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Mines for the Nation or Mines for the Miners? Alternative Perspectives on Industrial Democracy, 1919-1921

M.G. Woodhouse

This article was first published in Llafur, the journal of the Welsh Labour History Society, in 1978. Mike Woodhouse is co-author, with Brian Pearce, of Essays on the History of Communism in Britain.

IN HIS memoirs Frank Hodges, elected secretary of the Miners’ Federation in 1918, says of the miners’ preparations for the nationalisation struggle of 1919 "... everything was in trim for the most smashing blow that had ever been delivered at the system which had governed the coal industry shice its inception ...".1 That smashing blow was never, in fact, delivered. Out-manoeuvred by Lloyd George, the Miners’ Federation talked rather than acted and nationalisation eluded its grasp. Within a year of the Government’s rejection of nationalisation the Federation was being carried by its intellectually versatile secretary to the other extreme: a productivity deal with the private owners involving the principle of co-partnership, the so-called "datum line" scheme. Then, in the spring of 1921, the Federation was involved in the bitter struggle against decontrol and the return to unfettered private ownership which would mean the loss of the gains made during the period of wartime control: the system of nationally uniform wages paid out of a central profits pool. The high hopes of 1919 ended with wage reductions in the wake of defeat in 1921.

Through all these changes in fortune and zig-zags of policy there was an element of consistency: the hope of obtaining some system of co-partnership, preferably with the state, which would have the dual effect of improving the economic efficiency of the industry and the conditions of the miners. The Federation’s stress was on consensus and co-operation. As Robert Smillie, MFGB president, told the miners in 1919 "What we want to do is reconstruction in the interests of the nation".2

During this same period a clear alternative was presented to rank and file miners: a system of genuine workers’ control to be won either by forcing the state to nationalise or through revolutionary struggle for the actual seizure of control of the mines. What this alternative involved was the application to the post-war conditions of the mining industry of the propositions originally advanced in The Miners’ Next Step. The expectation of supporters of the Unofficial Reform Movement3 was that, whatever happened to the official nationalisation scheme of the Federation, rank and file militancy would ensure that actual control would be established from below along the lines proposed in The Miners’ Next Step: "That a continual agitation be carried on in favour of increasing the minimum wage, and shortening the hours of work, until we have extracted the whole of the employers’ profits..... That we build up an organisation that will ultimately take over the mining industry and carry it on in the interests of the workers."4 The pamphlet, Industrial Democracy for Miners, published by the South Wales Socialist Society (the Unofficial Reform Movement under another name, as Aneurin Bevan pointed out at the time it was formed) in 1919, provided the detailed blueprint of the organisation that would run the mines in the interests of the miners. The escalating militancy of the immediate post-war years provided the basis for launching the final onslaught on private ownership.

However, in reality the strategy of "encroaching control"5 was nothing like so easy to implement as it seemed when advanced as an abstract proposition in the Labour College classes which formed the main basis of the Unofficial Movement in South Wales. Leading figures in the Unofficial Movement tended to assume that rank and file militancy and the bitter hostility towards the owners implied mass commitment to the revolutionary objectives of syndicalism. The evidence suggests that relatively few rank and file miners, even during the critica post-war struggles, seriously considered advancing beyond what one might call "orthodox" forms of trade union conflict with the owners. During the "datum line" strike in October 1920, for example, when the Unofficial Movement was at the height of its influence and the rank and file most alienated from official Federation leadership, only a handful of syndicalist-influenced lodges contemplated, let alone tried to implement, actions that could actually lead to the seizure of control. The rhetoric of control was widespread; commitment to its practical implementation rather less so.

The Unofficial Movement was, moreover, unable, or perhaps because of the anarcho-syndicalist element in its ideological make-up unwilling, to develop a type of organisation that could co-ordinate and lead effective mass working class action against not just the owners but the state. The Unofficial Movement was an extremely decentralised organisation which found it difficult to respond quickly and decisively to events. The experience of "Black Friday", 1921, provides a case in point. At the time there was a very real possibility that the anger of rank and file railwaymen at the actions of the Triple Alliance could have provided a basis for unofficial strike action had the railwaymen been appealed to in the heat of the moment. In fact it took the Unofficial Movement two weeks to get round to discussing the possibility and by then the opportunity was gone.6 Perhaps more important, Welsh syndicalists consistently underrated the significance of the state. Politics were unimportant because the state was simply the superstructural manifestation of the economic power of the bourgeoisie. The real fight was with a real not an abstract enemy at the point of production. As Noah Ablett put it "... the larger the industrial organisation the less need is there for any political organisation".7

Unfortunately the state was not an abstraction but a force in its own right which intervened with decisive effect during the decontrol struggle in 1921. That experience underlined the relevance of the arguments advanced by the British Socialist Party in its pre-war polemic against Syndicalism. "You cannot get very far by mere industrial action", wrote Fred Knee at that time. "So long as the capitalist state remains, with its army, navy and police ... so long will it be possible for that capitalist state, when thoroughly awake to any danger, to throttle any strike, however big ..."8 Syndicalism suffered an ignominious defeat in 1921; the theoretical underpinnings of the concept of "encroaching control" were shown to be unsound and with their collapse workers’ control virtually disappeared from the vocabulary of mining trade unionism for a generation or more.

At a superficial glance there would seem to have been a fair amount in common between the nationalisation proposals of the MFGB in 1919 and those put forward in Industrial Democracy for Miners. Both envisaged nationalisation by the existing capitalist state; both talked of worker participation in the nationalised industry. There was, in fact, a fundamental difference of emphasis and aim between the two schemes. The Federation approached nationalisation from an essentially ethical standpoint, the Unofficial Movement from a revolutionary standpoint. From the one point of view nationalisation was morally necessary for the community; from the other point of view nationalisation with workers’ control was a step towards working class power.

