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
Reference group
National Labour (act. 1931–1945) was a political identity that resulted from the economic and political crises of 1931. Ramsay MacDonald's second minority Labour government collapsed on the evening of 23 August. Faced with intense demands for major public expenditure cuts in the context of a financial panic the cabinet had split eleven votes to nine in favour of a 10 per cent cut in unemployment benefit. The minority, some of whom were influenced by the opposition of the Trades Union Congress to retrenchment, believed that a Labour government must not adopt such a policy. Several within the majority, on the other hand, felt that it was incumbent on the government to address the immediate crisis irrespective of established party and trade union priorities.

The following day Ramsay MacDonald became head of a cross-party National Government. Three of the previous cabinet accompanied him into the new cabinet: Philip Snowden at the Treasury, J. H. Thomas, the railwaymen's leader, at the Dominions Office, and John Sankey, Viscount Sankey, as lord chancellor. Two more legal officers kept their posts, Sir William Jowitt as attorney-general and Craigie Aitchison as lord advocate. Basil Mackenzie, Lord Amulree, retained his place at the Air Ministry. One or two more of the outgoing Labour cabinet were probably tempted to accept ministerial posts—most credibly Herbert Morrison—but did not do so.

In contrast some within the Labour hierarchy, in alliance with the Trades Union Congress, vigorously attacked the new government. A meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party confirmed this hostility, with very few Labour MPs dissenting. The minority of Labour MPs who supported MacDonald and the National Government included one junior minister, Sir George Masterman Gillett (1870–1939), the prime minister's son Malcolm MacDonald, and eight other back-benchers. Almost all of them had become Labour MPs only at the general election of 1929. Sir Ernest Bennett and Richard Douglas Denman (1876–1945) along with Jowitt were former Liberal MPs while George Wilfred Holford Knight (1877–1936) and Aitchison had been Liberal parliamentary candidates. Sir (Samuel) Thomas Rosbotham (1864–1950) and James Alexander Lovat-Fraser (1868–1938) had been active Conservatives. Several of the minority had had a university education: Archibald George Church (1886–1954), a London University graduate, was general secretary of the National Union of Scientific Workers. The Labour parliamentary candidates in 1931 who supported the National Government included Godfrey Elton, previously college tutor at Oxford to Malcolm MacDonald. Among the Labour peers who switched allegiance ‘Buck’ De La Warr [see Sackville, Herbrand Edward Dundonald Brassey, ninth Earl De La Warr], who had been a junior minister in the Labour government, proved the most energetic of the Labour recruits to the National Government. These followers of MacDonald had little understanding of, and slight sympathy with, the experiences of workplace and community that fuelled the Labour opposition towards the National Government.

Many Labour back-benchers corresponded with MacDonald, expressing their dismay at the breach but insisting on their commitment to the Labour Party. Among a small number who considered supporting the prime minister was Sir Norman Angell. Initially the government's life was expected to be brief but further financial pressure led to the abandonment of the gold standard on 20 September. This increased the likelihood of an early election and thereby the extension of the administration. Precarious financial confidence seemed best protected by the decisive defeat of the Labour opposition. Labour supporters of the National Government were expelled from the Labour Party on 28 September 1931. Already funds were being raised for pro-government Labour candidates. Ministers decided on a vague election formula that could unite protectionist Conservatives and free-trade Liberals. The idea of National Labour developed as one manifestation of the government's claim to be cross-party, progressive, and responsible.

At the general election, held in October 1931, fourteen pro-government Labour MPs wished to defend their seats against their former party. In ten cases parties supporting the National Government allowed National Labour incumbents straight fights against Labour opponents, pressure from Conservative central office proving effective with constituency Conservative associations that sometimes had reasonable expectations of recapturing seats they had lost in 1929. However, one National Labour incumbent, Derwent Hall Caine (1891–1971), was defeated by a Conservative in Liverpool, perhaps a casualty of the religious sectarianism characteristic of the city's politics. Two others, Jowitt and Church, abandoned their seats and were defeated in university constituencies. (Sydney) Frank Markham (1897–1975), similarly unable to secure a straight fight, helped the campaign run by the National Labour Organization, which was chaired by De La Warr.

In total National Labour fielded twenty-one candidates at the general election of 1931. They were victorious only in the thirteen straight fights. The most dramatic performances were the successes of Ramsay MacDonald at Seaham and Thomas at Derby. This small contingent, including three new members, was overshadowed in the new parliament by about 470 Conservative MPs and by 68 Liberals. Any National Labour expansion required benevolence from its partners in government, and prospects for the future growth of the group seemed slender. Jowitt could not secure a by-election nomination and resigned as attorney-general in January 1932. The somewhat fortuitous victory of Kenneth Martin Lindsay (1897–1991) in the Kilmarnock by-election, caused by Aitchison's resignation to become lord justice clerk in November 1933, provided the only electoral success for National Labour during the lifetime of the parliament elected in 1931.

National Labour survived in large part because of a widespread perception that the 1931 victory owed much to the National Government's cross-party appeal. Ramsay MacDonald's position as prime minister reinforced this belief, as did the inclusion in the expanded post-election cabinet of Sankey, Thomas, and Snowden (who had gone to the House of Lords). Junior posts were held by Malcolm MacDonald, De La Warr, and, from October 1932, Bennett. Yet Ramsay MacDonald's failing powers diminished his credibility, while Conservative self-confidence grew, fuelled by the recognition that they could secure an electoral majority on their own. After September 1932, when two Liberals and Snowden left the cabinet over the abandonment of free trade, the National Government's cross-party identity withered.

