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THE BRITISH TRADES UNION MOVEMENT
PART III (Conclusion)
(For Part II go here)
A WRONG TURN into a Sarajevo side street placed the Austrian Archduke, Franz Ferdinand, and his wife at the mercy of Gavrilo Princip – a Bosnian Serb revolutionary. Princip seized the moment and assassinated them. The ensuing diplomatic scramble failed to prevent Europe descending into the Great War of 1914, a conflict which drained British factories of several million men who went to fight for their country in the Belgian trenches.
The demand for munitions, ships and armaments distorted Britain’s economy. The War Office, with its huge budget, immediately monopolised several trades by requisitioning their produce. The coal and steel industries were two that benefited.[fn1] A shortage of men and soaring demand meant that requests for increased wages were usually granted.
By the time the armistice came in 1918, the war effort had bolstered industrial organisation and workers were enjoying the benefits of a minimum wage and guaranteed terms of employment. The post war clean-up and regeneration sustained a brief boom in trade, which stalled as the combatant nations confronted their post-war debts. Britain, at once a creditor and a debtor nation, ended subsidies, raised taxes, and returned the industries it had commandeered during the war to private ownership. The cuts coincided with a rising cost of living and provoked a period of industrial unrest.
The inter-war years were turbulent. Union membership peaked at 8 million in 1920 and fell away after the post-war boom. Unemployment rose to over 2 million by 1921. The government was fixed on a programme of austerity, and could not afford the increased wages demanded by the unions. A request by the miners for more pay, under threat of a general strike, was turned down. When the Railway Workers and Transport Workers Unions withdrew their support, the strike failed, increasing discontent among the miners.
The Conservative government was defeated in the 1923 election and one hundred years of working- class aspirations were realised when James Ramsay MacDonald (1866-1937) led the first Labour government, beginning early in 1924. However, the mandate given to MacDonald was a poisoned chalice. The Labour party did not have a majority and MacDonald was forced to sacrifice traditional policies to maintain a coalition with the Liberals. MacDonald’s term in office is marked for British diplomatic successes abroad and a failed economic policy at home. By the end of the year his government fell.
1926: The General Strike
The country’s economic woes increased in 1925 when German and Polish coal mines resumed their normal production levels, restoring competition. The increase in supply knocked the bottom out of the European market. At the request of the unions the government temporarily subsidised coal production while a Royal Commission investigated a long-term solution. When the Commission recommended an end to subsidies and a cut to wages, the miners answered, ‘Not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day’. The negotiations between the mine owners, the miners and the government failed to win any compromise. On 3 May, 1926 the mines closed and a national strike began.[fn2]
The General Strike of 1926 is without parallel, unique not only for its scale but because the same men that chose to fight in Flanders field now sacrificed a second time and joined the miners in their strike for a living wage. During the course of the month over 3.5 million men and women stopped work, creating a record loss of 162 million working days, a figure to which no other strike comes close. The government declared a national emergency. Winston Churchill (1874-1965), then Chancellor of the Exchequer, aggressively opposed the strike and demanded an ‘unconditional surrender’ from the Trades Union Congress (TUC). Churchill believed the strike would lead to a ‘Soviet of Trade Unions with real control of the country and the effectual subversion of the state’. While dockers, bus drivers, and transport workers picketed, university students and bank clerks stepped in to keep the country moving.
British society had entered the General Strike still bearing the historic stain of class division. The press painted the action as a class war, the beginning of a revolution, a notion given weight by events in Russia and the creation of the Weimar Republic in Germany. Indeed, socialist ideals and anti-establishment views became popular among the middle class in Britain after the bloody sacrifices of the trenches. The experience gave the opposing sides an appreciation of one another. But by November the strike was over and the miners defeated, their struggle recompensed with longer hours and lower pay.
The March to the Second World War
Whereas the constitution of British politics peaceably accommodated the rise of Labour, Continental Europe was in turmoil. After 1918, monarchies and aristocracies gave way to more democratic governments. The war of shells and bullets had become a war of ideologies. Capitalism, Socialism, and Communism contended for the chief place of influence. Germany gave Europe a brutal example of the triumph of a planned economy over laissez-faire capitalism.
