Oliver Cooper (Sheffield) on researching the language of discourse in the 1926 General Strike

The bursary generously provided by the Society for the Study of Labour History allowed me to travel to the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick for holdings relating to the 1926 General Strike. The title of my MA thesis is ‘Towards a Semantic History of the 1926 UK General Strike’.

My research used materials from the archive of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), which called the strike of its members across numerous industries in solidarity with the miners. The strike, called on May 3rd, 1926, was the largest industrial event in hitherto British history. My study analysed the language of discourse during the General Strike to understand how perceptions and expectations of the strike were framed. The primary source material for the research was newspapers, useful as multi-authored and contemporary examples of language. The speculative reporting of the newspapers which came out every day acted in part as a propaganda war, nearly all papers national and local against the strike.

The management of perceptions and expectations by the TUC was a delicate operation. On the one hand, the strike had to be seen to be effective to put pressure on the government for concessions. However, the language of the press accusing the General Strike of being revolutionary had to be countered, the cautious tone left parties in the dispute discontented, especially with the effective capitulation on May 12th, 1926.

My attempt was to use the linguistic turn of recent historiography to analyse newspapers conceptually. For expectations I adopted Reinhart Koselleck’s notion of the ‘horizon of expectations’, accepting that the range of potential futures were constantly changing in the face of new experiences during the strike. Our understanding of this very real concept for contemporaries facing the uncertainty of the strike is a supplementary aspect to the previous scholarship. Future studies in this style could take my synchronic analysis and incorporate diachronic study of political and social concepts to create a wider history of the General Strike and mining lock-out.

Above, left to right: Daily Express retrospective on the General Strike; telegram describing victimisation of workers in Lancashire; pro-strike message (Birmingham); circular confirming the end of the strike.

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