By 1924 Admiral Hall's overt involvement with the League had come to an end. His position as chairman was briefly taken over by Sir Aukland Geddes. The League's "5th Annual General Report" of 1925 recorded that:
"One of the first tasks initiated by Sir Aukland Geddes was the compilation of a chart and dossier of socialist and subversive organisations and their interlocking directorates. Arrangements are in hand for a permanent clearing house of information in connection with alien organisations and individuals. A document containing a considerable body of information on "red" ramifications and methods had already been circulated in confidence to district Economic Leagues. Supplements to the documents will be circulated from time to time."
Geddes was in many ways a more appropriate figurehead for the League which was, at least in public, trying to distance itself from the Conservative and Unionist Party and establish itself as an non-aligned pro-industry lobby. Hall was one of the most outspoken and right wing "Diehard" Unionist MPs. Geddes on the other hand was a distinguished surgeon who became Director of Recruiting at the War Office from 1914-1916 then sat as a Unionist M.P. for Basingstoke for just three years between 1917 and 1920 during which time he was Minister of National service, Minister of Reconstruction and finally President of the Board of Trade in the Coalition Government. In 1920 he left Parliament to become (until 1924) British Ambassador to the USA. On his return he must have become director (or president or chairman) of the League. Although a Conservative, Geddes was a far less controversial figure.
By 1924 Hall had already made clear in the House of Commons his attitude towards the Labour leaders "unusual even by the standards of the Tory "diehards""1 According to "Fifty Fighting Years", by 1925:
"The League had also succeeded in developing a non-party image, keeping clear of party politics and receiving no support from political funds".
Dubious as this was, it would have been impossible to have presented to any such claim if Hall had been publicly involved. Geddes was appointed president of National Propaganda with a then considerable salary of £4,000 per annum2 . But in fact he held the post for barely a year before leaving to pursue an even more lucrative career as an industrialist. Under his presidency National Propaganda had been wound up and replaced by The Central Council of the Economic League. On April 8th of 1924 this had launched an appeal for £100,000 per year to support a "National Campaign to Combat Socialism". Contributors were asked to mark subscriptions for either the General Fund, British Empire Union or National Citizens Union. The appeal was signed by Colonel O. G. Armstrong, president of the FBI; Sir Vincent Caillard, of Vickers; Lord Gainford, coal owner; Lord Invernairn; Sir Allan Smith, chairman of the EEF; Sir Alan Sykes, chairman of the Bleachers association; and Evan Williams, president of the Mining Association of Great Britain3 .
ORGANISATION IN 1924
The Central Council of Economic League's "5th Annual Report", marked "for private circulation only", provides an impressive account of its activities during 1924:
"The operations throughout the country are conducted under the direction of Local Economic Leagues, with area offices located in convenient centres. The principal media of propaganda activities has been the Economic Study Club and Speakers' Club, and the regular staff of speakers has been retained, thus consolidating and strengthening the work as a result of their local experience".
If there was any doubt that the principal target of the organisation was the Labour Party this is dispelled in the introduction to the report:
"The period covered by the Annual report witnessed the establishment in office of the first Labour-Socialist Government. The question whether or not "Labour" is fit to govern has thus become academic. "Labour" HAS governed and a cabinet of Socialists is tacitly accepted by the nation as a potential alternative to a Cabinet of Constitutionalists."
The report cautions its readers against being complacent about the short lived nature of MacDonald's government and reminds them that, despite being defeated, the Labour Party had actually increased its vote by 1,000,000. It goes on to argue:
"The fact that there were found five and a half million British citizens willing to place in power as well as in office a body of men plunged in uneconomics, pledged to the nationalisation of industry, and plighted in troth to subsidise Russian Bolshevism with British savings, is a measure of the educational work that remains to be done."
The report then describes the activities of its various local branches:
Lancashire and Cheshire Economic League: Operating from Royal Central Chambers in Manchester, this was chaired by Sir William Clare Lees and was also represented on the Central Council by Lieutenant Col. Sir Alan J Sykes. It claimed to have held 1,417 meetings of various sorts attended by 333,497 people. F. W Astbury MP was a member of its executive.
Liverpool Economic League: Operating from 10 Hatton Gardens it was chaired by Sir Max Muspratt and claimed to have organised some 200 meetings. Also on its executive committee was J Sandeman Allen MP.
