1799-today: Repression in Britain

Police at Orgreave: Britain became a virtual police state during the miners' strike

A short history of repressive and anti-worker government practice and legislation in Britain over the past two centuries.

Submitted by Steven. on September 11, 2006

Ever since the rise of capitalism and the modern state, governments have sought a compliant and quiescent workforce and have initiated various methods of control over those sections of the population that they see as a potential threat to the status quo.

In the early days this control was fairly crude. If persuasion, threats or starvation wouldn’t work then the military were brought in top shoot any potential troublemakers. As society changed and the working class began to organise newer, more subtle, methods were needed. Combination Laws were passed making it illegal for workers to join together to press their employers for shorter hours or better pay as a result trade unions were effectively made illegal.

At the same time, if the state did feel particularly threatened it soon resorted to the old methods of subjugation. In the early 19th Century, as the working class became more organised and vocal in its demands, the state introduced various legislation to combat militancy. The idea of the “Grand National Holiday” or general strike, the rise of Chartism and the and the strikes of 1842 shook the British State and it reacted with large displays of military force and persecution, including wholesale arrests, imprisonments and deportations.

With the rise of trades unions it seemed as if the workers were becoming better organised and more able to challenge the state. However the leaders of the unions were soon incorporated into the mechanisms of control of the state and sought compromise. The historic decision of the unions to try and gain a political voice in parliament by forming the Labour Party led to a century of compromise and sell out that left us with today’s New Labour government.

Other means of defusing working class challenges included the first welfare measures like pensions and unemployment benefits. A non-contributory, means-tested old age pension was introduced for those of 70 or more at a time when the average life expectancy for men was 48 years! Health schemes and a more limited coverage, unemployment insurance, were introduced by the 1911. These however were only to be paid to those who ‘deserved’ them, i.e. not to anyone who had been involved in an industrial dispute.

Around the same time, and in some ways, as a reaction to the turn towards parliamentary representation, there emerged a new mood among workers with direct action to the fore and a reluctance to follow the union leadership. Up to WWI waves of strikes hit Britain, including miners, railwaymen, and dockers, that shook the British state. Troops were used in Tonypandy, and during the general strike in Liverpool, gunboats sailed up the Mersey and trained their guns on the working class areas.

Legislation proved useless against workers taking direct action and ignoring their own union leadership. This wave of syndicalist unrest stimulated an increasing amount of government intervention and prompted the government to consider more organised ways of subduing industrial militancy. The outbreak of war gave them the opportunity to assume wide ranging powers over most areas of national life for the first time. There was widespread repression of syndicalists in 1912.

When war broke out a 'state of national emergency' was declared; the first since the Napoleonic wars a hundred years before. Within days of the outbreak of war parliament passed the first Emergency Powers Act the 1914 Defence of the Realm Act (popularly known as DORA). The Act had one central clause giving the government power to make regulations for 'securing the public safety and the defence of the realm'. Immediately a series of Regulations were issued. Some were patently ludicrous, for example one prohibited dog-shows and Regulation 40B regulated the supply of cocaine to actresses. Others were more serious including Regulation a 7 which provided for six months in prison for spreading false rumours, and Regulation 14B, for the detention of people of alleged 'hostile origin or association'.

As well as this centralisation of powers it also saw parliamentary Labour leaders in government for the first time and the co-opting of trade union officials both nationally and locally into negotiations and agreements to ensure efficiency.

Things were still not all rosy for the government, however, as workers still had grievances and there emerged the first Shop Stewards’ Movement with strikes on “Red Clydeside” and in the mines of South Wales. As the war drew to a close a new wave of strikes occurred across the country in various industries and these were met with a brutal response. Troops were used to break the strikes and strikers were threatened with military service.

The Regulations made under DORA were due to lapse when hostilities were officially declared to have ended; however, the government and various state agencies were keen to retain the key powers afforded by DORA for more permanent use. The period immediately after the war was a testing time for the ruling class, and in 1919 the Emergency Powers Act was brought in, which was to 'make exceptional provisions for the protection of the community in case of emergency'. The government was empowering itself with special sanctions in cases of major strikes, civil disorders and pre-revolutionary situations.

The government established the Supply & Transport Organisation (STO) the first body specifically to break strikes by coordinating the police and army at a national and local level. It was used to break up industrial unrest throughout the inter war years and came into its own during the General Strike of 1926.

