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A.J. Cook –The ‘King Arthur’ of the 1920s

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Arthur Scargill has justly been compared with Arthur J. Cook, the secretary of the Miners Federation of Great Britain (MFGB) from 1924 until 1931. During the miners’ great struggle of 1926 no figure came to represent the anger and determination of the miners more than A.J. Cook. He was adored by the militants in every coalfield as a tireless and selfless fighter for the cause of the miners. He was hated by the right wing trade unions leaders. He was pilloried in the bosses’ press.

Yet throughout 1926 militant miners had to remain organised and vigilant in order to check Cook’s vacillations and to stop any backsliding on his part. Like any trade union official who is not directly and immediately responsible to the organised rank and file, Cook periodically succumbed to the pressure from the government, the employers and their agents in the Labour movement. He displayed major political weaknesses. Miners today must learn the lessons of that period if they are to win full victory against MacGregor and the Tories. 

An essential part of the tactics for victory is the ability of militants not only to choose good leaders in the first place, but also to correct their errors and replace them if their conduct threatens the struggle with defeat. 

The militant Arthur Cook came to political maturity in the great battles in the South Wales coalfields before the first world war. Arriving in the Rhondda from Somerset, Cook broke with organised evangelical religion and joined the Independent Labour Party in 1905. He played a prominent part in the Unofficial Reform Committee which led the struggles in the Cambrian combine in 1911 and 1912 against the coal owners  and the right wing leaders of the South Wales Miners Federation. This grouping around Ablett, Hay and Mainwaring producing “The Miners’ Next Step”. Cook was involved in the initial discussions around the document. It was on the initiative of the Unofficial Reform Committee that in 1911 Cook was sent to the Central Labour College which had been established by the Plebs League as a challenge to anti-Marxist indoctrination courses taught at Ruskin College. As well as being a working miner and union activist, Cook gave regular CLC classes in Marxism on his return to the Rhondda. 

The militant activists in South Wales – Cook included – were heavily influenced by syndicalism. As against the weak-kneed reformism of the early Labour Party which had become a mere appendage of Lloyd George’s Liberals in the House of Commons and against the conservative trade union leaders seeking only to strike deals with the bosses on behalf of the skilled workers, the Syndicalists had a bolder class perspective. Their view was of continuous militant union struggle which would step by step drive the bosses to the wall. But it was utterly vague about how the bosses could be deprived of political power – ie. of their control over the forces of the state. It remained in the end “pure trade unionism”, which had no answers when either the economic conditions for offensive trade union struggle deteriorated or when that struggle reached such a point of generalisation that political tasks were posed. Last but not least, whist it had a perspective for rank and file control of the union leaders, it had no overall programme for transforming the unions up to the leadership level. Whilst Cook himself became a union leader and a member of different political parties, he never outgrew this non-political militant unionism, a fact which led him to disaster in the end. 

The generation of militants of which Cook was a part became increasingly prominent in the South Wales Federation as a direct result of the battles of the South Wales Miners. By January 1914 Cook was Chairman of the Coedcae Lodge and the Lewis-Merthyr Joint Committee. By 1919 he had been elected full time miner’s agent for Rhondda No.1, the largest district within the SWMF. In 1921 Cook became the South Wales representative on the executive of the MFGB. 

Disciple of Lenin
Cook’s apprenticeship as a militant trade union official coincided with major realignments in British working class politics. The Russian revolution, and the formation of the Communist International in 1919 served to break many syndicalist militants from their previous total rejection of “political activity”. They were won to the formation of a Communist Party. Cook was present at the meeting organised to form a Communist Party in South Wales linked to the British Communist Party. Later in his life he was still to call himself “a humble disciple of Lenin”. But Cook’s adherence to the communist Party was subordinate to, and potentially in conflict with, his syndicalist inspired Trade Unionism. This became clear as early as 1921. 

