- Strikes and Solidarity: Coalfield Conflict in Britain, 1889–1966
This carefully researched book uses interdisciplinary methods drawn from industrial history, sociological theory, and statistical analysis to answer an important historical question. Why did Britain’s coal industry, which helped fuel the world’s first industrial revolution, experience the largest incidence of strikes of any major industry in the Western world? While referring briefly to the national coal strikes of 1894, 1912, and 1926 (which exerted a powerful influence over Britain’s political life), the authors’ principal focus is on the thousands of small-scale local disputes that occurred in coalfields throughout the United Kingdom between 1889 and 1966. The two major national strikes that followed them, in 1974 and 1984, were, in some commentators’ eyes, responsible for accelerating Britain’s industrial decline.
Church and Outram reject Marxist explanations for the high incidence of strikes based on the inevitable conflict between labor and capital. Interestingly, they also find that the nationalization of Britain’s coal in 1947, which was implemented partly in hopes of improving industrial relations, failed to cut down on strikes. Skirting purely structural explanations, Church and Outram instead focus their attention on the celebrated “isolated mass” argument first advanced by Kerr and Siegel in 1954. 1 This theory predicated high strike frequency among colliers on account of the rural isolation and compacted character of coalmining communities, and on the miners’ inability to move up and out of the pits. Though finding some truth in this argument, the authors consider it oversimplified because of its deterministic nature, and because it neglected significant interregional, and even intercolliery, differences in strike rates, especially in the Celtic zones of Scotland and South Wales. Instead, Church and Outram look to the “cultural and social capital” emanating from the miners’ traditions of workplace and community solidarity as causative factors (262). Where coalowners could turn loyalties to their advantage by paternalistic means, strikes were infrequent; where they could not, strikes happened often. The frequency of strikes in the modern British coal industry suggests that social deference in mining communities may have broken down earlier there than it did in other countries.
This critique of the “isolated mass” argument is not new; it has been made before by Crew and Harrison, among others. 2 But the notion [End Page 315] has never before been subjected to such rigorous statistical testing. Nor has anyone previously come up with the “cultural and social capital” formula that Church and Outram advance to replace it. There is much to be said in favor of their views. Yet, even though the authors are right to say that mining strikes were often idiosyncratic in character, and did not follow a line of linear progression, their account is somewhat ahistorical. While arguing correctly that miners’ institutes, cooperative societies, and nonconformist chapels, as well as individual miners’ leaders, played a crucial role in contributing both to the success and failure of strikes, their quantitative emphasis gives insufficient attention to these matters. This book is the best attempt yet to provide some general rules for understanding the sources of coalminers’ solidarity, but it still leaves much room for qualitative historical research.
1. Clark Kerr and Abraham Siegel, “The Interindustry Propensity to Strike—An International Comparison,” in A. Kornhauser, R. Dubin, and A. M. Ross (eds.), Industrial Conflict (New York, 1954), 189–212.
2. David Crew, “Rapport/Bericht,” in Klaus Tenfelde (ed.), Sozialgeschichte des Bergbaus im 19. und. 20 Jahrhunderd (Munchen, 1992), 53–59; Royden Harrison (ed.), Independent Collier: The Coal Miner as Archetypal Proletarian Revisited (New York, 1978).