The Foreign Secretaries (6): Arthur Henderson

article-0-098670CB000005DC-513_306x423Arthur Henderson, 1929-31

Labour, under Ramsay MacDonald

For the story of Henderson’s remarkable career up until 1924, see the entry in The Home Secretaries series, here.

When Labour lost office in 1924, Henderson (seen left with MacDonald in 1929) lost none of his energy. He played a major role in reframing its policies in Labour and the Nation, written in 1928. He tried to act as a mediator in the General Strike and pressed for conciliation between industry and the unions. However, if foreign affairs had always been central to his politics, they now became his abiding interest, even passion. He travelled across the Dominions and the United States, as well as being president of the Socialist and Labour International. When there was pressure to remove MacDonald, Henderson stayed loyal. MacDonald hardly repaid that loyalty.

When Labour won in 1929, Henderson was the obvious candidate for the Foreign Office. MacDonald preferred JH Thomas, and Henderson knew it. In the end, Henderson only got job because he pressed his case, and his weight in the party was such that MacDonald could not resist. MacDonald’s disdain, and Henderson’s resentment, would weaken the government, especially in the crisis of 1931. Nor was it made better by MacDonald’s tendency to intervene over Henderson’s head in policy matters, notably in Anglo-American relations.

article-0-190F99A5000005DC-230_634x623However, he was in the job he had craved, and he was an undoubted success in it. All his experience in government, the Labour Party and the trade unions, and his long engagement with world affairs, equipped him well for the post. He improved relations with both Iraq and Egypt (paving the way for Egypt’s full independence), thus further cementing Britain’s predominant role in the Middle East. He was a strong supporter of the League of Nations (one of his many disagreements with MacDonald), and worked assiduously to kick-start the League’s disarmament talks. He restored diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, and played the leading role in the withdrawal of allied forces from the Rhineland. The respect in which he was held abroad was shown by his nomination as president of the World Disarmament Conference, a post he held until 1935. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1934 (above, right).

By then, his domestic political career was all but over. In 1931, given his high office, seniority and status in the Labour movement, he was one of the five members of the cabinet’s economy committee, formed to implement the spending cuts though necessary in the face of a mounting budget deficit and the run on the pound that would see the pound come off the gold standard. He agreed to cuts worth £56m, but was the leader of the half of cabinet that would not accept further cuts in unemployment benefit. Split down the middle, the government collapsed.

Henderson, like all his colleagues, had not seen the next move coming. When MacDonald announced that he was forming a National Government, he made that decision without consulting any of his cabinet. The rift that had been opening up between the two men since 1929 had undoubtedly made agreement harder to reach in the previous days and weeks. MacDonald’s lofty disdain certainly did not encourage spurned colleagues to give him the benefit of the doubt in 1931.

Henderson had always been loyal to MacDonald and, after the split, tried the keep open the possibility of MacDonald’s readmission to the Labour family (the pair had split over the Great War, and healed that rift). However, Henderson’s loyalty to the Labour movement was greater. He was elected party leader. However, any possibility of reunion was shattered when MacDonald called a general election, and Labour were slaughtered (and Henderson lost his seat). He stayed on as leader until 1932, but found himself out on a limb as a moderate in a party moving sharply to the left. Thus, even though he returned to the Commons in 1933, he had little role or influence in domestic politics.

Henderson was one of the central figures of Labour’s first generation. He was Labour’s first cabinet minister and a member of Lloyd George’s war cabinet. Between 1917 and 1922, he played a key role in turning the Labour Party into a national political party and the party of opposition in the Commons. He was one of eight foreign secretaries since 1900 to serve as home secretary as well; he was one of eight to lead their party as well. He was one of only six British politicians (and one of only two foreign secretaries) to win a Nobel Peace Prize. He remains the only man from the industrial working class to have led one of the big two political parties since Labour became the second party of British politics in 1922, and one of only two to be foreign secretary. To add to that, he remains the most important political figure to have come out of Newcastle in the 20th century.

Here he is, after losing office, in Geneva for the World Disarmament Conference.

And at this link, him receiving his Nobel Peace Prize.

You can read about his time as home secretary here.

There is also and article on the early Labour leaders as a whole, here.




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