In spite of the heavy reparations imposed on Germany after the First World War, the resultant hyper-inflation, and the world depression that began in 1929, German industry united in a single effort to re-arm. Indoctrinated by the Fascist campaign for an expanded ‘lebensraum’ (habitat, living space), the German people relinquished butter for guns. Under government direction, the factories churned out the tanks, fighter planes and mechanised weaponry which carried the Storm Troops into Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark and France. This lightning war has left historians wondering how different the world might have been if Adolf Hitler had, instead, mobilised for peace.
Britain had anticipated a belligerent Germany, but had not matched her in war preparation. George Orwell, writing during a German bombing raid in 1940, described Britain’s predicament:
A businessman’s first duty is to his shareholders. Perhaps England needs tanks, but perhaps it pays better to manufacture motor cars. To prevent war material from reaching the enemy is common sense, but to sell in the highest market is a business duty. Right at the end of August 1939 the British dealers were tumbling over one another in their eagerness to sell Germany tin, rubber, copper, and shellac – and this in the clear certain knowledge that war was going to break out in a week or two.[fn3]
In May 1940 Winston Churchill became Prime Minister of a coalition government, comprised of Conservative, Labour, and National party members. His cabinet included the one-time TUC chairman Ernest Bevin as Minister for Labour. The Emergency Powers Defence Act gave Bevin sweeping authority to reorganize industry.
Three factors contributed to Bevin’s success: Firstly patriotism, which was by far the strongest unifying motive. Secondly, Britain and Russia became allies after Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, suppressing communist antagonism in the trades unions. Thirdly, Bevin strengthened employment rights, improved welfare, and made equitable pay agreements which retained the favour of working men and women.
During the Second World War trades union
membership increased to over 7 million [fn4] The
importance of coal was demonstrated by the fact that thousands of men from
various walks of life were conscripted in 1943, at the height of the war,and
sent to work in the coalmines.These became known as 'Bevin's
During the Second World War trades union membership increased to over 7 million [fn4] The importance of coal was demonstrated by the fact that thousands of men from various walks of life were conscripted in 1943, at the height of the war,and sent to work in the coalmines.These became known as 'Bevin's Boys'
Change for A War-Weary Britain
A turning point came at the end of the war when, despite the nation’s victory under Churchill, the electorate chose a Labour government to rebuild the country. The Labour Party had campaigned with a manifesto promising full employment, a large-scale programme of nationalisation, and the creation of the National Health Service. After the grim and depressed thirties, and the trauma of the war years – during which Britain was mobilised at every level of society – the nation desired a better country, a land fit for heroes. It was Labour’s first majority government.
The following extract from the 1945 Labour Party Election Manifesto illustrates the mood at the end of the war:
Victory is assured for us and our allies in the European war. The war in the East goes the same way. The British Labour Party is firmly resolved that Japanese barbarism shall be defeated just as decisively as Nazi aggression and tyranny. The people will have won both struggles. The gallant men and women in the Fighting Services, in the Merchant Navy, Home Guard and Civil Defence, in the factories and in the bombed areas – they deserve and must be assured a happier future than faced so many of them after the last war. Labour regards their welfare as a sacred trust.
So far as Britain’s contribution is concerned, this war will have been won by its people, not by any one man or set of men, though strong and greatly valued leadership has been given to the high resolve of the people in the present struggle. And in this leadership the Labour Ministers have taken their full share of burdens and responsibilities. The record of the Labour Ministers has been one of hard tasks well done since that fateful day in May, 1940, when the initiative of Labour in Parliament brought about the fall of the Chamberlain Government and the formation of the new War Government which has led the country to victory.
The people made tremendous efforts to win the last war also. But when they had won it they lacked a lively interest in the social and economic problems of peace, and accepted the election promises of the leaders of the anti-Labour parties at their face value. So the ‘hard-faced men who had done well out of the war’ were able to get the kind of peace that suited themselves. The people lost that peace. And when we say ‘peace’ we mean not only the Treaty, but the social and economic policy which followed the fighting.
