankey Commission [4] onwards. The Miners' Leaders themselves, certainly their spokesmen Smith [5] and Cook [6], have a very imperfect grip of 'reorganisation' and use it as 'a blessed word'. What they are really determined about is to hold on as long as possible to their slogan 'Not a penny off wages, not a minute on hours'. They know well enough that the economic position of the industry is most serious. They exaggerated the probable savings from reorganisation and they counted all along that the kindly Prime Minister [7] would be forced to continue the subsidy for an indefinite period and thereby postpone the evil day when they would have to tell their men that wages had to come down or hours be extended, or both.

It is important to remember that the Seven Hours Act of 1919 and the advance of wages in 1924 were both granted under duress and that moderate opinion holds that, in the circumstances of today, they should be withdrawn. It is equally true that the Mining Association is a thoroughly reactionary body not representative of the most enlightened employers.

Owners' and Men's organisations are alike led by men who are obstructionists rather than negotiators. They have long been accustomed to periodic strikes and lock-outs and regard them as normal means of settling their differences. There is even ground for thinking that the Mining Association in the present case from the start believed a stoppage to be a wholesome form of blood- letting and that the Miners' Leaders believe it will be easier for them to get the men to swallow inevitable reductions after a few weeks' stoppage. The other point to bear in mind is that the public are readier to sympathise with the Miners than with any body of workers, owing to the nature of their occupation. Much of this sympathy is misplaced. The modern mines are very different from the old pits and tens of thousands of men classed as 'miners' never go underground. But throughout the public have been friendly to the miners' cause and a sharp distinction was drawn between the action of the Trade Union General Council and the mining dispute.

The negotiations between the three parties had made little progress when the breakdown was reached on Friday, April 30th. The owners had posted up notices of wages in some of the districts.

The Government had induced the owners to agree to negotiate nationally but the wages which the owners could offer for a 7 hours day, with practically no profit to themselves, were miserably low. The Government felt increasingly that the solution lay in the direction of an 8 hours day but were estopped from travelling on that route by the verdict against it in the Report.

The Government put forward no proposals of its own, but were willing to stand on the Report if the others would. The men refused to budge either on wages or hours. They thought that at the last moment the Government would yield on the subsidy and postpone the necessity for reduced wages. But the Government did not yield.

On the following day the T.U.C. took over the negotiations and at the same time threatened a General Strike. The Government ignored the threat and negotiated all through Saturday and Sunday with the T.U.C. leaders. Both sides laboured with all their might for peace. The chief figures, Pugh [8] and Thomas [9], fought down the extremists in their own camp and were reinforced by Ramsay MacDonald [10] and Arthur Henderson [11] acting for the Labour Party. But MacDonald was handicapped because he was not a Trade Unionist, and Thomas was suspect because of 'Black Friday' years ago when he was supposed to have let down the miners. Thomas, who was much the most resourceful and determined negotiator, was violently hated by Cook, the Miners' Secretary, and disliked by Citrine [12], the T.U.C. Secretary. The other outstanding figure on the T.U.C. was Bevin [13], the leader of the Dockers, who with Bromley [14] and Purcell [15] led the Left Wing. The T.U.C. was practically in session all day and half the night at Eccleston Square. Executive action mainly originated with Bevin. It is believed that Bevin, Bromley and Purcell were mainly responsible for the policy which caused the telegrams to go out on Sunday ordering the General Strike. This act, while seriously meant by the Left Wing, was probably regarded as bluff by the Moderates. It was certainly not generally regarded by the Executive as a revolutionary measure challenging the State. It was meant as the most convincing demonstration of solidarity with the miners in their fight for the maintenance of their standard of living. But on Sunday night the bluff was called by the Government to the amazement of the T.U.C. who believed that they were within a few hours of securing agreement.

This action of the Government was precipitated by the 'Daily Mail' incident [16], but throughout Sunday the attitude of the Government had been hardening. It is impossible now to say what might have happened. The most probable view is that if the T.U.C.

had failed to get the Miners to accept the 'Birkenhead' [17] formula on Sunday night, the T.U.C. would have broken then with the Miners and called off the General Strike before it began. It is not likely that the Miners would have accepted the 'Birkenhead' formula that night. More than a week later they refused to accept the 'Samuel Memorandum' as the price of calling off the General Strike. Nor have they moved since one inch from their original position.

