Review of “The Wild Men” by David Torrance: A Look into the First Cabinet of the Labour Party.
On January 22, 1924, the Labour party formed a government for the first time in its 25-year history. Due to certain circumstances, they were presented with an opportunity that many members were hesitant to take. The outcome of the December election was inconclusive. The Conservative party, led by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin (then known as Unionists), remained the largest party with 258 seats. The Liberals had 158 seats and Labour had 191. After six weeks of speculation and consideration, Baldwin realized he did not have enough support to present a king’s speech. He could have attempted to form a coalition with the Liberals, but this would have gone against the public’s rejection of a similar coalition in the October 1922 election. The leader of the Liberals, Herbert Asquith, ultimately decided to step aside and allow Labour to prove their ability to govern.
He had expressed that if a Labour government were to potentially lead the country, it would be under secure circumstances, as he stated to a group on December 18, 1923.
He was referring to the safety of the Liberal party, as the obstacles that the Labour party would encounter were significant. The United Kingdom had decreased in size by twenty percent after the establishment of the Irish Free State one year prior. Unemployment rates were increasing and the economic outlook was bleak. The main promise in Labour’s manifesto was a capital levy on all personal fortunes over £5,000. This was expected to lead to a panic at banks, deplete gold reserves, and potentially result in food shortages and famine. The leader of Labour believed that this policy caused them to lose 50 seats.
The leader in question was Ramsay MacDonald, who was fully aware that accepting the position would be a risky move, especially due to the high demands of numerous Labour followers. However, MacDonald thought that if he declined the offer, Baldwin would make a deal with Asquith, resulting in the Conservatives taking control, the Liberals becoming the opposition, and Labour being seen as irrelevant for being too afraid to take charge.
The primary goal of the Labour party was to prove its capability to lead. MacDonald faced a dilemma, like every leader after him, on how to balance the desires of the public for stability with the party’s push for radical transformation. He assumed office the day after Lenin’s death and a mere five years after the Russian Revolution. As the first cousin of George V, who had been assassinated by the Bolsheviks, MacDonald’s appointment may have sparked concerns in the king’s mind about the potential for revolution in Britain, as he allowed the new prime minister to kiss his hand.
David Torrance, a researcher at the House of Commons library, skillfully sheds light on these topics in his captivating book. He delves deeper than just politics and reveals the unique personalities of the remarkable men who comprised the initial Labour cabinet. (Margaret Bondfield, a leader of shop workers who would go on to become the first female cabinet member in the 1920s, held a lower position in this administration and was one of only three women in the Labour party.)
Out of all the initial politicians of modest origins who were welcomed into the cabinet, none had a humbler upbringing than MacDonald himself. He was born to an unmarried servant and a ploughman, and his illegitimacy was exposed by a sensationalist newspaper in 1915. While there were a few members of the middle class in this first cabinet, the majority were self-taught laborers.
Their main focus was on maintaining a respectable image rather than promoting radical ideas (there was no further mention of the capital levy). However, they did implement progressive social reforms, increased wages for farm workers, decreased the country’s debt, established a nationwide electricity network, improved infrastructure through road construction, and started building livable housing for the working class.
According to one government official, the nine-month period of the Labour party in power was significant not for its achievements, but for what it hinted at. It allowed people to envision the potential of a Labour government with a longer time frame to enact their plans, rather than just a few months.
On January 16, 2024, this article was revised to eliminate mention of Ramsay MacDonald being kicked out of his local golf club due to rumors of his illegitimate birth in 1915. In reality, MacDonald was expelled from Moray golf club the next year for his stance against World War I.