We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
  Herbert Stanley Morrison (1888–1965), by Bassano, 1940 Herbert Stanley Morrison (1888–1965), by Bassano, 1940
Morrison, Herbert Stanley, Baron Morrison of Lambeth (1888–1965), politician, was born at 240 Ferndale Road, Brixton, London, on 3 January 1888. His father, Henry Morrison (1849/50–1917), was a police constable of Conservative politics and with a liking for alcohol; his mother, Priscilla Caroline Lyon (1848/9–1907), daughter of an East End carpet fitter, had been in domestic service. With six children surviving infancy, conditions were hard, but Morrison's father was a member of the uniformed working class. This meant both status and regular earnings. The family appears to have had no significant religious affiliation; Morrison's upbringing was largely secular.

Organizing Labour in London

In one respect Morrison's childhood was distinctively difficult. An eye infection immediately after birth destroyed the sight in his right eye. During his schooldays, first at the Stockwell Road board school and from eleven at St Andrew's Church of England School, he was often marginal to children's pursuits. On leaving school he entered the world made famous in H. G. Wells's portrayal of Mr Kipps; he worked as a shop assistant in south London and then in Pimlico. Hours were long; at the Pimlico shop he ‘lived in’. In 1908 he moved to Whitbread's brewery as a switchboard operator. This post brought him into the National Union of Clerks, his only direct experience of trade union activity. These jobs offered minimal long-term prospects; from 1912, when he took a post as a circulation traveller for the new Labour newspaper, the Daily Citizen, his career lay within the labour movement.

Morrison's political formation was based on a dedication to self-education. Apparently on the advice of a phrenologist, he read extensively in history and economics, and gradually became a socialist. In October 1906 he joined the Brixton branch of the Independent Labour Party; however the ILP was relatively weak in London and he soon shifted to the formally Marxist Social Democratic Federation (Social Democratic Party from 1908). His wide reading now included not just radical economists and historians, and progressive fiction, but English translations of Marx, Engels, and Kautsky. His commitment to socialism produced rows with his tory father; he finally left home and lived in a succession of south London bedsitters. His appearance was shabby; his meals were irregular. Taken in hand by concerned comrades, his clothes became smarter. He ceased in public to be Bert Morrison and became Herbert. An effective outdoor speaker, he became increasingly interested in political organization and in specific achievements rather than symbolic protests.

These priorities led Morrison back to the Independent Labour Party, which was allied with the trade unions in the Labour Party. In contrast the Social Democrats, relatively strong in London, and more pragmatic than some stereotypes suggest, stood alone. By 1910 he was clearly committed to a gradualist vision of economic and social transformation; his journalism in the ILP newspaper Labour Leader proclaimed a socialist solution to the contemporary debate over national efficiency. His hopes for socialist transformation placed significant weight on the reform of local government; his first municipal candidacy, at Vauxhall in 1912, ended in defeat but his campaign was notable for the quality of the publicity material.

This failure must be placed in the broader context of pre-1914 London Labour politics. Trade unionism was relatively weak and the continuing strength of the Social Democrats militated against the construction of a socialist–trade union alliance. Only in May 1914 did the diverse socialist and trade union elements combine to form the London Labour Party. The initial secretary, Fred Knee, died within months, and on 27 April 1915 Morrison by one vote was elected his successor. At twenty-seven he had secured his first significant base.

The post not only solved an immediate problem—the Daily Citizen had folded the previous month—it also gave Morrison a congenial and creative task for the remainder of a war that he opposed. His response to the outbreak of hostilities was one of political opposition to what he characterized as a capitalist and imperialist conflict. In 1916 he received his call-up papers; his disability would have been sufficient for exemption but he opposed the call-up on socialist grounds. Characteristically he rejected an absolutist position and accepted alternative work of national benefit. He became a rather incompetent gardener at Letchworth Garden City where a politically sympathetic employer gave him scope to carry out his work for the London Labour Party.

Morrison's task was formidable. Labour successes in the capital before 1914 had been fragmented; the war threatened to be a divisive issue. His concentration on organizational improvements and on domestic topics produced little reward in the 1918 general election, but in the municipal contests of 1919 Labour achieved a sensational breakthrough. Before 1914 Labour had only forty-eight councillors in London; in 1919 the party won over 550 seats. It controlled twelve of the twenty-eight London boroughs. The reasons for this breakthrough were complex, and some of the ground was lost three years later; but Labour had become a credible force in London, and Morrison took much of the credit.

Morrison now lived in Hackney, one of the twelve boroughs captured by Labour, and in 1920 became mayor. This appointment came despite his not being a member of the council. In office he was predictably efficient, and for a mayor took an unusually active role in making policy. Two characteristics of this early experience of political leadership proved enduring. His relationship with council officers involved frank debate followed by a firm decision. On a broader canvas he responded to the challenge of unemployment by insisting that action must be constitutional. This position contrasted with the contemporary and illegal response of George Lansbury and the Poplar councillors, which he saw as conducive to chaos. The gaoled Poplar councillors gained sympathy within the labour movement. But as post-war radicalism diminished, Morrison's municipal strategy became dominant within the party.

From 1922 Labour lost control of Hackney. Morrison's political priorities shifted above all to the London county council (LCC). His power base remained the London Labour Party, which during the 1920s became a formidable political machine. In 1922 Morrison entered the LCC as a councillor for Woolwich. The borough had been a precocious Labour stronghold; it had an impressively large local party and a Labour newspaper, and from the late 1920s the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society was uniquely affiliated to the national Labour Party. Woolwich offered for Morrison a model of Labour organization—extensive, efficient, and concerned not just with conventional political issues, but also with a variety of cultural activities. He moved to nearby Eltham; this suburb was Morrison's home for the rest of his life. For him Labour's appeal should not be restricted to established working-class communities: it must include the ‘useful people’ of the suburbs who would respond to a reasoned programme of reform. Within the LCC Morrison became chief whip in 1923 and then leader of the Labour group in 1925. Vigorous advocacy in debate was combined characteristically with more efficient group organization.

