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14 September 2022

From the NS archive: The first five weeks

3 August 1929: An early report card for Ramsay MacDonald’s minority Labour government.

By New Statesman

In 1929, Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour Party formed a minority government. It was MacDonald’s second stint as prime minister and he set about normalising industrial relations – which had still not stabilised after the General Strike of 1926 – and dealing with the pressing issues of poverty and unemployment. After five weeks in office his report card, according to the New Statesman’s writer, was positive. He had the right ministers in the right places and his government was working assiduously. “Labour took office first and foremost in order to remedy discontents – grave and grossly neglected discontents,” noted the writer, and those would take time to fix. Should current progress be maintained, he thought, “then Mr MacDonald should be good for a long run”. In the autumn of that same year, however, the stock market crashed and the Great Depression began.

Nobody outside a lunatic asylum expected the government to create a new heaven and a new earth in its first short session. Some of its left-wing supporters no doubt hankered after more adventurous policies, and the frivolous or the diehards among its adversaries hoped for sensations, gaffes and collapses. But the verdict of the country as a whole, we think, is that Mr MacDonald has made a very creditable start. He and his colleagues have disarmed the critics – at any rate on the opposite side – by their caution and conciliatoriness, and yet have given an earnest sign that they mean something very different from Mr Baldwin’s “safety first”.

Such criticism as they have encountered has been in the main only the small change of party politics. There are difficulties and dangers ahead, indeed, at home and abroad, but they can face these with a far greater confidence than was possible during their 1924 experiment. Labour, though it is in a minority at Westminster, has a stronger hold in the country. The Liberal Party is at once less formidable in numbers and more friendly-disposed, while the Conservatives are still stunned by their defeat and ill at ease among themselves. It is not very clear at present whether it is Mr Baldwin, or Mr Churchill, or Lord Beaverbrook, or some unknown, who is to lead them out of the wilderness. But it does seem clear that, barring accidents, the government has little to fear at present from any Tory Moses.

Prophets of woe predict trouble from the extreme left. That may come; but we doubt whether Mr Maxton and his particular friends really harbour the fell designs that they are credited with. They want the government to go faster and farther than it has gone, or than it is likely to go, and they will naturally grumble and perhaps threaten. But this does not necessarily mean that they have the desire – even if they had the power – to destroy Mr MacDonald. Ginger groups, after all, equip themselves with ginger and not gunpowder. And a little ginger, given and taken (or refused) in the right spirit, should not do the government any harm.

Those who, like ourselves, hold no brief for any party will remember that Labour took office first and foremost in order to remedy discontents – grave and grossly neglected discontents. They cannot accuse the government of dilatoriness in buckling to its task, nor would it be fair, considering how immense and how varied the task is, to complain that more has not been achieved in the space of five weeks.

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Mr Thomas and his coadjutors have not made much impression as yet on the mass of unemployment, but they are maturing and carrying through their plans – and on the right lines in general, though they have not always been quite happy in explaining the detail. The housing problem is not solved, but Mr Greenwood has, as a preliminary to bigger measures, checked the disaster that was threatened by his predecessor’s policy of reducing the subsidy. The minister of labour has set her hand to important reforms in the administration of unemployment insurance benefit, and the president of the Board of Education (after an anxious week or two, which the cabinet might have spared us) is preparing to raise the school age. The Trade Disputes Act and the Miners’ Eight Hours Act, together with other problems of the coal industry, will be tackled in the autumn, and so also, it seems likely, will the distresses of the cotton trade, now that the employers have insisted on putting the fat in the fire. But here, indeed, are matters which may put the government to a severe test; for the vested interests of big business – and little business – will fight, and will expect their politicians to fight too, whilst miners, trade unionists and a great body of the unemployed are near the end of their patience. But the rottenness in the state of Lancashire and in many of the coalfields is so intolerable and so glaring that Mr MacDonald need not be afraid of drastic measures. For anything short of out-and-out socialism – which he is not likely to indulge in – should be able to count on pretty solid support from the Liberals, and even of a fair degree of goodwill from a section of the Conservatives.

[see also: From the NS archive: Mr MacDonald in America]

In the conduct of foreign affairs there has been a swift and salutary change. In the matter of disarmament the Prime Minister has made himself the protagonist. His reputation abroad stood high in 1924, it stands high still, and he is bent very properly on raising it even higher. The visit to Washington in October may not produce all the happy results that some hope from it; for armaments, as we have learned from experience, have an incalculable capacity for resisting reduction. But there will be a great gain to the cause of Anglo-American amity, and there should be material gains also to the groaning taxpayers of our mad world. We had a sign that the British government at least is serious about this matter in the announcement last week of immediate naval “cuts”. Mr MacDonald intends also to show his belief in the League of Nations by going to the assembly at Geneva next month, and we hope that his presence there, and what he says, will go far to restore this country to its rightful position in the councils of the nations.

As for Mr Henderson, he has shown during the few weeks he has been at the Foreign Office precisely those qualities that we expected him to show – coolness, common sense and courage. He has been cautious about the evacuation of the Rhineland; his wisdom in this will, we trust, appear when the forthcoming Reparations Conference has done its work. In the negotiations for a settlement with Russia he is taking a steady course, ignoring alike the murmurs of friends who wanted him to prostrate himself on the Soviet doormat, and of opponents who would have liked him to be another “Jix”. There may be some hitches before the Anglo-Russian treaty that we want is signed, but we do not think they will be of Mr Henderson’s making.

Last but not least there is Egypt. Here, in the steps he has taken so far, Mr Henderson has acted with admirable promptitude and boldness. The suggestion that he treated Lord Lloyd unfairly will not bear examination, and the exposures which the folly of the Conservatives forced him to make in the debate on the adjournment afforded the amplest justification for his policy. Mr Churchill’s efforts in a bad cause were pitiful; he played into the government’s hands, and staggered and sickened sensible men on his own benches. For the next steps we must wait and see. But if what Mr Henderson is aiming is what we have good reason to believe it to be – a liberal settlement of all outstanding questions that will be accepted by an Egyptian parliament – then we have no criticisms to offer. It may be desirable to maintain a peculiar relation between Egypt and Great Britain – indeed, most of the Egyptians themselves desire it. But the attempt to keep Egypt as a sort of scullion of the British empire is hopeless as well as indecent, and the sooner it is abandoned the better for all concerned.

[see also: From the NS archive: Mr Lloyd George]

Our judgment, then, of the government’s first five weeks is that on the whole it has done well. It has got, of course, to do better yet in fulfilling promises and expectations. In personnel it compares favourably with its predecessor, and its debating power is strong in the House of Commons, though painfully weak in the Lords. Whether Mr MacDonald has any remedy in store for this weakness we do not know. At present he seems to be nonplussed by the difficulty of finding persons in his party who are possessed of the somewhat stringent qualifications for a “Labour peerage” – namely, first-class brains, ability to cope with Lord Birkenhead in speech, a comfortable income, and no sons or likelihood of having any. Only a few of the ministers have so far come into the limelight. Others will be tested before long – and in particular Mr Morrison, the minister of transport (whose ability and experience should carry him through successfully), Captain Wedgwood Benn and Mr Snowden.

India and the Budget may well bring storms in the spring. If the government can weather them, and if the industrial world has been pacified in the meantime, if peace plans are moving abroad, if the Tories are still bickering about food taxes, and if the Liberals preserve their amiability, then Mr MacDonald should be good for a long run.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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