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Leader's speech, London 1924

J. Ramsay MacDonald (Labour)

Location: London


On 22 January 1924, Labour formed a Minority Government with the support of the Liberals, and MacDonald delivered this address in his new capacity of ‘Chairman and Leader.’ The first part of this speech is dominated by the aftermath of World War I and such issues as unemployment, the housing shortage, and reparations. With regard to international affairs, MacDonald expressed his support for the Trade Unions in Germany, where a deterioration in social conditions had resulted in low industrial standards, and recognised the new Government in Russia.

Last year, that optimistic prophet and calculator, Sir. Sidney Webb, told you from this chair that by 1926 the Labour Party would have a majority and be in office. We cheered, but, I am sure, as we cheered; we doubted. Had he told you that he had made a calculation or had had a vision that within seven months of his addressing you your representatives in Parliament would form the Government, and that the next time you would be called together the Chairman’s address would be delivered by a Prime Minister and the front chairs on the platform occupied by heads of Departments your comments, I am sure, would have been of the nature of ‘Poor old Webb,’ and in the evening you would has filled your glasses to drink to his memory. And yet that apparently insane miracle has happened. As a matter of fact it was one of the most likely of things to follow an election whenever it came.

Progress in Spite of Humbug

Mr. Baldwin precipitated the events by a miscalculation of the strength of his Party and of Protection, and dissolved Parliament. A hurried union of the divided Liberal force followed. Although we were the official Opposition at the time, throughout the critical part of the election the Press seemed to have conspired to say the very minimum about us. Our meetings were hardly reported. When the success of our campaign became disquieting and some notice had to be taken of us, you will remember that false reporting became the rule and forecasts of the most discouraging kind appeared from our constituencies. spite of such a campaign, with all its loud speakers, lobster tin cans, and the mobilisation of all the humbug that could be brought together to deceive the electors, we won 47 seats, and brought our representation from 144 to 191, truly a satisfactory achievement gained almost exclusively owing to the confidence we had earned whilst acting as the responsible Opposition. There is some comfort in the assurance thus given to us that there is a fixed limit to the influence of tricky conspiracies and resourceful demagogues.

The Conservative Party was well under half the House of Commons; we came next with a clear lead over the Liberals. No coalition was possible; the Labour Party, if it thought it desirable to take office, must; under the circumstances, very soon have had a chance of taking office.

When the opportunity came, so far as I was concerned I never had a moment's hesitation as to what we should do. To have shirked responsibility would have been cowardly, and this country does not like cowards; it would have put us into a bad Parliamentary fix. Altogether it would have shown the spirit of shivering fear rather than that of trustful gallantry and the latter is the spirit of the Labour Party.

The Need for Firm Foundations

But there was another call also in the situation. We honestly believed that the country was in bad hands and that its policy was not well directed. Could we manage to do something to mould national policy in new shapes? Some things we should like to do we saw quite plainly we could not do, and in these we had to face boldly a little disappointment amongst our own people and a violent attack from the other parties. But, my friends, let there be no doubt about this. To ask a party to undergo the discipline and the loyalty of confessing that it has not been able to create or command the power and the conditions necessary for success on this great issue and on that, to get our rank and file to understand that the bigger and more enduring the structure the greater is the preparation required for laying its foundations and for beginning it, that, my friends, is essential to the gathering together of a movement that will not be blown hither and thither by every fair or troublesome wind.

British Labour Gives the Lead   

Other things we thought we could do. We believed that the very fact of our existence would have an encouraging influence upon movements and political ideals similar to ours all over the world. We believed that we could make our country stand for something inspiring and attractive to the other nations. We had no hope of a new world created by magic. We had hope of the old world beginning to show a response to a new creative spirit. I think we have succeeded in that.

Some of our work had to be frankly patchwork. Problems like unemployment, an essential feature in the economic system and one that was aggravated by the political, financial and industrial disturbances of the war, and perhaps even more by the hot-headed follies of the peace, present an intricate system of adjustments that have to be dealt with in detail, involving labour, thought, experiment and change in supporting opinion.

Tory Neglect

For real constructive work practically no preparation had been made by our predecessors, whose assumption seemed to have been that, after a few years – I think they generally thought months – of relief work, conditions would become normal. Thus it was that relief work, which ought to be employed as a reserve by men striving to effect economic changes, was used by our opponents as a fund to be exhausted whilst they were whistling for the change of wind, and they did not get it. We came in when the reserve was getting pretty low down, and obviously whilst we turned to consider the best schemes for reconstruction we had to see to it that the relief work reserve was added to and used economically, whilst the Insurance Funds were better adapted to the needs of the unemployed. A cure for unemployment is not yet, but I can claim that no Government has done more than this, under such unprecedented conditions, to alleviate the hard lot of the victims of unemployment.

