NINETY-SIX years ago this month, for nine days in May 1926, people across Britain joined the UK’s only general strike thus far.

Workers in public transport, printing, gas, electricity and others downed tools in support of miners fighting to maintain their pay and working conditions. The 2012 film The Happy Lands follows the fictional Fife mining community of Carhill and the struggles of the miners and their families during the 1926 strike and the miners’ strike that followed.

With a cast descended from the strikers of 1926, much of the dialogue in Scots and fascinating archival footage of the strike, the film offers a detailed picture of trade unionism, socialism, and state repression in early 20th century Scotland.

However, focusing on a single mining community, the film does not offer much detail on wider events. What caused the strike? Who were the “OMS”, the “National Fascisti”, and the “Economic League” that are shown opposing the miners? And what did the strikers achieve?

The mining industry was already declining by 1926. It had been nationalised in 1916 to support the UK during the First World War but when the mines were returned to private ownership in March 1921, their owners demanded wage cuts for their workers.

The Miners’ Federation called on the two other members of the “Triple Alliance”, the dockworkers and transport workers, to join them, but they refused on April 15, later known as Black Friday. The Triple Alliance collapsed and the miners went on to strike alone before returning to work in July.

The short-lived Labour government of 1924 managed to convince mine owners to grant a temporary pay rise. The next year, the Conservative government of Stanley Baldwin granted a nine-month subsidy to the industry to prevent wage cuts.


The National: Stanley BaldwinStanley Baldwin

When this expired in April, the mine owners again demanded wage cuts and longer hours. They posted lockout notices, closing the mines until after the subsidy was over. The Trades Union Congress backed the miners and called for a general strike to begin just before midnight on May 3. The Government refused the TUC’s offer to help maintain essential services during the strike and instead declared a state of emergency.

Negotiations continued right up to the deadline, but the refusal of The Daily Mail’s printers on May 2 to put out a front page condemning the strike led to the Government declaring that negotiations had broken down and the strike had begun.

Early in the film, the strikers complain that the Government has got “posh boys from St Andrews University” to fill in as train drivers. The Government did indeed recruit many student volunteers. One Glasgow Communist, Rose Kerrigan, said that most of the strikebreakers there were students who tried to run the trains and trams “but they weren’t much good”. Many strikers criticised the largely middle class volunteers for play-acting at being working class.

As the film shows, government opposition to the strikers was harsh. Officials in Scotland were given powers to call on police and soldiers to deal with any disturbances by the strikers. Tanks were even deployed on Glasgow’s streets and riots broke out there and in Edinburgh.

Fines were given out for “seditious activities”, such as speaking at rallies and distributing pamphlets in favour of the strike. Those strikers found guilty of rioting were often sentenced to months of imprisonment and hard labour.

In The Happy Lands, we also see opposition to the strike from outside the Government. Catholic miner Michael Brogan (Kevin Clarke) mentions to his priest that “the Cardinal” had condemned the strikers. This was a reference to Cardinal Francis Bourne, archbishop of Westminster and head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales.

On May 9, five days into the strike, while performing Mass at Westminster, the Cardinal called the strike “a sin” and said Catholics were “bound to uphold and assist the Government”.

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Later, Brogan goes to see a performance by Harry Lauder (Allan Stewart). One of the most successful Scottish entertainers of the early 20th century, Lauder is shown interrupting his act to give a speech condemning the striking miners. This is a little unlikely, as he himself had been a miner as a young man.

The Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies (OMS) is also shown opposing the strike.

This volunteer organisation was set up in co-ordination with the Government in September 1925. It was a volunteer group founded to maintain supplies and services should a strike occur.

Once the general strike broke out, the OMS was taken over by the Government. It provided volunteers to help run docks, railways, and power stations. A right-wing organisation, the OMS included several former members of the British Fascisti.

An offshoot of this group, the National Fascisti, later renamed the British National Fascists, are also mentioned in the film and shown attacking the Carhill miners’ soup kitchen. The BNF was founded in 1924 and was heavily inspired by the Italian fascists of Benito Mussolini. Some of its members joined the OMS or became special constables during the strike.

The final opposition group featured in The Happy Lands is the Economic League. This was a lobby group of industrialists who maintained lists of left-wing “troublemakers” and produced a newspaper that attacked the strikers.

After nine days, the TUC ended the General Strike on May 12 without gaining any concessions from the Government. It had done little to prepare in the months leading up to the strike, while the Government had been busy recruiting strikebreakers and planning emergency measures.

The miners continued fighting until late November, when they returned to work, accepting the worse pay and conditions they had fought so hard against. In January 1927, the TUC blamed the miners for not accepting an earlier settlement that would still have resulted in wage cuts and worse conditions.

That year, the Trades Disputes and Trade Union Act was passed, outlawing general strikes and mass pickets and passing a raft of measures limiting the strength of the unions. There were no further general strikes.