Author: Peter Clark
Publisher: Haus, 2023
Format: Hardback, paperback
Pages: 296

When Keir Starmer walks into Downing Street later in 2024, it will be a hundred years since the country first elected a Labour prime minister. That was Ramsey MacDonald, who took office without any previous government experience.  It was a minority government with the tacit support of the Liberals.

MacDonald’s tenure was short, lasting 11 months, though he was Prime Minister again in 1929 for a longer spell. Given the public’s loss of confidence in recent Tory governments, the indications are that today’s centre Left/soft Left Labour could be in power for a decade.  Starmer too has not held a cabinet position, but there are not many other direct comparisons, though whether the coming General Election will be a Labour walk-over or result in a hung Parliament remains to be seen.

Peter Clark’s eminently readable account intertwines biographical detail with the institutional efforts that led to Labour becoming a national party. MacDonald was faced with the “hurtful jibe that Labour was not fit to govern”.  To prove their competence, the Labour leadership of 1924 “agreed not to push for more controversial parts of the Labour programme, such as the capital levy or nationalisation”.  

The Labour Party of 2024 similarly has worked hard to present itself as fit to govern. A reference to trade unionism is absent in its recently issued briefing paper A Britain built to last, Let’s get Britain’s future back. Similarly, the scandal of private sector profiteering in electricity and gas distribution is tiptoed around with proposals for “Great British Energy, a new publicly owned, clean energy company.”

The Men of 1924 is an ideal starting point for those seeking an introductory text to Labour Party history.  There are potted biographies of twenty men who made up the Cabinet, some of whom were formidable but now forgotten. These include, for example, Philip Snowden – “with his paper-white face, burning eyes, and the sharply cut simplified features that were a positive gift to the caricaturist; not least when, as in speaking his long tongue would come out from between his thin lips like a serpent and sting.”  There are also accounts of how key institutions and policy making bodies emerged, such as the branch structure and the Fabian Society.   

Ramsey MacDonald emerges as a man of principle and able conciliator, who could balance his life with other interests such as writing and a passion for golf. He was opposed to Britain’s entry in the Great War at a time when jingoism prevailed and pacificism was against the tide. It led to his resignation as chairman and leader of the party.

He “maintained a more or less consistent position throughout the war: entering it was a mistake, and the way out was to negotiate a settlement with Germany. Though sympathetic to the Bolsheviks who had seized power in Russia in 1917, he firmly believed in a parliamentary road to socialism. Nevertheless, “MacDonald was under surveillance by the police and two detectives were assigned to keep an eye on him.”

Like several other war dissident MPs, he lost his seat in the General Election of 1918. He stood twice for parliament, eventually succeeding in 1922 by winning Aberavon in South Wales.  His oratorical skills and charisma led to his re-election as leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Peter Clark notes that “one of MacDonald’s achievements was to form a government that bridged two major political fault lines in the Labour movement of the time – between socialists and trade unionists, and between those who supported the Great War and those who opposed it: ” the aristocracy may not be converted into Labour votes, but MacDonald’s socialising helped to make a Labour government tolerated, if not loved, by a powerful and influential class.”

Once in Number 10, Peter Clark provides a telling comparison of British leadership then, and today’s shenanigans,

The salary of the prime minister was £5,000 a year. He [MacDonald} had many expenses to pay from his own salary, including entertainment and household items such as linen and China. His eldest daughter, Isabel, acted as hostess and housekeeper, and the family groceries were ordered from the local Co-op and brought to the house in a van.  The family would take their meals not in the private flat, where coals had to be bought to keep rooms warm, but in the official banqueting room that was centrally heated at government expense.

Peter Clark has an eye for the quirky aspects of people’s lives. Writing about Ramsey MacDonald’s wife he notes, “she was a perfect political wife, with an independent and complementary range of interests. With a mixture of irony, affection, and respect she used to address her husband as ‘My dearest Sir’.”

As befitting an acclaimed biographer [he is the author of ‘Marmaduke Pickthall, British Muslim’] Peter Clark has drawn on numerous memoirs and diaries. Much use is made of Beatrice Webb’s waspish assessments of contemporaries. The author has also excavated this put-down of Churchill,

Haldane [the Lord Chancellor] had a curiosity about people and was always a genial host. He had a dry sense of humour. On one occasion, Winston Churchill, who was fond of him, prodded Haldane’s portly corporation.

‘What is in there, Haldane?’ Churchill asked.

‘If it is a boy, I shall call him John. If it is a girl, I shall call her Mary. But if it is only wind, I shall call it Winston.

Peter Clark is also a master of the understatement. In his biographical note on Sydney Olivier, who was a short-lived Secretary of State for India elevated to a peerage by MacDonald, there is this casually put aside,

Lord Olivier had a nephew who in 1924 started as a student at the Central School of Speech and Drama. His name was Laurence, and he too ended up in the House of Lords.

Organisations are not built on constitutions, rule books and standing orders alone. The bonds of trust and friendship may never feature in minutes of meeting, but these are what sustain collaborative work and underpin achievements. Peter Clark’s book provides many examples of this often unspoken aspect of institutional histories. The Labour movement’s influential thinkers, Sidney Webb and Stephen Shaw shaped the Fabian Society and their friendship lasted nearly seventy years.

Just as Ramsay Macdonald was under police surveillance prior to taking office, there were powerful circles that could not accept the legitimacy of a Labour government. In October 1924, the Tory-supporting Daily Mail published a letter – the Zinoviev letter, named after the president of the Communist International – that called for an uprising led by the British Communist Party. This had a disastrous impact on the General Election later that month, because the newspaper linked the Labour Party with a ‘Red Plot’. Peter Clark’s account should be consulted to see this as a ‘dirty tricks’ operation – echoes of the Trojan Horse affair! He observes, “As late as 1999, at the prompting of the Labour foreign secretary, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office issued an exhaustive report that was unable to establish responsibility. It was suggested that there was a collusion between White Russian exiles and some British intelligence operatives.”

If there is one lacuna in the book it is perhaps information on the Labour Government’s colonial policies. Once in power, MacDonald and his cabinet reverted to Imperialist-type form, with no support for the home rule movements in Egypt and India. Peter Clark refers to the continued deployment of the Royal Air Force to bomb villages in Iraq, but were there no voices in the Left to object, or call out that elections to the constituent assembly were being rigged to ensure safe passage of the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty? In 1924 too, the Spanish were bombing AbdelKrim in the Riff region of Morocco, using British supplied aircraft. Was this not discussed at Cabinet? Plus ca change plus c’est la meme chose.

JS/February 2024