David Torrance, The Wild Men: The Remarkable Story of Britain’s First Labour Government (Bloomsbury 2024), 336pp. David Torrance, The Wild Men: The Remarkable Story of Britain’s First Labour Government (Bloomsbury 2024), 336pp.

An establishment friendly history of the first Labour government, in 1924, shows how willingly a Labour leadership can be captured by the ruling class, finds John Westmoreland

The publication of David Torrance’s The Wild Men could not be timelier. After the meltdown of the Tories in the regional and local elections, an incoming Labour government looks almost certain, and revisiting the record of Britain’s first Labour government of 1924 may prove instructive.

A key difference between the Labour government that came into office in January 1924, and the one Starmer looks set to lead, is that Ramsay MacDonald led a minority government with 30% of MPs, whereas Starmer is predicted to win a projected majority with at least 54% of seats in the Commons. Nevertheless, MacDonald’s short stint as prime minister might throw some light on what we can expect from Starmer.

David Torrance, a ‘constitutional specialist’ at the House of Commons Library and a writer of political biographies, offers a detailed study of MacDonald’s government using previously unpublished correspondence that brings the characters in his story to life. But what we gain in biographical detail we lose in political analysis. Torrance’s depiction of Labour in office could be summarised as: they didn’t do much, but they did their best. And in particular, they proved to the political establishment that Labour was ‘fit to govern’: the Holy Grail for Labour leaders thereafter.

The book is very much a Westminster-centred history that opens up the offices of state and the interactions between Labour’s ministers – the ‘wild men’ – and the civil service. That the civil servants were the masters in this relationship is brought out well, and the ‘wild men’ were really pretty tame. This is really what the book is about, and no doubt the ‘taming’ of the left in the Labour Party under Starmer has made the book appealing to the centre-right. The Economist reviewed the book under the headline: ‘Lessons for Keir Starmer from Britain’s first Labour government’, as if he needed persuading.

Red bogey

As the opening chapter makes clear, the political establishment was terrified of revolution and ‘visions of the Red Flag fluttering over Westminster continued to reduce prominent figures to hysteria’ (p.12). Torrance stresses that the role of senior Labour figures was to talk down the threat of any change, and soothe the nerves of the king, the aristocracy and the national press, who, along with Winston Churchill, were referring to Labour as ‘wild men’ bent on overthrowing the constitution.

The immediate reasons for Labour coming into office are well known, The Conservatives under Stanley Baldwin got the greater share of the votes in the election of December 1923, but Baldwin had alienated the Liberals and was unable to form a government. Ramsay MacDonald became Labour’s first prime minister by default.

MacDonald led a cabinet that was committed to maintaining Britain’s constitution, the British Empire and the rule of the capitalist class. Although Torrance doesn’t mention the revolutionary impulses that Britain felt at the end of the war, these were real. When the left-wing leaders of the mining, rail and transport unions, the Triple Alliance, called joint industrial action in March 1921, political change led from below looked possible. When the same leaders called off the strike on Black Friday, the bosses went on an offensive and the trade-union leaders abandoned their fight for reforms and turned to Labour.

MacDonald’s quest to make Labour acceptable to the ruling class benefitted from the defeat of the workers in 1921, and, just as with Starmer today, the media and the more far-sighted members of the ruling class came to see MacDonald as a potential saviour.

Once in office, MacDonald, as Beatrice Webb observed, preferred ‘the company of Tory aristocrats and Liberal capitalists to that of the trade union officials and I.L.P. agitators’ (p.40). And it paid off. The king and MacDonald became close. MacDonald impressed the monarch with ‘quiet moderation, unfailing considerateness, by the delicate blend of silk and tweed … and Scottish common sense’ (p.43). The king’s fear of Bolsheviks and Red Clydesiders was the flip side of his affection for MacDonald.