In the years that followed, the ‘hard-faced men’ and their political friends kept control of the Government. They controlled the banks, the mines, the big industries, largely the press and the cinema. They controlled the means by which the people got their living. They controlled the ways by which most of the people learned about the world outside. This happened in all the big industrialised countries.
Great economic blizzards swept the world in those years. The great inter-war slumps were not acts of God or of blind forces. They were the sure and certain result of the concentration of too much economic power in the hands of too few men. These men had only learned how to act in the interest of their own bureaucratically-run private monopolies which may be likened to totalitarian oligarchies within our democratic State. They had and they felt no responsibility to the nation.
Similar forces are at work today. The interests have not been able to make the same profits out of this war as they did out of the last. The determined propaganda of the Labour Party, helped by other progressive forces, had its effect in ‘taking the profit out of war’. The 100% Excess Profits Tax, the controls over industry and transport, the fair rationing of food and control of prices - without which the Labour Party would not have remained in the Government - these all helped to win the war. With these measures the country has come nearer to making ‘fair shares’ the national rule than ever before in its history.[fn5]
The new Prime Minister, Clement Attlee (1883-1967), promptly began work on the election promises. The government nationalised the Bank of England in 1946, with the intention that it ‘be made answerable to us, the people’. The coal industry shared a similar fate in the same year and over 800 mining companies were placed under control of the National Coal Board. In 1947, air, road and rail transport were nationalised and controlled by the British Transport Commission. Attlee’s programme continued under future governments with nationalisation of the gas and electricity companies, the steel industry, and some car makers.[fn6]
Universal Health Care
The National Health Service Bill of 1946 was an enlightened piece of legislation, and is the most enduring work of Attlee’s government. Beginning with the implementation of the Service in July 1948, all members of the population, regardless of income or status, were entitled to health care free at the point of delivery, through a network of local hospitals and doctor’s surgeries. It was the natural legacy of government funding during the war for municipal and voluntary hospitals dealing with casualties. Britain’s welfare state was thus established and remained unchallenged for the next thirty years.
The statistics for the quarter-century after the Second World War show a crescendo of rising earnings, rising prices and rising trades union membership. In 1946, union membership was over 8 million, by 1970 over 11 million. For the same years, a loaf of bread just after the war cost under the equivalent of two new pence; twenty five years later it cost nearly nine. Annual negotiations by the trades unions won a yearly two percent increase in take-home pay. Throughout this time unemployment remained below three percent of the workforce.[fn7]
Strikes . . . and More Strikes
Britain’s commitment to the post-war social contract proved to be a tough wrangle. Wage rises fed price increases, and the inflationary spiral forced lagging unions to campaign for further increases. The industrial turmoil lowered productivity, and precipitated a crisis which marked the end of growth for the trades unions. The year 1975 is remembered for record inflation, which reached a staggering 24.2 %. The plans for government spending forced the Labour Chancellor, Denis Healey, to apply in 1976 to the International Monetary Fund for a loan of £2.3 billion (US$3.9 billion) – about ten times that figure in today’s terms (2010). Under pressure from the United States and (West) Germany, as significant lenders, the IMF directed Britain to shape up her finances, an embarrassing turn of events for a nation of Britain’s stature (though not all of the loan was taken up).
Healey enforced a programme of pay restraint in the short term and promised a return to open pay negotiations by 1978. In that year the government recommended a pay rise cap of five percent, a limit which was overwhelmingly rejected by the TUC. In September, workers at Ford brazenly demanded a 30% increase in wages, the management responded with an offer of five percent, and strike action followed.
The strike triggered oil tanker drivers, road hauliers, water and sewerage workers, railway men and dockers to launch separate campaigns for more pay. The public sector joined the fight, with school caretakers, cooks, ambulance men, and refuse collectors adding to the government’s woe. The press titled the trouble Britain’s winter of discontent. Over 29 million working days were lost to strike action.
