The fifth series of Downton Abbey began with much discussion about the new Labour Government under the premiership of Ramsay MacDonald (“I feel a shaking of the ground I stand on”). However, what they were not quite so clear about was exactly why this was so momentous or indeed how sudden and unexpected this would have been for people in 1924 (both upstairs and downstairs!) As this was essentially the topic of my dissertation (the politics bit, not Downton Abbey), I couldn’t resist having a say on the matter.
The more conservative members of Downton expressed horror at the very idea of a Labour government, and while current leader, Ed Miliband, may not be the go-to man if you need a bacon sandwich eaten competently, he hardly seems like someone likely to drive fear into the heart of the establishment. However, in 1924 the Labour party was not widely seen as a natural party of government but rather a new and (for some) dangerous socialist party.
Before the First World War, the two dominant political parties were the Conservatives and the Liberals. Indeed, the Liberals were in office from 1905-15 before entering a coalition with the Conservatives during the war. To put it crudely, the Conservatives were seen as the more traditional party whereas the Liberals were more radical, particularly in this period under the premiership of H. H. Asquith and the enterprising Chancellor, David Lloyd George, with reforms such as Old Age Pensions and National Insurance. His 1909 People’s Budget was particularly controversial with land taxes designed to pay for social welfare reforms, hence the Dowager Countess’s memorable quip when Lloyd George was mentioned at the table, “Please don’t speak that man’s name; we are about to eat.”
However, the Liberals were facing myriad pressures prior to 1914 (suffragettes, Irish Home Rule, industrial strikes) and the First World War saw a split in the leadership when Lloyd George replaced Asquith as Prime Minister and led a largely Conservative coalition. The 1918 “Coupon” Election deepened the rift further with Asquith Liberals and Lloyd George Liberals competing under separate banners. Had this happened fifty years earlier, perhaps the split would not have been so damaging, but there was now a new political party on the scene…
The Rise of Labour
Many felt that the Liberal party did not properly represent the views and needs of the working classes and trade unions, leading to a new and specifically working class and socialist political movement. Independent working-class MPs were first elected in 1892, leading to the formation of the Independent Labour Party under Keir Hardie (one of the first MPs), and in 1906 the elected MPs formed the Labour Party. Affiliated to trade unions, the party gradually increased its representation and won 40 seats in 1910 (the last election before the war). Labour were a far more radical proposition than the Liberals, advocating nationalisation of industry, solidarity with workers across the world and a desire for a new world order. In Downton, this is very much the political mindset of one-time chauffeur Tom Branson, whose on-and-off revolutionary sympathies provide a source of conflict with Lord Grantham.
The war presented a serious threat to the party, however, with many of the leaders (including Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald) opposing the war while most of the party supported the government. Despite this, the party actually increased its standing at the 1918 election to 57 seats (more than the Asquith Liberals). This was likely helped by the 1918 Representation of the People Act, which vastly increased the size of the electorate, allowing all men over 21 to vote and all women over 30.
Lloyd George was revered as “the man who won the war” but by 1922, many were disillusioned by the difficulties of life in post-war Britain and Lloyd George’s failure to deliver his promise of “a country fit for heroes to live in”. The Conservatives brought an end to the coalition and won a huge majority at the 1922 general election under Andrew Bonar Law. The two Liberal factions (still at war with each other) mustered a combined total of 115 seats but for the first time ever the opposition would be formed by Labour, who won 142 seats.
1923 General Election
Sadly, Bonar Law was forced to step down as leader in 1923 suffering from cancer and he was replaced by Stanley Baldwin. Britain at this time had an economic policy of free trade but Baldwin felt that for the good of the economy, it was necessary to change to protectionism (i.e. taxing imported goods). However, Bonar Law had pledged that this would not happen without an electoral mandate so, despite having a majority and several years left, Baldwin called an election.
In Downton Abbey, the school teacher Miss Bunting observed that the people had chosen to have Labour and MacDonald govern the country but actually things were rather more complicated. In fact, the Conservatives won more seats than either Labour or the Liberals, so this was hardly a ringing endorsement for Labour. Crucially, however, the Conservatives did not win a majority of the seats and since both the Liberals and Labour had campaigned for free trade, it was, in effect, a defeat for Baldwin.
It is often assumed that the Liberal party was killed off by the First World War (or even that it was in its death throes before this) and that from the 1920s onwards it was something of an irrelevance. However, the 1923 election so nearly restored them to power. Asquith and Lloyd George reunited behind free trade and the party enjoyed a 10% swing in its favour, gaining almost 100 seats and enjoying 29.7% of the vote. A few more and they would have formed the next government. However, Labour won 30.7% of the vote and had an extra 33 seats meaning that they were the second party and in the event of the Conservatives being defeated, it was Labour who should form the next government.
The First Labour Government
The thought of socialists coming into power would have been unthinkable before the war – indeed, George V pondered in his diary what his grandmother, Victoria, would have thought of it all. These were radical times and the war had seen the fall of monarchies in Austria, Germany, Greece, Spain and Russia – would a Labour government presage the toppling of the old order in Britain as well? Russia, in particular, increased fears about a Labour government due to the Russian Revolution in 1917, culminating in the murder of Tsar Nicholas II and his family.
Consequently, many people were desperately searching for a means of preventing Labour from coming to office. As monarch, George V had the power to appoint the next Prime Minister, so it would have been possible for him to call upon Asquith (and not MacDonald) to form a government, or indeed to encourage Asquith to work with Baldwin to keep Labour out (indeed in the 1930s he played a strong role in the formation of a National Government). George tended to vehemently oppose all elements of modern life (jazz, bobbed hair, turn-ups, etc.) and given that the Tsar was his cousin, it would have been understandable had he wanted to avoid welcoming socialists into the corridors of power. However, such an obstruction to Labour and the democratic process could have been disastrous for the monarchy, particularly as many in the Labour movement were republicans.
Thankfully, however, George V did not choose to block Labour but instead maintained a rigid adherence to the constitution: Baldwin was his Prime Minister and if he were to receive a vote of no confidence and resign, he would call upon the next leader with the most MPs, which was Ramsay MacDonald. Sure enough, Baldwin was forced to resign and George invited MacDonald to form the first ever Labour Government in 1924. Lord Grantham expressed sympathy for the King having to work with Labour but George made a very conscious effort to welcome his new ministers into the establishment and to support them as he would support any government: “They have different ideas to ours as they all socialists, but they ought to be given a chance and ought to be treated fairly.” This made a real impression on his ministers, who might otherwise have identified the monarchy as an enemy of the party. One of the first Labour ministers, J. R. Clynes, observed the magnitude of the occasion and the welcome that they received from the king:
“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. The King 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.”
As a minority government dependent on Liberal support, the first Labour government did not quite last the year and was not able to introduce the radical socialist measures that many had feared. The only real revolution was political, with the Liberals almost wiped out at the 1924 election (having failed to appreciate the trap of three-party politics and their need for electoral reform) and Labour now the alternative reformist opposition to the Conservatives. However, it did establish that Labour was fit to govern (and would return to power just 5 years later) while George V’s accommodating attitude helped ensure that the parliamentary party would be pro-monarchy thereafter. Indeed, Ramsay MacDonald would go on to be George V’s favourite Prime Minister, so he was perhaps not quite so glum about the first Labour Government as Lord Grantham had assumed!