Greater London Economic League: Operated from the Central Council's HQ, then at 2 Millbank House, and chaired by Neville Gwynne. Its 595 meetings were attended by 145,000 people. "A special feature of propaganda in London" it claims is "Dinner- hour talks" to employees inside factories". The work of the League's paid workers was by 1923 being augmented by "25 working men, all of whom are trades unionists and constitutionalists".
South Wales Economic League: Operated from 46 Stuart Street in Cardiff. It was represented on the Central Council by its chair, Frank Shearman and James Miles.
Leeds Economic League: Held 751 meetings attended by 111,000 people.
Sheffield Economic League: Held more than 1,000 meetings
Huddersfield Economic League: 347 meetings attended by 32,000
Keighley Economic League: One of the small districts holding just 295 meetings with a total attendance of 32,000
Women's Work (West Riding): A potentially fascinating area of the League's work it disappears in subsequent reports, although in 1923-24 it held 133 meetings attended by 5,400 women and 74 study circles with a total attendance of nearly 1,000.
North East Coast - National Propaganda: A split district with separate executive committees for Tyne and Wear, operating from 10 Leazes Terrace, Newcastle, and one for Tees and Hartlepool. These were represented on the Central Council by Launcelot E. Smith although the Tyne and Wear executive included Clive Cookson who would remain a League stalwart for all his life, and Major General Sir R A Kerr Montgomery.
Hull and East Riding Economic League: Operated from 5, Myrtle Street, Hessle. It noted its gratitude to the local press for "the very comprehensive reports they have given of the meetings in the area". They also recorded the establishment of a branch of the "Children's Faith Crusade" in February 1923. "Results to date are encouraging" it reports ".... The largest Communist Sunday School has been closed". The district's chair was G. F. Robinson.
Barrow-in-Furness Economic League: Operating from Hector House, Newbarns its 578 meetings included afternoon classes for the unemployed.
Midland Counties Economic League: Chaired by Gilbert Vyle it operated over a massive area which included Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire. It claimed to have been particularly active in mining areas during a ballot of miners on the National Wages Agreement - "it being of interest to note that in all areas where the League concentrated the vote was for acceptance of the terms submitted".
North Wales Economic League: A small and shortlived branch of the League more or less run, it would seem, from Lancashire and Cheshire or Liverpool.
While the League claimed that Aukland Geddes had commissioned the dossier on the activities of socialists in 1924, much of the work must have already been done. Hall had brought with him from Naval Intelligence a substantial body of domestic intelligence. He was also expert in the sort of espionage and information gathering network the League would have needed to produce such a dossier. The League certainly also have access to the secret intelligence network operated by Sir George Makgill, and the sophisticated intelligence gathering operation run by anti-socialist and anti- semitic activist Nesta Webster. Webster was a close friend of John Baker White's mother, and had collaborated with her on an anti-communist pamphlet.
The scale of the Leagues' operations in 1924, as recorded in its 1925 annual report, means that it must have been receiving high and low level intelligence not only from the thousands of students at its study circles but also from the firms owned or represented by the 150-200 Central and Regional Council members. It was a considerably more diverse and sophisticated operation than the state's own - concentrated by 1924 in a tiny MI5 and an unsophisticated and chaotic Special Branch. The fledgling intelligence community was fortunate in having the Economic League's extensive network to augment its own slim resources. For, in the early 1920's, not only could the Economic League collect and collate intelligence, it could also pass it to the state's intelligence services through contacts, like Maxwell Knight, Hall and Aukland Geddes.
Aukland Geddes did not remain President of the League for long, leaving to enjoy a successful career in Industry. He had probably contributed little new to an organisation that was by then growing under its own momentum, and was already established as the most coordinated anti-Labour machine this country has ever seen. Thus it was well placed to play an important role in the General Strike in 1926. The Government and industry decided to try to break the strike by using volunteers, rather than by force and the army. This meant that they needed every bit of intelligence the Leagues could provide and all their expertise in mobilising volunteer scab labour by means of the National Citizens Union.
