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Historical Perspectives

Industrial Conflict in Britain in the Second World War

Richard Croucher

When I started researching this subject in the early 1970s for my book Engineers At War 1939-1945, I first realised how sensitive the subject was and no doubt is. I visited many trade union activists to interview them, and many of them assured me that there were no strikes at their factory during the war years. They added that strikes were unlawful in wartime. The war was a time of great national unity, when such things were unthinkable, and the war had after all been won. Furthermore, trade union leaders were unanimous in stating their support for the war effort, were taken into the corridors of power and Ernie Bevin, General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union, was appointed Minister of Labour when Churchill became Prime Minister in 1940. Moreover, Britain was an ally of the Soviet Union, for which many ordinary people, unaware of the real nature of Stalin's purges; continued to feel affinity and wanted to support via the war effort. All of these points and many more were made to the na´ve young historian sitting in their front rooms with his cassette tape recorder running.

However, the old activists soon started to recall industrial conflicts when I was able to show them documentary evidence from the Public Records Office (now The National Archives) released by the Wilson Government in advance of the normal 30 year rule restricting access to government records. These documents were staggeringly detailed reports often provided by policemen or MI5 agents. They described what was going on in the war industries and contained remarkable information on trade unionists, working conditions, management and worker opinion that is very hard to imagine if one has never seen it. In many cases, the documents contained photographs of activists pinned to their corner (in contravention of the 100 year rule forbidding access to the records of any named individual), minute accounts of meetings and other fine-grained detail. This was a great help in jogging trade unionists' memory, and a strong reminder of how on occasions the historian can be at a real advantage compared to those who lived through particular periods, probably quite unaware of the state's great interest in industrial conflict. The oral recollections began to flow even more smoothly and colourfully when the tape ran out with a resounding click.

Combining these detailed accounts with those of activists of the time, many of whom are sadly no longer with us, allowed the reconstruction of a very different picture of Britain's industrial war effort, from those available in the government's official history. The research was important not only because it showed that Britain had industrial relations problems that persisted even at a time of serious national emergency. It was also significant for what it told us about ordinary people's attitudes to working life that helped create the major political statement that the election of a Labour government of 1945 represented. The election of that reforming government had origins in workplaces as well as in party politics

The war years in fact saw a rising tide of industrial conflict, one that only subsided as redundancies began to be declared even before the war was finally concluded. The unrest focussed on the mining, shipbuilding and engineering industries, vital to war production. What were its causes? Of course, at one level each strike had its own
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Industrial Conflict in Britain in the Second World War by Richard Croucher