The Home Secretaries (11): JR Clynes


JR Clynes, 1929-31

Labour, under Ramsay MacDonald

One of the forgotten men of the first generation of Labour, Clynes had a significant role in the rise of the Labour Party. Like so many of Labour’s first generation, he came from a very ordinary background. His father had emigrated from Ireland and was illiterate. Clynes had a very basic formal education, but after he left school and was working in the mill, he acquired a much more thoroughgoing one. Again, typically of early Labour men, he read widely; as so often, Ruskin and Carlyle were big influences. His reading, and his experience as a mill worker, drew him to trade unionism, socialism and the idea of labour representation. By 1889, he had made a name as a writer and activist, and when Will Thorne started his new National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers, Clynes was made its national organiser: his trade unionism would remain central to his politics.

As representative of his union, Clynes was instrumental in the creation of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900, and served on its national executive. He entered parliament in 1906, when Labour made its initial electoral breakthrough. He was not opposed to the war, but he was not in favour of joining Asquith’s coalition in 1915. He would go on to serve under Lloyd George, playing a role in the introduction of rationing and becoming food controller in 1918. He opposed Labour’s withdrawal from Lloyd George’s coalition at the end of the war, but once more went along with the majority decision.

With the protection of the Coupon, he was one of the few senior Labour leaders to keep his seat in 1918. He was elected vice-chairman of the parliamentary party and, when William Adamson resigned, he was elected chairman: in effect, Labour leader. Thus, Clynes was at the helm when Labour made its real electoral breakthrough in 1922. However, he lost the vote for the leadership to MacDonald, by 56 to 61. Characteristically, he supported MacDonald thereafter.

Clynes, like many Labour parliamentarians, was opposed to the General Strike on principle, but his loyalty to his union saw him support it once the TUC had made the decision. It was an abiding feature of Clynes’ politics: he stayed loyal. In MacDonald’s first government he had been lord privy seal and deputy leader of the House of Commons. By the late ‘twenties he had taken an active interest in prison reform: as such, he was a natural fit for the Home Office.

Labour’s lack of a majority meant he had little chance to achieve much. His most ambitious proposal was to reform the electoral system, by introducing the alternative vote. The Lords effectively killed the bill off. As a former mill worker, he took an active interest in proposals to reform the cotton trade. Clynes, who was resolute in his opposition to communism, also refused Trotsky asylum.

As his fortunes had risen and fallen in sync with that of his party, it was perhaps fitting that he lost his seat in 1931. Clynes had remained president of his union, now known as the National Union of General and Municipal Workers: by the time he left the presidency in 1937, it was one of Britain’s largest unions. Having regained his seat in 1935 (again reflecting the improved fortunes of his party), he stayed in the Commons until 1945, settling into the role of elder statesman. He was the last of Labour’s first generation to sit in the House, and the last to die in 1947.

Clynes was certainly not one of the most distinguished of home secretaries, though he was one of seven who also lead his party. Neither was he the greatest of Labour’s founders. He was hardly insignificant, though, and serves to represent the trade union wing of the party that were central to its rise, and to what Henry Pelling called the ‘undogmatic Labourism’ that was at the heart of its politics. as he said, ‘Labour serves the British people because it is a movement of the people’. As such, he deserves a significant place in Labour history.

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