I think we should start by going back a step, just a tadge, and talk about the origins of the Labour Party, since it will of course be a big part of the story from here on, as you can imagine. I might give the honour of my starting place in the episode – and I hope it is an honour for which they will be duly grateful, though I hae ma doots, to the Fabian Society. The Fabians were a group of slightly nutty intellectuals who wanted to move towards a better cleaner life, social justice, and to a socialist nation. For their name, they chose as an examplar the Roman general who wore down Hannibal, Quintus Fabius Maximus. This was also one of my father’s heroes and he would fill my young head with those stories. Not that he had a lot to say about the details, because Fabius essentially just watched, and didn’t do very much except run away. Anyway, the point is that the society knew their struggle would be a long one. It remains a think thank affiliated to the Labour party to this day, and was particularly influential in Edwardian times with the likes of George Bernard Shaw, H G Wells, a particular family favourite Edward Carpenter, very elegant chap much given to sandals with socks, Emmeline Pankhurst, and of course Beatrice and Sidney Webb who were at the heart of it.
Industrial unrest, strikes, the impacts of unregulated industrialisation an rampant capitalism all led to a growing awareness of the horrible conditions in which many working people lived. It was also made very obvious by recruitment for the Boer War, where many young men were in such a pitiful condition of health that they couldn’t fight their way out of a paper bag. In the 1860s the Trades Union Congress, the TUC had been formed to bring together all trades unions to fight for better pay and working conditions, and also as a cheesy biscuit. All this led inexorably to a demand for reform and greater representation in parliament for the needs of the working class. In 1900, this led to the establishment of the Labour Representation Committee, with a variety of groups getting involved – the TUC and Fabian Society included.
The LRC elected a secretary, and from the start was mass of ideas and opinions hard to keep together – nothing new there then; the man given the task was Ramsay MacDonald, the illegitimate son of a farm worker in Northern Scotland – so not landed Gentry then. Another founder member was a good solid Labour hero – in ways MacDonald isn’t actually for reasons which will become clear – another Scot, Keir Hardie. He was also not landed Gentry – is this clever clever comment highlighting the typical parliamentary MP wearing thin now? Born in 1856, Kei’d been working from the age of 7 actually, in coal mines from the age of 10, had then been involved in miners’ strikes and had a background in preaching. All of these things made him perfect MP material and a talented speaker – and in fact he’d already been an MP, elected in 1892 for the Independent Labour Party, from whom do NOT spring the current Labour Party. In the Khaki Election of 1900, the LRC fielded 15 candidates, and had two elected – Keir Hardie and a Welshman, Richard Bell.
Keir Hardie, amongst others, started the LRC because they could find no party in parliament that would help them. The obvious choice was the Liberal party, and in many ways they could be sympathetic, and some of tenets of Classical Liberalism were helpful – equal opportunities for example – but the kind of state intervention and transformation socialism was looking for ran very contrary to the focus on the individual, encroachments on liberty from the crown, laissez faire, just clear the decks and a thousand flowers will bloom, sort of thing. So when I were a lad, I assumed that the rise of the labour party was inevitable – a newly enfranchised section of the population without representation – of course the Liberals were doomed. But in the words of that acute historical observer Jimmy Somerville, it ain’t necessarily so – though I have to part company with Jimmy on one thing, since it is obviously the case that Jonah lived in a whale and I won’t hear any more on that topic. But what Jimmy and Bronski Beat were presumably referring to in the song, was the rise of the New Liberalism that will inspire one of the most remarkable reforming ministries in the history of British politics.
New Liberalism was a political trend started in England which stressed that the individual was part of a greater entity called society; I mean sounds obvious but Thatcher didn’t get that either so you know. Rather than a very English negative politeness thing – ‘I really mustn’t intrude’ I’ll stand away and let you bloom – they realised that for the most disadvantaged individuals to succeed they positively need support from the state, so that by supporting the whole community, individuals could flourish. All of this was driven by the realisation that the US and Germany in particular were catching up and overtaking Britain, a growing awareness of the extent of poverty based on Joseph Rowntree’s social research. And of course that brown paper bag and fighting thing.
There were a few politicians particularly associated with New Liberalism; H H Asquith would be one, David Lloyd George and, oddly Winston Churchill. I say oddly because Winnie’s political career is a bit weird, frankly, a bit like his Dad. Let me tell you a bit about Lord Randolph first; setting an example to his son, he was rather a maverick conservative with a philosophy of Tory Democracy, but something of a lone wolf. He made it to one of Salisbury’s cabinets as Chancellor, so he was flying career wise, so his fall from grace was sudden, dramatic, and to be honest, quite funny. He introduced a cost cutting budget, the cabinet wouldn’t accept the army and Navy cuts easily, so in a paddy he offered his resignation to Salisbury – expecting of course that Salisbury would cave in on the Budget. Salisbury instead said ‘oh – aright then’ and Randolph was gone. For Good. His son Winnie started in the CP, crossed to the Liberals in 1904, and went back to the Tories in 1924. He was therefore always viewed with suspicion. In 1940 RAB Butler would say on his appointment as PM that
The good clean tradition of English politics, that of Pitt as opposed to Fox, has been sold to the greatest adventurer of modern political history’
And counter intuitive to his New Liberalism, another incident which dogged him always was the breaking of the Tonypandy strikes. Churchill very unusually send the army to South Wales, and he has been blamed with vicious anger ever since. In fact this might be one of those myths – Churchill apparently always favoured moderation and it seems to have been the local police who behaved violently like, as someone said, ‘an army of occupation’. Anyway, enough of Churchill controversies, we’ll be here all day. They fly to Churchill like iron filings to a magnet.