The captured cabinet

A favourite argument for those who champion the parliamentary road to socialism is that electoral success conquers the political citadel for socialism, and translates into political power for reform. The experience of the 1924 Labour government is instructive. Instead of capturing political power for the workers, the political establishment captured the Labour government for the capitalists.

The spectacle of Labour ministers revelling in their chance to don courtly regalia to receive their seals of office from the king was merely the first stage in their utter subjection to the establishment. The only thing that distinguished individual members of the cabinet one from the other was the degree of enthusiasm with which they embraced their subjection. Only two members of the cabinet stood apart.  Lord Parmoor and Lord Chelmsford were both Tories, but agreed to serve under MacDonald ‘for the sake of the nation’.

MacDonald was a leader of conviction. He worked tirelessly, and Torrance stresses his insistence on ministerial efficiency, something that civil servants reported on approvingly. But what was he working on? MacDonald’s constant excuse to the wider movement was that he was consumed by events, and that it was difficult to find time to launch any of the promised changes to the benefit of the working class. However, he was more than just a caretaker swamped by correspondence and the minutiae of running the cabinet. His ministers were delivering on a pro-capitalist agenda that impressed senior civil servants, business leaders and the Crown.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Snowden, assumed the role of economic dictator in cabinet meetings and was the darling of the Treasury. It has been suggested that Snowden ‘fell in love’ with Montagu Norman, the Governor of the Bank of England, and Norman reciprocated heartily. Snowden’s goals were threefold: ‘defending the principles of Free Trade, reducing the burden of indirect taxation and lowering the National Debt’. He saw his role in cabinet as a ‘man with his back to the wall, fighting off a pack of ravenous wolves’ (p.100).

Snowden’s gift to the wealthiest at a time of post-war poverty was considerable. He cut taxation to the tune of £38m but left income tax, surtax and death duties completely untouched, which ‘came as a considerable surprise to those who still believed a Labour government intended to penalise the wealthy’ (p.101). Labour’s proving itself ‘fit to govern’ meant protecting the wealthy from any redistributive reforms, and on the economic front, no Tories felt moved to criticise Snowden’s tenure.

The Home Secretary was ‘Uncle’ Arthur Henderson, the most anti-Communist minister in the cabinet. There was huge scope for reform in the criminal-justice system, but as in Snowden’s case, the Tories found little to criticise. Labour’s Liberal partners in government were unlikely to oppose humanitarian reform, and British justice included barbaric punishments such as hanging, flogging and hard labour. When a group from the Joint Committee of Industrial Women’s Organisations appealed to Henderson to abolish hanging, he refused saying, ‘abolition would require legislation’, and ‘on that front the government did not have the luxury of choice’ (p.70).

When a London transport strike tested Labour’s allegiance to the trade-union wing of the movement, Henderson made the decision to reactivate the Tories’ 1920 Emergency Powers Act. Strike-breaking was an opportunity to prove Labour’s fitness to govern, but it had the unintended consequence of improving the Tories’ standing with the public. The chapter on Henderson extols his independence of mind, but this never ran to offering any threat to the status quo.

The author makes much of the working-class backgrounds of the Wild Men. There are plenty of examples given of posh civil-service types being won over by the bluff, plain speaking, but hard-working Labour ministers. However, the established bureaucracy easily managed their strange new political leaders. The civil servants had the advantage of knowing the system, how to draft papers, and caution against anything that was out of step with previous administrations. For their part, the ministers put minds at rest by making it clear that they knew their place and were not going to push any boundaries.

Nowhere was this surrender to their social superiors more evident than in the Foreign Office. MacDonald appointed the former leader of the Railwayman’s Union, Jimmy Thomas, Secretary of State for the Colonies. Thomas made it clear from the off that the British Empire was going to be safe. ‘There will be no mucking about with the British Empire’ he told the delighted staff in the Colonial Office. To show how surely Labour could be trusted with the Empire, Lord Chelmsford was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty. He was a devoted imperialist with a distinguished military record, and had enjoyed the highest office in the Empire: Viceroy of India.

