Labour history uncut: the tale of not-so-Black Friday

by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal

Within the Labour movement there are stories recounted through the ages that chill the blood. The tale of the 15th April 1921 or Black Friday (cue flash of lightning and crash of thunder) is one such legend.

On this dark day, the plucky, benighted miners were betrayed. The other unions stood silently by. The Labour party was cravenly silent and it was a disaster for the labour movement.

But was it really that simple?

For those taking part at the time, it certainly didn’t seem so.

Miners in Birmingham begin to suspect the guy in white has just taken a wrong turn off the golf course

Since the first world war, the government had run most of the mining industry, and had been doing very well out of it too. But by February 1921 price of coal had fallen sharply. With shipments of coal now coming in from Germany as part of reparations, the price was dropping faster than morale on the western front just after General Haig asked, “who fancies a stroll across the fields on this fine Somme morning?”

It looked like either redundancies or wage cuts were necessary. Or both.

Learning that mining was indeed dirty work, the government decided to act. They rushed through a bill to hand back the mines to their old private sector owners. Let them be the bad guys.

It may have been a Carlsberg of a ruse – weak and leaving a nasty taste in the mouth, but with a House of Commons majority so large it could be seen from space, there was no doubt it would pass regardless of any backchat from Labour.

Just to rub it in, the date set for private control of the mines to resume was April 1st 1920.

The mine owners added their own punchline to this particular April fool when they announced their solution to the lack of profitability. Coincidentally, it happened to be the same solution they always came up with – swingeing pay cuts for the miners. They wanted to take pay down below 1914 levels.

What could the miners do? They were in a weak position as unemployment had risen to over 1,000,000, coal prices were falling fast, and the onset of spring was about to reduce public demand for coal.

The president of the miners’ union, Robert Smillie favoured compromise. Unfortunately for him, nuances like the odds of actually winning were lost on his colleagues on the executive. They were busy in a huddle shouting “fight, fight, fight.”

Robert Smillie - not a lot to smile about

Smillie resigned on the 10th March.

The pressure mounted and the need for a clear Labour intervention became more pressing. But the party found itself pre-occupied elsewhere.

In February, the great Will Crooks, Labour MP for East Woolwich had died. It had been a rock solid safe seat, retained in the deluge of 1918 without opposition.

This was an opportunity for Labour, which was keen to get its big guns back in parliament after the electoral massacre of 1918. They selected former leader Ramsay Macdonald as the candidate for March’s by-election. What could possibly go wrong?

The electorate, that’s what could go wrong. Macdonald was still suffering the fallout from his opposition to the war and, after a vicious and personal campaign, he lost by a whisker.

For the Labour party this very public vote of no confidence was a major psychological blow, just as they were being asked to take a tough decision either backing or opposing the miners.

The miners’ union called a strike to start the day the mine owners returned – April 1st. They issued an appeal to their comrades in the triple alliance – the railway men and the transport workers. If they all went on strike together, it would be triple trouble – tantamount to a general strike.

The Labour benches remained silent.

The strike began and a week later, on the 8th April, the railwaymen and transport workers voted to support them.

Still nothing from Labour.

“The miners are striking,” “Well, decent-looking, yes, but I’m not sure I’d say striking,”

The government escalated. It invoked the emergency powers act. Troops were sent to mining areas, reservists were mobilised and a paramilitary militia called the Defence Force started to enrol volunteers and distribute armbands and jackboots.

An attempt at negotiation foundered, possibly because of all the troops and men in brown shirts hanging around. The railwaymen and transport workers reaffirmed their decision to strike.

The unions made a note in their diaries – “15th April, get milk, go to dentist, start general strike.”

Finally Labour decided to contribute.

On the 14th April, a special meeting of the Labour movement’s leaders was called, including TUC, the parliamentary Labour party and the party executive. At this session, unequivocal support was declared for the triple alliance.

There was unity in the nick of time.

It lasted approximately 90 minutes.

Immediately after the special meeting of the movement’s leaders, Frank Hodges, secretary of the miners’ union, went on to an inter-party meeting of MPs where he made the miners’ case.

In questions, Hodges conceded that if there were some form of guarantee that wages would not “fall below the cost of living” the union would consider compromise.

