50. Strike’s Off cocktail

14 Feb

“The strike’s off, isn’t it? Th’fool thought because I couldn’t see ’em I couldn’t hear ’em dragging along past th’window on their way to th’yards. You’ve done us again. Eh, damn ’em, I knew they’d give in when I dropped out. They’ve none of them the spirit I had when I was their age.”

— Storm Jameson, The Voyage Home (New York: Knopf, 1930), p. 215.

Next day the General Strike was called off and the country everywhere, except in the coal-fields, returned to normal. It was as though a beast long fabled for its ferocity had emerged for an hour, scented danger, and slunk back to its lair.

— Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited (London: Methuen, 1978 [1945]), p. 230.

“The general strike is over”, announced Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin in a BBC radio address to the nation on 12 May 1926. For nine days an estimated 1.5 million workers had downed tools in the first and only such showdown between organised labour and the government in British history. Those Nine Days had brought unprecedented disruption, divided the country, stoked fears of revolution, but ended in a humiliating defeat for the strikers. Baldwin, who had successfully managed Britain’s gravest domestic political crisis of the interwar years, could afford to sound gracious. “I am certain,” he assured the public, “that our whole duty at the moment is to forget all recrimination. Let employers act with generosity and workers put their whole hearts loyally into their work. Waste no time in determining the share of blame for anything. Let us set England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland going again.”

The scene for the General Strike had been set a year before. The economy was depressed, there was high unemployment, and the Government’s misguided decision to return to the gold standard had led to a decline in exports. The mining industry in particular was in trouble, threatened by the influx of cheap coal from the Ruhr, part of Germany’s post-war reparations payments under the Dawes Plan, and mine owners’ reluctance to modernize. Their short-sighted solution, as so often, was to demand a cut in wages and an increase in working hours. In response, the Miners’ Federation (whose leader, A.J. Cook, issued the famous campaign slogan “Not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day”), backed up by the National Union of Railwaymen and the National Transport Workers’ Federation, threatened to embargo the movement of coal.

From: Punch, 12 May 1926, p. 505.

Alarmed, the government stepped in and offered to subsidise miners’ pay for nine months while a report on the industry—the Samuel Commission—was conducted. The unions declared a victory for working-class solidarity, but the government was actually using the truce to buy time. While workers were whistling The Red Flag, it was taking measures to prepare for a future emergency, consolidating coal stocks and laying the groundwork for a volunteer force of strikebreakers who would maintain essential services. When the Samuel Commission finally published its findings, recommending that the subsidy be withdrawn and wages reduced, the proposed compromise found favour with neither miners nor mine owners. Nervous of a confrontation with the government, and terrified of the more radical elements within its own ranks, the General Council of the Trade Union Congress, in conjunction with a Labour Party keen to hold on to its newly acquired respectability, spent frantic weeks negotiating and trying to find common ground between the irreconcilable parties. With miners facing a lock-out on 1 May, when the subsidy was due to expire, the members of the TUC voted almost unanimously (by 3.5 million to 50,000) in favour of a general strike. Despite having committed itself to a general strike from midnight on 3 May, the General Council treacherously resumed negotiations with the government, putting wage cuts back on the table, but talks again broke down on 2 May, when the government walked away after members of a small print union at the Daily Mail refused to typeset an editorial denouncing the imminent strike as revolutionary and subversive. With just two hours to go before the strike began, Labour Party leaders, who were more desperate to avert industrial action than the members of the Tory Cabinet, pushed for yet more discussion. Their attempt failed. Midnight struck, and millions of workers followed suit.

Although the reaction to the strike call was immediate and overwhelming, catching the TUC off-guard, this was never meant to be a true “general strike”: it was hoped that limiting the action to unions in the “first line”—to workers in transport, printing, the dockyards and construction—would be enough to force concessions without endangering lives or alienating public opinion. That was a forlorn hope. Even as Britain ground to a halt, the government, which immediately put its contingency plans into effect and painted the strike as a seditious attack on the “British Constitution” (whatever that might be), was never going to capitulate; in fact, it saw the events as an opportunity to curb union power once and for all.

From: Punch, 19 May 1926, p. 523.

