This year is the centenary of the very first Labour Government in the UK, led by Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald. David Torrance has written an excellent new history of that government in The Wild Men.www.bloomsbury.com/uk/wild-men-9781399411431/
We recently published an outline of the story of that government and posed some lessons from history for the Labour Party today. So, I won't repeat the basic facts. jan_24_election.pdf
David's approach highlights what a major event this was to the British body politic. The King was more pragmatic than you might expect. When asked to reflect on the change of government, the King was said to have replied: ‘My grandfather would have hated it; my father could hardly have tolerated it; but I march with the times.’ Others were less pragmatic. It provoked hysterical predictions that the ‘forces of order’ would be paralysed, public finances shattered and Britain reduced to ‘an outlaw state’. There would be no protection, ran another alarmist headline, ‘for anyone who wears a clean collar’.
The King was less pragmatic when it came to the prospect of the Soviet Union being officially recognised. The new Prime Minister argued that other European countries were preparing to do so and that, if UK did not, it would miss out on economic opportunities. The King's distaste was a bit rich given what we now know of the Royal Family's refusal to offer sanctuary to the Romanovs.
David's approach is to go through all the key members of the Cabinet to highlight the achievements and challenges the minority government faced. Strategically, MacDonald had a clear aim: to complete the political realignment which had begun during the war, ‘elbow the Liberals aside and make Labour the permanent alternative to the Conservatives in a new two-party system’. MacDonald was less sure footed when it came to the decisions which dogged his government and he took on too much himself. After four gruelling months he was undoubtedly worn out. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury and Asquith had noticed that the Prime Minister was suffering from neuritis; in March he was plagued by headaches and the after-effects of influenza,
Some issues have not been resolved to this day. Arthur Henderson held the view that decisions of the Labour Party conference were binding, while the Prime Minister regarded them as little more than ‘soundings of party sentiment’ that could be ignored.
One minister who stands out is John Wheatley. ‘He is an extreme socialist & comes from Glasgow,’ the King noted in his diary. ‘I had a very interesting conversation with him.’ The King asked searching questions about Wheatley’s childhood, in response to which the minister painted a vivid picture of the grinding hardship endured by his parents and their eight children, who had inhabited a miner’s cottage without drainage or running water. To this the King apparently listened in ‘friendly sympathy’ before asking rhetorically: ‘Is it possible that my people live in such awful conditions?’ Then, as the King bade the minister farewell, he reportedly added: ‘I tell you, Mr. Wheatley, that, if I had to live in conditions like that, I would be a revolutionary myself.’ As McLean put it, ‘The solid brick terraces which march across the inner suburbs of every British city, could not have been built without John Wheatley …They are the monument to the greatest of the Clydesiders.’
The Chancellor, Phillip Snowden was less radical. He cut taxation to the tune of £38 million for the forthcoming fiscal year but left income tax, surtax and death duties completely untouched, The Capital Levy proposed by the Chancellor and his colleagues during the general election, was jettisoned. When John Maynard Keynes suggested Snowden should have spent £100 million on construction engineering, Hugh Dalton remarked that it was ‘a little humiliating humiliating to find ourselves less bold than this Liberal economist.'
Expectations of the first Labour Government by its supporters were high. However, As J. R. Clynes observed in his memoirs, Labour suffered because a number of its supporters ‘expected us to do everything in a few weeks’ – ‘unemployment would immediately vanish, poverty would cease, opportunity and wealth would be suddenly equalised’ – and, when it became clear they ‘could not perform miracles’, those supporters ‘bitterly’ abused the government. While important steps were made in foreign affairs, housing and education, little progress was made in tackling the scourge of unemployment - Keir Hardie would not have been impressed!
The Prime Minister’s political hero had been Keir Hardie and Hardie had unequivocally supported Scottish Home Rule. This pledge, first made in 1888, endured as the Labour Party grew in Scotland and across Great Britain. However, in office MacDonald lost his enthusiasm for the project. Writing to ILP and Scottish Home Rule Association activists he said, 'I am afraid at the moment it is impossible for me with all the burdens of straightening out matters to go into the details about Scottish Home Rule.' He was not alone, outwith the Clydesiders, who kept the faith - Labour politicians had come to see Home Rule as potentially damaging to the unity and solidarity of the British working class.
A minority government was always going to be time limited. The Campbell case was badly handled but didn't have to bring the government down. But MacDonald was exhausted 'carrying the burden both of a Prime Minister’s day-to-day business and a succession of gruelling diplomatic negotiations with the great powers of Europe’.
The subsequent election was marked by the almost certainly forged Zinoviev Letter, although it probably did little more than scare middle-class Liberals to vote Tory. The Labour vote actually increased although they lost seats. The Liberals collapsed, bringing about MacDonald's strategic objective of a two-party state.
Torrance concludes that 'many governments with substantial majorities and fuller parliamentary terms have delivered less.' he is also sympathetic to MacDonald, even his later treachery. The main charge against MacDonald has been that his absorption with foreign affairs led him to neglect the home front, and that includes Scotland. Attlee probably summed up the government's greatest achievement saying, 'The mere formation of a Labour Government and its existence for nine months registered a vital change in the political situation.' The ‘wild men’ so feared in late 1923 had shown they were competent men after all. Labour were fit to govern.
This is a superbly researched study of the period - highly recommended.