In retrospect, the fall of MacDonald’s second Labour government, the creation of the national government, the 1931 general election and its aftermath mark, in many ways, the end of that period of remarkable political reconfiguration either side of the Great War and the coming of democracy. We can now see that the ‘thirties saw the restoration of two party politics: the two parties which would, after the Second World War, dominate British politics. However, I’m not sure it looked quite like that at time.
In 1931, it was possible to envisage the collapse of Labour. Remember, it had only been the second party of British politics for a decade. Its greatest figure, Ramsay MacDonald, now headed a national government (seen above with Baldwin, right, and the Liberal leader Sir Herbert Samuel).
Nor did the party help itself. More than once, in the aftermath of defeat, the Labour Party has had a tendency to move sharply to the left. In the ‘fifties a bitter left-right schism opened up, in part led by the left-wing Bevanites. In 1960, the party briefly embraced unilateral nuclear disarmament, in what Bevan himself decried as ‘an emotional spasm’. After 1970, it fell into discord over Europe and moved to the left. After 1979, the Bennite left were on the rise and Michael Foot won the leadership. Foot moved the party sharply leftward and the result was ‘longest suicide note in history’, as Gerald Kaufman memorably described the 1983 manifesto that saw Labour poll below 30% for the first time since 1922. At the same time, in reaction to the leftward move, the party split when the Gang of Four created the SDP. Again, in 2010, the party elected the wrong Miliband, perceiving him to be the more left wing; then, in 2015, came Corbymania.
For Labour, 1931 was the mother of all defeats. They were reduced to 52 seats, and some of them sat as ILP MPs. Another 13 MPs who had been Labour now supported MacDonald and the government as National Labour. In total, Labour lost 235 of the seats they had won in 1929. Their leader, Arthur Henderson, lost his seat. So did the home secretary and former leader JR Clynes. Three of the big beasts of the early Labour Party were now National: MacDonald, Snowden and JH Thomas. Only one other member of MacDonald’s Labour cabinet in August 1931 who sat in the Commons kept his seat.
That was the veteran London left winger, George Lansbury. By 1931, Lansbury was 72. He had, behind him, a lifetime of political activism. Unlike most early Labour men, Lansbury was influenced by Marxism. He had been a member of Britain’s small Marxist party, the Social Democratic Federation, and was its national organiser in 1895-96. By the time he had joined Labour in 1904, Lansbury had long been active in local politics and had been elected as a member of Poplar council the previous year: he became something of specialist in and campaigner for the reform of the old Victorian Poor Law.
In 1910, he was elected to London County Council and then parliament, where he earned himself a reputation as a backbench rebel. He was a passionate supporter of the Women’s Political and Social Union, and it was in support of Pankhurst’s Suffragettes that he resigned his seat in 1912 to provoke a by-election on the issue. He lost. The following year, he was imprisoned after speaking out in favour of Suffragette violence.
If Lansbury was unusual among early Labour figures in being influenced by Marxism, he was far more typical in his Christian faith. As such, he was a lifelong pacifist, and opposed the Great War. He also founded and ran the Labour newspaper, the Daily Herald. He supported the Bolshevik revolution, visiting Russia in 1920. As the first Labour mayor of Poplar, he along with 30 other councillors had served six weeks in prison for leading a rates revolt in 1921, though in the end the government gave way. Poplarism made Lansbury a hero of the left (below, the Poplar councillors are seen on their way to court, with supporters).
Lansbury was also a republican, which was one reason why he did not enter the cabinet in 1924 (his support for the Bolsheviks was another). By 1929, however, he had changed his mind, voting against republican motions in the Labour party conference.
In 1929, rather surprisingly, he was made first commissioner of works. As such, incidentally, he had plenty to do with the king, and the two men got on rather well. He was also part of the ill-fated cabinet committee looking into the issue of unemployment, under JH Thomas and alongside Sir Oswald Mosley. As the cabinet’s sole real left-winger and as a man who had made his name thanks to Poplarism, which had supported more generous welfare provision, he was naturally opposed to the welfare cuts proposed by MacDonald and Snowden in 1931.
