Category Archives: 1918 and after Archive

The Chancellors (10): Winston Churchill

Winston-Chuchill-Chancello_466Winston Churchill, 1924-29

Conservative (under Baldwin)

Churchill spent most of his early political career, after crossing the floor from the Conservatives to the Liberals, as a hate figure on the Tory benches, notably as the scourge of the Tories at the time of the House of Lords crisis of 1909-11. As an arch-coalitionist he found the reunited Liberal party of 1923 uncongenial. What drove him back towards the Conservatives though was the rise of Labour. He lost his Dundee seat in 1922, having been violently heckled more than once (one of the winning candidates was a Labour candidate): it was not the last time a working class crowd treated the great man roughly. He lost again in the general election of 1923, as a candidate in Leicester West: again to a Labour candidate. He was passionately opposed to socialism. When the Liberals, in effect, allowed Labour to take office in 1924, he grandly opined ‘The enthronement in office of a Socialist Government will be a serious national misfortune such as usually has befallen great states only on the morrow of defeat in war’. Come March, he stood in the as an independent anti-socialist in the Westminster Abbey by-election and nearly won. Once Baldwin abandoned tariffs, the way was openly for Churchill to return to the Tory fold (he had crossed the floor in 1904 in opposition to Joseph Chamberlain’s tariff reform). Epping’s Conservative party adopted him as a constitutionalist candidate. He re-joined the Conservatives just as many of his old (Tory) coalition colleagues returned to the fold. By then, he was well to the right of many Tories. Baldwin, perhaps to make sure Churchill remained from Lloyd George, and get him inside the tent, as the saying goes, offered him number eleven: ‘I should have liked to have answered, will the bloody duck swim?’ Rather touchingly, in accepting, he told Baldwin that he still owned his father’s robes that he had worn as chancellor.

41CGIh4uRXL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_His most important decision was to return the pound to the Gold Standard at $4.86, something he later acknowledged to be an error: Keynes’ The Economic Consequences of Mr Churchill made the case against at the time. In truth though, Churchill was following the same policy that Britain had pursued since the Cunliffe Committee had recommended returning to gold. The policy also had the firm backing of the Treasury, the Bank and the economists (one is tempted to aver that it was almost certainly wrong, therefore). Furthermore, the spectre of the hyperinflation that had crippled Germany in 1923 made the imperative of a sound currency seem all the more pressing. Unfortunately, it was still a mistake. The rate of $4.86 was too high and would, in the end, prove unsustainable. In the next four years it would depress Britain’s key staple industries, force interest rates up and help ensure that the direction of government policy was deflationary. Mr Churchill had very serious economic consequences.

The next big issue he confronted was that of the coal industry and the General Strike of 1926. Churchill was so much of a hardliner that Baldwin wisely farmed him out to edit the government newspaper, the British Gazette). The broad assumption was for free trade, but Churchill did introduce some limited protectionist measures. The wartime McKenna duties, that Labour had abandoned, were renewed. Some industries were safeguarded, including the nascent British movie industry. Churchill’s first budget cut income tax, and funded Chamberlain’s widows and orphan’s pension scheme.

He argued with Chamberlain on rating reform and more, but the two developed a sometimes uneasy, but largely effective working relationship: both had a liberal hinterland, and Churchill did not stand in the way of most of Chamberlain’s reforms, as chancellors are able to do. He also imposed deep defence cuts: he cut the navy’s cruiser programme, put off the building of a naval base in Singapore (something that would come back to haunt him in 1942) and made the ten-year rule permanent.

Churchill certainly made budget day a parliamentary occasion to be savoured, and into an explicitly political occasion in way that the house had not seen since the days of Lloyd George. However, the notion of an economic policy was still in its infancy, and it is in that light that the failure of the Baldwin government to tackle the persistent unemployment of the ‘twenties should be judged. The high cost of servicing the national debt was another constraint. Nonetheless, returning to gold at $4.86 was deflationary, and it is also true that Churchill was adamantly opposed to Keynes and Lloyd George’s bolder ideas for public works. What measures there were, under the auspices of the Unemployed Grants Committee were pretty small beer. On the other had, Churchill ensured that unemployment was relieved, whether through the national insurance scheme of the new transitional benefit for those not covered. At the time, Britain’s provision of unemployment relief was more extensive than any other major state.

Economic problems, and unemployment, probably helped Labour in 1929. When the Conservatives lost the 1929 election, Churchill’s support for free trade and his passionate opposition to the Irwin declaration (that the ultimate goal of British policy was dominion status for India) saw him become a leading opponent of Baldwin. As such, as Baldwin reasserted control and then formed the National Government, Churchill was heading for the margins: in John Charmley’s words, he was ‘scalped by Baldwin’. His ministerial career seemed over, something he neither forgot nor forgave.

