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100 years ago a Welsh MP led a very different Labour Party into power

30 Jun 2024 8 minute read
Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour Government. Photo The National Archives (United Kingdom), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Adam Somerset

On Friday this week, 5th July, the Member of Parliament for Holborn and Saint Pancras will travel to Buckingham Palace.

When he emerges from his meeting with the King the remainder of his day will be spent in forming a fresh government for the United Kingdom.

One hundred years ago, on 22nd January 2024, the Member for Aberavon made the same journey. He too, after his audience, set to the making of a new government.  Ramsay MacDonald was not alone in meeting George V; three of his closest allies were in accompaniment.

One was to write his memoirs in 1937. They came in two volumes, the first ending with a description of the encounter between monarch and the pioneers of the Labour party.

J R Clynes had been party leader, a position he lost on 21st November.  He had had government experience in the wartime coalition of Lloyd George.

As Parliamentary Secretary of the Ministry of Food Control he worked with D A Thomas, Lord Rhondda, in ensuring the country’s food supply.

Spare

Clynes’ writing style was spare and to the point. It also has a verve to it that crosses the decades. His view of Lord Rhondda ran: “His courage was unbounded…Fearless in decision, unruffled in temper, and with a colossal command of detail, he was great in all respects but one. He was no orator.”

Clynes himself entered parliament in 1906. It was a time when elderly MPs could recall elections that had been fought over promises to abolish income tax, only a few pence, altogether.

He himself had been a mill-worker as a child from age ten. He worked barefoot from six am to mid-day for a half crown a week, darting among machines in full operation to repair broken threads on their spindles.

On one occasion his foreman nearly sacked him for sneaking a look at “Paradise Lost” during a work break. He discovered John Ruskin at the age of eighteen, reading and re-reading “the Seven Lamps of Architecture.”

Learning

A reverence for learning ran through that first generation. William Crooks (1852 -1921), Labour’s fourth MP, cited Ruskin in support of the first legislation for pensions.

William Johnson (1849 -1919), a former miner, was in the House of Commons from 1906 to 1918. “Knowledge is power”, he declared, “This wide range of study and reading broadened my mind and gave me that capacity for looking at both sides of a question, which is invaluable to a man in public life.”

Charles Duncan (1865-1933) sat for Barrow-in-Furness 1906 to 1918 and for Clay Cross 1922 to 1933. He urged his working-class companions to read the classics. “The unread man has a narrow outlook, and easily goes astray”, he said. “He is the sport of political tricksters and the tool for all knaves.”

Clynes, as a child, read newspapers to a trio of  old men who were blind. They paid him threepence a week.

His memoirs recall: “Reading aloud was a new joy to me. Then I began to feel the power of words; that strange magic which can excite multitudes to glory, sacrifice or shame. As blindly as my blind hearers, I began to conceive that these words that I loved were more than pretty playthings: they were mighty levers whereby the power of the whole world could be more evenly and fairly distributed for the benefit of my kind.”

Passion

That passion ran to the next generation. Aneurin Bevan could quote Nietzsche and F H Bradley.

He knew Kant’s Categorical Imperative well enough to impress an Oxford scholar. “Nearly all the successes at the secondary school”, he said, “are children who use our library.”

On the first page of his memoirs Clynes looked at the social revolution of his era.

“An engine-driver rose to the rank of Colonial Secretary, a starveling clerk became Great Britain’s Premier, a foundry-hand was changed to Foreign Secretary, the son of a Keighley weaver was created Chancellor of the Exchequer, one miner became Secretary for War and another Secretary of State for Scotland, while I, the mill-boy, reached the position of Lord Privy Seal, so that I might lead the House of Commons and, later, became Home Secretary.”

Good writing flourishes on detail. It was not a easy existence to be a Labour Parliamentarian.

Costs

Clynes listed his costs. Among them bed and breakfast ran to £1 4s 0d. As for the offerings within Parliament:

“Most of the Members then in the House were apt to complaint at the fare provided there. But we Labour men found it a fine thing at the time to be able to get a good slice from a well-cooked joint, with a variety of vegetables, pudding or fruit, and plenty of bread, for a shilling.”

Of the election of 1923 and its aftermath his account ran:

“When the results were reckoned it was found that Labour had increased its hold spectacularly once again, having gained 53 seats, giving us a total of 191 Parliamentary representatives. The Conservatives had lost 86 seats, reducing them to 258.