These fundamental differences had, in fact, emerged before the war in the wake of the national strike of 1912, which the Unofficial Movement and The Miners’ Next Step had done so much to bring about. From 1912, when Smillie became MFGB president, nationalisation was placed on the Federation’s agenda as a realistic proposition; the experience of the first national miners’ strike had paved the way. At the same time, Federation officialdom made it clear that the profoundest of ideological divisions existed between the vision of nationalisation perceived from head office and that which impressed itself on the minds of the Unofficial Movement in the Rhondda. The 1912 strike played its part in producing this ideological division. For Smillie and his colleagues this first national action by the MFGB opened the prospect of further and even more effective national action by the miners, particularly in the political sphere, to bring about a rational restructuring of the coal industry on national lines through co-partnership with the state. For the Unofficial Movement it brought far closer the prospect of converting the MFGB into a genuine industrial union capable of squeezing out the coal owners and establishing industrial democracy from below.

Smillie underlined the divergence of viewpoint. In a panegyric for Social Democracy delivered at the MFGB’s annual conference in 1912 he observed, with reference to nationalisation, that "The gospel of Socialism in this country was not that all people should be made equal and divide the wealth of this country but that they should have an equal opportunity of life with others ... this is the highest ethical standard in which to approach it ..." Syndicalism was diametrically opposed to this. "I have heard it put this way", he said, obviously referring to The Miners’ Next Step, "that syndicalism meant that men working in various industries organised for the purpose of taking over these industries ... and to secure them without nationalisation or paying for them and in order to secure them ... so far as possible increase their wages up to the highest point in order to make it impossible to carry on the industry ... if that is syndicalism I am against it because ... that is individualism run mad ..." The ethics of gradualism and community interest were thus pitted against the strategy of workers’ control before the First World War and, equally, Smillie’s point of view carried over and fully informed the MFGB’s approach to nationalisation in 1919. As Smillie told the miners at the time of the Sankey Commission: "We have no desire to do anything against the interests of the nation. We desire to do everything in our power to so reconstruct The nation in order to make it possible for the people to live a fuller and nobler life.... It ought to be the be-all and end-all of life to co-operate together for increasing human happiness.... We are quite prepared to enter into combination that has that as its ultimate result."9

The logic of this ideological predisposition was that the Federation should seek nationalisation through agreement not conflict; that it should seek to convince the public in general and the Government in particular that industrial co-operation was a higher ideal than the self-seeking and clash of interests involved in private enterprise. William Straker, chief MFGB spokesman, told the Sankey Commission "... those in favour of nationalisation ... hold that life is not necessarily an antagonism and that mutual aid, applied scientifically, must give the best results.... Selfishness is the root-cause of all wrong-doing; therefore any system which is an outgrowth of selfishness must be wrong. That which is morally wrong cannot be economically right ..."10 The essence of the Federation’s case for nationalisation was contained in that last phrase. Stripped of its Methodist overtones, it implied that the alienation of rank and file miners from private ownership had reached so acute a stage that the continued effective production of coal, the vital energy resource of the nation, had been thrown into doubt. It was the point put bluntly by James Winstone to the Commission. "Is there", he was asked, "a certain psychology of low production being gradually developed in the men’s minds in the mining industry?" "I have no doubt about that", replied Winstone. "They are disinclined to produce wealth for other people ..."11 Given this state of affairs nationalisation was the only way out, in the interests of the nation as well as those of the miners. Nationalisation would establish the ideal of community service; by allowing the miners to work for national well-being, not private gain. it would have the dual effect of increasing productivity and improving the material and social status of the miners.

Given this approach, it was inevitable that the Federation should accept, and seek to go along with, the logic that would induce a non-socialist government, operating in a free-enterprise economy, to nationalise. This was the logic of state-imposed rationalisation in an industry whose efficiency was united to the economy as a whole. The Federation had to trade the moral gains of nationalisation against the promise of energetic co-operation in the improvement of efficiency. In fact, a very great part of the Federation’s arguments, both to the Sankey Commission and to the Government, was designed to prove that it was nationalisation alone that would provide efficient coal production; as Smillie put it: "No one can over-estimate the importance of coal to this country. It is still the life-blood of industry ... and it ought to be national property.... It is only by reorganising the industry on national lines that we can secure the output."12 Indeed, despite the apparent radicalism of the Federation’s proposals for worker participation in the running of a nationalised industry, the question of economic efficiency and collaboration with the state to achieve that efficiency were the predominant features of the Federation’s case. In this its position exactly paralleled that of all those at the Sankey Commission who spoke up for state rationalisation in the interests of cheap energy: Sidney Webb, the collectivist Liberal, L.G. Chiozza Money, and Lord Justice Sankey himself. "Coal mining," wrote Sankey in advocacy of nationalisation in his report, "is our national key industry upon which nearly all other industries depend. A cheap and adequate supply of coal is essential to the comforts of individuals and to the maintenance of the trade of the country ...."13 And, as is well known, the MFGB identified itself completely with Sankey’s terms of reference on economic rationalisation. The only point on which it went significantly beyond Sankey was on the question of worker participation. Given that there was a superficial similarity between these proposals and those of the URM the meaning of workers’ control for the MFGB, the way it fitted into the union’s consensus approach to nationalisation, needs some examination.

It is pretty clear that had the nationalisation scheme of the MFGB ever been implemented the worker-representatives who would have operated alongside management as part of the system of "joint control" would have been wholly subordinate to the view of economic reality as seen by the Minister of Mines, not the rank and file miners. There seems adequate justification for Will Hay’s complaint that the scheme showed "an utter lack of understanding of what is meant by democratic control".14 What the Federation sought, and this was quite consistent with its concern with enhanced productivity, was effective consultation between management and workforce. Institutionalised co-operation of this sort, it was hoped, would facilitate the achievement of state-determined production targets. It is perhaps not too cynical to suggest that with such a system the miners would (in practice if not in theory) become willing participants in their own exploitation. One of the virtues of joint control that Straker stressed in his evidence was that worker-representatives would be involved in periodic conferences at pit, district and national level which would have the job of maintaining a constant high level drive for productivity. "Pit will be compared with pit, district with district, system with system ...", he argued, "in such a way that every part will be tested, and neither inefficient men nor unsuitable systems will be retained. Every member of the managerial staff and every workman knowing their mutual responsibility to the whole industry will always be striving after the best results ...."15 It was in passages such as these that Straker spoke as a John the Baptist of the Bullock Report.

