Walter Citrine: A union pioneer of industrial cooperation by Dr James Moher

Walter Citrine – TUC General Secretary 1926-46

Walter Citrine – TUC General Secretary 1926-46

Our guest blogger this week is Dr James Moher  (former CWU & T&GWU official)  who has written this article based on a chapter from his book  Alternatives to State-Socialism in Britain: Other Worlds of Labour in the Twentieth Century, (editors P. Ackers & A.J. Reid), Palgrave-MacMillan

Liverpool born and bred, his father was a Mersey pilot/rigger and his mother a Scottish nurse. He left school at twelve to work in a dusty mill, but then found an electrical apprenticeship. He worked as an electrician all around Merseyside and south Lancashire, where he imbibed his socialist (Independent Labour Party) philosophy in the 1900s.  Self-taught, like so many of the early union leaders, he became well versed in the classic socialist texts as well as in electrical theory. He was active in the ILP and the young Labour Party (he stood for Parliament for the Tory stronghold of Wallesey in 1918), but he soon abandoned party politics for a leading union role. In 1911, he joined the Electrical Trade Union and by 1914, his evident talent as a union representative pushed him to the front as the first elected district secretary of the ETU for Merseyside. His ‘beat’ ranged from the huge Birkenhead docks to Port Sunlight (Lever Brothers) and the electrical contracting trade all over Mersey and into south Lancashire (he serviced coal mines in the then flourishing Wigan coalfield area). During the war the ETU national membership jumped from about 3,000 to 60,000. He crafted his first version of the ABC  on the conduct of meetings as notes for ETU branch officers  and it soon became part of the union’s national rulebook.

Quite left-wing at that time, (ILP with traces of quasi-syndicalism), Citrine soon rose to become ETU Assistant General Secretary at their Manchester HQ, where his administrative and negotiating skills made him stand out in the wider trade union movement. His reform of the ETU’s branch finances were regarded as crucial to its survival in those days. His service as Secretary and President of the regional Federation of Engineering and Shipbuilding Trades until 1923, also helped.  He was appointed AGS of the TUC in 1924 and on the sudden death of Fred Bramley, became the Acting General Secretary in the feverish atmosphere of the 1926 General Strike. In this capacity, he officered the General Council leadership in all the negotiations with the Miners’ Union and the government and was elected to the substantive post without opposition, The defeat of the ‘Great Strike’ and its aftermath shaped his general-ship of the TUC from that time. That generation of union leaders, especially, but by no means exclusively, Ernest Bevin of the T&GWU and General Council from 1925, would take the TUC away from its quasi-syndicalist stance of the previous decades.

But it was Citrine, with the team of able officers he recruited and led – Walter Milne-Bailey, Vincent Tewson and George Woodcock, (the latter two would later succeed him) – who helped make it a centre of excellence for the trade union movement of those desperate days. It was respected by all   of its two hundred or so affiliated unions and taken seriously by governments of all colours.

During the Great Depression (1928-34), the TUC initiated a new style of engagement with the major employers of the day (the Mond-Turner conferences), which created a better climate for union recruitment and collective bargaining on the up-swing of trade from the mid 1930s. Though the TUC leadership struck out on an independent path under Citrine’s guidance, ‘the contentious alliance’ was a real partnership with the Labour Party and the 1929-31 government.  That is until they fell out bitterly with the MacDonald leadership over its handling of the 1931 financial crisis and the ensuing ‘National’ government.  In the aftermath of the Parliamentary Labour Party slaughter of the 1931 elections, (down to forty-six MPs), Citrine, as Secretary of the Joint (TUC/Labour NEC) National Council , contributed significantly to Labour’s electoral recovery and policy revamp. That NJC developed the radical programme of welfare, NHS and nationalisation policies with the Lansbury & Attlee leaderships, which the majority Labour government of 1945-51 implemented.  

"ABC of Chairmanship" by Walter Citrine

“ABC of Chairmanship” by Walter Citrine

Citrine has a reputation for being a right-wing anti-communist, which is grossly unfair. He had been a strong supporter of both Russian Revolutions (what he called, Lenin’s vision of an ‘electric Republic’). He was one of the first to visit in 1925, at the specific request of the All-Russian union leader and Politburo member, Mikhail Tomsky. He had supported closer links between Soviet unions and the IFTU, until the Comintern launched a tirade of abuse at the TUC General Council over their calling off of the General Strike in 1927.  Though critical of what he saw, he went again in 1935 and led a delegation there in 1941 to strengthen the British-Soviet alliance, as Hitler’s armies converged on Moscow. He was there again in 1945 with a TUC delegation and in 1956 led a delegation of the nationalised Electricity Council, of which he was then chair.