Gosh I am warbling, haven’t even got to 1906 yet. Um, two things more then as preamble. First, in 1903 the Liberal Chief Whip and Ramsay MacDonald put their heads together and came up with an agreement; there had been some distressing outcomes in the 1900 election where Labour and Liberal candidates split the vote – a problem progressive parties have to this day. It’s irritating. So they agreed that in 1906 they would try to avoid that – so when the Labour party put up 50 candidates, in 31 of those the Liberals would not do so. Wow what a decision that was. On the face of it, this looks either way too nicey nicey or hubris; but surely a tactical error, at least one of the reasons why the Liberals will lose their electoral base and die. The other thing is the Taff Rail case where employers brought an action against strikes to make them responsible for damages; and won. That effectively meant strikes would be impossible. The Liberals said they’d overturn it – the Conservatives did….not.
The Conservatives had a new boss, Arthur Balfour and several problems. Joe Chamberlain, a man who made his money in Birmingham and loved the place, had been a Liberal Radical. But despite that, Chamberlain was passionate about the Union – and therefore vehemently opposed Irish Home rule; espoused the glory of Empire and its importance to Britain, advocating tariff reform to introduce protection with preference given to trade with the Empire. The CP was deeply split over the issue. There was also massive backlash over the Boer war, and accusations in parliament of ‘the methods of barbarism’. The result was a massive liberal victory. Oops, one more thing; most constituencies are now contested, though still 107 are still unopposed.
This is the swan song of the Liberal party, mainly under the leadership of Asquith and with his radical and massively energetic Chancellor David Lloyd George, who did not know my father, who would take over the premiership in 1916. It’s often said that Atlee’s 1945-50 government built the modern welfare state; if so, they built on foundations laid by Asquith and Lloyd George. It was a good combination; Asquith rigorous, hugely intelligent, solid and dependable; Lloyd George a great orator and full of fire. Here he is laying it out
“Four spectres haunt the Poor — Old Age, Accident, Sickness and Unemployment. We are going to exorcise them. We are going to drive hunger from the hearth. We mean to banish the workhouse from the horizon of every workman in the land”
The role call of social legislation includes Acts in Work regulation – including law to prevent the Taffe Rail case ever again; trade boards to set minimum wages, a Health Insurance act, an old age pension scheme was introduced, there was spending on relief work and public investment in things such as ship building. It’s an absolutely sparkling set of achievements, many things we take as absolutely fundamental now.
All these reforms of course needed to be paid for. Lloyd George as Chancellor and Winston Churchill as President of the Board of Trade put together what they called a People’s Budget. It was radical – because its stated intention, for the first time ever – was to redistribute wealth from the richest to the poorest. Now there’s an idea. Income tax at the time was…actually I need you to sit down at this point; probably stop driving, and Brace…Brace…3.75%. Golly. Now there was to be an upper band for richer people at – brace again – a stonking 5%. Wow. If that doesn’t stonk I don’t know what does. Imagine paying 5% income tax. There was also though a Land tax – 20% on capital gains on land purchases. You could hear the sound of horrified chin flapping and spilt sherry all over the House of Lords, which was of course stuffed with landowners.
Well, the people’s budget got through the Commons – with the help of the Irish Nationalists, whose price was a new Home Rule bill; the Nationalist were themselves challenged from 1905 by a new party called Sinn Fein, who thought Westminster was not worth the bother – of which more later.
The debate was furious; the CP had a new leader, a pugnacious Ulsterman called Bonar Law – is there another type of Ulsterman? Sorry, scratch that, no one believes in national characteristics anymore. Anyway, Bonar Law although not much known as a PM – he will only have a year in the job to be honest – revived the morale of the CP. He was an aggressive debater; rather cutely he once said in the Commons
‘I am afraid I shall have to show myself very vicious, Mr Asquith, this session, I hope you will understand’
He had a bunch of rather wild radicals in his party; one group of them followed a posh young man called Lord Hugh Cecil. They made such a ruckus when Asquith got up to speak that they became known as the Hughligans. The House of Commons is many things, one of those things is not dignified.
Bonar Law was good at healing the divisions in the party, but was often in hock to the wilder sort; he famously remarked
‘I am their leader: I must follow them’
While all the kerfuffle was going on, he still found time to reform the party organisation – 1911 is when then Conservatives appoint a new post, Chairman of the Conservative Party, and a permanent Treasurer. The Tories were always ahead in the mechanics of party organisation.
