Labour history uncut: Britain teeters on the brink of martial law

by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal

By August 1919 one thing was clear about Lloyd George’s coalition: it might have had a Liberal figurehead on the prow, but the Conservatives were steering the boat.

Labour were the official opposition in Parliament, but with such a large coalition majority there was little they could actually do in the House of Commons beyond squeaking the odd, small and ineffectual “no.”

Lloyd George couldn’t help wondering, with his preference for a bigger hat and longer cane, if Churchill was trying to compensate for something

The government had been given the biggest mandate in living memory eight months earlier. That huge public support calibrated Labour’s approach. Splenetic opposition to the government’s platform would have placed Labour firmly on the wrong side of public opinion. Instead, respectable, reasoned disagreement seemed to be the outer limit of what was electorally practicable.

But politics, in common with both nature and a first year student, abhors a vacuum. The unions shifted into the space the party would not inhabit – the voice of visceral resistance to a government seemingly determined to roll back the clock for organised labour.

In August 1919 Lloyd George’s team had ignored the Sankey commission on mining, snubbing the union. Now they turned the anti-union spotlight on the boys in blue.

The Police Act of 1919 banned policemen from joining their union, replacing it with the Police Federation. “It’s almost exactly like a union,” they explained, ignoring the tiny detail that the Federation was not allowed to go on strike.

Not impressed, nearly 1000 Liverpool police – half the force – downed truncheons. The government checked their ‘handling strikes’ playbook. It said, ‘send in the police’. Oh.

They called the army instead.

Just in case heavily armed soldiers weren’t enough, they also called the navy. They sent a battleship along, helpful should the striking coppers deploy a hitherto unseen police submarine.

Meanwhile, the police that had remained at work proved their loyalty. They joined the troops in enthusiastically baton-charging their striking colleagues, protesters, and any other scouser foolish enough to leave the house during the chaos.

Labour’s response to all this? Tentative support for more dialogue.

JR Clynes asked the home secretary, “Is it not the more advisable for the right hon. Gentleman to meet them [the police union]?”

The home secretary was less tentative. “No, sir.”

Right then.

After a weekend of anarchy, the strike was broken.

“So, er, which side are you on?” – the police strike was a confusing time for everyone

The government’s slash and burn approach to the workers combined with rising employment to drive a surge in union membership. By 1920 ½ of the male and ¼ of the female workforce were joined up.

Money poured into Labour coffers through increased union subscriptions, but increasingly strident and powerful unions were making it very hard for Labour to secure its place in polite society.

In May 1920, the tendency for unions to take political matters in their own hands came to a head with Jolly George affair. This was not, as it sounds, a music hall sketch, but a spat over international affairs.

Conflict was brewing between the Russian Bolsheviks and Poland. The British government, with its standard-issue fear of Bolshevism, preferred the Poles.

So, in May 1920, in an effort to create the least-appropriately named ship in history, the government packed the Jolly George with guns, bombs and ammo destined to help the Polish war effort.

Dock workers led by a young union leader called Ernest Bevin were outraged. Their revolutionary sympathies set them dead against the British plans. So they simply refused to let the vessel refuel or even buy a Twix and a Ginsters in the shop. The ship and its deadly cargo was stranded.

So far, so jolly. Direct action by the workers had taken on government policy  – and won.

To celebrate, in July 1920, the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) formed. This brought together the disparate shavings of the far left, such as the British Socialist Party and the Scottish Socialist Party, into something almost large enough to be a splinter.

CPGB. The communist party, not the punk club. As you can probably tell.

Now Britain had some genuine reds under the national bed, and a notable victory for the workers in the bank. The activists were cheered by the thought of a socialist resurgence.

The rest of the nation wasn’t so sure. Out in the country, Labour’s electoral fortunes had taken a distinctly un-jolly turn.

In 29 by-elections between the start of 1919 and September 1920, in seats held previously by coalition MPs, Labour won just 2 contests. Clearly direct action and the communist arrival weren’t helping the parliamentary party.

So when the British commies obediently followed their first instructions from Moscow to make common cause with Labour, the party’s response was a resounding “Nyet comrade!”

