Never mind sending coals to Newcastle. How about a warship? That was one of the ways in which Stanley Baldwin’s Conservative government responded to the general strike that erupted on 4 May 1926.
Ever since the end of the First World War, Britain’s coal miners had had a rough ride. In 1925, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Winston Churchill, returned Britain to the gold standard, which had the effect of making the pound stronger and exports more expensive at a time when international coal prices were falling.
The owners of the coal mines slashed wages by 13% and increased the working day from seven to eight hours. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) responded by calling a strike that met with the sympathy of trade unionists in other industries, from utilities to print workers.
At the height of the general strike, over one and a half million workers had downed tools to join the miners on the picket line. Britain ground to a halt. The Flying Scotsman, that emblem of British industry, was forced from its rails by strikers near Newcastle, and strikers engaged in running battles with the police.
The government, not slow to act, seized paper supplies to hinder the TUC’s newspaper, The British Worker, and started its own, The British Gazette, calling on the middle class to drive the buses, and become ‘special policemen’ – 226,000 people did.
One of the biggest driving forces behind the enthusiastic take-up by middle-class activists was a deep-seated fear of communism, which seemed to be confirmed when Russian trade unionists made a surprise donation to the TUC, even though it was rejected. Not to be left out, the Catholic Church declared the strike a sin.
The courts eventually ruled the strike action illegal, and on 11 May, the TUC declared the industrial action would end the next day. No concessions had been won, and only the miners held out, although most had gone back to work by November for less pay and longer hours. Many never returned.
Sympathy strikes were made illegal with the passing of the Trades Disputes Act in 1927. And although the law was repealed in 1946, Margaret Thatcher brought back the ban in 1980, ahead of the miners’ strike of the mid-1980s.