What’s more, the middle classes rallied to the government’s side, just as enthusiastically as the workers took to the picketing line, with thousands queuing at the Downing Street headquarters of the Emergency Recruiting Committee to sign up for “national service” (and the chance to fulfil childhood dreams) as special constables, bus conductors and train drivers. The scenes, according to the New York Times, “were similar to those in war time”, although on this occasion many of the volunteers were women (“both young shop girls and women of fashion”) and some arrived in limousines (“Rush to Aid Government”, New York Times, 4 May 1926, pp. 1-2). In this topsy-turvy world retired army officers, socialites and undergraduates gladly performed the most menial of tasks. The mood that these Saturnalian incongruities had aroused in the well-to-do was ably described by a budding actress at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in a letter to her mother:

It’s really fine to see how nice and good-tempered everybody is about the strike. When I arrived at Paddington there were no ordinary porters, but I had a very good-looking man, medical student he looked like, who seized my suitcases. I wanted to get to Baker Street so he and I explored passages with locked gates to try to find Praed Street; he knew nothing about it apparently. Eventually he went outside and stood in the middle of the road and shouted “Baker Street” to the first car that came along. And it stopped, and I got in and luggage, and went to Baker Street. There everybody carries your luggage for you, and is awfully nice. It is perfectly mad to hear, instead of “‘Arrer ‘n’ Uxbridge”, a beautiful Oxford voice crying “Harrow and Uxbridge train”. Ticket collectors say thanks you very much; one guard of a train due to depart, an immaculate youth in plus fours, waved a green flag. Nothing happened. He waved again and blew a whistle, then said to the driver in injured tones, “I say, you might go.” It’s all very jolly, and such an improvement on the ordinary humdrum state of things.

— Julian Symons, The General Strike (London, Cresset Press, 1957), pp. 78-9.

From: Punch, 26 May 1926 p. 563.

Foreign observers who were expecting chaos, violence and revolution seemed disappointed by the “spirit of cheerful courage” and “strange nonchalance” with which Britons continued to go about their business and pleasure. Theatres and cinemas remained open (though largely empty), and, most famously, while the racing calendar was interrupted, the Cabinet agreed on 5 May “that cricket should not be stopped” (CAB/23/52). After all, the Australians were on tour (and England would later that summer regain the Ashes). Most social engagements were cancelled, but even this was not universally the case: “One hostess . . . had arranged a party for tonight. She spent most of the day telephoning her prospective guests that the party would take place but that evening garb was not essential. ‘Come in tweeds,’ was her slogan, ‘but do come.’” (Ernest Marshall, “Lively Scenes in London”, New York Times, 5 May 1926, pp. 1-2). What explained this phlegmatic response? The New York Times surmised that it “may possibly be due to the unprecedented character of the pending general strike and lack of imagination as to what such a strike may mean, or it may equally be that the public generally retains its faith that the Government and those closely concerned with the dispute will not permit such a calamity to afflict the nation. (“Public in Calm Mood”, New York Times, 3 May 1926). Congressman Emanuel Celler of New York, a “wet Democrat”, had another theory: he attributed the “order that prevailed in England during the strike” to the “absence of prohibitory laws”, which had “bred disrespect for all laws in this country” (“Explains Calm of Britain”, New York Times, 14 May 1926, p. 6).

Throughout the nine days the strike held firm, but it was the leadership of the TUC, reluctant from the outset, who blinked first. Without securing the agreement of the Miners’ Federation or an undertaking from the employers that sacked miners would be reinstated, the General Council called off the strike on 12 May. “Peace with Honour” proclaimed the headline of the British Worker newspaper, but there was nothing honourable about the way in which the strikers, and especially the miners, had been sold out. Disheartened, workers began to drift back to work. The miners fought on for another seven months, but by November they had been compelled to return to the pits on the worst possible terms. Union membership slumped. In 1927 the government passed the Trades Disputes Act, which made both general and sympathetic strikes illegal.

Meanwhile, in the bar of the Savoy Hotel, Harry Craddock and his well-heeled patrons were celebrating the end of the General Strike. “Let us set England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland going again,” Baldwin had said in his radio address. The Strike’s Off cocktail, created on May 12, 1926, was Craddock’s own response to the Prime Minister’s appeal. Appropriately enough, it leaves a sour taste in the mouth:

¼ Lemon or Lime Juice.

¼ Swedish Punch.

½ Gin.

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