On Monday, May 3rd, the P.M. defined the issue as a challenge to constitutional Government in a speech in the House of Commons-a speech strictly impartial in its narration of events and conciliatory in temper. He knew that the chief trade union leaders and the leaders of the Labour Party in the House were entirely opposed to a strike against the State and that their only defence would be to describe what was happening as an industrial dispute.

He was determined to keep the way open for their speedy retreat.

The battle proceeded on two points: the material front, by the provision of essential services by the Government's central and local, official and voluntary organisations, and, secondly, the moral front, by speeches and messages and pledges, by means of the official newspaper and by broadcasting. In the House of Commons on May 6th Sir John Simon [18] told the country that a General Strike was illegal and its promoters liable in damages to the uttermost extent of their possessions. This made a marked impression and it was greatly deepened five days later in a case before Mr. Justice Astbury who laid it down, in addition, that members of Trade Unions could not lose benefits by refusing to obey illegal orders.

All this was bound in time to weaken the determination of the strikers, but they stood notably firm and united throughout this week. The men who returned to the railways were largely of the supervisory and clerical grades, and had the T.U.C. extended the strike the position would quickly have become grave.

Meanwhile much was going on out of sight. On May 8th Sir Herbert Samuel had taken on the role of a voluntary intermediary and was making a favourable impression on the T.U.C. but was cutting no ice with the Owners. The latter 'stood behind the Government' and would discuss nothing until the General Strike was called off.

Samuel, however, persevered with the T.U.C. leaders, and though distinctly repudiated by the Government, it was doubtless believed by the men that there was at least 'an understanding' between him and the Government. Lord Reading [19] was also active behind the scenes and several of the labour intellectuals, alarmed at the prospect of tempers becoming worse and of 'incidents' inflaming the populace, were seeking a way out which would save the face of the T.U.C.

On the other hand, the T.U.C. had made an overt move which made peace far more difficult. On May 7th they issued orders to interrupt the supply of food. This led to convoys of flour from the docks covered by armoured cars. Feelings grew more intense and the moderate men on the T.U.C. were privately pressing hard for some gesture from the Government on which they could fasten and which would give a peaceful turn to events. On Saturday night, May 8th, the P.M. responded to this appeal by a personally broadcasted speech, which while absolutely firm on the central issue, was very conciliatory on the mining dispute. This speech had a marked effect on the country and on the T.U.C. itself. The latter squabbled for hours over it trying to decide what action, if any, they might venture to launch upon it. Some were pressing for extending the strike by calling out 'the second line'. Others were leaning on the Prime Minister's message and on the Samuel negotiations and searching for a way out. These latter were gaining ground all through Sunday and Monday at Eccleston Square.

Rumours began to circulate with exaggerated force that the Government were contemplating extreme measures in regard to trade unions and trade union leaders. Rumours also were spreading that more and more men were returning to work. The orders calling out engineers and shipbuilders had evoked a poor response. All this had its effect at Eccleston Square upon men who were utterly exhausted by the strain of long interminable wrangling in an atmosphere of smoke and drink and with irregular meals and little sleep. Immense and complicated responsibilities had been suddenly thrown on the T.U.C. of conducting a General Strike and for this task they were unprepared. On Tuesday morning news reached the Government that the moderates were in the ascendant and that they would probably win in the course of the day. But the day wore on to midnight and the early hours of Wednesday and the T.U.C. had failed to get the Miners to accept the 'Samuel Memorandum'. The T.U.C. then decided to throw over the Miners and on Wednesday, May 12th, came to Downing Street to announce that the General Strike was being terminated that day. The P.M. called for cooperation and goodwill in healing the breach and two days later announced the Government's proposals for settling the Mining dispute. These proposals have since been rejected by Owners and Miners and the coal deadlock continues.

Reviewing the whole momentous experience the chief reflections which occur to one at this stage are:-

1. Few competent students of recent industrial history will regret the General Strike. It, or something like it, 'had to come' in view of the temper of the most assertive elements in the trade union world.

2. The General Strike could not succeed because some of those who led it did not wholly believe in it and because few, if any, were prepared to go through with it to its logical conclusion-violence and revolution.

3. It manifested a most impressive trade union loyalty only equalled by the orderly behaviour of all concerned.

4. The rank and file knew little or nothing of the divisions and jealousies of the central executive and were taken by surprise when the strike was called off. There is widespread anger with the T.U.C. fomented by Cook for betraying the Miners, but the tide is turning against the Miners because of their obstinacy in rejecting first the Samuel Memorandum and then the Government's proposals.

