The Home Secretaries (9): Henderson


Arthur Henderson

Labour, 1924, under Ramsay MacDonald.

As home secretary, Arthur Henderson was undistinguished. However, the fact that there was a Labour government, and that the Labour Party became the second party of British politics owed as much to him as anyone.

There were three formative elements to Henderson’s politics: Liberalism, trade unionism and nonconformist Christianity. Until his union affiliated with the Labour Representation Committee (as the Labour Party was known in those days) Henderson had been a Liberal. He had been a Lib-Lab councillor in Newcastle and Darlington, and was agent to the Liberal MP for Barnard Castle, Sir Joseph Pease. When Pease died in 1903, Henderson was put forward as a Labour candidate and won the seat in a three-cornered fight. As such, Henderson embodied what Henry Pelling called the ‘undogmatic Labourism’ that was at the heart of the early Labour movement.

Henderson also had formidable organisational skills. Over the next 30 years he would use them to help turn the rather ramshackle party of 1903 into the party machine that won 37% of the vote and 288 seats as the largest party in the House of Commons. He would also be Labour’s first cabinet minister, when he entered Asquith’s coalition government. Though he was at the Board of Education, ironically replacing Sir Joseph Pease’s son in that post, his key role was actually as a de facto minister of labour. When Lloyd George formed his national government, Henderson continued in that role, now as a member of the war cabinet.

The war split Labour, but the split didn’t last. Henderson had been opposed to entering the war, and had been a member of the anti-war umbrella group, the Union of Democratic Control, until taking office. Once war was declared, he was fully committed to its prosecution. When the February Revolution came, Henderson became an impassioned supporter of Kerensky. In part as a gesture of support for Kerensky, in August 1917 the Labour conference voted to send Henderson as a delegate to an international socialist conference in Stockholm. That conference would have had German socialist delegates. This would, in Lloyd George’s view, have been tantamount to consorting with the enemy. Henderson, excluded from a war cabinet meeting, either resigned of was sacked, depending on which order of events.

Henderson was replaced by George Barnes, but his spat with Lloyd George was an important moment in the history of the Labour Party. In the first place, it publicly illustrated Labour’s independence form the Liberal Party it had been so dependent on before the war. That independence, after the war, would be the essential precondition of Labour’s rise. No less important was Henderson’s role as party secretary, which he took on full time after he resigned as party chairman in the autumn of 1917. In the months that followed Henderson devoted his formidable energies to reconfiguring his party, creating individual constituency parties, redrafting its constitution and thereby creating a National Executive with a trade union majority. Already, in August 1917, Henderson and Sidney Webb had carved out a distinctive foreign policy position in Labour’s War Aims; now, they did the same in domestic policy, in Labour and the New Social Order.

Henderson had built a party capable of becoming a national force. In 1918, however, he was swept away by the patriotic tide that saw so many of those who had crossed Lloyd George crushed. In 1919, he won a by-election in Widnes. Those years saw Labour further carve out a distinctive positions on Ireland, unemployment and the League of Nations: Labour’s opposition to Lloyd George helped establish it as what it would become: the second party of British politics. Ironically, Henderson lost his seat in 1922, the very general electron that saw Labour reap the harvest of what Henderson had sown. Labour polled just shy of 30%, and secured 142 seats. It also saw Ramsay MacDonald return as leader.

Henderson won the Newcastle East by-election, in early 1923, only to lose the seat in the general election. When Baldwin lost a vote of confidence in the Commons, Labour formed their first government. MacDonald hesitated, but Henderson was parachuted into a Burnley seat and given the Home Office. In truth, his ten months as home secretary looked rather like the governments as a whole: not much happened, but the horses and bishops weren’t much scared either. Henderson was the personification of caution and respectability, even being willing to countenance the use of emergency powers against strikers.

Henderson is one of eight home secretaries since 1900 to have also held the Foreign Office; he is also one of only five to have gone on to lead their parties (six, if you count Asquith, and seven if you count Clynes who was home secretary after being party leader). He was also the first Labour politician to hold a cabinet post. If Henderson was not to be a distinguished home secretary, it was the fact that a working class (and quite possibly illegitimate) son of an illiterate mother could be home secretary in the first place that was Henderson’s crowning achievement.

You can read Henderson’s subsequent career and his time as foreign secretary here.

There is an article on the early Labour leaders and their intellectual world, here.

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