Social Conflict & Elections: Britain (January 1919)
Social Conflict & Elections
British society had emerged from the war profoundly changed. Strengthened by the need for constant and high-output industry, key sectors of the economy had become vital to the war effort in the absence of many men fighting, and thus the power of mining and manufacturing unions had greatly increased.
Unlike most states in Europe at the time, Britain’s experience with political socialism had not been built off the back of academia, but unions. In France for example, there were multiple Socialist parties. This was also true of Germany where their unions had, on instruction of their political leaders, just forced Germany into political concessions. In Britain though, Labour was a party that was made up of a collection of political bodies including the trade unions, and intellectual ‘think tank’ groups like the Independent Labour Party and the Fabians.
Far from a revolutionary party, Labour had supported the Government during the war but had left the coalition when it became clear that the loss of Amiens had proven too much for the British war effort on the continent. Party leader William Adamson, a firm trade unionist from Scotland, led a party that still felt deeply divided over the value of the war. What they were united on though was the belief that Britain should end the war and that she should not engage in imperialism any further.
For most working class Britons these policies seemed very reasonable, if the war in Europe was essentially lost, why continue to lose soldiers elsewhere? This after all was a war against Germany, who had attacked Belgium. Everyone else, in their eyes, was an afterthought. Even after Gallipoli the British public had learned to hate the Turks, but only as much as they despised the men who screwed the pooch on the operation’s plans.
Despite this, the war had continued and relations between Britain’s social classes had rapidly declined. By the time negotiations for peace with Germany began, there were very real signs of unrest in the Rhondda valley, Manchester and the Clyde. These were the heartlands of the ‘triple alliance’ trade unions; the National Transport Workers' Federation, National Union of Railwaymen and the Miners' Federation of Great Britain.
These three unions alone had the capability to cripple British infrastructure if they had wished, but despite the more revolutionary attitude of the Independent Labour Party, who had opposed the war and were spurred on by Italy’s strife, direct action never took place. This was in part precisely because of the fears of an Italian style state schism.
This changed though in January 1919. Since the defeat in France, many British soldiers had been simply demobilised and returned to Britain. This had prompted a rapid rise in unemployment as these soldiers returned to a nation where their jobs had been filled by other men or even women. Unions thus proposed that the working week be reduced to 40 hours for every worker to provide more hours overall for more workers and share the burden.
This policy was widely supported in the ‘red’ regions of Britain, notably on the Clyde, in Manchester and Rhondda valley in Wales. In Glasgow though, this would take a bad turn. On January 27th, around 3,000 striking workers opted to meet at the St. Andrew's Halls. Just three days later though these numbers would swell to the tens of thousands as the city’s shipbuilding and engineering workers joined.
Police soon sought to crack down on the protesters, and thus when on January 31st a large congregation of tens of thousands of protesters met on George square, police immediately charged the workers to disperse them. In what became known as the ‘Battle of George Square’, the workers in their anger and frustration at the war and the further declining economic situation, actually fought back and ‘won’ the battle. Police forces were driven off and the fighting spread into the surrounding streets.
During the fighting, representatives of the workers had been meeting with the Lord Provost of Glasgow at the city chambers. Immediately upon hearing of the violence they went to leave, but were set upon by police after leaving the building. CWC leaders David Kirkwood and Emanuel Shinwell, along with Trade Unionist leader Willie Gallacher, were all arrested and detained - enraging the protesting workers who soon descended upon the city council building where they were being briefly detained.
Here, the protesters eventually managed to storm the building and compel the release of their leaders. Gallacher, who had been jailed repeatedly, then turned the strikers to march on the barracks in the Maryhill district of Glasgow. Here, thousands of workers surrounded the complex and began calling on the soldiers to join them.
Demoralised and generally sympathising with the strikers demands on better hours and pay, the soldiers of the barracks remarkably arrested their commanders and joined the now armed protest. Thankfully, by then the Government had already met and ordered the dispatch of 12,000 soldiers to Glasgow to prevent any ‘bolshevist incident’ from taking place.
