Three-party politics

Three-party politics













Politics after the fall of Lloyd George seemed far from the tranquillity

which Law had promised. There were three general elections in less than two

years (^November 1922; 6 December 1923; 29 October 1924), and the terrible

portent of a Labor government. The turmoil was largely technical. Though

Labor had emerged as the predominant party of the Left, the Liberal party

refused to die; and the British electoral system, mainly of one-member

constituencies, was ill adapted to cope with three parties. The general

elections of 1931 and 1935 were the only ones in which a single party (the

Conservatives) received a majority of the votes cast.1 Otherwise a

parliamentary majority was achieved more or less by accident, if at all.

However, there was no profound cleavage between the parties, despite much

synthetic bitterness. They offered old policies which had been their stock-

in-trade before the war. Labor offered social reform; the Conservatives

offered Protection. The victors in the twenties were the Liberals, in

policy though not in votes. The old Liberal cause of Free Trade had its

last years of triumph. If Sir William Harcourt had still been alive, he

could have said: 'We are all Liberals nowadays.' By 1925 England was back,

for a brief period, in the happy days of Gladstone.

The government which Law formed was strikingly Conservative, even

obscurantist, in composition. There had been nothing like it since Derby's

'Who? Who? ' ministry of 1852. The great figures of the partyAusten

Chamberlain, Balfour, Birkenheadsulkily repudiated the decision at the

Carlton Club: 'The meeting today rejected our advice. Other men who have

given other counsels must inherit our burdens.' The only minister of

established reputation, apart from Law himself, was Curzon, who deserted

Lloyd George as successfully as he had deserted Asquith and, considering

the humiliating way in which Lloyd George treated him, with more

justification;2 he remained foreign secretary. Law tried to enlist McKenna

as chancellor of the exchequeran odd choice for a Protectionist prime

minister to make, but at least McKenna, though a Free Trader, hated Lloyd

George. McKenna doubted whether the government would last and refused to

leave the comfortable security of the Midland Bank. Law then pushed Baldwin

into the vacant place, not without misgiving. Otherwise he had to make do

with junior ministers from Lloyd George's government and with holders of

historic names. His cabinet was the most aristocratic of the period,1 and

the only one to contain a duke (the duke of Devonshire) . Churchill called

it 'a government of the second eleven'; Birkenhead, more contemptuously, of

second-class intellects.

The general election of 1918 had been a plebiscite in favour of Lloyd

George. The general election of 1922 was a plebiscite against him. Law's

election manifesto sturdily promised negations. 'The nation's first need',

it declared, 'is, in every walk of life, to get on with its own work, with

the minimum of interference at home and of disturbance abroad.' There would

be drastic economies and a foreign policy of non-interference. The prime

minister would no longer meddle in the affairs of other ministers. Law

returned the conduct of foreign affairs to Curzon. He refused to meet a

deputation of the unemployedthat was a job for the ministry of labor. In

the first flush of reaction, Law announced his intention of undoing all

Lloyd George's innovations in government, including the cabinet

secretariat. He soon thought better of this, and, though he dismantled

Lloyd George's body of private advisers, 'the garden suburb', he kept

Hankey and the secretariat. The cabinet continued to perform its work in a

businesslike way with prepared agenda, a record of its" decisions, and some

control on how they were carried out.


This preservation of the cabinet secretariat was Law's contribution as

prime minister to British history. The contribution was important, though

how important cannot be gauged until the cabinet records are opened. The

cabinet became a more formal, perhaps a more efficient body. Maybe also

there was an increasing tendency for a few senior ministers to settle

things between themselves and then to present the cabinet with a virtual

fait accompli, as MacDonald did with J. H. Thomas and Snowden or Neville

Chamberlain with Halifax, Hoare, and Simon. But this practice had always

existed. A cabinet of equals, discussing every question fully, was a legend

from some imaginary Golden Age. On the other hand, the power and authority

of the prime minister certainly increased in this period, and no doubt his

control of the cabinet secretariat was one of the causes for this. It was

not the only one. Every prime minister after Lloyd George controlled a

mighty party machine. The prime minister alone determined the dissolution

of parliament after 1931, and the circumstances of 1931 were peculiar.