In 1921 the coalowners locked out the miners in a bid to push wages back to 1914 levels. The Triple Alliance backing from the railway and transport workers collapsed on the notorious “Black Friday” of April 14th. The miners were left to battle alone for ten weeks after which a ballot of the members still rejected the employers terms by 434,614 to 180,724. Despite the ballot, the MFGB executive voted to accept a modified version of the terms with the support of Cook. While the Communist Party militants were fighting under the banner of “no Surrender” Cook’s trade unionism led him to accept a major surrender given the isolation of the miners and his view that their bargaining position as trade unionists was effectively undermined. Cook left the Communist Party in 1921 after it had criticised his role in the 1921 settlement. He returned again to the Independent Labour Party. 

Despite his break with the Communist Party Cook continued to work alongside the best communist militants in the coalfields. In March 1921 Unofficial Reform organisations from South Wales, Fife, Lanarkshire and Yorkshire were welded together into a National Miners Reform Movement committed to fighting wage cuts, the six hour working day, one union for all miners and affiliation to the Red International of Labour unions. By 1924 this had been renamed the National Miners Minority Movement with its own paper, “Mineworker”  campaigning to organise militants in the MFGB under an open Marxist programme. It was this Miners Minority Movement that nominated and campaigned for A.J. Cook as secretary of the Miners Federation and secured his election in 1924. Over the next years Cook continued to work with the minority movement’s network of communist-led militants. 

In background and experience Cook was very much like Arthur Scargill. Moreover, Cook’s election represented a very real victory for the militants of the battles in the coalfields since 1910. Scargill’s election was also secured by the network of militants who had secured victory in 1972 and 1974. An important difference however was that the movement that secured victory for Cook remained in existence with its own distinct organisation. This was to prove a real advantage in the years ahead. The militants who carried Scargill to power lacked the same degree of conscious and independent organisation across the coalfields. They still lack it today. 

Cook’s election co-incided with a new offensive by the employers seeking a further reduction in wages and increase in the length of the working day. One quarter of the workforce were already unemployed. The rest faced a drastic deterioration in their living stands and working conditions. During 1924 and 1925 Cook tirelessly toured the coalfields urging the miners to stand firm and prepare for struggle. His speeches played a vital role in galvanising the miners, as Arthur Horner who toured the rallies with him said: “He was the burning expression of their anger at the iniquities which they were suffering.” 

Bosses' showdown
The miners won a nine month respite in 1925. On “Red Friday” in July the government and coal owners backed off from a fight in the face of a TUC commitment to strike support for the miners. In August a Royal Commission was instituted to look into the state of the mining industry. In September the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies (OMS) was established by the government. Under the guise of concessions, the bosses were preparing the ground for a decisive showdown.  

Unlike most other Trade Union leaders Cook was not lulled into inaction by the Government’s reprieve. He warned the miners against complacency: “Next May, we shall be faced with the greatest crisis and the greatest struggle we have ever known, and we are preparing for it…I don’t care a hang for any government or army or navy. We have already beaten not only the employers but the strongest government in modern times.” Here again we can see Cook’s great strength as against the other union leaders, his willingness to fight. Here also we can see his weakness, his blind faith in militant trade unionism alone. The miners faced a struggle with the Government. To win they had to have solidarity strike action from millions of other workers – a general strike in short. This was no longer simply a trade union but a political fight. Decisive here would be the actions of the leaders of the other unions. From the outset no militant miner could be in any doubt what the likes of J.H. Thomas and Ernest Bevin would do if they
could get away with it. Their position as bureaucrats and their reformist politics meant they would do everything they could to avoid a clash with the government. 

The truth is, however, that while rank and file miners expected a showdown, and the bosses actively prepared for it, the TUC leaders did nothing and the miners’ leadership made no meaningful effort to force the TUC to fight. 