The Act was first invoked in 1921. The mine-owners had announced sweeping wage-cuts and posted lock-out notices at many pits, and the Triple Alliance comprising miners, railwaymen and transport workers - called a strike. The Lloyd George government declared a state of emergency and dispatched troops to working-class areas. The “Triple Alliance” of miners, railwaymen and transport workers had emerged from the syndicalist unrest and the revolutionary implications of these three vital industries striking together was not lost on the government. However by 1921 the original syndicalist inspired idea had been undermined by the union leadership who were not prepared to use this threat to challenge the status quo. Three days later the militant miners - not for the last time - were sold out by the right-wing leadership of the Triple Alliance (the day of the sell-out, 21 April 1921, became known as 'Black Friday').

The first sustained use of the 1920 Act was in the General Strike in 1926 when it was in force for eight months, though the strike itself lasted only a few days - and again the trade union leadership capitulated and left the miners to fight on alone.

In the run up to the General Strike, while the TUC General Council differed, the Supply & Transport Committee (STC) who co-ordinated the governments plans finalised their preparations. They saw the strike in terms of class war while the TUC leadership still naively thought it was just about wage cuts. One of the leading lights of the STC at this time was Winston Churchill along with others with a proven track record of anti-working class actions.

The police and the military were in place almost immediately to break the strike and crucially the government was able to publish the British Gazette, edited by Churchill, run by scabs protected by the military.

After the General Strike the STO remained in place. The Labour Government in 1929 kept it in place although they did not use it. In the next forty years there were four more declarations of a state of emergency, in the dock strike of 1948 and 1949 (by the Labour government), during the 1955 rail strike (by the Tories), and in the 1966 seamen's strike (by Labour). Sir Alec Douglas-Home's brief period as Tory Prime Minister saw the passing of the Emergency Powers Act 1964 which amended the 1920 Act in two ways. Firstly, it widened the causes which could justify the declaration of an emergency with the words “There have occurred, or are about to occur, events of such a nature” as to disrupt the life of the community. Secondly, it made permanent the provision from the Defence (Armed Forces) Regulations 1939 to allow the use of the armed forces in direct employment in 'agricultural work or in other work, being urgent work of national importance.'

The seventies saw an upsurge in the use of the Act. The declaration of emergency by the Tory government in October 1973 lasted for four months and was the longest since that of the General Strike. Previously there were two in 1970 (in July over the dock strike, and December over the electricity strike) and two in 1972 (in February over the miners, and August over the docks again).

Margaret Thatcher was much better prepared when the miners went on strike against pit closures from 1984 to 1985. She resisted declaring a state of emergency, instead asking the military to provide “logistic assistance” to the police force.

Now another Labour government has plans to update the legislation with its new Civil Contingencies Bill. The proposed legislation would give the government stronger emergency powers to deal with major catastrophes. Its aim is to provide "a wide range of coordinated, capable resources" to deal with various modern peacetime emergency situations, including terrorist attacks.

The bill widens the definition of what constitutes an emergency to include serious disruption to the political, administrative and economic stability of part of the country or a threat to its security. It will also for the first time give the government the power to declare a state of emergency on a regional as well as a national basis, and then seek parliamentary approval of its decision within seven days. The state of emergency would be declared by royal proclamation, although this could be dispensed with as “in some circumstances it might prove impractical”.

The new bill will confer sweeping authority on ministers to do almost anything that they like in an emergency. It poses potentially the greatest threat to civil liberty that any parliament is ever likely to consider. The Emergency Powers Act 1920 was mostly used against striking trade unions. These powers are largely being transferred to the new bill.

Although the bill is a watered down version of the original after widespread complaints by civil liberty groups, the powers available to the state are truly draconian. and can be seen as Britain’s very own version of the US Patriot Act. Cities could be sealed off, travel bans introduced and all telecommunications cut off. Demonstrations could be banned and the news media be made subject to censorship. New offences against the state could be “created” by government decree.

We have a government that is intent on controlling all aspects of our lives. It is fast becoming the most authoritarian government Britain has ever had. Forget Margaret Thatcher’s rule, the Iron Lady has nothing on this lot. It’s about time those on the left opened their eyes and saw the Labour Party for what it is, just another capitalist party.

The TUC and the union leadership have shown their reluctance time and time again to make any meaningful challenge to advance the cause of the working class. While the various left wing factions manoeuvre for position and form their fleeting alliances workers need to recognise that going thorough official channels and using state agencies and procedures gets us nowhere. We can learn from our history and where that has brought us to that it is time to reawaken that spirit of direct action that first caused the state to panic.

By the Solidarity Federation