Above all, the loaves and fishes of office, which the prime minister

distributed, had a greater lure than in an aristocratic age when many of

the men in politics already possessed great wealth and titles. At any rate,

Law, willingly or not, helped to put the prime minister above his


Gloomy as ever, Law doubted whether the Conservatives would win the

election and even thought he might lose his own seat at Glasgow. When

pressed by Free Trade Conservatives such as Lord Derby, he repudiated

Protection, much to Beaver-brook's dismay, and gave a pledge that there

would be no fundamental change in the fiscal system without a second

general election. The other parties were equally negative. Labor had a

specific proposal, the capital levy, as well as its general programme of

1918; but, deciding half-way through the campaign that the capital levy was

an embarrassment, dropped it, just as Law had dropped Protection. The

independent Liberals, led by Asquith, merely claimed, with truth, that they

had never supported Lloyd George. The Coalition, now called National

Liberals, hoped to scrape back with Conservative votes. Beaver-brook spoilt

their game by promoting, and in some cases financing, Conservative

candidates against them; fifty-four, out of the fifty-six National Liberals

thus challenged, were defeated. The voting was as negative as the parties.

Five and a half million voted Conservative; just over 4 million voted

Liberal (Asquithians 2-5 million, National i-6 million); 4-2 million voted

Labor. The result was, however, decisive, owing to the odd working of three-

or often four-cornered contests. The Conservatives held almost precisely

their numbers at the dissolution: with 345 seats they had a majority of 77

over the other parties combined. Labor won 142 seats; the Liberals, with

almost exactly the same vote (but about 70 more candidates), only 117. All

the National Liberal leaders were defeated except Lloyd George in his

pocket borough at Caernarvon. Churchill, who had just lost his appendix,

also lost his seat at Dundee, a two-member constituency, to a

Prohibitionist and to E. D. Morel, secretary of the Union of Democratic

Control. This was a striking reversal of fortunes.


The Conservatives and Liberals were much the same people as before, with a

drop of twenty or so in the number of company directorsmainly due no doubt

to the reduction of National Liberals by half. Labor was so changed as to

be almost a different party. In the previous parliament the Labor members

had all been union nominees, as near as makes no odds (all but one in 1918,

all but three at the dissolution); all were of working-class origin. Now

the trade unionists were little more than half (80 out of 142), and middle-

class, even upper-class, men sat on the Labor benches for the first time.3

In composition Labor was thus more of a national party than before and less

an interest group. In outlook it was less national, or at any rate more

hostile to the existing order in economics and in nearly everything else.

The old Labor M.P.s had not much to distinguish them except their class, as

they showed during the war by their support for Lloyd George. The new men

repudiated both capitalism and traditional foreign policy.

There were combative working-class socialists of the I.L.P., particularly

from Glasgow. These Clydesiders, as they were called, won twenty-one out of

twenty-eight seats in their region. They imagined that they were about to

launch the social revolution. One of them, David Kirkwood, a shop steward

who ended in the house of lords, shouted to the crowd who saw him off:

'When we come back, this station, this railway, will belong to the people!'

The men from the middle and upper classes had usually joined the Labor

party because of their opposition to the foreign policy which, in their

opinion, had caused and prolonged the war. Often, going further than the

U.D.C. and its condemnation of secret diplomacy, they believed that wars

were caused by the capitalist system. Clement Attlee,1 who entered

parliament at this election, denned their attitude when he said: 'So long

as they had capitalist governments they could not trust them with


The cleavage between old Labor and new was not absolute. Not all the trade

unionists were moderate men, and the moderates had turned against Lloyd

George after the war, even to the extent of promoting a general strike to

prevent intervention against Russia. All of them, thanks to Henderson, had

accepted a foreign policy which was almost indistinguishable from that of

the U.D.C.3 On the other hand, not all the I.L.P. members were extremists:

both MacDonald and Snowden, for example, were still I.L.P. nominees. The

new men understood the need for trade union money and appreciated that they

had been returned mainly by working-class votes. For, while Labor had now

some middle-class adherents at the top, it had few middle-class voters;

almost any middle-class man who joined the Labor party found himself a

parliamentary candidate in no time. Moreover, even the most assertive

socialists had little in the way of a coherent socialist policy. They

tended to think that social reform, if pushed hard enough, would turn into

socialism of itself, and therefore differed from the moderates only in

pushing harder. Most Labor M.P.s had considerable experience as shop

stewards or in local government, and they had changed things there simply

by administering the existing machine in a different spirit. The Red Flag

flew on the Clyde, in Poplar, in South Wales. Socialists expected that all

would be well when it flew also at Westminster.

