The Men of 1924: Britain’s First Labour Government 
by Peter Clark.
Haus, 293 pp., £20, October 2023, 978 1 913368 81 4
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The Wild Men: The Remarkable Story of Britain’s First Labour Government 
by David Torrance.
Bloomsbury, 322 pp., £20, January, 978 1 3994 1143 1
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Thefirst Labour government assumed office in January 1924 after a general election a month earlier resulted in a hung Parliament, with the Conservatives the largest party. In the previous decade British politics had changed in ways that might have been expected to assist the Labour Party, most obviously with the decline of the Liberal Party, the dominant progressive political force until the First World War, which had slipped behind Labour in the 1922 election. The other big change was the postwar extension of the franchise, which nearly trebled the size of the electorate. Even taking these shifts into account, it remains staggering that a party founded in 1900 (as the Labour Representation Committee), and which had a distinctive parliamentary presence as the Labour Party only from 1906, could find itself in power within a generation. The electoral realignment suggested in 1924 endured; although the new government lasted only nine months, Labour was now the principal challenger to the Conservatives, a position it has not ceded in the hundred years since.

Despite its significance, the 1924 government has not been remembered fondly, even by Labour supporters, and its leading figures have been forgotten, or, in the case of the party’s first prime minister, James Ramsay MacDonald, disowned. The Labour left, then and since, thought the new administration was too timid and had failed to promote socialism. The centre and right of the party felt that the experience of 1924 had confirmed the dangers of taking office without a majority: Labour was dependent on Liberal tolerance. The short life of the government entrenched a distrust of coalitions and alliances that Labour has never fully shed. For all sections of the party, the memory of 1924 was sullied by the failure of the second Labour government, elected in 1929 and led again by MacDonald, which disintegrated two years later under the pressures of the Depression. In the aftermath, MacDonald, accompanied by Philip Snowden, chancellor in both Labour governments, and J.H. Thomas, colonial secretary in 1924, joined the National Government dominated by the Conservatives. After that, the shortcomings of the 1924 government came to be regarded as a rehearsal for the more profound betrayal of 1931. The Labour government elected in 1945, with its solid parliamentary majority and relatively coherent programme, has seemed a more attractive founding moment. Whatever their other differences, both Keir Starmer and his predecessor as Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, have endorsed a reading of Labour history in which the vital electoral triumphs are those of 1945, 1964 and 1997; neither has found any inspiration in 1924 or 1929.

Peter Clark and David Torrance both set out to reassert the political importance of the 1924 government and to restore the place of its senior figures in the history of the Labour Party. Both focus on high politics, and in particular the way the members of the first Labour cabinet navigated the challenge of forming a government. There are some differences in emphasis and approach. Clark’s account is structured more straightforwardly as a series of short biographies, preceded by a history of the Labour Party up to 1924. Torrance uses the careers of individual cabinet ministers to explore the issues that confronted the government. For both of them, the significance of the Labour government was primarily representative. As Clark notes, although the cabinet was composed entirely of middle-aged white men, it was socially ‘the most diverse there had been in British history’, with a majority of its members having left school by the age of fifteen. Torrance, though conscious of the absence of women, also sees the new cabinet as symbolic of the advent of mass democracy: the presence of ‘so many men from such humble backgrounds’ in the corridors of power was, he suggests, an expression of Britain’s shifting ‘governing traditions’. Both quote from the memoirs of John Robert Clynes, Labour leader between 1921 and 1922 and lord privy seal in 1924. Reflecting on meeting George V, Clynes could ‘not help marvelling at the strange turn of Fortune’s wheel’ that had brought him and his colleagues ‘to this pinnacle beside the man whose forebears had been kings for so many splendid generations’. The new cabinet members were, Clynes concluded, ‘making history’.

The dominant figures in the new cabinet were the ‘big five’: MacDonald, Snowden, Thomas, Clynes and Arthur Henderson. Henderson, who became home secretary, had lost his seat in 1923 and required a by-election to return to the Commons. The remaining cabinet roles were filled by men who represented the various strands in the Labour movement. Some, such as William Adamson, Vernon Hartshorn, Thomas Shaw and Stephen Walsh, were trade union moderates; others, like Fred Jowett and John Wheatley, were socialists from the Independent Labour Party (ILP) strongholds of West Yorkshire and Clydeside. In addition, there were the Fabian intellectuals Sydney Olivier and Sidney Webb, the military expert Lord Thomson, and Noel Buxton, Viscount Haldane, Charles Trevelyan and Josiah Wedgwood, all recent converts from the Liberal Party. Disconcertingly for some, present too were Lord Parmoor, a former Unionist MP, and Viscount Chelmsford, who, although a Conservative, agreed to serve as first lord of the Admiralty.

