The Foreign Secretaries (13): Herbert Morrison

herbert-morrison-7a6eeb90-2de7-47e2-8217-299c39142f5-resize-750Herbert Morrison, 1951

Labour, under Clement Attlee

For Morrison’s career up until 1945, see the entry here.

For one of the giants of Labour’s great generation, Morrison’s time at the Foreign Office was both brief and undistinguished. The irony was that became foreign secretary when his great rival, Ernie Bevin, retired due to ill health.

Morrison’s real contribution to Labour’s great government was twofold. In the first place, he was the guiding light behind Labour’s 1945 manifesto, Let Us Face the Future. Morrison had been determined that Labour needed to widen its appeal: he was right to, and that appeal lay behind the Labour landslide. In the new government, Morrison was lord president of the council, leader of the House of Commons and deputy prime minister. He chaired cabinet when Attlee was absent. Most of all, he was charged with ensuring that Labour’s vastly ambitious legislative programme got through the House. Getting that done was a very significant achievement, and marked Morrison’s greatest contribution to the Attlee governments. His other role was as economic overlord. In this, he was less successful. In particular, much hope was vested in planning: planning never got off the ground. Claims that Morrison didn’t understand economics are wide of the mark, but he certainly lacked a feel for economic issues. In all probability, planning was doomed anyway, but Morrison’s uncertain grasp of it hardly helped. In truth though, every Labour government that has tried to over-ride the Treasury failed to do so. Just as MacDonald had tried to in 1929, and George Brown would try to in 1964, Morrison failed.

1947 was a difficult year for the government and, indeed, for Morrison. Having been ill for the earlier part of the year, he then formed part of a triumvirate of ministers who plotted to oust Attlee. The problem was, they could not agree on Attlee’s successor. Cripps wanted Bevin, but Bevin wouldn’t betray Attlee. Morrison wanted the leadership, but neither Dalton nor Cripps agreed. With the plot crumbling, Attlee reacted by promoting one plotter, Cripps, and clipping Morrison’s wings. Cripps was the new economic overlord and when Dalton let slip a budget secret and was forced to resign, Attlee made Cripps chancellor. The Treasury was back in control.

Morrison still mattered, though. He was instrumental in Labour’s rather timid 1950 manifesto, perhaps reflecting an increasing conservatism. His great strengths, as a political fixer and manager, as leader of the House, were never more needed than when the 1950 election cut Labour’s majority to five. Unfortunately, it would desert him when it was most needed.

Shortly after succeeding Bevin as foreign secretary, and with Attlee ill, Morrison was the man charged with trying to hold the government together in the aftermath of Hugh Gaitskell’s first budget. That budget, which introduced charges into the health service, saw the resignations of Harold Wilson, John Freeman and, most seriously, Bevan. Those resignations opened up a split that would divide the party for a generation. Morrison had failed again.

His tenure at the foreign office was marked by some condescension, in part thanks to his habit (one common among Londoners) of mispronouncing foreign words and terms. Inevitably, as foreign secretary at a time in which Britain was cooperating very closely with the United States, he earned the opprobrium of the Labour left.

After Labour lost power in 1951, Morrison remained deputy leader and still harboured hopes of the leadership. If he ever had any chance, two things conspired to stop him. In the first place, in 1952, a Bevanite vote saw Morrison lose his place on Labour’s National Executive Committee: the party was riven between right and left. Furthermore, Attlee’s decision to stay on as leader denied Morrison his last chance, which may well have been Attlee’s intention. When Gaitskell won the leadership in 1955, Morrison came a poor third. He retired to the backbenches and left the Commons in 1959.

If his time as foreign secretary was not a happy one, it should be remembered that Morrison was one of the great figures in Labour’s greatest generation: a giant in a cabinet of giants. As wartime home secretary (one of eight foreign secretaries since 1906 to be home secretary too) he had been distinguished; he had played a leading role in the redrafting of Labour’s political position in the ‘thirties, had been a highly successful leader of London County Council, drafted the 1945 manifesto and led the great wave of legislation introduced by the 1945-50 government. Even if his ultimate ambition to lead his party remained, perhaps rightly, unfulfilled, he cannot be denied his place in the top echelon of the Attlee generation.

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