Joined by six tanks, the large force quickly took control of Glasgow railway station in the night and deployed in force. While strikers had been furious, and soldiers at the local barracks had gone over to the other side, the reality was this protest had never been an attempt at revolution. Overnight the rioters had, unsurprisingly, gone to bed - save for a few radicals - and thus the crisis came to an abrupt halt.
Simply getting ahead of themselves and acting to protect their own interests, the protesters soon abandoned the idea of actually fighting for control of the city even if they implicitly controlled it for several hours and their mutineering soldier allies largely just slowly melted back into their barracks in the face of the overwhelming army presence.
The close call of the strike sent shockwaves through the British establishment. Genuinely confident that a major strike by the triple alliance of British trade unions would topple the Government, the Prime Minister soon met with the heads of the three unions together to discuss the political situation.
Not revolutionaries, railway workers union leader Jimmy Thomas even spoke in Parliament against unofficial and wildcat strikes, saying: “However difficult an official strike may be, a non-official strike will be worse, because there is always the grave danger in unofficial strikes of no one being able to control them”. Such was the strength of feeling against action that could undo the stability of the state that even Trade Union leaders cautioned against it.
Fearful of similar or even worse incidents elsewhere, Bonar Law finally felt compelled and comfortable enough to end Britain’s wartime measures and call fresh elections set for February 1919. This allowed the unions to deliver a rallying cry for major financial and time committed support for Labour at the polls, lessening the chance of strikes and thus reducing the chance of a revolutionary incident. In this backdrop, the country entered a rather tense and uncertain election season.
The 1919 Election
The first election in over eight years, the 1919 election was a woefully overdue poll that would reshape British politics.
The Tories under Bonar Law entered the voting with 271 seats - 53 short of a majority having been propped up by the weakened National Liberals (now Coalition Liberals) out of a desire for self preservation more than anything else. Despite the chaotic period of his premiership, Bonar Law was widely sympathised with among the middle classes and elite cadres of society, winning over swathes of Liberal voters who were impressed by Law’s victory over the Ottomans and deft negotiations with Germany where both Asquith and Lloyd George had failed.
Labour meanwhile looked set to win their greatest number of seats yet - and were very genuinely touted in the press as possibly being on the verge of taking power altogether. This was either scaremongering or naive optimism though among the media establishment. Sure, one would not struggle to find a labour voter on the streets, but in reality the country was ready for change - but not that much change.
Ironically though this worked against the party, who were unfairly portrayed as being bolshevik adjacent with their platform aiming at nationalising the mines and railways under leader William Adamson.
The Liberals meanwhile looked set to be decimated. Deeply alienated from their voters by Asquith and Lloyd George’s double flunking of the war, many Liberal voters had abandoned the party for the Tories. Still headed by a naive Asquith who sought to ‘ride out’ the near-certain defeat at the coming poll, the party stood on a platform aimed at more radical political and social reform in a bid to win over wavering middle class Labour voters, but in reality few trusted the party anymore. Ironically they expected poor results - with Asquith’s close ally Donald Maclean actually favouring the idea of a pact with Labour to shore up voters, though Asquith didn't believe the effect of a ‘khaki’ election would be so severe and rejected the idea.
The formerly National Liberals meanwhile still propping up the Tory ministry under Bonar Law, notably including figures like Churchill and even Lloyd George - though politically he remained a shadow of his former self. Identified mainly as ‘Coalition Liberals’, this bloc generally campaigned on the Tory platform and piggybacked off their voters. Now led by Churchill, who was frankly one of the last prominent National Liberals left, the party initially sought reconciliation with Asquith’s liberals for a united campaign but ultimately proved unable to dislodge Asquith from his position in the party. While the rift was healable, that would have to wait for the end of the war.