Although Morrison was identified inevitably with London politics, he also emerged on the national scene as a significant figure in the 1920s. First elected to the Labour Party's national executive committee (NEC) in 1920, he remained a very active member, with three brief intervals, for over three decades. In the early years he was prominent in the tortuous discussions over the complex relationship between the Labour Party and the Communist Party. An early advocate of a hard line towards the communists, he ensured that local Labour parties in London with communist involvement were reorganized. At party conferences he established himself as an effective debater combining a firm defence of the party leadership with thoughtful and accessible presentations of issues. Labour Party chairman in 1928–9, he presided in 1929 over the party conference, a celebration of electoral victory that nevertheless contained harbingers of future disillusion. Morrison's conduct of the proceedings was assessed critically by an astute observer. Walter Citrine, the general secretary of the TUC, noted ‘his peculiar insistence upon his own correctness of ruling. He was not only confident, but rubbed it into the Conference that he was right’ (BLPES, Citrine papers, pt 1 7/8).

Morrison's first period as a member of parliament was as a back-bencher during the first Labour government. Elected for South Hackney in a three-cornered contest in December 1923, he initially found the Commons less congenial than local government. His first speech was unpersuasively partisan; his subsequent interventions were stronger, reflecting his increasing grasp of parliamentary procedure, and his concentration on London issues. This led him to oppose the government's London Traffic Bill, which he attacked as the adoption of a Conservative proposal that would give regulatory powers to central government, not least for road passenger transport. In the election of October 1924 Morrison was defeated in a straight fight with a Liberal, but in May 1929 divided opposition helped to give him a comfortable victory in South Hackney.

Minister of transport, 1929–1931

Despite his limited parliamentary experience Morrison went straight into the second Labour government as minister of transport. One observer wondered whether there was not ‘a great future in the Party for the self-sacrificing, simple, honest and retiring devotion of Herbert Morrison’ (Wertheimer, 188). In many respects his record over the government's troubled career enhanced his reputation, culminating in his promotion to the cabinet in March 1931. His ministerial performance in his department and in the Commons was recognized widely as a high point in an increasingly demoralized government. The skills polished in municipal administration and debate were appreciated more widely. Morrison's success owed something to the relative distance of his departmental concerns from the immediate impact of the depression. He could reform areas of transport policy without confronting immediately the constraints of Treasury orthodoxy.

Morrison's first bill responded to the extensive growth of road traffic by modernizing the law. Although it included controversial elements, most notably the abolition of the speed limit for cars, it did not divide MPs on partisan lines. The passage of this complex legislation raised Morrison's profile; he then turned to a favourite topic, the reform of London transport. He began by killing off inherited proposals for a private combine; gradually, through ministerial discussions and bargaining with interest groups, an alternative emerged—a public corporation responsible for most passenger traffic undertakings within the London area. Some elements would come from private ownership, others (the tramways) from municipal authorities.

Morrison's persistent advocacy within the government brought the bill to the Commons in March 1931. His case combined both a partisan appeal—this was practical socialism—and an attempt to gain cross-party support through emphasizing the economic merits of the proposals. For Morrison well-thought-out schemes could be both socialist and consensual. But his expectations for the bill were not realized. The collapse of the second Labour government in August 1931 meant an end to the bill. Yet by 1933 the London Passenger Transport Board was formed following legislation by the National Government.

Morrison's record at the Ministry of Transport earned widespread approval but helped to secure him the enmity of one increasingly powerful Labour figure. Ernest Bevin, the Transport Workers' leader, was a ‘good hater’ with a suspicion of many career politicians, especially of those whose links with the trade unions were sparse. After the general strike of 1926, Bevin became a dominant figure on the general council of the Trades Union Congress and within the Labour Party—a man whose support was worth courting. His suspicion of Morrison might have begun with the latter's revolt in 1924 on the London Transport Bill; this legislation had had the support of Bevin's union. Certainly there was considerable friction during the second Labour government. When Morrison's modernization of the road traffic law included powers to limit lorry drivers' hours, Bevin objected on the ground that this was a matter for trade union negotiators. More basically Bevin attacked Morrison's proposals for the composition of the London Passenger Transport Board. For Morrison ability should be the sole criterion; for Bevin trade unionists should be involved preferably as board members or at least in the consultations over membership. The exchanges on the principle carried on beyond the demise of the Labour government; they raised serious issues about the purpose and structure of publicly owned industry.

This breach affected the remainder of Morrison's career. Widespread approval of Morrison's ministerial record was also eroded by rumours about his behaviour in the crisis of August 1931. During cabinet discussions over expenditure cuts gradual and often ambiguous opposition developed among some ministers to cuts in much social provision and especially in unemployment benefit. Morrison took no part in this opposition; he was loyal to MacDonald and voted with the majority in favour of a 10 per cent reduction in unemployment benefit. That much is clear, as is Morrison's subsequent decision, along with five others from this majority, to go into opposition with the Labour Party. The uncertainty concerns how far Morrison was attracted by a post in the newly formed National Government. Reasons might have included admiration for MacDonald, a concern to safeguard his London transport reforms, and an expectation that the new government's life would be short. Contemporary press speculation and contradictory accounts by some contemporaries suggest some uncertainty—among others and, not least, within himself—about his likely choice. The calling of an election meant the exorcism of residual doubts; it also produced Morrison's defeat in South Hackney.