Nevertheless, the advance of Labor and its new spirit raised an alarm of

'Bolshevism' particularly when two Communists now appeared in

parliamentboth elected with the assistance of Labor votes.1 The alarm was

unfounded. The two M.P.s represented the peak of Communist achievement. The

Labor party repeatedly refused the application of the Communist party for

affiliation and gradually excluded individual Communists by a system more

elaborate than anything known since the repeal of the Test Acts.2 Certainly

there was throughout the Labor movement much interest in Soviet Russia, and

even some admiration. Russia was 'the workers' state'; she was building

socialism. The terror and dictatorship, though almost universally

condemned, were excused as having been forced on Russia by the Allied

intervention and the civil war. English socialists drew the consoling moral

that such ruthlessness would be unnecessary in a democratic country.

Democracythe belief that the will of the majority should prevailwas in

their blood. They were confident that the majority would soon be on their

side. Evolution was now the universal pattern of thought: the idea that

things were on the move, and always upwards. Men assumed that the curve of

a graph could be proj ected indefinitely in the same direction: that

national wealth, for example, would go on increasing automatically or that

the birth rate, having fallen from 30 per thousand to 17 in thirty years,

would in the next thirty fall to 7 or even o. Similarly, since the Labor

vote had gone up steadily, it would continue to rise at the same rate. In

1923 Sidney Webb solemnly told the Labor annual conference that 'from the

rising curve of Labor votes it might be computed that the party would

obtain a clear majority . . . somewhere about 1926'.' Hence Labor had only

to wait, and the revolution would come of itself. Such, again according to

Webb, was 'the inevitability of gradualness'.


When parliament met, the Labor M.P.s elected Ramsay MacDonald as their

leader. The election was a close-run thing: a majority of five, according

to Clynes, the defeated candidate; of two, according to the later, perhaps

jaundiced, account by Philip Snowden. The Clydesiders voted solid for

MacDonald to their subsequent regret. The narrow majority was misleading:

it reflected mainly the jealousy of those who had sat in the previous

parliament against the newcomers. MacDonald was indeed the predestined

leader of Labor. He had largely created the party in its first years; he

had already led the party before the war; and Arthur Henderson had been

assiduously preparing his restoration.2 He had, in some undefined way, the

national stature which other Labor men lacked. He was maybe vain, moody,

solitary; yet, as Shinwell has said, in presence a prince among men. He was

the last beautiful speaker of the Gladstone school, with a ravishing voice

and turn of phrase. His rhetoric, though it defied analysis, exactly

reflected the emotions of the Labor movement, and he dominated that

movement as long as he led it.

There were practical gifts behind the cloud of phrases. He was a first-

rate chairman of the cabinet, a skilful and successful negotiator, and he

had a unique grasp of foreign affairs, as Lord Eustace Percy, by no means a

sympathetic judge, recognized as late as 1935.3 With all his faults, he was

the greatest leader Labor has had, and his name would stand high if he had

not outlived his abilities. MacDonald's election in 1922 was a portent in

another way. The Labor M.P.s were no longer electing merely their chairman

for the coming session. They were electing the leader of a national party

and, implicitly therefore, a future prime minister. The party never changed

its leader again from session to session as it had done even between 1918

and 1922. Henceforth the leader was re-elected each year until old age or a

major upheaval over policy ended his tenure.