So, the scene was set for the revolt of the sherry drinking chin wobblers. There was a massive debate – the Lords for a change were in the spotlight; public meetings were called, battle lines drawn by Dukes against the horrors of socialism and right to roam – sorry don’t know how R2R got in there. The budget also included naval expenditure to maintain the British strategy of having a navy bigger than the two other biggest navies in the world; there are echoes here of the public demand to build at least 8 Dreadnoughts,
We want eight and we won’t wait!
Had gone the cry.
Now our Llyod George had a lip on him, and used this shamelessly, pointing out that a
fully-equipped duke costs as much to keep up as two Dreadnoughts; and dukes are just as great a terror and they last longer
The Lords divided into the Hedgers and the Ditchers; the hedgers were prepared to compromise, and hedge their bets – and listened to desperate private urging by the king to be reasonable. The Ditchers would have none of that, They might have been called Wedgers as well – this was the thin end of the wedge they declared and they were prepared to die in a ditch to stop it. And so they went and did it – they sank the Peoples’ budget. All presumably all those lovely reforms and a better life along with it. There was nothing wrong with the old life if you were a Duke afterall. Though they did then specify that they would pass it if the Liberals won an electoral mandate on the issue. Asquith raised the ante; if they won, they would not only re-introduce the budget but introduce legislation to curb the power of the lords.
Well it was open war between Commons and Lords, a situation as startling as the social reforms. The 1910 election campaign was run by Asquith on an unashamedly Peers Vs People ticket. Let me give you another dash of Lloyd George
“Should 500 men, ordinary men, chosen accidentally from among the unemployed, override the judgment…of millions of people who are engaged in the industry which makes the wealth of the country?”
‘Accidentally from among the unemployed’. A zinger, surely? What a card. But the result was surprisingly close; the Unionists, Conservative and Liberal, argued that the money could be raised by protectionism, trade tariffs. The Liberals could only stay in power with the support of the Irish Nationalists. But a win was a win, The budget was duly passed; the lords gave in, the 1911 Parliament Act removed the Lord’s right to veto, they could only now delay bills for two years, and if a bill came back three times from the Commons it would pass automatically. And incidentally, parliaments would now have an election every 5 years not 7, to counter balance the extra powers given to the commons – though constitutionally, the King officially still dissolved parliament – in practical terms, it was done at the PM’s request. That would not be changed until 2011, and the Fixed Term Act which says that a parliament is automatically dissolved after 5 years. Seems picky, but I assume there’s a reason, and let, in Donny’s words, let the reason be love. It’s a delightfully dreadful lyric is it not? Love me for a reason, let the reason be love. I mean, if your boy or girl friend asked that of you, would you not immediately point out that it’s a tautology, could they please re-phrase the request with a better style? Shame on you Donny, shame on you Boyzone. I expected better of you.
Where were we? Oh yes Irish Home rule. Asquith duly introduced the bill in 1912. Of course the Lords rejected it but it would therefore become law in 1914. Well that was a barney and make no mistake; it was always going to be so; back in the last century Randolph Churchill had proclaimed that
Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right’!
The debate was loud and furious; Protestant Ulstermen campaigned under Edward Carson, and the CP leader Bonar Law was an Ulsterman to boot, Carson threatened violent resistance; and it is worth noting by the way, that not everyone knows – that the full title of the Conservative Party is the Conservative and Unionist party; which makes their loyalties clear enough.
When Asquith tried to mobilise the army to keep the peace he was prevented by the Curragh Mutiny – British officers refused to be so mobilised. Asquith compromised by introducing a clause to allow an opt out to the north for 6 years only; the British government never wanted partition. Neither Nationalists or Republicans wanted this level of partition. The Home rule bill was to come into force in 1914 – but was swept away by the First World war – by that I mean it was officially delayed for implementation by 1918. Asquith is reputed to have thought that the First World War prevented a civil war in Ireland; a frightening number of Irishmen were armed. He wouldn’t be seeing a good side to the Wear for long when the body bags started coming home. But by 1918 of course the world had changed with the Easter Rising in 1916 which stunned everyone with its success and credibility and opened eyes to the possibilities; the botched over severe British response amplified that. In 1918 Sinn Fein won all but 6 of the Irish seats, the old Irish Parliamentary Party disbanded itself. The war of Independence resulted from 1919-1921; in the meantime Home Rule went ahead anyway in 1920; by this stage there was full partition. In 1921 the Anglo Irish Treaty set up the Irish Free state, and the rest as they say is history, the Republic was free to pursue its own separate destiny as it wished. One consequence of the rise of Sinn Fein and the demise of the Irish Parliamentary Party was to decisively weaken the Liberals in Parliament, since the Irish had almost always supported the liberals, as the only party likely to help them.
