The Home Secretaries (15): Herbert Morrison

person_morrison1Herbert Morrison, 1940-45

Labour, in Churchill’s wartime National Government

Herbert Morrison was one of the key figures of Labour’s great generation. He lost the sight in his right eye after an infection in infancy. He was also the son of a Conservative police constable. Morrison was very much self-taught, reading widely and, as a young man, joining the Marxist Social Democratic Foundation. However, Marxism gave way to realism, and by the time a London Labour Party was finally organised in 1914, Morrison was one of its leading figures, becoming its secretary in 1915.

By 1919, that Labour Party had become a political force to be reckoned with in London, controlling 12 of its 28 boroughs. Morrison became major of Hackney, until Labour lost control of the borough in 1922. He was then elected as a member of London County Council. He entered the Commons in 1923, losing his seat in 1924. In 1925, he became leader of the Labour group on London County Council, returning to the Commons in 1929.

MacDonald made Morrison minister of transport. As such, Morrison was seen as a rare success in a very troubled government, successfully piloting a Road Traffic Act through the House and introducing the idea of a London Transport Board (a policy eventually adopted by the National Government in 1933). After losing his seat in 1931, Morrison led Labour to victory in the London County Council elections in 1934. Under his leadership, the council cleared slums, reformed the provision of public assistance and built schools; it was also solvent. Morrison’s practical socialism was thus very different from the Poplarism associated with George Lansbury. In 1937, the Labour vote in London went up. Morrison also played a key role in the reformulation of party policy in the ‘thirties.

If his leadership of the LCC showed his strengths, the Labour Party politics of the time also showed his weaknesses. He lacked a base in the all-important trade unions. In particular, his relationship with Ernest Bevin was difficult, to say the least. The origins of Bevin’s distrust, even hatred, of Morrison are somewhat obscure, but they certainly disagreed on policy on transport. In 1931, when MacDonald created the National Government, rumour persisted that Morrison was considering jumping ship with him. Morrison’s all too evident ambition probably didn’t help. When Bevin forced George Lansbury’s resignation in 1935, Attlee was temporary leader. After returning to the Commons in the 1935 election, Morrison ran for the leadership against him, and lost. Thwarted ambition would haunt him thereafter.

For the remainder of the ‘thirties his primary focus was on London, but when Churchill came to power, in 1940, Morrison entered the government. After a brief interlude as minister of supply, Churchill made him home secretary. The Blitz was at its height, and Churchill needed a political heavyweight and an effective Commons performer at the Home Office: he got both. He reformed civil defence, and he helped maintain morale in the face of the worst of the bombing. He was a relative liberal, though he did shut down the Daily Worker and pursued an unwise and ill-tempered vendetta against the Daily Mirror for publishing a cartoon to which he and Churchill objected (and misunderstood).

That campaign did him no good on the Labour backbenches; he was fiercely criticised by Nye Bevan at the time. His release of Sir Oswald Mosely in 1943 did him no favours, either. Nor did his perceived disloyalty to Attlee help his cause. His sometime mistress, Ellen Wilkinson, made little secret of her manoeuvres to try to oust Attlee in Morrison’s favour. After the 1945 election, Morrison even tried to force a vote of the parliamentary party on the issue of the leadership; Attlee forestalled that by going straight to the palace.

For all that, and despite something close to a personal dislike of him, Attlee would make Morrison deputy prime minister and economic overlord in 1945. Morrison would go on to be one of eight home secretaries since 1906 who also held the Foreign Office (you can read about it here). In his memoirs, Attlee asserted that Morrison had been an outstanding home secretary at a very difficult time, and that is as good a judgement as any.

Here he is, in 1941.

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