Even before the War there had been much talk of a general strike by the revolutionary left, who saw it as some sort of prelude to a revolution. But the General Strike caught the left and the trade unions on the hop. The miners' strike, which was its cause, had certainly been precipitated by the coal owners, and other employers, determined on a show down with the unions - and if necessary with Baldwin's Tory government. A bloody victory over the miners would achieve their aim of reducing wages, increasing the output of the mines and stabilising the price of coal for years to come.The Strike was a critical test for the League's organisation, and its success guaranteed its continuation. By 1926 the League had enough speakers and employees around the country to make a significant "intervention" both in the General Strike, which was over within ten days, and in the miners strike which continued for months afterwards.
While the League was making its intervention, several of its founders were playing a much more central role.
Williams was still the president of the Mining Association, which represented the coal owners in the strike. In 1926 he was also president of the National Confederation of Employers Organisations (NCEO).The deputy secretary to the cabinet, Tom Jones, was not deceived by the poor impression created by Williams:
"Evan Williams is an insignificant Man. He is by this time quite able to make a clear and measured statement in quiet and reasonable tones, and one hardly realises the full gravity of the issue at stake"4 .
The Mining Association's submission to a Royal Commission on the Coal Industry in 1925 had laid down the line followed by the owners during the strike:
"On every occasion the owners have deprecated this policy of concession to threats originating in the left wing of the Miners Federation ... The Mining Association reiterate their strong objection to doles from the Exchequer to bolster up uneconomic rates of wages and conditions of employment. Freedom from political interference in the economic sphere is a condition essential to the health of Industry, and the Association trust that the earliest opportunity will be sought for the removal of the subvention in aid of wages in the coal industry."5
ARTHUR BALFOUR (LATER LORD RIVERDALE)
Riverdale, not to be confused with Earl Balfour, was another of the League's founders who had been lobbying for a reduction in miners' wages. He was a Sheffield steelmaker and Chairman of the National Federation of Iron and Steel Trades Manufacturers. As such he submitted a memo to the Government Committee on Industry and Trade (of which he was also chairman!) which was investigating the iron and steel industry: "We have had pressed on us a good deal that the iron and steel industry is in a very difficult state, but when we come to look into the problem it comes back very much to the question of coal. Coal is fundamental. Therefore until the coal question is settled, you cannot, in my view come to any definite conclusions regarding the iron and steel industry. Coal is cumulative in every direction."
SIR ALLAN SMITH
Smith was director of the Engineering Employers Federation, and played a more intriguing role in the strike. Ramsay MacDonald took Smith to see Baldwin in the hope of putting together a solution which might get the miners back to work. It was, as even Baldwin could see, a proposition which the miners would throw out. Smith's proposal was that the miners return to work with wages temporarily reduced by 10% until a tribunal could be set up to fix a permanent wage.6
Although Gainford is not named by the League as being present at Dean's Yard in 1919, he was by 1923 a member of the Central Council of the Economic Leagues, and after the strike became its president. Although he was a Liberal Peer, a former Liberal Minister and a Quaker, Gainford was also a coal owner in Durham and in 1927-8 President of the Federation of British Industry (FBI). From 1922 until late 1926 he was chairman of the B.B.C.. When the Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson, sought to broadcast an appeal for a settlement of the strike Gainford was drawn into the controversy.
Neither he nor Baldwin agreed with the Archbishop's appeal but neither were prepared to cancel the Broadcast. Gainford left the final decision with the B.B.C.'s managing director John (later Lord) Reith. To Baldwin and Gainford's relief Reith stopped the Broadcast.This remarkable episode does not seem to be the Archbishop's only encounter with Gainford during the strike. After the strike the Archbishop described Gainford as one of the owners "being most unhelpful throughout".7
SIR ADAM NIMMO and the other coalowners
Nimmo was, after Evan Williams, possibly the next most powerful coal owner in the country and one of the most aggressive in his attitude towards the strike. But Williams, Gainford and Nimmo were not the only mining employers who were active in the Economic League. A Labour Research Pamphlet dating from 19268 also noted the presence on the Central Council of the Lord Invernairn, Sir Clifford Cory MP and James Miles, who were coal owners, Philip Gee who ran the Mining Association's "Propaganda Department", and W. A. Lee who was the Mining Association's secretary. At least 8 of its 36 members were involved in the highest level with the Mining Association. Other coal owners representatives were involved in the League's District organisations:
In Leeds: A. W. Archer (South Kirby, Featherstone and Hemsworth Collieries)
In the North East Coast district: Clive Cookson (Mickley Coal Co and Cowpen Coal Co), J. H. B. Forster (Chislet Colliery, Easington Coal Co, South Hetton Coal Co), Francis Priestman (Priestman Collieries, Ashington Collieries), Reginald Pease
(Bearpark Coal and Coke), Sir Arthur N. L. Wood (New Ingleton Collieries and Harton Coal).
