. Three-party politics

Three-party politics













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 partyAusten

Chamberlain, Balfour, Birkenheadsulkily 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 exchequeran 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 unemployedthat 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.


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


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 Conservatives and Liberals were much the same people as before, with a

drop of twenty or so in the number of company directorsmainly 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


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

parliamentboth 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.

Democracythe belief that the will of the majority should prevailwas 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 peacea 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.


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

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