The overwhelming sense among the public was that a change was needed, but the most important change needed was stability. After years of mixed coalitions of various parties and blocs, the country needed one party in power with a clear agenda and competence in Government - and the obvious choice therefore was the Tories.
The Tories also benefited from the unexpected and remarkable rise of Britain’s ‘lost boys’ - roving bands of demobilised soldiers named for their similarity with the characters of 1911 classic ‘Peter Pan’. These troops had escaped confinement upon disembarkation in Britain’s ports and service in the army still with their uniforms and/or arms, and used them to engage in criminal activity and begging on the streets of Britain’s cities.
Somewhere between brigands and beggars, they were reported across the country but were particularly concentrated in the south and major ports of the country where demobilised troops often disembarked. Often pushed by a lack of jobs and general apathy or uncertainty, the lost boys became a political issue during the buildup to the election after the roaming groups caused a steep rise in crime throughout Britain’s cities.
Seen as not easily controlled by police and technically out of the army, and where not armed therefore not the army’s problem, the mobs could be found in ‘units’ as large as whole platoons in some cases. This was primarily because the troops often had not found work and found the prospect of a return to normal civilian life daunting or difficult.
While the lost boys tended to be unofficial criminal mobs, some soldiers and veterans mobilised their own politically oriented groups during late 1918 to early 1919. Groups such as the Labour allied National Association of Discharged Sailors and Soldiers (NADSS), which excluded officers, and Conservative allied anti-socialist Comrades of the Great War could often be found ‘sparring’ in the streets in debate - or more often just straight yelling matches.
These were not paramilitaries or militias, but they acted as increasingly large, politically hostile bodies of men attached to their respective parties. Their disagreements mostly stemmed over the continuation of the war and the terms of the peace. The NADSS and Labour primarily opposed the terms with the Ottomans as an entrenchment of imperialism, along with the annexation of German colonies, while the Comrades of the Great War tended to back Bonar Law’s seeing through of the conflict to the end and the focus on the middle east.
A debate also raged over the role of Britain in Russia’s ongoing civil war. British troops had landed in Arkhangelsk in Northern Russia in March 1918 as part of an attempt to prevent Bolshevik troops from seizing one of the allies’ major arms dumps in the city. Now nearly a year on, a debate continued to rage over what exactly the allies were doing there. While the National Liberals under prominent jingoists like Winston Churchill still called on a British intervention in Russia to establish a ‘stable friend to the east’ as a check on Germany by installing the Russian whites, the Government had grown increasingly ambivalent about the whole situation.
In some cases the emergence of these groups even directly affected the ballot box, with the left-liberal National Federation of Discharged and Demobilised Sailors and Soldiers (NFDDSS) becoming the most cohesive political bloc and standing thirty candidates in the election.
Focused on military pensions, opposed to re-conscription and tentatively allied with the Labour Party, the group drew a remarkable number of left-Liberal Party MPs backing including prominent Asquith-ite Liberals James Hogge, William Wedgwood Benn and William Pringle. Hogge was a rising player in the Liberals and save for Asquith’s endless determination to go on and on, he may have become sooner party leader. This allowed the group to gain some considerable support from frustrated former Liberal voters and propelled them into a position where they could win multiple seats.
Alongside these ‘soldiers parties’ also came a slew of other new parties, most notably the National Party under Henry Page Croft which entered the election with 7 MPs due to Conservative Party defectors. Page Croft, a protectionist imperialist with a military record who despised Germans, led the party on a policy of ‘total victory’ over Germany and a bizarre working class ‘patriotic’ appeal in a party largely dominated by the aristocracy. Supporting ‘no limits on wages’ in exchange for ‘no limits on production’, the party even briefly offered to back Labour, seeing it as the future of politics - despite its deeply divergent political views.
There was also Ireland of course. Now one might have initially assumed that the ‘defeat’ to Germany would have ignited some kind of powder keg in Ireland immediately, but in actual fact the buildup to the Irish revolutionary period was slow, gradual and far less dominated by the radicals in Sinn Fein than one might assume. If anything, Sinn Fein was marginally weakened by Germany’s victory indirectly.