In Sheffield: A Blenkinsop and Sir William Ellis (Dalton Main Collieries), W. Newton Drew (Hoyland Silkstone Coal and Coke).
In South Wales: Trevor S. Jones (Lewis Myrthyr Collieries, Titdonkin Myrthyr Collieries), W. H. Newton (Locket Merthyr Collieries (1894) Ltd and Glyncorrwg Collieries), E. L. Hann (Powell Duffryn Coal Treatment).9
THE FEDERATION OF BRITISH INDUSTRIES
The Economic League's founders were men of power and influence within the organisations which represented the interests of industry in general and especially those most closely involved in The General Strike. One of those organisations was the Federation of British Industry (F.B.I.). In 1924 Sir Eric Geddes, brother of Sir Aukland, and a unionist M.P. and minister had been its president. In the year following the strike Gainford became its president, and Evan Williams would later become its Vice- President. Gainford was succeeded by fellow Central Council member Lieutenant Colonel the Hon F. V Willey as president. But during the General Strike the FBI's President was Sir Max Muspratt, a member of the League's Central Council and Chairman of the Liverpool Economic League. At the same time another Central Council member, Sir Edward Manville, was an F.B.I. vice president.According to the former Archivist of the C.B.I. (which was formed out of the F.B.I. in 1965) the F.B.I. and Economic League worked closely during the strike:
"The F.B.I. gave its headquarters and regional organisation to help the Government's supply and transport activities. The F.B.I. combined with the Economic League to provide information on coal stocks and shortages, the availability of lorries, the levels of employment, etc."10
The League does not, however, mention the F.B.I. in its official history "Fifty Fighting Years". We do know however that it featured strongly, though not at first directly,in the development of the League's parent group the British Commonwealth Union.
HALL & GRETTON
Both Blinker Hall and John Gretton also played prominent roles in the strike. Gretton was for a time Treasurer of the main strike breaking group "The Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies" and Hall was the general manager of the Government's strike breaking paper the "British Gazette" which was produced on the Morning Post press, then owned by Northumberland, and edited by Winston Churchill. An intriguing reference in Christopher Farman's book, "The General Strike, Britain's Aborted Revolution", suggests Hall had another role. Farman notes correspondence between J C C Davidson and Hall (whom he mistakenly refers to as the Conservative's Principal Agent, a post from which Hall had been dismissed in 1924) concerning the possibility of recruiting the dockers' leader Ben Tillett:
"(Tillett is) absolutely broke; is going to fight communism in the winter, and evidently wants financial help. The Prime Minister wondered whether you thought it might be worthwhile sending for Tillett. There is just a chance he might do business".11
THE LEAGUE AND THE STRIKE
The League might not mention the FBI in its official history "Fifty Fighting Years", nevertheless it does confirm that during the ten days of the General Strike it played an intelligence gathering role:
"During the General Strike the League made no attempt to hold meetings or distribute leaflets, but its staff were organised in a National Network to report daily to its Headquarters, then in Millbank House, on the position in their respective regions. This information was used to compile a daily report to the Prime Minister, for which the League received his warm thanks."
But the League's own "Seventh Annual Report" shows that its assertion that the League didn't hold meetings or distribute leaflets is nonsense. In Keighley, 20,000 "daily news bulletins were distributed" and "much "missionary" work was also carried out throughout this troubled period". In Liverpool, "over a quarter of a million leaflets were printed and distributed ... every endeavour was made to encourage the enrolment of volunteer workers". Lancashire and Cheshire also reported that "Every endeavour was made to encourage the enrolment of volunteer workers". In Leeds 65,000 copies of another "Daily Bulletin" were distributed, while in the Midlands a van and "Flying Squad" toured railway centres like Leamington attempting to persuade workers back to work.