Joint control would, of course, have made it possible to give far greater emphasis to safety questions than was the case under private ownership and the Federation made much play with this point, but the main emphasis was on productivity. Indeed, it is possible to detect an ambiguity in the Federation’s position on the twin questions of safety and productivity. If the prime concern was the maximisation of output, would matters to do with safety assume second place if they conflicted with the major object, output? The state would, after all, be the final arbiter of production norms and the state would be operating within the terms of reference of commercial orthodoxy. There could well have been a conflict of interest although the Federation in its evidence did not admit to this danger. What it did do was admit, under close questioning from the coalowners’ spokesmen, that the worker-representatives would be intimately associate with management in the drive for productivity and that this would involve the fiercest competition of colliery with colliery in the interests of maximum efficiency. Cross-questioned by Williams, Chairman of the South Wales Coalowners’ Association. Straker affirmed that even under nationalisation "... the competition between one manager of mine and another will be there still. Each manager will vie with the other in doing their best". (Williams:) "You wish to stimulate that competition?" "Yes." "Make competition between one pit and another?" "Yes ... there will be set up a system of comparison that will result in an improved and more economical managenment."16

One point about all this is very clear. The MFGB’s worker-participation might have produced a form of co-partnership. It would quite certainly not have produced any kind of workers’ control and the MFGB was quite explicit about this. The demand was for a consultative not a controlling voice in management, an "effective voice not direct control" as Smillie put it to Lloyd George.17 Straker insisted that the power of management to manage would not be impaired by the requirement to consult union representatives. More than this, and this has been the problem central to all schemes of workers’ control advanced for nationalised industries, whom were the union representatives on pit committees and national boards actually going to represent? Were they mandated representatives of rank and file miners? Were they officially part of management? In either case there was bound to be a conflict of loyalties. Consistent with its concern for efficiency the MFGB opted for the latter position. Nationalisation was to operate for the benefit of the nation, not simply for that of the miners. Union representatives were to subordinate sectional interest to the higher good: they would, not be MFGB representatives as such but were to have an identity of interest with management: "... they were there to serve the nation", Straker told the Sankey Commission, "and the miners would know that."18 Would know it, one might add, and draw their own conclusions. Frank Phippen, commenting for the URM oil the MFGB’s proposals, observed that "any scheme not emanating from the rank and file would be administered by the aid of regulations from the top and would not, therefore, be the wishes of the miners.... The present scheme is not democratic".19

The whole approach of the MFGB to nationalisation was not, of course, conceived in terms of some sinister conspiracy to do down the rank and file. The Federation’s leaders had a view of reality, what was possible and what was not possible, that differed radically from that entertained by syndicalist militants in South Wales. There was the strongly ethical and consensus approach which reflected the differing ideological colourings given it by the Methodism of Straker, the ethical Socialism of the ILP, to which Smillie subscribed, the Guild Socialism of Frank Hodges. There were the political realities which impressed themselves on the Federation’s leaders. The mines were already semi-nationalised as a result or wartime control; so long as parliament and the public could be given convincing reasons why full and permanent state control was in the interests of all, the existing situation could be legitimised and wartime gains preserved. The MFGB, including the great majority of rank and file miners, certainly expected considerable gains from nationalisation: the preservation of the national wages system built up during the war, the six-hour day, the welfare benefits promised by the second stage of the Sankey Commission.20 The prize to be won was so great and so close to attainment that nothing should be done to prejudice the miners’ case. This was why the whole emphasis was on consensus.

Logically, then, the MFGB advanced its proposals in a supra-class way, as a question of national, not class, interest. And this inevitably had implications for the actual strategy adopted by the MFGB for achieving nationalisation. If consensus was the hallmark of its approach this ruled out conflict and the exploitation of the industrial power of the Federation and its allies in the Triple Alliance. "We would not be acting as honest citizens of the state", Smillie told the miners, "if we took advantage of our power to enforce claims on our fellow citizens that were unjust."21 This was to be wholly a revolution by reason. Equally, there were deep apprehensions on the part of the Federation leadership that in the current febrile and excited state of mind of the rank and file the unleashing of a strike might well have calamitous, even insurrectionary, consequences. Vernon Hartshorn, for example, who had already told the Sankey Commission that unless nationalisation were accepted Bolshevism would sweep through the rank and file, warned that "whenever we get a Triple Alliance strike – it matters not on what subject – within a week or ten days revolutionary conditions will have developed in this country."22 His views were echoed by many of his colleagues on the MFGB Executive. And faced with this prospect the calm of consensus proved more attractive (and more viable a strategy) than the perils of confrontation. During a Triple Alliance deputation to Lloyd George in the spring of 1919 Smillie assured the Prime Minister that "... none of us has any desire to provoke a strike for the purpose of upsetting industry in this country. It requires stability rather than chaos if we are to go on". Exactly the same point was urged on the rank and file. Advocating acceptance of Sankey’s recommendations on hours and wages and the abrogation of the earlier strike decision. Smillie and Hodges assured their members that "... The full demands of the men will speedily be met provided no steps are taken now which would plunge the industry into chaos.... The choice is between definite and systematic progress and the dangers of social disorder ...."23

