Saturday, 8 November 2008

The Great Unrest 1910-11. Part 2: Why People Feared Civil War

This section looks at the fiery language which was used by leading members of the labour movement in the 1900s and 1910s that led many people to fear that the country was leading to some kind of civil war. This was in the context of the first Russian Revolution which occurred in 1905 and the Mexican Revoultion of 1910. People dismiss the fears of the middle and upper classes as unfounded, but they should not be ignored and they provide an important context for the way in which the government responded to the strikes and the riots.

The gem I came across while researching this section was a letter from the office of King George V (reigned 1910-36) written in September 1911 outlining his fears for his throne and his view that legislation had to be introduced while parliament was in recess (something that is illegal) to prevent even peaceful picketing let alone the more violent outbreaks which were occurring. The fact that the new king felt that in danger clearly indicates why many in British society were also fearful of what might occur and looked to the government to take strong action.

The Fear of Civil War in Britain in the 1910s
Standish Meacham feels the economic trends outlined in part 1 of this article, were conflating the various ranks of the working class and more sharply dividing the upper working class from the middle class. Both sides of this divide increasingly had a ‘sense of a beleaguered “we” forced to take measures against an alien “they”.’ It is important to note that in the 1910s there were still 4.2 million men without the vote. Whilst Syndicalism did not attain widespread support, an expectation that the unenfranchised would seek some way to express their political views through other means should not seem irrational.

Michael Bentley sees a ‘sense of embattlement’ developing among the upper classes from the reign of Edward VII onwards. T.A. Critchley portrays the working class in this period as losing its faith in the parliamentary system and in the apparently ineffectual, mainstream Labour Party, allied to the ruling Liberals. He claims that ‘[b]efore the impact of these forces liberal parliamentarism found itself helpless and afraid.’ Bentley adds that, given the protest about issues as diverse as female suffrage, Ireland, national insurance, the House of Lords disestablishment and tariffs, in particular, Liberal ministers had ‘a sense of harassment’ which did not subside from 1906 until the end of Liberal government.[1]

Against such a background, it is unsurprising that elites in British society were alarmed by the unrest of the early 1910s; some fearing a civil war. Even as late as March 1912, when the unrest had abated, Sir Edward Grey still felt that the government was ‘“dealing with a condition of Civil War”’. King George V, who ascended the throne in May 1910 and was crowned 22 June 1911 had similar apprehensions. In September 1911, he wrote to the prime minister that ‘the disturbances, which now appear to be inseparable from a strike might lead to political elements being introduced into the conflict which might perhaps, affect, not the existence, but the position of the Crown...’. He called on the government to ‘take advantage of the lull and of Parliament not meeting until the end of October’ so that ‘what is called “peaceful picketing” which most people now condemn, will be put an end to by legislation.’[2] The Liverpool Justices’ Deputation, the Employers’ Parliamentary Council and the London Chamber of Commerce shared such views. This fear of serious unrest verging on civil war, held by swathes of British society, provides a context for the government’s actions in responding to strikes in this period.[3]

In August 1912, Sydney Buxton, President of the Board of Trade, assessed the sentiments of workers in the industries whose unions would soon form the Triple Alliance. He saw them as disappointed by their recent gains and felt that both their leaders and the Labour Party had lost influence among the rank-and-file members. Buxton did not see Syndicalism as having taken root in Britain but felt its tactic of sympathy strikes had been adopted.  Consequently he felt the government had to consider how this ‘real and effective weapon’ could be restricted in critical industries such as coal mining and the railways. His suggestions included restricting the right to strike and ‘even something in the nature of Nationalisation of the industry’ concerned. That a minister could contemplate such steps in the 1910s indicates the gravity of the situation.[4]

Sir George Askwith the government's leading industrial dispute arbitrator saw the experiences of 1911 as marking the recognition by trade unionists of their strength.  He anticipated more national strikes, possibly by unions in combination and linked to even greater unrest than in 1911; ‘something like a civil war.’ Askwith feared a vicious circle with disruption to imports raising the cost of living thus reducing the value of the workers’ pay gains. He perceived ‘a spirit abroad of unrest’ that he had no faith in government bodies to be able to resolve.[5]

