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18 May 2022

From the NS archive: Should we hang Mr Churchill or not?

22 May 1926: The General Strike need not have happened, but a group of hard-line Conservatives made sure it did.

By New Statesman

The General Strike of 1926 was called by the TUC when Britain’s miners were faced with a reduction in wages and worsening conditions. It took place between 4 May and 12 May and was the largest industrial dispute in British history. In this provocatively-titled piece written shortly after the strike had ended, the writer said that two lessons had been learned: the dispute had proved that there was no appetite for revolutionary violence in this country and it showed that Winston Churchill was “itching for a fight”. It was Churchill, with a cluster of other cabinet members, who threatened to resign if Stanley Baldwin, the prime minister, negotiated a deal. “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 an avoidable stand-off ensued.

By the spirit and 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. It is, of course, a matter of common knowledge now that the strike need not have occurred, that is to say that at the very moment of the breaking off of negotiations the Prime Minister had come to an understanding with the trade union leaders, which, though it would not have solved the problem of the mines, would have prevented the other unions from coming out.

The inexplicable abandonment of negotiations – which was condemned by all independent critics, including those who habitually support the Conservative government – at such a stage has been generally attributed to a sudden panic in the cabinet created by the action of the Daily Mail machinists. Let us quote the account of the negotiations given by the attorney general, Sir Douglas Hogg, in the British Gazette of 11 May: “While the cabinet was discussing the document [ie the peace formula which had been drawn up by Lord Birkenhead, the Prime Minister and the trade union leaders] news arrived that the Natsopas [National Society of Operative Printers and Assistants] had declined to allow the Daily Mail to appear with a leading article entitled ‘For King and country’. It was clear that a General Strike had not only been threatened but had actually begun.”

The action of the Natsopas had, of course, nothing to do with the threatened General Strike. It was an act of mutiny which the trade union leaders would instantly have condemned and repudiated, since they were still hoping that there would be no strike at all. They were offered no opportunity, however, either of repudiation or of explanation. They had heard nothing of the events in the Daily Mail office, and when they returned to the conference room with the agreed formula they found it dark and locked. The cabinet had declared war and gone to bed.

These facts are not disputed. All that remains uncertain is their explanation. We, like most people, attributed the government’s critical decision to momentary panic which would have been dissipated if they had listened to explanations or waited until the morning. The truth, however, appears to be even more discreditable to them. 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.

[See also: Why Neville Chamberlain will forever be discredited by his policy of appeasement – New Statesman]

The peace party succeeded in arranging terms based on the Royal Commission’s Report, 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 Mr 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 resignations of seven of his colleagues – Churchill, Neville Chamberlain, Bridgeman, Amery, “Jix” [William Joynson-Hicks], Cunliffe-Lister, and one other of whose identity we are not sure. So he gave way. He ought not to have given way, of course, but excuses may perhaps be found for an utterly exhausted man who, having fought the trade unions for days and nights, found himself called upon at the last moment to fight his own colleagues.

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. Whether he actually used this phrase or not there is no doubt about his tireless efforts to seize the providential opportunity for a fight.

So much for the way the strike began. When it ended Mr Baldwin had regained control of his cabinet and 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 without consulting anybody, and without any cabinet authorisation – which would certainly not have been forthcoming from the fight-to-a-finish section – he declared peace 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 within 24 hours, by his insistence upon the necessity of forgetting the past and looking only to the future. Some of his colleagues and many of his supporters railed at him for his “weakness”; but this time he stood firm – and gave us peace. His atonement, we think, should be accepted. He blundered on that Sunday night in agreeing to war, but ever since then he has fought for peace, and fought with an extraordinary measure of success.

We do not know whether there is anybody left who still honestly believes that the strike was a “revolutionary” attempt to subvert the British constitution. Its real nature, at any rate, was shown clearly enough by the actual course of events. It was a strike “in furtherance of a trade dispute”, and nothing more; and in so far as it secured for the miners – if they would but have seized the chance – a better hearing than they would otherwise have had, it may not unreasonably be claimed to have been a successful strike, despite the inevitable, and in our view timely “surrender”.

Not only was it not a strike against the constitution, it was not even a strike against the government. If it had that appearance, that was only because the government had – of course rightly, though very ineffectively – intervened in the struggle between the miners and the mine owners. If it had not done so 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 mine owners, nothing more and nothing less.

The constitution was never threatened either by word or by deed. The general result of the strike is not unsatisfactory. It has shown that an enormous industrial upheaval can take place, in this country at any rate, without the loss of a single life. But far more importantly, 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 lengths of revolutionary violence. It is a weapon, of course, which revolutionaries (being a tiny minority) could never wield; yet unless it is they who wield it, it is blunt and ineffective. And so from henceforth we may hope that it will be discarded by the trade union movement. It has been tested and broken, and we all know where we are far more clearly than we did a month ago… ie trade unions of Britain stood by their comrades the miners, and perhaps by their wonderful solidarity they achieved something for them; but certainly the majority of them will never again wish to resort to so desperate a measure.

The currency of the phrase “General Strike” has been so depreciated that we are not likely to hear it again save from the mouths of that minority which never has, and never can, learn anything from experience. The TUC decreed its own failure when it ordered its men to avoid conflicts with the police or the volunteers.

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 seems likely to want. Everybody understands that now, and that is why the strike was perhaps worthwhile. We have bought experience at a pretty high price, but we have got it; and no section of the country, 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; they must set about the Sisyphean task of converting the trade unions of Great Britain to revolutionary ideas, or admit failure. 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.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

[See also: The Churchill Factor: “One man who made history” by another who seems to make it up]

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