"Fifty Fighting Years", which contains the Economic League's own revisionist history of its involvement in the General Strike is, to say the least, intriguing. Why should they deny holding meetings and distributing leaflets when their own contemporary reports state quite decisively that they did? Why make no reference to the recruitment of volunteer labour?
There are a number reasons why the League, more than forty years after the event, chose to be discrete. The General Strike was a disaster for the trade union movement, it was the most powerful weapon in its armoury and it had failed. Having tried and failed to make a General Strike work, the movement was left considerably weaker. The trade union membership was demoralised, the leadership, having discovered the limit of their movement's power and now also deprived of the ultimate sanction, were more inclined to compromise in negotiations. The Strike fundamentally changed the relationship between employer and employed in Britain by reinforcing the corporatist argument that the employees best interests were served by satisfying the interests of the employer. It was of course a line the Economic League and its forerunners had been putting forward since 1919, particularly through the National Alliance of Employers and Employed.
This was also an argument that the Economic League continued to use throughout its existence, and in order to do it effectively it could never have been honest about its anti-trades unionism. The League regularly pledged its support for "responsible" trades unionism, but that was trades unionism which operated only as a sort of sophisticated suggestion box not as a powerful economic force.
This argument was so crucial to the Economic League's own image of itself, and the image it always projected in the face of public criticism, that it is unlikely to have been happy to recount its full role in the General Strike or even its collaboration with the Federation of British Industries. For although the Strike had been a failure, it was regarded even by the right of the trades union movement as an heroic failure. But, of course, when "Fifty Fighting Years" was written it was far more a living memory than it is today, Indeed there was a substantial number of those who had participated in the Strike who were still working.
There were other reasons why the Economic League should have wanted to write this very important chapter of its history with an eraser rather than a pencil. A frank exposition of its role in the Strike would have perhaps alerted historians to its early, and embarrassing, links with the British Fascists. Perhaps even more damaging, it would alert them to some significant details about the Government's own strike breaking organisation the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies.
THE ORGANISATION FOR THE MAINTENANCE OF SUPPLIES (O.M.S.)
Once a call for a General Strike has been enacted there is only one way to defeat it. That is to mobilise a sufficiently competent workforce to do the key strikers' jobs. In 1926 enough key workers did come out to make the General Strike effective, and so without an effective strike breaking mechanism it would have been impossible for Stanley Baldwin's Conservative Government to crush it. That mechanism has generally been regarded as the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies (OMS).
It thus comes as a revelation to find that the OMS might well have been the brainchild of Sir George Makgill, leading light of the Central Council of the Economic League's satellite organisation the British Empire Union.
The establishment of a "Triple Alliance" between road transport and labouring , mining and rail unions at the end of the Great War had created an apparently, and potentially, invincible force. In anticipation of a concerted dispute with the "Triple Alliance", the government had established a special committee to prepare for just such a civil emergency and this had in turncreated an official strike breaking organisation known as the "Supply and Transport Organisation" (STO).12
The STO's began life in February 1919 when the Cabinet appointed an Industrial Unrest Committee (IUC). It performed disappointingly during the police strike of August 1919 and so when the railway workers went on strike the following month it was replaced by the confusingly named Strike Committee. This was given greater powers and put under the chairmanship of Sir Eric Geddes. The other members of the committee included Aukland Geddes (President of the Board of Trade and Sir Eric's brother), Walter Long (First Lord of the Admiralty), Winston Churchill (Minister of War), Edward Shortt (Home Secretary), George Roberts (the food controller), and Sir John Maclay (Minister of Shipping). As soon as the strike ended on 5th October, with the acceptance of the railwaymen's terms, it was decide to establish this committee as the Supply and Transport Committee, without the military representatives, who while enthusiastic members, had resisted suggestions that the armed forces should be used as strike breakers, thus risking mutiny, and had favoured using volunteers instead.13
By 1925 the guiding hand behind the Supply and Transport Committee was the diehard Home Secretary William Joyston-Hicks, known to most as "Jix". Although the committee was meeting infrequently much progress was being made at an inter-departmental level in establishing a Supply and Transport Organisation, built around the idea of regional emergency Civil Commissioners. Throughout this period, while a hastily agreed "coal subsidy" was postponing a show down with the miners, "Jix" was overseeing the building of the machine that might defeat the trade unions in the event of a general strike when the subsidy expired. In August 1925 he told the Special Constabulary to "quietly recruit". In October he told the Cabinet that, although no official arrangements had been made for recruiting volunteer strike breakers, a number of private groups had been established, including the British Fascists and the OMS.14
Although the British Fascists operated exclusively within the Conservative Party, they were too overtly "political" to receive much official encouragement. The relationship between the OMS and Joyston-Hicks, and thus the Government itself, was close and confusing. OMS had been established in the September as a "an association of loyal citizens", a neat formula that enabled it to maintain a non-political fiction. Its figureheads included Lord Hardinge, Admiral Jellicoe, Major-General Lord Scarborough and Lieutenant-General Sir Francis Lloyd.