5 . The motorcar, aeroplane, and wireless were of immense value to the Government.

6. The T.U.C. made a first class blunder in calling out the printers but it is difficult to run a Government newspaper. [20]

7. The chief asset in keeping the country steadfast during the negotiations was the Prime Minister's reputation for fair dealing enhanced later by his sincere plea against malice and vindictiveness. His seeming weakness has been his strength. Had he yielded to the Die-hard influences he would have prolonged the strike by rallying the whole of Labour in defence of Trade Unionism. He was wise to give them the chance and he was enthusiastically supported in this course by the majority of the House of Commons.

1 Deputy Secretary to the Cabinet.

2 Given the importance of industrial issues in Australia at the time, it seems appropriate to publish the enclosure as having been probably of some impact on Bruce because of its origin-Jones's Fabian past notwithstanding. Elements of Jones's analysis would certainly have registered with a Bruce inclined to see industrial conflict often as the unfortunate consequence of employers' reactionary foolishness and union leaders' foolish ambition or foolish revolutionary fervour.

3 Sir Herbert Samuel, a former cabinet minister, High Commissioner for Palestine 1920-25, had chaired a royal commission which, in its report of March 1926, opposed outright nationalisation, opposed reintroduction of a government subsidy for the coal industry, urged nationalisation of royalties, advocated nationalisation of mining enterprises and recommended more generous treatment of miners by owners in terms of pay and conditions though in the short term wages should be lowered. When the General Strike began, Samuel on his own account conferred with union leaders and issued a statement proposing that: (a) disputes should go to a National Mines Board, which would include representatives of miners and owners; (b) there should be no wage reductions unless there were adequate assurances from the owners of reorganisation of the coal industry; (c) after reorganisation there should be a wages agreement such that the more lowly-paid miners would not receive less and all colliery workers would have an irreducible national minimum wage; (d) that there should be no negotiations until owners bad withdrawn lock-out notices; (e) government subsidies should be resumed.

4 To buy time in the face of a threatened strike by coal miners seeking a six-hour day, nationalisation of mines and a thirty per cent pay rise, the Government in 1919 had Parliament create the Coal Industry Commission under the chairmanship of Mr Justice Sankey and comprising mine owners, industrialists, miners and radical economists. On each issue before it the Sankey Commission issued several different recommendations. On pay and hours, the Government (and the miners) accepted the view of Sankey and the three industrialists on the Commission: a seven-hour day, to be reduced to six hours in two years' time if economic circumstances allowed; a rise of two shillings a day. On nationalisation, Sankey's own report urged state ownership; miners on the commission in their report urged state ownership, plus worker control; two other groups on the commission opted in varying degree for continuing private ownership. The Government used this disunity to justify inaction, thereby leaving the mines in private hands. See C. L. Mowat, Britain Between the Wars 1918-1940, University Paperback edn, Methuen, London, 1968, PP. 31-5. See also note 7 to Letter 150.

5 Herbert Smith, a Yorkshire veteran, President of the Miners' Federation.

6 Arthur Cook, Secretary of the Miners' Federation.

7 Stanley Baldwin.

8 Arthur Pugh, General Secretary of the Iron and Steel Trades Federation.

9 J. H. Thomas, General Secretary of the National Union of Railwaymen.

10 Labour Party leader.

11 Home Secretary in the 1924 Labour Government.

12 Walter Citrine, General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress.

13 Ernest Bevin, General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union.

14 John Bromley, of the Locomotive Engineers and Firemen's Union, member of the Trades Union Congress General Council.

15 Alfred Purcell, Furnishing Trades Association organiser, a former Trades Union Congress President.

16 Hostile to the tone of their paper's editorial, printers at the Daily Mail suppressed the issue of Monday 3 May.

17 Lord Birkenhead, Secretary for India, a Government representative in discussions with the union leaders, proposed that they bind themselves to accepting the outcome of negotiations based on the Royal Commission Report, even if this should involve reduction in miners' wages.

18 Formerly Solicitor-General, Attorney-General and Home Secretary.

19 Until recently Viceroy of India.

20 The printers' strike deprived the unions of a communications medium, whereas the Government had the British Gazette, an official news sheet, run by Winston Churchill, and the British Broadcasting Corporation.