Churchill was one of ten chancellors since 1900 to go on to be prime minister (one of twelve to go on to be party leader). He was also one of only three men to have been chancellor, home secretary and prime minister. He is only man to become chancellor whose father had also held the office (Lord Randolph Churchill, 1886-87). Chancellors, like prime ministers, are defined by their key decisions: the gold standard was Churchill’s. It was not his finest hour.



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The Home Secretaries (10): Joynson-Hicks

Sir_William_Joynson-HicksWilliam Joynson-Hicks, Conservative 1924-29 (under Baldwin)

History has been even less kind than usual to Joynson-Hicks, or Jix as he styled himself when defeating Winston Churchill in a 1908 by-election in North-West Manchester in 1908 (he had lost to him in 1906). In that by-election, Joynson-Hicks set the tone that predominated throughout his political career. In the first place, he wasn’t even meant to contest it. By law, when an MP took ministerial office, he submitted himself to re-election; by convention, he ran unopposed. Not only did Joynson-Hicks oppose Churchill, he did so by fighting a campaign the keynote of which was a shrill Tory populism and a willingness to be violently offensive to his opponents; he was openly anti-Semitic too. That might have been the sum of his political career, as he lost the seat in 1910, but he returned to the Commons in 1911.

Up until that point Joynson-Hicks had been primarily known as a solicitor with a particular fascination for cars, planes and telephones, he was chairman of the AA in 1922, as well as being one of the country’s better known and more strident evangelicals. The quintessential Tory right wing backbencher, his brand of Tory populism was hardly likely to commend him to the likes of Lloyd George. When he visited Amritsar, for example, he wrote approvingly of Dyer’s actions there in 1919: to wit, the massacre of 379 Indians. That political position served him well, however, when his party rejected Lloyd George and Austen Chamberlain at the Carlton Club. As one unsullied by coalition, Bonar Law gave him his first junior government job; by the time Baldwin lost power in 1924, he was at the Ministry of Health.

His promotion to the Home Office when Baldwin returned later in 1924 was surprising then and still raises eyebrows now. His highly illiberal right wing Toryism seemed out of step with Baldwin’s rather more liberal, conciliatory and measured Conservatism. Nor had he achieved much before. Perhaps that misses a point. With Churchill at the Treasury and Austen Chamberlain at the Home Office, the two other great offices were in the hands of old coalitionists (and in Churchill’s case, a very recent ex-Liberal). By giving Joynson-Hicks the Home Office, Baldwin was giving his own right wing a little red meat to chew on; likewise, the anti-coalitionists who had made up Bonar Law’s 2nd XI, let alone the rank and file membership in the country who rather liked Jix’s brand of red-blooded Tory politics.

Certainly, there were many ways in which Baldwin’s right wing were going to be disappointed by a government that was studiedly liberal in so many ways. There would be no restoration of the Lords’ veto, nor the wholesale suppression of socialism many hoped for. Instead, for the backwoodsmen, Joynson-Hicks at least offered something. For a start, he was famously puritanical and Protestant. The Home Office gave him plenty of opportunities to give that puritanism free rein. He railed against the ‘flood of filth’. He used the Obscene Publications Act of 1857 against the lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness, a translation of the Decamaron, pamphlets advocating birth control and, most of all, anything by DH Lawrence (and Lady Chatterley’s Lover in particular). The literary journals abhorred him; the right wing popular press adored him (a bit of second hand sleaze alongside a healthy dollop or righteous indignation being the tabloid staple of the era). Alongside his 1928 appointee as Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Lord Byng of Vimy (yes, that Byng), he hounded London’s nightlife half to death. He used his five years in office to promote puritanical Protestants to the senior ranks of the Home Office, the judicial bench and the department of public prosecutions. In the aftermath of the Well of Loneliness trial, the Met stepped up prosecutions of homosexuals. Joynson-Hicks left a long legacy: in the 20 years that followed prosecutions for homosexuality rose by 850%. As Sybil Colefax dubbed him, Jix was ‘the old ladies’ darling’.

It wasn’t just sex that aroused his righteous ire: so did socialism. He took the Churchillian hard line over the General Strike. In 1927, he mounted the Arcos Raid on the flimsiest of evidence and without Austen Chamberlain’s agreement: the police raided the Soviet trade delegation’s offices in search of a non-existent incriminating document. Insofar as there was no such document, the raid failed. Politically, it reaped pleasing dividends: relations with the USSR were broken off, and a number of leading communists (including Harry Pollitt) were put on trial for seditious libel, in a manner reminiscent of the good old days of the French Revolution and our very own Lord Eldon.

