The Foreign Secretaries (4): MacDonald

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Ramsay MacDonald

Labour, 1924 (when also prime minister)

Ramsay MacDonald was, and will surely remain, the last prime minister to serve as his own foreign secretary. At first sight, that decision might seem extraordinary: MacDonald had never held high office of any kind, and to combine the load of the foreign office might seem rather like either hubris, or a gesture of contempt towards his colleagues (a contempt, or at least low opinion, he did come to feel).

The reasons like more in the centrality of foreign policy to MacDonald’s politics, to the early Labour Party, the political circumstances in which Labour came to power and the internal politics of the Labour Party.

The First World War had a profound impact on the Labour Party and on Ramsay MacDonald. In the first place, MacDonald’s opposition to the war saw him resign as chairman of the parliamentary party (the nearest thing Labour had to a leader in 1914). In 1900, the Labour Representation Committee, that would become the Labour Party, had been formed as an umbrella organisation, the most important constituent parts of which were the Independent Labour Party and the trade unions. MacDonald was from the ILP, which continued to exist as an independent organisation within the Labour movement, and the majority of the ILP MPs were opposed to the war. However, the larger part of the Labour movement in the country and in parliament came from the trade unions. The trade unions were overwhelmingly behind the war; MacDonald’s position as chairman was untenable.

Having resigned, he was one of the leading figures behind the cross-party Union of Democratic Control. This is sometimes depicted as an anti-war group, and it is certainly true that most of its participants were opponents of the war (though not all were). Instead, though, it was more to do with the politics of the war. Foreign policy, constitutionally, came under the royal prerogative, not parliamentary control: the UDC wanted to change that.  They also believed that democratic forces on the continent, including in Germany, could cooperate to bring about peace; they also argued for a peace that did not punish.

After Arthur Henderson entered Asquith’s coalition in May 1915, and even more so after he joined Lloyd George’s war cabinet, a split in Labour seemed likely (especially after MacDonald attacked Henderson in the Commons). What changed everything was the Russian revolution of February 1917. Russia was now increasingly under the control of socialists who seemed to have much in common with MacDonald. When Henderson resigned, the two men worked together, not always easily, but very successfully.

It is possible to view the reconfiguration of the Labour Party that the likes of MacDonald, Henderson and Sidney Webb undertook as a compromise between the two wings of the party. Institutionally, it cemented the control of the pro-war trade union majority: crucially giving the trade unions a majority of Labour’s national executive, as well as establishing constituency Labour parties separate from the ILP, whilst retaining union affiliations. The quid pro quo for the ILP was political: they got the socialist clause IV and a foreign policy that reflected the UDC and ILP line. Labour’s War Aims, the statement of that foreign policy, was in essence, the UDC view, though one now shared by pro-war Labour too.

It did Labour, and especially those who had opposed Lloyd George, little good in the short term. The Coupon Election of 1918 saw Lloyd George’s Liberal and Labour opponents routed: in the slaughter of the ‘Squiffites, the UDC men were the collateral damage. The likes of MacDonald and Henderson lost their seats: MacDonald’s pro-Lloyd George opponent secured a 14,000 majority in Leicester East. Whilst Labour were the official opposition, they had just 63 seats.

The next four years transformed Labour’s position and, in 1922, they made their crucial breakthrough, securing 29.5% of the popular vote and winning a bedrock of 142 seats. MacDonald, having lost a bitter by-election in 1921, was one of the 142. 100 of those MPs were from the ILP, and it was that fact that saw MacDonald win the party leadership over the incumbent, JR Clynes.

MacDonald was, though, the outstanding figure of Labour’s first generation, and his  four years out of the Commons, only served to emphasise that fact. He had charisma, but substance too. In those years had sought to define Labour’s political position and, no less importantly, distinguish it from (and openly reject) the Communism of Lenin, the newly formed Communist Party of Great Britain and the Third Socialist International. MacDonald rejected the use of force, was parliamentary and democratic: his socialism was evolutionary, not revolutionary. That approach won the support of modearte working people and ex-Liberals, though it would frustrate Labour’s left, and many from the ILP in particular.

Labour’s left have always been frustrated by the unhappy realities of government. That frustration was all but inevitable when Labour, unexpectedly, found itself in government in January 1924. Even had the likes of MacDonald, Snowden, of Henderson been inclined to be radical, parliamentary arithmetic and the likely short-lived tenure in government that arithmetic gave them made radical socialism impossible. In any case, MacDonald had other priorities: he wanted Labour to demonstrate its constitutionality, and its fitness to govern.

Thus, his cabinet was studiedly moderate. There was only one real left-winger in it, JR Wheatley at Health. The key question for MacDonald was how to fill his senior positions. Snowden was a shoe-in at the Treasury: he was Labour’s economics guru, and to shunt him aside would have been politically impossible. There were two candidates for the foreign office: Arthur Henderson and JH Thomas. MacDonald’s relations with Henderson were not straightforward, and Henderson had lost his seat. MacDonald, therefore, wanted Thomas. The problem was that Thomas was a union man. When rumours of Thomas’s likely appointment surfaced, there was distinct anger from the ILP. Labour’s foreign policy was that of the UDC and the ILP, not the unions. It was then that some in the ILP and from the old UDC, notably Arthur Ponsonby, suggested MacDonald take on the role himself.

It made quite a bit of political sense. The government would be short-lived, and the immediate issue facing it was the fall out of the Ruhr crisis. MacDonald had, since Versailles, argued that reparations had been unnecessarily punitive: now they were threatening to wreck Germany’s infant democracy. If the alternative approach could be seen to work, that would point a different way forward in Europe. It would also richly illustrate Labour’s fitness to govern.

If that was the case, MacDonald passed with flying colours. A committee, under the US representative on the Allied Reparations Commission, Charles Dawes, had been formed a week before Labour came to office. That committee reported in April, but for the deal to be enacted, the French and the Germans had to come to some form of agreement on the terms of a French withdrawal from the Ruhr and a German commitment to meet their obligations. Months of patient yet insistent diplomacy culminated in the frequently fraught London Conference. After a month, they finally agreed. That agreement, MacDonald told the delegates after it was signed on August 16th, surely pointed a way forward away from the old enmities. The years that followed seemed to bear out that hope.

It was a personal triumph, and the high watermark of MacDonald’s first government. The much-vaunted Geneva Protocol ran out of steam and time. MacDonald’s other significant foreign policy initiative, recognition of the Soviet Union and the opening up a trade talks, left Labour open to the red scare, which, in the form of the Campbell case, brought it down.

In truth, MacDonald’s first government was never likely to last long. In domestic policy, it had little beyond Wheatley’s Housing Act to show for it. In foreign policy, it very much did. An agreement to end the Ruhr crisis was anything but a given in 1924. That there was a solution owed more to MacDonald than anyone else. Just as importantly, it pointed the way towards the rapprochement with Germany to come at Locarno. There would be other short-lived foreign secretaries, but none would achieve as much.

As noted above, MacDonald was the last prime minister to serve as his own foreign secretary; he was thus one of seven foreign secretaries also to have been prime minister (one of ten to have been party leader too). More than any other figure from Labour’s first generation, MacDonald’s reputation sat far too low for far too long. Much has been done to change that. Certainly, MacDonald, as foreign secretary at the very least, was more than up to the task of statesmanship. Labour were now a party of government.

You can read about Labour’s first generation here.






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