1919 – Purging the Police

This would be the year in which the capitalist state rigorously enforced the role of the police, purging them of rebels, ensuring their loyalty and cutting any link between them and the workers’ movement. The events of 1919 shaped the police force we have now: an obedient enforcer of the system’s interests.

The year began with unfinished business. In 1918, British police had taken strike action and the government, keen to avoid distraction from its war effort, conceded all their demands except one. Official recognition of their trade union – the National Union of Police and Prison Officers (NUPPO) – would have to wait until after the war.

Lloyd George had led the police to believe that recognition would be a formality, but 1919 began with the issue still outstanding. On 19 January, thousands of police rallied at the Albert Hall in support of their union.

Home Secretary Edward Shortt set up the Desborough Committee, to enquire into police pay, conditions and recruitment. The government pursued a cynical but effective strategy, giving police officers big boosts in their pay and conditions while clamping down on their union. It tried to buy them off – and with a few honourable exceptions, it succeeded.

The Desborough Committee’s report brought a new, much higher pay scale, free housing and early retirement. It also established an alternative body to the union: a tame, consultative, powerless staff association that became the Police Federation, which still substitutes for a genuine union today.

The NUPPO could either accept its own destruction or fight back. To its credit, it chose to fight, calling a strike starting on 1 August. But its members’ loyalties had been purchased wholesale by the government, and they largely ignored the strike call.

A few walked out in London, but the best turnout for the strike was in Liverpool, where half the force refused to work. Rioting and looting began, and the government sent in troops and deployed warships in the Mersey.

The police forced then sacked every striker, and a new Police Act (which is still in force now) made it illegal for policy to join a union or to strike. Shortt justified these actions by declaring the police strike a mutiny rather than an ordinary industrial dispute, and Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Nevil Macready welcomed the failure of the strike and the fact that the force had been ‘purged of these discontented elements.’

The union tried to fight a rearguard action for a while, and won considerable labour movement sympathy, but not a single sacked police striker was ever reinstated.

Police in Boston, USA, also took strike action (pictured).


To read more about working-class struggle in 1919, buy this pamphlet.

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