There was no question of hoodwinking the rank and file in all this. Smillie and his colleagues genuinely believed that the Sankey Commission had opened the way for orderly change free from the horrors of social upheaval and this conviction they transmitted very effectively to the Federation membership. The vote for the Sankey award was colossal.24 But whatever the subjective position of the miners’ leaders, there is no doubt that MFGB participation in the great theatrical event that was staged in the robing room of the House of Lords was of great assistance to the Lloyd government in out-manoeuvring the miners and ultimately backing out of its verbal commitment to nationalisation. The Government was in a very precarious situation in the early months of 1919. The forces of law and order were, in the Government’s own estimation, unreliable. If upheaval occurred the chances of containing it seemed limited.25 Concessions had to be made, the size of the concession depending on the degree of audacity displayed by the contending party and whether the trade union world opted for co-operation or confrontation. At the time when the miners were considering strike action, in March 1919, Lloyd George told the Cabinet: "Confidence is the thing you want to restore and you will get no confidence until there is a certain contentment in the labour world ... otherwise they strike and a strike may end in a revolution."26 Fortunately for the Government sufficient confidence was created and the was forthcoming. It was very much with this in mind that Bonar Law (Lloyd George’s deputy) later observed, with evident relief: "The trade union organisation was the only thing between us and anarchy, and If the trade union organisation was against us the position would be hopeless."27 It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that if the MFGB had struck for its demands in the spring of 1919 instead of opting for the Sankey alternative, the Government might well have been powerless. It is not unduly cynical to suggest that the miners were conned into a willing suspension of disbelief over the Sankey Commission and then bought off by a particularly generous offer on wages and hours. As one of Lloyd George’s colleagues put it about another industrial dispute of the period – and the point applies equally well to the miners – "It was worthwhile paying something to avoid the threatening catastrophe".28

These tactics had their desired effect. The miners’ sensibility over nationalisation was blunted by the size of the pay packets that resulted from the Sankey award in the summer of 1919. The interest in direct action, so widespread at the start of 1919, had largely faded by the middle of the year, as even the syndicalist press was obliged to admit.29 Having played successfully for time the Government could now safely abandon any pretence of commitment to nationalisation.30

The one chance the MFGB had of realising its hopes for nationalisation was during the critical period at the beginning of 1919. The chance, a fleeting one, was lost for reasons that were intimately bound up with the ideological predispositions of the union’s leadership during that critical episode. A clear alternative, in terms of strategy and ideology, did of course exist in the form of the syndicalist-inspired rank and file movements in the MFGB, centred primarily in South Wales. But the unofficial leaders had no more success than the official for reasons that were rooted in the objective and subjective circumstances surrounding the unofficial movements in the immediate post-war years.

In explaining this failure one has to start with a pessimistic perspective. Whatever the URM did in South Wales in the years 1919 to 1921 it had, objectively speaking, no hope of achieving its goal, the seizure of control through direct action by the rank and file. The forces at its disposal were very limited; support from other coalfields, let alone from other industries, very meagre. It is true that URM had linked up with the Shop Stewards’ Movement by 1919, but by then that movement was a shadow of its wartime self and had only begun to reflect seriously on the revolutionary implications of the power it had wielded during the war at the point when the basis of that power was being destroyed.31 In fact, the only rank and file group with any pretensions to mass influence among trade unionists in the immediate post-war years was that operating in South Wales.32 The business of building up a coherent national unofficial movement in the unions was only beginning to get under way at the time of the decontrol struggle in 1921 as part of the formation of the Communist Party from the several groupings on the revolutionary left. The basis for a decisive challenge to the official orthodoxies of the trade union leadership, let alone to the state, existed, therefore, at best in embryo. As the Communist Party itself admitted in the spring of 1921: "Only in ore industry, the mines, is there any real organised left-wing opinion, and even that is of recent growth. Can the same be said of any other industry? With the exception of the railways – and that exception only partial – the answer is ‘No’.... Everything has yet to be done."33 This state of affairs was, obviously, the crucial limitation on what the URM could hope to achieve.

The distinctiveness of the syndicalist movement in South Wales derived from the fact that it placed at the forefront of its agenda the ideal of genuine collective control by the working class of its own destiny free equally from the requirements of private profiteering and bureaucratic control. This concept of socialism was the direct antithesis of that held by the Labour Party and by the architects of Labour’s New Jerusalem, Sidney and Beatrice Webb. The two divergent conceptions of socialism in fact took specific shape at the same time and in a strange dialectical relationship with each other. At the moment when the authors of The Miners’ Next Step were rejecting nationalisation as a bureaucratic device of the capitalist state, the Webbs were injecting greater precision into their ideas of state socialism directly in reaction against theories of syndicalism and workers’ control. For the Webbs syndicalism was "ethically objectionable but also fundamentally impracticable". Unethical, because control of industry by trade unions would put the community in ransom to the organised working class; impracticable, because the Webbs simply could not conceive of the working class having the capacity to run industry free from the controlling wisdom of professional management and a centralised state apparatus. The state comprised a higher rationality to whose elite understanding of the national interest sectional interests must subordinate themselves.34

Welsh syndicalism rejected this elitism and the type of trade unionism that sought accommodation with it. This was why Industrial Democracy for Miners was so important a document. It carried the pre-war debate on workers’ control to a far higher level by providing a model for a practicable system of workers’ control. In doing this it made specific what had been brief and abstract propositions in The Miners’ Next Step; it answered the Webbs’ allegations about impracticability and it went well beyond anything in the literature of the Shop Stewards’ Movement which, at best, had talked in generalities about the actual practice of workers’ control. Industrial Democracy for Miners was the only detailed plan for a system of workers’ control produced by a British working class movement at this time and contained propositions of perennial interest to students of industrial democracy.