Housing Problem Solved

So with housing. Again we found a policy being pursued, the benefits of which directly affected only a stratum of our people either at the top of the wage-earning classes or even above that. To that we offer no opposition. None whatever. The professional man in a small way and the whole class of people with modestly good incomes have a right to be housed, but that alone leaves untouched the great mass of wage-earners whose incomes are low and intermittent. They had been left out of account because the problem of how to house them is by far and away the most difficult part of the housing shortage to solve. There again we have brought new ideas to our assistance, and not merely more money. A combination of capital and labour, an organisation of the whole trade for the service of the community, is the most promising industrial development that has taken place in recent years, under Government influence. I appeal to every section to make it a success. The machinery may have to be adjusted, adapted and re-adapted. Rome was not built in a day, as the homely proverb runs, but the possibilities and evolution of Mr. Wheatley’s expedient are unlimited.

The People’s Budget

In national finance we have been doing equally distinctive work. A Budget, which took 6d. off Income Tax and a 1d. off beer, was followed by one of ours which took 1¼d. off a pound of sugar and 3d. to 4d. off tea, and put £30,000,000 into the pockets of the consumers of the country, and whilst it did that it took other burdens off the backs of the middle classes. That is business, and the next Labour Budget will carry on this good work. That reflection is, perhaps, the real explanation of our present difficulties. A second Labour Budget would jeopardise the lives of the two other parties.

In a different field the Government has also been striving against very troublesome forces.

When we took office I determined to take upon my own back a double burden, not that I was unmindful of the weakness of human flesh or ignorant of the weight and the worry I was taking upon myself, but I was convinced that if our country was to pull its full weight the authority of the Premiership would have to be cast into the same scale as that of the Foreign Secretaryship. So I made my will and took up my burdens, leaving one of those burdens, and that a very considerable one, on the capable shoulders of Mr. Clynes. The circumstances which called for this were exceptional; national interests asked for it, and we responded. What was the situation?

Out of the Old Ruts

The world was steadily falling back into the old ruts of alliance and pact, and force and its organisation, without the nations being made fully aware of what was happening, were creeping back into the minds of statesmen as, the only bulwark upon which they could lean for security. We found waiting for us a draft Treaty of Mutual Guarantee, in some ways a great advance on what had none before, marked in several of its provisions by the hand of men who undoubtedly had laboured hard and sincerely for peace, but yet a great menace to the League of Nations, and essentially a war preparation document. By persistent propaganda and pressure the question of national security had become exclusively one of armed force. Young nations born in the war, old nations exhausted by the war, were beginning to look round and in the sky of each they saw a cloud of menace, set there mostly by their own hands.

The Psychology of Peace

Once international policy was determined by that psychology, then farewell to peace; then limitation of armaments is nothing but an easement of burdens of taxation, it is not a measure of peace. Peace is something different from a mere limitation in preparation for war. Peace is not an interlude of apparent quiet in a germinating war policy. Peace has its own natural policy and organisation, its own method of handling questions, its own mentality, its own standards of justice, of right and of wrong. We came in just at the moment when the future was being settled. In that future alone we shall be able to see with what measure of success our work has been attended. A good fight has been put up, but we must scrutinise with almost meticulous care every proposal that is being made lest the germs of the old-world minds of militarism cling to them, for these germs will destroy them if they are there. We are not to be rushed. This is a job which has to be done in an efficient and workmanlike way, and it has to be done bit by bit as the nations find increasing security in a ruling justice. Of this I am sure. The work of the Labour Dele­gation at Geneva last month may give pride to all the men and women who, longing for the security of peace, have joined the Labour Party in search of it. Sometimes when I see the facts from the inside, I am never quite sure whether I should be indignant with the chicanery or wild with the ignorance of people who imagine that the war has left us in the position we were in before it broke out, and that all we have got to do is to wait for it to drift back into the old condition.

The Problem of Reparations

In all this unmaking and remaking of Europe - and, indeed, of the whole world - there is involved a disquieting upsetting of old trade conditions. To this natural dislocation has been added the purely gratuitous one of Reparations imposed in such ways as to show sublime ignorance of, the most elementary facts of economics. This error has been woven so closely into the peace settlement that no Government can, by employing the simple method of a pair of scissors, return to a sound position, either for itself or for the rest of the world. We were fortunate in that the Experts’ Report gave us an opportunity of creating a machinery of control which I hope will in the end bring us back to wisdom. But meantime we must pass through some troubled waters before we get out of our present conditions, which we inherited from the war and the peacemakers.

