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28 February 2000

The hinges of history

100 years of Labour - We asked six distinguished historians to select a turning point in th

By Staff Blogger


1926 – The General Strike. By David Marquand


Since the industrial revolution, British labour history has been marked by a pendulum swing from industrial to political action and back again. Industrial defeat has led the working-class movement to seek power (or at least influence) through the ballot box. Disappointment with the compromises and half loaves of parliamentary politics has then provoked a new outburst of industrial militancy.

The beginning of the 20th century was “political”. The creation of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900 was followed by a secret electoral pact with the Liberal Party in 1903. That in turn was followed by remarkable progress in the 1906 general election and the passage of the Trades Disputes Act, which undid the anti-union judgements of the recent past. The political wing of the movement could claim to have surpassed its most optimistic expectations.

But the mood soon changed. After the two general elections of 1910, the Liberals were in a minority, holding office only because they had the support of the Irish home rulers and the Labour Party. But Labour parliamentarians seemed unable to exploit the leverage that the parliamentary arithmetic ought to have given them.

Among the young and impatient at the grass roots of the movement, the obvious conclusion was that parliamentary action was a pointless and corrupting diversion from the struggle that really mattered. The pendulum began to swing towards the industrial sphere – encouraged by the spread of syndicalist doctrines which taught that a truly socialist society could be built only by the workers themselves through the use of their industrial power. “Labour unrest” was as marked a feature of the years immediately before the first world war as militant feminism and rising bitterness in Ireland.

War brought an industrial truce. But after 1918, the wave of industrial militancy resumed. It did not prevent spectacular progress by the Labour Party, which overtook the Liberals as the main anti- Conservative party in the state; the mood behind it may even have contributed to the party’s rise. In 1924, Labour formed a minority government, with Ramsay MacDonald – the hero of the anti-war left from 1914-18 – at its head. The administration proved that Labour could govern at least as competently as the old parties; it validated MacDonald’s repeated claim that the real political battle was now between the Conservatives and the Labour Party.

Although that is clear in retrospect, it was not so clear at the time. Labour activists wanted tangible results. Inch-by-inch reformism, achieved only by bending over backwards to demonstrate Labour’s respectability, was not enough. While Labour was in office, industrial militancy was held in check – though a major transport strike in London led the cabinet to proclaim a state of emergency. After the government’s fall in October 1924, and the Conservative victory in the resulting general election, the dam broke.

The tide of industrial militancy rose again. MacDonald’s stock plummeted. Rumours of plots against him filled the air. In the under-capitalised, badly managed and labour-intensive coal industry, there was mounting pressure for wage cuts. It was met by stubborn and unyielding resistance – “not a minute on the day, not a penny off the pay”. An explosion was inevitable, and it came in May 1926 with the miners’ lockout and the first and last general strike in British history.

Once again, it is easy to see in retrospect that defeat was inevitable. The strike was a revolutionary challenge to the authority of the state. But with only a handful of exceptions, the union leaders were at least as respectable, at least as committed to the forms and practices of the British state, as the parliamentary leaders. The last thing they wanted was a revolution. Quite what they expected the General Strike to accomplish is a mystery. Probably they called it because they could not think of anything else to do. Once it had begun, they were desperate to end it.

All the same, the episode was a turning point – perhaps the most momentous turning point in labour history between Labour’s emergence to major party status after 1918 and the Wilson government’s defeat over the “In Place of Strife” white paper in 1969. After 1926, the pendulum swung back to parliamentary politics more violently than ever before. MacDonald recaptured his old ascendancy. Before long, the union leaders were eating out of his hand. Even after the catastrophe of 1931, the union leadership remained solidly gradualist and solidly parliamentary. For 40 years, primacy lay with the politicians. The great Attlee government of 1945 and the lesser Wilson government of 1966 were both its products.

But as so often in political history, the story has a twist in the tail. The Wilson government’s defeat over “In Place of Strife”, and Edward Heath’s subsequent election victory in 1970, led to an extraordinary replay of the early twenties. The pendulum swung back to industrial action, powerfully reinforced by the two miners’ victories of 1972 and 1974. It took Arthur Scargill’s defeat at the hands of Margaret Thatcher to rehabilitate parliamentarianism. The great question for the future is whether the pendulum has finally been stilled. I suspect it has. But I can’t help noting that history is as full of surprises as of turning points.

The writer is principal of Mansfield College, Oxford, and author of the official biography of Ramsay MacDonald


1940 – Britain alone. By Harriet Jones


When, on 7 May 1940, Leo Amery told Neville Chamberlain (quoting Cromwell), “You have sat too long for any good you have been doing. Depart I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”, he had no idea of the political forces he was unleashing. But the debate over the bungled Norwegian campaign would prove to be a huge turning point for Labour and the course of British politics. The appointment of the wartime coalition government led by Winston Churchill signalled the need for total mobilisation on the home front and set in train the developments that led to Labour’s landslide victory in 1945.

