Saturday, 8 November 2008

The Great Unrest 1910-11. Part 1: Introduction

About seven years ago I became interested in the widespread strikes and numerous riots, known at the time as 'The Great Unrest' which occurred in the UK in the years before the First World War. Most people know of the difficulties faced by the Liberal Government of that era in dealing with the campaigns for women's suffrage and for Irish independence. However, the industrial unrest and the numerous riots which occurred at the same time, and were often related to the strikes, are far less well known. The extent that these events have been forgotten was revealed to me in when I was a regular contributor to the BBC 'what if?' message boards. When I wrote about the period of serious unrest across the UK especially 1910-11, people accused me of having made it up and asked, that given they were knowledgeable about history, why they had not heard of these events. I can only think the reason is because the image of a 'golden era' before the First World War is still pandered to. In the long run women won the vote and most of Ireland achieved independence so this upheaval can be seen as leading to an advancement of the liberal British state, very much in the Whig history pattern. However, the issues of the industrial unrest, provoked in part by conspicuous consumption and falling real wages, of the kind we are seeing currently, was an unresolved situation. For an introduction to 'The Great Unrest' I always advise people to read 'The Edwardian Crisis: Britain 1901-1914' by David Powell (1996) which also covers the Irish and female suffrage issues too. You can find a lot on the labour unrest of the period on local history websites about what happened in this period in particular towns; especially prominent were the events of South Wales, Liverpool and Hull.

Anyway, I decided to write a proper article on the unrest, looking at how the government responded to it. Partly this was because I had believed the myths that I had heard that Winston Churchill as a Liberal and Home Secretary at the time had ordered the shooting of striking coal miners. As I investigated, I found a very different picture to what I had expected and in fact heroes of mine in the labour movement came out of it in quite a bad light and stirring up trouble which led to the riots. There was an assumption by many labour leaders that workers had a legitimate right to riot and be violent, though in fact the people who suffered most in those riots were generally other ordinary people. This was connected to something else that annoyed me which was that many of the books had been written in the mid-1980s and were heavily influenced by the events of the Thatcher regime and especially in the governmental response to the Miners' Strike 1984-5. It annoyed me that these authors had not been able to be more objective and had let contemporary politics influence their analysis of the past.

To produce the article I spent months going to the National Archives at Kew in London and reading all the files from the time. I also read everything I could that has been written on the events. I produced the article with full academic footnoting of a British style. I tried to get my finished article published both in the UK and in the USA. The Americans thought my article was too parochial. The British felt it was not sufficiently analytical or they disliked me challenging the established 1980s perspective on the events or did not find the government policy aspect interesting. I did think of posting it on online history websites but the ones that seemed interested in this kind of topic seem to be hosted by extreme left-wing groups and they always want a particular language and perspective. I imagine they support a worker's right to riot and so would be unhappy with my conclusions and also the fact that I show that a lot of the rioting had nothing to do with the strikes occurring at the same time and was usually carried out by people unconnected with the striking industry. My views of the actions of the Army which seemed surprisingly measured would also not go down well in such contexts.

So, as a result, if you are interested in reading what went on in Britain 1910-11 to the extent that King George V feared he would ousted, I am going to post the article over a number of postings. I produced many various versions trying to appeal to different magazines and have picked the best from each. Rather than keep it as the integral articles I wrote, I am doing it as episodes looking at different features, for example, the establishment of government policy, the unrest in South Wales, the Liverpool General Strike, etc. The numbers refer to the pages in books, articles and government documents which I referred to and these are listed at the end of each posting.

This section is the introduction to the article and gives information about the level of strikes occurring at the time.

