Saturday, 9 January 2010

the Great Unrest, 1910-1914

In the years before the First World War, Britain experienced some of the most militant and widespread industrial conflict in its history. Known as the Great Unrest, this episode is totally ignored in the accepted history of the country. Everyone is taught about the wonderful Liberal government of the time, which cleared slum houses, introduced some social security legislation, and reformed the House of Lords. No-one is taught that these grand reformers were hated at the time. Hated by suffragettes for their refusal to allow women the vote, and for their brutal treatment of suffragette prisoners. And hated by the working class.

The unions
At this point, the unions were still mostly craft organisations. Many were tiny, local organisations. Even nationwide unions, like the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, shut unskilled workers out of their organisation. This sectionalism made strike action ineffective, and maintained a hierarchy within the working class that prevented unity.

The great wave of ‘new unionism’ which had organised unskilled workers from the matchgirls’ and dockers’ strikes of 1888-9 had never fully consolidated itself, and membership of these unions was far from stable. Then, in 1901, the Taff Vale judgement shattered the economic power of unions by making them legally liable for damages incurred during strikes.

The background to the Unrest was a decline in real wages since the start of the century, the overturning of the Taff Vale judgement in 1906, and the spreading of radical ideas among important sections of the working class.

Many who tried to overcome the shortcomings of existing unions embraced syndicalism. They pushed for the amalgamation of unions within the same industry, and a militant policy of no compromise with the bosses. Tom Mann was one such figure. The veteran leader of the great dock strike of 1889 a knack for being in the right place at the right time. After a number of years in Australia, he arrived back in London in 1910 to found the Industrial Syndicalist Education League (ISEL). Within months the country would be gripped by a prolonged strike wave which was heavily influenced by the ISEL’s ideas.

Others followed the idea of One Big Union, that all workers should be organised in the same union, as elaborated by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). However, persuading workers to leave their old unions for a new, untested organisation is always difficult, and this policy met with little success, even in such a militant period.

The transport workers were ahead of others in the race to amalgamation, having founded the National Transport Workers’ Federation (NTWF) in 1910. To begin with, this was as the name suggests a federation of separate unions acting together, but it eventually became the Transport & General Workers’ Union in 1922.

Sympathy action

The watchword of all these syndicalists and industrial unionists was ‘Solidarity.’ They believed in involving the whole of the working class whenever one group was fighting for something. This appealed to trade unionists, even the leaders, who had experienced defeat after defeat due to sectionalism and isolation.

So when Havelock Wilson of the National Seamen’s and Firemen’s Union, which was pushing for a wage rise, appealed to the transport workers for help in June 1911, they readily responded and the unrest spread like a fire across the country. In the summer of 1911 most major ports and railways were paralysed by strike action. As workers joined in, they added their own demands against their own bosses. Years of quiescence fell away and demands got more and more militant. In South Wales, school students came out on strike, and some policemen.

In Liverpool, the situation almost reached general strike proportions. Companies could not move goods without a permit from the strike committee. Huge demos saw Orange and Green bands marching side-by-side, in a city that was at the time usually plagued by sectarian conflict due to the Irish situation. The results of the 1911 strikes were a mixed bag. Most workers achieved significant pay rises and other concessions. Often skilled workers would stay out until everyone in their factory was promised the same benefits. Use of wildcat action had shocked the bosses, just as it still has the capacity to do, and they were desperate to get people back to work.

Rank-and-file trade unionists began to form their own networks. Some miners had studied at Ruskin College, Oxford, and been involved in a strike to allow a Marxist curriculum (something this modern-day student can only dream of!) in 1909. They returned to South Wales and produced a pamphlet, ‘The Miner’s Next Step’, which urged the men not to leave things in the hands of their own leaders. Decisions on when and how to strike should be made by a full ballot, they argued, and any policy of conciliation should be rejected. Even the relatively conservative engineers of the ASE locked their executive, which was pursuing a policy of conciliation, out of its own offices!

From unofficial to official
By 1912 the leaders of the big unions felt confident enough to call national strikes of their own. The miners struck for four weeks, and the NTWF on the waterfronts for two months. But these strikes faltered due to a lack of sympathy action. Perhaps people were strike-weary by then. Perhaps they felt like they had achieved their own demands already, and did not see how strikes could go beyond demanding higher wages and start to change society by showing that it was the workers who run the economy. More likely, the organisation did not exist on the ground to keep pulling off such startling success sympathy action. Active shop stewards committees were a rarity and they would only come to be seen as vital due to the experiences of the First World War. But more on that another time, perhaps.

The biggest fight took place in 1913. Led by James Connolly and Jim Larkin, the legendary Dublin lock-out lasted for months, and brought the working-class of Dublin to the brink of victory, and at the same time to the brink of starvation. The Times accurately described it as ‘a state of civil war between labour and capital.’ Railworkers in major English rail centres were involved in ‘blacking’ Dublin goods, but the ‘official’ leadership of the Labour movement on this side of the Irish Sea refused to flex their muscles, and the lock-out ended in a stalemate.

The strikes were often marked by violent confrontation. The most famous was the Tonypandy Riot in November 1910, during which South Wales miners attacked shops and mining officials houses in the town of Tonypandy. In Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, railwaymen were assisted in acts of sabotage by miners. In Chesterfield strikers set the railway station on fire and were dispersed with bayonet charges.

It was the state, however, that showed its willingness to use force.In Liverpool during the transport strike, troops were called in and one man shot dead. Two gunboats were deployed in the Mersey. There were more deaths at the hands of the police in other parts of the country, and in South Wales Winston Churchill, then Home Secretary, came close to deploying troops against the miners.

