Britain’s first Labour cabinet, 1924. Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald is seated, fourth from the right

Why Labour has the best history books

Labour continues to blunder down that long blind Blairite alleyway, unable to turn back or find an exit


This article is taken from the April 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Age of Hope: Labour, 1945, and the Birth of Modern Britain, Richard Toye (Bloomsbury, £25)

Someone I knew back in the day once told me that when he left home he joined all three political parties: Labour because they had the best drugs, the Tories because they had the best women, and the Lib Dems for a night off. His point being, I guess, that the movements still had their differences, even in the “I agree with Nick” period.

Painful as it is for a Tory historian to admit, obviously, Labour has the best history books — if not the best history, or necessarily any history at all. Part of the reason is that most historians are on the left anyway, so most histories of the right are written with such masticating hostility that you can find teeth-marks on the spine. Hatred doesn’t necessarily make for bad history: Robert Caro claims not to like Lyndon Johnson. Mind you, 50 years of chasing Johnson’s shade from the Texan hill country to south Vietnam has to invite some kind of psychoanalysis.

With Age of Hope, Richard Toye has written an exceptionally fluent history of the Attlee government — and a pleasingly historical history at that. The early careers of the “Big Five” are woven through the first half of the 20th century, threads split over war and pacifism and orthodoxy and sophistry and the other staples of political division, re-wound by strikes and division lobbies and more wars and the other staples of political convenience.

Ramsay MacDonald

I might have preferred a bit more philosophical grist, but to criticise a writer for not writing the book the critic would have written is not really criticism at all — although it is common practice in what now passes for the academy. Alongside his savvy understanding of the making of a political movement, and all the anticipated laws and sausages, Toye has a real eye for the past-as-other-country, and many of those who floated in on the socialist tide would definitely be non-doms in the present. On one Labour MP and sometime junior minister, he writes:

George Rogers liked to consult dead politicians via his wife’s mediumship, and claimed they always told him accurately what his majority at each election would be. “When I first entered Parliament in 1945 I was told I would be MP for North Kensington for 25 years and then the seat would be abolished.” He did serve until 1970 and the constituency ceased to exist four years later.

Of course, British Labourism’s dirty secret is that the party has always had far less to do with communism than communing with the dead: even if it has generally dissented from the big-C Communist practice of embalming its leaders — a process which, in any event, would be rather redundant for recent incumbents. (There’s a joke to be made about the “EdStone” somewhere around here, but I’ll leave it for now.)

One of several problems with necrophilia in politics — as the culture warriors so helpfully remind us every hour of every day — is that some of the shades were pretty shady. Some people in the past did not do what some people in the present would have done, if only they had been present in the past themselves. The quiet problem with most Labour historiography is that most of the Labour party’s great leaders — Jimmy Callaghan, Hugh Gaitskell and Clement Attlee — would now be on the hard right.

The problem is the treason of the man who brought Labour to power, Ramsay MacDonald, who went one step further than his conservative successors and wound up actually leading a Conservative government. For this reason above all, the present centenary of his first ministry has been largely ignored.

The Wild Men: The Remarkable Story of Britain’s First Labour Government, David Torrance (Bloomsbury, £20)

David Torrance is one of my favourite historians, an exceptional biographer of Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, and an outstanding historian of unionism, who has now turned his hand to the first Labour government of 1924. The great strength of the work lies in the biographical studies of “The Wild Men” themselves, especially the chapters devoted to the Prime Minister — the “mass of contradictions” who normalised the idea of socio-culturally conservative, economically socialist politics as a legitimate creed of government here.

A special mention is owed to an endearing vignette of Jimmy Thomas, Colonial Secretary, who replaced his predecessor’s habit of summoning his secretary with a bell, with the new practice of shouting “come ’ere you bugger” down the corridor: not just an early blow against the creep of the managerial state, but also a reminder of a better time when there was a healthy element of genuine cultural friction within the British political elite. That said, the Earl of Birkenhead reckoned Thomas was “no more a socialist than … Mr Winston Churchill”.

All of which brings us back to The Problem of Labour and its History. The Labour Party doesn’t have a sense of history, it has “progress”. It must have contracted this disease during its youthful dalliances with the Liberals, who acquired it from a one-night stand with the Whigs at Willis’ Rooms on the heady evening of 6 June 1859. By “progress”, I don’t mean the idea of making things better, of course.

Still less do I mean the metahistorical theories of socio-cultural or economic change or return that define the timescapes of communism and fascism. By progress, I mean vague appeals to “the way the world is going” as the justification of all thought and action: the party’s manic enthusiasm for anything with its own trend-line — be it mass immigration, European integration, whatever.

Unable to look in any depth at the origins of these trend lines (in certain knowledge of finding something that doesn’t seem right “in the 21st century”), it is swept along by the torrent of events, even whilst it keeps up the façade of mastering historical change. Thus Labour continues to blunder down that long blind Blairite alleyway, unable to turn back or find an exit, whether led by an embalmed barrister from Holborn or an obscure yodeller from Islington.

From this fate, Tories are safe: that strange British crypto-conservatism, that somehow lives in history but outside time. Its last prophet, no less weirdly, was the greatest modernist poet:

… what there is to conquer
by strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate — but there is no competition —
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

Sometimes (now) this lack of easy anchorage produces breathtaking weakness. But it also makes the Tory spirit difficult to kill — and in defeat, the intellectual arsenal for its renewal is immeasurably greater.

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