Punishing Ourselves by Punishing Germany

Our method of punishing Germany has, as a matter of simple fact contributed to her efficiency as a competitor, whilst it has weakened ourselves; and we must face for some time the pressure of Germany as an exporter. Our predecessors wasted valuable years after the armistice either in pursuing policies that were short-sighted or in doing nothing to direct our industry and to save our people. I know as a matter of fact that they were warned again and again by, friends both at home and abroad of what was coming, but all that happened was that the Tariff Reformer enjoyed some facilities to tinker with legislation. Mr. Baldwin with commendable courage - whatever the result may have been to his party - did produce his nostrum. It was no good. He said it was his only cure, but he has now dropped it. For ourselves we have asked the guidance of some of the most repre­sentative business men and workers - the two sides equally efficiently represented - and we shall be vigilant in protecting our interests.

The Great Danger

The greatest danger to the industrial life of a nation is conservatism - the state of mind which has done far more damage to our agricultural interests than even the English climate - and with conservatism I put indolence, and the aim of Socialism is to get at the hearts of men, because we cannot survive unless we discover how to produce the willing worker and not merely the man who toils for reward. We have been too long thinking and speaking as though the spirit of artistic production was different in kind from the spirit required for manual production. Those of us who drank early from the refreshing springs which William Morris made to flow in a dull and deadening generation never held that heresy and never will. Men live by their generosities, by their loyalties; not by their interests, and their self-regarding impulses. And until somehow or other, by a change of heart and of condition, or both, we can put our industry on the footing of the willing gift of service, we shall have nothing but quarrels and the sacrifice of the common weal. It is the aim of getting our industry on that footing, that is the aim of the Socialist inspiration that gives us power in our Labour Movement.

I Am No Communist

For that reason I am no Communist. Pettifogging conspiracy, secret associations, backstair wire-pulling, mischievous stirring up of strife are neither in method nor in ideal the Socialism that has built up our Labour Party. They were detestable to our honoured founders like Hardie and Morris. They respected opinions with which they did not agree, but they kept them at arms’ length. When they had enemies they preferred to have them outside, rather than open the door to have them inside. Never was it more necessary for our Labour .Movement to raise as its own flag the banner of democracy, of freedom, of progress by reason and of condemnation of tyranny by power. The war has threatened to make the world safe for dictatorships, for conspiracy, for mischief, for force coercing both the bodies and the minds of men. Unless we are prepared to engage upon a crusade against that, we had better put up our shutters and declare that we have wearied in well-doing. Communism, as we know it has nothing practical in common with us. It is a product of Czarism and war mentality, and as such we have nothing in common with it.

The Only Way to Peace

The only practical policy that could be adopted under these circumstances in order to try and bring peace on the one hand and create natural conditions of work on the other was to take Europe just as we found it with all its engagements and arrangements, and begin from what we found to straighten out point after point, one after another. That has been our aim. For instance, had Labour been at Paris, Reparations would have been very different from that they are, but the general agreement of the nations - Germany included - now is to accept the Experts’ Report and see how it is to work, watching its effects almost from day to day and being prepared by the systems of arbitration and checks provided by the London Conference and the Report itself, to adjust expectations to facts. It is very sad that you have got to teach leading statesmen theoretical economics through the pockets of other people. I wish it were their own pockets that were bearing the financial consequences of their mistakes and blunders that you unfortunately are bearing. Against one thing I would warn the Movement. The German employers are using the fact that these Reparations have to be paid as a reason for reducing the wages, increasing the hours, and intensifying the slavery of the German workers. Whatever may be the ill effects of the Experts’ Report, that is certainly not one of them, and I hope that the Labour Movement in this and in other countries will not be induced to fall into the trap thus laid for them and lend their countenance to one of the ordinary excuses which capitalism is always seeking to increase its grip on the lives of the workers.

The Common Menace

The whole Trade Union Movement of the World is morally bound to support German Trade Unions struggling to recover lost ground, for so long as the deterioration in social conditions in Germany which followed the Micum Agreement and the occupation of the Ruhr in particular lasts, low industrial standards will be a common menace not only to the political tranquillity of Central Europe, but to the standards of life of every competing country. So far as I know, every International Labour Organisation has passed resolutions asking for a trial to be given to the Experts’ Report, and that has been the attitude of the Labour Government in this country.

