1926 - Should we hang Mr Churchill?

The Chancellor who wanted a General Strike

By the manner in which Mr Baldwin ended the great strike he almost atoned for the way in which he precipitated it. For there is no longer any doubt that it was precipitated by the action of the Government, and, what is more, quite deliberately precipitated. What actually happened, it seems, was this.

The Prime Minister, Lord Birkenhead and Sir Arthur Steel-Maitland were fighting desperately for peace, while a section of the cabinet, led by Mr Winston Churchill, Mr Neville Chamberlain and Mr Bridgeman, were itching for a fight. The peace party succeeded in arranging terms upon which the strike would be called off and the miners left, if they would not agree, to fight alone. With these terms they returned in triumph to the cabinet room only to find Messrs Churchill and Chamberlain in charge and a clear majority in favour of war at all costs.

The Baldwin-Birkenhead terms were accordingly turned down, and when the Prime Minister proposed nevertheless to go forward with the negotiations and avert the strike, he was faced with the immediate resignation of seven of his colleagues - Churchill, Chamberlain, Bridgeman, Amery, "Jix", Cunliffe-Lister and one other of whose identity we are not sure. So he gave way. Mr Churchill was the villain of the piece. He is reported to have remarked that he thought "a little blood-letting" would be all to the good.

So much for the way the strike began. When it ended Mr Baldwin had acquired so enormous a personal popularity in the country that he could afford to let all his colleagues resign if they wanted to. He took charge of affairs and without any cabinet authorisation - which would certainly not have been forthcoming from the fight-to-a-finish section - declared and insisted upon peace. Thereby he atoned for his previous surrender.

"Victimisation" was being attempted in almost every industry. Men were being asked to return to work as new hands, at much lower wages, under humiliating conditions and so on. The Prime Minister stopped all that by his insistence upon the necessity of forgetting the past and looking only to the future. Some of his colleagues railed at him for his "weakness"; but this time he stood firm.

We do not know if there is anybody left who still believes that the strike was a "revolutionary" attempt to subvert the Constitution. Its real nature was shown clearly enough by the actual course of events. It was a strike "in furtherance of a trade dispute", and nothing more. If the Government had not intervened, the strike would have taken place just the same; but then the truth would have been clear to everybody - namely, that it was a strike against the inefficiency and grasping obstinacy of the mineowners - nothing more and nothing less.

The general result of the strike is not unsatisfactory. It has shown that an enormous industrial upheaval can take place in this country without the loss of a single life. But what is far more important, it has shown that the weapon of the general strike is practically worthless in the hands of those who are not prepared to go to all the lengths of revolutionary violence. We all know where we are far more clearly than we did a month ago.

For a general strike without violence cannot succeed; it is almost a contradiction in terms. With violence, on the other hand, it amounts to a revolution - which the Trade Union world does not want nor ever seems likely to want. We have bought experience at a pretty high price, but we have got it; and no section of the community, we suppose, is more satisfied with the bargain than the "constitutional" leaders of the Labour movement. The irrepressible left-wingers are silenced; their dreams are dissolved.

For having so notably helped to teach us all this, ought we to thank Mr Churchill or ought we to hang him on a lamp-post for the incorrigible "blood-letter" that he is? We are really not quite sure what is the proper answer to that question; but probably - to be on the safe side - it would be best that he should be hanged.

This article first appeared in the 29 November 1999 issue of the New Statesman, An explosion of puffery