On the October 1st 1925, Joyston-Hicks told readers of the Times that he had been consulted by the "promoters of OMS" prior to its formation and had encouraged it. Anyone who allied themselves with the OMS, or any similar body, formed for the "sole purpose of helping the public authorities" he claimed, would be "performing a patriotic act". Joyston-Hicks told the Supply and Transport Committee that he believed the OMS would only function while the government didn't have an official mechanism for recruiting volunteer blacklegs. Although official contact between the government and the OMS was broken off in 1925, in the months leading up to the General Strike they were allowed to continue to meet with civil servants.
Thus faced by what can only be described as the government's sponsorship of the OMS, the leadership of the British Fascists left the party and formed a "non-political" group called the "Loyalists" which was promptly incorporated into the OMS. "At the present moment" they argued "effective assistance to the state can best be given in seconding the efforts of the OMS". It has always been doubted that the OMS provided a particularly effective strike breaking force. Its members were largely the unskilled middle classes though it provided some training for some volunteers. Its ability to mobilise was also patchy. The list of OMS volunteers which was passed to the government when the strike began however did contain 100,000 names.
But while Westminster could muster 7,000 OMS strike breakers, Leeds could only offer 400 names and there were none whatsoever from either Manchester or Liverpool. The skilled people handed on by OMS included "1,322 lorry drivers, 250 Ford van drivers for the GPO trained in OMS "schools", 144 bus drivers, 1,345 car drivers, 640 railway operatives, 166 workers for inland waterways, 91 tramwaymen, and 351 mechanics". It also included more than 1,000 skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers for the electricity industry.15
Perhaps the importance of the OMS was summed up by a cartoon in the St Pancras Strike Bulletin, which showed a volunteer driving a bus with a policeman, truncheon at the ready, riding shotgun and a pedestrian being knocked down. "We don't seem to get many passengers", says the policeman. "But" replies the volunteer "we are making a good impression!".16
JOHN BAKER WHITE AND THE AFTERMATH OF THE GENERAL STRIKE
Within 10 days of its start the General Strike was over. Only then, claims "Fifty Fighting Years", did the League send its speakers into action on the coalfields of Nottinghamshire:
"At first the League's speakers, to often hostile audiences, counselled a return to work and negotiations, arguing, as the League always has, that strike action is harmful to the nation as a whole."
In April, a month before the Strike, the Economic League had appointed John Baker White as its full time director on £400 a year17 . Although he was only twenty three when he was appointed, White had already established his credentials for the job. He had been working for Makgill, in the most secret section of the National Propaganda network, since he was twenty. Through both his mother and his step father, Gerald Hartley Atkinson who was a senior figure in Scotland Yard, he had been introduced to some of the most senior figures in the state's own secret underworld. Nesta Webster was a close family friend, and prominent anti-semitic figure on the radical right.
More immediately useful was the fact that, after a string of unusual temporary jobs, White had been working since 1923 for Philip Gee in the propaganda section of the mineowners' Mining Association. Gee himself was of course a member of the League's Central Council. It is unlikely that, as a brand new director, White would have been able to influence the League's response to the General Strike itself. However his experience at the Mining Association will have left him well placed to co-ordinate its activities against the continuing miners strike. For Gee had insisted that as a "prerequisite" he should work for six months in a pit, and the pit chosen was Newstead, in the Nottinghamshire coalfield.