So we arrive at a little incident related to an Archduke getting lost in his car in Sarajevo, allowing the hook up with a revolutionary who shot him, and inexorably the logic of the balance of power and the network of alliances pulled Europe, and the British Empire, into the First World War. There was some resistance; Ramsay MacDonald and many in labour opposed it, and a small number of cabinet ministers; Edward Grey the Foreign Minister, is said to have convinced cabinet that failing to honour their treaty obligations would bring shame on Britain; and duly war was declared. Edward Grey, apparently not a great Foreign Minister, nevertheless came out with one of those memorable quotes when he reflected
The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime
It was H G Wells who coined the phrase
The war to end all wars
And it would be Lloyd George in 1916 who didn’t believe it when he said
This war, like the next war, is the war to end wars
As a war leader, Asquith made a bright start, but failed to follow up, and faded before they even got to the back straight. The disastrous implementation of Winston Churchill’s hare-brained or brilliant plan, delete as applicable, to force the Dardanelles forced Asquith to form a coalition government with Conservative and Labour; by this stage Labour had 42 MPs, and their involvement in the coalition strengthened them; they developed ministerial experience, it helped the perception of them as a credible party; and at the same time, the domestic requirements of organising for war would legitimise and normalise active state intervention.
But it did not help the Liberal party one little bit. There is apparently a very famous history book called the Strange Death of Liberal England by George Dangerfield which blames the demise of the Liberals on the series of crises and transformations like Ireland, the Womens’ movements, Trade unionism and so on; apparently it’s like catnip despite the fact that historians say you could drive a coach and eight through it. Anyway, it’s probably Herbert Henry Asquith who should shoulder a lot of the blame. It was not inevitable that the Labour party would come to represent the aspirations of the working classes; New Liberalism had already started to move the dial from the old laissez faire attitude of classical liberalism. But Asquith found the transition difficult; many of the reforms in the 1900s had been driven by David Lloyd George as Chancellor, Asquith found the infringements of personal liberties required by total war difficult to take.
Also he didn’t really have the Churchill style – flicking V’s at the world that sort of thing. Asquith’s strength was a calm unflappability; at school we were told his favourite phrase was ‘wait and see’. As a wartime leader – wait and see doesn’t cut it, he lacked urgency and focus; apparently he was caught writing letters to his girlfriend Venetia Stanley in the middle of Cabinet meetings. Not traditionally good practice I’m told, and he spent far too long getting hammered at weekend parties rather than, you know, winning the war. He found it hard to cross the Liberal line – to enforce compulsory conscription for example. Asquith had
No plan, no initiative, no grip, no driving force
And that was what his ally, Lloyd George thought. Bonar Law put in another way
In war it is necessary not only to be active, but to seem active.
On 15th March, 44 BC, Brutus stabbed Julius Caesar in the back, and others joined in. In December 1916, Lloyd George stabbed Asquith in the back, and others joined in; and as a result, Asquith was forced to resign and Lloyd George took over.
Now if Herbert Henry had gone quietly, maybe the Liberal party would have survived. But he did not. He would remain official leader of the Liberal party until 1926, and the majority of Liberal MPs went with him; a matter of loyalty, but also a matter that more liberals than Asquith found it difficult to move from the traditional Liberal watchwords of peace, retrenchment and reform. It split the party irrevocably. By the time Asquith died in 1928, the Liberal party would no longer be a potential party of government.
You might think that the winners of the post war 1918 elections would crown Labour as that party. Afterall. They advocated direct state intervention; they relied very much on Trades Union membership and Trades Union membership doubled during the war, and then grew yet further to 6.5m by 1919.
Also, it had a coherent policy development framework through its constitution and its governing body the NEC, National Executive Committee, whereas the Liberal party since the days of Gladders relied very much on the inspiration of their leaders. So by 1918 they had developed their constitution, including the famous Clause IV. This was a commitment by the labour party to socialism and nationalisation. Ahem.
To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.
Clause IV was a barely discussed shoo-in in 1918. It would later be the focus of intense debate, and part of a fundamental Faultline in Labour, between a gradualist, social democrat oriented PLP, and the more radically socialist wing of the wider party. In the 60’s Hugh Gaitskell would try, and fail to change it; in 1993 Tony Blair would succeed, and get the words social democrat into the constitution instead. Strikes me that just as the country goes through a period of radicalism to a period of retrenchment, Labour can very often do the same – after all Blair followed soon after Foot, and Starmer after Corbyn, social democrat follows socialist. But I am busking.
There are other reasons why Labour on paper should have done better – particularly that they were closely aligned with the Suffragists in 1912, the womens’ movement that favoured change by constitutional means only, as opposed to the Suffragettes who accepted that violence was sometimes necessary; although thereafter actually Labour’s record for a while wasn’t great, because there were conflicting tensions in Labour; because they had always been targeted at full male employment. In 1918, Lloyd George’s coalition finally responded to the long campaigning of Suffragists and Suffragettes in the 1918 Representation of the People Act, passed before the election of that year; it gave all men the vote, and women over 30 who had some sort of property – or were married to it. It would take until 1928 for women to achieve full voting equality. The first woman elected to parliament was one Constance Markievicz, but she was an Irish republican in 1918 who did not take up her seat. So the first woman MP was American born Nancy Astor in 1919, who served as a member of parliament all the way through to 1945. It’s something of a chequered career; on the one hand she continued to be an active campaigner for women’s rights and political involvement in all walks of life – she chaired the first ever International Conference of Women In Science, Industry and Commerce for example. But was also known for her anti semitism and sympathy for Nazism. She was without doubt a strong character and more than held her own in an almost entirely male parliament; I am drawn, sadly to a couple of famous anecdotes with Winston Churchill. One where She declared that if she was his wife she’d put poison in his tea – to which Winnie replied that he she was his wife, he’d drink it; and another one where Winnie asked her how to disguise himself at a party – and she suggested he fool everyone by turning up sober. Good Times.
