The problems facing the Councils of Action went much deeper than aid for arrested persons. The arrests themselves were in part based on political actions by the victims: as the reports show the members of the Communist Party were especially singled out for arrests under this heading. But the attack of the capitalist state machine was not confined to arrests of speakers or writers (or distributors) of “sedition.”
From the time when the fascist organisation* and the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies (OMS) came into existence, it became clear that the capitalist class was preparing a huge strike-breaking machine, including the use of terrorism, and that, as in Belgium, it would be necessary to form a Labour force which would be in a position to defend the workers against the methods of Italian fascism. The co-ordination of the fascist and OMS. forces with the police, which had been carefully organised since the summer of 1925, was actually carried out at the beginning of the strike; and some of the Councils of Action realised from the start the type of terrorism which would be attempted.
The position in various areas actually became extremely serious at an early stage in the strike; intimidation of properly authorised pickets and police charges in crowded streets took place; strikers were batoned and arrested; and although the overwhelming sympathy of the audiences at public meetings apparently frightened off any intended attacks, there were good grounds at the beginning to anticipate police and other interference. In such circumstances the formation of a workers’ police, under one name or another, became a necessity in many areas, while in others it was felt that preparations should be made for the sharpening of the conflict which it seemed the Government was determined to bring about.
Such bodies of workers’ police, or Workers’ Defence Corps, as they were usually called, are specifically mentioned in the reports of Aldershot, Chatham, Colchester, Croydon, Denny and Dunipace, Methil, St. Pancras, Selby, Sowerby Bridge, and Willesdcn. At Aldershot the force was only being organised at the end, at Chatham and Colchester the force took the form of special pickets for meetings; Denny and Dunipace and St. Pancras seem to have organised the force, but not used it. At Sowerby Bridge—
“A few men appointed to assist in maintaining peace in the streets and highways — a huge success.”
At Croydon, Methil, and Willesden fairly large forces were developed. At Methil a corps, which had been organised with 150 men, was raised to a strength of 700 as a definite reply to police charges on pickets, and was used for regular patrol work, the result being —
“There was no further interference by the police with pickets.”
No definite conflicts between the defence corps and police appear to have taken place, in some cases, as at Methil, evidently because the corps was strong enough to deal with aggressive action; in others, as at Selby, because the police actually recognised the assistance given by the corps in preventing any trouble arising.
The position at Lincoln was of special interest. There
“The police asked us to supply the whole of the Special Constables — which we did.”
This is certainly an interesting example of the existence of good terms with the police which is reported from many other towns; but the position created at Lincoln was not without its dangers. If, for example, military or mounted police had been sent to that district against the wishes of the local authorities, and had taken provocative action, the position of workers sworn in as special constables might have become very difficult. At the same time, providing they remained under the orders of the Council of Action their position, though difficult, might have proved immense value to the workers. In spite of the many examples of police aggression of the type that occurred at Poplar, the examples of friendly relations with the police are also numerous. The football match with the police at Plymouth has already been mentioned, and many other reports mention general friendliness. In some cases general friendliness was supplemented by overt acts; Ilkeston hints at these in the sentence:
“ Police very good and sooner assisted than interfered with us.”
And Swindon is more precise:
“When our autocratic Mayor sent two tramcars on the streets the police allowed our strike leaders to take charge of the situation.”
The friendliness with the local police was a most important factor, often they were not merely friendly in the sense of avoiding provocative action, but definitely sympathetic with the object of the strike. Most of the cases of provocative action by police were actually due to imported police acting in conjunction with specials of the plus-four [petit bourgeois] type, who had had their mental training in the Fascisti, O.M.S., or other similar organisation.
In General Strikes and Road Transport, Mr. George Glasgow gives the official attitude:
“The susceptibilities of special constables were humoured in an original manner. It was thought that a special constable, recruited from a given village, might feel some compunction about summarily arresting his best friend for seditious talk on the village green. Mobile fleets of special constables were therefore recruited far away from the possible danger zones, and they dashed through those zones as strangers.”
Put in blunter language, the Government could not trust the “loyalty” of the forces who knew the inhabitants and the working conditions in the area; and therefore where police attacks were to be employed, men from distant areas were drafted in, and probably carefully fed with anti-strike propaganda before being used. These methods account for the contrast between the friendliness of the local police in so many cases, and the indiscriminate attacks made in other places by imported police, or where Fascist sections of specials were given a free hand.
We cannot deal in detail with the particular cases of arrests, the nature of the “evidence,” or the vindictive sentences imposed. One or two examples from the reports and local bulletins may, however, be quoted. At Accrington a small boy was arrested for throwing orange peel at a charabanc [a horse drawn vehicle]; the report unfortunately does not say whether this act was “ seditious “ or “ disaffecting.” At Bolton ten lads received up to three months’ sentences for drawing the draw-pin of a coal cart; and at Farnworth a man was sent to gaol for a month for tearing down a Government poster. The trams were used in many areas as a means of collecting a few prisoners, they were run out from the depots and the inevitable reception was met by police charges and numbers of arrests. In some cases the police charges and the arrests took place without the formality of getting the cars out. At Brighton, police charges near the tram depot resulted in 22 arrests and sentences of from one to six months; but in spite of this the motion to form a Defence Corps was rejected by the Council of Action.
To sum up the reports on the subject of arrests and workers’ defence, it can be said that in the majority of the areas reporting the necessity for special defensive measures did not arise, very largely owing to the friendliness of the local police and the absence of Fascist elements in the local administration or of imported police. At the same time, in a few areas the necessity of a Workers’ Defence Corps was felt, and at least the nucleus of a corps established; while in many other areas provocative action and arrests took place on a scale which would probably have made a defence corps essential had the strike been of longer duration.
In a few cases the nucleus of a Workers’ Defence Corps is being maintained, but there is no indication of a widely organised scheme such as the Trade Unions in Belgium developed in response to the growth of Fascism there a few months before our General Strike.
* This was an earlier British “fascist” organisation founded in 1925 which, led by the conspiracy theorist Nesta Webster and others, was not fully separated from the Conservative Party.