The incoming ministers could be seen as reflecting the changing nature of the Labour Party, as it evolved from a parliamentary pressure group, reliant on an electoral pact with the Liberals, into an independent electoral force. Clark comes close to adopting this framing, allocating cabinet members to the consciously anachronistic categories of ‘old’ and ‘new’ Labour. But this is misleading. As both Clark and Torrance recount, despite the misgivings of some of his colleagues, the allocation of jobs was left almost entirely to MacDonald; there was no input from the wider party. MacDonald, meanwhile, confided to Snowden that he was ‘appalled’ by the quality of the Labour MPs, who were mostly ‘new and undisciplined’ and would demand that the government ‘do all sorts of impossible things’. The prominence of former Liberals and Conservatives in the cabinet was at least in part intended to signal the unthreatening party Labour might become. There was also a desire to demonstrate that the new government would not represent an abrupt departure, that Labour could govern in a similar manner to its predecessors. This necessitated the marginalisation of the party’s left, represented in cabinet only by Jowett as first commissioner of works and Wheatley as health secretary. Important radical voices, such as George Lansbury, the former mayor of Poplar, who had been imprisoned in 1921 for leading a rates rebellion there, were left out. Torrance suggests that Lansbury’s exclusion was in deference to the king, who had been upset by his criticisms of the monarchy during the election campaign. MacDonald’s restoration as Labour leader in 1922 had relied on support from left-wing MPs, but he clearly did not feel indebted to them.

Treating members of the cabinet as representatives of competing party factions creates other potential risks. We might, for example, see the influx of former Liberals into the party as a consequence of their opposition to the First World War, and especially to the introduction of conscription; the Union of Democratic Control, which united Liberal and Labour opponents of the war, and in which MacDonald, who had resigned the Labour leadership in August 1914, occupied a prominent role, was significant here. But the role of the war in drawing Radical Liberals towards Labour can be overstated, given the close prewar understanding between the parties; indeed, MacDonald, Snowden and Henderson were all involved in Liberal politics before joining Labour and retained traces of their earlier allegiance. Labour wasn’t unequivocally anti-war between 1914 and 1918. Henderson, who replaced MacDonald as leader in 1914, entered the wartime coalition government in 1915, and many other members of the 1924 cabinet had supported the war effort.

Such ambiguities raise the more fundamental question of the ideological character of the Labour Party in this era, an issue that is at times obscured by the biographical approach taken by Clark and Torrance. Labour leaders did profess a belief in socialism, and the party’s 1918 constitution featured, in Clause IV, a pledge to secure ‘common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange’. But this coexisted with an attachment to the Radical Liberal tradition, particularly in economic policy, where Labour was committed to free trade. In practice, the party’s version of socialism denoted a general faith in a fairer, more just society, and a confidence that Britain was moving in this direction. MacDonald did most to define Labour’s ideology, refuting claims that socialism might require a revolution; it would, he wrote in 1911, emerge from capitalism through an ‘organic process’. As Clark writes, MacDonald, who was born in 1866, was intellectually a product of the 19th century, deeply influenced by Darwinism: his socialism was the ‘method of evolution applied to society’. At times, this resulted in a determinism which saw socialism’s eventual arrival as preordained.

This optimism was combined with a distrust of the electorate, who, MacDonald believed, were yet to show they were worthy of socialism. Always present, this suspicion of the masses had been deepened by MacDonald’s wartime experiences, when his reputation as a pacifist saw him attacked in the press and his illegitimacy publicised, resulting in his defeat in Leicester West at the 1918 general election. The public were, he concluded, ‘credulous’, too often moved by ‘passion’; socialism would come only when voters showed they were ‘intelligent enough’ to want it. This passive, even fatalistic, view of political change was matched by a Whiggish reverence for Britain’s political institutions. Parliament, in MacDonald’s view, was a neutral site, a tool for governing that Labour could command as soon as the electorate allowed. Rejecting the idea that British socialists could learn anything from the Russian Revolution, MacDonald maintained in 1919 that, by winning ‘a parliamentary election’, Labour could accrue ‘all the power that Lenin had to get by a revolution’.

It’s hardly surprising that Labour displayed moderation in office, though, as Clark and Torrance establish, there were areas where it was willing to pursue a distinctive course. This was most obvious in foreign affairs, where the decision to grant de jure recognition to the Soviet Union, taken within weeks of Labour’s entering office, represented a clear difference in approach; similarly, MacDonald had some success during the negotiations over German reparations in the summer of 1924. Domestically, the 1924 Housing Act, steered through Parliament by Wheatley, which provided increased central subsidies for local authority housing and resulted in the building of half a million homes, was the government’s major achievement. But the cabinet’s main focus was to demonstrate that a Labour government would not disturb Britain’s political traditions and would maintain the authority and prestige of its institutions. Torrance describes William Adamson, the secretary of state for Scotland, telling the senior Scottish law officer, Hugh Macmillan, a Conservative, that he would be ‘surprised to find what a Tory’ Adamson was.