The 1931 crisis effectively terminated the leadership of the Labour Party's first generation; the initiative passed to those born largely in the 1880s who had established their political reputations after 1918. Among this group Morrison had established himself as a ministerial success; but like many of his peers he no longer had a parliamentary base. However, the small size of the post-1931 parliamentary party meant that influence within the party's NEC acquired an unusual significance. Along with another ambitious ex-minister, Hugh Dalton, Morrison played a critical role in the party's post-1931 policy making. He was a leading figure on the NEC's policy sub-committee, and especially in the study group on the reorganization of industry. Within this body he championed the public corporation as the preferred approach to nationalization, a method that he defended effectively in his 1933 book Socialisation and Transport. Such advocacy reopened the argument with some trade unions, most notably Bevin's Transport Workers, and there were serious but inconclusive debates at the party conferences of 1932 and 1933. However, the lack of a formal victory for Morrison proved irrelevant; after 1945 the public corporation was the form of public ownership chosen by the Attlee government.

More broadly Morrison's contribution to policy making helped to provide the party with a coherent programme of specific economic and social measures that could be represented as the first practical steps towards the replacement of capitalism by a socialist commonwealth. This combination of the practical and visionary had shaped the politics of Morrison and many colleagues since before 1914. The synthesis, aided by Morrison's presentational skills, made him a dominant figure at the party conferences of the 1930s. He defended specific policies and their gradualist rationale against the criticism of those who wished to draw more radical lessons from the débâcle of 1931. As the challenge of fascism deepened, he insisted that the independence of the Labour Party offered the best defence; he thoroughly opposed proposals for a popular front with the communists and an increasingly ecumenical spectrum of progressives.

Leader of the London county council, 1934–1940

Yet despite his national prominence Morrison's greatest achievement in the 1930s was in London. Labour's electoral recovery after 1931 was uneven. In the general election of 1935 the party gained significantly in the popular vote, but fared disappointingly in terms of seats. In contrast, under Morrison's leadership Labour took control of the LCC in March 1934. The result was unexpected; Morrison was greeted as the architect. Beatrice Webb paid tribute to his talents—‘a long pull and a hard pull lasting twenty years—the final victory doing endless credit to his doggedness, skill and masterfulness’ (Diary, 14 March 1935).

Morrison's strategy as leader of the LCC majority was to demonstrate Labour's capacity to govern both in implementing a coherent programme of reform and modernization, and in meeting high standards of efficiency and procedural propriety. Success could remove doubts about the party that were the perceived legacy of 1931. A competent team delivered distinctive policies combined with financial prudence. Schools were built; a significant start was made on the clearance of East End slums and on their replacement by modern LCC estates. The green belt was introduced to check the city's unplanned expansion. The provision of public assistance was humanized. A symbolic and successful battle with central government over the replacement of Waterloo Bridge allowed Morrison to portray the LCC as decisive and forward-looking. The popularity of these policies was demonstrated when the LCC elections were held in 1937. Turnout increased and although the opposition Municipal Reformers improved their vote, so did Labour, maintaining its share of the poll and gaining six more seats. This outcome testified to Morrison's skills in policy and administration, party organization and publicity. The Labour Party had other inter-war municipal achievements, but London's size and symbolism gave Morrison's record a unique prominence.

In contrast Morrison's parliamentary standing following his success at South Hackney in the 1935 election was ambiguous. In part this reflected his absence from the 1931 parliament. Under George Lansbury's leadership Clement Attlee, far less prominent than Morrison before 1931, had become deputy leader; Arthur Greenwood, whose status in 1929–31 had been similar to Morrison's, had returned to parliament after winning a by-election in April 1932. Following Lansbury's deposition from the leadership prior to the 1935 election, Attlee had served as temporary leader, and both he and Greenwood were candidates for the permanent post following the election. Morrison also stood. He had the support of influential MPs and advocates from both right and left who praised his drive and openness to discussion. They felt that he was interested in ideas. Yet in the first ballot he secured only forty-four votes to Attlee's fifty-eight and Greenwood's thirty-three. In the second round Morrison's vote increased by only four and Attlee's grew to eighty-eight.

No doubt Attlee benefited from the loyalty of those who had appreciated his virtues in the difficult parliament of 1931. Morrison's parliamentary experience was comparatively slight, and it was widely believed that his priority would remain the LCC—a concern that Morrison did nothing to dispel by an ambiguous comment at the decisive meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). Indeed Morrison was regarded by some as too narrowly a London politician in style and interests. Above all there was a bloc of trade union opinion in the PLP and beyond that distrusted Morrison as devious and potentially disloyal, a man who stood outside the relaxed alcohol-lubricated camaraderie that prevailed within a section of the PLP. The leadership election of 1935 was the first sign of a bloc within the party that would resist Morrison's attempts to achieve the leadership. Whatever his achievements, this rejection coloured the rest of his career; his initial response was to refuse nomination as deputy chairman of the PLP. For the remainder of the decade Morrison placed the LCC as his first priority.

As international crises increasingly dominated political debate, Morrison's national contribution became less distinctive. He travelled widely in the 1930s, but unlike his views on many domestic questions his line on international issues tended to reiterate conventional party themes. He favoured collective security through the League of Nations; with the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia in late 1938 he had to rethink the feasibility of this position. On the narrower question of whether the PLP should continue to oppose the National Government's defence estimates Morrison's reluctance to abandon his position put him at odds with his enemy Bevin and his previously supportive senior colleague, Dalton.

