THREE-PARTY POLITICS, 1922-5………………………………………………… 2
THE PRIME MINISTER………………..…………………………………………… 2
THYE LABOR PARTY……………………………………………………………… 3
REMSAY MACDONALD…………………………………………………………… 4
DEBTS AND REPARATIONS……………………………………………………… 5
BALDWIN AND PROTECTION…………………………………………………… 6
FIRST LABOR GOVERNMENT….………………………………………………… 7
EDUCATIONAL REFORMS………………………………………………………… 8
THREE-PARTY POLITICS, 1922-5
Politics after the fall of Lloyd George seemed far from the tranquillity which Law had promised. There were three general elections in less than two years (^November 1922; 6 December 1923; 29 October 1924), and the terrible portent of a Labor government. The turmoil was largely technical. Though Labor had emerged as the predominant party of the Left, the Liberal party refused to die; and the British electoral system, mainly of one-member constituencies, was ill adapted to cope with three parties. The general elections of 1931 and 1935 were the only ones in which a single party (the Conservatives) received a majority of the votes cast.1 Otherwise a parliamentary majority was achieved more or less by accident, if at all. However, there was no profound cleavage between the parties, despite much synthetic bitterness. They offered old policies which had been their stock-in-trade before the war. Labor offered social reform; the Conservatives offered Protection. The victors in the twenties were the Liberals, in policy though not in votes. The old Liberal cause of Free Trade had its last years of triumph. If Sir William Harcourt had still been alive, he could have said: 'We are all Liberals nowadays.' By 1925 England was back, for a brief period, in the happy days of Gladstone.
The government which Law formed was strikingly Conservative, even obscurantist, in composition. There had been nothing like it since Derby's 'Who? Who? ' ministry of 1852. The great figures of the party—Austen Chamberlain, Balfour, Birkenhead—sulkily repudiated the decision at the Carlton Club: 'The meeting today rejected our advice. Other men who have given other counsels must inherit our burdens.' The only minister of established reputation, apart from Law himself, was Curzon, who deserted Lloyd George as successfully as he had deserted Asquith and, considering the humiliating way in which Lloyd George treated him, with more justification;2 he remained foreign secretary. Law tried to enlist McKenna as chancellor of the exchequer—an odd choice for a Protectionist prime minister to make, but at least McKenna, though a Free Trader, hated Lloyd George. McKenna doubted whether the government would last and refused to leave the comfortable security of the Midland Bank. Law then pushed Baldwin into the vacant place, not without misgiving. Otherwise he had to make do with junior ministers from Lloyd George's government and with holders of historic names. His cabinet was the most aristocratic of the period,1 and the only one to contain a duke (the duke of Devonshire) . Churchill called it 'a government of the second eleven'; Birkenhead, more contemptuously, of second-class intellects.
The general election of 1918 had been a plebiscite in favour of Lloyd George. The general election of 1922 was a plebiscite against him. Law's election manifesto sturdily promised negations. 'The nation's first need', it declared, 'is, in every walk of life, to get on with its own work, with the minimum of interference at home and of disturbance abroad.' There would be drastic economies and a foreign policy of non-interference. The prime minister would no longer meddle in the affairs of other ministers. Law returned the conduct of foreign affairs to Curzon. He refused to meet a deputation of the unemployed—that was a job for the ministry of labor. In the first flush of reaction, Law announced his intention of undoing all Lloyd George's innovations in government, including the cabinet secretariat. He soon thought better of this, and, though he dismantled Lloyd George's body of private advisers, 'the garden suburb', he kept Hankey and the secretariat. The cabinet continued to perform its work in a businesslike way with prepared agenda, a record of its" decisions, and some control on how they were carried out.
THE PRIME MINISTER
This preservation of the cabinet secretariat was Law's contribution as prime minister to British history. The contribution was important, though how important cannot be gauged until the cabinet records are opened. The cabinet became a more formal, perhaps a more efficient body. Maybe also there was an increasing tendency for a few senior ministers to settle things between themselves and then to present the cabinet with a virtual fait accompli, as MacDonald did with J. H. Thomas and Snowden or Neville Chamberlain with Halifax, Hoare, and Simon. But this practice had always existed. A cabinet of equals, discussing every question fully, was a legend from some imaginary Golden Age. On the other hand, the power and authority of the prime minister certainly increased in this period, and no doubt his control of the cabinet secretariat was one of the causes for this. It was not the only one. Every prime minister after Lloyd George controlled a mighty party machine. The prime minister alone determined the dissolution of parliament after 1931, and the circumstances of 1931 were peculiar. Above all, the loaves and fishes of office, which the prime minister distributed, had a greater lure than in an aristocratic age when many of the men in politics already possessed great wealth and titles. At any rate, Law, willingly or not, helped to put the prime minister above his colleagues.