The first female Minister and Cabinet member was Margaret Bondfield, appointed Minister of Labour in the Labour government of 1929–31. She had also earlier become the first woman to chair the General Council of the Trades Union Congress (TUC).
After a war which had been won on the basis of appalling levels of sacrifice in the trenches, withholding the vote from any men seemed to be a travesty; after a war without which the industry and agriculture which had won the war would have been impossible without women, it seemed a travesty to withhold the vote there either.
Anyway, it was the Conservatives who did best out of the 1918 election. For Labour it was a disappointment, with only 57 seats. For Asquith, it was also a disappointment – he was left with just 36 MPs, and Lloyd George with 127. Lloyd George held on to power with conservative support; in the remaining few years of power, his government started the ‘Homes fit for heroes’ programme of social housing; in the 1920s a second Garden city of Welwyn Garden City was added to the template of Letchworth. Partly, Home for Heroes was driven by a genuine desire to reward that families who had given so much for their country; but also events across the continent would colour politics for the next few decades – the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Just like the French Revolution before it, there were many who feared the same happening here. In Ireland, the man who had authorised the brutal repression of the Black and Tans dramatically changed tack and negotiated the irish 1922 treaty.
Lloyd George’s style as PM was presidential; he dominated all, and it was he that created a Cabinet Secretariat, now known as the Cabinet office. He created multiple new departments; but at the same time was increasingly remote.. He is credited with creating the template for modern government, and it is very important to reflect that 19th century government had very limited resources – none of those PMs had the government and civil service resources to implement the 10th of a modern government’s legislative programme. But in the 20th century, that will of course change, and Lloyd George leads the way. Though it has to be said his style stank of corruption too, creating multiple peers in return for favours, and he assiduously courted Press barons.
Okally Dokally, well in 1922, Lloyd George looked down one day on his way to work and noticed that he didn’t have any legs any more. Because Bonar Law had cut them off, by withdrawing CP support. And so Lloyd George did what happens when you lose your legs, and fell over. For a year Bonar Law was PM but he wanted a mandate from the people so he went to the people. Boy, was he to regret that. The 1922 election was Labour’s breakthrough – MacDonald’s labour won 142 seats. Since the re-united Liberals won 158, it was a hung parliament. Bonar Law was soon forced to resign the leadership of the CP and therefore they needed a new leader.
Now I shouldn’t really go into this much depth, but I can’t resist talking about the competition for the position, since the only real candidates for the position were Bilbo Baggins, who we’ll come to, and an amusing character called Lord Curzon.
Lord Curzon of Kedleston was a man very much steeped in the finest and grandest traditions of the British Old Guard, a product of Eton and Balliol College, with a very clear way of how to behave as a member of his class.
No Gentleman takes soup at luncheon
He wrote and other classics such as
A gentleman never wears a brown suit in London
Though I can personally attest to the fact that they do in Loughborough. He was more than faintly ridiculous, but he had a political position; he’d been Viceroy of India, and leader of the House of Lords during the war – and part of a group there that fiercely opposed the vote for women, by the way; and afterwards he was Foreign Secretary.
However he was delightfully and gloriously pompous with it and toweringly arrogant, so that he carried on his back a piece of doggerel composed about him which followed him wherever he went. It was so popular, so giggled about that Curzon himself ruefully remarked that
“never has more harm been done to one single individual than that accursed doggerel has done to me”
This is how it goes
My name is George Nathaniel Curzon,
I am a most superior person.
My cheek is pink, my hair is sleek,
I dine at Blenheim once a week
I mean that is funny. But not so funny that it would have ruined anyone’s career unless it had hit a nerve. And it meant that in 1922 it was not the characteristics suitable for a party learning to deal with the new, full blown honest to goodness democracy. So Bilbo Baggins got the job instead. We’ll come to Bilbo, a man Curzon described with characteristic arrogance as ‘of the utmost insignificance”. Still he wasn’t alone; Orwell called the man “simply a hole in the air”. When the King told Curzon that he was picking his insignificant opponent, Curzon burst into tears.
One other nugget in 1922 was the election of a new party – the Scottish prohibition Party, Edwin Scrymgeour by name, affectionately known as Neddy. He’d serve – on his own, as the only British MP elected on a Prohibition platform, until 1931. He was reputed to have been elected by the Kettle Boilers of Dundee. In Dundee, Jute was king, and the factories employed women – because they were better and cheaper. So Kettle Boilers was a disparaging name for house husband – and they voted for Neddy, and not his opponent Winston Churchill, who was therefore ousted from his seat and parliament. There’s another fab fact for your pub quiz.