Industrial Democracy for Miners was presented as a sequel to The Miners’ Next Step and was an attempt to put the ideas of the earlier pamphlet into a concrete and applicable form. Starting from the assumption that the success of the MFGB’s scheme was inevitable, it argued that the stage of state control was bound to be short-lived and that it would lead on logically to the exercise of full control by the miners. The opportunity to learn how to exercise control should seized now in order to shorten the transitional phase, and to achieve the democratic control desired the URM advocated that the machinery of the MFGB should be used for the actual running of the mines and for the implementation of production targets handed down from the Minister of Mines.35 The key aspect of this proposal lay in the suggested organisation of production at local pit level. The central aim here was to ensure that the greatest possible control was maintained by the different grades of mineworkers over the production process and to ensure that this control was exercised over higher committees at coalfield and national level. As a leading figure in the URM put it, "if the miners are to have a measure of control, the Pit Committee must be the unit of administration".36

The Pit Committee, which would be the controlling nucleus of the whole system, would be made up of representatives of all grades, including overseers, firemen, deputies and managers. The colliery committee would be formed from representatives of each pit committee together with representatives from surface workers and. craftsmen. At the rank and file level, therefore, the industrial unionism advocated by The Miners’ Next Step would be achieved in practice, the lodge would now become a deliberative assembly supervising the activities of the committees and laying down regulations for their guidance.37 This form of organisation, with representative committees responsible to periodic conferences of rank and file delegates, was to be duplicated in the higher reaches of the system. The district executives now became "boards of production" with the agents transformed into inspectors responsible for revising the production estimates of the collieries in line with the requirements of the central plan; they would be elected by rank and file and be responsible to the district executive, itself elected by the lodges. At the apex of the system the national executive of the MFGB would fulfil similar functions to the district executives, supervising the production of the districts as a whole and acting as adviser to the Minister of Mines. Like the lower committees it too was elected by the rank and file and was accountable to periodic conferences.38

This whole scheme was a reversal of the official MFGB position on nationalisation. It placed full responsibility for production and day-to-day operating in the hands of the rank and file at pit level. Deriving from the basic syndicalist theory that power exercised from below was the essential element in the struggle for working class control in industry, it sought to demonstrate in a practical way how that power could be generated and applied. In fact, Industrial Democracy for Miners applied to the specific situation in 1919, the situation where nationalisation was thought to be imminent, the syndicalist precept of "encroaching control" which had originally been advanced as a working class strategy in The Miners’ Next Step. This was the idea that power would be won and control established through the remorseless encroachment by the trade union on the profits of the owners and the ability of management to manage. In the case of nationalisation the authors of Industrial Democracy for Miners saw a chance to wrest total control for the rank and file within the nationalised industry through the union itself taking over responsibility for production although, as they readily admitted, their full aims could only be realised within a wholly socialised economy. But even if nationalisation was not achieved, and of course the possibility had vanished by August 1919, the essential aim of Industrial Democracy for Miners, direct control through pit committees could still be achieved by escalating rank and file militancy and by expanding trade union power until the Federation had squeezed private management out entirely and was able to step into its place. "Encroaching control" could work in either context, that provided by nationalisation and that created by the industrial conflict of union and owners.

The concept of "encroaching control" had provided the theoretical underpinning for the strategy advanced in The Miners’ Next Step. It remained central to the thinking of the URM up to the time of the decontrol struggle and was given a considerable boost by the publication of Industrial Democracy for Miners. Indeed, shortly before that document was produced, Noah Ablett, the schoolmaster of Welsh syndicalism, had reaffirmed just how important the idea of "encroaching control" remained to the URM. Rejecting as futile and counter-productive the idea that the working class should seek to win state power through parliamentary action, he asserted that "the new society must be organised by the present trade and industrial unions gradually taking control and ownership of all social work and so creating the new society within the lap of the old.... I confidently assert that the industrial organisations of the workers contain in themselves all the power necessary to destroy the old capitalist society and all the machinery necessary to construct the new communist society".39 So the central assumption was that whatever happened to nationalisation, workers’ control would ultimately be achieved. It would develop as an integral part of the industrial struggle and could be established by stages within the confines of the existing order, eventually, like the butterfly escaping from the chrysalis, transcending the limits of the capitalist economic order altogether. The process, as Ablett stressed, was an evolutionary one: success would depend on the degree of militancy and the will to power generated by the rank and file.

This whole strategy seemed an entirely feasible proposition to the activists of the URM in the immediate post-war years. The URM certainly was in a position of some influence by 1919. It had acquired a considerable following in many lodges by the end of the war; its main propaganda medium, the Labour College classes run by the Plebs League, had expanded greatly. The spokesman of the South Wales colliery officials told the Industrial Unrest Commission in 1917 that unless something was done to check the growth of this movement "it may cause a great upheaval in a few years time".40 It was not checked. In fact, Will Hay, one of the authors of The Miners’ Next Step, was taken on as a full-time paid lecturer for the Labour College classes by the Rhondda District of the SWMF in 1919.41 There is no doubt that by the end of the war the growth of the Labour College movement, and the increasing influence of syndicalist activists within it had created a widespread interest in the ideas of the URM.42 The owners were certainly convinced that "encroaching control" was now an integral part of the Federation’s strategy in the coalfield and that the final crisis, the decision as to who should control, was imminent. Towards the end of the war Evan Williams, the coalowners’ Cassandra, was quite explicit about these fears. "The owners are on the defensive and the miners are on the offensive" he told the Industrial Unrest Commission. "The feeling among the owners is that the policy or the Federation is controlled to a considerable extent by the extreme men who are out for everything and will not be satisfied until they get it ... I have a grave fear as to the position of capital ...."43 The same fears were expressed equally emphatically to the Sankey Commission.

But strong as the position of the URM undoubtedly was, its strategy contained two fatal flaws, and, as in Greek tragedy, nemesis was the inevitable result. The two assumptions that were essential to the realisation of the syndicalist strategy were, firstly, that the state could be ignored or neutralised while the process of taking control was under way, and secondly, that economic conditions would remain favourable to continued rank and file militancy, the main premise for "encroaching control". Neither assumption was, in fact, well founded.