Gloomy as ever, Law doubted whether the Conservatives would win the election and even thought he might lose his own seat at Glasgow. When pressed by Free Trade Conservatives such as Lord Derby, he repudiated Protection, much to Beaver-brook's dismay, and gave a pledge that there would be no fundamental change in the fiscal system without a second general election. The other parties were equally negative. Labor had a specific proposal, the capital levy, as well as its general programme of 1918; but, deciding half-way through the campaign that the capital levy was an embarrassment, dropped it, just as Law had dropped Protection. The independent Liberals, led by Asquith, merely claimed, with truth, that they had never supported Lloyd George. The Coalition, now called National Liberals, hoped to scrape back with Conservative votes. Beaver-brook spoilt their game by promoting, and in some cases financing, Conservative candidates against them; fifty-four, out of the fifty-six National Liberals thus challenged, were defeated. The voting was as negative as the parties. Five and a half million voted Conservative; just over 4 million voted Liberal (Asquithians 2-5 million, National i-6 million); 4-2 million voted Labor. The result was, however, decisive, owing to the odd working of three- or often four-cornered contests. The Conservatives held almost precisely their numbers at the dissolution: with 345 seats they had a majority of 77 over the other parties combined. Labor won 142 seats; the Liberals, with almost exactly the same vote (but about 70 more candidates), only 117. All the National Liberal leaders were defeated except Lloyd George in his pocket borough at Caernarvon. Churchill, who had just lost his appendix, also lost his seat at Dundee, a two-member constituency, to a Prohibitionist and to E. D. Morel, secretary of the Union of Democratic Control. This was a striking reversal of fortunes.
THE LABOR PARTY
The Conservatives and Liberals were much the same people as before, with a drop of twenty or so in the number of company directors—mainly due no doubt to the reduction of National Liberals by half. Labor was so changed as to be almost a different party. In the previous parliament the Labor members had all been union nominees, as near as makes no odds (all but one in 1918, all but three at the dissolution); all were of working-class origin. Now the trade unionists were little more than half (80 out of 142), and middle-class, even upper-class, men sat on the Labor benches for the first time.3 In composition Labor was thus more of a national party than before and less an interest group. In outlook it was less national, or at any rate more hostile to the existing order in economics and in nearly everything else. The old Labor M.P.s had not much to distinguish them except their class, as they showed during the war by their support for Lloyd George. The new men repudiated both capitalism and traditional foreign policy.
There were combative working-class socialists of the I.L.P., particularly from Glasgow. These Clydesiders, as they were called, won twenty-one out of twenty-eight seats in their region. They imagined that they were about to launch the social revolution. One of them, David Kirkwood, a shop steward who ended in the house of lords, shouted to the crowd who saw him off: 'When we come back, this station, this railway, will belong to the people!' The men from the middle and upper classes had usually joined the Labor party because of their opposition to the foreign policy which, in their opinion, had caused and prolonged the war. Often, going further than the U.D.C. and its condemnation of secret diplomacy, they believed that wars were caused by the capitalist system. Clement Attlee,1 who entered parliament at this election, denned their attitude when he said: 'So long as they had capitalist governments they could not trust them with armaments.'2
The cleavage between old Labor and new was not absolute. Not all the trade unionists were moderate men, and the moderates had turned against Lloyd George after the war, even to the extent of promoting a general strike to prevent intervention against Russia. All of them, thanks to Henderson, had accepted a foreign policy which was almost indistinguishable from that of the U.D.C.3 On the other hand, not all the I.L.P. members were extremists: both MacDonald and Snowden, for example, were still I.L.P. nominees. The new men understood the need for trade union money and appreciated that they had been returned mainly by working-class votes. For, while Labor had now some middle-class adherents at the top, it had few middle-class voters; almost any middle-class man who joined the Labor party found himself a parliamentary candidate in no time. Moreover, even the most assertive socialists had little in the way of a coherent socialist policy. They tended to think that social reform, if pushed hard enough, would turn into socialism of itself, and therefore differed from the moderates only in pushing harder. Most Labor M.P.s had considerable experience as shop stewards or in local government, and they had changed things there simply by administering the existing machine in a different spirit. The Red Flag flew on the Clyde, in Poplar, in South Wales. Socialists expected that all would be well when it flew also at Westminster.
Nevertheless, the advance of Labor and its new spirit raised an alarm of 'Bolshevism' particularly when two Communists now appeared in parliament—both elected with the assistance of Labor votes.1 The alarm was unfounded. The two M.P.s represented the peak of Communist achievement. The Labor party repeatedly refused the application of the Communist party for affiliation and gradually excluded individual Communists by a system more elaborate than anything known since the repeal of the Test Acts.2 Certainly there was throughout the Labor movement much interest in Soviet Russia, and even some admiration. Russia was 'the workers' state'; she was building socialism. The terror and dictatorship, though almost universally condemned, were excused as having been forced on Russia by the Allied intervention and the civil war. English socialists drew the consoling moral that such ruthlessness would be unnecessary in a democratic country.