There, while he worked "in the office, lamp room, on the winding engine and siding, and below ground", he lodged with a Tory coalface worker called Sam Middup. While by his own account he admits that he was at first given a rough ride and accused of being a "bosses' spy", he was eventually accepted by some of the younger miners with whom he would go out drinking on a Saturday night18 . The Economic League chose to concentrate its activities in Nottinghamshire not because it was familiar with it but because that is where the strike began to crack. When a local miners leader called Spencer set up a breakaway union the League set up a "flying squad" whom they called "Constitutional Workers". Its aim was to "get the miners back to work". These flying squads consisted of both experienced League speakers and new recruits "equipped with vans and leaflets".19
The new recruits were mainly unemployed ex-officers and included for example two ex-Black and Tans - who were habitues of Rayners Bar in the Haymarket". Although it was "a rough and tough campaign" this didn't prevent the League from descending at times to school boy pranks. At one stage, in order to prevent the two miners' leaders A J Cook and Herbert Smith from picketing the early morning shift at Clipstone colliery in Nottingham, White claims that he and colleague called Jim Lasbery hid the two miners boots after they left them out to be cleaned. The boots weren't found, nor any replacements, until the shift had gone in. "They did not strike again" he noted "and other pits soon went back". But tough as they were, even in Nottinghamshire the League's "special cadre of speakers and leaflet distributors ... didn't go out at night alone", and were forced to replace the windscreens of their vans with chicken wire.20
"Fifty Fighting Years" claims that the League's intervention: "at any rate in this one coalfield accelerated the return to work and the eventual collapse of the strike, a fact admitted by the miner's national president, the late Herbert Smith". Successful or not it was followed by an abrupt, and for its members, controversial decision:
"The coal strike of 1926...became the last official strike in which the League took any part", in future, it claimed, it would only intervene in "unofficial disputes". But with this in mind the "Constitutional Workers" were retained; their vans were equipped with public address systems and they were renamed the "Economic League Flying Squads".
The League seems never to have been particularly bound to this decision to restrict its attentions to unofficial strikes. Indeed this just one of a number of glaring inaccuracies, and straightforward attempts to spread misinformation about the League's role in the general strike. It remains difficult to assess the true effect of their intervention in the Strike. OMS, for example, is regarded as having been largely ineffective as a strike breaking force, although this perhaps underestimates its critical propaganda value. After the strike the government, or at least the civil service, discouraged its continuation. In this they were successful, helped perhaps by the fact that in October it lost its founder. That is if White is not entirely fabricating the idea that OMS was Makgill's brainchild.
The League's involvement in the General Strike cannot be dismissed lightly. If, as many people believe, the Strike failed because the TUC leadership lost its nerve not because it was crushed by the government, then it is important to assess the degree to which propaganda, and especially the image of a potential civil war, contributed to that loss of nerve.
- 1Andrew, pp437
- 2"People", 7/12/24 quoted in ILP "Notes for Speakers"
- 4Tom Jones, "Whitehall Diary" ed K. Middlemas, London 1969, volii p12. Quoted in Margaret Morris, "The General Strike", Penguin 1976
- 5Royal Commission on the Coal Industry (1925, Vol 2(b), minutes of evidence, p934) quoted in Morris, p137
- 6See T.Jones "Whitehall Diary" iip40, quoted in Morris, p259
- 7See Morris p327
- 8"What is the Economic League?", it was probably the first published pamphlet about the League
- 9LRD pamphlet, op cit
- 10G.W.McDonald "The Role of British Industry in 1926" In Morris, p299
- 11Farman, "The General Strike", 1972, p65 quoting James Rhodes James' "Memoirs of a conservative: J C C Davidson's Memoirs and Papers 1910-37"
- 12The original idea had its roots in an investigation by Blinker Hall into the way in which the Government responded to this sort of emergency, instigated by Lloyd George. See also Keith Jeffrey and Peter Hennessey, "States of Emergency", Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983
- 13See Jeffery and Hennessey
- 14Jeffery and Hennessey
- 15Farman p150
- 16Margaret Morris
- 17"True Blue"
- 18"True Blue"
- 19According to "Fifty Fighting Years" they were "mobile, self contained units consisting of two speaker/literature distributors carrying their own stock of leaflets and a portable platform"
- 20"Fifty Fighting Years"