Despite such concerns, Buxton and Askwith saw action as confined to strikes for industrial rather than political gains, a view shared by historians today.[6] Though there was fiery rhetoric, none of the strikes aimed at widespread social change. Importantly, though many commentators perceived such a threat of politically-focused action as being an objective in the minds of strikers.  Such views, of the kind noted above, help explain the apparently acute class division at the time. The concernes were not helped by the strident language of some of the more radical left-wingers of the Labour Party, notably Keir Hardie.  Their language was out of step with the attitudes of the mainstream of the party, but helped to exacerbate the tensions.

The period 1910-14 can be seen as the time when the Labour Party recognised that its views were truly distinct from those of its allies, the Liberals. Like contemporary radicals, historian David Powell sees the whole Lib-Lab approach, despite the rhetoric of a classless party, as simply supporting middle class aims. Some labour movement orators at the time of the unrest did portray the government’s response as backing a purely capitalist agenda. In turn, Alun Howkins feels that, in the light of the lessons from the period of unrest, by 1913 leading ‘New’ Liberals, notably Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George had reached an attitude towards workers that did not differ from that of the Conservatives.[7] Thus, it could be viewed that, in fact, radical speakers from the labour movement came to be correct in their analysis.

Hardie argued that the disputes of 1911 had ‘compelled the Liberal capitalist serpent to show its fangs’. Despite the Liberals passing social welfare legislation and, by 1913, allowing trade-union sponsored MPs, many Labour Party left-wingers increasingly felt the Liberals retained too much of a capitalist outlook. Though many trade unionists still voted Liberal, workers were even becoming disappointed with the part Labour was playing in parliament. G.R. Searle and Howkins have noted that, even in areas of the country where Gladstonian attitudes had persisted well into the twentieth century, strikes and the consequent tension between employer and workers was shifting many people away from their long-held support for the Liberal consensus. Though this shift was unlikely to be towards Syndicalism, it was certainly in the direction of ‘labour independence’.  Consequently it showed that even New Liberalism was failing to reincorporate workers into a broad progressive camp.[8] Howkins notes that, anyway, with a lack of national newspapers and the patchy penetration of New Liberalism in Scotland, Wales and much of rural England, this was unsurprising.[9]

The fact that, following the 1910 elections, the Liberals were the largest party in the House of Commons over the Unionists by the slenderest of margins, meant they needed to retain the support of the 85 Irish Nationalist MPs.  However, they also had to be careful of the attitudes of the 42 Labour MPs towards Liberal policy. Biagini and Reid point to Labour MPs like Victor Grayson, Keir Hardie and George Lansbury and their supporters, who began demanding the end of the electoral pact with the Liberals. As Searle shows, anyway, the pact did not apply in municipal elections and there were incidences in London, Yorkshire and Glasgow in which Liberals allied with the Conservatives against Labour.[10]

To some extent, the tensions of the 1910s were a revival of those that had arisen in 1890s with the creation in 1893 by Hardie and H.H. Champion of the Independent Labour Party (ILP). This had prompted some within the Liberal Party, like Herbert Asquith, to press for their party to develop more labour-focused policies. As in the 1910s, these did not satisfy Hardie who criticised Asquith as Home Secretary for sending troops to Featherstone, leading to two deaths. The Liberal collapse of 1895 delayed a real confrontation for a decade. In addition, at this stage, the bulk of the labour movement was still only moving gradually away from a pro-Liberal stance and it remained the attitude of the mainstream of the Labour Party, particularly in parliament.  As Searle notes, in the 1890s, the threat of unconstitutional approaches was coming from the right, particularly over Ulster, which encouraged collaboration among all progressives to defend democracy against this common enemy. In addition, he states ‘[n]early all Labour MPs were parliamentarians to the core’ and so ‘hated violence and illegality’. The affiliation of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain to the Labour Party in 1908, for example, in fact increased the strength of the Lib-Lab strand of the party.[11] However, it should also be noted that there were limits to the Lib-Lab approach even within the Parliamentary Labour Party and, twice in 1912 and again in March 1914, senior Labour MPs turned down offers of posts in Asquith’s Cabinet.[12]