Morrison's significant contribution to wartime politics began in May 1940. He intervened in the crucial parliamentary debate on the failure of the Norwegian expedition, widening the indictment to a general criticism of the government's policy on the war. His criticism included a statement that the Labour Party would divide the house. The resulting vote, with Conservative rebels joining Labour or abstaining, meant the end of the Chamberlain government and the formation of the Churchill coalition. In all probability Morrison took the initiative in this parliamentary strategy within the PLP leadership; however, in the subsequent negotiations to construct a coalition Morrison was a peripheral figure.

The wartime coalition: supply and the Home Office

Labour's entry into the coalition meant Morrison's return to government office and his effective farewell to the LCC; initially he was minister of supply. His time there was brief and assessments of his performance vary. As an organizer of his department and as a publicist he was predictably effective; but interdepartmental wrangles undermined attempts to organize raw materials and labour. One sympathetic observer felt that Morrison lacked the required sensitivity towards economic questions. His earlier achievements had not involved the need for a sophisticated appreciation of economic complexities and arguably this appointment did not capitalize on his strengths.

At the beginning of October 1940, in the context of the blitz and the feared social disintegration of British cities, Morrison was appointed home secretary. He held the post until the end of the coalition in May 1945, and entered the war cabinet in November 1942. This department was ideal for him. His relatively weak areas were irrelevant; the skills, techniques, and flair evident at the LCC were transferred effectively to a more extensive brief. He responded to the blitz with administrative flair and with a sensitive grasp of popular feelings. His visits to devastated cities, his responsiveness to local needs, and his characteristically careful discussions with officials produced new policies for civil defence and a radical reorganization of fire services, with control passing from local authorities to the Home Office.

Inevitably Morrison had to resolve conflicting pressures over civil liberties questions. In general he was a force for liberalism against Churchill's sporadic demands for more control of the press, though he banned the communist Daily Worker and the politically similar The Week in January 1941. The ban on the Daily Worker remained until August 1942, more than a year after the German invasion of the Soviet Union. The most significant challenge on a civil liberties issue came, however, because of Morrison's allegedly excessive liberalism. In November 1943 he released from detention, on medical grounds, the leader of the British Union of Fascists, Sir Oswald Mosley. Protests came not just from communists and the Labour left, but also from the Labour Party's NEC and the TUC general council. Morrison won the vote in the Commons, but there was abundant evidence of dissatisfaction within the PLP.

This controversy exemplified a persistent problem for senior Labour figures within the coalition. Their commitment to winning the war entailed a loyalty to their Conservative colleagues; but this was combined no doubt with awareness that their individual performances, not least that of Morrison, were strengthening belief in the competence of Labour. Yet they also had to contend with a PLP and a party in the country that feared loss of party identity through involvement in the coalition. This danger seemed the more serious since there was abundant evidence that popular sentiment was moving to the left. Frequently Morrison acted as a conciliator, arguing against those who claimed that Labour ministers were neglecting to exploit their indispensability to win progressive measures from the coalition. His most praised intervention, in February 1943, ironically failed to prevent a widespread PLP revolt against the discouraging coalition response to the Beveridge proposals on social security.

Morrison's credibility as a ministerial troubleshooter was enhanced by his continuing commitment to party activities. He remained an assiduous attender at the NEC and its sub-committees and demonstrated eagerness to discuss the content of post-war reconstruction. Once again there appeared a central theme in Morrison's politics: the hope of a consensual basis for incremental progress towards socialism. That advance would involve significant elements of public ownership.

This combination of ministerial success and principled and persuasive partisanship suggested that Morrison's claims to the Labour Party leadership were strengthening. However, the party conference of 1943 underlined for Morrison the limits to his support. The party treasurership had become vacant. This was a post elected by the whole of the party conference; significant trade union support was therefore essential. Morrison stood and was opposed by Arthur Greenwood, now widely recognized as in significant decline. A third candidate, William Glenvil Hall, had the benefit of the Miners' substantial vote, but little else. The unions were divided; Bevin's Transport Workers predictably provided the nucleus of Greenwood's support. Greenwood, the genial ‘has-been’, defeated the consummate politician on a minority vote.

Nevertheless Morrison's role in the preparations for a post-war election was indispensable. He chaired both the campaign and policy committees and produced the initial draft of what became the election manifesto, Let us Face the Future. His belief that Labour must appeal to progressive and useful people of all classes was expressed in his decision to leave South Hackney and move his candidacy to suburban East Lewisham. This seat had never been won by Labour; it was close to Morrison's home at Eltham and typified perhaps a social milieu in which Morrison felt particularly comfortable. His switch and his underlying expectations were justified by a majority of over 15,000 at the general election of 1945.

The Attlee government: lord president and deputy prime minister

The election of the first majority Labour government brought an immediate attempt by Morrison to supplant Attlee. He argued for a leadership election by the new PLP, citing constitutional reforms made in the aftermath of the 1931 split. Given Labour's victory under a leader who had held the post for almost a decade, the ploy was doomed to fail. Indeed, whenever the party leadership was his concern, Morrison's political touch seemed to desert him; such manœuvres served only to deepen the image of him as a conspirator among those who distrusted him. One of Attlee's qualities as a leader, was a magnanimity that allowed him to reward talent whatever the personal issues. Morrison emerged from the post-election allocation of offices with the lord presidency of the council (28 July 1945), a supremo on the home front. He was also deputy prime minister and presided over the cabinet whenever Attlee was absent.

Morrison played a pivotal role in implementing the government's extensive domestic programme. He co-ordinated the passage of contentious bills through the Commons; as leader of the house he also had good relations with a Conservative opposition that recovered from the shock of defeat and resolved to contest government legislation vigorously. Respect for Commons procedures was combined with a desire to fulfil heavy legislative commitments; at the start of the new parliament the Labour majority endorsed Morrison's proposal that the government should take over all private members' time.

