Issue 197 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 1996 Copyright Socialist Review

Feature Article: Nine days in May

Judith Orr and Sean Vernell interviews Edmund Frow

I joined the Communist Party in 1924 and in 1926 I was working as an engineering apprentice in Wakefield in a firm called the Diamond Coal Cutting Company. Now when the general council of the TUC called the General Strike they decided that the engineering workers should remain at work and that they'd come out in the second week. I thought, 'Oh blow that', it was all too exciting, so I didn't go to work. The thing that sticks in my mind and always will do is that when the strike started I went from Wakefield to Normanton - a mining village. There was a tremendous procession right through the streets of Normanton and it was led by a great big red flag - not a banner, but a big red flag. The speaker was Isobel Brown and she was subsequently imprisoned for three months for making what they called a seditious speech!

In 1925, the day the government decided that they weren't ready to take the miners on was called Red Friday. Now from that moment the government set out to prepare. They said - right we'll have to have a show down so we're going to get ready. They pulled together the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies - a scab strike breaking organisation. Also, when the strike started, they invoked the Emergency Powers Act. They got everything ready but the general council of the TUC did nothing: they sat back and let all these things happen. When the strike started the ruling class were well prepared but the working class really weren't.

The idea that workers were passive is a myth. I'm not saying that Manchester was a storm centre of the General Strike, it wasn't - it was a big centre for engineering and the engineers weren't out. But the mining villages were different. The ruling class were making it clear - if you want a fight then you can have one. Just look what a show of strength there was with the tanks and armed forces marching up the streets in London. Look at what they did when they brought a gunboat up the Mersey. So I don't say that somewhere in the country there wasn't a football match between the strikers and the police, as that could well have happened, but as a picture of the strike that is absolute rubbish. The General Strike was possibly the greatest class battle of the working class and the employing class this century. The gloves were off. The unfortunate thing is the leadership didn't want a strike.

However, there are two incidents that took place in Manchester that are of particular interest because it was in this area that both the first arrest and the last of the General Strike took place. The first arrest centred around a man called Dick Stoker, he was a businessman, the only man in the CP in Manchester who had a car. The CP had produced a paper in London called the Workers' Daily. He set off and got down to London and collected a load of these papers for Lancashire and Scotland and came back.

The headquarters of the CP were in Margaret Street, Socialist Hall, which it had inherited from the British Socialist Party. When he got to the hall some of the members of the Young Communist League ran out, got the papers out of the car and took them into the hall. They came out for the second lot and the police arrived. When they saw the police they ran back into the hall and took the papers into the cellar and covered them up with coal. Meanwhile the police arrested Stoker, confiscated all the papers in his car but they didn't manage to find the rest of the papers and so the ones that were hidden under the coal were subsequently distributed. Stoker was fined and got a sentence of three months imprisonment.

The last arrest of the strike took place at Salford and that centred around a man called Jack Falshaw. At that particular time the CP regarded the calling off of the strike as a betrayal of the working class so it issued a leaflet called 'The Great Betrayal'. Jack got a copy of this and duplicated it and a lot of them were circulated. Later the police knocked at the door, saw the leaflet and the duplicating machine and arrested Jack. They also collared 100 that had been raised by the CP before the strike to buy premises to meet in. When it came up in court, he was fined 100 but before that he was imprisoned on remand. The night he was in prison was very cold. Jack and his mate who was in with him kept asking the police who were in charge for extra blankets but they wouldn't give them any. Jack was a diabetic and that night was fatal to him, as within a few days he was dead. This was a direct result of the treatment he had in that police cell that night. That was a very sad event.

The thing that is tremendously important about the General Strike is that it was called off on the same day as the engineering and textile workers were called out. That was the Wednesday of the second week. We must remember there were a lot of right wing , very reactionary leaders of the general council of the TUC, the most prominent of whom was JH Thomas, the railwaymen's leader who only a few years later joined with MacDonald and Snowden and led the Labour Party to form the National Government and stabbed the Labour Party in the back.

When the General Strike was called off, the following morning the workers went back to work and what did they find? The railwaymen, the dockers, the tram workers and the printers found their employers saying, 'Oh yes, you can come back to work but you can come back on our terms.' In some cases in the printing industry they were told you can tear your union cards up, we're not having any union men here and in other cases it was a wage reduction, so they didn't go back. In fact the tramway men held a tremendous procession through the streets of Manchester demonstrating and this went on - it went on the Thursday, Friday, Saturday - for we used to work on Saturday mornings in those days.

The prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, thought, 'If this goes on what's going to happen? The TUC has called the strike off but the strike is carrying on and it's going to build a rank and file leadership' - which it was. The consequences of that were he thought it would be out of control so he said to the employers, 'Get them back to work, never mind about this nonsense about wage cuts and non-unionism, we are going to find ourselves in trouble.' So the employers had to tone it down and got the workers back to work.

One book on the strike relates that on the first weekend there was a meeting on Platt Field and some of the workers there were already sensing problems and were very critical of how the strike was being conducted and of what was going to happen. There was quite a lot of concern amongst advanced workers about what was happening because they could see that the strike was not being pursued with the vigour that it should have been, as far as the leadership was concerned. You've only got to read the British Worker [the TUC paper] to see that there was no fighting spirit in it. When it was called off demoralisation set in, and it was extremely difficult for Communists and left wing workers to cope with the situation because everything had been based on the official movement, and the strike committees were going to follow the official lead. Of course it changed on the Thursday when the majority didn't go back to work. That created a new situation but it didn't last long enough for it to develop into anything bigger. To suggest the strike had revolutionary overtones I think is an exaggeration, but what would have happened if it had gone on for another week, well that's an entirely different matter. If it had gone on under rank and file leadership to my mind it's unpredictable what would have happened.

At local level the Labour Party wasn't to be seen during the strike. Quite a number of Labour Party members would be trade unionists and would be active. At a local level the strike committees were formed by the trades councils or were the trades councils, they set up the strike committees. You must remember there was a multiplicity of trade unions in 1926. The trade union branches were well attended. The elected delegates to the trades councils reported back to branches, and trades councils were very lively. I've been to a meeting of Salford trades council with 400 people and I didn't come to Manchester till 1930.

1920-26 were years of class struggle, there was the engineers' lock out of 1922 and the miners' strikes. It was a period when the working class were on the offensive so therefore it was a favourable situation for the CP but also some of the leaders - people like Gallagher and others - had been shop stewards involved in struggle and knew how to conduct themselves and how to give leadership. Of course the man that always fascinated me was Tom Mann. He had a reputation which went right round the world. He was a very formidable agitator and orator. These were the days of the great outdoor meetings in Stevenson Square. There'd be hundreds there every Sunday night, on occasion there'd be thousands there. The CP in 1926 could have gone into any mining village and got a few lads out on the streets saying the Communist Party was meeting on a Saturday night and there could be maybe thousands turning up. I remember chairing one in Wigan once when there was 2,000 miners there, and that was in the 1930s. This was an echo of 1926.

Of course during the General Strike hundreds and hundreds of miners flocked into membership of the CP but it didn't result in permanent branches being established. The trouble was that when the General Strike was called off the miners were left to battle alone for six months and of course it was a defeat and a betrayal. Throughout the period the cp was issuing all sorts of duplicated leaflets, which gave full support to the miners and for the extension of the strike to all those workers who were still in work. Considering the size of its membership the CP was very active.

Swales and Purcell and a number of people were considered to be very left but there's no indication that they put up a vigorous fight against the betrayal. It's a sad thing because they were, if you like to use the word, genuinely left wing, but they certainly didn't put up a fight in 1926. I think the CP saw that there was no alternative leadership to the official leadership. There was no force in the country that was strong enough. It's a very debatable point as to whether we should have agitated, and we certainly did agitate, for the general council to be the general staff of the movement and of course when it came to the point they let us down.

You know as well as I do that capitalism cannot provide the answers, it's only socialism. We have the experience of the Soviet Union - all its negative and positive experiences - we can now analyse what went wrong in this century. If we have any sense at all we're not going to make those mistakes again. Personally I think that the experience of Russia was that you can't have socialism for the people, you have to have socialism by the people. You need the mass of people willing to participate in building the new society and create a new ethic and new moral values and create a new socialist man or woman.

I think we're at a very low ebb at the moment but it's my fervent hope that there will be intellectuals and activists throughout the world who will chart a new way forward in countries like Britain. All the objective requirements for a new order of society are there. The power of the ruling class is so strong that it has a stranglehold, but it won't last. You see after the General Strike there was a very difficult period of Mondism [agreement between the capitalists and the union leaders] and peace in industry and then in the late 1930s there was a period where there was much more militancy, the men went to Spain to fight fascism and so on. That's the way the movement has always developed - so I'm as optimistic today as I was when I was 17.

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