In Office but not in power?

Duncan Bowie on the 1924 Government

The Wild Men by David Torrance
The Men of 1924 by Peter Clark

The centenary of the formation of the first Labour government has generated  a number of new studies of that short-lived administration, which perhaps rather surprisingly has been the subject of only two previous studies – that by the American academic Richard Lyman in 1957 and the more recent volume by British socialist historians John Shepherd and  Keith Laybourn in 2006. The minority administration, propped up by the Liberals, but then voted out by them, lasted only nine months, and is generally regarded as not very successful, with John Wheatley’s Housing Act often cited as the main achievement, a view which is somewhat unfair.

The government’s leader and therefore the first Labour Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald is still regarded by many as a traitor for his action in 1931 in abandoning Labour to head a national coalition government dominated by the Conservatives, with his colleagues Philip Snowden and Jimmy Thomas tarred with the same brush. What the administration of January to November 1924 did was to prove two things – that a Labour party led by men from the working class was fit to govern (and not at all wild) and would not lead to either revolution or national collapse and secondly that without a parliamentary majority, the positive impacts of a Labour administration would be limited. Some thought that the main lesson was that Labour should never again take power without a parliamentary majority, though this perspective was to be rejected a second time in 1929 (when Labour became the largest party in parliament despite the Conservatives wining more votes).

Both Clark and Torrance adopt a biographical approach. Clark has written a popular collective biography of the Labour cabinet, which is mainly dependent on the autobiographies of his subjects and subsequent biographies, with no sign of any new research. The book is nevertheless useful for readers not familiar with the lesser-known members of the first Labour cabinet, such as J R Clynes, William Addison (both former party leaders), Fred Jowett, Stephen Walsh, Vernon Hartshorn or Tom Shaw. Clark however fails to examine the achievements or failures of these individuals in government, with a final chapter being limited to providing a chronology of the months in government.

Torrance’s book, with its ironic title, is much better. Torrance, a historian as well as working in the House of Commons library, has previously written biographies of a number of Scottish politicians, the interwar Tory Noel Skelton, the Liberal David Steel and the SNP’s Alex Salmon and Nicola Sturgeon. Torrance has a Scottish background and his book includes a discussion of the debates over Scottish devolution within the 1924 government and parliament, promoted by the first secretary of state for Scotland, the former miner, Willie Adamson, which came as somewhat of a surprise. Like Clark’s study, Torrance adopts a biographical approach, but he then links each biography to an analysis of what each Minister achieved in government. As well as the expected study of Macdonald as Prime Minister, we get a good analysis of Macdonald’s achievements as Foreign Secretary, which in terms of the London conference which resolved the dispute over reparations between Great Britain, France, the US and Germany with the acceptance of the Dawes plan and the establishment of diplomatic relations with Soviet Russia, were not insubstantial.

Torrance also pays attention to the important education reforms pursued by the former radical Liberal, Charles Trevelyan, the orthodox free trade and fiscal rectitude policies pursued by the chancellor, Philip Snowden, and the colonial policies of Jimmy Thomas, regarded as a successful Minister who provided a reassurance that there would be no mucking about with the British Empire’. 

The role of Lord Haldane, the former Liberal war secretary and Lord Chancellor, in managing the administration of government as well as leading the government in the Lords and chairing the Committee of Imperial Defence is stressed as is the effective collaboration with the civil service led by the cabinet secretary, Sir Maurice Hankey and his deputy Thomas Jones. This was critical given that of the administration, only Arthur Henderson had experience in the wartime cabinet, though Clynes and Stephen Walsh had been junior ministers. The administration was less successful when it came to employment policy. The Minister of Labour, Tom Shaw was fairly weak, and using emergency powers to stop strikes was bound to be controversial, though Margaret Bondfield as his junior minister was regarded as relatively successful, going on to be Minister of Labour in the 1929 government.
The final chapters focus on the long drawn out collapse of the government – the controversy over MacDonald accepting gifts from his friend Sir Alexander Grant of  the biscuit manufacturers McVities (becoming subject to  heckles of “biscuit” at his public appearances), the widespread opposition over the trade agreements with the Soviets, the incompetent handling of a prosecution of the Communist Party’s John Campbell for a “treasonous”  article in the Daily Worker (actually authored by Harry Pollitt). In the days running up to the election, the final straw came with the circulation of an alleged letter from the Comintern leader, Zinoviev,  instructing the British communists to organise revolutionary activity. 

The election was generated by the Liberals removing their support for the Government. Labour lost 40 seats, but it was the Liberals who had in fact committed political suicide, losing 118 seats, with Labour being installed as the leading opposition party for the following century, and the Liberals only ever returning to office as part of Conservative led coalitions.
Torrance’s book returns the 1924 government to its rightful place in history, while Clark’s book at least honours the memory of its members.

Published By Haus
Published by Bloomsbury

Leave a comment...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.