The industrial alliance
The MFGB did attempt to create an Industrial Alliance composed of the major industrial unions. Given that at the 1925 TUC Congress, right winters such as Jimmy Thomas and Pugh were elevated to the Industrial Committee at the expense of the left-wingers, the Industrial Alliance was understandable as a bid to organise effective solidarity. But it too floundered on the fact that the Alliance was left in the hands of the union officials. A November 1925 Conference drew up a constitution but an extremely lengthy bureaucratic ratification procedure in each component union meant that the Alliance never took on any real life by the time the crunch came. And Jimmy Thomas of the NUR was also able to sabotage the scheme by insisting that a condition of membership should be schemes for fusion between the unions in any given industry. This was aimed at preventing ASLEF and NUR from actively participating in the Alliance together. 

Unprepared struggle
These bureaucratic manoeuvrings in search of the Industrial Alliance effectively left the rank and file of the unions unprepared for struggle and gave the TUC Industrial Committee a free hand to sabotage active preparation. It was not until February 1926 – six months into the nine month subsidy period –  that the MFGB executive had its first joint meeting with the TUC’s industrial Committee. When the Samuel Commission predictably declared in Match that it was for wage cuts and against government subsidies, Cook and the MFGB Executive went along with the TUC and Government requests to delay any reply from the miners. Cook accepted a request not to pronounce on the report. Instead he urged miners and their wives to study the report and held an MFGB conference which made n comment on the report and agreed to adjourn for a four week period of consideration. 

Once again the TUC leaders were effectively given a free rein to try and avoid a showdown through negotiations with the government. At the same time the coal owners, taking heart from this muted response, insisted on an increase in the working day and district wage agreements in addition to the Samuel proposals. They prepared to lock the miners out by announcing that all existing employment contracts would be deemed to have expired on April 30th 1926. 

Fatal mistake
In their perhaps most fatal mistake the Executive of the MFGB handed the conduct of the negotiations with the government over to the TUC on the basis of the flimsiest of promises that they would back the miners. As Cook was to put it later in “The Nine Days”: “We handed over our case to the General Council to defend our present position, on the understanding that they would adhere to their decisions of February 26th.” 

Miners were told to expect full backing from the TUC which was empowered on May 1st to call a General Strike by a conference of Trade Union executives. 

In fact the TUC – with the backing of Labour leaders MacDonald and Hederson – did everything in their power to get out of any commitment. They entered negotiations with Baldwin on May 2nd that recognised the Samuel Report as the basis of a settlement “with the knowledge that it may involve some reduction of wages.” Cook was right to later describe MacDonald and Thomas’ speechifying in Parliament as “the most humiliating crawling and pleading such as has never before been witnessed.” But at the time the MFGB leaders raised no calls to the rank and file to organise to fight against the treacherous leaders. 

Eventually it was the government that broke off all negotiations and left the TUC with no alternative but to go through with their General Strike call. Once that strike had begun the only concern of the TUC leaders was to get it called off at the shortest possible notice and on any terms they could get. The nine day General Strike amply proved that rank and file trade unionists were prepared for a fight. The country was paralysed. But the more this became evident the more the TUC leaders frantically searched for a way out of the showdown. In negotiations containing no miners’ representatives the TUC clutched at a cosmetically revised recommendation from Samuel as the basis for a settlement. They then ordered the miners to accept on the basis that the TUC had fulfilled its part of the bargain, had struck and negotiated on the MFGB’s behalf. The very body that Cook and the MFGB had handed over the running of the dispute to, stabbed the miners in the back. It called the General Strike off and left miners to struggle alone. 

Possible wage cuts
There is evidence that Cook himself had privately accepted wage cuts in discussions with the TUC surrendering his famous slogan “Not a penny off the Pay! Not a minute on the day!”. More importantly Cook’s leadership had failed to warn miners or rank and file workers against the TUC’s impending betrayal or issue any call to fight against it when it happened. However fine Cook’s speeches may have been and however committed he may have been to the miners’  cause, his militant trade unionism led him to make disastrous errors during the General Strike. 