The Labour government itself was now largely identified with Britain’s failing economy and lost the General Election of May 1979 to the Conservatives. The defeat divided the party, and its leaders descended into an internal power struggle. The new Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, determined and gritty, instituted policies designed to recover the economy through tax increases and spending cuts, and kicked off a regimen of deregulation, encouraging the privatization of publicly-owned companies. To lower inflation, the economics of the ‘new right’ recommended a tight control over the supply of money. Mrs. Thatcher maintained the cuts even as businesses folded and unemployment soared to over three million. Her actions earned her the epithet, Iron Lady.
As the numbers in employment fell, so did membership in the trades unions. While some helplessly joined job centre queues, others prepared to fight. The coal miners, backbone of the union movement, rallied against the cuts. The threat of 20 pit closures and one in five miners losing their jobs gave Arthur Scargill, president of the National Union of Mineworkers, sufficient support to begin strike action in 1984. Scargill, a man who matched Margaret Thatcher in his determination not to compromise, refused to accept the closure of any pit while there was coal to be mined.
The timing of the strike was ill-judged. The National Coal Board announced the closures in March, by which time the power stations and coal depots were well stocked; when the strike began in April the demand for coal was low. Fortunately for the government, the police had dealt with riots in London and Liverpool several years previously, and were trained, equipped and experienced to manage the picket lines. A rolling series of strikes over ten months witnessed violent confrontations between miners and the police. By 1985 Scargill’s heroics had failed and the miners were forced back to work in their thousands.[fn8] Once the backbone of the British economy, and a huge exporter, the coal mining sector was decimated. Within fifteen years, 155 out of 170 pits had closed and a workforce of 191,000 miners reduced to fewer than 15,000. Since then, membership of all unions has fallen to pre-war numbers.
From Working Class to Middle Class
The decline in union strength signals a sea change in the nature of the British workforce. While many of the advances in social welfare and politics for which the unions fought remain, the industries out of which they were born have faded away. Machinery replaced heavy labour, repetitive manual work was automated, and whole sectors of industry moved abroad. The progress of technology of the past three decades has halved employment in manufacturing, once a stronghold of union power and national strength.
To some extent, the dwindling union numbers are the natural consequence of economic and technological progress. The credit boom of the eighties made homeowners and shareholders of the working class, and removed the poverty and toil which once gave the union fathers their ire, taking with it the sympathy for labour’s struggle.
The Present Situation
Twenty-first-century Britain long ago left behind the squalid factories and child exploitation of the nineteenth century, made infamous by Charles Dickens. And although the average standard of living at home has been raised through a flood of cheap imports – churned out by non-union workers – labour’s struggle has effectively been transferred to the developing world.
Globalisation has outstripped the power of the trades unions to act nationally. We now live in a world market, in which corporations are free to buy labour where wages are low. Unless there comes into being a union with worldwide solidarity – an unlikely development – trades unions in Britain and other post-industrial economies will most likely continue to decline in numbers, retaining power and influence only in those industries in which their work cannot be automated – or moved overseas.
Citations to Web pages are correct as of the dates retrieved, but sites may expire or be moved.
The 'Defence of the Realm Act'
gave the government the authority to force a business to sell its produce to it at a fixed price.
The Act allowed prices to be set at the cost of production plus a reasonable profit.
The phrase 'costs plus' is still used in the defence industry
today for government contracts.
^[fn2] R.H. Haig, D.S. Morris, A.R. Peters,
The Guardian Book of the General Strike
(First Edn., Aldershot: Wildwood House Ltd., 1988), ix.
^[fn3] George Orwell, George Orwell Essays
(London: Penguin Books, 2000), 162.
The electronic text of part II of Orwell’s essay The Lion and the Unicorn is available online:
(retrieved 22 August 2010).
(retrieved Sept. 12, 2010)
A Welfare State (London: Hutchison Educational Ltd., 1964), 275.
datasets covering many economic indicators,
with records dating back as far as 1900.
These statistics are available online at:
A relevant study covering employment and price changes from 1900 to 2000 can be found here:
(retrieved 22 August
2010) (link broken)
Article copyright September 2010 by ukbiblestudents.co.uk
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