Monday, 24 February 2014

Mutiny against injustice

In September 1931 the crews of the Royal Navy Atlantic Fleet mutinied. So serious was this that the Cabinet of the National [Coalition] Government even considered shelling the moored ships. So damaging to the country's reputation was this that Britain was forced off the Gold Standard; yet this episode, a capital offence, was settled and hushed up without even a Court Martial or Commission of Enquiry. How could this come about?

In May of that year there was a worldwide banking crisis, which led to large-scale selling of sterling. To defend the pound, foreign banks demanded that UK's budget deficit be eliminated, meaning a saving of £120m in the coming year, equal to more than half of Government civil spending; and more than the budgets for the police and armed forces combined. It was decided by Chancellor Snowden [Lab!] that tax rises should account for £24m of this sum; and expenditure cuts for the balance, £64m from cutting unemployment pay. In other words, the poorest were to pay. The Admiralty, led by Austen Chamberlain [Con], would bear its share too, by a series of cuts, again affecting most seriously the lowest paid ratings most. Cuts of £1 per day were to be made with immediate effect, across all non-commissioned ranks. This had the effect of a 25% cut for the lowest paid. As the Daily Herald described affairs: "This is not patriotism but acceptance of the dictatorship not even of a British bank but of international finance..... It is not a people's Government but a bankers' Government.... part of the price for saving the pound is to be paid by the very poorest people in this country."

As word of this spread from ship to ship gathered for exercises in Invergordon Bay, crews refused to work. The officers aboard had some sympathy for the men but "the sudden realisation that discipline and authority depended on consent had shattered and cracked the solid ground on which they stood." The mutiny shocked and left paralysed the Government and even the King, who was very Navy-minded.  Instead of resorting to the historic model for treatment of mutineers - capital punishment - or to force, to overcome it, they crumbled. "The mutiny ended with the Government agreeing that sympathetic treatment should be given to hardship cases" - in other words, it backed down in face of withdrawal of labour.

This story is rarely retold but can be read in full in the source for these quotations, "The Invergordon Mutiny" by Alan Ereira, [1981 Routledge & Keegan Paul] It is surely worth reading today. Need I say more?

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