Labour Leaders and the Monarchy: A History (Part One)
Scott Cresswell begins a new series looking at the relationship between Labour leaders and the monarchy
“From his childhood onward this boy will be surrounded by sycophants and flatterers by the score and will be taught to believe himself as of a superior creation. A line will be drawn between him and the people whom he is to be called upon some day to reign over. In due course, following the precedent which has already been set, he will be sent on a tour round the world, and probably rumours of a morganatic alliance will follow and the end of it all will be that the country will be called upon to pay the bill.“
These were the words that would damn James Keir Hardie – the founder of the Labour Party – to his electoral defeat in the 1895 general election. While his predictions for “this boy” – who was coronated King Edward VIII in 1936 – proved to be correct, this speech sent the Victorian Commons into an uproar.
Keir Hardie entered the Commons in 1892 as the first explicitly socialist Member of Parliament, representing the Independent Labour Party. While it would be some decades before the Labour movement would unite behind one sole party, one contentious issue for the left has always been the monarchy.
The British Labour Party has always been different from socialist movements in Europe that British socialists would describe as communist or authoritarian.
Whether it be in Russia or Spain, this form of politics was far more extreme than anything that was ever going to occur in the United Kingdom. Famously, the Russian Revolution in 1917 saw an undemocratic socialist uprising against the tyranny of the Russian Empire and the bloody execution of Russia’s last Emperor, Nicholas II.
Labour – with its deep-rooted Christian morals and reformist attitude – did not see the Monarchy as an enemy. That social conservatism continues in the Labour Party today in various forms, but most notably and strongly with the monarchy. It’s such a symbol of patriotism that if Labour chose not to support it, then it would be electoral suicide.
Throughout history, the relationship between the Sovereign and Prime Minister has always been fascinating. Some Prime Ministers are loved, others are loathed. Why is it that relationships between Labour Prime Ministers and the monarchy are more positive than some would think? After Hardie’s speech in 1894, the style of Labour leaders changed.
Ramsay MacDonald and King George V
“The immediate future of my people is in your hands, gentlemen”. These were the words spoken by King George V in January 1924 to Ramsay McDonald, appointed Prime Minister in the aftermath of an inclusive general election the previous month.
As people, the King and Labour’s first Prime Minister were very different. George V – a man who had reigned over the British empire since 1910 – was a direct descendant of William the Conqueror, a royal dynasty going back centuries. Meanwhile, Ramsay MacDonald was the illegitimate son of a Scottish farmer, and Britain’s first truly working-class Prime Minister.
Discovering socialism through Scottish Christianism and unemployment, MacDonald became an almost-doomed figure after taking a pacifist position in the First World War. But MacDonald recovered and assumed the Labour leadership in November 1922.
MacDonald’s rise to the Premiership must have worried some royals and perhaps the King himself. After all, Labour was a party with a divided past, with various factions still demanding the revolutionary change dreamed of in the Soviet Union.
However, the King’s appointment of the Labour government in January 1924 was a smart move. MacDonald and his ministers were given the chance to prove that they could govern without any major disasters occurring. The first Labour government may have only lasted ten months, but it proved that Labour would not deliver an extreme-left government.
Why did the King do this? Whatever George V’s party-political views were, he understood the need for stability. As the Conservatives were unable to successfully form a stable government after the 1923 election, Labour as the second largest party was invited to form the government. The King could have called for the dissolution of parliament and put Britain through another general election, which would have made the situation worse.
Allowing Labour to prove they could govern may have led, in the short term, to a Tory landslide in November 1924, but it built Labour up as a force capable of governing while the once-powerful Liberal Party continued to fade into near-oblivion.
When MacDonald returned to power in 1929, the Wall Street Crash began the economically turbulent and depressing 1930s, and although the Prime Minister attempted to rescue the economy, he was controlling the uncontrollable.
In August 1931, MacDonald realised he could do no more and he handed in his resignation to the King. But George V had other plans. He asked the Prime Minister – who was prepared to fall onto his own sword – to form a National Government. As author Robert Waller wrote:
“The intervention of King George V may well have been critical. On the morning of 24 August he implored MacDonald to stay on for the benefit of the country in the grave economic emergency. McDonald was always strongly influenced by the conception of ‘duty’.”
Waller’s reference to MacDonald’s patriotism is key to underlining the importance of his relationship with the King. Whatever one may think of MacDonald’s controversial decision to form an administration with the Conservatives and Liberals, he didn’t perform such a hard task for his own sake. Like the King, MacDonald believed in duty and country.
MacDonald resigned as Prime Minister for the final time in June 1935, just seven months before the King would die. Out of all the relationships between Number 10 and Buckingham Palace, I cannot think of many others that are as crucial as the one enjoyed by MacDonald and George V. The King’s concerns over Labour’s republican sect were distinguished by a patriot and invaluable Labour leader who was willing to take power in the national interest.
Scott Cresswell is a commentator and writer of political history and current affairs. Currently a student at Middlesex University. Uses Twitter (@ScottCresswell8) whenever he remembers it exists. His website is https://scottpcresswell.co.uk
You can follow his new series on Labour and the Monarchy each week on this site.