The Men of 1924: Britain’s First Labour Government by Peter Clark; Age of Hope: Labour, 1945, and the Birth of Modern Britain by Richard Toye - review by Chris Renwick

Chris Renwick

From Colliery to Wing Collars

The Men of 1924: Britain’s First Labour Government


Haus 320pp £20

Age of Hope: Labour, 1945, and the Birth of Modern Britain


Bloomsbury 336pp £25

At the time of writing, Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour Party has a lead of more than twenty points over the Conservatives. All the available evidence points towards a Labour victory, potentially one of the most convincing in British history, at the general election that is likely to be held in the next twelve months. Labour and its supporters should be happy. Yet a sizeable number aren’t. Why? For some, past defeats, most notably in 1992, when Neil Kinnock seemed destined for Number 10 only to fall at the final hurdle, loom large. Memories of such failures are made more painful by the sheer irregularity of Labour’s triumphs at the ballot box. Tony Blair is, after all, the only Labour leader born during the last hundred years to have won a parliamentary majority.

Two masterful and timely books, delivering insights born of decades of thinking about their subjects, help make sense of the ways the Labour Party feels about its history and its impact on British politics and society. One, The Men of 1924 by Peter Clark, explores the very first Labour government: a minority administration that was formed in January 1924 by Ramsay MacDonald and collapsed after less than ten months, unable to shake off accusations it was part of a red plot to undermine British society, despite pursuing resolutely orthodox free-trade policies and restraining its social-policy ambitions to modest improvements to state benefit schemes and an act that redressed some of the cuts to public house-building that had been implemented two years earlier. The second, Age of Hope by Richard Toye, is focused on the more frequently celebrated first majority Labour government, led by Clement Attlee, who entered Downing Street in 1945 with a majority of 145 and stayed until the party was defeated in 1951, at the second general election in twenty months, having nationalised vast swathes of the economy and created the modern welfare state, including the National Health Service.

Clark’s focus is the twenty men (and it was all men: Margaret Bondfield, the country’s first female cabinet minister, was appointed by MacDonald to his second administration five years later) who made up the first Labour cabinet. The situation they faced in 1924 was far from ideal. The Tories were the largest party in Parliament and MacDonald was being propped up by the Liberal Party, which was ready to pull the plug as soon as it sensed electoral advantage for itself. The country’s elites were panicked. Lloyd’s of London even offered insurance against the effects of a Labour government. MacDonald knew that Labour, a little over twenty years on from its founding, had to show the country it could govern.

As Clark’s portraits make clear, public apprehension about Labour wasn’t just about ideas or fear of socialist revolution. It was also about the prospect of government by very different kinds of people from the ones the country was used to. Baldwin’s previous cabinet had contained four fellow Old Harrovians and six Old Etonians. MacDonald, by contrast, was the illegitimate son of a Scottish maidservant. Like more than half his cabinet, he had finished school at the age of fifteen. Five out of the twenty had started work by the age of twelve. Many had come to Parliament via the wider labour movement and trade unions, the Fabian Society, the Social Democratic Federation and nonconformist churches. Arthur Henderson had served in Lloyd George’s war cabinet from 1916 to 1917 but the vast majority were unacquainted with parliamentary procedures or the social conventions that went with them. MacDonald had to be given a list of all the cabinet posts he needed to fill. King George V told him he was concerned about the singing of ‘The Red Flag’ at Labour Party events.

Yet this was only part of the story. There were also what Clark calls ‘New Labour men’, such as Charles Trevelyan and Josiah Wedgwood, who had been converted to, rather than born into, the cause and arrived from other parties. Some of these men had previous experience of government that reassured some commentators: Viscount Haldane had even served in a Liberal cabinet before the First World War. But as people who were somehow not ‘authentically’ Labour – they could go along comfortably with practices such as wearing court dress for formal occasions – they sometimes had strained relationships with their ‘Old Labour’ colleagues.

There were, however, also the beginnings of a bridge between these groups: a new generation of MPs who had attended public school but not come to Labour via another party. Attlee, an alumnus of Haileybury College and Oxford and a retired army officer, served as one of MacDonald’s undersecretaries in 1924. He is a minor character in Clark’s book but takes centre stage in Toye’s skilful account of the administration that promised to build a ‘New Jerusalem’ in 1945. Like Clark, Toye aims to situate his subject in a longer history. He presents Attlee as a product not simply of the Second World War but also of the events, dating back to the 1880s, that helped create the Labour Party. On paper, a substantial majority made life much easier for Attlee than MacDonald. But was it? In some senses, yes, but as Toye shows, the apparent freedom to do whatever Labour chose brought its own challenges, the government’s responses to which have fuelled the more critical assessments of its achievements.

Attlee arrived in Downing Street with a long to-do list, a consequence of the party’s decision to draw up a detailed manifesto out of concern that the House of Lords would be obstructive. Implementing the Beveridge Report’s recommendation for social insurance, making good on decades-old promises to nationalise certain industries, embarking on a house-building programme, picking up where MacDonald’s first government had left off and crafting a National Health Service, details of which were still to be finalised: all were to be ticked off. However, as Toye shows, most Labour politicians were never clear on what some of their slogans really meant. Did economic planning mean the creation of a command economy of the kind seen in the USSR, or did it mean Keynesian demand management, providing a guiding hand to keep things on track? Ambiguities of this kind fuelled factional fighting and protracted discussions with the civil servants who had to help the government implement its policies in the face of multiple challenges. The country needed to transition from a wartime to a peacetime economy, rebuild, both literally and metaphorically, and ensure that its interests were represented in the new international order, all the while knowing that it was dependent on the USA, which could (and did) withdraw financial assistance at a moment’s notice.

Despite these problems, the Attlee government’s achievements were substantial. As Toye makes clear, though, the day-to-day realities of its operations contrast sharply with popular perceptions of its priorities. Spending on the new welfare state was actually relatively modest, as defence and empire ate up resources, even after Labour had conceded that holding on to India was beyond the country’s means. For this reason, among others, many commentators have considered the Attlee government a missed opportunity. Toye suggests that such claims have been fuelled by Attlee’s character. Attlee was a famously quiet and controlled individual, whose strengths in party management were overshadowed by the rhetorical brilliance of many of the big personalities around him, most notably Nye Bevan. His sober pronouncements are often seen as a sign that he lacked the will or motivation to change Britain completely. Too much of the established order was preserved, it is argued, leaving Labour short of new ideas, divided and condemned to three successive general election defeats after 1951. In this telling, the postwar ‘consensus’ amounts to a damning indictment of Labour’s failures: the party of the future seemed to have become the party of the past, leaving the door open to the Conservatives in the process.

Yet, as Toye argues, these debates have always been about the present rather than the past. While warring factions of the Labour Party have tried either to claim kinship with or to distance themselves from the postwar government, academics have clashed over whether Attlee’s administration was a damp squib or the start of a more humane society, which unravelled from the late 1970s onwards. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Attlee, whose typically understated memoirs appeared in 1954 and were overshadowed by the publication of the final volume of Churchill’s The Second World War, was unable to influence the direction of these debates. The New Statesman & Nation ran a competition in 1954 in which readers were asked to imagine Attlee recounting an episode from Churchill’s life. ‘The Yalta conference reminded me of our own Labour Party conferences’, one reader wrote, ‘except that it was considerably warmer’.

Those looking for mirrors of the present will find much to discuss in Clark’s and Toye’s measured and fair works: governments contending with a hostile press; perpetual battles between what is usually defined as the left and the right of the party; economic challenges threatening the realisation of ideals; a recurring concern with the effects of office on the judgement of those who lead. But what becomes clear is how many of these apparent similarities are illusory. Critics of Keir Starmer are tempted to see parallels between him and MacDonald, with principle sacrificed in the desperate pursuit of power. Sympathisers with Starmer prefer to compare him to Attlee, a serious man for serious times. In reality, the past cannot be mined for simple lessons. Starmer is unlikely to be a facsimile of either MacDonald or Attlee, much as the next general election is unlikely to be a rerun of those of 1992 or 1997, or of 1923 or 1945 for that matter.

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