By the early 1920s, the British coal industry had serious underlying problems. After the war, coal exports were 20% lower than they had been before. In part, this was because the industry faced increased competition from more efficient industries in the Ruhr, Poland and the USA, a lack of competitiveness not helped by the the policy of all post-war governments to restore the pound to its pre-war value: thus, an over-valued sterling made British coal too expensive abroad. The coal industry as a whole was loss-making in the 1920s (with the exception of 1924, when the Ruhr Crisis and and American strike meant that there was a sudden coal shortage, and when it was subsidised in 1925-26). Productivity did not rise at all in the 1920s, whereas in the Ruhr it rose by 34%. Furthermore, demand for coal was stagnant at home. Thus, the markets for British coal were shrinking.
Then there were the problems inherent in the industry itself. Britain had 1,411 coal firms running 2,507 mines (a third of those employed fewer than 100 people). Without amalgamations, most firms lacked the capital resources to invest in mechanisation. Labour costs were about 70% of the industry’s costs. Given that, and the lack of investment, the easiest way for the mining companies to cut costs was to cut wages. Thus, cutting wages tended to be their first resort when coal prices fell. After the war, Miner’s real wages fell, before rising in 1924.
Worse still were the conditions in which men worked. Never mind the distances men had to walk to work underground, or the fact that most coal was hewn by hand, or even the fact that most pits did not have pit-head baths: the real issue was the industry’s appalling safety record. Between 1922 and 1924, 3,603 miners were killed and 597,000 injured; a miner working through the whole inter-war period had a 2% chance of being killed, and a 50% of being made seriously ill by his work.
During the war, the coal industry had been under the control of the government. As part of the Treasury Agreement between the government and unions, miners’ wages were set nationally, as were their working hours and conditions. In taking control of the industry, the government also became acutely aware of its deep-seated problems. They were also aware of its notoriously bad labour relations, and the fact that the workers wanted that national control to continue, whereas the coal owners wanted to return to what they viewed as normal. As governments often do, they sought to put the day of reckoning off and find some sort of solution, thus setting up the Sankey Commission. The commission could not agree. The main report (of 4 versions), though only thanks to Sankey’s casting vote, recommended de facto nationalisation. Lloyd George, who had made a prior commitment to return the pits to their owners, rejected the report.
The result was the end of national pay, hours and conditions, and a three month lockout in 1921. The miners looked to support from the Triple Alliance (of miners, railway and transport workers’ unions), but on Black Friday, Lloyd George persuaded the railwaymen’s leader JH Thomas to back down. The Miners’ Federation felt betrayed, and the TUC felt unhappy at the failure.
1924 was a good year for the British coal industry: the Ruhr Crisis and a strike in the USA saw a world shortage of coal and rising prices. That was not going to last. By 1925, production in the more competitive the Ruhr and United States had resumed. In addition, Britain went back on the gold standard, effectively revaluing the pound and making British coal exports more expensive. Faced with this, the mine owners did what they always did: they looked to cut wages and increased working hours for miners.
The Miners’ Federation of Great Britain was, from 1924, led by AJ Cook, famously described by Beatrice Webb as ‘an inspired idiot’. Cook was a radical Marxist, whose opposition to the war effort had seen him sentenced to three months for sedition in 1918. This secured his place as one of the leaders of the radical left in South Wales; by 1921, he was a member of the Miners’ Federation executive. In the 1921 lockout Cook was imprisoned again.
Cook was committed to ending private ownership in the coal industry, and the overthrow of capitalism; he worked hard to build bridges with the Triple Alliance and the TUC. When further wage cuts were demanded in 1925, the backing of the TUC was enough to win a nine-month subsidy from a Baldwin government on what became known as Red Friday. At the same time, the government appointed the Liberal politician Herbert Samuel to try and come up with a solution.
When the subsidy ended in 1926 conflict was inevitable. Samuel recommended a pay cut, and reorganisation of the industry. Cook, though he was willing to negotiate, was also committed to resisting a pay cut: ‘Not a Penny off the Pay, Not a Second on the Day.’ His closest colleague was Herbert Smith (right), the creator of the Triple Alliance: his famous phrase was nowt doin’. In both cases, the success of Red Friday had persuaded both to indulge in the wishful thought that the threat of a general strike would be enough to persuade the government to force a solution of the mine owners.
The government were minded to try and persuade the mine owners, not force them. Unfortunately, their chances of persuading the mine owners to implement Samuel’s reforms, let alone address the miners’ demands, were minimal. Lord Birkenhead famously quipped that he would have called the miners’ leaders ‘the stupidest men in England’, had he not had to deal with the mine owners before. They lived up to their billing, and imposed a lockout. The General Strike’s time was nigh.