This was a sharp turnaround for the party, which, after its two short-lived periods of minority government in 1924 and 1929, had virtually disintegrated after 1931. The 1935 election had returned only 154 Labour MPs. As the British economy recovered from depression, there was every reason to believe that the Conservatives would secure another victory at the polls in 1940. Clement Attlee seemed a weak opponent to Chamberlain, and there was no clear rival for the job of Labour leader.

When war broke out, Chamberlain had gambled that the German economy would rapidly collapse and that there would be a quick victory. There then seemed no need for a national coalition. But Chamberlain was ejected by his own backbenchers in May 1940 and, as Rab Butler put it to Jock Colville, the Conservative Party “weakly surrendered to the half-breed American”, Winston Churchill.

The Conservatives were critically damaged. First, Churchill was not a party man; preoccupied with the conduct of the war, he virtually ignored his role as leader of the Conservative Party. Its efficient machinery was allowed to collapse, its personnel dispersed, and so there was no considered Conservative response to the leftward shift in the political climate from 1942, marked by events such as the publication of the Beveridge Report.

Second, the German victories of May and June necessitated the imposition of “war communism” on the home front: rationing, the direction of labour, the conscription of women and the enormous growth of the state. Total war at home contributed to a popular belief that state planning was a good thing and that a similar effort in peacetime could lead to a new Jerusalem.

Finally, the Churchill coalition brought Labour into government, and placed its leading figures into strategic positions at home. Herbert Morrison, Clement Attlee, Ernest Bevin, Stafford Cripps, Hugh Dalton, Arthur Greenwood – all would emerge from the war with distinguished records of ministerial experience. The formation of the coalition gave the party its first real break for many years. The irony is that the breakthrough came courtesy of Hitler on the Continent and back-bench Tories in Westminster. As far as Labour was concerned, it was a lovely war.

The writer is director of the Institute of Contemporary British History


1945 – Labour landslide. By Robert Pearce


“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/But to be socialist was very heaven!” Never was Wordsworth so misquoted as after the 1945 general election, and never in the history of the Labour Party were its supporters quite so ecstatic. Hugh Dalton was “walking on air, walking with destiny”, while one new MP judged that “we’ve got 20 years of power ahead of us”.

Such emotions may now seem naive . The new masters had only six years in power, and the second half of the century, like the first, was dominated by the Conservatives. Can 1945 still be seen as a turning point?

Marxist historians have long seen 1945 as a victory only for bourgeois moderation, and in the 1960s Anthony Howard insisted that the return of Labour saw “the greatest restoration of traditional values since 1660”. We were told in the 1970s that the election result made no difference: the war had forged an all-party consensus so that whichever party was elected would have implemented the Beveridge blueprint. More recently, revisionist historians have argued that, far from being radical, the electorate in the first general election for a decade was actually cynical and apathetic. A third of the troops did not even bother to register to vote. And was not the party led by that “sheep in sheep’s clothing”, Clement Attlee?

It is true that Labour after 1945 achieved less than its ardent supporters expected. But the election was still a great turning point. Never before had Labour achieved a majority. It had come of age; 45 years after its formation, it was trusted by the electorate. The wartime work of men such as Ernest Bevin, Herbert Morrison, Hugh Dalton and Stafford Cripps showed that they were not afraid of responsibility. As deputy prime minister, Attlee had undergone the ideal preparation for the premiership.

There was no blueprint to follow: the wartime “consensus” disguised real tensions between Labour and Conservative. Furthermore, Britain’s near bankruptcy might well have led less determined politicians to scrap expensive schemes of reform. But by 1951 there was a much firmer consensus on welfare measure and on public ownership, and this was due in large measure to Labour’s successes.

Victory in the 1945 general election helped to transform Labour from a party of protest into a party of power, and soon it became a party of performance. It is true that the fratricidal strife of later decades can be traced back to the explosive mix of principles held in the 1945 cabinet. Attlee failed to reconcile the party’s ideological differences; but he sat on them long enough to allow a period of acute tension to blossom into substantial achievement. In 1951, there was less poverty and better healthcare than ever before. Perhaps most tellingly, when Labour went out of office in 1951 it was more popular than in 1945, having won more votes than any party had ever received in British psephological history.

The writer is reader in history at St Martin’s College, Lancaster


1951 – Bevan resigns. By Kenneth O. Morgan


Bevan versus Gaitskell was Labour’s battle of the titans. It arose from the £4.7 billion arms programme agreed to by Clement Attlee’s government at American insistence during the Korean war. Hugh Gaitskell, the chancellor, chose to levy charges on dentures and spectacles, amounting to the small sum of £23 million in a full year. Aneurin Bevan objected violently to this attack on “my health service”. The battle was intensified by personal rivalry: Bevan – Welsh left-wing socialist, ex-miner, MP since 1929 – against Gaitskell – centre-right product of Winchester and New College, Oxford, a relative newcomer promoted above Bevan to become chancellor in October 1950.