The skills demonstrated by Morrison were those central to his success on the LCC and now transferred to a national reform programme. Similarly Morrison spent much time responding to the concerns of a PLP which contained many new members, much idealism, and a significant number who positioned themselves on the Labour left. A liaison committee, with Morrison as the leading figure, facilitated communication between ministers and back-benchers. The government's large majority posed the problem of tasks for potentially bored back-benchers; Morrison responded with the introduction of policy groups, an experiment whose success varied with the topic and relevant ministers' support or lack of enthusiasm. Above all Morrison instituted a relatively liberal disciplinary regime with sanctions reserved for the most serious offences. Morrison's style, a broader ethos of loyalty, and the government's record combined to produce a more harmonious and generally more tolerant PLP than that of 1929–31.

One further initial responsibility posed more problems for Morrison. Charged with the co-ordination of economic planning, and armed with planning machinery inherited from the war, most observers felt that—as at the Ministry of Supply—he lacked a subtle appreciation of economic factors. Attlee, at a nadir in the government's fortunes, claimed that Morrison read out ‘briefs in Cabinet without really understanding them’ (Political Diary of Hugh Dalton, 413, mid-Sept 1947). A sympathetic civil servant felt that his mastery of economic detail and of the broader arguments was solid but that a deeper feel for the subject was lacking. Moreover the planning machinery was complex and fragmented, and defied Morrison's attempts at rationalization.

The year 1947 was critical for the government. A harsh winter and coal shortages led to industrial dislocation; the convertibility of sterling against the dollar introduced in mid-July precipitated a financial crisis and the rapid suspension of convertibility. From January to June serious illness removed Morrison from decision making; the summer economic crisis, which raised fears of another 1931, produced conspiratorial conversations among senior ministers. Cripps, Morrison, and Dalton felt that Attlee was indecisive and should be replaced, although predictably they differed as to the appropriate replacement. Bevin, preferred by Cripps, was not prepared to replace Attlee, and was anathema to Morrison. The latter naturally felt that he was the best replacement. Attlee's response demonstrated the skill that had maintained his position for so long. Cripps was strongly critical of Morrison's grasp of economic issues. Attlee successfully offered Cripps a new and senior post in charge of economic planning. Morrison found his responsibilities curtailed, admittedly to those areas where he was most effective. Once again when the party leadership was under discussion—this time among a very small circle of senior ministers—Morrison was not viewed as the obvious successor.

More congenially Morrison had charge of the government's nationalization programme. Predictably these years witnessed the triumph of the public corporation. The nationalization of public utilities was uncontentious within the Labour Party. Some viewed each individual measure as economically justifiable on its own merits; others emphasized their collective contribution to the realization of a socialist commonwealth. In contrast the iron and steel industry was a controversial candidate; Morrison was dubious about its merits, and in 1946 several within the cabinet wished to defer nationalization. The cabinet returned to the issue concurrently with the 1947 economic crisis; Morrison favoured a compromise—public supervision of the industry but not full-scale public ownership. The deal had been negotiated by Morrison in conjunction with the industry and had the support of the steelworkers' trade union. Cabinet arguments resulted in the defeat of Morrison's scheme and led eventually to a long-running parliamentary struggle over a nationalization bill. On this issue Morrison found himself opposed by senior cabinet colleagues and out of step with dominant sentiments within the PLP. For many a firm line on iron and steel demonstrated a continuing commitment to socialist transformation.

Morrison took particular pride in the legislative achievements of the 1945 parliament; his political skills were utilized to their best advantage. He loved the negotiations between ministers over priorities and the give and take of the bargaining with the opposition. Meticulous attention to detail cohabited with a broader vision. At one level this emphasized efficiency. Morrison insisted that the government's implementation of his programme showed that ‘Parliament could be a workshop as well as discharging its necessary functions as a talk-shop’ (H.S. Morrison, Government and Parliament, 2nd edn, 1959, p. 244). Moreover Labour's election manifesto of 1945 had proclaimed the party's commitment to a socialist commonwealth. In the aftermath of the 1931 collapse some on the Labour left had asked, ‘Can socialism come by constitutional means?’ For Morrison the record of the first majority Labour government provided a conclusive answer.

The fidelity with which Labour had carried out its domestic agenda required the party to develop a new programme for the forthcoming election. Morrison's positions in government and party ensured that he played a central role. The challenge was not just that the programme which he and others had developed in the 1930s had been largely achieved; it was that the link between those measures and the advance to socialism had become tenuous. Full employment and a much more extensive welfare system appeared to meet many of the labour movement's central ambitions; but Britain in the late 1940s was clearly not socialist. The party could choose to rest largely content with these achievements, or to promote measures intended as the next stage of the transition to socialism.

Morrison's response was at one level a compromise, but it also became characterized as the slogan of the Labour right: a second term must be one of ‘consolidation’. Further nationalization measures should be at best limited; instead, the emphasis should be on improving the existing public sector. ‘Consolidation’ was an appropriate priority for someone concerned with administrative efficiency; Morrison also believed that his approach could help to retain the relatively broad social base of Labour's 1945 victory. His approach became a benchmark of a lengthy left–right dispute over public ownership. Yet the term ‘consolidation’ did not imply abandonment of any commitment to socialist transformation, and it remains unclear how far Morrison ever relinquished the basic objective of replacing capitalism by socialism through an accumulation of specific reforms. What is apparent is that by the late 1940s he was in significant respects an increasingly conservative figure, who had been in senior ministerial positions for a demanding decade, and had seen many of his political objectives achieved. The balance of radicalism and consensus that had characterized his politics from the 1920s had tilted away from radicalism.

