Shoulder to shoulder 90 years on

 

On foot, squeezed into cars, standing in vans, riding pillion, pedalling on cycles, swarming citywards by every road and route, London came yesterday morning doggedly and cheerfully to work.

Plucky Londoners. It sounds very familiar. I can almost hear the voice of Boris undermining the effect of a public transport strike any 21st century day of the week. In fact it’s on the front page of The British Gazette, the government newspaper rustled up during the General Strike of 1926.

That’s Wednesday 5 May 1926, ninety years ago this week. In our own era of never-ending information overload, 24 hours a day, it’s remarkable to think that a general strike could bring the flow of news to a full stop. Impossible now, and not just because of social media. Where is the power of the print unions in 2016?

The General Strike lasted nine days, from 4 – 13 May, in an unsuccessful attempt to force the British government to prevent worsening pay and conditions for 1.2 million locked-out miners. (In the post war downturn of the British coal industry miners’ pay had been cut drastically as mine owners sought to reduce costs – does that sound familiar?) With fears among both Trades Union Congress and Labour Party that revolutionary forces might be unleashed the strike was limited to heavy industry workers and printers.

To fill the news vacuum, both Government and TUC produced emergency newspapers to make sure their respective views were presented to the nation.

In the facsimile reprint published by David and Charles in 1972, the two newspapers provide a fascinating glimpse of a conflict reported with partisan bias, revealing as the cover says:  ‘the bitterness and emotions felt by both sides with accusations and counter-accusations, polemic and propaganda.’  And yet complex politics produced interesting overlaps in the propaganda.  That also feels familiar today, Thursday 5 May 2016, as voters decide the political make up of councils and parliaments across the UK.  Standing on polling station duty this morning, I can’t help imagining I feel those cross-currents of emotion, polemic and propaganda in our peculiarly disunited Scotland.

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Government line versus TUC solidarity

Keep calm, we’ll carry on

Keep calm but steadfast, was the main message of that first edition of The British Gazette ‘published by His Majesty’s Stationery Office. One Penny’. Under the heading ‘Londoners’ Trek to Work’ the description of a resolute workforce was just one of the stories reassuring readers that order would, and must, prevail. Other headings exhorted capable citizens to enrol as special constables, reported that the Communist MP for North Battersea had been arrested and emphasised there would be ‘no flinching’ by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin in facing down the ‘organised menace of a general strike’. (Pause for a moment to remember Shapurji Saklatvala was one of two Communist MPs affiliated to the Labour Party in the 1920s – the other was J. Walton Newbold representing Motherwell.)

Solidarity, but with order and discipline, was also the message of The British Worker, ‘The Official Strike News Bulletin, published by the General Council of the Trades Union Congress. Price one penny.’  Proof of solidarity was hammered home in headlines.  A ‘Wonderful Response’ from London and the South, through Wales to the North. A ‘Magnificent Response’ throughout Scotland exemplified in Glasgow and Dundee where workers stood ‘shoulder to shoulder’. Yet there was also emphasis on the need to reassure members of the public. While disruption was complete – the nation was ‘tramless, busless, shipless’  and strikes even hit the House of Commons – the TUC urged ‘quiet dignity’ and ‘exemplary conduct’ no matter what provocations Government might present to strikers.

Order must prevail but the General Council suggested on the front page  that there should also be time for play:

In all districts where large numbers of workers are idle sports should be organised and entertainments arranged. This will both keep a number of people busy and provide amusement for many more.

Royal dissent

Ultimately of course the only general strike in British history ended in failure and – like the miners’ strikes almost 40 years later – left a destructive legacy of bitterness and division.

It’s a rich and revealing history and there is much more evocative detail in the now fading facsimile in front of me. For journalists there is extra poignancy (perhaps envy is a more accurate word ) in the circulation figures. The first edition of The British Gazette – staffed by journalists from the Post, Express, Mail and HMSO printers – reached 230,000 but subsequent issues, distributed by car and plane, claimed a circulation of nearly 2.25 million. The British Worker – which began with a police raid at the offices of the Daily Herald and had to overcome a Government imposed paper ration – managed to battle against the odds to achieve a circulation of 300,000.

Another point worth remembering. King George V tried to provide a sense of balance by telling Baldwin: ‘Try living on their wages before you judge them.’ Then, as now, the monarch couldn’t always be relied on to toe the requisite political line.

This post first appeared on the author’s personal blog site

A battered copy of the book The General Strike 1926

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