Democracy—the belief that the will of the majority should prevail—was in their blood. They were confident that the majority would soon be on their side. Evolution was now the universal pattern of thought: the idea that things were on the move, and always upwards. Men assumed that the curve of a graph could be proj ected indefinitely in the same direction: that national wealth, for example, would go on increasing automatically or that the birth rate, having fallen from 30 per thousand to 17 in thirty years, would in the next thirty fall to 7 or even o. Similarly, since the Labor vote had gone up steadily, it would continue to rise at the same rate. In 1923 Sidney Webb solemnly told the Labor annual conference that 'from the rising curve of Labor votes it might be computed that the party would obtain a clear majority . . . somewhere about 1926'.' Hence Labor had only to wait, and the revolution would come of itself. Such, again according to Webb, was 'the inevitability of gradualness'.
When parliament met, the Labor M.P.s elected Ramsay MacDonald as their leader. The election was a close-run thing: a majority of five, according to Clynes, the defeated candidate; of two, according to the later, perhaps jaundiced, account by Philip Snowden. The Clydesiders voted solid for MacDonald to their subsequent regret. The narrow majority was misleading: it reflected mainly the jealousy of those who had sat in the previous parliament against the newcomers. MacDonald was indeed the predestined leader of Labor. He had largely created the party in its first years; he had already led the party before the war; and Arthur Henderson had been assiduously preparing his restoration.2 He had, in some undefined way, the national stature which other Labor men lacked. He was maybe vain, moody, solitary; yet, as Shinwell has said, in presence a prince among men. He was the last beautiful speaker of the Gladstone school, with a ravishing voice and turn of phrase. His rhetoric, though it defied analysis, exactly reflected the emotions of the Labor movement, and he dominated that movement as long as he led it.
There were practical gifts behind the cloud of phrases. He was a first-rate chairman of the cabinet, a skilful and successful negotiator, and he had a unique grasp of foreign affairs, as Lord Eustace Percy, by no means a sympathetic judge, recognized as late as 1935.3 With all his faults, he was the greatest leader Labor has had, and his name would stand high if he had not outlived his abilities. MacDonald's election in 1922 was a portent in another way. The Labor M.P.s were no longer electing merely their chairman for the coming session. They were electing the leader of a national party and, implicitly therefore, a future prime minister. The party never changed its leader again from session to session as it had done even between 1918 and 1922. Henceforth the leader was re-elected each year until old age or a major upheaval over policy ended his tenure.
Ramsay MacDonald set his stamp on the inter-war years. He did not have to wait long to be joined by the man who set a stamp along with him: Stanley Baldwin. Law doubted his own physical capacity when he took office and did not intend to remain more than a few months. It seemed obvious at first who would succeed him: Marquis Gurzon,1 foreign secretary, former viceroy of India, and sole survivor in office (apart from Law) of the great war cabinet. Moreover, in the brief period of Law's premiership, Curzon enhanced his reputation. Baldwin, the only possible rival, injured what reputation he had. Curzon went off to make peace with the Turks at the conference of Lausanne. He fought a lone battle, almost without resources and quite without backing from home, in the style of Castle-reagh; and he carried the day. Though the Turks recovered Constantinople and eastern Thrace, the zone of the Straits remained neutralized, and the Straits were to be open to warships in time of peace—a reversal of traditional British policy and an implied threat to Soviet Russia, though one never operated. Moreover, the Turks were bewitched by Curzon's seeming moderation and laid aside the resentment which Lloyd George had provoked. More important still, Curzon carried off the rich oil wells of Mosul, to the great profit of British oil companies and of Mr. Calouste Gulbenkian, who drew therefrom his fabulous 5 per cent.
DEBTS AND REPARATIONS
Baldwin, also in search of tranquillity, went off to Washington to settle Great Britain's debt to the United States. Law held firmly to the principle of the Balfour note that Great Britain should pay her debt only to the extent that she received what was owed to her by others. Anything else, he believed, 'would reduce the standard of living in this country for a generation'. Baldwin was instructed to settle only on this basis. In Washington he lost his nerve, perhaps pushed into surrender by his companion, Montagu Norman, governor of the bank of England, who had an incurable zest for financial orthodoxy. Without securing the permission of the cabinet, Baldwin agreed to an unconditional settlement on harsh terms2 and, to make matters worse, announced the terms publicly on his return. Law wished to reject the settlement: 'I should be the most cursed Prime Minister that ever held office in England if I accepted those terms.' His opposition was sustained by the two independent experts whom he consulted, McKenna and Keynes. The cabinet, however, was for acceptance. Law found himself alone. He wished to resign and was persuaded to stay on by the pleas of his colleagues. He satisfied his conscience by publishing an anonymous attack on the policy of his own government in the columns of The Times.