There was a lot of mucking about being called for in Britain’s oldest colonies. In Ireland, India and Iraq, British troops had waged brutal and devastating war on Britain’s subjects, after the world war had ended and the demand for independence started to gain traction. Labour’s supporters were keen for imperial reform, but MacDonald and his team used the same imperial rhetoric as their opponents. Trade, order and jobs could only be defended if the Empire remained secure and firmly in British hands. Once again, apart from recognising the Soviet Union, there was little to choose between Labour and their opponents.

David Torrance acknowledges the disappointment felt by Labour supporters at the lack of any policies for radical change, but never calls out the obvious betrayals of which MacDonald’s government was guilty. Instead the virtues of practical common sense and good management are stressed, and it is difficult not to think that the book was written with the prospect of a future Labour government in mind.

The balance sheet

The 1924 Labour government was brought down by a right-wing conspiracy involving a forged letter from Grigory Zinoviev, chairman of the Third International, which outlined plans for a revolution in Britain. This was despite the fact, as Torrance makes clear, Labour was doing nothing that previous governments hadn’t done, apart from recognising the Soviet Union.

Labour’s usefulness to British capitalism had been plain for all to see. Labour’s links to the trade unions hadn’t led to industrial action, excessive wage claims or threats to public order. Indeed, the opposite was true. Labour had shown itself the dominant partner in the movement and had made no concessions to socialist ideology.

So why did the right wing, led by the Daily Mail, go to the trouble of undermining Labour with vicious lies about a Communist plot? The answer lies in the fact that the working class now had a party to vote for that was funded by their own trade unions, and, no matter how feeble it was, it wasn’t an openly pro-capitalist party.

Although Labour was utterly reactionary in its support for British imperialism and its total subjection to the economic interests of the Bank of England and the Treasury, there were some attempts at reform that pointed towards the benefits of a social-democratic state. Unemployment, housing and education were, despite the limited results, on the agenda, and there was the prospect of a future majority Labour government being able to implement more substantial social reforms.

Housing was the one area where Labour could claim to have made a real difference. And this was at the direction of the one left winger in the Cabinet, John Wheatley.

Torrance offers some useful detail on Wheatley’s background and character. He championed slum clearance, was in favour of birth control and talked, at least, of finding solutions to eviction caused by unemployment (pp.88-9). His efforts made a difference to future thinking about social policy.

Wheatley’s Housing Act led to the construction of 521,700 houses by 1933. Labour was evidently better at delivering on Lloyd George’s wartime promise of ‘Homes fit for heroes’ than the Liberals had been. However, Wheatley himself admitted that his reforms were not socialist policy. He brought together construction bosses and trade-union leaders to make his plans work.

Nevertheless, this one success story was too much for the right wing who could see that Labour, despite its pro-capitalist stance, was nevertheless an alternative political force to the parties favoured by the ruling class.

David Torrance’s book doesn’t deliver anything new to readers familiar with Labour history, but it is still worth a read. He successfully shows how Labour politicians in 1924 thought and operated. His obvious sympathy for their moderation and submission to the establishment prevents any ground-breaking analysis from developing, but it is entertaining.

The book’s conclusion endorses the caution and diligence of the 1924 government without any fanfare. ‘Ramsay MacDonald and his colleagues had been dealt a very difficult hand which, for the most part, they played surprisingly well … As a result, the “wild men” so feared in late 1923 had within the space of an eventful year shown they were competent men after all. Labour were fit to govern’ (p.258).

This is no doubt music to the ears of today’s establishment and Keir Starmer in particular, but to leave it there would be remiss. Dramatic, world-changing events were to follow. The working class would face defeat in the General Strike of 1926. Capitalism would lurch into economic and political crisis that was to find expression in imperialist carnage in the Second World War. The lesson for us is that Labour is wedded to the establishment and will never put the interests of humanity above those of the rich and powerful. The chapter on building an alternative to Labour will be written by us.

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John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.

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