Anyway, let’s get back to it. in 1922 another significant thing happened, this one being with us still – the formation of the 1922 committee, a group of Backbench Conservative MPs. By 1926 it included all backbenchers, and is a way of exercising influence on policy, in which these MPs have no individual role. Often the way that nutters exert a level of influence their mothers would never have allowed them, but also now responsible for managing the leadership of the party – the men in grey suits, and they are known.
I assume you all know that backbencher comes from the fact that government ministers tend to sit on the front bench of the House of commons; supposedly so that they can answer questions at the dispatch Box more easily – though I reckon it’s really because they get to stretch their legs out. Backbenchers have shorter legs and no government office; it’s a term that derives from 1874, apparently. Dispatch box by the way, because documents were stored on the floor of the house of commons in the middle. Easy to lean on and put your papers fully of witty put downs on – originally designed by Pugin. Enough trivia.
Bilbo become PM then in 1922, but decided he needed a mandate all of his own. So called an election. Bad decision again – the result was 191 Labour MPs and another hung parliament. It ushers in a minority government – led by Ramsay MacDonald. Wow. The son of an agricultural labourer was now the most powerful man in the country, at the head of the first Labour Government.
It’s a minority government, it doesn’t last long, and there’ll be an election by 1924, and it was bound to happen; so why did MacDonald take it on. Basically the aim was, in MacDonald’s own words, to demonstrate that the Labour party was ‘fit to govern’. Forming a credible government has to be the best way to do that.
We should talk also about what drove the labour party; it’s early days in socialism after all, just after the Russian Revolution – but labour did not see themselves as the heir of that socialist revolution, set to do the same in the UK. MacDonald was a gradualist; he believed, as did much of the party, that the success of socialism and the labour party was inevitable, that they were on the next step of an inexorable rise to a better state and that Labour was the obvious party of government. To get there they needed to destroy the Liberal party – and therefore they wanted to compromise in policy and give the Liberals no intellectual or political space in which to thrive – so they offered no coalition to the Liberals.
Labour was also reliant on and grew out of an essentially conservative force – Trades Unionism. I mean yes of course Trades Unions wanted change, better conditions for its members and all, but it was essentially driven by the employment of its members. They and the Labour party therefore believed that socialism would not emerge from the destruction of the old order, like the Bolshevik revolution – it would instead emerge from a vibrant, successful capitalism.
Of course they were essentially unable to get much done; and after 10 months MacDonald was able to seize on a Liberal motion in parliament he could use and a vote of confidence, resign and call a general election.
The 1924 election was in some ways a disappointment to Labour – but not really. Although they lost seats, down to 151 seats, they increased their share of the vote to 33%, and meanwhile the Liberals disappeared – only 40 seats. Also there was the manner of their defeat. We are in the age of Press barons, the likes of Lord Beaverbrook, Lord Rothermere et al; and one of the more famous, Alfred Harmsworth aka Lord Northcliffe was owner of the Daily Mail. It published a letter from Comrade Zinoviev, Russian Political powerhouse – supposedly to the British Communists, urging them to prepare for ‘bloody insurrection’. It was a dramatic example of playing the Red Scare card, and it without doubt helped the result. But it did not cause it; MacDonald was able to claim to his supporters that it was just a trick of the establishment and in a fair fight Labour would return to winning ways. Anyway, for the moment the CP won 412 seats – close to 50% of the vote.
Ok so we come to Bilbo, who would dominate politics until 1937. Of course it’s not actually Bilbo, it’s a man called Stanley Baldwin; but it’s said that when Tolkein was writing about Hobbits, it’s Baldwin he was thinking off. Baldwin was a genius of presenting himself as the kind of English tradition Tolkein admired and sought to foster. He was patriotic, but not in a jingoistic way, he had an idealistic vision of Englishness;
‘The English are at heart and in practice the kindest people in the world’
He said, and described Englishness as
A brotherly and neighbourly feeling which we see to a remarkable extent through all the classes.
He was a native of Worcestershire, son of an industrialist, and an unassuming sort of man for the PM. During his second term, the he was travelling home on a train, still PM, when someone tapped him on the shoulder
You are Baldwin, aren’t you? You were at Harrow in ’84.”
Baldwin nodded, and the other man sat back and asked
Tell me what are you doing now?”
A different world.
Under his leadership, party membership grew. He believed in his people and nation, and in return, they believed in him. He smoked a pipe, and had a homely air, belloved of political sketch writers and artists. For such a successful politician he was short on ideology and intellect; the Press baron Lord Birkenhead called him despairingly as an example of the ‘second eleven’. Austen Chamberlain lamented they had ‘such an uninspiring commander in Chief’, and Arthur Balfour was more direct – he called him ’an idiot’, which is uncomplicated of him. And surely, Baldwin was a messy, unsystematic thinker, and bequeathed the CP no great ideology or lasting inheritance. He was the polar opposite of Curzon – but also of Lloyd George, in no way presidential, he was a team player and leader. But he was a serious and successful politician with a deep, if paternalistic sense of duty. At the end of the first WW, he was deeply concerned about the vast national debt from the war, and he wrote to the Times with a suggestion
For the the wealthy classes … an opportunity of service which can never recur … Let them impose upon themselves, each as he is able, a voluntary levy.”
