As the first ever Labour prime minister drove away from the Buckingham Palace ceremony that had confirmed him into office, his aide noticed a newspaper placard that said, “Lenin dead (official), Ramsay MacDonald Premier.”
In some ways the Labour government was a massive change from what had gone before.
As the party’s deputy leader John R Clynes wrote, “An engine-driver rose to the rank of Colonial Secretary, a starveling clerk became Great Britain’s premier, a foundry-hand was charged to foreign secretary, the son of a Keighley weaver was created Chancellor of the Exchequer, one miner became Secretary for War and another Secretary of State for Scotland.”
While the outgoing cabinet contained six men from Eton and five from Harrow public schools, most had left school at 15. Clynes himself had started in a textile mill at the age of ten.
But such working class credentials did not define the new government. The central question was whether it would at least begin to confront capitalism.
Certainly some feared that MacDonald was some Bolshevik who would ram through a revolution similar to Russia’s just a few years before.
Philip Snowden, the new chancellor of the exchequer, found himself having to reassure a countess that Labour’s first act in office would not be to cut the throats of every aristocrat and steal all their property.
But Labour’s leaders had decided its approach well in advance. Labour saw itself then, as now, to be an alternative government of the British capitalist state, particularly at a time of uncertainty. Its task was to prove itself “fit to govern”.
This is admitted openly in today’s official British government history blog. It begins with a class sneer about “MacDonald and his Cabinet (assembled from a limited talent pool)”. But it goes on to emphasise how the new team was very useful for maintaining the system.
“Both the traditional parties saw a Labour government not as a national catastrophe but as a political expedient,” it says.
The experiment, Liberal leader Herbert Asquith declared in 1924, could “hardly be tried under safer conditions”, because “it is we who really control the situation”.
Had they wanted to, the openly pro-capitalist parties could easily have kept Labour out of office. At the election in December 1923, the Tories had taken 258 seats, Labour 191 and the Liberals 158. The king, George V, suggested to the outgoing Tory prime minister Stanley Baldwin that he do a deal with the Liberals.
But both Tories and Liberals saw an advantage in “allowing” Labour to take office for a short period. They hoped Labour would fail, and in the meantime, the party could be relied on not to rock the boat.
The tremendous strike wave of 1919 saw military and naval mutinies in Britain.
The revolt in Ireland had been so shattering that a chunk of empire was lost. The suffragettes smashed windows, assaulted government ministers and made bomb threats.
The mood of resistance after the First World War broke many workers from the Liberals. A series of workers’ defeats that followed meant many turned from relying on their own actions to greater faith in parliament and Labour.
Now Labour could calm things down. In the immediate aftermath of the Russian Revolution, Labour had to put on a left face.
But Labour stuck to the path of parliament. Arthur Henderson, secretary of the Labour Party, speaking at the Trades Union Congress in 1919, had said, “A withdrawal of confidence in the political and constitutional method would be the greatest calamity for Labour when the position is so promising.”
As strikes waned and with the spoils of government on offer, Labour let the state swallow it up.
The Prince of Wales noted, “The new prime minister and his cabinet in due course made their debut at Court colourfully clad in the uniforms of ministers of the crown—a blue, gold-braided tail coat and white knee breeches with sword—a courtesy that went far to reassure my father.”
MacDonald also secretly took money from the fat cats. Alexander Grant, a Tory, managing director of McVitie’s, and inventor of the famous digestive biscuit, offered MacDonald a handout. He provided a loan of £40,000 (at least £2 million in today’s money), a plush Daimler car and a chauffeur.
MacDonald gratefully accepted the package and recommended Grant for a peerage the following year.
Strikes were an early test. Sometimes the government used its links with trade union leaders to have action called off.
But if it wasn’t, ministers met militancy with repression. When dockers walked out for a 10p a day wage rise, Labour dusted off the emergency scabbing plans hatched by the previous Tory regime. This involved potentially mobilising troops against strikes.
MacDonald said, “Strikes will knock us out if this goes on. Some reductions of wages may be justifiable.
The military may have to be used to run lorries. This may compel us to have a national government.”
He added that dockers weren’t actually starving, and it was necessary “to show these people that if they did strike, they could not win”.
But the dockers did win, and this encouraged other action. London transport workers stopped—so the government activated a state of emergency. And it prepared the navy to run buses, trains and trams.
Union leaders pushed through a deal to stop the strike so the military weren’t needed.
But it was precisely these sorts of measures that the Tories would later use during the 1926 general strike. And MacDonald delivered his vision of a national government in 1929.
Labour had inherited management of a vast empire which controlled a fifth of the world’s land area and exploited and oppressed half a billion people.
Jimmy Thomas, former leader of the NUR rail union, took over as colonial secretary. His first move was to attack a rail strike by the other rail union, Aslef, and then he set about acting as an imperial cop.
Thomas’ theme was that he was “not mucking about with the British Empire”. His general approach was racist paternalism, insisting that Indians were “brown, but human” and that “however illiterate, however ignorant” they were, the British government had a duty to rule them.
But if the “natives” did not show gratitude, the government crushed them. Labour jailed and beat Indian nationalists and bombed rebellious Iraqis from the air.
Facing such a right wing government, the Labour left forced the election of a Consultative Committee of 12 backbenchers and three ministers to “oversee” government policy.
But although they quizzed the government, they were caught in the trap that to vote against it might bring it down—and being in office was the whole point of Labour and labourism.
The Labour left justified their surrender to MacDonald by saying that the party didn’t have a clear majority and the central task was to work harder for a Labour victory.
Meanwhile Labour kept ruling just like a “normal” government. MacDonald, a supporter of votes for women, refused to bring forward any plans for female suffrage.
And Labour even ran away from a plan to let more people have access to advice on contraception.
The party’s women’s officer, Marion Philips, declared, “Sex should not be dragged into politics. You will split the party from top to bottom.”
The only achievement of the government was that, under intensive popular pressure, it began a modest council house-building programme.
Left winger John Wheatley, who piloted the law, admitted it should have gone further. But he claimed. “Why did I not introduce a socialist measure? I was not in a position to introduce a socialist measure. The country is not ready for socialism. I have to take things as I find them.”
And the government turned on revolutionaries. In October 1924 the government prosecuted J R Campbell, editor of the Communist Party’s newspaper, after he called on troops not to shoot down strikers.
It bungled its attack, and the Liberals and Tories united on a vote of no confidence, condemning the government for yielding to “unconstitutional pressures”.
Labour lost the following election, partly because MI5 forged a letter suggesting MacDonald was getting his instructions from the Russians.
A new book on the 1924 government by David Torrance has the title The Wild Men. That suggests it might be a revisionist attempt to say it was a radical regime.
In fact Torrance shows in deeply-researched detail that Macdonald’s government was conservative and mainstream.
There were once Labour leaders who might have protested at this characterisation of the pioneering administration. But Keir Starmer will probably love the book.
Labour sidelined its left and was a safe pair of hands for the system a century ago—and it is auditioning to do the same again.
The Wild Men by David Torrance £20 Details here
A Marxist History of the Labour Party by Tony Cliff,
Donny Gluckstein and Charlie Kimber £14.99. Buy here
The Labour Party: Myth and Reality by Duncan Hallas
Class struggle toppled apartheid