Britain’s First Labour Government
Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.
Reviewed by Antoine Capet
Because of the disaster of 1931, the 1929-1931 Labour Government has benefited from a copious historiography,1 but that of 1924 has remained somewhat neglected,2 in spite of its historic importance as the first Government to break the old Tory/Whig, Conservative/Liberal duopoly—an epoch-making event immediately perceived as such by many of its contemporaries, including King George V, whose famous diary entry (“Today 23 years ago dear Grandmama died. I wonder what she would have thought of a Labour government”) the authors do not fail to quote in their most useful introductory chapter, “From Foundation Conference to Government.” The second chapter, “Over the Threshold,” is in some way a continuation of the essential contextual material offered in the first, so that Labour in government is only really tackled in Chapter 3, “Labour Takes Office.”
The authors naturally re-examine the debate inside the party on the desirability of forming a minority government, with Ramsay MacDonald’s3 own hesitations and why he overcame them. Likewise, they go back on the reasons why he chose to combine the Premiership with the Foreign Office. They also discuss the Leader’s choice of ministers, including the unfortunate appointment of “Manny” Shinwell as Minister of Mines, “an indication that the Labour [Government] had little time for trade union experts in political office”  which was “deeply resented by the mining unions” . Much of the original sources adduced comes from MacDonald’s and the Webbs’ diaries, while the reception of the final composition of Labour’s first government at home and abroad is very interestingly documented, with many well-chosen quotations, like that of the Sydney Morning Herald, which summed up MacDonald’s dilemma in a nutshell: “Mr. MacDonald had to determine between the wings of his supporters and the extreme Labour wing, and his choice ran to moderation, be the ultimate cost what it may” .
Classically, the rest of the book examines “Domestic Policies” (Chapter 4) and “Foreign and Imperial Policy” (Chapter 6), with a section on “Minority Government” and its inevitable constraints in-between (Chapter 5). And, as in every good tragedy, the story ends with “Downfall” (Chapter 7). For those of us born immediately after the war who vividly remember the pre-Blair, “Old Labour” days, with the Wilson and Callaghan Governments, the description of what seems to be a constant in the list of the most pressing domestic questions facing a Labour Government—the love-hate relationship with the unions which largely financed the party and quantitatively dominated its annual Conferences with their “block vote”—makes fascinating reading. There seems to be a perfect seventy years’ continuity, a textbook illustration of “plus ça change…,” between 1924 and 1994. Hardly had Labour taken office (on 22 January) when the dockers voted for a national stoppage (29 January). In other words, it only took a week before there came what most Labour voters and sympathisers must have dreaded since the formation of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900: a confrontation between “the party of the working class” and the unions which backed it. Ernest Bevin, a future hero in the popular history of the party, joined in the fray in March on behalf of his London tram and Underground workers. The authors’ account has a revealing passage which one could probably find mutatis mutandis in any book on Labour in power from 1924 to 1979:
It would not be difficult for the enemies of “Old Labour” today—in the party or outside it—to trace the “Tax and Spend” label which was to do it so much harm in the polling booths to the “tradition” established in the spring of 1924 and perfectly documented by Shepherd and Laybourn. The irony is that Philip Snowden, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, “was impeccably orthodox on economic matters” , with the result that he was “unlikely to accept fully even the most limited of the Labour Party responses to unemployment” —naturally the most pressing domestic problem of 1920s and 1930s Britain. No wonder then that his policies “made the introduction of costly unemployment schemes almost impossible” . For Shepherd and Laybourn, Labour’s only significant economic reform in 1924 seems to have been Wheatley’s Housing Act, which effectively encouraged construction for the working classes.
But Socialism is not only about economics—man (in this instance woman) does not live by bread alone—and the chapter on “Domestic Policies” has a substantial discussion of the progress in the cause of women under Labour’s first government, not so much in the field of political representation—though Margaret Bonfield’s promotion remains one of the actions to be put on the first MacDonald Government’s credit—as in that of birth control facilities. The chapter ends on the common-sense conclusion that one could not expect wonders from a Government which only stayed in power for nine and a half months—furthermore in a minority position, the object of the next chapter, which expounds the notion that Labour “was in office, but not in power” .
Since the Labour Government relied on Liberal goodwill for its survival, the authors not unexpectedly examine the situation in the Liberal Party in 1923-1924—a situation not made easier by the Asquith-Lloyd George split since 1916. The idea of the first Labour Government navigating between the Charybdis of alienating the Liberals and the Scylla of losing its natural supporters is of course not a new one—indeed the 1924 situation (commonly met on the Continent, with often equally paralysing effects) has long been a favourite bugbear for the opponents of Proportional Representation like Roy Hattersley—so what makes or breaks any discussion of it is the quality of the supporting evidence, which is obviously faultless in Britain’s First Labour Government. The chapter indirectly suggests that it is on domestic policies far more than over foreign affairs that the impossible dilemma must have made itself most pressingly felt on the first Labour Prime Minister.
All is said on the authors’ judgement of MacDonald’s approach when they write in the first few paragraphs of “Foreign and Imperial Policy” : “As an instinctive internationalist, the new Premier was essentially more committed to the pacification of Europe than to handling domestic affairs and regarded both spheres as intrinsically linked” . Now, MacDonald was one of the prominent early advocates of dropping the clauses of Versailles, the cornerstone of France’s foreign and defence policy between the wars. When he declared in 1923 “There will never be peace so long as the Versailles Treaty is in existence” , at a time when the French and Belgians occupied the Ruhr area precisely to enforce the clauses on Reparations, this boded ill for his relations with Britain’s French ally during his premiership. But he somehow managed to come to an agreement with Poincaré and his successor Herriot on the Reparations Commission in the wake of the Dawes Plan. One of the connections between foreign and domestic policies was particularly visible in this instance, since German Reparations paid in kind under the Dawes Plan would include coal—to the detriment of British home production, as immediately pointed out by a disgruntled Miners’ Federation. MacDonald of course never solved (neither in 1924 nor in 1929-1935) the contradiction implicit in striving to sustain Britain’s rank as the largest Empire in the world while advocating Disarmament—which in Britain’s case meant depriving the Royal Navy of the means to maintain its overseas presence—simply because this was tantamount to squaring the circle, an impossible task for whose failure he cannot in fairness be blamed. But, the authors convincingly suggest, he did his best.
