Wednesday, 5th May 1926

5th May, 1926


Dear Mr. Bruce,

The Australian mail is closing today, a day early. I understand only one cross-channel boat is running and presumably the mail will have to be transported to Dover by road. This is one reason why I cannot write to you my ordinary letter. The other reason is that it would seem rather futile in face of the present situation.

From Press cables you will have been able to follow the situation that has developed here up to Sunday. On Sunday, in effect, the position was as follows :-

The Government having induced the Coalowners to modify their attitude, so far as national negotiations and a national minimum is concerned, was trying to induce the miners to agree to a definite commitment that they would consent to a temporary reduction of wages pending reorganization of the industry and the Government had promised that if this undertaking was forthcoming, they would continue the coal subsidy for a fortnight in order to allow the completion of negotiations. The situation was immensely complicated by the fact that the Trade Union Congress had given preliminary notice of a general strike in support of the miners to take place at midnight on Monday. The Government were unable to secure from the miners a definite assurance that wage reductions would be agreed to, the miners taking the view that definite schemes for reorganization must precede any agreement to a reduction.

During Sunday evening the situation was further complicated by news reaching the Cabinet that the printers of the ‘Daily Mail’ had objected to a leading article and had refused to publish the paper. The Government appear to have interpreted this action as the first serious overt act of the general strike and the Government accordingly issued an ultimatum and broke off negotiations about 11.5 p.m. Their ultimatum was to the effect that the Government could not continue negotiations until the general strike notices posted by the Trade Union Congress had been unreservedly withdrawn.

On Monday the whole situation was debated in the House of Commons. It is impossible to send you a copy of the Hansard as none is printed but I enclose a copy of the debate from the ‘Times’ of Tuesday, May 4th.

Mr. Baldwin1 received a remarkable ovation from his own party and spoke for about an hour and a half. Mr J. H. Thomas2 made a very moving speech in which he pleaded with the Government for the resumption of negotiations. I understand that Mr. Lloyd George3 was regarded as being remarkably ineffective because it was felt that he was looking for party capital out of the situation. After Mr. Winston Churchill’s4 speech, Ministers left the House and met the Trade Union Congress to finally explore the possibilities. Apparently the Government maintained their ground that they would not reopen negotiations except on the basis of an unreserved withdrawal by the Trade Union Congress.

At any rate at about ten past eleven on Monday night the Trade Union leaders left Downing Street announcing that there was no hope of averting the general stoppage. From many points of view the stoppage is remarkably complete and, as a result, news is very hard to obtain. Up to the present moment there has been no serious disorder. Last night some mild rioting took place in Poplar and Canning Town and in Newcastle.

The Government services, which are maintaining food supplies, appear to be working satisfactorily and the railways are beginning to commence slight skeleton services on the basis of volunteer labour. I understand that yesterday afternoon the staff of one of the London Power Stations left work, contrary to the orders of the Trade Union Congress, but the Government was able immediately to replace the union men with sappers and volunteer labour.

It is anticipated that the situation will rapidly pass beyond the control of the Trade Union Congress. Although one has great faith in the sanity of the great mass of the British people, it would be foolish not to anticipate a certain degree of rioting.

As I see the position it is somewhat as follows: Last autumn at the Trade Union Conference held at Scarborough it became obvious that the left wing elements controlled the Trade Unions. Later in the year at Liverpool the Parliamentary Labour Party repudiated the red element and everybody congratulated themselves upon the defeat of the extremists.

At that Conference Mr. J. H. Thomas declared that the Labour Party must either destroy the reds or be destroyed by them. Ever since the coal crisis commenced last July, the Trade Union Congress has threatened a general strike. In November Mr. Ramsay MacDonald5 condemned the idea of the general strike in the most unmeasured terms.

During the last ten days the Trade Union Congress together with Mr.MacDonald and Mr. Thomas have been in constant touch with the miners and the Government. To begin with it appeared that they were attempting to act as mediators but it then appeared that the more extreme element forced the idea of the general strike into the foreground. I think it safe to assume that the whole of the labour movement had come to the conclusion that Mr. Baldwin had so great a desire for peace in industry that he could be squeezed to almost any degree and therefore the fatal decision for a general strike really was taken without the Trade Union Congress imagining that they would have to carry the threat into action.

In fact the Government carried on negotiations for 36 hours after the first definite announcement of the intention of the Congress to call a general strike. Today no one doubts that the Government will carry this thing through to the end, refusing to negotiate until the general strike has been withdrawn but, in the meantime, the situation has almost certainly passed largely beyond the control of the Congress.

The Trade Union leaders are in a most awkward situation. If they called the strike off at the present juncture, the men would never forgive them; if they let the strike go on, I imagine that they see no end except that of defeat.

All those right wing labour men who have been fighting for constitutionalism within the Labour Party are in a particularly distressing position. Had they disassociated themselves vigorously from the idea of a general strike during the weekend, they might have been able to avert it and even if they had not succeeded, they would have been in a far more satisfactory position now but I feel sure that they thought that Baldwin would give way.

I would specially draw your attention to the second leading article in Monday’s ‘Times’, which I enclose. For the moment the issue is perfectly plain and simple. It is not a question of miners and coalowners but of the Nation versus the Trade Union Congress. The one thing to hope is that the struggle will be short and will engender as little bitterness as possible and that, after the inevitable result has come about, Mr. Baldwin will be able to hold firmly in check the forces of reaction and make it possible to restart on a very much better basis. If this should happen, one feels that it is possible that this disaster may lead Great Britain to face the economic facts in a way that she has not done before and if the country will look at facts fairly and restart industry on a better spirit, it is more than possible that the losses of the strike, which I assume cannot be less than £4,000,000 a day, will be made up rapidly by better work on a sounder basis.

Yours sincerely, F. L. MCDOUGALL

  1. Stanley Baldwin, Prime Minister. 

  2. Labour M.P .; General Secretary of the National Union of Railwaymen; Colonial Secretary 1924. 

  3. Prime Minister 1916-22. 

  4. Chancellor of the Exchequer. 

  5. Leader of the Labour Opposition.