Unlike his leader, Ramsay MacDonald, Hardie saw the unrest of 1910-11 as actually strengthening the workers’ moral fibre and providing the opportunity to mobilise their support for change. This explains why Hardie, Lansbury and others so strongly opposed the use of troops to stop the riots and supported any who were arrested during them. Even the mainstream left-wing newspaper ‘Daily Herald’, in its first year of publication, called on Labour MPs in 1912 to head the coming ‘uprising’ which would ‘astonish the country’.[13] Howkins emphasises that whilst such unrest might not have brought workers to contemplate the level of challenge to the established order that people like Hardie favoured, they were important in providing lessons at a local level, where Howkins feels they had greater impact.  He believes that they showed many workers that a different kind of politics, i.e. class-based, was available. Such developments in consciousness is, in fact, not out of step with the comparatively mundane demands of those actually on strike.[14]

As Barbara Weinberger observes, the Trade Disputes Act 1906, had failed to clarify what constituted ‘peaceful picketing’, and different interpretations by the three sides of each dispute: employers, strikers and police, led to friction and the sense that legitimate protest was under threat. Furthermore, the unionisation of unskilled labour noted above, meant, in contrast to strikes by skilled labour in preceding decades, employers could easily substitute blackleg workers. Their use, and in particular, their protection by the police, was the greatest contributing factor for strikers feeling their ability to execute industrial action was being undermined by the state.[15] 

Such sentiments reached a zenith over the use of the military. Comments by the Labour MP Peter Curran, a member of the 1908 select committee, sum up the labour movement’s attitude to how the government should respond to workers’ unrest. He argued that there was no need for the military ‘when people like ourselves are on the spot and could control the people...’. This countered the War Secretary, Lord Haldane’s line that:

‘the law of England is consistently and unswervingly Socialistic - the good of the State and of the Community is preferred to the good of the individual, and the individual is even to be shot down if his interests conflict with the interests of the State.’

Fletcher notes, however, that the Liberal consensus, which had persisted until the twentieth century, did in fact favour property over labour.  The complaints against the way in which unrest was managed challenged the notion that the working class was adequately represented in the prevailing political situation. In some ways working class protestors expected the application of liberal values to their protests, particularly the right to free speech. However, as Michael Bentley notes, by now many ‘trade unionists had come to feel’ that ‘“the State” meant legal repression on the part of institutions dominated by their employers.’[16]  This could certainly be seen to be the case when local magistrates, who had the power to summon military support whenever they chose, were typically local employers too.

Addressing the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain in November 1911, Enoch Edwards MP, noted that the role of soldiers was to kill and their very presence during unrest had to result in deaths. Curran had argued in 1908 that it was murder to shoot people if their assembly was not unlawful assembly, but Haldane responded that they lost such protection when they began acting in a ‘warlike manner’, e.g. throwing stones. This sums up the impossibility of each side understanding the other’s perspective: the government’s that military intervention was in the interest of the majority; the labour movement’s that it was the suppression of the freedom to protest.[17] Hardie dismissed complaints about looting in Llanelly; he claimed there had been no stoning and saw the stopping of the train and the dragging out and beating of its driver as an act of bravery rather than violent disorder. Despite what has been noted above about the enduring Lib-Lab attitudes in the mainstream Labour Party, even the 1912 Labour Party Conference excused rioting as ‘a common and necessary feature of our industrial life’ because employers had received ‘the badge of authority’ to ‘create disturbances’.[18]

