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Image courtesy of Look and Learn

December 3, 2013

The History behind the Book: Britain’s General Strike of 1926

The central, catalyst event of The Past and Other Lies is Britain’s General Strike of 1926 – a 10-day walkout called by the Trades Union Congress in support of the country’s coal miners, who were being “asked” to accept what amounted to a 24% cut in wages, after a 35% pay-cut over the previous seven years. Nearly two million workers joined the strike, many of them in the transport industries – bus drivers, railway engineers – as well as stevedores, printers, and workers at iron, steel, and construction companies. From London to Glasgow, armed battles broke out between the strikers and the cops, while in Northumberland, strikers forced the famed Flying Scotsman train off the rails.

For Americans, this can be tough to imagine. Our image of the 1920s – alright, my image – is all flappers, hot jazz, and bathtub gin. But in Europe, things were very different: After a brief post-war boom the entire continent’s economy had tanked. According to one estimate, some five million people were out of work, one million of them in England. (And this at a time when half the population – that would be us, ladies – were assumed to be outside the workforce.) New international competition had sprung up in industries – such as steel, cotton, and (critically) coal – in which Britain had long been accustomed to having the field to itself. And the government’s monetary policies were almost parodically destructive: An insistence on maintaining the strength of England’s currency at pre-war levels (it was a point of both honor – honour – and morale, said Winston Churchill, then Chancellor of the Exchequer) both raised interest rates to nosebleed levels and put the kibosh on exports. With unemployment levels mired in the double digits, domestic consumption collapsed, and the trade-union movement saw a profound upswing in membership.

And yet, the Strike, for all the drama and headlines, accomplished precisely nothing. Prompted by the government, members of the middle class and even the rich turned out in droves to drive the buses and unload cargo ships. A significant majority of the miners entirely lost their jobs, while the remainder were forced to accept the mine-owners’ onerous conditions: The TUC was not able to extract a single concession.

A year after the Strike, the government passed a law banning sympathy strikes and mass picketing. It was repealed after World War II, but in the 1980s, Mrs. Thatcher brought it back to life, and it stands on the books today.

(Image courtesy of Look and Learn, www.lookandlearn.com)

 

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