To our eyes, the strangest obsession of Joynson-Hicks years at the Home Office was the revised prayer book of the Anglican Church, brought forward in 1927. Since 1921, he had been president of the National Church League, an evangelical grouping. He saw the revised prayer book as a little short of popery. Finding himself being compared to Oliver Cromwell, and using language straight out on the 17th century, he led a parliamentary campaign to prevent its promulgation. He won the vote, and did so by reverting to the kind of openly anti-Catholic political language not heard outside of Glasgow, Liverpool or Ireland, or since the home rule crisis of 1912-14. The establishment of the established church hated it, and Baldwin was not happy about it: many Tories and Anglicans loved him for it.

PRjoynsIt is very easy to depict Joynson-Hicks as the unreconstructed face of right wing Toryism and, in truth, there is some justice in the caricature. There was, however, something of another side to him. He reformed the borstal system for young offenders. He blocked Churchill’s attempts to ban greyhound racing, on the grounds that if the upper class had horse racing then the workers could go to the dogs: the teetotal and pro-temperance Jix also hoped it would keep them off the drink. Most of all, he bounced the government into the 1928 Equal Franchise Act, which gave women the vote on the same terms as men. Without his intervention, it is very unlikely that the Baldwin government would ever have moved the bill. He formed an unlikely friendship with the cartoonist David Low; Low satirised him mercilessly, though Joynson-Hicks rather liked the caricature (such as the one from 1924, above).

Joynson-Hicks was, for many, a figure of fun, whilst being a hate figure on the liberal left. In part, that owed as much to his political bark as his bite (though that bite could, and did, leave a sour taste). In truth though, much of his puritanism fitted that of a large slice of British public life for much of the century, and the sneering of liberals hardly did him political harm. Furthermore, he initiated a more substantial constitutional reform than most of his fellow-occupants of the Home Office. As Baldwin once said of him, ‘he may have said many foolish things but rarely did one’. Perhaps a tad kind, but there is a germ of truth within.

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The Foreign Secretaries (4): MacDonald

macdonald time

Ramsay MacDonald

Labour, 1924 (when also prime minister)

Ramsay MacDonald was, and will surely remain, the last prime minister to serve as his own foreign secretary. At first sight, that decision might seem extraordinary: MacDonald had never held high office of any kind, and to combine the load of the foreign office might seem rather like either hubris, or a gesture of contempt towards his colleagues (a contempt, or at least low opinion, he did come to feel).

The reasons like more in the centrality of foreign policy to MacDonald’s politics, to the early Labour Party, the political circumstances in which Labour came to power and the internal politics of the Labour Party.

The First World War had a profound impact on the Labour Party and on Ramsay MacDonald. In the first place, MacDonald’s opposition to the war saw him resign as chairman of the parliamentary party (the nearest thing Labour had to a leader in 1914). In 1900, the Labour Representation Committee, that would become the Labour Party, had been formed as an umbrella organisation, the most important constituent parts of which were the Independent Labour Party and the trade unions. MacDonald was from the ILP, which continued to exist as an independent organisation within the Labour movement, and the majority of the ILP MPs were opposed to the war. However, the larger part of the Labour movement in the country and in parliament came from the trade unions. The trade unions were overwhelmingly behind the war; MacDonald’s position as chairman was untenable.

Having resigned, he was one of the leading figures behind the cross-party Union of Democratic Control. This is sometimes depicted as an anti-war group, and it is certainly true that most of its participants were opponents of the war (though not all were). Instead, though, it was more to do with the politics of the war. Foreign policy, constitutionally, came under the royal prerogative, not parliamentary control: the UDC wanted to change that.  They also believed that democratic forces on the continent, including in Germany, could cooperate to bring about peace; they also argued for a peace that did not punish.

After Arthur Henderson entered Asquith’s coalition in May 1915, and even more so after he joined Lloyd George’s war cabinet, a split in Labour seemed likely (especially after MacDonald attacked Henderson in the Commons). What changed everything was the Russian revolution of February 1917. Russia was now increasingly under the control of socialists who seemed to have much in common with MacDonald. When Henderson resigned, the two men worked together, not always easily, but very successfully.

It is possible to view the reconfiguration of the Labour Party that the likes of MacDonald, Henderson and Sidney Webb undertook as a compromise between the two wings of the party. Institutionally, it cemented the control of the pro-war trade union majority: crucially giving the trade unions a majority of Labour’s national executive, as well as establishing constituency Labour parties separate from the ILP, whilst retaining union affiliations. The quid pro quo for the ILP was political: they got the socialist clause IV and a foreign policy that reflected the UDC and ILP line. Labour’s War Aims, the statement of that foreign policy, was in essence, the UDC view, though one now shared by pro-war Labour too.