National Labour adherents were trapped between acceptance of increasing Conservative dominance of the government and the recognition that in the labour movement they were discredited as renegades who had assisted in an electoral débâcle. Some hoped for a dialogue with former colleagues but were quickly disabused. Having backed MacDonald, Clifford Allen attempted to maintain political and personal connections with former comrades. He encountered only mistrust, which was expressed vehemently when he accepted a peerage from MacDonald at the beginning of 1932. Allen and Elton were successive editors of The Newsletter, the National Labour journal, which was high-minded and respectably progressive but without a clear political identity.

National Labour's failure to make electoral progress meant that its candidates entered the 1935 election in an exposed position. MacDonald's replacement as prime minister by Baldwin was indicative of diminished status. Candidates stood unsuccessfully as the government standard bearer in three seats that had been won in 1931 by Liberals who had later gone into opposition. The only gain was made by Harold Nicolson in Leicester. His candidacy was brought about through a traditional pattern of kinship politics. De La Warr was a relative by marriage. Nicolson wore his political affiliation lightly. Elsewhere National Labour retained seven seats and lost six. Among the losses were Ramsay and Malcolm MacDonald, who were defeated in seats where the mining vote was significant. The MacDonalds came back to the Commons as MPs for the Scottish Universities and Ross and Cromarty. Neither seat had a strong Labour presence, and the MacDonalds' candidacies could not claim any pretence of Labour backing.

Malcolm MacDonald later acknowledged that the government ceased to be a national government soon after 1935. One symbolic moment came in mid-1936 when Thomas left office and parliament because of an inquiry's verdict that he had leaked budget proposals. Despite his distance from the trade union that he had once dominated Thomas remained the only authentically working-class figure in the thin National Labour ranks. His Derby seat was lost in the subsequent by-election, when Church was defeated by a Labour opponent. The following year Ramsay MacDonald's retirement from the cabinet and death removed one more connection with Labour's past. To some degree his son became the focus of National Labour activity. He and De La Warr sat in the cabinet. In the late thirties National Labour enthusiasts, including the Baptist minister and former Labour MP Sir Herbert Dunnico (1875–1953), attempted to revitalize the party but with little success. Its progressive sentiments appealed to a liberal internationalist like Sir Alfred Zimmern. National Labour also attracted the independent publicist Stephen King-Hall who became a National Labour MP in succession to Rosbotham in October 1939, but its local presence was minimal.

The National Labour parliamentary group barely survived the Second World War. Malcolm MacDonald became high commissioner for Canada in February 1941 but retained his parliamentary seat. As the general election of 1945 approached, MacDonald's colleagues wished to give unqualified backing to Churchill. MacDonald disagreed and decided not to contest the election. In June 1945, shortly before the general election, the National Labour Organization was dissolved, and the few remaining MPs fought the 1945 election as National candidates.

The National Labour group emerged from the specific and unpredictable crises of 1931. Its members ranged from Sir William Jowitt, who returned to the Labour Party in 1936 and became lord chancellor under Attlee, to Sir Ernest Bennett, whose desire for Anglo-German friendship brought him into Captain Ramsay's Right Club in 1939. Those National Labour figures who defined themselves as socialists did so in terms of a communal ethic that could be dismissive of what they characterized as the sectional ambitions of trade unionism. Others saw themselves as broadly progressive but felt uncomfortable within a Labour Party influenced by trade union priorities. Such sentiments connect National Labour to wider debates about the character of the left in the twentieth century.

David Howell

Sources  

TNA: PRO, James Ramsay MacDonald papers · JRL, James Ramsay MacDonald papers · U. Durham L., Malcolm Macdonald papers · Bodl. Oxf., Richard Denman papers · Harold Nicolson diary, Balliol Oxf. · University of South Carolina, Columbia, South Carolina, Clifford Allen papers · D. Marquand, Ramsay MacDonald (1977) · P. Williamson, National crisis and national government: British politics, the economy and empire, 1926–1932 (1992) · A. Thorpe, The British general election of 1931 (1991) · T. Stannage, Baldwin thwarts the opposition: the British general election of 1935 (1980) · C. Sanger, Malcolm MacDonald: bringing an end to empire (1995) · Plough my own furrow: the story of Lord Allen of Hurtwood as told through his writings and correspondence, ed. M. Gilbert (1965) · H. Nicolson, Diaries and letters, ed. N. Nicolson, 1 (1966) · H. Nicolson, Diaries and letters, ed. N. Nicolson, 2 (1967) · N. Rose, Harold Nicolson (2005) · J. Saville, ‘Allen, Reginald Clifford’, DLB · J. S. Peart-Binns, ‘Jowitt, William Allen’, DLB · R. Temple, ‘Church, Archibald George’, DLB · D. Howell, ‘Denman, Richard Douglas’, DLB · A. Potts, ‘Knight, George Wilfred Holford’, DLB · D. Howell, ‘Aitchison, Craigie Mason’, DLB · K. Gildart, ‘Dunnico, Sir (Revd) James Herbert’, DLB · D. Howell, ‘Hall Caine, Sir Derwent’, DLB · D. Howell, ‘Lovat Fraser, James Alexander’, DLB · A. Potts, ‘Markham, Sir Sydney Frank’, DLB · D. Howell, ‘Rosbotham, Sir Samuel Thomas’, DLB · G. Elton, Among others (1938)