The Setting

  • David Carlton


At the British General Election of 30 May 1929 the Labour Party, for the first time in its history, became the largest grouping in the House of Commons; but it came 21 seats short of an overall majority.1 On 4 June Stanley Baldwin resigned as Prime Minister and advised King George V to send for Ramsay MacDonald. Despite the unhappy experience of minority rule in 1924, the Labour leader again decided to accept office without unfettered power.


Prime Minister Foreign Policy Foreign Affair Labour Party Cabinet Minister 
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  1. 2.
    For details of the struggle between Henderson and Thomas, see Reginald Bassett, Nineteen Thirty-One: Political Crisis (London, 1958) pp. 27–8Google Scholar
  2. Gregory BiaxlandJ. H. Thomas: A Life for Unity (London, 1964) pp. 220–1Google Scholar
  3. For an unsupported claim that Oswald Mosley was considered for the post, see the summary of a letter by Harold Laski in Kingsley Martin, Harold Laski (1893–1950): A Biographical Memoir (London, 1953) p. 76.Google Scholar
  4. Lord Stamfordham, the monarch’s Private Secretary, recorded that MacDonald told the King that he had vainly offered to give up the Premiership and to take the Foreign Secretaryship instead in order to restore harmony in his party’s leadership : Sir Harold Nicolson, King George the Fifth: His Life and Reign (London, 1952) p. 435. The present writer knows of no evidence to confirm that MacDonald made any such offer to his colleagues.Google Scholar
  5. 2.
    G. D. H. Cole, A History of the Labour Party from 1914 (London, 1948 ) p. 305.Google Scholar
  6. 2.
    Two biographies of Henderson are Mary Agnes Hamilton, Arthur Henderson: A Biography (London, 1938).Google Scholar
  7. and Edwin Alfred Jenkins, From Foundry to Foreign Office: The Romantic Life Story of the Rt. Hon. Arthur Henderson, M.P. (London, 1933).Google Scholar
  8. See also Henry R. Winkler, ‘Arthur Henderson’, in G. A. Craig and Felix Gilbert, The Diplomats,1919–1939 ( Princeton, N.J., 1953 ) pp. 311–43.Google Scholar
  9. 3.
    Beatrice Webb Diary deposited at the British Library of Political and Economic Science, entry for 23 Mar 1930. Lord Thomson himself was in the Cabinet as Secretary of State for Air. His death in October 1930 in an air crash was a sad blow for his friend MacDonald, perhaps also for the Labour Government. In his short tenure of the Air Ministry he made a good impression on at least one highly qualified judge. See Basil H. Liddell Hart, Memoirs 2 vols (London, 1965; in progress) I 148–52. Lord Amulree, Thomson’s successor, was no more than mediocre.Google Scholar
  10. 1.
    A. C. Temperley, The Whispering Gallery of Europe (London, 1938 ) pp. 118–19. As Liddell Hart wrote, ‘Tom Shaw, a trade union secretary who had been put into the War Office, soon became a joke there as being merely “a rubber stamp” for decisions taken by his official advisers’: Hart, Memoirs, I 148.Google Scholar
  11. 2.
    Both Lord Curzon and Austen Chamberlain had resisted Cecil’s repeated requests for a room in the Foreign Office. In addition, his interventions in Baldwin’s Cabinets had rarely had much influence on his colleagues. See David Carlton, ‘Disarmament with Guarantees: Lord Cecil, 1922–1927’, Disarmament and Arms Control, III (1965) 143–64.Google Scholar
  12. Henderson’s forthright way of overruling his advisers on the issue of a room for Cecil in 1929 is described in Hugh Dalton, Call Back Yesterday: Memoirs, 1887–1931 (London, 1953) p. 222.Google Scholar
  13. 3.
    Of the officials in the Foreign Office at this period Cecil later wrote that ‘they were all very competent and some of them helpful’: Viscount Cecil of Chelwood, A Great Experiment (London, 1940) p. 201.Google Scholar
  14. 2.
    Lord Vansittart, The Mist Procession (London, 1958) pp. 397–8.Google Scholar
  15. A recent study of this colourful official is Ian G. Colvin, Vansittart in Office: an Historical Survey of the Origins of the Second World War Based on the Papers of Sir Robert Vansittart (London, 1965 ).Google Scholar
  16. 3.
    On Rumbold, see Franklin L. Ford, ‘Three Observers in Berlin: Rumbold, Dodd and François-Poncet’, in Craig and Gilbert, The Diplomats, pp. 438–47. Vansittart, unlike Rumbold, was acutely conscious of the National Socialist menace as early as 1930, when he described Hitler as ‘the half-mad and ridiculously dangerous demagogue’: Colvin, Vansittart, p. 19. For a study of the reaction of British quality newspapers to the rise of the National Socialists, see Brigitte Granzow, A Mirror of Nazism: British Opinion and the Emergence of Hitler, 1929–1933 (London, 1964).Google Scholar
  17. Sir Ivone Kirkpatrick, The Inner Circle: Memoirs (London, 1959) p. 43. While Henderson’s lack of attention to detail must be judged a serious weakness, it may also paradoxically have been a source of strength in that his mind was free to concentrate on matters of broad principle. In this connection an extract from Dalton’s diary for 17 July 1929 is relevant: ‘I told Cecil that Uncle [Henderson] was rather too immersed in detail. He said “Yes, the Office will try to drown him in detail so that he shan’t have time to do any mischief ”’ : Dalton, Call Back Yesterday, p. 223.Google Scholar