During the miners’ strike in 1912, Tom Mann was imprisoned for reprinting in his paper a leaflet, ‘Don’t Shoot’, appealing directly to soldiers. It argued that they were of the same class as those they were being used against, and passionately argued for them to rediscover their humanity and class solidarity, and not be used as tools of their rulers.

The Left
The ISEL collapsed in 1913. But, as it was only ever a propaganda body, its success can’t really be judged by the length of its existence. Its ideas spread well beyond its own ranks. It affected members of the British Socialist Party (BSP). Unbelievable as it may sound to socialists today, the leaders of this party were opposed to strikes, believing them to be a distraction from the purer work of educating people about the New Jerusalem. But many of their members, caught up in this ferment and sometimes finding themselves leading industrial struggles, saw through this crazy policy. They began a serious orientation of socialists towards union work. BSP syndicalists addressed a ‘Manifesto to railway workers’ which argued for railwaymen to ally with miners and transport workers in future battles. Birmingham BSP issued an ‘anti-political’ manifesto in September 1911, arguing that the party should turn away from elections and plunge into organising strikes.

But the leadership had tight control over the organisation. Disillusioned, over half of the BSP’s membership of 40,000, including Tom Mann himself, left during the Great Unrest. A dynamic socialist party which took industrial disputes seriously and attempted to develop strategies for winning them would have been going from strength to strength.

The Daily Herald

The Daily Herald appeared as a strike-sheet of printers in January 1911, and was relaunched as a socialist daily in April 1912. It threw open its columns to all shades of leftwing opinion, the more radical the better, and became the socialist movement’s main organ of debate. It was dynamic, at times humourous and irreverent, and revolutionary. The official Labour leaders attempted to launch a bland rival, the Daily Citizen, which soon folded. In later years they were able to take over the Herald and sell it to Lord Northcliffe, and it was to become the odious Sun. This is possibly one of the most depressing stories in the history of the socialist press, so I’ll not dwell on it.

Socialists in parliament
In 1907, a young activist called Victor Grayson won the Colne Valley constituency in a by-election. He stood as an Independent Socialist without the backing of any national party. As soon as he got to the Commons he was suspended for a one man protest about poverty, shouting, ‘I will not give order in a chamber that starves people wholesale!’ In 1910 he lost his seat, but George Lansbury was elected at the same time, and carried on Grayson’s tradition of rebellion. In a debate about the government’s disgraceful treatment of suffragettes he shouted at the Prime Minister, ‘you are beneath contempt.’ He was only thrown out of the house when MacDonald and Snowden, leaders of his own party, asked him, still shouting as he went.

Grayson declared, ‘The business of a Socialist Party in the House and in the constituencies can be defined in one word. Fight.’ But the prevailing mood in the movement during the Unrest was anti-Parliamentary. No-one thought the existing political system could do anything for them, which is perhaps what led Grayson and Lansbury to turn the House into a platform for protest in such a blunt and forceful way. At the height of the dock strike in 1911, Ben Tillett had declared that it ‘had done more for labour in the past few days than Parliament would do in a century.’ He would later become an MP himself, supporting the government during the first World War.

The Unrest convinced many of the need for amalgamated unions. For the rank-and-file this was a means to achieve militant ends, but the leaderships saw that they could not survive without adopting the position as well. As a result the National Union of Railwaymen brought most rail unions together in 1913. After the war, the ASE would amalgamate with others to form the Amalgamated Engineering Union, with Mann as its first General Secretary. Mann had stood for General Secretary of the ASE 1913, getting around a quarter of the votes on a ticket of ‘One union for engineers working class solidarity and direct action.’ He saw the value of running for union positions when the time was right, but was always aware of their limitations too.

An interesting aside to the Unrest is that it helped open up gap between bourgeois and working-class feminists. Emily Davison, who died in 1913 by throwing herself under the King’s horse, was collecting money for dockers’ families a year earlier. Meanwhile, Emmeline Pankhurst was growing more reactionary, and when she was arrested for throwing stones at Downing St in the same year, argued her crime was nothing compared to the crime of the miners, who were paralysing the country. The climate spurred her younger daughter Sylvia to separate from her and form the group that would become the Workers’ Socialist Federation, the most ardent supporters of the Bolsheviks in Britain.

The great tragedy of the period is, of course, that the Unrest did nothing to derail the world’s slide to war. The leaders of the BSP were already nationalist, but after 1914 even militants like Grayson and Tillett were standing squarely behind the ‘war effort’. The movement found itself still too disorganised to do anything to prevent the war. Propaganda had not gone much beyond industrial questions, so it was perfectly possible for many to be militant trade unionists and ardent nationalists at the same time. The lesson here is in the value of raising wider political questions inside the trade union movement.

The period saw a proliferation of different ideas coming about at the same time, from different quarters of the socialist movement. Here I have just touched on it. It is exciting, as a socialist, to look back on such militant days, when all parts of the movement were fighting side-by-side, and in dialogue with one another.

The Unrest has been written out of history because it shows up the old lie, ‘People in Britain just aren’t that radical, and we never have been.’ This was a time when working people took to organising themselves, at a pace at which most of Britain’s sleepy socialists found it difficult to catch up. They were waiting for the workers to wake up one day and decide that socialism was a good idea. Instead, they got an explosion of industrial militancy and didn’t know what to do about it. It was a wasted opportunity, but still an inspiring time.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed this post very much, and found it a helpful, if partisan, summary.

    Did you know that Sylvia Pankhurst was subsequently followed closely by British Intelligence? I've done a blogpost on this myself, here: