by Edd Mustill
I just caught up with a couple of programmes on BBC iplayer looking at politics in 1910. This was a year which produced what would now be called a hung Parliament, a dream for politically commentators who love things to happen on convenient anniversaries. Two elections saw the Liberals and Conservatives win almost equal numbers of seats, and left the Liberals reliant on Irish Nationalist and Labour votes to rule.
One of the BBC shows, Peers versus People, was done in the style of a mock election night broadcast and gave an overview of the constitutional crisis of that year. The Liberals were trying to break the power of the House of Lords, where the Tories, surprisingly enough, had an inbuilt majority. Leading Liberal David Lloyd George apparently remarked that “a fully equipped Duke costs as much to keep up as two Dreadnoughts (battleships).” They were threatening to pack the Lords with Liberal peers to get these reforms through, something that the new king, George V, secretly agreed to in between the two elections.
The other programme was Sunder Katwala’s lecture “Political lessons from 1910.” Katwala, general secretary of the Fabian Society, focuses on these two elections, which resulted in Liberal-led governments and narrow defeat for the Conservatives. Katwala, in true Fabian spirit, is talking about lessons that can be learned by the political elite, rather than the working class. For him, the much-vaunted “progressive alliance” of Labour and Liberals was the only way to stop the Tories. One hundred years later, Clegg’s subservience to a Tory government should have killed any idea that there is such a natural alliance, but many in the Labour Party, not restricted to Fabians, still seem to cling to it.
These programmes focus exclusively on high politics and Westminster machinations, but the year 1910 also saw the beginnings of the period of labour militancy known as the Great Unrest, from which this blog takes its name. By the Autumn of the year the South Wales miners’ strike which is widely seen as the opening chapter of the unrest was under way, and the famous Tonypandy Riot occurred just a month before the December election.
The links between the constitutional crisis and rising industrial militancy, if there were any, have not really been examined. Sometimes Marxist and other left-wing history ignores high politics. The unrest is explained in terms of declining real wages in the first decade of the century, and the spread of syndicalist ideas. Both these are objectively true, but it is impossible to believe that Lloyd George’s anti-Lords campaign did not have an effect on workers’ consciousness.
Perhaps the political deadlock seemed to show that the Labour Party would only ever be a junior partner to the Liberals, and so contributed to the growth of what might now be called anti-politics among working men and women, most of whom still could not even vote anyway. Even the Independent Labour Party had come close enough to disaffiliation from the Labour Party for Ramsay MacDonald and Kier Hardie to resign from the national council in protest in 1909.
By 1911, voices within the ILP were calling for more socialist policies, put forward by some of the left-wing leaders in what became known as the Green Manifesto. Some, like independent MP Victor Grayson, were calling for a new explicitly socialist party to be founded. The new British Socialist Party was a bit of a damp squib, but that’s a story for another post. A left alternative to Labour was, of course, finally brought about by the establishment of a Communist Party in 1920. For those interested, the Weekly Worker is currently running a series on this.
Katwala did make a couple of good points. Firstly, that the Liberal campaign against the peers arguably came closer to “class warfare” than anything the Parliamentary Labour Party managed since. Because of the class hatred prevalent at the time, it was possible for Lloyd George to use the language he did, but if it represented any class struggle it was that of the bourgeoisie against the aristocracy. Secondly, that next year will see the centenary of the Parliament Act which curtailed the Lords’ powers, but that the question of reform is not settled. It makes you hope we won’t have to wait another century to be rid of the anachronism of an unelected upper house.