One can obtain an idea of the feelings of many in the labour movement from the hundreds of similar-sounding resolutions the government received from diverse organisations across Britain. These often arose from rallies of thousand of people that blamed the police and special constables for disturbances and felt workers should be free to riot without state intervention. Typically the military were seen to be ‘at the beck and call of the Capitalist class’ and their deployment as ‘anti-English’ and ‘typical of Russian methods’.  The use of the military, especially cavalry armed with sabres, was portrayed as the ‘Cossack action of the Tsar Liberals’. Ironically, those who had backed the violence often condemned the government on a legalistic basis describing the use of troops in riots as ‘illegal’, ‘unconstitutional’ and ‘in opposition to the civil authorities’ creating ‘a virtual military dictatorship’ warranting ‘the impeachment of the Ministers responsible’. The quantity of such resolutions as much as the wording, which tends to be variation on a theme, indicates the degree to which such sentiments had spread.[19]

Labour leaders similarly used such language particularly following the 1911 national railway strike. The Home Office received police reports of their seditious speeches. Speaking at a carnival, Hardie called for soldiers to ‘refuse to obey when ordered to maim and murder’ those ‘engaged in struggles for better industrial and social conditions’ and instead a soldier should ‘simply turn his rifle on to the fellow that commanded and blow his brains out...’. In May 1912 Hardie claimed that shooting a German worker was as bad as shooting a British one. Given the prevailing European situation, this could easily be seen as an attempt to subvert soldiers’ loyalties.[20] The soldier who deserted from the detachment which opened fire in Llanelly in 1911 was lauded in labour circles.[21]

The most active demagogue was Tom Mann, a founder of the National Transport Workers Federation and a leading proponent of Syndicalism. In October 1911, Mann told Liverpool workers ‘if they [capitalists] want civil war, by God, they shall have it.’ He also voiced support for the producers of the syndicalist newspaper ‘Dawn’ arrested in March 1912. Mann regularly encouraged soldiers to refuse to shoot rioters and, in May 1912, he was sentenced to six months for a seditious speech he delivered in Salford and for an article in 'The Syndicalist'.[22]

In March 1912, under the 1797 Incitement to Mutiny Act, a journalist, Guy Bowman was sentenced to nine months’ hard labour and two men who printed The Syndicalist newspaper to six months each. Ian Fletcher sees the prosecutions, at the same time as those against female suffrage protestors, as exacerbating the Liberal Party’s loss of working class support and, in fact, of its ‘legitimacy’ in the pre-war period. The Home Office had been worried that the prosecutions could backfire on them. The arrests had led to numerous speeches and petitions for the men’s release and the government was wary of creating martyrs. Both Liberal and Labour MPs were involved in the Free Speech Defence Committee, which held numerous rallies throughout the summer. This somewhat indicates the challenge that Liberals faced in running a country in turmoil yet remaining in line with the liberal principles they espoused.[23] With such extensive public backing, the men’s sentences were subsequently reduced by the Home Secretary, Reginald McKenna. Subsequently Mann and Frederick Crowsley, who had been imprisoned for distributing copies of Bowman’s article at the Aldershot army camp, also had their sentences reduced.[24]

Whilst such propaganda seems to have had little direct impact, sedition and calls for civil war form a backdrop against which the disturbances occurred. Powell refers to the ‘spectre of class war’ with its associated ‘juggernaut of industrial strife’. He sees the activity of syndicalists as ‘lending colour to the view that the labour unrest with which the Liberal government was confronted was more threatening than a coincidental yet unconnected wave of strikes’. Thus, it was not difficult for those among the middle and upper classes to fear that full-scale unrest was on the horizon.  Crucially, the government’s reaction to the unrest was obliged to take account of these fears that plagued some of its own members as well as the broader community.[25] However, in reality, despite the views of people like Hardie that such incidents represented authentic working class uprisings, rioting in 1910-14 had nothing to do with working class empowerment, rather it used the cover of strikes to permit looting and occasionally racist attacks.

This article emphasises that, despite the fears among many in British society, nothing of what the actual strikers demanded was revolutionary. Richard Hyman observes that ‘the large majority of British workers did not revolt during these turbulent years, and that by 1914, anyway, three-quarters of them remained outside the ranks of trade unionists.’ Hyman portrays the time as ‘turbulent’ but not approaching a period of ‘revolt’. The strikes, though on a larger scale than had been seen before, and characterised by radical rhetoric, were about wages, conditions and the rights of trade unions that still represented a minority of workers. None of these things implied a true threat to the state.

