Like the revolutions in the Middle East today, although on a smaller scale, the industrial and community uprisings of Britain’s Great Unrest of 1910 to 1914 were the result of a complex of interrelated factors.
The 1911 strike wave was a working class response to a nexus of economic, industrial and political pressures and disappointed hopes. The Liberal government had heavily defeated the Conservatives, being elected in 1906 on the promise of widespread reforms. It promised a campaign against “landlords, brewers, peers and monopolists,” as well as launching schemes for national insurance and old age pensions.
29 MPs from the nascent Labour Party had also been sent to parliament with hundreds of thousands of votes behind them, carrying the hopes of many workers. But Labour in Parliament was to prove a huge disappointment, its MPs tail-ending the Liberal Party on most issues. Wages did not increase, nor did the position of the mass of workers improve. In fact, by 1911 things were getting worse.
The 1911 strikes were for better pay but were also a protest against capital’s new strategy of incorporating labour movement and union leaders. The direct and uncompromising nature of the struggles are due in part to the fact that they were not contained within the existing union organisation. They were a dual revolt, against employers on the one hand but against the established union leaderships and collective bargaining machinery on the other.
The new strategies, especially the fundamental strategic innovation of the period, the solidarity strike, were developing as ways of exerting maximum pressure by rank-and-file workers. The rising level of struggle created a split not only between workers and both employers and the state, but also between the workers and their official leaderships in the unions and the Labour Party.
Direct action seemed to many workers the way forward. The ideas of revolutionaries – syndicalists like Tom Mann and Ben Tillett, the latter of whom spoke at Llanelli at a demonstration to protest against the shootings – suddenly resonated for many. Next I shall look at the controversial issue of the syndicalists. Who were they? Did they influence the fightback at Llanelli?