By Anne Perkins
Published Jan 2010
At midnight on 3 May 1926, two million workers downed tools and joined the only general strike ever staged in Britain. The country braced itself for a Socialist revolution. Only nine years after Europe was terrorized by the Bolshevik coup in Russia, it was not just Stanley Baldwin’s Conservative Government, but the leaders of the young Labour Party and even some trade unionists themselves who feared unrest could escalate to civil war. Yet in the ensuing nine days, far from working for the overthrow of the British state, strikers as well as strike-breakers mobilised to save parliamentary democracy.
The General Strike, a doomed attempt to halt pay cuts in Britain’s faltering industries, was perhaps the most dramatic peacetime event in twentieth century Britain. In an imitation of the soviets of early revolutionary Russia, local committees of trade unionists controlled the distribution of food and power. Newspapers were shut down. Only the unfamiliar voice of the BBC broke the silence and heralded a new era in communication. Armoured cars patrolled Oxford Street and tin-hatted volunteers drove buses. Crowds of locked-out miners were dispersed by special constables earning each day double what the coal owners were prepared to pay the miners.
A Very British Strike draws on previously unpublished sources and contemporary accounts as well as meticulous research building a vivid picture of exactly how and why the Strike began and how Britain’s brief revolutionary spark burned out less than two weeks later. At the same time, it offers a vivid insight into British society between the wars, and examines how a carefully constructed sense of shared identity can bridge a chasm of opportunity and income.