‘An utterly illegal proceeding’? The Liberal Party and the General Strike

Article by Simon Mackley. Edited by Katherine Cooney. Additional Research by Simon Mackley.

Tyldesley miners on strike in 1926.

When the General Strike began on May 4th 1926, there was no doubting the seriousness of the situation. Some one and a half million workers walked out on strike in support of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), threatening Britain with paralysis. Determined to resist, the Conservative government of Stanley Baldwin declared a state of emergency, claiming that the very essentials of British democracy were under threat. With newspapers across the country dramatically reporting the breakdown of ‘peace efforts’, the sense of conflict was all-prevailing and like all conflicts the strike had its casualties: not least among them the Liberal Party, which was to see its unity irrevocably shattered over the question of the strike’s legality.

The years leading up to the General Strike had not been kind to the Liberals. The formidable machine that had won a landslide victory in 1906 was now but a shadow of its former self, the Liberals having been relegated to third-party status, holding only a few dozen seats in parliament by the middle of the 1920s. Worst still, the strains of wartime government and coalition with the Conservatives had led to David Lloyd George ousting H. H. Asquith as Prime Minister in 1916, creating a bitter and personal feud between the two men and tearing the party in half in the process. Both led their supporters into opposing factions at the general elections of 1918 and 1922. Although in 1923 the two groups were officially reconciled in public, with Lloyd George appearing to accept Asquith’s leadership, beneath the surface the tensions remained as worse as ever. This personal animosity was, however, to pale in comparison with the ideological divide which would soon split the party.

H. H. Asquith

The prospect of the General Strike filled Asquith, by this point elevated to the House of Lords as Lord Oxford, with horror. In the run up to the dispute, the Liberal leader had been somewhat sympathetic to the case of the unions, and had urged for negotiations to continue. However, now that the strike had been called he sided with the government, denouncing the strike as ‘a menacing attack’ upon the elementary rights of freedom and citizenship. While admittedly stopping short of accusing the strikers of plotting revolution, and indeed criticising those who made such claims, Asquith argued that the General Strike constituted a cruel and indiscriminate attack upon the ‘innocent mass of common people’, who had no involvement in the coal dispute which triggered the crisis and therefore had no reason to be punished. The strike, Asquith concluded, must be abandoned immediately.

Asquith’s position struck a chord with his supporters, who by this point had come to be seen as the traditional right-wing of the Liberal Party and were in many ways prepared to go even further than their leader in condemning the General Strike. Sir John Simon, a former Home Secretary and a man then-viewed as Asquith’s likely successor as leader, not only attacked the General Strike as a dangerous threat to civil society, but also challenged its legitimacy. Speaking as a former lawyer and Attorney General, Simon mused that because the General Strike was an action against the government and against the public, as opposed to against an employer, it was in no way an actual industrial dispute and that as such the strikers were afforded no protection under the Trade Dispute Act 1906. The strike was therefore against the law, and the strikers engaged in ‘an utterly illegal proceeding’.

Furthermore, while Simon stressed that he remained a supporter of trade union rights, he simultaneously advanced a line of legal argument that would utterly cripple the union movement. Because the General Strike was illegal, he argued, not only would individual workers be liable to pay their employers damages for breach of contract, but every union leader who had encouraged or promoted the strike would also by liable for inciting breach of contract and could be compelled to pay damages ‘to the uttermost farthing of his personal possessions’. Whether this represented a solid interpretation of the law is somewhat open to question: regardless, Simon’s speeches on the General Strike’s ‘illegality’ cemented his reputation as an anti-socialist and won him plaudits from both the Liberal right-wing and the Conservatives.

