Iain Dalton, Socialist Party national committee
On a number of occasions, the ruling class in Britain has trembled with fear when faced with mass struggles of workers which could threaten their rule. Such movements as the 1984-85 miners strike and the 1926 general strike brought clashes between striking workers and the powers of the capitalist state.
Nothing terrified the ruling class as much as the thought that the very ‘armed bodies of men’ making up part of their state machine – the police and army – could become infected with the revolutionary malady. But this was the very real prospect in the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917. It led the then prime minister, David Lloyd George, to declare the country was ‘at no time nearer to Bolshevism’.
Mutinies in the armed forces took place throughout 1917-19, in revolt against the bloody destruction of World War One, as well as once the armistice was signed in 1918. The demands were for rapid demobilisation, rather than continuing to be used as fodder for the imperialist powers now aiming to crush the Russian revolution by military force.
But the committees formed to organise the struggle in the army came and went as troops were dispersed and demobilised. Within the police, however, a more permanent form of organisation among the ranks developed through the formation of the National Union of Police and Prison Officers (NUPPO).
Over the course of the war, the wages of the police had declined relative to other workers. Policemen who had been recruited from the army in previous years were recalled to their original units. This resulted in shortages. Police officers lost 17 days leave without any compensation.
This combination of low wages and the restriction of leave became a breeding ground for revolt, and anger began to be channelled through the NUPPO which gained a new leadership as a result of the discontent.
This was brought to a head as those at the tops of the Metropolitan Police began to try and repress the union and its agitation by victimising its organisers. A prominent case was of Sergeant Tommy Thiel, the NUPPO organiser responsible for making links with police forces outside London. His victimisation provided the spark for the union to make demands not only for Thiel’s reinstatement, but for a pay rise, an increased war bonus and the recognition of the union.
The strike caught the government off guard. Believing their own propaganda claiming that police officers had nothing to complain about, the key officials in the Metropolitan Police and the Home Office were out of London on Thursday 29 August 1918 – the evening NUPPO held a mass rally and put out the call to strike.
At midnight, policemen began to leave their patrols and refuse to turn up for duty. Meetings took place in police stations where officers voted to join the strike. Pickets at Scotland Yard even managed to get 25 sergeants and 16 constables from the Special Branch to take part in the action!
A mass march and rally addressed by the secretary of London Trades Council and other labour movement figures attracted 20,000. Following an abortive meeting with a government representative who refused to meet the union, the City Police were called out at 6pm, further swelling the ranks of the strikers.
Attempts to further solidify the strike saw roving pickets march from police station to station, checking for strike breakers. Vine Street police station was besieged until strike breakers holed up inside left the building.
With the soldiers who were replacing striking police guards beginning to fraternise with police pickets, and the possibility that the forthcoming TUC congress could declare a sympathy strike with the police, the government became prepared to agree almost anything to stop the strike developing further.
When a delegation from the union met with Lloyd George, he granted them the bulk of their demands, including Thiel’s reinstatement, guarantees against victimisation for union membership, and an immediate pay rise.
But on the issue of recognising the union, he resorted to a subtle trick, claiming he couldn’t recognise a union for the police in wartime. This was naively understood by the NUPPO leadership as meaning that once the war was over they would be recognised.
In truth, it was a measure – much like the nine-month subsidy to the coal industry – granted with the aim of giving the government breathing space to prepare to crush a general strike. Lloyd George certainly wasted no time in making preparations to break the union, appointing General Sir Nevil Macready, who had commanded troops during strikes in the 1910-14 ‘Great Unrest’.
Over the next year NUPPO was to grow into a national union with branches throughout the country, as industrial unrest continued to grow. NUPPO affiliated to the TUC and the Labour Party, which had just adopted the socialist Clause IV of its constitution, showing the developing radicalisation which the government was determined to crush.
- Never Nearer to Bolshevism: The Police Strikes of 1918-19 by Iain Dalton. £3 plus postage – leftbooks.co.uk