Though Bevan had some shaky support in the cabinet, past rows over prescription charges, along with his temperamental volatility, weighed against him. Gaitskell was backed by all the senior ministers, including Herbert Morrison, Hugh Dalton and Attlee himself. Attempts by the dying Ernest Bevin to find a compromise on health expenditure failed. Bevan made it clear that it was a resigning matter, but Gaitskell still included the NHS charges in his Budget on 10 April. Attlee, temporarily ill in hospital, offered no lead. Bevan resigned on 22 April, followed by Harold Wilson, then at the Board of Trade, the following day.

Bevan’s bitter resignation speech caused an uproar. On 26 April, 15 Labour MPs including Bevan and Wilson formed a group, later called “the Bevanites”. Gaitskell said that “a fight for Labour’s soul” had begun. Labour lost the election in October, and civil war followed, ended only in 1964 when Wilson, one-time “Bevanite”, became prime minister.

On the facts, historians tend to agree that Bevan was broadly right. Gaitskell was supposed to be the rational economist, Bevan the passionate politician. Yet Gaitskell’s defence of the arms budget was emotional and political, prompted by his belief that Britain needed to support the United States in Korea at almost any cost. By contrast, Bevan in cabinet deployed powerful economic arguments – the loss in exports, shortages of skilled labour and raw materials and the lack of machine tools.

An eventual convert to his views was Winston Churchill, the incoming Tory prime minister. From 1952, Gaitskell’s unmanageable arms budget was radically scaled down. It seemed we were all Bevanites now. But personal emotion distorted the debate. Gaitskell’s followers wrongly alleged that Bevan had not previously questioned the rearmament programme. Bevan’s supporters equally wrongly denounced Gaitskell as an enemy of socialism. Despite a shotgun marriage between the two in 1956, when Gaitskell was party leader and Bevan was shadow foreign secretary, the breach remained fundamentally unhealed.

In the short run, it did only limited harm. Although Labour lost the 1951 general election, it polled a record vote. The fifties showed that the socialism of Gaitskell and Bevan, with both committed to nationalisation, was not that far apart – nothing like Denis Healey and Tony Benn in 1981. Both men supported British nuclear weapons.

But the damage went far deeper. Bevan’s resignation cast a shadow over Attlee’s otherwise relatively harmonious government and over the premier’s reputation as leader. In the 13 succeeding Tory years, tension between old Bevanites such as Michael Foot, Richard Crossman or Barbara Castle and Gaitskellites such as Roy Jenkins, Douglas Jay or Anthony Crosland created a fault line in the party. It spilled over into CND and was still evident throughout Wilson’s premiership. In the eighties, with Labour led by Bevan’s biographer, Michael Foot, and his disciple, Neil Kinnock, the embers still glowed. Basic doubt was thrown on the quality, purpose and meaning of democratic socialism, British-style.

For the public, Bevan’s resignation created an image of Labour as an unelectable, unfraternal warring rabble. Labour’s vote never again (not even in 1997 with a much larger electorate) approached the 13,948,000 it won in 1951. The Tories could claim unity as their secret weapon.

Yet in the nineties, when Labour had started again, it was Bevan – at the centenary of his birth in 1997 – who was acclaimed by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown as founder of the revered NHS. Tredegar’s class warrior had become a hero of new Labour, while the revisionist Gaitskell was out of favour as an elitist anti-European. To quote A J P Taylor (a sort of Bevanite), here was truly one of history’s “curious twists”.

The writer is author of biographies of James Callaghan (OUP) and Keir Hardie


1967 – Devaluation crisis. By Ben Pimlott


A single word has blighted Labour history for most of its first century, and it still has power to cause ministers and their advisers to wake up in a sweat. And with reason. That word is “devaluation”.

The 1931 Labour government split apart over Philip Snowden’s doomed attempt to avoid Britain leaving the gold standard. Devaluation in 1949 brought Labour’s postwar reform programme to an end. But the most traumatising devaluation occurred within living political memory, and has shaped public perceptions of the party until very recently. What made it worse was that the crisis – or series of crises – was long and drawn-out, causing paralysis as well as uncertainty. “Defending the pound” dominated the government of Harold Wilson throughout its early years, and became a symbol of Labour’s struggle in a hostile economic environment. When the battle ended in a spectacularly humiliating devaluation in November 1967, the government lost its sense of direction.