As Labour’s sole surviving cabinet minister, he had obvious credentials after the electoral massacre of 1931. His radical socialism also helped, in a party that now associated moderate reformist politics with the hated ‘traitor’, MacDonald. He became leader of the parliamentary party; when Henderson stepped down the following year, he became party leader overall.
In many ways, he was a success. The morale of the parliamentary party recovered, and he was immensely popular with activists. AJP Taylor would describe him as ‘the most lovable figure in modern politics’. The crucial vote he lost at the 1935 party conference saw him receive a standing ovation in the conference hall itself. The party was reformed, and there were by-election successes: ten, in all. In 1934, Labour won control of London County Council. However, under Lansbury, Labour were never going to return to government.
Lansbury was forced to resign in 1935, primarily thanks to his pacifism, which was rejected by Bevin and the union bloc vote (you can read about that, and the Labour left in the ‘thirties, here). In many ways, he did leave a legacy to the party. The party that Attlee inherited was more left-wing than that of MacDonald’s. It would embrace nationalisation, universal health provision and Indian independence, for example. However, the socialism of Labour’s second generation was markedly different to that of Lansbury’s.
Lansbury’s socialism, for all his Marxist influences, or belief in direct action, belonged to the left-wing socialism of Kier Hardie, Nye Bevan or Michael Foot, or many of the Corbynistas we see today: what AJP Taylor characterised as the emotional left. His pacifism was of a piece with that, as was his support for Indian independence (he is seen below with Gandhi, in Poplar in 1931).
That is not to say that there wasn’t hard left politics in the Labour Party. In the ‘thirties one might think of Sir Stafford Cripps, before then perhaps the miners’ leader AJ Cook. In the 1980s, and again now, perhaps the London left of Ken Livingstone, John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn. In some ways, Lansbury straddled both, as did the Tony Benn of the late ’seventies and early ‘eighties.
Beyond the hard left of Labour, there has often been the wilder fringes. The London left of Corbyn et al always had connections with the far left, especially the Socialist Worker’s Party, as any brief perusal of any of the campaigns they have shared would reveal: the Stop the War movement is classic case. The was a far left in Lansbury’s time (you can read about it here). Some, like Cripps, dallied with it in the face of fascism (you can read about that here)
Already, in 1932, the ILP had disaffiliated from the Labour movement preferring, in Nye Bevan’s words, to be ‘pure, but impotent’. Lansbury’s continued belief in direct action, and his pacifism, meant that there remained common ground between his politics and some of the far left. However, Attlee and Bevin removed that common ground. Whilst their policies were genuinely socialist, their politics were avowedly constitutional. Most of all, their foreign policy changed radically. By 1938, the party that had opposed rearmament and had been led by a pacifist was calling for large scale rearmament and was opposed to appeasement.
In the 1935 general election, in part thanks to Lansbury, there was a marked recovery in Labour’s fortunes. They polled 38%, and won 154 seats. In part, this also reflected an underlying strength beneath the rubble of 1931: in the 1931 election, they had polled 31%. After 1935, the place of Labour as Britain’s second party, so hard won in the ‘twenties, was secure. In that two-party system, as should be in a democracy, there was as much in common between parties as divided. The Labour Party of Attlee and Bevin was patriotic yet worried about the threat of Hitler et al: so were the Conservatives.
In domestic politics, the socialist policies the new leadership would adopt were that of Labour’s second generation: the likes of Greenwood, Bevin, Attlee and Morrison ruled the roost. To the chagrin of many on the left, in the pure sense they were not socialist. Nor were they the preserve of Labour. The party of Lansbury and Attlee would make much of the housing issue. Housing had been the signature domestic achievement of the MacDonald governments, in the form of the Wheatley and Greenwood Acts. The responsibility for implementing both acts was, in the end, in the hands of local government, and would remain so after 1945. In 1935, Baldwin would assert slum clearance as one of the government’s primary achievements. The other important legacy of the second MacDonald government had been the initiation of the creation of the London Passenger Transport Board. Its originator (the actual act was carried forward by the national government) was Herbert Morrison, leader of London County Council by 1934 (you can read about Morrison here).
