James Ede, 1945-51
Labour, under Attlee
James Ede, or James Chuter-Ede as he would later style himself, is probably the least known and remembered senior minister of Attlee’s government. He was the son of a shopkeeper, steeped in nonconformism and Liberalism. He studied natural science at Christ’s College, Cambridge, though a lack of money forced him to leave before taking his degree. He then became a teacher, and an educational activist, an interest he would carry into politics first locally, then nationally.
It was during the First World War, where he saw frontline service, that he joined Labour, like so many Liberal sons and daughters were to. Having been in the Commons briefly in 1923, he then won the formerly safe Labour seat of South Shields in 1929. Swept away in the landslide of 1931, he returned after winning South Shields again in 1935: he would hold the seat until his retirement in 1964.
He was promoted to the opposition front bench in 1939. When Churchill’s wartime coalition was formed, Ede went as parliamentary secretary to the Board of Education, from 1941 serving under the Conservative, Rab Butler. In the three years that followed, Ede played a key role in the formulation of the 1944 Education Act, the most important reform passed by Churchill’s government and the single most important education reform measure in modern British history. Above all, it introduced secondary education for all, and settled the vexed issue of religion and church schools. Later, Ede would come to support the idea of comprehensive education, but insisted that the problem with the post-Butler settlement was that parity of esteem envisaged for secondary modern schools had never been actually realised. Certainly, he played a central role in one of the great reform measures of the century.
For Attlee, Ede was a safe pair of hands at the Home Office. There were reforms. Over 200 wartime regulations were abandoned. The Criminal Justice Act, 1948 abolished hard labour and penal servitude, along with corporal punishment in prisons; it also created specialist detention centres for young people. The magistrate’s courts were reformed. He opposed a proposed moratorium on the death penalty, but did agree to the appointment of a Royal Commission on the practice. In the end, the Lords overturned a Commons vote to suspend the death penalty for five years. Popular feeling, and fear of rising crime, persuaded Ede that the death penalty had to remain in force. Ede sanctioned the hanging of Timothy Evans. By the mid-‘fifties, it had become clear that Evans had suffered an appalling miscarriage of justice. Although he maintained that, at the time, he had acted in accord with the available evidence, it led Ede to change his mind. He became an abolitionist. He also campaigned for Evans’ remains to be returned to his family: they decision to do so was taken the day before Ede died in 1965, the year that saw the end of the death penalty as well.
He also initiated the Lynskey Tribunal, which investigated the Sidney Stanley affair. Stanley was a black-marketeer who had cultivated friends in high places. In the end, most of those implicated were exonerated, but a director of the Bank of England and junior minister were sacked. In effect, Ede had successfully contained the issue.
Ede was also involved in the issue of immigration. The British Nationality Act, 1948 gave British citizenship to all in the Commonwealth. This was intended as a response to a Commonwealth conference in 1947, and Canada’s new citizenship law of 1946. Just as it was passing into law, the Empire Windrush landed at Tilbury, and the prospect of large-scale immigration from the Caribbean loomed large in the popular and ministerial imagination. In fact, figures remained low (2,200 in 1951, for example). Nonetheless, the government saw the creation of black communities in British cities as a potential social problem. For the government, it was a political problem too, as the issue crossed at least three government departments: the Home Office, the Colonial Office and the Ministry of Labour. In strictest secrecy, a cabinet committee was created, under Ede, to consider whether the 1948 act need to be redrawn to prevent black immigration: it concluded that the damage that would do to relations with Commonwealth governments would be too much. There would be no controls on immigration from the Commonwealth until 1962: black Britain was born.
Ede’s Representation of the People Act, 1948, abolished plural voting and the university seats. He was criticised for the boundary changes introduced before the 1950 general election, which helped the Conservatives, though it should be remembered that the ultimate decision was Attlee’s. It says much about both men, that the changes were made because it was, simply, the right thing to do. The reputation for integrity lay behind the high regard in which Ede was held by the whole of the Commons: Attlee made him leader of the House in 1951. After the 1951 defeat, Ede stayed on the opposition front bench, but would retire before Labour saw office again.
Unlike the later Wilson government, the Attlee one was socially conservative, nor was it inclined to wide-ranging constitutional reform. As such, Ede’s main job was at the Home Office was managerial. For all that, and despite the brutal tragedy of Timothy Evans, Ede was a civilised, decent and capable home secretary, as befits a man who kept a copy of Paradise Lost in his office. His role as one of the architects of the Butler Act should remind us that he was a politician of some stature. Attlee was a pretty good judge of ministers: that Ede served as home secretary for the whole life of the Attlee governments says a lot.