What this article highlights is that contemporaries felt differently about what was going on than we can perceive it now and the government had to act in that context. Writing in 1920, Askwith argued that the placid nature of labour relations in 1914 was deceptive and that he had anticipated wide-ranging industrial trouble. Like many others he was fearful of the Triple Alliance between the National Union of Railwaymen, National Transport Workers Federation and Miners Federation of Great Britain. However, as 1926 showed, this grouping was far less potent than feared. Askwith was clear-headed enough, however, to see that the threatening strikes were neither anti-government or anti-monarchist and, instead, he highlighted their economic focus, nationally disruptive in itself.[26]

Given the forceful language of the time, it is unsurprising that many saw the unrest as revolutionary. However, this was not the case, not only were the strikes not politically motivated, as shown below, the concurrent riots were rarely related to them. In line with the trend which Troup had highlighted to the 1908 Select Committee,[27] most rioters in these incidents were not even connected with the industry on strike. However, the labour movement treated them as legitimate elements of the struggle to improve the conditions of workers and consequently condemned attempts to quell the resulting violence.

[1] Standish Meacham, ‘“The Sense of an Impending Clash”: English Working-Class Unrest before the First World War’, American Historical Review, Vol 77, no. 4 (1972), pp. 1351-2, 1355-6; Michael Bentley, Politics without Democracy, 1815-1914, (London, 1996), pp. 326, 333, 357; T.A. Critchley, The Conquest of Violence. Order and Liberty in Britain, (London, 1970), pp.165-6.
[2] Bentley, p. 328; National Archives [henceforward NA], CAB 37/107, Letter to H.A.A. [Asquith], 8 September 1911.
[3] NA, HO45/10656/212470, sub-file 267, General Manager, Great Western Railway to Home Secretary, 22 August 1911; sub-file 363, ‘City of Liverpool. Report of the Special Committee appointed by the Justices...’, 2 September 1911; sub-file 259, Mayor of Birkenhead to Under Secretary of State, Home Office, 22 August 1911; sub-file 266, R.P. Houston to W.S. Churchill, 22 August 1911; Barbara Weinberger, Keeping the Peace? Policing Strikes in Britain 1906-1926, (Oxford, 1991), pp. 119-120.
[4] NA, CAB 37/110/62, S.B. [Sydney Buxton], ‘Industrial Unrest’, 13 August 1912.
[5] NA, CAB 37/110/63, G.R.A. [Sir George Askwith], ‘Labour Unrest’, 14 April 1912. Lord George Askwith, Industrial Problems and Disputes, (London, 1920), pp. 211, 238.
[6] Bentley, pp. 328-9, says ‘nothing resembling a revolutionary situation developed during the Unrest’.
[7] David Powell, The Edwardian Crisis: Britain 1901-1914, (Basingstoke, 1996), p. 100; Howkins, p. 158.
[8] G.R. Searle, The Liberal Party: Triumph and Disintegration 1886-1929, (Basingstoke, 2001), pp. 94-5; Alun Howkins, ‘Edwardian Liberalism and Industrial Unrest: a Class View of the Decline of Liberalism’, History Workshop, vol. 4, (1977), pp. 144-5, 147-8.
[9] Henry Pelling, A History of British Trade Unionism, (London, 1965), pp. 132, 139; Dangerfield, pp. 186-7; The Times, 28 August 1911; Howkins pp. 153-4.
[10] Powell, pp. 101, 103; Searle, p. 96.
[11] Searle, pp. 84-5; Powell, pp. 103-104, 109.
[12] Searle, p. 102.
[13] Eugenio F. Biagini & Alastair J. Reid, ed., Currents of Radicalism. Popular Radicalism, Organised Labour and Party Politics in Britain 1850-1914, (Cambridge, 1991), pp. 282-3.