If this could be described as socialism, it was very much managerial and bread and butter socialism. Its roots lay as much in the municipal socialism of the Victorians. Morrison was very much the heir of that movement (he was actually opposed to the creation of a national, as opposed to comprehensive local, health service, for example). As such, it was by no means the preserve of Labour. The high priest of Victorian municipal socialism had been then Liberal Unionist Joe Chamberlain, father of Austen and Neville. Neville Chamberlain had been a key figure in expansion of Birmingham’s hospital services, as minister of health he was a notable reformer; in the late ‘thirties he was looking seriously at the idea of some form of universal medical provision. He ran all his life as a Liberal Unionist (you can read about him here, and here).
Nationalisation may have been socialist, and heralded in the famous Clause IV of Labour’s constitution, calling for ‘common ownership’. However, nationalisation was hardly just a Labour idea. The story of one man, another one of those stories of mutable political loyalties, might be a start. John Sankey (right, as Lord Chancellor, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery) was a leading barrister of Conservative sympathies. From 1915, he served the government’s Enemy Aliens Advisory Committee. After the war, the coalition government had appointed to chair a commission to examine the problems of the coal industry. The Sankey Committee divided along party political lines, and it was his casting vote that ensured that it recommended nationalisation. It was to no avail, as Lloyd George had promised the coal owners (of whom Sankey developed a very low opinion) that he would not nationalise them. It also earned Sankey the bitter opprobrium of many Conservatives.
He became more sympathetic to Labour. Overlooked in favour of Lord Haldane in 1924, he became Lord Chancellor in 1929. In 1931, now as Lord Sankey, he followed MacDonald: he was one of the four Labour members of first cabinet of the national government. He served as Lord Chancellor until 1935.
As such, he was a member of what was, in effect, a Conservative government with a Labour prime minister. In fact, it was Conservative governments carried out all three nationalisations of the inter-war period: the BBC, the Central Electricity Board and the London Passenger Transport Board. Proposing the nationalisation of other major industries was hardly novel.
By the time Labour embraced the idea of Indian independence in the Attlee Report of 1938, the idea of dominion status was very much on the table. As Ireland was showing, that was very much a stepping-stone on the road to independence. Labour may have being going further, but it was further in the same direction.
Perhaps the reason Labour’s collapse in 1931 did not see another political upheaval was the even more calamitous collapse of Liberalism. On the face of it, the formation of the national government saw the battered Liberals return to centre stage: Samuel was home secretary, and Rufus Isaacs, as the Marquess of Reading, was in the Foreign Office (you can read about him here). However, rather than a revival, it was a brief and desultory encore. Even before 1931, the Liberals had split once more, when the followers of Sir John Simon threw off the Liberal whip. In the 1931 election, the cracks were (very thinly) papered over. Sir Herbert Samuel carried on as home secretary (you can read about him here), and Sir John Simon in the Foreign Office (you can read about him here). In 1932, when the government adopted tariffs, Samuel resigned. Simon stayed on, and his 35 Liberal National MPs became de facto Tories. Meanwhile, Samuel’s 33, alongside Lloyd George’s four, now became the rump of the once great Liberal Party. In 1935, that rump was reduced to just 21 seats. The great Liberal Party was all but out of road.