‘Cossack Action of the Tsar Liberals’?: the British Government’s Response to Strikes and Riots 1910-11

This article explores the consequences of the juxtaposition of two trends in British politics and society in the years preceding the First World War. The first is the rise in violent unrest related to industrial action, particularly in the 1910s. This is set against the continuity in governmental policy, from the 1890s to the 1910s, towards serious industrial unrest despite the increasingly severe nature of the upheaval. The strikes and their associated riots led many to perceive a slide towards revolution or civil war. The apparently dire nature of the ‘Great Unrest’ meant that, whilst remaining with the framework for action that had been well established, exceptional responses were felt to be both necessary and justified in these particular circumstances.[1] However, despite the fact that many in the labour movement opportunistically used the rioting to exclaim virulent class-war rhetoric, in fact the riots had little to do with the strikes which in themselves were focused on bread-and-butter gains for workers.

Whatever the true nature of the strikes and the riots the government still faced a challenge in tackling their impact on the public. A study of the practical difficulties in dealing with this challenge forms the core of this article. Whilst the role of Winston Churchill as Home Secretary has been rehabilitated, a harsh attitude towards the application of the government’s policy on the ground remains unchallenged. This article challenges the view that became established in the 1980s, that there was a sharp break around 1910-12 to the approach to responding to strike-related riots is challenged. This article also explores, in an overarching way, the often neglected aspects of the upheaval such as the racial violence, the hostility to ‘imported’ police and the difficulties faced by local authorities. Finally the article outlines the overlooked area of how the experience of the immediate pre-war years shaped preparations for the anticipated wartime unrest.

Background: A Peak of Unrest
Unrest in the 1910s is seen as reaching a peak unmatched since the 1840s. Strikes rose from 389 in 1908, seen as a year of recession, to 872 in 1911 and 1459 in 1913. The scale of the strikes increased too. In 1909 only 170,000 British workers had struck, in 1911 the figure was 831,000 and the following year 1.23 million. The numbers of workers in a particular industry involved in the disputes was also high, 91 percent of transport workers and 62 percent of miners participated in the strikes between 1910-13. The scale of strikes grew away from locally-focused disputes, as shown by the first national rail strike in 1911 and the first national coal strike in 1912.

Explanations for the upheaval vary, but there are a number of core occurrences which may help provide an answer. The period 1911-1914 had the lowest unemployment since 1901. It was 3 percent in 1911 compared to 7.8 percent just three years before, thus, workers felt themselves in a stronger position as there were fewer unemployed to draw on to work as blackleg labour.. However, real wages were not rising and up to a third of the population was on or below the poverty line. This impacted on living conditions, the infant mortality rate in 1914 being 139 per 1000 births, seven times the level today. Almost a third of men who volunteered for the Army in 1909-10 were rejected on grounds of ill-health.[3]

Historians such as Eric Hobsbawm, Friedhelm Boll and James Cronin portray the outbreak of unrest as matching a pattern of strike waves that had occurred throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. Such peaks were associated with growth in trade unionism. British trade union membership was rising in the years before and during this peak of unrest.. It climbed 60 percent 1910-14 and the growth was particularly strong among transport workers and general labourers. There were 2.02 million trade unionists in 1900 but 4.15 million by 1914.[4]

Cronin highlights that, despite the stronger opposition from the employers, there had been a qualitative break-through in the way the unions organised themselves. Ironically the problem was viewed by ministers such as Sydney Buxton, the President of the Board of Trade, as being that union leaders had lost control over their rank-and-file members. Key grievances included non-recognition of even well-established unions by employers and the fact that in a time of conspicuous prosperity for the middle and upper classes real wages for workers were falling.[5] As discussed below, there was a widespread perception that the unrest had political objectives, but as Powell importantly notes though the break down of relations in a number of industries did threaten disruption, the strikes themselves were concerned ‘with specific grievances rather than with more millenarian ideas’. The TUC favoured co-operation over confrontation and even the Triple Alliance, formed in 1914, was seen as a method of maintaining industrial discipline rather than for syndicalist or other political goals.[6]

