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THIS is a year of centenaries. Memories of the struggles of the suffragettes combining with those of the blood and the wire; of undersized Tommies marching to the sound of the guns and of the armistice that was intended to signal the end to all wars.
Yet, some things are forgotten. History is, after all, a matter of choice, of emphasis, light and shade — as well as of strictly weighed and measured evidence.
The voices of the rich, the powerful and articulate often drown out all other cross-currents, the experiences of the masses, and both the sorrows and achievements of the poor and the working people.
If, today, we speak of a General Strike we instinctively think of the failure of 1926, or of Larkin and Connolly’s heroic stand in Dublin in 1913. We seldom associate the tactic with success.
Yet, in 1918, a little-known dispute over the price of bread and the intransigence of the Crown governor sparked a general strike on the Isle of Man that effectively shut down the island and resulted in a sweeping victory that saw food subsidies granted to all, the introduction of income tax and old-age pensions and an overhaul of the administration on the isle.
Years later, a veteran of the Manx labour movement — and of the Manx Labour Party that was a direct product of the strike — was in no doubt that solidarity had been the key to success. “What they obtained in 1918,” he told his audience, “was only obtainable because the workers were loyal to the core.”
Yet, the ability to bring often competing trade union interests under the umbrella of a single strike committee, and to harness a sense of optimism — that created an almost carnival atmosphere on the streets and in the fields, with fishing boats flying red pennants and crimson flags fluttering in Douglas, Ramsey and Tynwald Hill — did not just happen by accident.
Trade unionists had built their branch structures from the grassroots over the previous year, through hard work, dedication, vision and self-sacrifice.
Meeting followed meeting. Sometimes these were held in committee rooms, at other times on street corners or on the island’s beaches. Women knitters — often elderly or war widows — formed their own branches in Ramsey and Port St Mary. Alf Teare, a skilled printer, galvanised the Workers’ Union in Douglas, the island’s capital, and a slight, unprepossessing shop assistant, Harry Emery, founded a branch of the shop workers’ union and spoke unceasingly at public meetings and literary society talks.
Between them, Teare and Emery began to introduce ideas about syndicalism, collective action, solidarity and socialism into the vocabulary and the mindset of the workers and artisans on the island.
The differences between the two men can be overdrawn, not least as their subsequent lives diverged dramatically — with Teare enjoying a long career as a constitutional Labour leader on the Isle of Man and Emery pursuing a revolutionary career that brought him to the notice of Sylvia Pankhurst and Lenin, and climaxed in a dramatic arms raid in support of the IRA.
However, in the summer of 1918, the two men led the strike committee with remarkable determination and a shared vision.
For 48 hours, on June 4-5 1918, the shops closed, the lights went out, shipping stopped leaving port and fishermen negotiated their catches with the strike committee and pledged to deliver their fish only to the families of the strikers.
The police were observed openly fraternising with pickets when a coal yard run by a notorious local strike-breaker was stormed and the chief constable refused to allow his men to be used as paramilitaries by Lord Raglan, the island’s authoritarian governor.
With no support forthcoming from Lloyd George’s government in Whitehall and his plan to commandeer bakeries in the island’s prisoner of war camps thwarted by the reticence of the military and the resolve of the growing crowds of strikers, Raglan’s administration was brought to a state of collapse.
Without access to foodstuffs, fuel or arms, the governor capitulated to the demands of the trade unions and, shortly afterwards, left the island forever.
In thanks for his role in the general strike, Emery was presented with a book of poems by TE Moore, the Isle of Man’s national poet.
One wonders whether the volume stayed with him during later days spent leading the unemployed workers in Coventry, or when organising some of the first industrial branches of the Communist Party in the Midlands; and whether thoughts of the little island seemingly lost in the Irish Sea remained with him during the clashes of the civil war and his flight to the Soviet Union.
He certainly penned verses in honour of the Isle of Man and its working people — partly inspired by Macpherson, and partly by Shelley — urging workers “to cast aside, your differences that now divide.”
If he was fated to vanish in the grip of Stalin’s maw, and if the Manx general strike has gone largely unrecorded in histories of both trade unionism and the Manx nation, then — in this centenary year — it is timely to recall the achievements of July 1918, when the Red Flag flew in triumph from an abandoned Tynwald Hill.
Indeed, Harry Emery and Alf Teare are both commemorated on a First Day Cover to be issued, this week, in honour of the general strike.
Perhaps, when all is said and done, nothing of value is ever truly forgotten.
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