The Labour Party fought the general election of 1950 on a compromise platform that included a few candidates for public ownership. Morrison was returned comfortably in his redistributed seat, renamed South Lewisham, but Labour lost considerable support in south-eastern England while maintaining its strength in the older industrial areas. Morrison's concern about Labour's electoral base was thus confirmed, although the loss of such support probably owed far more to the government's austerity policies than to any unhappiness with proposals for more public ownership. Predictably, however, Morrison, who remained as lord president of the council in Attlee's government, continued through election post-mortems to insist on the need for ‘consolidation’. Doubts and divisions about the future direction of Labour policy became focused narrowly on the issue of public ownership.

Whatever the doubts about future policy, Morrison's touch within the Commons and the PLP enabled him to cope effectively with the reduction of Labour's majority to six. The physical decline of other leading ministers increased his eminence; however, a third leadership generation was beginning to emerge as Hugh Gaitskell became chancellor of the exchequer in succession to Cripps in October 1950. Morrison ruled himself out as an alternative chancellor—‘I listen to Stafford explaining those figures, and I just know I could not do it’ (Donoughue and Jones, 466). Yet Gaitskell's only budget in April 1951 precipitated the most divisive crisis of the Attlee government: Aneurin Bevan, Harold Wilson, and John Freeman resigned from the government specifically over National Health Service charges and rearmament expenditure, but in Bevan's case at least also over the government's alleged departure from socialist rectitude. Bevan's explosive exit was directed not just against Gaitskell's budget, but in effect against Morrison's emphasis on ‘consolidation’; it scarred the Labour Party for over a decade. Attlee was ill and Morrison chaired the critical cabinet meetings without securing a compromise. There was little evidence of those managerial skills that had marked his successes on the LCC and in the Commons. Some felt that his own political sympathy for Gaitskell prevented him from seriously seeking a settlement. Yet there seemed little desire for compromise by the principal protagonists. The political cohesion that Morrison had nourished since 1945 was disintegrating.

Foreign secretary, 1951; deputy leader of the opposition, 1951–1959

The government's crises were compounded by international pressures. With the resignation of Ernest Bevin in March 1951, Morrison became foreign secretary (12 March 1951), attracted perhaps by the status of the post, but it took him into a field remote from his expertise and skills. Once again a concern with his credibility as potential leader might have been decisive. Yet his seven months at the Foreign Office damaged his reputation. Critics blended reasoned assessments of Morrison's capabilities with snobbish references to Morrison's style, pronunciation of foreign place names, and lack of ‘background’. As with economics, Morrison's touch often seemed unsure. International developments could not be moulded into his favoured rational structures. Characterizations of him as parochial seemed vindicated when he spent more time on the Festival of Britain on London's south bank than on his departmental affairs. These involved serious challenges particularly in Iran, where Dr Mossadeq nationalized British oil interests and Morrison raised the prospect of military action. This one-time opponent of capitalist war was now characterized by a cabinet colleague as ‘rather a fire eater’ (Diary of Hugh Gaitskell, 11 May 1951). His interventionist views were not endorsed by most of his cabinet colleagues; the limits of Britain's claim to great power status were already evident.

Along with senior cabinet colleagues Morrison had evinced a blend of scepticism and hostility towards the first moves for European co-operation. His concerns were fed in part by domestic political considerations. Confronted by the Schuman Plan for a European Coal and Steel Community in May 1950, his alleged response was that ‘the Durham miners won't wear it’ (Donoughue and Jones, 481). His pride in British political institutions also fuelled his distaste for any proposal that hinted at supranational erosion of parliamentary sovereignty. As foreign secretary his position mellowed—at least on defence, where cold war pressures forced west European co-operation.

The narrowness of Labour's electoral defeat in October 1951 suggested the feasibility of an early return to office. However, the party was riven by factionalism resulting from the Bevanite resignations and the associated and often confused debates about policy and strategy. Morrison remained deputy leader; he still hoped to succeed Attlee, and played a vigorous role in factional battles. Once away from international affairs, his speeches inside and outside parliament regained much of their quality. Yet gradually his position within the party was undermined. In October 1952 a shift to the left among party activists was demonstrated when a Bevanite slate made an advance in the elections to the constituency party section of the NEC. The victims were senior figures, Hugh Dalton and Morrison, who lost their places.

Morrison was then taken up as their political champion by some trade union leaders who wished to block the Bevanite left and found Attlee lacking in determination and firmness. The consequence of this support was damaging for Morrison. His trade union backers wished to organize his return to the NEC. The only option for this strategy was the party treasurership occupied by the increasingly ineffective and ailing Arthur Greenwood, an incumbency that had begun with his defeat of Morrison in 1943. The attempt to remove Greenwood produced significant sympathy for him. Morrison could be portrayed as the insensitive instrument of authoritarian trade union leaders; on the eve of the party conference in 1953 he withdrew his candidacy. An amendment to the party constitution brought him onto the NEC as deputy leader. Some right-wing trade union leaders began to shift their backing from Morrison to Gaitskell. The former's hesitancy and withdrawal had fed doubts about his willingness to deal firmly with the left. Gaitskell showed no such inhibitions.