One key change was how involved the government was becoming in industrial disputes. Lloyd George in fact felt that the period if strikes and lockouts should be over and saw the future in a corporatist approach to disputes. In contrast the unrest drew the government ‘willy nilly into industrial conflicts’ facing it with embarrassing challenges. Whilst the Liberals’ social and industrial agenda have been portrayed as being ‘patchwork’, divorced from an overarching philosophy, the government had passed social welfare legislation covering a range of aspects from workmen’s compensation, an eight-hour day for miners and the creation of trade boards. In 1911 this was followed by the Health Insurance Act. This legislation, though aimed at benefiting workers meant that the government had had to have an interest in the industries covered by these laws.[7] This particularly applied increasingly to conciliation.

In 1896, the Conservative Government had passed the Conciliation Act to encourage boards of conciliation and by 1913 there were 325. Ronald Sires argues these enabled greater government intervention. Though voluntary conciliation remained the most popular approach, the government found itself drawn into strikes which impinged on the national infrastructure, such as in the transport and coal mining sectors. Seeing its role as protecting the nation’s economy, the government intervened to get talks established for the rail industry in 1907 and 1911 and in the national coal strike of 1912.[8] One can see a number of factors combining to provoke industrial unrest. However, this does not explain the level of violence seen during the strikes that broke out in 1910-3 and there were other aspects that have to be considered to obtain an overall picture of the volatile state of parts of British society at the time. It had been the government’s choice to become involved in encouraging conciliation between the sides in disputes, but it also faced a stronger, older, imperative in safeguarding law and order in the face of unrest.

[1] Anthony Babington, Military Intervention in Britain from the Gordon Riots to the Gibraltar Incident, (London, 1990), p. 142. Despite popular complaint about the imposition of ‘martial law’, the government's law officers stated that action by troops in suppressing riots was what was legally expected of all citizens in standard peacetime circumstances.
[2] James E. Cronin, ‘Strikes and the Struggle for Union Organization: Britain and Europe’ in Wolfgang J. Mommsen & Hans-Gerhard Husung, ed., The Development of Trade Unionism in Great Britain and Germany, 1880-1914, (Boston, 1985), p. 56; Friedhelm Boll, ‘International Strike Waves: a Critical Assessment’ in Mommsen & Husung, p. 89.
[3] Henry Pelling, Popular Politics and Society in Late Victorian Britain, (New York, 1979), pp. 149-151. Despite the title of the book it includes a chapter ‘The Labour Unrest 1911-14’; Noel Whiteside, ‘The British Population at War’ in John Turner, ed., Britain and the First World War, (Winchester, Massachusetts, 1988), pp. 86-7; Parliamentary Paper, Cd. 5477, ‘Report on the Health of the Army for the year 1909’, no. LI, p. 1 and Parliamentary Paper, Cd. 5599, ‘Report on the Health of the Army for the year 1910’, no. LII, p. 1, both collected in Parliamentary Papers. Accounts and Papers, 1911. Vol. XLVII (3).
[4] Cronin, p. 62; Boll, p. 83; Steve Peak, Troops in Strikes. Military Intervention in Industrial Disputes, (London, 1984), p.27.
[5] Cronin, pp. 65-6.
[6] David Powell, The Edwardian Crisis: Britain 1901-1914, (Basingstoke, 1996), pp. 127-8.
[7] Michael Bentley, Politics without Democracy, 1815-1914, (London, 1996), p. 324; Alun Howkins, ‘Edwardian Liberalism and Industrial Unrest: a Class View of the Decline of Liberalism’, History Workshop, vol. 4, (1977), p. 157; G.R. Searle, The Liberal Party: Triumph and Disintegration 1886-1929, (Basingstoke, 2001), pp. 94, 99; George Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England, (London, 1966), pp. 186-7.
[8] Powell, p. 124; Ronald V. Sires, ‘Labour Unrest in England 1910-1914’, in Journal of Economic History, vol. XV, no. 3 (1955), pp. 255-6, 264.

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