Labour law and order

Ernest Bevin
Ernest Bevin

An article by Preston Clements for Freedom on the repeal of the Trades Dispute Act in 1946 and the reactionary nature of both the Labour Party and T.U.C.

Submitted by wojtek on November 2, 2012

Hollywood could not have better staged the repeal of the Trades Dispute Act than did the highly publicised politicians at Westminster.

The stage was very elaborately set for the political farce, produced to capture the appreciative applause from the mesmerised gallery. The set is intended to display the bitterist animosity between the Government and the Opposition over a reactionary law. The hero of the piece is supposed to be the Labour Party with the Tories cast as the villains. As a piece of entertainment it stinks, but as a revelation of Maskelyne political illusion it succeeds. Bevin has thumped the box and roared his anger, and Hogg and Eden have risen to their roles in magnificent style.

The whole farce might have had a little more success had not Mr. Henderson Stewart, in his broadcast in the “Week in Westminster” series, revealed that although there may be considerable acrimony in the debate, in all his years in Parliament he did not remember such a feeling of friendliness behind the scenes.

Under the political glamour, which has drawn so many millions to tragedy, there is no basic disagreement between the Government and the Opposition. On all fundamental issues there is unanimity; unanimity on war, on finance, on constitution, on Law and Order and certainly on the matter of labour control. Should the Socialists and the Tories part company on all other issues (sic) all the records show that they can be trusted to form a coalition of tyranny to smash down any workers’ revolt for emancipation. Were it not for the fact that we have become accustomed to the sort of ballyhoo and trickery accompanying the repeal of this act, we would feel little more than utter disgust and anger that these plutocrats could dip their delicate hands into such a slimy period of workers’ betrayal for a subject to use for self glorification and political advantage.

The history of the General Strike should be well enough known for the workers not to fall for the easy interpretation put forward in Reynolds News (3/2/46) in attributing the sole responsibility for the “Blacklegs’ Charter” on to “the Baldwin government as an act of revenge for the General Strike. Baldwin, egged on by Churchill and Birkenhead thought to seize the opportunity to cripple the Trade Unions and weaken the Labour Party.”

The primary responsibility for this act clearly rests with the T.U.C. and the Labour bosses, who were guilty of the most flagrant betrayal that has continued right down through the following 19 years. The betrayal has been so complete, and the workers’ rights so subordinated to the careerism of the T.U. and Labour plutocracy that the implication seen by Reynolds News in the Trades Dispute Act is little more than a mild joke.

True it is that the Balwin government placed the Act on the Statute Book, but the Tories did no more than confirm the duplicity of the T.U. officials and placate the capitalists.

The worker, living in his shabby surroundings, experiencing the effects of poverty and economic exploitation, born in suppression and reared in a home where the continual struggle for the wherewithal to live goes on unceasingly, cares little for the Statute Book and the Constitution when he engages in the battle for bread against the robbing ruling class. The fact that the Peers, and industrial Barons, with the T.U. officials and Cabinet Ministers receiving their huge salaries, discuss the illegality of strikes, leaves him pretty cold.

To the worker, the right to strike is as fundamental as his right to breathe. That right will be exercised when conditions drive him to action. It alters nothing that really matters in a dispute, that laws have been passed, or acts have been repealed. Poverty, sympathy or aggravation cannot be made legal or illegal by the decision of the usurpers in Parliament. The false position of the politician is clearly revealed over the recent dock strike. Although the dockers broke scores of laws – all the peace time legislation plus the much more stringent war laws – the lawyers and politicians did dare not bring any of these dockers before the courts, any more than the Tories, Liberals or Socialists would have risked using the Trades Dispute Act in any of the hundreds of strikes in the past 19 years. The workers can exist without the law, but the rulers cannot.

It is significant that the only occasion that the Trade Dispute Act was ever used was by the man who thundered hypocritically against it the most. In 1943, Ernest Bevin used it against the powerless Trotskyists

As the dockers made the government, the laws and the T.U.C. look ridiculous, so again in any industrial dispute the most that the Labour government and the T.U.C. could hope for would be to hide behind the army and strengthen the police force, and smash down the workers under the fantastic constitution and legal system.

Ernest Bevin stated in the debate last week that he was “as big a constitutionalist as any member on the other side (Tory) and I am fighting to remove the stigma that the Tory Party in 1927 put upon me.”

The stigma to which Bevin refers is that he spported a criminal General Strike in 1926, and that he is really no criminal, any more than J. H. Thomas was a criminal at that time. But Bevin did not hesitate in January, 1927, to brand the strikers as criminals. At the T.U.C. special conference he said:

You have to remember that the whole approach to the national strike is one of illegality.