The next day in parliament, Friday April 15th, Lloyd George seized on Hodges’ offer, asking him to meet and negotiate over a cup of tea and a digestive.

Hopes across the political spectrum rose for a settlement. But the miners’ executive was furious, and not just because the digestive is the blandest of all the meeting biscuits. Hodges had neglected to actually consult them.

Toys flew out of the pram. The miners’ executive repudiated Hodges’ offer

This was all very principled and impressive, but the miners weren’t the only ones lined up to strike. The railwaymen and the transport workers were risking their livelihoods too, and with troops and militia massing, maybe even their lives.

Not unreasonably, Jimmy Thomas from the railwaymen and Ernest Bevin of the transport workers wanted a say in negotiations.

Ernest Bevin doing his ever-popular Super Mario impression

That was when the wheels started to come off the alliance tricycle.

The miners’ union told their comrades that this was the miners’ dispute, for miners alone to decide.

And miners’ alone was exactly what they got.

The disenfranchised members of the triple alliance, said “Ok, be like that” and decided on the afternoon of Friday April 15th that they would all actually pop in to work after all.

Labour’s parliamentarians were left high and dry. In a long speech in the Commons later in the day, Labour’s leader J.R.Clynes could not unequivocally support either the miners’ union’s decision to reject Hodges’ offer, or the other triple alliance unions decision not to strike. He ended his speech with the plaintive,

“…it is the responsibility and immediate duty of the government to provide a way of escape even at this late hour.”

It was a clear message. “Someone somewhere should definitely do something. Somehow.”

The miners continued their solo effort and struggled on until June. Finally they were forced back to work, comprehensively beaten on every count.

One of the biggest and most powerful unions had failed. The wider labour movement was divided.  Suddenly direct action by the workers, which had lately seemed like the ‘next big thing’ in the movement, no longer seemed like a solution to anything.

Which ironically, was actually good news for the Labour party.

Although it was a profoundly difficult period, the ebbing tide of industrial militancy meant that political action was once again the clearest route to achieving change for the working man.

It also enabled the party to escape the red shadow of militant action and appeal to the millions of wary working class voters who had stayed away from Labour in 1918.

So maybe, just maybe, young socialists should not lie awake, wide-eyed and fearful at tales of Black Friday.

Maybe Black Friday was just the beginning. The beginning of another, quite different story.

Pete and Atul are not historians

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4 Responses to “Labour history uncut: the tale of not-so-Black Friday”

  1. LesAbbey says:

    So there you go children. This little fable from Pete and Atul should teach you to go along with whatever the Tories propose because it will make it easier for a following Labour government to carry on the same.

  2. William says:

    “Suddenly direct action by the workers, which had lately seemed like the ‘next big thing’ in the movement, no longer seemed like a solution to anything.”

    So why was there a General Strike in 1926 then?

    “Pete and Atul are not historians” and it shows

  3. Steven says:

    “Pete and Atul are not historians”


  4. Allan D says:

    Good article. The 1926 General Strike was really a re-run of the 1921 Black Friday climbdown with almost exactly similar results. In the latter case the solidarity lasted for 9 days rather than 90 minutes and the original walkout was partly prompted by feelings of guilt over the “betrayal” 5 years before.

    In any event the same problems swiftly emerged – should the TUC negotiate a settlement on behalf of the miners? How could the non-mining unions persuade their members to stay out in what was essentially a sympathy strike without a drastic loss of membership? How could Labour support extra-parliamentary action without a loss of support among the electorate it was trying to convince.

    Just as the failure of 1921 was followed by a growth in electoral support for Labour as it became the official Opposition for the first time after the 1922 election and formed its first minority government after the 1923 election so after the failure of 1926 Labour gained 137 seats in the 1929 election – its biggest success in any election apart from 1945 and 1997 and became the largest party in the Commons for the first time.

    Any persistence in industrial action in either 1921 would not have been met by brutal repression, as the Left surmise, but a dissolution of Parliament probably resulting in a 1931-style wipeout for Labour considerably setting back the prospects for social reform.

    Although it was a heavy price for the miners to have to pay it was a necessary one for democratic reform to succeed. The prospect of a “revolutionary” situation developing is merely infantile fantasy. Btw, there is a typing error where you refer to “1920” when you mean “1921”.

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