In the first place, from the end of 1919 the Lloyd George Government was preparing steadily for the handing back of the mines to pure private ownership, decontrol actually occurring when the industry began to slide into permanent depression in the spring of 1921. Moreover, aware of the likelihood of rank and file rejection of the whole decontrol philosophy, and the militant strike action that might follow, the Government was ready with appropriate repressive measures. Machinery to deal with a strike either by the miners or by the Triple Alliance had been brought to a high level of readiness by the autumn of 1920; in August of that year, faced with the likely rejection of the "datum line" scheme by the rank and file, the Cabinet instructed the Treasury "... to regard the situation arising out of a big industrial crisis, such as was threatened by an impending coal strike, as comparable to a state of war ..." and authorised it to make financial provision accordingly. During the miners’ lock-out of 1921, when the crisis ultimately came, there was a massive deployment of troops, tanks and armoured cars to the more militant coalfields, the enrolment of a special volunteer defence force – a Lloyd George version of the British White Guard original called for by The Times in 1919 – and the enforcement of the Emergency Powers Act.44 The state was hardly neutral and it packed a punch greater than rank and file could wield.

Of scarcely less importance was the fact that the theory of "encroaching control" rested for its plausibility on the continuation of full employment and the strong economic bargaining power built up by the miners during the war. Nowhere was this more the case than in South Wales where the SWMF moved from strength up to the beginning of 1921. The Federation became a full industrial union by the end of the war, enrolling all grades in and around the mines; there was a considerable growth of Combine Committees oil the lines of the pre-war Cambrian Combine Committee. But all this rested on a very temporary phase in the history of the post-war economy. By March 1921 export prices for coal were half those of 1920; unemployment, particularly in centres of militancy like the Rhondda, had reached levels of around fifty per cent; the coalowners, on the retreat for a decade, resumed the offensive. "Encroaching control" through the irresistible growth of union power looked pretty sick in these circumstances.

However, these two factors did not become intrusive, did not make any real impact on rank and file consciousness, until the decontrol struggle in 1921. Until then the theory and methods of the URM were not put to any decisive test. Indeed, the theory that "encroaching control" was a practicable proposition and that it could attract the support of a majority of the rank and file was greatly reinforced by the wartime and post-war experience in South Wales. Of crucial importance here was the coalfield strike of 1915. In defiance of the Munitions Act 200,000 Welsh had struck, against the better judgement of the Federation leadership and had in effect forced from the Government the wages agreement which the owners, sheltering behind the anti-strike legislation of 1915, had refused to concede. The power of the wartime state had been challenged and the experience served to reinforce two tendencies within Welsh syndicalism: the belief that a political organisation to challenge the bourgeois state was unnecessary – a trade union could generate enough power to humble a capitalist government; and further, that no organisation other than that provided by the trade union was necessary for the establishment of working class power.

After the war, in the heady days of full employment and revolutionary optimism, it seemed to the activists of the URM that "encroaching control" could be carried through to its logical conclusion. It was of little consequence that nationalisation had been defeated: the union now wielded such power that control would be won anyway by direct action. Charlie Gibbons, who had been involved before the war in the drafting of The Miners’ Next Step, told a meeting of the Shop Stewards’ Movement in 1920 that: "They [the URM] had manufactured pretexts and created situations whereby the workers were forced into a spirit of antagonism to the employers. As a result of their efforts, there were now 150,000 in South Wales ready to ’do’ the employers as soon as the opportunity came."45 Equally eloquent of the belief that progress towards workers’ control was far advanced was the further observation of a supporter of the URM that "Whether the official scheme for nationalisation ... is granted or not, the South Wales miners are going on quietly with the work of taking control. Some day, when the Government enacts some scheme of joint control, it will wake up to find that it is legalising what already exists in practice".46 The reality that underlay this confidence was the extremely high level of militancy in the coalfield in 1920, militancy that could, for example, bring the coalfield to the verge of a strike in defence of two miners denied payment of the minimum wage or bring the whole of the Rhondda miners out in support or two members of the URM victimised by management for their activities.47 And these were actions, it might be pointed out, which involved the (direct application of the principle enunciated in The Miners’ Next Step that "it might, and probably would be, deemed advisable to have a strike of the whole organisation to defend one man from victimisation".48

The problem here, however, was whether militancy of this order was evidence of commitment to the ultimate goals of syndicalism or whether, by contrast, it was preoccupied with immediate issues that arose from the embittered industrial relations of the coalfield. In a sense, the question did not greatly matter to the syndicalists of the URM. A clear and unambiguous link did not have to be forged between trade union and revolutionary consciousness because, it was assumed, any militant trade unionist, whether he was conscious of it or not, was committed to the logic of "encroaching control". Effective militancy inevitably made for encroachment on the powers of management and therefore led ultimately to working class control. The point had been made explicitly by Will Hay in the pre-war writings of the Welsh syndicalist movement49 and it seems to have remained a basic assumption of the post-war URM too.

If, then, there seemed to be a logic of inevitability about the movement towards workers’ control "from below", there was no need for any revolutionary organisation separate from the SWMF to achieve the desired end. It would suffice to keep the SWMF leadership on course, committed to industrial unionism and escalating militancy, by the regular application of rank and file pressure. The syndicalist movement in South Wales, from its inception in 1911, had operated through a series of ad hoc pressure groups comprising individual militants like Cook and Horner and the rank and file miners, some 500 by 1917, who attended the Marxist education classes run by the Plebs League. The whole purpose of this movement was, as one of its spokesmen put it, "... to be a Ginger Group, constantly attempting to galvanise the [Federation] Executive into life  ...".50 That this movement created and sustained the interest in workers’ control in South Wales is not in doubt; that it could also at times generate sufficient pressure to swing the SWMF towards syndicalist policies is equally true.