Bevin was then marching in step with the body of J. H. Thomas as he now walks with Jimmy’s soul.

In the middle of the strike Thomas, then General Secretary of the N.U.R., said:

It was no use quibbling, it was no use pretending that an illegal act had not been done.

(Weymouth, July, 1926).

This attempt to place the T.U. leaders in the clear both with the law and with the workers whom they betrayed shows the leadership was badly frightened that the issue would become constitutional.

Under the circumstances prevailing during the General Strike, there was no half-way house between the ballot box and the machine gun.

(C. T. Cramp, N.U.R., 18/8/1926).

The workers’ leaders sold out to Baldwin and Churchill (spokesman for the City) at the expense of the strikes, and we may now assume that Bevin and Co. Have put themselves right in the eyes of the Tory Party and have cleared themselves at the Bar. If, in the process, they brand the miners and raileaymen as criminals, then it is only consistent with their whole black record.

Whatever the words (supported by liberal whitewashing from the Daily Herald), of the Socialist politicians may be, their actions cannot be denied. In handling industrial strikes the government have been blatantly reactionary. The dockers hold an unprintable opinion of the Labour bosses. The government is showing its determination to bring the workers to heel. Since the Socialists have held the high offices there had been a regular procession of men, women and boys to prison under harsh labour laws.

Since 1927, industrial relations have undergone considerable change; the T.U.C. have become a crypto-state organisation, taking on a character in industry comparable to that of Scotland Yard in society. Citrine, recognising that the Trades Dispute Act is completely redundant, tells us through the Labour Press Service (9/1/46) that he thinks a brake on a general strike is necessary:

I think that the restraint and brake is to be found within the T.U. movement and its own sense of the responsibility which devolves upon it... in other words, the unions are being entrusted by Parliament and the community with very great power.

It is fairly obvious that the responsibility to which Sir Walter Citrine refers is the saving and protection of a state capitalist society. The T.U.C. is on the side of the governors, Law and Order and the State and Constitution.

For the purpose of disciplining the workers, Bevin sees a subtle difference between the state and the community, for he said (12/2/46):

If there is a strike against the State it is obviously illegal.


From Bevin’s viewpoint the community at large is only part of the State when they are conscripted or taxed, but stateless when opposing the Labour government. The Minister of Labour (Isaacs), not to be left out of the bid for total power, speaking in the debate reveals:

That the government do not believe in strikes to coerce the government, this government or any other government.

Did Quintin Hogg, a rabid reactionary Tory, place his finger on the spot when he referred to the Socialist Attorney General, whom he said “seems to have been infected with the virus of Nuremburg and to have come out in swastika spots all over his red tie”?

We quote a part of Hartley Shawcross’ speech in full and leave you to draw your own conclusions:

I take the opportunity of making it quite clear that this Government, like any Government as an employer, would feel itself perfectly free to take any disciplinary action that any strike situation that might develop demanded. To make a completely hypothetical case – supposing a special section of the Civil Service, for instance, prison officers, disregarding the machinery of the Whitley Council, went on strike, the Government would undoubtedly take disciplinary action by exercising their right, as an employer, of instant dismissal without hope of reinstatement.


In the coming struggle the real battle will not be fought out at Westminster or in the Law Courts. The existence or non-existence of a Trades Dispute Act will have no significance whatsoever. The workers can, and almost certainly will, by direct action and a general social strike, smash the artifical bureaucratic power of politicans and lawyers. It is not in legislative bodies that the point of struggle lies, but in the workers themselves; social or economic rights do not originate in Westminster or Transport House, but are ingrown in the people.

Workers cannot delegate the skill of their brains and hands or value of their labour to artifical leaders. It is as much a part of them as they themselves are a part of life itself.

This article originally appeared in Freedom on 23rd February, 1946.



11 years 5 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Tobes on October 24, 2012

I want to thank you for posting this article.

I have a personal interest in the author and am very grateful for any information about him.


11 years 5 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by wojtek on October 28, 2012

In case you're still researching Preston Clements this particular Freedom issue is available to see at The Sparrows' Nest in Nottingham - though I don't recall it containing any information about him. Good luck!


11 years 5 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Tobes on November 1, 2012

That is great, thank you!

I will follow this up.


10 years 10 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Battlescarred on June 8, 2013

Preston Clements was extremely active in the Glasgow anarchist movement in the years just after the war, addressing many open-air meetings alongside the likes of Eddie Shaw. However his exertions led him to contract double pneumonia and to "physical and mental collapse" ( Eddie Shaw in Freedom ( Freedom Dec 27th, 1947) He was on the "road to recovery" according to Margaret Clements (Freedom Feb 7th 1948), who appears to have been his partner) and would return to activity, although there seems no sign of this happening.