Morrison remained for many the most credible successor to Attlee, but a gradual erosion of his support became terminal in the second half of 1955. A second election defeat eroded hopes of a quick return to office. The issue of Morrison's age became more salient as the party began slowly to consider a more thorough reassessment of its policies. It seemed that Attlee, born in 1883, would be better followed by Gaitskell, born in 1907, rather than by Morrison. The latter's parliamentary performances also deteriorated, reinforcing the claim that he was a declining force. Arguably Attlee remained leader until he felt that Morrison's prospects had been destroyed. If so then his judgement was sound. The contest for his successor in December 1955 signalled the end of Morrison's hopes. Long-standing supporters of Morrison shifted to Gaitskell, and Bevan had the backing of the left. The first ballot was decisive—Gaitskell 157, Bevan 70, Morrison 40. Arguably the election of Gaitskell indicated more than the arrival of a new leadership generation. Whereas Morrison in all probability retained a basic belief that cumulative reforms would transform capitalism into socialism, Gaitskell and his closest supporters understood socialism as the more thorough realization of appropriate values. Yet Gaitskell's subsequent difficulties showed that many within the party, not least on the right, remained attached to older expectations. But Morrison's involvement in subsequent controversies was minimal. A quest for the leadership over two decades had ended in humiliation. Morrison resigned the deputy leadership and moved to the back benches. His interventions were few, and he retired from the Commons in 1959.

Despite his earlier opposition to the unreformed House of Lords, Morrison took one of the recently introduced life peerages and went to the upper house as Baron Morrison of Lambeth (November 1959). He was an active peer, and from 1960 served as president of the British Board of Film Censors. His last political battle was in opposition to the Conservative government's plan to replace the LCC with a greater London council. He died in Queen Mary's Hospital, Sidcup, Kent, on 6 March 1965. He was cremated at Eltham on 11 March and the ashes were spread on the Thames at County Hall. The London county council which had been the arena for some of his greatest achievements disappeared less than a month later.

A life dedicated to politics

Morrison was a massive asset to the Labour Party. Pugnacious and reasonable, indulging in knockabout partisanship and seeking broad agreement on specific reforms, he was a commanding presence in parliament and Labour Party institutions for over thirty years. As a minister he had major successes at transport and the Home Office and as lord president of the council. His periods at supply, in charge of post-war economic planning, and above all the Foreign Office were less successful. His ministerial talents were limited, but within their range they were outstanding. As a party organizer his skills were widely acknowledged; while intolerant of communists and their sympathizers, he was not a crude authoritarian. His managerial style combined bonhomie, discussion, the calculated use of threats, and the effective interpretation of party rules. Above all his record in London politics greatly enhanced Labour's administrative credibility and brought significant benefits to the people. His style was characterized often as that of the archetypal Cockney—self-confident, humorous, a deflator of pretence. The portrait owed as much to social considerations as to geography. Morrison was thoroughly incorruptible. His tastes were essentially those of the south London lower middle class among whom he lived. Political concerns relegated all else to the sidelines. Suits bought from the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society were worn not for style, but for their pockets which provided a home for the papers that Morrison's politicking inevitably attracted. His quiff, spectacles, and taste in bow ties provided the raw material for countless political cartoons.

Beyond the achievements and the homespun image lay complexities. Morrison's later career was damaged not least for himself by his failure to secure the party leadership. Perhaps he lacked the toughness needed to grasp opportunities. Certainly his failures suggested that his support within the party was limited. This was not just the visceral contempt of Bevin. Arguably he suffered from his distinctive route to the party's ruling group. Many of his contemporaries had risen through the trade unions; others were from the middle class, with the educational background that Morrison lacked. He was almost unique within his generation of leaders in having a working-class background and a social mobility provided solely by the party. It probably did not help that his closest counterpart in this respect in the preceding generation was Ramsay MacDonald. Such distinctiveness could lead to the criticism that he was simply a party boss, a fixer with no wider interests. This was unfair. Although his years of extensive reading predated the First World War, he remained interested in ideas. In particular his time at the Ministry of Transport and his long-standing involvement in party policy making demonstrated his concern not just with the detail of reforms, but with a broader vision of social change. As a result he gained respect from intellectuals such as Harold Laski who disagreed with him on specific policies.

Morrison's life was dedicated thoroughly to politics. This could appear dubious to many colleagues and fed unreasonable claims that Morrison lacked depth. The preoccupation indicated tensions in his personality. The marginal youth had sought comradeship in the socialist movement. His marriage on 15 March 1919 to Margaret Kent (1896–1953), a secretary and daughter of a railway clerk, was not a success. Morrison spent little time with his wife and their daughter. His wife did not share his political enthusiasms; his private world withered. Following her death in July 1953, he married Edith Meadowcroft (b. c.1908) of Rochdale. This marriage on 6 January 1955 to a businesswoman of Conservative politics appeared much more successful; but by then his career was in decline.

The complexities within Morrison's politics and personality are evident in his published writings. Socialisation and Transport, published in 1933, is a lucid and knowledgeable analysis involving a reasoned defence of the public corporation. This was Morrison the sagacious yet creative reformer. Perhaps significantly the subtitle is ‘the organisation of socialised industries with particular reference to the London Passenger Transport Bill’. Twenty-one years later Morrison published Government and Parliament. This was the product of his visits to Nuffield College, Oxford. His drafts were revised by the warden of Nuffield, D. N. Chester. The result was an accessible and authoritative book on British government which was widely read. The subtitle, ‘a survey from the inside’, was not a harbinger of sensational disclosures nor heterodox views. Instead Morrison celebrated British exceptionalism in a resolutely empiricist style. ‘The fact that the House of Lords has many irrational features is not in itself fatal in British eyes, for we have a considerable capacity for making the irrational work’ (H.S. Morrison, Government and Parliament, 2nd edn, 1959, 194). This was Morrison the seeker after consensus, whose radicalism was giving way to conservatism.

The book can be located within a very specific context. Morrison and his Labour Party contemporaries had never shown much interest in constitutional reform; for them economic and social questions provided the real business of politics. Moreover the record of the Attlee government suggested that existing institutions could be used effectively by a reforming administration. In the early 1950s few raised questions about the failings of British government. Within a decade the mood would be very different.

Finally in 1960 Morrison published his Autobiography, the product of an unsatisfactory relationship with a ghost writer, F. G. Kay. The book was marked by the legacy of Morrison's failure to become party leader. His family were largely, and in the case of his first wife and daughter wholly, invisible. On critical moments in his career the text was laconic and misleading. This was the insecure Morrison behind the public style and the achievements.

Morrison should be located in historical context. As with other socialists of Labour's second generation, his ideas were largely formed at a time when Britain's great power status seemed assured, but problems of modernization were increasingly evident. For him, as for many contemporaries, socialist solutions implemented through British institutions seemed feasible and desirable. Morrison justified his agenda with the belief that the resulting society would be more efficient and fairer; yet it would retain the best of past practices. The reforms would strengthen an ethic of public service and could be characterized as early steps in a socialist transformation. Morrison's achievements in office, especially at the London county council, and in government from 1945 to 1950, marked the apotheosis of this strategy.

David Howell


B. Donoughue and G. W. Jones, Herbert Morrison: portrait of a politician (1973), new edn (2001) [foreword by Peter Mandelson] · D. Marquand, ‘Herbert Morrison: the socialist as consolidator’, The progressive dilemma (1991) · K. O. Morgan, ‘Herbert Morrison’, Labour people (1987) · DNB · H. Morrison, Looking ahead: wartime speeches (1943) · Lord Morrison of Lambeth, Herbert Morrison: an autobiography (1960) · The backbench diaries of Richard Crossman, ed. J. Morgan (1981) · The political diary of Hugh Dalton, 1918–1940, 1945–1960, ed. B. Pimlott (1986) · The Second World War diary of Hugh Dalton, 1940–1945, ed. B. Pimlott (1986) · Labour and the wartime coalition: from the diaries of James Chuter Ede, 1941–1945, ed. K. Jefferys (1987) · The diary of Hugh Gaitskell, 1945–1956, ed. P. M. Williams (1983) · Patrick Gordon Walker: political diaries, 1932–1971, ed. R. Pearce (1991) · The diary of Beatrice Webb, ed. N. MacKenzie and J. MacKenzie, 4 vols. (1982–5), vol. 4 · D. Acheson, Present at the creation: my years in the state department (New York, 1969) · K. Harris, Attlee (1982) · A. Bullock, The life and times of Ernest Bevin, 3 vols. (1960–83) · P. Clarke, The Cripps version: the life of Sir Stafford Cripps (2002) · H. Dalton, Call back yesterday: memoirs, 1887–1931 (1953) · H. Dalton, The fateful years: memoirs, 1931–1945 (1957) · H. Dalton, High tide and after: memoirs, 1945–1960 (1962) · B. Pimlott, Hugh Dalton (1985) · P. M. Williams, Hugh Gaitskell: a political biography (1979) · R. Skidelsky, Oswald Mosley (1975) · F. Brockway, Bermondsey story: the life of Alfred Salter (1946) · P. Addison, The road to 1945: British politics and the Second World War (1975) · S. Brooke, Labour's war: the labour party during the Second World War (1992) · P. Hennessy, Never again Britain, 1945–1951 (1992) · L. Hunter, The road to Britain Pier (1959) · K. O. Morgan, Labour in power, 1945–1951 (1984) · B. Pimlott, Labour and the left in the 1930s (1977) · E. Shaw, Discipline and discord in the Labour Party: the politics of managerial control in the Labour Party, 1951–87 (1988) · P. Thompson, Socialists, liberals and labour: the struggle for London, 1885–1914 (1967) · A. Thorpe, The British general election of 1931 (1991) · P. E. Wertheimer, Portrait of the Labour Party (1929) · P. Williamson, National crisis and national government: British politics, the economy and empire, 1926–1932 (1992) · S. V. Bracher, Herald book of Labour members: supplement (1924) [dated 1924 but with 1923 on title-page]


BLPES, biographical papers · Nuffield Oxf., corresp. and papers · TNA: PRO, Foreign Office papers |  Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Clement Attlee · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with R. R. Stokes · Durham RO, corresp. with Lord Londonderry · JRL, letters to the Manchester Guardian · Labour History Archive and Study Centre, Manchester, corresp. with Morgan Phillips · NL Wales, corresp. with Huw T. Edwards · Parl. Arch., corresp. with Lord Beaverbrook · Parl. Arch., letters to Lord Samuel · TNA: PRO, corresp. with Sir Henry Dale · Welwyn Garden City Central Library, corresp. with Frederic Osborn  



BFINA, documentary footage · BFINA, news footage · BFINA, party political footage · BFINA, propaganda film footage (ministry of health) · IWM FVA, actuality footage · IWM FVA, home footage · IWM FVA, news footage




IWM SA, oral history interview · IWM SA, recorded speech


Bassano, photographer, 1940, NPG [see illus.] · W. Stoneman, photograph, 1941, NPG · Y. Karsh, bromide print, 1943, NPG · H. Coster, photographs, 1953, NPG · Y. Karsh, sepia-toned bromide print, 1954, NPG · W. Bird, photograph, 1961, NPG · J. Pannett, chalk drawing, 1961, NPG · D. Low, chalk caricature, NPG; pencil study sketch, NPG · B. Partridge, pen-and-ink caricature, NPG; repro. in Punch (30 Jan 1935) · F. Topolski, NPG · photographs, Labour History Archive and Study Centre, Manchester · photographs, Hult. Arch.

Wealth at death  

£28,600: probate, 5 Aug 1965, CGPLA Eng. & Wales