The radical wing of the Liberal Party was, however, far from happy with the Asquithian line, an unhappiness which Lloyd George had no qualms about articulating. Although as a member of the Liberal shadow cabinet, Lloyd George was technically committed to the official party line that the strike must be abandoned immediately, he wasted no time in making his own views known. Speaking on the eve of the crisis, Lloyd George laid the blame for the General Strike squarely at the feet of the government, arguing that they had provoked the action by mishandling the negotiations. Furthermore, the former premier shied away from condemning the strike as an attack upon society or democracy, instead simply commenting that he felt that the action was a tactical ‘mistake’ on the part of the unions. Indeed, he even discussed alternative circumstances in which a general strike might be an acceptable or worthwhile tactic, a far cry from the Asquithians’ insistence on its illegality. Demanding that the government return to the negotiating table instead of trying to outlast the strikers, Lloyd George made clear that a major ideological division had erupted within the Liberals.

Sir John Simon, on the left.

Ultimately, the General Strike ended in defeat for the unions, with the action being called off after less than a fortnight. However, the end of the crisis in the country did not mean an end to the crisis in the party. Enraged by Lloyd George’s refusal to toe the official line, the Asquithians sensed an opportunity to force him out of the party. Lloyd George’s stance on the strike had, however, won him the support of considerable sections of liberal opinion both in Parliament and in the country, support which was to prove crucial in preventing the Asquithians from moving against him. The Lloyd George faction in parliament proved resilient enough to see off Simon’s attacks, while Asquith’s appeals to party groups such as the Liberal Candidate’s Association were similarly rebuffed. With the dispute increasingly becoming more and more public, it seemed to many that the annual meeting of the National Liberal Federation on 17th June would set the stage for a formal schism within the party.

Fate, however, intervened. Just days before the annual meeting, Asquith suffered a serious stroke. Although he remained leader for a few more months, it was obvious to all that his health was fading fast, and in October Asquith finally resigned. With Simon lacking the necessary support to take the position himself, Lloyd George assumed the leadership of the Liberals and began to remodel the party into the radical tradition. With the personal dispute between Asquith and Lloyd George now concluded, many in the party hoped that the Liberals could now move on. Unity it seemed had been maintained.

However, such hopes were to be disappointed: although the personal dispute had now been buried, the ideological divide within the party that the General Strike exposed was to prove far more devastating in the long run. With Lloyd George advocating increasingly radical policies and attempting co-operation with the minority Labour government of Ramsay MacDonald, those who had shared Simon’s far more traditional views felt increasingly uneasy in the party. Thus, when the financial crisis of 1931 erupted, the unity of the party was completely shattered, with Simon leading half of its MPs into a new anti-radical and anti-socialist ‘Liberal National Party’. Unlike the split of 1916, the ideological gulf between the two sides was to ensure that this schism remained permanent, and that the remnant Liberals would be consigned to the status of a minor party for decades to come.

The General Strike of 1926 remains to this day the only action of its kind attempted across the entirety of the United Kingdom and is largely seen as a failure for the unions. By threatening the government with national shutdown but then backing down after less than a fortnight, the TUC demonstrated not its strength but its weaknesses. Encouraged by their ‘victory’, the Tories continued to promote themselves as an anti-socialist party, while on the Left the Labour leadership became more convinced of the need to adopt moderate positions and pursue change through parliamentary means. It would seem then that just as the General Strike was tearing the Liberals asunder, it was also strengthening both Labour and the Conservatives, preparing the ground for the two to battle in an increasingly polarised political landscape. As such, while it was to take until after the Second World War for the two-party system to fully materialise in Britain, its foundations can be traced back to the Liberal split over the General Strike.

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• The General Strike was called in response to a dispute between the miners’ union and the mine-owners, after the latter demanded that the miners work longer hours for less pay. The miners remained on strike even after the General strike was called off, but by November it had become clear that there was nothing to be gained and the miners returned to work having had to accept the new terms of employment.
• The Liberal National Party went into alliance with the Conservative Party and the National Labour Party, and formed a key component of the National Governments of the 1930s. The party declined after the war and ultimately merged with the Conservatives in the 1960s.
• The official Liberal Party became increasingly marginalised after 1931, and were steadily reduced to just a handful of seats in parliament. It wasn’t until 1997 that the party, now the Liberal Democrats, began to return to the strength it held in the 1920s.

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