The trouble with devaluation is that, once it begins to loom, it is in danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Or, to put it another way, an overvalued currency will be righted by the international money markets, come what may. The other trouble is that once a chancellor pledges that the value of sterling is immutable, he is watched mercilessly for any nuance of word or body language that suggests a faltering in his resolve. Hence he has to toughen his stance still further, or risk a panic that may cost the nation billions.

The 1960s devaluation was a classic. Wilson privately called the sterling issue an “aching tooth”. Until its extraction, it aggravated every aspect of his first two administrations. When he came to office in October 1964, he faced a run on the pound that required immediate action. Confronted with the alternatives of devaluing at once, and abandoning Labour’s social reform package within hours of the party’s election, or shoring up sterling, he shored up. Some have seen it as a fatal mistake. Thereafter the life of the administration became a matter of lurching from squall to squall. Devaluation became known in Whitehall as “the unmentionable” – a taboo word not to be uttered for fear that rumours would cause it to happen.

Crunch time came after the March 1966 election, when a seamen’s strike aroused anxiety on the markets, and “beer and sandwiches” diplomacy at No 10 failed to provide the necessary reassurance. This was the critical moment: if devaluation might have taken place in 1964, and could have taken place in a measured way in the months that followed, it certainly should have been carried out in 1966. Yet to the fury of most economists (especially socialist ones), the prime minister and chancellor, Jim Callaghan, opted for a large-scale deflation in the hope that the storm could be ridden – thereby abandoning all pretence of economic “planning”.

Gloom and cynicism on the left might have been lifted if the boil had thereby been lanced. However, the crises continued. Sixteen months later, a dock strike pushed the government over the edge. On 18 November 1967 the parity was changed from $2.80 to $2.40. Wilson then gave what was possibly the most ill-advised broadcast ever delivered by a prime minister. “Devaluation does not mean that the value of the pound in the hands of the British consumer, the British housewife at her shopping, is cut correspondingly,” he told stunned viewers who had been led to believe that a change in the value of sterling would be close to a declaration of national bankruptcy. The words were to hang round his neck like an albatross.

The economic credibility of the prime minister and government was destroyed, and Labour’s claim to superior economic wisdom vanished with it. Before the 1964 election, Wilson had scored points against the Conservative government because of his economic expertise, running rings around Tory aristocrats who did their sums with matchsticks. Devaluation turned that on its head. From the late 1960s until the 1990s, polls put the Conservatives far ahead of Labour on economic competence.

Today Gordon Brown probably doesn’t spend too much time worrying about the sixties. However, the ghosts are still there to be raised: one reason why new Labour distanced itself from interest-rate decisions, remains nervous about the euro and leans over backwards to protect “the pound in your pocket”, at whatever cost.

The writer is warden of Goldsmiths College, London, and author of “Harold Wilson” (HarperCollins)

1976 – The IMF crisis. By Brian Brivati


The Labour Party did not live to celebrate its centenary. It passed away in its 76th year and its leaders held their last meeting on Wednesday 21 July 1976.

On that day, Labour’s historic mission to alter the nature of the capitalist economy was abandoned. The cabinet accepted a £1-billion public cuts expenditure package, in accordance with the values and objectives of the International Monetary Fund, and thus conceded the argument that the market economy was a better way of allocating the economic cake than any form of state intervention or planning. What was new was not that the global economy had dictated the policy of a Labour cabinet – that had happened before – but that those responsible preached the positive virtues of surrender to the market. It was no longer an evil necessity, but the best way forward.

The cuts marked the intellectual and political defeat of both Croslandite revisionism and Footite fundamentalism. These twins born of the collectivist gods – Bevanism and Gaitskellism – always had much more in common with each other than they ever supposed. The old Gaitskellite-Bevanite battles were social and personal first, ideological second. Crosland and Foot shared a faith in intervention, a faith in economic management. That was what made Labour special in British politics – a tradition that went back to Sidney Webb’s 1918 constitution and continued through Hugh Dalton’s capital levy, Gaitskell’s Full Employment Bill, and George Brown’s National Plan.

The intellectual defeat was compounded in the autumn by more cuts and the introduction of monetary targets. Henceforth, un-employment was a price to be paid for control of inflation and increased productivity.

But the death of political parties must come from more than just a change of economic analysis; it is about the erosion of what George Steiner calls “real presences”. When Margaret Thatcher slowly murdered the myth of one-nation conservatism, she was liberating her party so that it could do what it really believed in. James Callaghan, by contrast, had to teach his party after 1976 that what it really believed in – equality of outcome – was no longer a possibility. He failed to do so because there was no political constituency to hear his words. If he had been heeded, the road to 2000 might have been a more humane and less brutal one. But he was not, and it took nearly 20 years for Labour to re-invent itself as a new political party that talked the language of 21st-century politics.

The writer is reader in history at Kingston University and co-editor of “The Labour Party: a centenary history” (Macmillan)