“One hundred and fifty-eight Liberals now held the balance of power between us and the Tories; and, as the Liberals naturally opposed the Government programme on Protection, it was obvious that we should soon be given our chance to lead the House.”

“…All of us felt at the time that a great responsibility rested upon us. The Tories, it was obvious, would soon set a challenge to our courage. Timid generalship would have meant disaster, and complete loss of trust by the country in the whole Labour movement.

“Nor had we long to wait. Mr Baldwin’s Government produced a King’s Speech obviously intended to set a standard which no rival Party could possibly follow, in view of the world situation at the time.

“This Speech was offered as though Britain were at the height of a prosperity wave, and promised hosts of good things which the Conservatives could not conceivably produce. But, since they knew they were fated to fall from power and would not have to make good their boasts, they were setting an example beside which any King’s Speech of realities, formulated by Labour, would seem gloomy indeed.

“It fell to my lot to move a vote of No Confidence in the debate on the King’s Speech. The atmosphere in the House was electric when the Speaker named me, and I rose.

“…After three days of excited debating, my amendment was carried by 328 votes to 256. Mr Baldwin immediately sent in his resignation.

“And then, after eighteen years of unbroken service in the House of Commons, I saw that first-fruit of that harvest for which Labour prophets and workers had toiled throughout the past century. The arrogant Tories and the powerful Liberals were scattered; the Working Men’s Party, for so long a joke, had become a Government, although only with Liberal aid.

“King George sent for Mr MacDonald. Arthur Henderson, J H Thomas, and myself accompanied our leader to Buckingham Palace to that fateful interview of which we had dreamed, when a British Sovereign should entrust the affairs of the Empire to the hands of the people’s own representatives.

“As we stood waiting for His Majesty, amid the gold and crimson magnificence of the Palace, I could not help marvelling at the strange turn of Fortune’s wheel, which had brought MacDonald the starveling clerk, Thomas the engine-driver, Henderson the foundry labourer and Clynes the mill-hand, to this pinnacle beside the man whose forebears had been kings for so many splendid generations. We were making history!

“We were, perhaps, somewhat embarrassed, but the little, quiet man whom we addressed as “Your Majesty” swiftly put us at our ease. He was himself rather anxious; his was a great responsibility, and I have to doubt that he had read the wild statements of some of our extremists, and I think he wondered to what he was committing his people.

“The King first created MacDonald a Privy Councillor, and then spoke to us for some time. He gave us invaluable guidance, from his deep experience, to help us in the difficult time before us when we should become his principal Ministers. I had expected to find him unbending; instead, he was kindness and sympathy itself.  Before he gave us leave to go he made an appeal to us that I have never forgotten.

“The immediate future of my people, and their whole happiness, is in your hands, gentlemen. They depend upon your prudence and sagacity.”

How Labour, in power and in opposition, tried thereafter to be worthy of that trust, I shall endeavour to show in my next volume.”

From J R Clynes: Memoirs 1869-1924”   Hutchinson and Co, London 1937


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Another Richard
Another Richard
14 days ago

An interesting despatch from the time before politics was treated as a branch of light entertainment.

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
14 days ago

“This wide range of study and reading broadened my mind and gave me the capacity for looking at both sides of a question, which is invaluable to a man in public life”

“The unread man has a narrow outlook, and easily goes astray”

“He is the sport of political tricksters and the tool for all knaves”

‘Welsh’ Labour solicitor politicians should be avoided if you want a fair and open society…

Vote Plaid…

Last edited 14 days ago by Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
14 days ago
Reply to  Mab Meirion

“The immediate future of my people, and their whole happiness, is in your hands [ladies+] gentlemen]. They depend upon your prudence and sagacity”…wise words in a language near forgotten…

Last edited 14 days ago by Mab Meirion
Richard Davies
Richard Davies
14 days ago
Reply to  Mab Meirion

They may be wise words but they come with the arrogance and belief of being superior – “.. of my people“.

The monarchy must be abolished!

Richard Davies
Richard Davies
14 days ago

I’m holding on to the hope that on 5th July, the Member of Parliament for Holborn and Saint Pancras will be Andrew Feinstein!

Cwm Rhondda
Cwm Rhondda
12 days ago

100 years of Labour in the Rhondda valleys, we were amongst the poorest then and still amongst the poorest today. Vote Plaid on Thursday.

Bill
Bill
6 days ago

J. H Thomas was my grandfather. He had been a Privy Councillor since 1916. He was also a close friend of King George V.
Born illegitimate in Newport in 1873 he .was a fluent Welsh speaker.

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