Torrance also notes that, while some Labour figures tried to construct a more progressive justification for Britain’s imperial role, in practice, notably in Iraq and India, the government pursued ‘imperial business as usual’. Similarly, delivering Labour’s first budget in April 1924, Snowden emphasised the continuities between his approach and that of his predecessors. A devout free trader, he boasted that, by cutting duties on coffee, tea, sugar and dried fruit, he had helped bring closer the ‘cherished Radical ideal of a free breakfast table’. He might have been expected to welcome Liberal claims that the budget ‘was based on sound Liberal principles’, but he went further, saying that his measures were intended to reassure the wealthy that they had nothing to fear from a Labour government, and that, apart from the repeal of some protectionist duties, his was ‘a budget that might well have been introduced by a Tory chancellor’.

Rather than seeking to implement a distinctive socialist programme, then, the Labour cabinet had two main ambitions in 1924. The first was to cement the party’s position as the progressive alternative to the Conservatives and to prevent a Liberal revival. It’s striking, given Labour’s ideological debt to Liberalism, how visceral the dislike of the Liberal Party was among its senior figures. One reason for Labour’s emergence had been the unwillingness of local Liberal associations to accept working-class parliamentary candidates; in addition, Liberal MPs had tended to see their Labour counterparts as subordinate elements in the prewar Liberal coalition: useful, but not equal. The result was that Labour MPs felt, often justifiably, that the Liberals were unbearable snobs; and, in the case of Lloyd George and his followers, corrupt, dishonest hypocrites. As Torrance remarks, MacDonald thought he ‘could get on with the Tories’: while there might be disagreements over policy, they ‘were gentlemen’; the Liberals, however, ‘were cads’. There was also a sharp awareness that Labour and the Liberals were, in effect, competing for a single vacancy: if Labour was to have a long-term future as a governing party, the goal had to be, as Clark argues, ‘to destroy’ the Liberals.

The second objective was to repudiate the accusation, voiced most bluntly by Winston Churchill in 1920 when he was still a Liberal, that Labour wasn’t fit to govern. This explains the composition of the cabinet, and Labour ministers’ willingness to appear in court dress, despite the unease this provoked on the political left. It is also the reason some of the party’s most prominent policies were discarded as soon as it became clear that Labour could form a government. The proposed wealth tax, the capital levy, was dumped: Snowden called it ‘an electoral millstone’. Scottish home rule, a cause inherited from Radical Liberalism, was also abandoned. When, in May 1924, George Buchanan, the ILP MP for Glasgow Gorbals, introduced a Private Members’ Bill on the issue, it was talked out by Conservative backbenchers. Buchanan, backed by his fellow Clydesiders, pleaded with MacDonald to grant additional parliamentary time, but MacDonald, who was Scottish and had been a supporter of home rule, refused. Torrance, who makes excellent use of material from the Royal Archives, reveals that MacDonald, in his updates to George V, was happy to criticise, and even ridicule, the advocates of home rule.

There were obvious dangers for Labour in its quest to prove its competence. Fitness to govern was not an objective criterion; instead, it signified a set of assumptions about policy, conduct and leadership shaped by those who had already exercised political power. When the question of the party’s fitness for office was raised, the underlying concern was whether a Labour government would be vulnerable to pressure from the political left. Even the most fervent anti-socialists didn’t believe that MacDonald and his cabinet were revolutionaries; but if MacDonald was implausible as Britain’s Lenin, he was more believable as its Kerensky, well-meaning but too weak to control those to his left. Labour’s capacity to govern was accordingly reduced to the question of whether the cabinet could restrain left-wing MPs and resist extra-parliamentary pressures. Torrance’s title is deceptive in this sense: the ‘wild men’ were, with the possible exceptions of Jowett and Wheatley, not cabinet members; rather, they were the activists and MPs that the cabinet had to show it could discipline. Perhaps the most significant moment in the short life of the new government was its early willingness to invoke the 1920 Emergency Powers Act in response to industrial action in the transport sector. As Clark concludes, the priority was to show that it would not be ‘sectional’ but would act as the ‘custodian of the whole of society’.