But pressure groups do not, in the nature of things, lead revolutions and the URM was a pressure group which operated in a spontaneous and rather sporadic way. At the height of the movement’s influence, at the end of 1920, Will Hewlett described its methods and organisation in this way: "I know", he wrote. "there is an idea abroad that South Wales is covered by a network of Unofficial Committees. This is not so. In fact, there is no permanent unofficial organisation in the coalfield. What does happen when it is necessary is that the advanced or rebel element does meet and discuss matters, arrive at decisions, then go back to their respective lodges, put their views forward ... and if their opinions are accepted the delegates to Conferences are instructed accordingly  ...."51 This was a form of organisation that could respond readily enough to the day-to-day issues of coalfield industrial relations. However, in practice it proved incapable of providing a coherent leadership which could act decisively in critical situations such as those, produced by the lock-out of 1921 and the events of "Black Friday".

This inherent weakness had much to do with the assumptions permeating the URM since 1911. With the decontrol struggle and the collapse of the economic buoyancy of the coal industry the conditions for "encroaching control" were effectively destroyed. Rank and file leaders were left very much at a loss as to what other methods to turn to. During the early days of the lock-out Arthur Horner and other members of the URM led some thousands of strikers to stop safetymen working in the Rhondda: for a while the situation seemed to tremble on the edge of the insurrectionary. At the National Collieries at Wattstown some 5,000 stormed the colliery and put out boiler fires: "... the red flag was unfurled to the accompaniment of loud cheering while one of the bands struck up the Red Flag."52 It was certainly a state of affairs that Frank Hodges deplored surveying the scene from London head office: "... tempers were on edge and sound judgement took wings and disappeared ..." was his coniment.53 But the fact was that within a few days collieries were ringed by troops and tanks and many leaders of the demonstrations were arrested. The state clearly stood athwart the path to "encroaching control". Noah Ablett, confronted with this same reality, advised "masterly inactivity",55 a sad come down from the high hopes of a few months earlier. It really does seem as though, faced with the radical change in the fortunes of the coal industry and the way it undermined union power so quickly, the URM was reduced to ideological confusion, not quite knowing now to respond to all entirely novel situation.

The irony of this experience, and the ultimate defeat of the miners in the decontrol struggle, was that it seems to have killed active interest in the whole concept of workers’ control in the mining industry for the rest of the inter-war period. More than that, it seems to have produced a general consensus between leadership and rank and file that nationalisation, indeed a form of nationalisation less radical than that proposed bv the MFGB in 1919, was the only salvation for both the industry and the miners. The whole critical syndicalist-inspired mood of 1919 evaporated as though it had never been and was replaced by a belief in the talismanic charms of nationalisation pure and simple that embraced left and right alike.

The demand for nationalisation was central to the arguments of the MFGB on all public occasions between the wars. At the height of the General Strike the Communist Party’s demand was for the establishment of a Labour Government and the nationalisation of the mines. The wider debate about the status of the worker in a nationalised industry and the nature of industrial democracy faded to less than a whisper. The reason for this is readily apparent: it is rooted in the defeat of the miners in 1921. In that defeat the miners lost most of the material gains they had made as a result of the war and the Sankey Award, notably uniform wages to all coalfields and paid out of a central profits pool. From 1921 the industry moved back to inter-district competition, the culmination of this trend coming with the defeat of 1926 and the total destruction of what was left of the national wages system. In the light of this experience nationalisation, to left and right alike, appeared the only solution; it became a common sense matter of economic survival. The point was made in a characteristically common sense way by Herbert Smith to the Buckmaster Enquiry in 1924: "... whether a man works in Bristol or Somerset, or in any other county, doing equal work he ought to have an equally respectable wage for doing that work; and if the industry will not pay for it under individual ownership ... then the only thing to do is to nationalise the whole industry ...".56 In the struggle for survival in the increasingly harsh climate of the inter-war years workers’ control was a luxury that was very decidedly at a discount. Herbert Smith’s common sense became that of the rank and file too.


1. Frank Hodges, My Adventures as a Labour Leader (London n.d.). Originally an associate of the pre-war Unofficial Movement, Hodges had moved towards a more circumspect position on workers’ control by the end of the war. As his comment on the MFGB’s nationalisation proposals, Nationalisation of the Mines (London 1920), made clear, he had by 1919 become an advocate of a form Guild Socialism.

2. MFGB Annual Conference, 15 July 1919.

3. From the Unofficial Reform Committee that drafted The Miners’ Next Step in 1911 there developed an tradition of unofficial, rank and file agitation in the SWMF which expressed itself through a variety of organisations between 1911 and the 1930s: the Rhondda Socialist Society, the South Wales Socialist Society (which drafted Industrial Democracy for Miners), the Labour College classes run by the Plebs League, and ultimately the Communist Party’s Miners’ Minority Movement. Up to 1922 these movements were usually referred to, by critics and supporters alike, as the "Unofficial Reform Movement" and for convenience this term will be employed throughout this paper.

4. The Miners’ Next Step (Tonypandy 1912), p.26.

5. The concept of "encroaching control" as a strategy for winning workers’ control was common to the South Wales syndicalists, the Guild Socialists, and the Shop Stewards’ Mlovement. For the Guild Socialists the strategy meant, for the mining industry, the displacement of private ownership by a union-state co-partnership that would confer a high degree of autonomy on the miners in running the industry (cf. S.T. Glass, The Responsible Society, London 1906, pp.41-43). This strategy was similar to that proposed in the URM’s Industrial Democracy for Miners. However, the URM usually interpreted "encroaching control" as meaning a direct encroachment on the power of management with no reference to the state and the ultimate aim of undiluted working class control.

6. For the details of this episode, and the persistence of traditional patterns of organisation and activity even after the URM had become an integral part of the Communist Party, see M.G. Woodhouse ‘Rank and File Movements among the Miners of South Wales, 1910-1926’, Oxford D.Phil., 1970, chapter 4.

