Published: April 7, 2017
Britain's first and only General Strike began at one minute before midnight on 3 May 1926. It lasted for just ten days.
The strike was called by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) in support of coal miners who had been told that their wages were to be reduced by 13 per cent and the length of their shifts increased from seven to eight hours.
In response, miners in the North of England, Scotland and Wales went on strike, marching to the slogan: “Not a minute on the day, not a penny off the pay.”
In London, a trigger event for the General Strike came when printers at the Daily Mail in Fleet Street refused to print a leading article criticising trade unions. Shortly afterwards the TUC called out all of its members in essential industries.
The result was that an estimated 1.75 million people across the country stopped work. They included dockers, printers, power station workers, railwaymen and transport staff. The TUC’s aim was to bring the capital to a halt and so force the Government to act on behalf of the miners.
It didn’t work out that way. Society was bitterly divided by the strike, many people outraged by the TUC “holding a pistol to the nation’s head.” Volunteers moved in and some of London's buses, trams, trains and delivery vans were kept running by non-unionised workers and university students.
Generally, though, the transport network was crippled without its regular bus and train drivers, and roads became choked with cars. Food deliveries were held up. Fights broke out between police and strikers in cities across the UK and in some places police charged rioting strikers with batons.
In a radio broadcast Conservative Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin made a heartfelt plea: "I am a man of peace. I am longing, and looking and praying for peace. But I will not surrender the safety and the security of the British constitution.
"Cannot you trust me to ensure a square deal and to ensure even justice between man and man?"
It seemed not and even though the Roman Catholic Church branded the strike a sin, it rumbled on. As it did so the Army escorted food lorries and set up barracks in Hyde Park, where a milk and food depot was created.
Because the printers were on strike most newspapers appeared in a very brief form, if at all. But to help get the Government’s message across, Winston Churchill, Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time, pioneered a new newspaper, the British Gazette, which he edited. It was printed in Paris and flown to London daily.
It ran to only eight editions but the circulation rose from an initial 200,000 to 2,000,000 and it proved to be an effective propaganda tool for the Government.
Meanwhile, talks between the TUC and ministers continued to take place regularly at 10 Downing Street. On 13 May, union leaders, recognising that the country was muddling through despite the strike, called it off – much to the anger of many miners. They were to remain locked out until September and in the end gained nothing from the dispute.
A year later, Stanley Baldwin passed a new law that effectively outlawed the sympathetic strike action and mass picketing that had created the General Strike. It was repealed by a Labour Government in 1946, but in the 1980s Margaret Thatcher reintroduced the ban, which is still in force today.
After the country got back to normal, a debate took place in Parliament on whether the taxpayer should bear the costs of the British Gazette and a Labour MP speculated on what would happen in a future general strike.
Churchill rose to his feet and declared: "Make your minds perfectly clear that if ever you let loose upon us again a general strike, we will loose upon you (pause) another British Gazette!"
The comment drew laughter and applause from both sides.