Ramsay MacDonald set his stamp on the inter-war years. He did not have to

wait long to be joined by the man who set a stamp along with him: Stanley

Baldwin. Law doubted his own physical capacity when he took office and did

not intend to remain more than a few months. It seemed obvious at first who

would succeed him: Marquis Gurzon,1 foreign secretary, former viceroy of

India, and sole survivor in office (apart from Law) of the great war

cabinet. Moreover, in the brief period of Law's premiership, Curzon

enhanced his reputation. Baldwin, the only possible rival, injured what

reputation he had. Curzon went off to make peace with the Turks at the

conference of Lausanne. He fought a lone battle, almost without resources

and quite without backing from home, in the style of Castle-reagh; and he

carried the day. Though the Turks recovered Constantinople and eastern

Thrace, the zone of the Straits remained neutralized, and the Straits were

to be open to warships in time of peacea reversal of traditional British

policy and an implied threat to Soviet Russia, though one never operated.

Moreover, the Turks were bewitched by Curzon's seeming moderation and laid

aside the resentment which Lloyd George had provoked. More important still,

Curzon carried off the rich oil wells of Mosul, to the great profit of

British oil companies and of Mr. Calouste Gulbenkian, who drew therefrom

his fabulous 5 per cent.


Baldwin, also in search of tranquillity, went off to Washington to settle

Great Britain's debt to the United States. Law held firmly to the principle

of the Balfour note that Great Britain should pay her debt only to the

extent that she received what was owed to her by others. Anything else, he

believed, 'would reduce the standard of living in this country for a

generation'. Baldwin was instructed to settle only on this basis. In

Washington he lost his nerve, perhaps pushed into surrender by his

companion, Montagu Norman, governor of the bank of England, who had an

incurable zest for financial orthodoxy. Without securing the permission of

the cabinet, Baldwin agreed to an unconditional settlement on harsh terms2

and, to make matters worse, announced the terms publicly on his return. Law

wished to reject the settlement: 'I should be the most cursed Prime

Minister that ever held office in England if I accepted those terms.' His

opposition was sustained by the two independent experts whom he consulted,

McKenna and Keynes. The cabinet, however, was for acceptance. Law found

himself alone. He wished to resign and was persuaded to stay on by the

pleas of his colleagues. He satisfied his conscience by publishing an

anonymous attack on the policy of his own government in the columns of The


As things worked out, Great Britain was not ruined by the settlement of

the American debt, though it was no doubt irksome that France and Italy

later settled their debt on easier terms. Throughout the twenties the

British collected a balancing amount from their own debtors and in

reparations. The real harm lay elsewhere. While the settlement perhaps

improved relations with the United States, it compelled the British to

collect their own debts and therefore to insist on the payment of

reparations by Germany both to others and to themselves. This was already

clear in 1923. Poincare, now French premier, attempted to enforce the

payment of reparations by occupying the Ruhr. The Germans took up passive

resistance, the mark tumbled to nothing, the finances of central Europe

were again in chaos. The British government protested and acquiesced.

French troops were allowed to pass through the British zone of occupation

in the Rhineland. While the British condemned Poincare's method, they could

no longer dispute his aim: they were tied to the French claim at the same

time as they opposed it.

The debt settlement might have been expected to turn Law against Baldwin.

There were powerful factors on the other side. Law knew that Curzon was

unpopular in the Conservative partydisliked both for his pompous arrogance

and his weakness. Curzon lacked resolution, despite his rigid appearance.

He was one of nature's rats. He ran away over the Parliament bill; he

succumbed to women's suffrage. He promised to stand by Asquith and then

abandoned him. He did the same with Lloyd George. Beaverbrook has called

him 'a political jumping jack'. Law regarded the impending choice between

Curzon and Baldwin with more than his usual gloom. He tried to escape from

it by inviting Austen Chamberlain to join the government with the prospect

of being his successor in the autumn. Chamberlain appreciated that his

standing in the Conservative party had been for ever shaken by the vote at

the Carlton club, and refused.

The end came abruptly. In May Law was found to have incurable cancer of

the throat. He resigned at once. Consoled by the misleading precedent of

what happened when Gladstone resigned in 1894, he made no recommendation as

to his successor. He expected this to be Curzon, and was glad that it would

be none of his doing. However, the king was led to believe, whether

correctly or not, that Law favoured Baldwin, and he duly followed what he

supposed to be the advice of his retiring prime minister as the monarch has

done on all other occasions since 1894.3 Law lingered on until 30 October.