The sudden rise in the popularity of British Labour in fact convinced the party that it could win seats in Ireland. As such, where before leader William Adamson had planned to let Sinn Fein run free in Ireland without splitting the worker vote, he now chose to try and bolster his own party’s seat count and take the position of the official opposition. As such, Labour would run candidates in Ireland, putting Irish working class voters in something of a bind.
Nationalism in Ireland was without a doubt a minority view. While very popular, there was no landslide majority for independence in 1918 even after the conscription crisis. Working class voters in many of Ireland’s cities for example put more emphasis on the class struggle than that of the national struggle with the British, and thus where historians have speculated Sinn Fein may have won as many as 73 seats without Labour, in actual fact by election day they were looking at around ten fewer.
Naturally, the nationalists had not sat on their hands throughout this period. Sinn Fein had made clear that the path forward for Ireland was independence, or at the very least its own Parliament - and thus they promised exactly that. Come election day, they would promise not to take any of their seats in Westminster, and instead to form their own Parliament in Dublin.
The results after a short and somewhat tense campaign were clear. The Liberals, the party of Government at the start of the war with 272 seats, were reduced to just 37 seats after suffering a heavy split between Lloyd George’s and Asquith’s camps. The former ‘national’, now Coalition Liberals of Churchill and Lloyd George would take 43 seats. Embarrassingly, Churchill himself actually lost his seat to Edwin Scrymgeour of the Scottish Prohibition party - leaving the leadership open yet again. Asquith too was ousted in his Fife East seat by Scottish Unionist Alexander Sprot.
Labour meanwhile performed the best of any poll to date, but unsurprisingly failed to suddenly take power as some papers and political ‘observers’ predicted. Taking 119 seats and with it the mantle of the official opposition, along with over 25% of the national vote share. Quite the shock to some in the country, Adamson himself hailed that the result would “produce a different atmosphere and an entirely different relationship amongst all sections of our people”.
The biggest winner of the election though were, unsurprisingly, the Tories. Winning a total of 391 seats in the Unionist Camp, including the Scottish, Irish and Labour Unionist parties under the Tory umbrella. Bonar Law was now unquestionably the Prime Minister of the country for the time being - and held the largest majority since Henry Campbell-Bannerman’s premiership in 1906.
Now no longer in need of support from the Coalition Liberals, it quickly became clear to everyone that despite their best hopes, David Lloyd George’s half of the party would not be involved in this Government - sealing his political demise for good. Together still on 80 seats, the two Liberal halves would begin the process of healing the national rift soon after thanks to the demise of Asquith, though naturally this would take some time.
Elsewhere there were some surprising victors. The Nationals in their limited numbers managed to maintain five of their seven seats prior to the poll, demonstrating surprising staying power. Christabel Pankhurst, daughter of women's suffrage movement leader Emmeline Pankhurst, won the election in Smethwick and became Britain’s first ever woman MP - joined by Constance Markievicz of Sinn Fein, who never took her seat and is thus discounted. The NFDDSS too would snag seats, winning in Ashton-under-Lyne, Clapham and Liverpool Everton.
Meanwhile in Ireland, Sinn Fein would win overall with 63 of Ireland’s 102 seats. This would have two main effects; it would greatly enlarge the Government’s de facto Parliamentary majority, and pivot Irish politics towards eventual independence. The Irish Parliamentary Party meanwhile would take 15 seats, down from 74 prior to the election. Still alive, but barely clinging on, albeit without their leader John Dillon who would be defeated in his East Mayo seat.
In all, the results would greatly re-shape British politics and return some normality to the country after the war. While the country faced many challenges, particularly financial, the Government’s large majority would provide the country with stability and give Bonar Law a solid opportunity to re-establish Britain’s place at home and abroad.