Recognising Russia

In pursuance of the Government’s policy of pacification, we recognised the Government of Russia because it is the Government of Russia, for exactly the same reason that Christian Foreign Secretaries have recognised Mohammedans and people whose religious persuasions were of somewhat more doubtful quality even than that. If my colleagues and my friends are to be accused of being Bolsheviks because we recognised Russia, of what an infinity of crimes and misdemeanours is my predecessor in office - the pre-eminently respectable Marquis Curzon - to be accused for having come to an agreement with Turkey. Immediately after the recognition of the Russian Government we proceeded to negotiate Treaties which would regularise our relations. The results are before the country now, and, as there was ample evidence whilst the negotiations were still proceeding, there are interests in the country prepared in the most bitter way to sacrifice every national concern for themselves.

Lloyd George’s Short Memory

Sometimes I have time to read speeches. I am now getting into the habit of making an opportunity, whatever the difficulties may be, of reading the speeches of those who are opposed to the Russian Treaty, and the reason is this. When I went into Downing Street, I was unable to take any novels and light literature with me. I was half way through an old Scotch novel, and in the course of a week or two I had finished it ,and then I was stranded. I used to have to go to bed with no preparation for sleep beyond a dip into Hansard or some Blue Book or something of that kind, and the result was that the strain upon my moral character was getting excessive. Then the Russian Treaties came out. Then the speeches against them began to be delivered, and then I had an ample supply of the literature of which I had been so long deprived. I hope Mr. Lloyd George is going on. It would be a great grief to me if his speech of last night were the last of its kind.

The Need for Calm Reason

But seriously, at a time when calm reason should be enlisted, if the country is to recover its feet, we hate the spectacle of wild endeavours to overwhelm opinion in earthquakes and tidal waves of heaving ignorant emotionalism. The destructive Plutos of society - not us, but respectable people, bankers like Mr. Grenfell and so on - shake the earth by scare headings, false news, and wild ravings, and whoever wishes to help the State by reflective common sense and reasonable endeavour is encompassed in mad upheavals of fear and passion. The criticisms on the Treaties have gone through various stages of perfervid excitement and no suggestion yet of calm examination. That perhaps, will come when we get them into operation, and no more sobering exercise could be undertaken by you than to turn up files of newspapers for the last two months and see the fluctuating and contradictory arguments and statements that have gone to upset public opinion.

Mob Passion or the Public Will

They seek to turn popular government into the rule of mob passion rather than that of the public will. Men for a time overwhelmed in that have an uncanny habit of returning again in increased strength. Malignity and ignorance are the life, not the death, of what they attack. I refer to the stunt performances, not to certain criticisms made by the better type of journalists; but it is quite evident that so far as the other two parties are concerned, their one interest regarding the Russian Treaties is to prevent us from doing the work that the nation - and especially the working classes - requires. In so far as the Treaties come short of a really satisfactory settlement, that is due to the fact that the blunders and escapades of our predecessors still hang like poison clouds over all our endeavours. They may be wrecked, and then in years to come a troubled and out-manoeuvred nation will reflect with regret upon that, as it now reflects upon Denikin decorations, Koltchak calamities and Archangel asininities.

The Dignity of Government

For some days now the political situation has been causing us some little concern. When Mr. Asquith made that first speech of his after the Election, at the National Liberal Club, both my colleagues and myself took it as a plain intimation that if and when we took office we should have to eat out of his hand. Men who have any right to hold high State offices must, from their very nature, resent and repudiate such a relationship. That speech, unfor­tunately, settled for good the relations between us, and was the beginning of a policy which has been unwinding its unworthy course ever since then. Its latest phase demands a definite stand on our part. They have decided to have an election in three weeks, if they can force it. In preparation for it they are laying their traps, and when I saw in the newspapers this morning, and especially the Liberal Press, the shaking of heads about an election I really wondered did they think that all their readers were fools: There has been a trumped up stunt about the dropping of a certain Prosecution. What a chance for a worry! What a chance for a humiliation! What a chance for the wiles of a pettifogging lawyer!

The Country Wants Our Work

Everyone knows that the country wishes us to go on with our work and not disturb and distract it yet with an election. We are perfectly willing to do our best - perfectly willing. We have never sought a rupture. We are not seeking it now. But the nation has never respected a Government without spirit or self-respect. The nation does not ask us to go on with our work under conditions that would lower the dignity of future Governments and cheapen the whole conception of the Cabinet. Every watchful person knows that we are in the midst of work -which cannot be interrupted except to the grave disadvantage of the nation, but which at the same time cannot be carried on except by men whose authority, in the eyes of the foreigner and of our own people, is respected by Parliament. If the challenge came on large issues, very well no one could complain - the Government least of all. But every member of any Government who has held office since the Irish troubles just before the war knows that if our Government had done everything of which it has been accused regarding this prosecution it could seek justification in what its predecessors have done.