The irony is that, at the same time, liberal ideas were the road ahead. The government had a distinctly liberal tinge: Simon remained a central figure (you can read more about him here and here) and Chamberlain was always minded of his liberal inheritance. Churchill remained a coalitionist by nature. More importantly, in 1936 John Maynard Keynes published his General Theory. In 1942, William Beveridge would write his famous report (you can read about it here). Keynesianism and Beveridge were central to Labour after 1945. In truth, they would be no less influential on the new generation of Conservatives, such as Harold Macmillan (you can read about it here): Macmillan’s family firm published Keynes’ masterwork. In short, if the Liberal Party might have been in the geriatric wing on something like life support, liberal ideas were anything but.
Meanwhile, the Conservative Party of Baldwin and Chamberlain ruled over all. They won landslides in 1931 and ’35. Almost certainly, had war not come, Chamberlain would have won another. A 1939 Gallup poll gave the government 50% to Labour’s 44: on a similar vote, 20 years later, Macmillan won a majority of 100. One Nation Conservatism had triumphed, in National dress..
It had triumphed over its own opponents too. The press barons were emasculated, Churchill et al isolated and a dodgy king had abdicated.
Those on the right who railed against Baldwin were left to fume, or dally with fascism. Many did a bit of both. Some admired Hitler or Mussolini (you can read about them here), some looked to Edward VIII (you read about them here) and others to Mosley’s BUF (you can read about them here). Once Edward VIII had abdicated, it is tempting to aver they no longer mattered. Perhaps the real point is that in other circumstances they could have.
In contrast, those who dallied at a distance mattered more. There was something of a Hitlerian charm offensive in the ‘thirties: intermittent, but real enough. Lloyd George visited Hitler (you can see that here), as did the duke of Windsor (you can read about that here). Halifax went hunting with Goering (you can read about that here). Chamberlain never quite lost hope that Mussolini might come good (you can read about that here, here and here). In the end though, the likes of Lloyd George, Halifax and Chamberlain might have dallied, but they saw the light in the end. In short, the politicians of the ‘thirties hung together in the end, making Churchill’s wartime national government possible.
The story of another wayward soul might be useful. In 1914, John Beckett enlisted. He was wounded and discharged in 1917. He joined the ILP. By 1920, he was Clement Attlee’s constituency agent; in 1922, when Attlee entered the Commons, Beckett became his private secretary. He was active in the No More War Movement. In 1923, he was an unsuccessful candidate in Newcastle Central; he won Gateshead in 1924, before moving to Peckham in 1929. He became a notable backbench rebel, calling MacDonald a liar and seizing the mace. He lost his seat in 1931, by then bitterly disillusioned with Labour.
After a visit to Italy, he joined Mosley’s BUF in 1934. He became its director of publications, before falling out with Mosley, who sacked him. He then founded the National Socialist League, along with another ex-BUF mam William Joyce (the future Lord Haw-Haw). Beckett fell out with Joyce, who he saw as too anti-Semitic and pro-German (Beckett could not bring himself to turn against his country). With Viscount Lymington and the duke of Bedford, he formed the British People’s Party, another hopelessly impotent political grouping that brought forth a strange brew of ideas: pacifism, fascism, and socialism. Come war, they became the anti-war British Council for Settlement in Europe. Although he had joined the Local Defence Volunteers, in 1940 he was arrested under the Emergency Powers Act and not released until 1943. In 1952, he converted to Catholicism.
Beckett, like most of his kind, never mattered much. In another European country, he might have amounted to something (many far less able and stranger men made careers in Nazi Germany). That the likes of him did not owes much to the abiding strength of both Labour and the Conservatives. The likes of MacDonald, Baldwin and Chamberlain, or Bevin and Attlee, ensured that the politics of both left and right was constitutional, democratic, moderate and patriotic. Thanks to them, 1931 marked the beginning of the end of a convulsive period in British political history just as the European skies darkened. Of course, they were politicians, looking for political advantage (in Baldwin’s case with spectacular success). These statesmen, for that is what they were, were at least prepared to put the national, and European, interest before that narrow advantage: when it came to the war, they certainly did (below, Chamberlain’s war cabinet). Oh for their like now.