Labour wanted to be the government, not overthrow it. And this wasn’t going to happen by hanging out with the Bolshevik bogeymen and scaring the voters.

Unfortunately for Labour, the miners didn’t need voters, but they did need a pay rise. Having played along with the Sankey commission a year earlier and come away without even a Dusty Bin for their trouble, they took more decisive action.

In October 1920 the miners announced they would strike.

The traditional government reaction to a miners strike was to worry manically about the impact on industry and whether the economy would collapse without fuel.

Not this time. They had a little surprise in store.

Lloyd George’s ministers’ accelerated the progress through parliament of the Emergency Powers bill – this was the government’s new secret weapon against the reds, unions, troublemakers, rabble-rousers and people whose eyes were too close together.

In the event of something like, say, a really big strike, the bill enabled the government to declare a state of emergency. They could then rule by decree and dispense with bureaucratic inconveniences such as trial by jury.

On October 29th 1920, nine days after the miners’ strike was called, the Emergency Powers Act became law.

As the government expected, the miners called on their brothers in the triple alliance for support. If the call was answered by the railwaymen and transport workers, it would be serious trouble for the nation and, consequently, the perfect opportunity to call a spot of martial law.

For the more feral Tories in Lloyd George’s administration, this was the culmination of years of fevered expectation: finally, a chance to decisively break the unions with the full force of the state. It could only have suited them better if it had included the right to hunt strikers with hounds.

Unfortunately for the miners, union-busting Tories, and lovers of bloody industrial conflict everywhere, Jimmy Thomas, the leader of the National Union of Railwaymen saw it coming.

Jimmy Thomas union leader, MP and music hall favourite

Thomas was a longstanding Labour MP and for him the priority was conciliation and disengagement. The government were trigger happy enough already without having emergency superpowers as well. Who knew where it would all end if the government suspended normal liberties?

So the miners went on strike on their own. After two weeks out, they accepted a temporary pay rise. It wasn’t total victory, but it was something. And no civil liberties had been harmed in the making of this result.

For the Labour leader William Adamson though, balancing conflict and respectability had all got to be a bit too much. On Valentines’ day 1921, he sidled up to JR Clynes and handed him a big padded card, a heart-shaped box of chocolates and the leadership of the Labour party.

It was the end of an undistinguished era for Labour, but at least one in which the nation had held on to the little things that make life worth living, like habeas corpus and the rule of law.  Phew.

Pete and Atul are not historians

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4 Responses to “Labour history uncut: Britain teeters on the brink of martial law”

  1. Robin Thorpe says:

    Really interesting and well-written series; it is definitely worth remding us all of the struggles that people have faced over the last two centuries to improve working conditions and remunderation and the role that the Labour Party has taken in this.
    It is vitally important that we remember that people are at the very heart of what governance is for. It is not to protect vested interests or to increase the wealth of the privileged. People achieve more by working together then they do by working alone. This does not mean that the powerful industrial trade unions have all the answers; the first trade union was formed by agricultural workers in Dorset. They met under a sycamore tree in Tolpuddle ( The struggle then was against decreasing wages as the price of food increased (sound familiar). The six labourers met to draw up plans “to preserve ourselves, our wives and our children from utter degradation and starvation”. The Labour movement is built upon people like George Loveless and Keir Hardie.

  2. Robert says:

    The General Election in 1918 was the first of many times that Labour came second. Continuing the progressive alliance that existed before 1914 might have resulted in the centre-left dominating British politics rather than the Conservative Party. Labour seems to prefer opposition to being the biggest party in a coalition government.

  3. LesAbbey says:

    From the TUC website and following on from the Jolly George affair:

    Shortly afterwards, when it looked as though Lloyd George was going to intervene actively with massive ground support for the Poles, Congress and Labour Party set up a ‘Council of Action’ to organise a strike to stop the war. Lloyd George thereupon did another about-turn; and British support for the Poles petered out.

    Shame we didn’t have something similar to stop Blair taking Britain into the Iraq war.

  4. swatantra says:

    Winnie looking very Boris Johnsonian.

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