Despite the sell-out of the TUC Cook was still not prepared to take up the cudgels to fight the TUC leadership. Stage by stage the Trade Union leaders distanced themselves ever more sharply from the struggle in the coalfields. In June, for example union executives refused to place an embargo on coal movements. They closed ranks against any attempt to examine or criticse their role in the betrayal. And Cook played his own part in the cover up. 

Cook had produced his own account of the betrayal in his pamphlet “Nine Days”. It openly attacked the role of the Labour and TUC leaders. It chronicled hthe deceitful means by which the miners’ leaders were excluded from the proceedings of negotiation with the bosses. It ended by declaring “We will continue, believing that the whole rank and file will help us all they can.” 

Yet Cook agreed a pact with the TUC leaders to withdraw the pamphlet from circulation. At the September TUC conference Cook stuck to that agreement and stood shoulder to shoulder with the TUC leaders against the left. Minority Movement supporters urged a reference back on the General Council’s whitewash report on the “Mining Situation and the General Strike”. Cook denounced attempts to wash dirty linen in public helping to secure the defeat of the reference back by 3 million votes to 775,000. 

Basically Cook’s hope of victory failed once the Trade Union bureaucracy as a whole decided against the miners. He did not dare break with them and mobilise the rank and file of the other unions against the TUC betrayal. With his support the rank and file in the other unions might well have turned the tide and brought the likes of Thomas to account. 

In the aftermath of the General Strike Cook tried on several occasions to seek a compromise way out of the dispute despite the resolve of the majority of the miners to strike until victory. In the aftermath of the failure to secure an embargo on coal movement the MFGB accepted the proposals of a collection of Churchmen that there be a return to work pending four months negotiations and compulsory independent arbitration should no agreement be reached. Communist Party and Miners Minority Movement activists campaigned against the agreement securing its rejection against the executive in a district ballot. 

By August – increasingly physically exhausted and politically disorientated – Cook was counselling retreat. He had been rebuked by the executive for conducting his own private negotiations with Liberal Politicians in July. At the MFGB’s conference he was openly advocating the acceptance of district by district agreements: “It seems to me if we sit still, it gradually becomes a question of district by district, and pit by pit. I do think it is better to face this now than in a month’s time when we realise we are beaten, and have imposed on us something a lot worse… I ask you to face the position or produce some alternative, or at least prepare some other means to get to victory.”  

A.J. Cook had no alternative to going down to defeat quietly. 

In both October and November Cook clashed with the Minority Movement over executive attempts to end the dispute. The rank and file were still able to block Cook even if they could not directly control him. In October Minority Movement militants persuaded a delegate conference to reject further negotiations and instead escalate the dispute by withdrawing safety men, stepping up a propaganda campaign in the weaker areas, blacking imported coal and demanding a levy from the TUC. A district ballot endorsed this by 460,000 to 284,000. 

In November a MFGB conference voted to authorise unfettered negotiations with the Government and district by district negotiations with the coal owners. By now one quarter of the miners were back at work as demoralisation and division spread in their ranks. The leadership had signalled several times that it no longer had the will or ability to fight to victory. The more backward areas responded with a drift back to work. The Nottinghamshire Miners Council, led by G. Spencer MP, took unilateral action and negotiated their own District settlement. Once again, however, the militants were able to swing the coalfields against surrender. A November ballot rejected the conference terms by 460,000 to 313,000 after another campaign by the Miners Minority Movement and the South Wales Miners Federation. Buy by late November however, the MFGB’s ranks were forced to accept defeat. After seven months of bitter struggle, after betrayal by the TUC and vacillation on the part of their own leaders the miners were driven back to work. 

No peace
It would be false to say that Arthur Cook had made his peace with capitalism or its agents in the Labour movement. As Labour leaders Snowden, Thomas and Clynes took 20 guineas a piece from the Daily Express to extol the virtues of patriotism and class peace once the dispute ended Cook replied to the Express and its hirelings in his own pamphlet “Is it Peace?” He denounced patriotism under capitalism as meaning “not to be true to your class, your wife and your children, but to be true to the capitalist class, his wife and his children at the expense of your own.” 