He was buried in Westminster Abbeythe first prime minister to follow

Gladstone there and with Neville Chamberlain, so far, as his only

successor. The reason for this distinction is obscure. Was it because he

had reunited the Conservative party? or because he had overthrown Lloyd



Baldwin did not follow Law's example of waiting to accept office until he

had been elected leader of the Conservative party. He became prime minister

on 21 May, was elected leader on 28 May. Curzon proposed the election with

phrases adequately fulsome. Privately he is reputed to have called Baldwin

'a man of the utmost insignificance'. This was Baldwin's strength. He

seemed, though he was not, an ordinary man. He presented himself as a

simple country gentleman, interested only in pigs. He was in fact a wealthy

ironmaster, with distinguished literary connexions.2 His simple exterior

concealed a skilful political operator. Lloyd George, after bitter

experience, called him 'the most formidable antagonist whom I ever

encountered'no mean tribute. Baldwin played politics by ear. He read few

official documents, the newspapers not at all. He sat on the treasury bench

day after day, sniffing the order-paper, cracking his fingers, and studying

the house of commons in its every mood. He had in his mind a picture, no

doubt imaginary, of the patriarchal relations between masters and men at

his father's steel works, and aspired to establish these

relations with Labor on a national scale. This spirit met a response from

the other side. MacDonald said of him as early as 1923: 'In all essentials,

his outlook is very close to ours.' It is hard to decide whether Baldwin or

MacDonald did more to fit Labor into constitutional life.

Baldwin did not set the Conservative pattern alone. He acquired, almost

by accident, an associate from whom he was never parted: Neville

Chamberlain.3 The two were yoke-fellows rather than partners, bound

together by dislike of Lloyd George and by little else. Chamberlain was

harsher than Baldwin, more impatient with criticism and with events. He

antagonized where Baldwin conciliated. He was also more practical and eager

to get things done. He had a zest for administrative reform. Nearly all the

domestic achievements of Conservative governments between the wars stand to

his credit, and most of the troubles also. Active Conservatives often

strove to get rid of Baldwin and to put Chamberlain in his place. They did

not succeed. Chamberlain sinned against Napoleon's rule: he was a man of No

Luck. The cards always ran against him. He was humiliated by Lloyd George

at the beginning of his political career, and cheated by Hitler at the end.

Baldwin kept him in the second place, almost without trying.

Chamberlain's Housing Act (introduced in April, enacted in July) was the

one solid work of this dull government. It was provoked by the complete

stop in house building when Addison's programme ended. Chamberlain

believed, like most people, that Addison's unlimited subsidies were the

main cause of high building costs. He was also anxious, as a good

Conservative, to show that private enterprise could do better than local

authorities. His limited subsidy (6 a year for twenty years) went to

private and public builders alike, with a preference for the former; and

they built houses only for sale. Mean houses ('non-parlour type' was the

technical phrase) were built for those who could afford nothing better.

Predominantly, the Chamberlain act benefited the lower middle class, not

the industrial workers. This financial discrimination caused much

bitterness. Chamberlain was marked as the enemy of the poor, and his

housing act lost the Conservatives more votes than it gained.


Still, there seemed no reason why the government should not jog on. Its

majority was solid; economic conditions were not markedly deteriorating.

Without warning, Baldwin raised the ghost which Law had exorcized in 1922.

On 25 October he announced that he could fight unemployment only if he had

a free hand to introduce Protection. His motives for this sudden decision

remain obscure. Protection had been for many years at once the inspiration

and the bane of the Conservative party. There would hardly have been a

lively mind or a creative personality on the Conservative benches without

it. On the other hand, it had repeatedly brought party disunion and

electoral defeat. Hence Balfour had sworn off it in 1910, and Law in 1922.

There seemed little reason to revive this terrible controversy now. An

imperial conference was indeed in session, principally to ensure that no

British government would ever take such an initiative as Chanak again. The

conference expressed the usual pious wish for Imperial Preference. This

meant in practice British tariffs on foreign food, while foodstuffs from

the Dominions came in free. There would be Dominion preferences for British

manufactures only in the sense that Dominion tariffs, which were already

prohibitively high, would go up further against the foreigner. This was not

an attractive proposition to put before the British electorate, and Baldwin

did not attempt it. He pledged himself against 'stomach taxes'. There would

be 'no tax on wheat or meat'. Imperial Preference was thus ruled out.

Later, when Protection had brought defeat for the Conservatives, Baldwin

excused himself on grounds of political tactics. Lloyd George, he alleged,

was returning from a triumphal tour of North America with a grandiose

programme of empire development. Baldwin 'had to get in quick'. His

championing of Protection 'dished the Goat' [Lloyd George].1 Austen

Chamberlain and other Conservatives who had adhered to Lloyd George swung

back on to Baldwin's side. This story seems to have been devised after the

event. Chamberlain and the rest were already swinging back; there was no

serious sign that Lloyd George was inclining towards Protection. Perhaps

Baldwin, a man still little known, wished to establish his reputation with

the Conservative rank and file. Perhaps he wished to show that he, not

Beaverbrook, was Law's heir. The simplest explanation is probably the true

one. Baldwin, like most manufacturers of steel, thought only of the home

market. He did not grasp the problem of exports and hoped merely that there

would be more sale for British steel if foreign supplies were reduced. For

once, he took the initiative and learnt from his failure not to take it


Protection involved a general election in order to shake off Law's pledge

of a year before. The cry of Protection certainly brought the former

associates of Lloyd George back to Baldwin. This was more than offset by

the resentment of Free Trade Conservatives, particularly in Lancashire.

Defence of Free Trade at last reunited the Liberal party, much to Lloyd

George's discomfiturethough this was hardly Baldwin's doing. With Free

Trade the dominant issue, Lloyd George was shackled to the orthodox

Asquithian remnant. Asquith was once more undisputed leader; Lloyd George,

the man who won the war, merely his unwilling lieutenant. It was small

consolation that the Asquithians had their expenses paid by the Lloyd

George Fund.

The election of December 1923 was as negative as its predecessor. This

time negation went against Protection, and doing nothing favoured the once-

radical cause of Free Trade. Though the overall vote remained much the

same the Conservatives received about 100,000 less,3 the Liberals 200,000,

and Labor 100,000 morethe results were startlingly different. The

Conservatives lost over ninety seats, the Liberals gained forty, and Labor

fifty.4 The dominant groups of 1918 were further depleted, relatively in

one case, absolutely in the other. The trade unionists, once all-powerful,

were now a bare majority in the Labor party (98 out of 191). The National

(Lloyd George) Liberals, already halved in 1922, were now halved again,

despite the Liberal gains. There were only twenty-six of them. Their former

seats nearly all went to Labor, evidence that they had formed the Liberal

Left wing. The outcome was a tangle: no single party with a majority, yet

the Liberals barred from coalition by their dislike of Protection on the

one side, of socialism on the other.


It was obvious that the government would be defeated when parliament met.

Then, according to constitutional precedent, the king would send for the

leader of the next largest party, Ramsay MacDonald. Harebrained schemes

were aired for averting this terrible outcome. Balfour, or Austen

Chamberlain, should take Baldwin's place as Conservative premier; Asquith

should head a Liberal-Conservative coalition; McKenna should form a non-

parliamentary government of 'national trustees'. None of these schemes came

to anything. Asquith was clear that Labor should be put in, though he also

assumed that he would himself become prime minister when, as was bound to

happen soon, they were put out. In any case, George V took his own line:

Labor must be given 'a fair chance'. On 21 January the Conservative

government was defeated by seventy-two votes.1 On the following day

MacDonald became prime minister, having first been sworn of the privy

councilthe only prime minister to need this preliminary. George V wrote in

his diary: 'Today 23 years ago dear Grandmama died. I wonder what she would

have thought of a Labor Government!'; and a few weeks later to his mother:

'They [the new Ministers] have different ideas to ours as they are all

socialists, but they ought to be given a chance & ought to be treated


MacDonald was a man of considerable executive ability, despite his lack of

ministerial experience; he had also many years' training in balancing

between the different groups and factions in the Labor movement. On some

points he consulted Haldane, who became lord chancellor, principally in

order to look after the revived committee of imperial defence. Snowden,

MacDonald's longtime associate and rival in the I.L.P., became chancellor

of the exchequer. MacDonald himself took the foreign office, his consuming

interest; besides, he was the only name big enough to keep out E. D. Morel.

The revolutionary Left was almost passed over. Lansbury, its outstanding

English figure, was left out, partly to please George V, who disliked

Lansbury's threat to treat him as Cromwell treated Charles I. Wheatley, a.

Roman Catholic businessman who became minister of health, was the only

Clydesider in the government; to everyone's surprise he turned out its most

successful member. Broadly the cabinet combined trade unionists and members

of the U.D.C. It marked a social revolution despite its moderation: working

men in a majority, the great public schools and the old universities

eclipsed for the first time.

The Labor government recognized that they could make no fundamental

changes, even if they knew what to make: they were 'in office, but not in

power'. Their object vas to show that Labor could govern, maybe also that

it could administer in a more warm-hearted way. The" Left did not like this

tame outlook and set up a committee of backbench M.P.s to control the

government; it did not have much effect. The Labor ministers hardly needed

the king's exhortation to 'prudence and sagacity'.1 All, except Wheatley,

were moderate men, anxious to show their respectability. They were willing

to hire court dress (though not knee-breeches) from Moss Bros. It was a

more serious difficulty that they lacked experience in government routine.

Only two (Haldane and Henderson) had previously sat in a cabinet. Fifteen

out of the twenty had never occupied any ministerial post. Inevitably they

relied on the civil servan:s in their departments, and these, though

personally sympathetic, were not running over with enthusiasm for an

extensive socialist programme.


Wheatley was the only minister with a creative aggressive outlook. His

Housing Act was the more surprising in that it had no background in party

discussion or programme, other than Labor's dislike of bad housing

conditions, Unlike Neville Chamberlain or even Addison, Wheatley recognized

that the housing shortage was a long-term problem. He increased the

subsidy;2 put the main responsibility back on the local authorities; and

insisted that the houses must be built to rent. More important still, he

secured an expansion of the building industry by promising that the scheme

would operate steadily for fifteen years. This was almost the first

cooperation between government and industry in peacetime; it was also the

first peacetime demonstration of the virtues of planning. Though the full

Wheatley programme was broken off short in 1932 at the time of the economic

crisis, housing shortage, in the narrowest sense, had by then been

virtually overcome. Wheatley's Act did not, of course, do anything to get

rid of the slums. It benefited the more prosperous and secure section of

the working class, and slum-dwellers were lucky to find old houses which

the council tenants had vacated. The bill had a passage of hard argument

through the house of commons. Hardly anyone opposed its principle outright.

Men of all parties were thus imperceptibly coming to agree that the

provision of houses was a social duty, though they differed over the method

and the speed with which this should be done.

One other landmark was set up by the Labor government, again almost

unnoticed. Trevelyan, at the board of education, was armed with a firm

statement of Labor policy, Secondary Education for All, drafted by the

historian R. H. Tawney, who provided much of the moral inspiration for

Labor in these years. Trevelyan largely undid the economies in secondary

education which had been made by the Geddes axe, though he also discovered

that Labor would be effective in educational matters only when it

controlled the local authorities as well as the central government. More

than this, he instructed the consultative committee of the board, under Sir

Henry Hadow, to work out how Labor's full policy could be applied, and he

deserves most of the credit for what followed even though the committee did

not report until 1926. The Hadow report set the pattern for English

publicly maintained education to the present day. Its ultimate ideal was to

raise the school-leaving age to 15. Failing this (and it did not come until

after the second World war), there should be an immediate and permanent

innovation: a break between primary and secondary education at n.1 Hence

the pupils at elementary schools, who previously stayed on to 14, had now

to be provided for elsewhere or, at the very least, in special 'senior

classes'. Here was a great achievement, at any rate in principle: a clear

recognition, again imperceptibly accepted by men of all parties, that the

entire population, and not merely a privileged minority, were entitled to

some education beyond 'the three R's'. It was less fortunate that the new

system of a break at 'eleven plus' increased the divergence between the

publicly maintained schools and the private schools for the fee-paying

minority where the break came at 13.

The reforms instituted by Wheatley and by Trevelyan both had the

advantage that, while they involved considerable expenditure over a

period of years, they did not call for much money in the immediate future.

This alone enabled them to survive the scrutiny of Philip Snowden,

chancellor of the exchequer. Snowden had spent his life preaching social

reforms; but he also believed that a balanced budget and rigorous economy

were the only foundation for such reforms, and he soon convinced himself

that the reforms would have to wait until the foundation had been well and

truly laid. His budget would have delighted the heart of Gladstone:

expenditure down, and taxes also, the 'free breakfast table' on the way to

being restored,1 and the McKenna Dutiespathetic remnant of wartime

Protection abolished. No doubt a 'Liberal' budget was inevitable in the

circumstances of minority government; but it caused no stir of protest in

the Labor movement. Most Labor men assumed that finance was a neutral

subject, which had nothing to do with politics. Snowden himself wrote of

Montagu Norman: 'I know nothing at all about his politics. I do not know if

has he any.' Far from welcoming any increase in public spending, let alone

advocating it, Labor had inherited the radical view that money spent by the

state was likely to be money spent incompetently and corruptly: it would

provide outdoor relief for the aristocracy or, as in Lloyd George's time,

undeserved wealth for profiteers. The social reforms in which Labor

believed were advocated despite the fact that they cost money, not because

of it, and Snowden had an easy time checking these reforms as soon as he

pointed to their cost.


The Labor government were peculiarly helpless when faced with the problem

of unemploymentthe unemployed remained at well over a million. Labor

theorists had no prepared answer and failed to evolve one. The traditional

evil of capitalism had been poverty: this gave Labor its moral force just

as it gave Marxists the confidence that, with increasing poverty,

capitalism would 'burst asunder'. No socialist, Marxist or otherwise, had

ever doubted that poverty could be ended by means of the rich resources

which capitalism provided. Mass unemployment was a puzzling accident,

perhaps even a mean trick which the capitalists were playing on the Labor

government; it was not regarded as an inevitable outcome of the existing

economic system, at any rate for some time. Vaguely, Labor held that

socialism would get rid of unemployment as it would get rid of all other

evils inherent in the capitalist system. There would be ample demand for

goods, and therefore full employment, once this demand ceased to be a

matter of 'pounds, shillings, and pence'. The socialist economic system

would work of itself, as capitalism was doing. This automatic operation of

capitalism was a view held by nearly all economists, and Labor accepted

their teaching. Keynes was moving towards the idea that unemployment could

be conquered, or at any rate alleviated, by means of public works. He was

practically alone among professional economists in this. Hugh Dalton,

himself a teacher of economics, and soon to be a Labor M.P.,1 dismissed

Keynes's idea as 'mere Lloyd George finance'a damning verdict. Such a

policy was worse than useless; it was immoral.

Economic difficulties arose for the Labor government in a more immediate

way. Industrial disputes did not come to an end merely because Labor was in

office. Ramsay MacDonald had hardly kissed hands before there was a strike

of engine driversa strike fortunately settled by an intervention of the

T.U.C. general council. Strikes first of dockers, then of London

tramwaymen, were not dealt with so easily. The government planned to use

against these strikes the Emergency Powers Act, which Labor had denounced

so fiercely when introduced by Lloyd George. It was particularly ironical

that the proposed dictator, or chief civil commissioner, was Wedgwood,

chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, who was generally held to be more an

anarchist than a socialist. Here was fine trouble in the making. The unions

provided most of the money for the Labor party, yet Labor in office had to

show that it was fit to govern. Both sides backed away. The government did

not actually run armed lorries through the streets of London,2 and Ernest

Bevin, the men's leader, ended the strikes, though indignant at having to

listen to appeal of our own people. The dispute left an ugly memory. A

joint committee of the T.U.C. general council and the Labor party executive

condemned the governments proposed action. MacDonald replied that public

doles, Poplarism, strikes for increased wages, limitations of output, not

only are not Socialism, but may mislead the spirit and policy of the

Socialist movement.

© 2009