  18. Sir Walford Selby, Diplomatic Twilight, 1930–1940 (London, 1953) pp. 4–5. For earlier developments, see G. A. Craig, ‘The British Foreign Office from Grey to Austen Chamberlain’ in Craig and Gilbert, The Diplomats, pp. 55–48. Vansittart was probably sent to the Foreign Office to keep a critical eye on Henderson on behalf of the Prime Minister, whose Private Secretary he had previously been. There may therefore have been an element of poetic justice in the treatment Vansittart later received at the hands of Neville Chamberlain.Google Scholar
  19. Emanuel Shinwell, The Labour Story (London, 1963) pp. 135–6.Google Scholar
  20. Henderson to MacDonald, 13 Mar 1931, MacDonald Papers. Henderson also sent to MacDonald a supporting memorandum by Sir Victor Wellesley of the Foreign Office. Wellesley later wrote a partisan account of the ill-treatment of the Foreign Office during the inter-war period. See Diplomacy in Fetters (London, n.d., 1947 ?). A more balanced picture emerges from Donald G. Bishop, The Administration of British Foreign Relations (Syracuse, N.Y., 1961 ).Google Scholar
  21. There is at present no first-class biography of MacDonald. The following studies, however, throw some light on his complicated character: Lord Elton, The Life of James Ramsay MacDonald (1886–1919) (London, 1939).Google Scholar
  22. L. MacNeill Weir, The Tragedy of Ramsay MacDonald: A Political Biography (London, n.d., 1938 ?).Google Scholar
  23. Benjamin Sacks, Y. Ramsay MacDonald in Thought and Action ( Albuquerque, N. Mex., 1952 ).Google Scholar
  24. See also the sketch in Francis Williams, A Pattern of Rulers (London, 1965) pp. 61–134.Google Scholar
  25. Labour Party Annual Conference Report, 1924, p. Io8. The official Conserva-tive Opposition endorsed MacDonald’s rejection of the Draft Treaty. With good cause MacDonald had written privately as early as June 1923 of Baldwin that ‘on foreign politics his own personal views are, as near as no matter, the same as mine’: M. S. Venkataramani, ‘Ramsay MacDonald and Britain’s Domestic Politics and Foreign Relations, 1919–1931: A Study based on MacDonald’s Letters to an American Friend’, Political Studies, VIII (1960) p. 238.Google Scholar
  26. Arthur Henderson, The New Peace Plan: Labour’s Work at the League of Nations Assembly (London, 1924) p. 6. This pamphlet was the text of a speech delivered by Henderson on 12 Oct 1924 at Burnley.Google Scholar
  27. For further details on the provisions of the Geneva Protocol, see Philip J. Noel-Baker, The Geneva Protocol for the Pacific Settlement of Disputes (London, 1925 ).Google Scholar
  28. David Hunter Miller, The Geneva Protocol (New York, 1925).Google Scholar
  29. James Ramsay MacDonald, ‘Protocol and Pact’, Labour Magazine, 111 (1925) 533.Google Scholar
  30. Arthur Henderson, Consolidating World Peace (London, 1931) p. 29. Not surprisingly Henderson himself personally favoured the views, which he claimed were representative of public opinion.Google Scholar
  31. The Liberal policy was embodied in We Can Conquer Unemployment (London, 1929). For a critique of the Liberals’ campaign in 1929, see S. Maccoby, English Radicalism: The End? (London, 1961) pp. 491–4.Google Scholar
  32. On Snowden see Colin Cross, Philip Snowden (London, 1966).Google Scholar
  33. Philip, Viscount Snowden, An Autobiography, 2 vols (London, 1934 ).Google Scholar
  34. A. Andréadès, Philip Snowden: The Man and his Financial Policy (London, 1930 ).Google Scholar
  35. P. J. Grigg, Prejudice and Judgment (London, 1948 ).Google Scholar
  36. Robert E. Dowse, ‘The Left-Wing Opposition during the First Two Labour Governments’, Parliamentary Affairs XIV (1960–1) 89.Google Scholar
  37. For details see ibid., pp. 90–1. See also Robert Keith Middlemass, The Clydesiders: A Left-Wing Struggle for Parliamentary Power (London, 1965) pp. 182–5. This work emphasises and possibly exaggerates the role of John Wheatley.Google Scholar
  38. For details see Robert Skidelsky, Politicians and the Slump: The Labour Government of 1929–1931 (London, 1967) chap. 8.Google Scholar
  39. For further information on the extremely abnormal domestic scene under the second Labour Government, see Skidelsky, Politicians and the Slump; A. J. P. Taylor, English History,1914–1945 (London, 1965) chap. 8.Google Scholar
  40. Charles Loch Mowat, Britain between the Wars, 1918–1940 (London, 1955) chap. 7. For a strongly pro-MacDonald account of the last months of the Labour administration, see Bassett, Nineteen Thirty-One.Google Scholar

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© David Carlton 1970

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  • David Carlton

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