It did Labour, and especially those who had opposed Lloyd George, little good in the short term. The Coupon Election of 1918 saw Lloyd George’s Liberal and Labour opponents routed: in the slaughter of the ‘Squiffites, the UDC men were the collateral damage. The likes of MacDonald and Henderson lost their seats: MacDonald’s pro-Lloyd George opponent secured a 14,000 majority in Leicester East. Whilst Labour were the official opposition, they had just 63 seats.

The next four years transformed Labour’s position and, in 1922, they made their crucial breakthrough, securing 29.5% of the popular vote and winning a bedrock of 142 seats. MacDonald, having lost a bitter by-election in 1921, was one of the 142. 100 of those MPs were from the ILP, and it was that fact that saw MacDonald win the party leadership over the incumbent, JR Clynes.

MacDonald was, though, the outstanding figure of Labour’s first generation, and his  four years out of the Commons, only served to emphasise that fact. He had charisma, but substance too. In those years had sought to define Labour’s political position and, no less importantly, distinguish it from (and openly reject) the Communism of Lenin, the newly formed Communist Party of Great Britain and the Third Socialist International. MacDonald rejected the use of force, was parliamentary and democratic: his socialism was evolutionary, not revolutionary. That approach won the support of modearte working people and ex-Liberals, though it would frustrate Labour’s left, and many from the ILP in particular.

Labour’s left have always been frustrated by the unhappy realities of government. That frustration was all but inevitable when Labour, unexpectedly, found itself in government in January 1924. Even had the likes of MacDonald, Snowden, of Henderson been inclined to be radical, parliamentary arithmetic and the likely short-lived tenure in government that arithmetic gave them made radical socialism impossible. In any case, MacDonald had other priorities: he wanted Labour to demonstrate its constitutionality, and its fitness to govern.

Thus, his cabinet was studiedly moderate. There was only one real left-winger in it, JR Wheatley at Health. The key question for MacDonald was how to fill his senior positions. Snowden was a shoe-in at the Treasury: he was Labour’s economics guru, and to shunt him aside would have been politically impossible. There were two candidates for the foreign office: Arthur Henderson and JH Thomas. MacDonald’s relations with Henderson were not straightforward, and Henderson had lost his seat. MacDonald, therefore, wanted Thomas. The problem was that Thomas was a union man. When rumours of Thomas’s likely appointment surfaced, there was distinct anger from the ILP. Labour’s foreign policy was that of the UDC and the ILP, not the unions. It was then that some in the ILP and from the old UDC, notably Arthur Ponsonby, suggested MacDonald take on the role himself.

It made quite a bit of political sense. The government would be short-lived, and the immediate issue facing it was the fall out of the Ruhr crisis. MacDonald had, since Versailles, argued that reparations had been unnecessarily punitive: now they were threatening to wreck Germany’s infant democracy. If the alternative approach could be seen to work, that would point a different way forward in Europe. It would also richly illustrate Labour’s fitness to govern.

If that was the case, MacDonald passed with flying colours. A committee, under the US representative on the Allied Reparations Commission, Charles Dawes, had been formed a week before Labour came to office. That committee reported in April, but for the deal to be enacted, the French and the Germans had to come to some form of agreement on the terms of a French withdrawal from the Ruhr and a German commitment to meet their obligations. Months of patient yet insistent diplomacy culminated in the frequently fraught London Conference. After a month, they finally agreed. That agreement, MacDonald told the delegates after it was signed on August 16th, surely pointed a way forward away from the old enmities. The years that followed seemed to bear out that hope.

It was a personal triumph, and the high watermark of MacDonald’s first government. The much-vaunted Geneva Protocol ran out of steam and time. MacDonald’s other significant foreign policy initiative, recognition of the Soviet Union and the opening up a trade talks, left Labour open to the red scare, which, in the form of the Campbell case, brought it down.

In truth, MacDonald’s first government was never likely to last long. In domestic policy, it had little beyond Wheatley’s Housing Act to show for it. In foreign policy, it very much did. An agreement to end the Ruhr crisis was anything but a given in 1924. That there was a solution owed more to MacDonald than anyone else. Just as importantly, it pointed the way towards the rapprochement with Germany to come at Locarno. There would be other short-lived foreign secretaries, but none would achieve as much. More than any other figure from Labour’s first generation, MacDonald’s reputation sat far too low for far too long. Much has been done to change that. Certainly, MacDonald, as foreign secretary at the very least, was more than up to the task of statesmanship. Labour were now a party of government.






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