[14] Howkins, pp. 150-2.
[15] Barbara Weinberger, Keeping the Peace? Policing Strikes in Britain 1906-1926, (Oxford, 1991), pp. 15-16, 56.
[16] Ian Christopher Fletcher, ‘”Prosecutions ... are Always Risky Business”: Labor, Liberals and the 1912 “Don’t Shoot” Prosecutions’, Albion, vol. 28, pp. 254-5; Bentley, p. 354
[17] ‘Report of the Select Committee on Employment of Military in Cases of Disturbances”, 16 July 1908, Parliamentary Paper 236, collected in Reports from Committees. Session 29 January - 21 December 1908. Vol. 7 (2), pp. 15-6; O’Brien, p. 93.
[18] The Times, 23 August 1911, ‘The Labour Unrest’; 19 January 1912, ‘Labour Party Conference’.
[19] NA, HO 45/10649/210615, sub-file 80, Independent Labour Party (Cardiff Branch) to Home Secretary, 23 July 1911; HO 45/10655/212470 sub-file 196, David Lewis (Taylorstown Miners) to W.S. Churchill, 18 August 1911; HO 45/10656/212470, sub-file 344, William Egan (Secretary of Birkenhead & District Trades and Labour Council) to A.W. Wilmer, (Mayor of Birkenhead), 19 August 1911. NA, HO 45/10656/2122470, sub-file 367, Alex Gossip (General Secretary, National Amalgamated Furnishing Trades’ Association) to Home Secretary, 8 September 1911; J.H. Banks (General Secretary, Borough of Poplar Trades and Labour Representation Committee) to W.S. Churchill, 5 September 1911; Secretary of Wakefield Branch of United Pointsmen’s and Signalmen’s Society to W.S. Churchill, September 1911; H.W. Lee (Secretary, Social Democratic Party) to W.S. Churchill, 1 September 1911; sub-file 378, J.W. Goulding (Clapham Independent Labour Party) to Home Secretary, 12 September 1911; sub-file 344, William Egan (Secretary, Birkenhead and District Trades and Labour Council) to Mr. Wilmer.
[20] NA, HO144/1163/213549, Extract from Daily Chronicle, 20 June 1912, ‘Labour Unrest’; Parliamentary Debates. Commons. 5th Series, 1912, vol. 38, May 6 - May 22, 15 May 1912, cols. 1137-8; NA, HO 144/7062/220603 sub-file 82, newspaper extract, undated.
[21] Details of the incident: The Times, 25 August 1911, ‘Soldier’s Refusal to Shoot a Rioter’; 30 August 1911, ‘The Llanelly Riots’ [which corrects the earlier article].
[22] NA, HO 144/1163/2123549, Head Constable of Liverpool to Under Secretary of State, Home Office, 23 October 1911, with extract from Liverpool Courier, 23 October 1911; The Times, 10 May 1912, ‘Incitement to Mutiny Charge’.
[23] Fletcher, pp. 265, 268-9; Parliamentary Debates. Commons. 5th Series, 1912, vol. 37, April 15 to May 3, 15 April 1912, col. 26. 300 resolutions had been received calling for the release of Guy Bowman, and Charles and Benjamin Buck, his co-defendants.
[24] The Times, 11 March 1912, ‘Alleged Incitement to Mutiny’; 19 June 1912, ‘Inciting Soldiers to Mutiny’; Fletcher, pp. 251-2, 261; NA, HO 144/7062/220603, sub-file 46, T. Gardiner-Hodge to Home Secretary, 28 March 1912; Remissions, 29 March 1912; sub-file 103, Justice E. Banks to R. McKenna, 18 May 1912; sub-file 113, R. McKenna to Justice Chennel, 25 June 1912.
[25] Powell, pp. 117, 123.
[26] Meacham, p. 1345; Richard Hyman, ‘Mass Organization and Militancy in Britain: Contrasts and Continuities’ in Wolfgang J. Mommsen & Hans-Gerhard Husung, ed., The Development of Trade Unionism in Great Britain and Germany, 1880-1914, (Boston, 1985), p. 262; Askwith, pp. 355-8.
[27] Anthony Babington, Military Intervention in Britain from the Gordon Riots to the Gibraltar Incident, (London, 1990), p. 139.

No comments: