January 21 2024 / The Sunday Times
King George V had a shrewd understanding of the volatility of the British electorate and of the threat the emerging Labour Party posed to the established order. When in the autumn of 1923 Stanley Baldwin, who a few months earlier had succeeded Andrew Bonar Law as prime minister, asked for a dissolution of parliament ahead of a proposed general election, the king warned him ominously that his “majority might be reduced, or that he might not get a majority at all”.
Labour was led by Ramsay MacDonald, the illegitimate son of a ploughman. He was raised by his mother, a servant, in a two-room cottage in Lossiemouth, a fishing town in the northeast of Scotland. A supporter of Scottish home rule, he had opposed the First World War and wanted to abolish the House of Lords. The King, whose cousin Tsar Nicholas II had been executed by the Bolsheviks, feared MacDonald and the other “wild men” of Labour, as they were caricatured in the press. Their mission, as the Conservative grandee Leo Amery put it in a letter to Baldwin, was “levelling up by taxation [and] nationalisation”, but the greater fear was that Labour would unlock the forces of revolution in Britain.
The Tories had won a majority of 74 at the 1922 general election, but the United Kingdom was fractured, after the secession of most of Ireland, and the people were fractious. There were restive home rule movements in Scotland and Wales. The Russian Revolution had radicalised British communists and left-wing internationalists (Labour favoured free economic and diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union). What Labour called the “chronic disease” of unemployment was rising and Baldwin was mired in a dispute over free trade. He favoured protectionism and wanted his own mandate for tariff reform. He was convinced Labour, an undisciplined coalition of trade unionists, working-class radicals and Fabian intellectuals, was not ready to govern.
In the event Baldwin lost his majority, as the King had predicted. The result was a hung parliament, with Labour coming second for the first time: the Conservative Unionists won 258 seats, Labour 191 and the Liberals 158. There would be no coalition between Labour and the Liberals, but Herbert Asquith, the Liberal leader, was prepared to accept the experiment of a minority Labour government. MacDonald, who began the election campaign by taking a motoring tour from London to his constituency in Wales (he was carried head-high through the streets of Aberavon on arrival), would be prime minister. Henry “Chips” Channon, the Tory snob and libertine, wrote in his diary: “Is this the beginning of the end?”
In The Wild Men David Torrance, a biographer and clerk at the House of Commons, tells the story of MacDonald’s rise and the first Labour government, its people, policies and purpose, with sympathy and fastidious attention to detail. His reading and research are exemplary, but the focus is narrow: he conveys little sense of what Orwell called the social atmosphere of the country and is much more interested in people than in ideology or the political ideas powering change as Europe struggled to recover from the catastrophe of the First World War.
Nor does he peer too far into the future to analyse what became of MacDonald after the so-called great betrayal: in 1931, as prime minister of the second Labour government, during an economic crisis, he broke from his party to form a National Government composed largely of Conservatives.
Labour is a party in thrall to its past. It is sentimental about the achievements of its first leader, Keir Hardie (after whom the present leader is named), and those of Clement Attlee, whose government won a landslide victory in 1945 and created the NHS, the welfare state and the postwar consensus that unravelled in the 1970s. MacDonald, however, remains The Unforgiven.
And yet, as Torrance reminds us in this fascinating portrait of the men and one woman (Margaret Bondfield, a former shop assistant) who were prominent in the short-lived government, MacDonald’s pragmatism and caution reassured the nation that Labour was more than a band of rebels and cranks. It was a national party of government, led not by revolutionary wild men, or a “beggarly array” as Asquith called them, but patriotic politicians who believed in moderate reform and the parliamentary road to socialism. Many of the most impressive, such as Philip Snowden (the chancellor of the exchequer) and Jimmy Thomas (secretary of state for the colonies), were working-class autodidacts who had excelled through hard work, idealism and the trade union movement. The King was also persuaded. Despite his earlier fears about a far-left takeover, his relations with MacDonald were those of “unhesitating mutual confidence”.
MacDonald’s wife had died in 1911 and he was especially dependent on his daughter, Ishbel. She lived with him in Downing Street and served as his confidante, secretary and hostess. But she and her father were also accused by the left of being too fond of society dinner parties and state banquets: John Wheatley, the Labour health secretary, remarked, presciently as it turned out, that if the Conservatives “were an intelligent party” they would make MacDonald their leader.
MacDonald had become enmeshed in a cash-for-honours scandal after a childhood friend, Alexander Grant, the managing director of McVitie’s and the inventor of the digestive biscuit, had given the prime minister a Daimler as well as shares in the company from which he derived an income. Grant, a notable philanthropist, had been granted a baronetcy, but MacDonald protested that his friend was honoured only for public service. After losing office he relinquished the shares and the car.
There were other scandals as well, especially the faked “Zinoviev letter”, a Daily Mail scare about the supposed sinister influence of Soviet Russia on Labour and the British left, although there were communist fellow-travellers on the Labour benches. By the time Labour lost a confidence vote in October 1924, MacDonald, occupying the dual role of prime minister and foreign secretary, was exhausted.
Labour may wish to forget MacDonald, but there are obvious parallels between today’s politics and the first Labour government. The kingdom remains disunited and the Scottish and Irish questions are unresolved. Russia is a malign threat to Europe and factions on the left are considered Putin apologists, just as there were Lenin apologists long before them. Keir Starmer, who served in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, won the leadership with support from the far left, but, like MacDonald, has repositioned himself as a pragmatic moderate traduced for his excessive caution.
After the Corbyn years, the party is working assiduously to rebuild confidence on defence and security, as MacDonald did. The perennial question is: can Labour be trusted with the nation’s finances? Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, is committed to fiscal restraint, and so was Snowden, who admired William Gladstone. (Leonard Woolf quipped that Snowden was about “as progressive as a member of the Junior Carlton Club”.)
The first Labour government lasted for nearly ten months. It’s a wonder, in retrospect, that it endured for so long when in the Commons it faced what Beatrice Webb, co-founder of the Fabian Society and the London School of Economics, called “two oppositions” that could have combined to bring it down at any moment.
Labour lost 42 seats at the October 1924 election, but its overall vote increased while support for the Liberals collapsed: within a decade George Dangerfield had written his celebrated book The Strange Death of Liberal England. The old political order was shattered. A new two-party system had been born. The wild men were here to stay.