Britain’s First Labour Government by John Shepherd and Keith Laybourn: Ghetto politics

The first Labour government was formed in January 1924 after the only real threeparty election in Britain in the 20th century. It is a story which resonates: showing how dangerous it is to retreat into a ghetto, isolated from other forces on the left.

Britain’s First Labour Government
John Shepherd and Keith Laybourn
Palgrave Macmillan, 280pp, £19.99

The first Labour government was formed in January 1924 after the only real threeparty election in Britain in the 20th century. The general election of December 1923 had been called by Stanley Baldwin, the then Conservative leader, to secure a mandate for tariff reform. But the outcome was a hung parliament. The Conservatives remained the largest party, with 258 seats and 38 per cent of the vote, Labour won 191 seats with a little over 30 per cent of the vote, while the Liberals were third, with 159 seats on just under 30 per cent.

Baldwin appeared before parliament in January 1924, but was defeated on a vote of no confidence tabled by the Labour MP J R Clynes. George V then appointed Ramsay MacDonald as prime minister of a minority government – in office but not in power – on 22 January, the 23rd anniversary of the death of Queen Victoria. “Today, 23 years ago,” the king recorded in his diary, “dear Grandmama died. I wonder what she would have thought of a Labour Government!”

Newspaper placards declared “Lenin dead (official) Ramsay MacDonald premier”. Many were fearful for the future, none more so than Winston Churchill, who warned four days before MacDonald went to the Palace: “The enthronement in office of a Socialist Government will be a serious national misfortune such as has usually befallen great states only on the morrow of defeat in war.” But MacDonald proved far less of a threat to the established order than Lloyd George had been.

The first Labour government lasted just 266 days before being defeated by a Conservative/ Liberal combination; and, in the general election of October 1924, the Conservatives were returned with a large majority. The Labour vote actually rose – from 30 per cent to 33 per cent –but the issue was decided by the collapse of the Liberal vote which swung to the Tories.

The 1924 campaign was unedifying. It is now thought that the “Zinoviev letter”, an almost certainly forged missive from the Communist International calling on British communists to infiltrate Labour in the interests of revolution, had little influence on the outcome. But the Con - servatives constantly underlined the “red menace”. One Tory leaflet warned that communist spies “may come disguised as nurses and health visitors”, while another feared that in Sunday schools, children were “being baptised into the Communist faith – taught – how to blow up bridges, render roads useless”.

A competent, if drab, history of the first Labour government was published in 1957 by an American scholar, Richard Lyman. It is not immediately obvious why another is needed. John Shepherd and Keith Laybourn point out that the cabinet papers and those of MacDonald, as well as numerous other collections, were not available to Lyman, and they have worked assiduously at some 30 different private collections. But they have not come up with much new. Britain’s First Labour Government, a new paperback edition of a book first published in 2006, does little more than cross the Ts and dot the Is of Lyman’s account; and it is even more drably written. Nevertheless, it does serve to stimulate reflection upon the conditions needed for Labour success.

Labour’s victory in 1923 was due not to socialism, but to its defence of free trade. In a way, that was fortunate, since Labour, then as later, hardly knew what it meant by socialism, nor how it was to be achieved. Yet, despite lacking a mandate, the government had two major achievements to its credit. John Wheatley’s Housing Act provided for subsidies and controlled rents and made possible a great expansion of local authority housing during the interwar years. The 1926 report of the Hadow committee, set up by Labour in 1924, laid down a new framework for secondary education. Labour established two fundamental principles, which no future administration has ever questioned: that the state had a duty to ensure that the people were properly housed and that secondary education was the right of all children, not just those who could win scholarships or whose parents could afford fees.

Beatrice Webb saw the first Labour government as a mere “scouting expedition in the world of administration, a testing of men and measures before they are actually called to assume majority power”. But Labour could have achieved more, and perhaps survived for a full term, had it sought agreement with the Liberals on a joint programme. The New Statesman believed that had MacDonald “treated his Liberal allies with even common courtesy he might have remained in power not merely until 1925, but for some years to come, possibly even for a decade”. The chance, if there was one, for progressive government was lost, and Labour’s tactics ensured that the 20th century would become the Conservative century.

The history of the first Labour government shows how dangerous it is for the party to retreat into a ghetto, isolating itself from other forces on the left. Labour can only hope for constructive achievement in office if it becomes the spokesmen of all of the progressive forces in British politics. That is an easy moral to formulate but, as the history of the 20th century shows, a difficult one actually to put into practice.

