Drawing Inspiration from History

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Review of 'The Struggle for Dignity', editors John Mcllroy, Alan Campbell and Keith Gildart, University of Wales Press £45

The General Strike of May 1926 occupies a central place in the history of the 20th century labour movement. The rallying of trade unionists throughout the country to the cause of the miners is rightly celebrated as a demonstration of the potential strength of the working class. The fact that support for the strike was growing day by day makes the TUC leadership's sell-out all the more shameful. Their surrender not only left the miners isolated, but also left thousands of their own members victimised by employers, who could hardly believe their luck.

This story is comparatively well known. Much less well known is the story of the seven-month lockout that followed the General Strike's defeat, a lockout that involved 1 million miners and their families, and that ended in a crushing defeat for the Miners' Federation. This was the decisive class battle of the years between the two world wars.

Yet the Great Lockout has been almost completely neglected by historians. Now, at last, a major study of the lockout has been published that deserves the widest possible readership. John McIlroy, Alan Campbell and Keith Gildart have put together an impressive collection of essays that hopefully will make further neglect of the conflict impossible.

The book falls into three sections. The first looks at the protagonists, and includes an interesting account of the coal owners by Quentin Outram. The second examines the progress of the lockout in a number of coalfields. And the third considers the involvement of women, the police and the Communist Party (CP).

While all the chapters are useful, the book's backbone is provided by McIlroy and Campbell, who contribute between them a marvellous overview of the lockout, individual chapters on Scotland, South Wales, an outstanding chapter on the CP and a powerful 'Finale'. These are two socialist historians whose work is always worth reading. Special mention should also be made of Sue Bruley's important chapter on women in the lockout.

As the book makes clear, the miners had already suffered a serious defeat in the earlier 1921 lockout when the trade union leaders had abandoned them. This defeat had signalled a turning point with the aggressive trade unionism of the post-1910 period being forced on the defensive. In the aftermath miners' real wages fell by a third and there was widespread unemployment across the coalfields. In 1926 the owners came back for more: less pay for longer hours, confronting a union that was seriously weaker than in 1921.

McIlroy and Cambell show that this was not a national lockout. Notices were not posted in every coalfield, but men in Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Kent, South Yorkshire and Somerset walked out in solidarity regardless. Just as in 1984 the union was to be attacked repeatedly with demands from the employers and the press that they hold a ballot.

But it was the failure of the miners to stop the movement and import of coal that decided the outcome of the dispute. Efforts at securing solidarity were only half-hearted and moreover workers on the railways and the docks and in transport were themselves on the defensive. More surprising is the lack of financial help from the bigger unions. Russian trade unionists donated more than all the British trade unions put together and French miners staged a one-day strike in solidarity.

The conflict became a war of attrition with the union being worn down as weeks turned into months. The miners remained solid throughout the summer, but by September men were beginning to return to work. This led to fierce picket line clashes, often involving women, with police baton charges becoming routine. The employers held the initiative, however, and with their superior resources and the support of the state and the press, they were eventually able to starve the miners back to work. The Miners' Federation finally advised its members to return to work on the best terms they could get at the end of November.

This volume's account of the hardship experienced by the miners and their families, of heroic individuals such as Arthur Horner and Arthur Cook, of the CP's efforts to intervene, of the scab Spencer Union and of the similarities and differences with 1984, are all of interest. But perhaps its greatest strength is the understanding that class is being constantly refashioned, not destroyed, and that 'as the working class is renewed and revives, as new collectivities spring up and new militancies germinate, the rich history of the miners will speak to and inspire new generations'.