Yah, right. But In point of fact, Baldwin did indeed donate – 20% of his wealth, a massive £33m at today’s prices.
But it just so happens he was also a political and campaigning genius, expert at the cultivation of mood, the master of timing, and practical solutions; he excelled at the new radio broadcasts, and communicated brilliantly at the times of crisis such as the General Strike of 1926. He was brilliant at performing in the house. Winston Churchill had now completed his last political salmon leap and was elected as a Conservative MP in 1924; and seeing Baldwin perform in the house was left amazed; prefacing his remarks with the disclaimer that
I cease to be astonished at anything,
He admitted that
Nous avons un maitre
We have master. Which from Winnie is quite a compliment.
He was helped, and Labour knocked back, by the 1926 General Strike, which for Trades Unionism, was a failure, and for the Labour party an unmitigated disaster, resulting in the 1927 Trade Disputes Act outlawring secondary strike action. It also accentuated Labour’s rightwards’ drift, and the expulsion of the British Communist Party from Labour in 1928.
None the less, by 1929, the CP had largely run out of steam, and at the election fought on red Scare slogan of Safety First – while labour’s rightward shift convinced everyone they were nothing to be scared of. And so Labour came home with their largest ever election win – 287 seats. Wild, they were delighted.
In fact it was a terrible time to win an election and a brilliant time to lose one – you see, what’s the art of good politics? …..timing! arf, arf. Because what happened was the Wall Street Crash of 1929. With a rigorous economic orthodox as Chancellor, Philip Snowden, the response of Ramsay’s government was inadequate. Labour saw itself as the party of full employment; and yet it was presiding over record unemployment. The lack of reforms also alienated the Trades Unions, the cabinet split under the pressure. In this, the Conservative Neville Chamberlain played a part; a minority for Labour in parliament gave influence to the Tories, and Chamberlain was deeply suspicious of what he saw as labour proflogacy. He put enormous pressure on MacDonald to make deep spending cuts, and made it clear the Tories would not support the government if they did not. This together with a disastrous budgetary situation meant a discussion of austere cuts on things like National Assistance for the unemployed to convince American bankers to advance loans – what kind of socialist government was this then? The Cabinet resigned. They would not forget the role Chamberlain had played.
Now then, you would think from what we’ve covered so far that Ramsay MacDonald would be a Labour hero would we not? I mean here was a fellow of working class heroes like Keir Hardie, a creator of the Labour Party; the first working class PM. Surely, a shoo-in as as hero of Labour?
But no, you would be wrong to so think. Instead the man is at worst reviled, at best viewed with deep suspicion. And this is because of what happens next. George V called Ramsay to the Palace, and persuaded him, in the national Interest, to form a National government with the Tories and the Liberals.
It tore the Labour party apart. There were riots led by trades unions, most of the labour Cabinet walked. In response, MacDonald set up a new party, National Labour but it was composed of but 13 MPs, and none of the constituency organisations joined it. MacDonald claimed that he did what he did from a sense of duty, and historians I think often buy that. To labour it was the ultimate betrayal for the sake of power; this was the Labour party’s Robert Peel, the man who split the party and all but destroyed it, who cozied up to the rich and powerful Tories to save his own career and hold on to power. His name, in short, is mud.
It appears that Baldwin, on the other hand, rather respected him; after all, Macdonald to a large extent was the prisoner of his own Government, with the driving force coming from men like the Conservative Chancellor Neville Chamberlain. At the 1931 election, the Conservatives won a stonking 472 seats, the largest single party number ever. But Baldwin did not attempt to replace him, and he remained PM until 1935.
Meanwhile in 1935, Labour would elect a new leader, one Clement Attlee, a man with such a modest persona that it seems unlikely we’ll ever have his style again in modern politics. In fact he attracted criticism from some long term and influential members. Here is the Grande Dame of the Labour party, Beatrice Webb, in 1940
He looked and spoke like an insignificant elderly clerk, without distinction in the voice, manner or substance of his discourse. To realise that this little nonentity is the Parliamentary Leader of the Labour Party … and presumably the future P.M. is pitiable”
MacDonald can’t claim much fame for the ministry he led; the only really notable thing he’s allowed is the policy he and Baldwin formed towards India. The Act of 1919 in the wake of the Amritsar Massacre had committed Britain to a programme of reform; in 1935 the Government of India Act was passed. It came as a result of a series of Round Table meetings chaired by MacDonald; Ghandi was quoted as saying he had driven the Roundtable agreements
With the pitilessness worthy of a Scotsman
The Act provided for an All India Federation, but appears not to have been well received in India; Nehru described it as a ‘machine with strong brakes but no engine” and a “Charter of Slavery”. It was furiously opposed by Empire die-hards such as Winston Churchill. But it represented some important steps; neither Baldwin nor MacDonald had any intention of trying to hold on to India by force once it was clear that consent had gone; and while Baldwin clearly didn’t expect India to fully leave the Empire for decades, yet it represented their acceptance, publicly, that it was the ultimate destination.