But it was Citrine who had also led the TUC fightback against the scurrilous attacks on the General Council by the Comintern and its local agents, the Communist Party of Great Britain and its front the Minority Movement after the defeat of the General Strike.  He produced a pamphlet in 1927 exposing the communist attempt to take over the leadership of the British trade unions.  That earned him the undying hatred of the CPGB/Comintern and their Daily Worker  – he and Bevin won major libel actions against them.  This hostility carried into the Left of the Labour Party (Bevan, Cripps and the Socialist League), as their politics failed to capture the leadership of the Labour Party.  Perhaps Citrine (and especially Bevin) were to some degree intolerant of legitimate dissent, viewing all criticism as the expression of the sinister communist conspiracy.  But it is accepted today, even by some historians of the CPGB, that there was a serious attempt in the late 1920s (about 150 British activists trained in the Lenin school to foment revolution in Britain). It is less well recognised that in the aftermath of the Parliamentary Party collapse in 1931, it was the TUC and NJC which gave the key leads on the abandonment of disarmament, and the fight against appeasement as well as the major policy programme revamp which laid the foundation for the post-war Labour government.  Citrine, as Secretary of the NJC was at the centre of this work. It was his global perspective as President of the International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU), based in Berlin during the rise of Nazism, which enabled him to warn and promote the anti-fascist campaigns of the late 1930s.

During World War 2, Sir Walter, who declined Ministerial office, was made a Privy Councillor by Churchill. They had developed a closer relationship, sharing platforms on anti-fascist rallies in the late 1930s. During the Blitz, they had frequent sessions alone at Downing Street, keeping their spirits up reciting patriotic poetry. However, Citrine appreciated that it was his role at the TUC which gave him this enormous status and influence with the government at that time. At every level, from shop floor production committees upwards, union reps and officials were drawn into the war effort in an unprecedented way.  As a Privy Councillor, Citrine had immediate access to Ministers across government, and sat on various national bodies with Ministers, along with other union colleagues.  It was, of course, Bevin, as Minister of Labour and Social Insurance, who captured the public imagination and the limelight, as the proletarian figurehead of the coalition.  By the end of the war, as Attlee’s closest ally, it was Bevin who became the most senior Minister and Foreign Secretary in the 1945 government.

What is less well known was the key role Citrine played as plenipotentiary for Churchill abroad. As IFTU President, Citrine was invited to attend the annual convention of the American Federation of Labour at San Francisco in 1940, to help the AFL leadership (and President Roosevelt) to counter the strong isolationism prevalent in the USA, especially in the unions. Again, when the Soviet Union was invaded by Germany in 1941, it was Citrine, realising the significance of the Soviets’ entry to the war, who took a TUC delegation to Moscow, (just as the Germans was closing on it!), to discuss how the Allies could assist and bolster their resistance. There is a major story to be ferreted out about these initiatives, which continued with Citrine’s foreign trips throughout the war.

With that ‘clout’, Citrine was one of the few who could ‘stand up to Ernie’ as Minister of Labour, with his enormous power in directing labour (he wasn’t known as ‘Napoleon’ Bevin at the TUC for nothing!). His decisions (or those of his civil servants) were often controversial for both unions and employers and it sometimes fell to Citrine as TUC General Secretary, to raise awkward issues.  They had never been personally close, though their complementarity since the General Strike was key to the TUC’s success in establishing such a strong position with employers and governments.  Now, though it was Citrine who influenced Bevin’s elevation to the Cabinet in 1940, that complementarity broke down. Long after they had both left the scene, he describes some of their rows in the second volume of his excellent memoir, Two Careers (1967).  In 1941, they had a real bust up over Bevin’s insistence on deploying skilled workers contrary to   their unions’ wishes. Citrine was asked to intercede but Bevin and his civil servants were not moved. When some mild criticism appeared in the pages of the Daily Herald (the TUC/Odhams’ mass circulation daily on whose Board Citrine sat), Ernie blew his top. In a public speech which was reported widely, he attacked the editor and by implication Citrine, as Quislings.  This caused great offence, though Citrine did not hit back. Things were so bad that Attlee wrote to both urging calm in the interests of the war effort. It passed over, but things would never be the same between them. 

Although he left school at twelve, Citrine, like so many union officials of that era, was a self-taught union leader. He became a prolific writer and developed an attractive style, producing many books as well as a host of journal articles on every conceivable labour movement topic since about 1914.  

When the war was over, Citrine retired from the TUC and IFTU, and took up membership of the newly-nationalised Coal Board. He performed a health & safety and educational role for a year in 1946, but it may have seemed like a major come-down after his prominence during the war.  He was ennobled, becoming Baron Citrine of Wembley (where he had lived since 1925). A year later, Attlee offered him the Chair of the Electricity Authority, which for a former electrician, was a dream post.  He held that position for a decade, retiring finally from a further five year part-time stint in 1960. After that he attended the Lords more and contributed frequently. He and his inseparable partner, Doris (she accompanied him on most of his foreign trips) had two sons, Norman and Ronald. Norman, a solicitor, became legal adviser to the TUC in 1946 and wrote an influential book on Trade Union law.   Doris died in 1973 and Walter moved to Devon where he lived another decade, being ninety-five when he died in 1983.

It could be argued that it was Walter Citrine who put the TUC ‘on the map’. Yet there is no biography to bring together the many-faceted dimensions of his life and times in a lively way to bring it alive for today’s generations of union activists and the public. It is a record we should be proud of and would go some way to restore our image.   


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