Satan Condemning Sin

Satan reproving sin! That is totally inadequate. Reproving! Why, it is Satan pretending to condemn sin, and to be the judge of the sin; after he himself has lived a sinful life through eternal years. If this were a mere disconnected blunder, a mere disconnected unfortunate incident, that, of course, would be no cause for anything more. But it is not that, and every man and woman who goes into the lobby for us or against us tomorrow knows perfectly well that it is not that. Every man and woman who refers to this question in the country may use words to deceive the electors, but if they tell the truth that is in themselves, they know it is not that. It is part of a scheme which in three weeks’ time is designed to force a humiliated Government to the country. That is the situation. There is a dishonesty, an obliqueness, in the whole business. The Conservatives have a straightforward motion of censure down. I hear they are going to run away from it and vote against it. They are so afraid of us. To kill 192 needs all the wits and wiles and elastic conscience of 423. One of the most enjoyable spectacles to be witnessed would be, if I am spared till tomorrow night, to see the Conservatives running away from their vote of censure.

Why an Election?

But we understand a vote of censure, however. That we understand. That is straight fighting, though the poor victimised nation may well want to know what really is the occasion for it. How many Tory Governments would have survived votes of censure properly passed upon them for wire-pulling the law in their own governmental and party interests? I am not at all sure, however, that this is not a vote of censure caused by the shadow of our success upon their partisan prospects. The amendment, which in its form and origin must be treated equally as a vote of censure, is conceived in the spirit of medieval crookedness and torture. The Government is not to be censured. It is only to be insulted. It is not to be executed; it is, in the words of one of the Liberal papers, to be put on the rack. It is to be suspended as you suspend one of your clerks when suspected of a misdemeanour. You tell him to go away till the end of the week until you have inquired into it. At the end of that time, without hearing what he has to say about himself, you decide whether he is going to be discharged. It is to be suspended, as it were whilst a packed committee, consisting of seven sworn opponents and three defenders - none of whom can come from our front bench, whilst the other front benches can choose their strongest partisans - are to have a roving commission of injudicial inquiry, and are to report in censure on the Government - for I know the document is already drawn up - and then this is going to be published, with a minority report signed by our three members, on the eve of the election, which then they will force on some other issue.

How the Plan Works

This is how the plan works. Tomorrow night seven men out of ten to be appointed will go into the lobby condemning us, and the next day they will be appointed as judges to consider our case impartially.

Our opponents are to pretend on the one hand that no election is required, and that we should go on with our work, at the same time as they rob us of the virtue of respect and lay us open to a charge, which it is their game to make at the end of this week, that when our usefulness as a Government has been destroyed we are mean-spirited enough to cling to office after we had received our death wound. If we go, they will pretend that we have caused the election; if we stay, they will accuse us of being limpets on £5,000 a year. They propose to drive us into the jails of their Inquisition, whilst the special pleaders and the executioners at their leisure prepare the biased indictment, the rack and the block. What a gorgeous game!

Liberal Party’s Grave Error

By this little manoeuvre we are to go down, and the fortunes of the Liberal Party are to be restored. They mistake their men. It. remains to be seen if the inheritance of principle and tradition, which still retain for the Liberal Party the allegiance of many worthy people, is to regard small tactics as Liberal principle and partisanship as Liberal, tradition. It also remains to be seen how the decently minded members of the Conservative Party will relish being made tools of in this kind of strategy by opponents whom they profess to hold in contempt. But before this Conference is over we shall know what the Fates have in store for us. Depend upon this - we shall surrender nothing of the rights of a Government. If there be an election, the responsibility is not ours. It will be caused by partisan abuse of Parliamentary votes, and the resentment against this chicanery, which will be in the heart of every Labour supporter in the country, will make our victories all the more numerous when the country is allowed to judge our work. Some fresh, clean fighting in the constituencies may clear the air and give us strength in the House of Commons which will make us independent of partisan interest.


I hope that in its deliberations the Conference will remember what is at stake, that it will guard with special vigilance the spirit and the principles of our Movement, and when it is time for it to dissolve, the thousand men and women here gathered together will return to their posts and sleep in their armour until the word is given forth that the Labour Party is to take the field, not to defend itself, but to attack its enemies.

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