Well, by 1936, Baldwin was failing, although he managed the whole affair of Edward VIII’s abdication and the arrival of George VI with great skill; Churchill at this time was a Tory MP but held no office, and was effectively in the political wilderness; he took a much more royalist line as regards Edward VIII who he thought should have been accommodated more. But George VI it was, and I think we’d probably agree that Baldwin was right on this one. In May 1937 he resigned, and Neville Chamberlain took up the office of leader and PM for which he was the obvious heir apparent.
Well it’s a well discussed theme of course – how rubbish Neville Chamberlain was, the two-bit appeaser you. He comes across always as very posh in films and pictures; of course he wasn’t really he was a middle class successful business man, product of a private school maybe, Rugby, but he hated it and went to Mason college that became the University of Brumm. Not Eton & Oxford then, so there’s a relief. He had been a competent administrator and minister, and was therefore a shoo in on merit. The concerns and debate about what to do about Germany were general; clearly Baldwin had failed to take an active enough strategy in preparing for war, but our Nev has acquired defenders. He was told that there was no way Britain and the Empire could win war against Germany at least until 1938, and who would join him in a policy of deterrence? France was wedded to a defensive strategy, the USA to isolation, the Soviet Union was untrustworthy; and Chamberlain at least kicked off rearmaments.
In the end though it’s Churchill that wins the argument, despite the mitigations, and with some irony it was his failed initiative as First Lord of the Admiralty in action in Norway in 1940 which brought his boss down. It was also Chamberlain’s own fault; his obvious move was a national coalition, and Labour under their new leader, Clement Attlee made it clear they would serve. But they would not serve under Chamberlain; the chicken of his period in MacDonald’s coalition and his evident contempt for the party came home to roost, and not in a good way. And despite Chamberlain’s attempt to persuade Halifax to do the job, Halifax had enough self awareness to know that he’d be a rubbish war leader and it would really be Churchill in control anyway. And so it duly was Churchill, the Great Adventurer.
Now Churchill has become many peoples’ target now, and of course was a pretty controversial figure throughout an astoundingly chequered career; but whatever you say about Churchill he
- Was the best war leader and designed to be such and
- Did not go to his grave saying ‘well that was a dull life’.
My thoughts about Churchill as a war leader were a little coloured by the fact that on a beachy lying in the sun on holiday once I read Allanbrook’s war diaries, the Chief of Staff, a substantial read, and all these years two things remain with me. One of them is that he bemoans a dreadful shoot where they bagged a mere 800 brace of Pheasant. Blimey. And secondly, and of more relevance, his exasperation with a leader in Churchill he clearly felt sometimes to be as mad as a box of cheese. Though there’s was a good partnership – Allanbrooke made the good ideas work, and quietly dumped the madder ones. I worked as part of a team like that with a boss like that – I was not the live wire I should point out, I was the chief idea dumper.
None the less, I don’t need to tell you that his oratory inspired a nation or nations, his relentless and indomitable spirit fired resistance and helped Britain and its numerous allies throughout the Empire and outside the Empire to defeat the evil of Nazism. One of his staff spoke for many when he described proximity to Churchill as
The feeling of being recharged with the source of living power
I could unleash a few of those famous speeches on you, but of course I wouldn’t be able to do them justice, and I suspect they are very widely known, especially the ‘We shall never surrender’ speech of 4th June in the Commons, or the August 1940 speech ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few’. He worked hard on his speeches did Churchill, and to good effect.
In the context of this podcast though, focussed on party & parliament, I think I would only add that Churchill was also a considerably more sensitive political leader than you might imagine. Aware that his brother in arms Asquith had fallen due to political intrigues, he distributed power and responsibilities across the political groups, Labour principally but also Liberals. Clement Attlee as leader of the Labour party, would become his Deputy PM in 1942. This is an odd role; like much within the British system, it doesn’t seem to have much official constitutional status; after the war it would disappear again for while, and even now it’s not clear that the Deputy automatically steps in to an interim PM role if something happens to the boss; in 1942 it was more than a matter of expediency to make sure Labour felt a part of the government, rather than a structured long term organisational change; though in a time of war it obviously made sense.
Attlee and Churchill seemed to have worked very well together there is a famous Winston quote about Attlee which goes
Mr. Attlee is a very modest man. Indeed he has a lot to be modest about.
But it was said in private, has all the markings of a gag that just begged to be made, and Churchill vehemently denied having anything other than the greatest respect for his colleague, and vice versa. And you could see their styles could fit together; Attlee quiet, intelligent and collegiate. Churchill charismatic and bombastic.
The length of the parliament had been extended through the war by parliamentary vote, with an election promised as soon as the war ended. In 1945 Churchill wanted that to be when Japan was defeated – at the time it was thought that could go on to the end of 1946. But both Labour and the Liberals disagreed, and on the advice of the NEC Attlee took Labour out of the government, and a caretaker ministry was formed until July when the elections would be held. It was time to draw up the political battle lines again; Churchill of course was confident of victory, expecting a wave of euphoria to sweep him back into power.
 Dale, I: ‘The Prime Ministers’, p364