He retained his sharpest vitriol for the Labour traitors who pontificated in the Express: “Judas at least had the decency to hang himself in Aceldema; he did not write articles recommending peace and co-operation with Herod and the Romans; that he left for the Scribes and Pharisees.” 

Rearguard action
He did attempt to fight his own particular rearguard action against the craven capitulation of the Trade Union leaders in 1927. Emboldened by the defeat of the miners the government pushed through its own Trades Disputes and Trade Union Act whose provisions bear a remarkable similarity to the Thatcher Government’s past and future anti-union laws. It became illegal to extend strikes beyond “the trade or industry in which the strikers are engaged” and to intimidate blacklegs. Civil servants were prohibited from joining TUC affiliated unions. In the face of this attack the union leaders started to talk of the need for a “new spirit” and participated in a series of talks with ICI Chairman Mond and the preparation of a National Industrial Council launched by a Burlington House conference in January 1928. 

Himself now a member of the General Council, Cook attended Burlington House and raised the only voice against the whole affair. He published his own denunciation of Mondism –  entitled Mond Moonshine, with a sequel Mond’s Manacles – in which he declared “You cannot be a socialist and at the same time help the employers to rebuild capitalism. Capitalism and socialism are antagonistic terms. We must either decide to stand by capitalism and abandon socialism, or the work for the destruction of capitalism. There is no middle ground.” 

The most left leader 
Cook still remained the most left trade union leader of the 1920s. By comparison those around him were fakes and shams. Of today’s trade union leaders only Arthur Scargill stands any comparison with the commitment and militancy of Cook. 

Yet as we have seen, Cook had major weaknesses throughout his career as a trade union leader. To some extent those were the result of the fact that any trade union official who is not under the permanent control of the rank and file will be subject to pressures of the class enemy and tend to vacillate. More importantly the trade union militancy that gave birth to Cook and which again moulded many of today’s NUM leaders, had tremendous strengths in terms of hatred of the class enemy and commitment to working class interests. But its political weakness became more apparent as the class struggle sharpened into an all-out struggle with the government. 

Custom and practice
Whilst Cook distrusted the TUC leaders, he left all the cards in their hands. When they chose to play them, Cook’s commitment to the customs and practice of traditional trade unionism meant that the rank and file was never prepared or organised to fight the betrayal. The tradition of rejecting “political action”  and depending on trade union action alone led to increased wavering and vacillation on Cook’s part as the miners were left to fight their battle alone. In this situation he became increasingly disorientated. 

Cook was the “miners’ idol.”  He sacrificed his all for the miners’ cause and derived no personal gain from the tenure of office. He was hated and despised by the stuck-up parliamentarians who saw the miners’ struggle as futile and doomed. But none the less militant miners had to organise to foil a series of retreats that Cook tried to negotiate. Only the organisation of the Militant Miners’ Minority Movement prevented these retreats. That this was the case should make militants all the more wary of ceding all initiative to Arthur Scargill as the new miner’s hero. Like Cook he’s committed to defending miners jobs and wages. He hates capitalism too. But that does not mean that miners do not need a rank and file movement in the tradition of the Militant Minority Movement. If the Minority Movement itself proved inadequate it was because it itself placed too much trust in Cook and other lefts on the General Council of the TUC. 

Rank and File
Arthur Scargill is openly dismissive of the record of the Minority Movement. As he once said in an interview “it didn’t turn out to be all that effective and there were many weaknesses in it.” He does not want to repeat the experience. True enough there were major weaknesses in the Minority Movement. But it was able to organise to resist the vacillations of a left leader. Its problem was that it was not strong enough! The lessons of the 1926 strike are all too clear today. The rank and file militants must organise themselves not only to resist the right wing leaders and coerce the most backward workers. They must organise with other rank and file workers to force the TUC to act and turn their fine phrases into deeds. They must warn against and actively resist the betrayals of the Trade Union leaders. And last, but not least, they must organise to hold the most fiery left leaders to account as well.