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Last Updated: Monday, 1 May 2006, 09:43 GMT 10:43 UK
'Great dream and swift disaster'
Patrick Hannan
Patrick Hannan
BBC Wales presenter

Strikers in 1926
The strike was caused by a dispute over miners' pay and hours
The General Strike began 80 years ago this week, on the 4 May 1926. But it quickly turned to disaster.

Although they are of themselves no more than a tiny sequence of numbers, there are some dates that carry entire stories within them.

None more so in industrial Britain than 1926, the year of the General Strike, a time when the country seemed as though it might be on the brink of revolution.

And even today, long after practically everyone who was personally involved has died, you can still start an argument about it.

It's a story of hope and betrayal, of sacrifice, defiance and, ultimately, a defeat that rankled bitterly decades on.

It was what the Rhymney poet Idris Davies described as the great dream and the swift disaster.

For most of those involved (and the General Strike wasn't all that general) it was simply a spasm of protest that in the end achieved nothing

The strike was called by the TUC for one minute to midnight on 3 May, 1926. It was an unprecedented show of solidarity with the miners - a million of them throughout Britain at that time - who were under pressure to work longer hours for less money.

It was to be a trial of strength between organised labour and the establishment as represented by the coal owners and the government. Nine days later it was all over.

1926 strike
The strike may have represented the peak of trade union power
The strike had begun to crumble almost before it had begun and it was called off without a single concession being made to the miners' case.

For most of those involved (and the General Strike wasn't all that general) it was simply a spasm of protest that in the end achieved nothing. But for many of Britain's miners it was only a beginning.

Huge community effort

In some of the coalfields, south Wales in particular, there was no return to work. It wasn't a strike, those involved said, but a lockout by the owners.

Through the summer and into the winter they stayed out. The atmosphere of that period was curiously mixed - part grim struggle, part festival.

There was a huge community effort to provide food and clothes for the thousands of families who had nothing. But at the same time they organised cricket matches, boxing tournaments, musical entertainments and fancy dress competitions.

Their emotions were astonishingly fresh, in particular their fierce antagonism towards those they blamed for their defeat

Any sense of carnival disappeared soon enough as the months wore on. Resolution inevitably cracked and increasing numbers of men went back to work.

Those who stayed out fought with police brought in to protect working miners. Finally, in December, the dispute ended, not by agreement but through sheer attrition.

March in support of the 1984-85 miners' strike
Trade union membership and power have waned over the years
The miners went back to work without having gained a single concession from the owners.

Those are the bare bones of a story that has resonated round industrial Britain ever since. Thirty years ago I talked to people who had been active in it.

Even half a century on their memories and their emotions were astonishingly fresh, in particular their fierce antagonism towards those they blamed for their defeat - owners, government and, most resented of all, other trade unions.

The spirit of that time, a sense that there were old grievances to be settled, coloured attitudes generations on.

So much so that when you look at the last miners' strike, that year of explosive conflict between 1984 and 1985, you can't avoid a sense of the cause of the General Strike being restaged in another era.

This time, though, the disaster was final, for 1985 effectively marked the end of coal as a significant British industry.

There was no longer any dream for the miners to cling on to.

Great Dream, Swift Disaster is on BBC Radio Wales from Monday, 1 May to Thursday, 4 May (1830 BST) and on Friday 5 May (1800 BST).


SEE ALSO:
Timeline: United Kingdom
20 Dec 05 |  Country profiles
Iron Lady versus union baron
06 Mar 04 |  Wales
General Strike and "Safety First"
18 Dec 97 |  Stanley Baldwin


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