7. Plebs, March 1917.

8. Fred Knee, writing in the British Socialist, June 1912.

9. MFGB Conference, 26 February 1919.

10. Coal Commission, 1919. Vol.II, Cmd 360, p.944.

11. Ibid., p.980.

12. Deputation of TUC Parliamentary Committee and MFGB Executive to Lloyd George, 9 October 1919.

13. Coal Commission, op. cit. Reports, p.vi.

14. Industrial Democracy for Miners (Porth 1919), p.5.

15. Coal Commission. op. cit. p.945.

16. Ibid., p.958. 17. Deputation of TUC Parliamentary Committee and MFGB Executive to Lloyd George, 9 October 1919.

18. Coal Commission. op. cit., p.698.

19. Workers’ Dreadnought, 31 May 1919.

20. In its confidential report to the Cabinet the Ministry of Labour emphasised, as far as can be ascertained correctly, that the main interest of the miners in nationalisation related to the material gains expected: nationalisation was seen primarily as a means to that end. ‘The Labour Situation.’ Report of the Ministry of Labour for the week ending 26 February 1919. PRO CAB 24/76 GT 6901.

21. MFGB Conference, 12-13 February 1919.

22. South Wales Daily News, 11 August 1919.

23. MFGB Manifesto, 30 March 1919.

24. 693,084 for, 76,992 against.

25. Interesting discussions of the precariousness of the Coalition’s position in the early months of 1919 are contained in W. Kendall, The Revolutionary Movement in Britain 1900-21 (London 1969), pp.187-195, and R. Desmarais, ‘Lloyd George and the Development of the British Government’s Strikebreaking Organisation’, International Review of Social History, XX, 1975, passim.

26. PRO CAB 24/75 GT 6887.

27. PR0 CAB 23/9 War Cabinet 525.

28. The point was made by Sir Albert Stanley, President of he Board of Trade in March 1919 about the pending railwaymen’s wage claim. Cf. P.S. Bagwell, ‘The Triple Industrial Alliance, 1913-1922’, in A. Briggs and J. Saville (eds), Essays in Labour History, 1886-1923 (London 1971).

29. The Worker, 31 May 1919.

30. Despite Bonar Law’s seemingly unequivocal statement that the Government accepted the Report of the Coal Commission, including the nationalisation recommendations of Lord Justice Sankey, "in the spirit and in the letter", the Cabinet was in fact deeply divided over the nationalisation issue, the majority, including Lloyd George, being against. PRO CAB 23/11. W.C.603, 604, 606A. However, until it was clear that current unrest among the police had been contained and the danger of direct action by the Triple Alliance against Government policy towards Russia had evaporated, the Government played for time. The announcement of the rejection of nationalisation was held over until 18 August. Vernon Hartshorn had every reason to comment bitterly that the miners "have been deceived, betrayed, duped". (Hansard, 18 August 1919).

31. For this aspect of the Shop Stewards’ Movement, see J. Hinton, The First Shop Stewards’ Movement (London 1973), pp.275-329.

32. As was very apparent from the discussion at consecutive national conferences of the Shop Stewards’ Movement in 1920. Cf. Reports, of the Shop Stewards’ and Workers’ Committee Movement. Tanner Papers, Nuffield College Oxford.

33. The Communist, 26 March 1921.

34. For a detailed discussion of the Webbs’ critique of syndicalism, see J.M. Winter, Socialism and the Challenge of War (London 1974), pp.29-66.

35. Industrial Democracy for Miners (Porth 1919), pp.2-3, 8-10.

36. Frank Phippen in The Workers’ Dreadnought, 31 May 1919.

37. Industrial Democracy for Miners (Porth 1919), pp.15-18.

38. Ibid., pp.21-30.

39. Plebs, April 1917.

40. Commission of Enquiry into Industrial Unrest, 1917. Notes of oral evidence. Edgar L. Chappell Collection, National Library of Wales. Evidence of South Wales Colliery and Managers’ Association.

41. By 1919 Labour College classes operated in the Aberdare, West Monmouth and Rhondda districts of the SWMF, about 500 miners being actively involved.

42. That the Labour College classes were the foci of syndicalist activity in South Wales was readily apparent to the Government. See Reports of the Ministry of Labour on ‘The Labour Situation’, February and 5 March 1919, PRO CAB 24/74 GT6772 and PRO CAB 24/76 GT 6948.

43. Commission of Enquiry into Industrial Unrest, op. cit. Evidence, 6 July 1919, p.4, evidence of Hugh Bramwell, Agent of the Western Colliery, to the Coal Commission, 1919, Vol.I Cmd 359, pp.289-90.

44. R.H. Desmarais, ‘The British Government’s Strikebreaking Organisation and Black Friday’, Journal of Contemporary History, VI, 1971, passim.

45. Shop Stewards’ and Workers’ Committee Movement conference, 10-11 January 1920. Tanner Papers, Nuffield College Oxford.

46. The Workers’ Dreadnought, 17 April 1920.

47. Colliery Guardian, 20 August 1920. Western Mail, 23 February 1920.

48. The Miners’ Next Step (Tonypandy 1912), p.24.

49. In 1913 Will Hay had written: "...  the crying need of the hour is to show the working class how to get power" (i.e. powerful industrial unions). "Once they have this power, they will inevitably use it in the directions indicated above." (i.e. "To make the union powerful enough to force the control and ownership of the mines, docks, etc.") "Therefore we believe that we can appeal successfully to every earnest trade unionist whether he agrees with our final objective or not." South Wales Worker, 21 June 1913.

50. The Pioneer (Merthyr), 13 July 1919.

51. The Worker, 4 September 1920.

52. Western Mail, 8 April 1921.

53. Frank Hodges, op. cit. p.122.

54. Western Mail, 11 April 1921.

55. Western Mail, 11 April 1921.

56. Minutes of proceedings of a Court of Inquiry into the wages position in the coalmining industry, 24 April-1 May 1924, transcript of shorthand notes, pp.21-21.