Of course the “hard” left has always denounced this as Labour and Socialist hypocrisy, and the Communist Workers’ Weekly attacked MacDonald’s Government in no uncertain terms:
Such charges, combined with appeals to the troops by the Editor, J.R. Campbell, in the 25 July issue, not to shoot fellow workers, eventually resulted in a lawsuit which, through hopeless mishandling, eventually brought about MacDonald’s resignation on 8 October. Shepherd and Laybourn have examined recently released files in the National Archives on the “Campbell Case” as it is now known in history books, and they show how the negotiations over the proposed Anglo-Soviet Treaty considerably complicated MacDonald’s task. They also discuss the various hypotheses put forward in previous accounts of the Government’s downfall by historians like Richard Lyman or Andrew Thorpe, but also by participants and witnesses like Beaverbrook or Lloyd George. This and the famous “Zinoviev Letter,” which in its turn supposedly prevented Labour from being re-elected on 29 October, remains one of the most intriguing incidents of twentieth-century British political life, so much so that a thorough international enquiry, resulting in a 126-page report, instigated by Robin Cook at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office 75 years later, in 1999,4 failed to produce conclusive evidence of a plot to “sink” MacDonald and his Labour Government. Still, as the authors conclude, “The story of the Zinoviev Letter—and its effects on the first Labour government—have echoed down the generations to the more recent allegations of the conspiracy to destabilise and undermine Harold Wilson’s Labour government in the mid 1970s” .
One’s assesment of the theses defended in the book will ultimately depend on one’s position on the political spectrum. The authors seem to be alluding to people influenced by the anti-MacDonald, intellectual “hard” Left when they write in their Conclusion: “Britain’s first Labour government has generally been portrayed as a mere cul de sac in the overall history of the Labour Party” . This we could call at best the “half-empty-glass” school—and it must be remarked that its judgements are often tainted with the distortions due to hindsight, with the rejection of MacDonald due to his subsequent “betrayal.” There is no doubt however that from the point of view of doctrinal purity, there was little Socialism or even “Labourism” (if we accept the Continental Socialists’ traditional contempt for the watered-down version adopted by their poor relations across the Channel) in the 1924 Labour Government’s action. But then if one takes the pragmatic point of view (“the proof of the pudding is in the eating”), as the authors clearly do, Labour’s stint in office was not an unmitigated disaster. Shepherd and Laybourn of course do not deny that in office Labour practised “[pale] pink Socialism” rather than “red Communism”—but, they argue, this was not a handicap but an asset in the long run, since MacDonald and his Government clearly established Labour as a responsible party of government, thus paving the ground for an evolution of mentalities among the electorate which eventually paid off. “It is thus in terms of its long-term impact and influence, rather than just its immediate successes or failures, that we must judge its achievements” , they leniently conclude, unhesitatingly joining the “half-full-glass” school. It is of course idle to try to re-write history and ask whether Labour would have won an overall majority in 1945 without the trial runs of 1924 and 1929-1931—it can be supposed that most informed commentators would say “Yes,” but we will never know. Likewise, considering the enormous tensions and rivalries inside that party, no-one can tell whether the events of 1924 really played a decisive role in the “dispatch [of] the Liberal Party to political oblivion” , as Shepherd and Laybourn suggest among the definite plusses of the legacy of Labour’s period in government.
Whatever school the reader feels inclined to follow, the fact remains that this is an important monograph, providing essential elements in any personal evaluation of Labour’s action in 1924. The photographs would have been more useful if the group scenes had been larger, with full captions identifying at least the front row protagonists—but the photograph of Philip Snowden in morning coat and top hat speaks volumes on Labour’s aspirations to be seen as part of the post-1918 Establishment. The book has a fairly detailed Index, and the state-of-the-art Bibliography5 (including recent Ph.D. theses) will be found invaluable for students and teachers alike. Britain’s First Labour Government should be in all British Studies, British Politics and British History Department Libraries.
1.The “classic” account remains Robert Skidelsky, Politicians and the Slump: The Labour Government of 1929-1931 (London: Macmillan, 1967). Complemented by the more recent Neil Riddell, Labour in Crisis: The Second Labour Government, 1929-31 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999). The on-line Royal Historical Society Bibliography (now with free access on <http://www.rhs.ac.uk/bibl/bibwel.asp>) gives a number of other references. back
2. The even older “classic” being Richard W. Lyman, The First Labour Government, 1924 (London: Chapman & Hall, 1957). back
3. Newcomers to the subject are advised to start with the magisterial biography: David Marquand, Ramsay MacDonald (London: Jonathan Cape, 1977). back
4. Gill Bennett, A Most Extraordinary and Mysterious Business: The Zinoviev Letter of 1924. History Notes, N°14 (London: Foreign & Commonwealth Office, General Services Command, 1999). back
5. The only omission I was able to detect is: Stuart Ball, “Democracy and the Rise of Labour: 1924 and 1929-1931”. In Anthony Seldon & Stuart Ball, eds., Recovering Power: The Conservatives in Opposition since 1867 (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 134-68. back