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government at the Institute for Contemporary British History, King’s College, London. His books include “The Coalition and the Constitution” (Hart Publishing, £20)

Ramsey MacDonald, first Labour prime minister, on an election posted stuck to the back of his own airplane. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 20 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Dream Ticket

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Can Nicola Sturgeon keep Scotland in the EU?

For Sturgeon, Scotland's rightful place is in the EU. If that means independence, so be it.

In the aftermath of the EU referendum, when Remain voters were still nursing their hangovers, a meme began to circulate on Scottish Facebook pages. It was an image of Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister, her arms outspread, with a simple message: “F***in’ calm doon. Am oan it.”

At a time when British politicians are mired in the kind of chaos seen once in a generation, Sturgeon has emerged as a figure of calm. While her fellow Remain campaigners were speaking tearfully to news cameras, she addressed EU citizens, telling them: “You remain welcome here. Scotland is your home and your contribution is valued.”

When Boris Johnson declared, “Project Fear is over,” she retorted on Twitter, “Project Farce has now begun.” Her message has been retweeted more than 6,000 times. Faisal Islam, the political editor of Sky News, remarked on air that she seemed to be “the person with the most thought-through plan”.

Sturgeon now presents herself as Scotland’s anchor to Europe. Yet critics view her actions as those of a veteran independence campaigner seizing a chance denied to her by the Scottish referendum two years ago. In reality, she is working for both objectives.

It is hard to imagine now but the Scottish National Party was once suspicious of the idea of an independent Scotland in Europe. The idea took hold thanks to Jim Sillars, the Labour MP who led the 1976 breakaway that formed the Scottish Labour Party. He defected to the SNP in the early 1980s and became one of its strongest pro-EU advocates. The promise of an independent state within a larger framework was soon a mainstay of the party’s campaigns. The 1997 manifesto promised voters “the restoration of self-confidence and the creation of a modern democracy in the mainstream of European life”.

In the early years of the Scottish Parliament, Sturgeon’s approach to the EU was one of a negotiator, not an idealist. In 2003, she put forward a motion that the Scottish Executive should oppose the reduction of Scottish seats in the European Parliament from eight to seven. “Scotland, with no seat on the Council of Europe, no commissioners and fewer MEPs than comparably sized independent member states, has little enough influence in the EU,” she argued.

Her interest in representation emerged again in 2005 when she described an EU proposal on software patents as “a serious threat” to developers. She noted that: “There was apparently no Scottish minister at the Council to represent Scottish interests, the UK instead being represented by an unelected member of the House of Lords.”

Sturgeon’s commitment to work with the EU has not always been reciprocated. In the Scottish referendum, as deputy first minister, she promised the continuity of EU membership. Yet José Manuel Barroso, the then president of the European Commission, said it would be “extremely difficult, if not impossible”, for an independent Scotland to join. Some consider his statement to have been crucial to the success of the No campaign.

When the EU referendum arrived, Sillars, the architect of the SNP’s Europhile agenda, criticised the “love affair” that he believed his party was indulging in and joined the campaign for Brexit. Sturgeon made a different calculation. She threw herself into the Remain campaign, though she was careful not to stand alongside David Cameron. She played down the Scottish independence line – when asked, in the run-up to the vote, if she was a unionist, she described herself as “an enthusiastic European”.

She turned her reputation as a “nippie sweetie” to her advantage. Once viewed as a dour machine politician, now Sturgeon was warm to voters while cutting Boris Johnson down to size. There was no need to scaremonger over Europe, she said. A positive campaign was enough. There is no doubt that she tapped in to the popular feeling: 62 per cent of voters in Scotland opted to remain in the EU, compared to 48 per cent in the UK as a whole. Every local authority area north of the border voted Remain.

As the referendum results rolled in, she prepared to go it alone. “There are no rules,” Sturgeon told Andrew Marr. “The status quo we voted for doesn’t exist.” To her, Scotland’s rightful place is in the EU and if that requires independence, so be it.

She offered to meet Brussels diplomats. She contacted EU institutions. She put forward a motion in the Scottish Parliament demanding “the Scottish government to have discussions” in pursuit of “protecting Scotland’s relationship with the EU”.

Yet Barroso’s warnings may come back to haunt Sturgeon. She has always painted a picture of an independent Scotland in Europe as one that is nevertheless tied to the British Isles. Its currency is the pound; Scots and the English move freely between Glasgow and Carlisle. EU member states may seize on her proposal, or use it as a way of repeating the rebuff of 2014. Sturgeon the nippie sweetie negotiator has her plan for a European Scotland. Now she must wait for Europe to answer. 

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies