‘Biscuits, biscuits, biscuits!’ Not a great political slogan, you might think. Yet a century ago it was one of the most effective in drawing attention to the first Labour government’s seeming ineptitude. The prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, unlike most his predecessors, was not to the manor born but rather the offspring of those that served there – his mother was a housemaid and his father a ploughman. Since the job had previously been held by those more likely to have Sunak levels of wealth, the expenses of the premiership, including official entertaining, the furnishing of 10 Downing Street, transport and staffing, were largely expected to be met by the prime minister himself. An old friend of MacDonald’s from Morayshire, Alexander Grant, managing director of McVitie’s, the maker of the nation’s favourite digestive biscuit, decided to help out the new prime minister. Although he stood on the other side of the political spectrum to MacDonald, Grant believed that MacDonald, with little private means, should, as prime minister, have freedom from money worries in order to concentrate on the biggest job in politics. He therefore issued shares in his company in MacDonald’s name. The income these provided enabled the simple-living Labour leader to acquire a Daimler and other accoutrements of power. The shares were to revert to Grant on his friend’s death. This was all meant, perhaps naively, to be a private matter, but once Grant was made a baronet months after Labour came to office, suspicions arose and cries of corruption and accusations of ‘cash for honours’ plagued the prime minister and the reputation of the first Labour government.
David Torrance has produced with The Wild Men an accessible, entertaining and well-researched history of MacDonald’s short-lived government, which was in power from January to October 1924. It is a welcome study of a period that should be better known. Mercifully, Torrance avoids the hyperbole and fawning that often characterise anniversary histories. What emerges is a collection of rich portraits of the leading figures of the government and the reforms they attempted, though often failed, to deliver. Labour coming to power was an unexpected event. Stanley Baldwin had called an election for December 1923 in the belief that his government, which he had only headed since May, would comfortably renew its mandate. Conservative Central Office predicted on the eve of the election that it would achieve a hundred-seat majority.
In the event, Baldwin’s Conservatives remained the biggest party in the Commons with 258 seats, but squandered their majority. Labour won 191 seats, and the squabbling Liberals, back together again after a period of disunity, took 158. Baldwin believed that he had lost, but who had won? Frenzied fears arose that a Labour government would mean coroneted heads falling from tumbrils and red flags disfiguring the Palace of Westminster. Although many Conservatives wished to block Labour’s entry to Downing Street, Baldwin and the party chairman, J C C Davidson, believed that this would be not only ‘dishonest’, but also the ‘first step down the road to revolution’. The Liberals, meanwhile, resolved quickly not to prop up the Conservatives and made it clear they would be prepared to accept a Labour government, since, as the Liberal leader Asquith noted, with MacDonald’s party in a minority position, a Labour government ‘could hardly be tried under safer conditions’.
Labour hurriedly rushed to reassure Britain and the world of its credentials. There was huge interest in what the Labour men, many of whom came from humble backgrounds, would wear when meeting the king. George V was reassured to see his new prime minister in a frock coat and silk hat. Beatrice Webb, ever snobbish and interfering, established the Half-Circle Club to guide the wives of Labour ministers on the dress and demands of their new position.
The Labour cabinet contained many new faces, but some ministers were called in from other parties to serve due to a lack of expertise within the Labour Party. These included Lord Haldane, a Liberal, and Lord Chelmsford, a Conservative. The new Labour ministers were determined to reform Britain. John Wheatley, described as an ‘extreme socialist’ by George V, and Charles Trevelyan, for example, brought significant changes in the fields of housing and education, which reflected the party’s desire to transform the dire living conditions of the working classes.
Although the title of this book alludes to fears of what Labour might do once in power, overall the government was more moderate than wild. Philip Snowden, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, was in seventh heaven enforcing Treasury orthodoxy and worshipped the governor of the Bank of England. The colonial secretary Jimmy Thomas promised that there would be no ‘mucking about’ with the constitution or the empire. Arthur Henderson, the reassuring home secretary, was so resolutely anti-communist that some on the left of the party thought him the real enemy. However, this was not enough to stop the furore over the Zinoviev Letter, which the Daily Mail and the security services claimed showed that the Soviet Union wanted to exploit the establishment by MacDonald’s government of diplomatic relations between London and Moscow to stir up British workers and spread revolution across the empire. The episode contributed to Labour’s defeat in the general election of October 1924. MacDonald had good reason to believe that he had been set up.
While doubts remained, Labour’s brief time in office showed all – from George V, who came to sincerely respect and like MacDonald, downwards – that the party was fit to govern. Clement Attlee would later argue that British electors were sceptical of those they had not previously seen in office. After these brief nine months, Labour was unquestionably established as a credible alternative government.
Torrance has skilfully brought the history of the first Labour government alive. I will not be alone in hoping that he turns his attention to other neglected administrations from the interwar era, since there is much still to be gleaned from those years of economic downturn, party infighting, scandal, incompetence and policy failure.