It was ironic, taking all this into account, that allegations of communist influence over the Labour Party caused the government’s downfall. The decision to normalise relations with the Soviet Union, and then to negotiate a loan with the Bolshevik regime, had been its most controversial act. Accusations that this revealed Labour’s extremist sympathies were exacerbated by the Campbell Case, which followed the appearance in July 1924 of an article in Workers’ Weekly, a communist newspaper edited by J.R. Campbell, which called on members of the armed forces to refuse to suppress strikes. Campbell was charged under the 1797 Incitement to Mutiny Act before the case was abandoned amid some confusion. The government’s argument was that, since Campbell had not written the article, the prosecution was unlikely to succeed. But, as Torrance writes, Campbell, originally from Paisley, was known to many of the left-wing Clydeside MPs and they had publicly criticised the decision to prosecute him. By early October, Labour was facing demands for an inquiry into the handling of the case, and, after opting to treat the matter as a question of confidence, it suffered a final Commons defeat on 8 October 1924.

The decision to accept defeat rather than accede to Liberal calls to set up a committee of inquiry – a decision that appears to have been MacDonald’s – was controversial: Snowden, as Torrance writes, was willing to concede anything to stay in office; Torrance also quotes Margaret Bondfield, a junior minister in 1924, lamenting that the government had fallen because MacDonald ‘lost his head’. Torrance concludes that the most plausible explanation is that the prime minister had ‘simply had enough’. Certainly, he had reason to be exhausted: alongside the Campbell Case, he had been humiliated by questions surrounding the granting of a baronetcy to Alexander Grant, a director at the biscuit manufacturer McVitie & Price, who had supported him financially. Whatever the reasons, the outcome was a general election fought on the question of Labour’s relationship with communism, and which is now best remembered for the forged Zinoviev letter, published four days before polling, which purported to disclose communist plans to infiltrate the British armed forces. While the Labour vote rose in 1924 (from 30.7 per cent to 33.3 per cent), the election produced a comfortable Conservative majority as Liberal support collapsed, confirming that British politics was now a two-horse race. This had, of course, been one of Labour’s aims when it took office; nevertheless, the 1924 election made clear that this process was unfolding on terms dictated by the Conservatives. If elections were now going to be fought on the question of the supposed relationship between socialism and communism, or the need to oppose socialism, many erstwhile Liberals would vote Conservative.

The broader legacy of the first Labour government is difficult to measure. Criticisms have concentrated on MacDonald’s personal flaws, especially his fondness for aristocratic company – here the spectre of 1931 again looms. But there are more troubling precedents. Labour entered office determined to disprove accusations of extremism and to show that it was a respectable party. Both Clark and Torrance portray the government as a success in those terms, yet in order to achieve this, the Labour leadership tempered their ambitions and bent to the demands of their opponents, conceding so much along the way – disavowing policy commitments, sidelining the left – that the purpose of a Labour government, beyond attaining office, became difficult to discern.

This has been a criticism of the party for much of its existence; still, it is difficult to read accounts of the 1924 government without seeing contemporary parallels. Under Starmer’s leadership, the Labour Party is campaigning for a general election it will almost certainly win now that it has relentlessly scaled back its policy platform to ensure that there is little for its opponents to criticise. Its pledge to invest £28 billion a year in the green transition has been abandoned. Its position on Israel’s military offensive in Gaza is seemingly dictated by a refusal to condemn the actions of the Netanyahu regime and a disdain for its own left wing, which is blamed for accusations that Labour had become a haven for antisemitism. The Labour left, in turn, has been marginalised to the extent that the whip was withdrawn from Corbyn, who is standing in the election as an independent, while other left-wing Labour candidates have been excluded. The message to the electorate, whether on public spending, constitutional reform or support for bankrupt local authorities, is blunt: don’t expect too much. Even the flagship programme to extend workers’ rights, badged as a New Deal for Working People, is under threat, with senior members of the shadow cabinet despatched to assure concerned business leaders that they will be able to soften any reforms through a consultation process.

These self-imposed strictures reminded me of a scene in the memoirs of David Kirkwood, who in 1922 became the Labour MP for Dumbarton Burghs. Kirkwood, a member of the ILP and a supporter of Scottish home rule, recalled that soon after his arrival in Parliament, he walked from the Commons to the Lords alongside Wheatley. He turned to Wheatley and announced that Labour would ‘soon change all this’. Wheatley, widely considered to have been Labour’s most effective minister in 1924, did not rejoin the cabinet when the party returned to office in 1929 (he had been critical of MacDonald’s marginalisation of the left) and died the following year. Kirkwood remained in the Commons until 1951, then became Baron Kirkwood of Bearsden. In February Labour announced that its plans to abolish the House of Lords in the first term of a new government had been shelved.

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