by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal
On the 13th November 1916 the battle of the Somme finally ended. Since its launch at the start of July, the British army had suffered 420,000 casualties to advance a grand total of 5 miles.
This rate of attrition revealed that the army’s brilliant “more men forward” approach would indeed get us to Berlin, just as long as we didn’t mind taking another 48 million casualties on the way.
A quick head count of the British population (46 million) led people to suspect the wisdom of this military strategy, despite the resolute self-confidence of generals.
Even Arthur Henderson and the Labour party, however much they tended to go weak at the knees for a man in uniform, had doubts. But as minor members of the government, there wasn’t a whole lot they could do. The sight of Labour men questioning the war effort could easily be mistaken for a lack of patriotism and they were getting enough criticism on that front already thanks to the barbs of Ramsay Macdonald and his anti-war chums.
Instead, Labour opted to stay quiet and look hopefully to prime minster Asquith for some inspiring leadership.
What they got instead in November 1916 was Asquith asking the cabinet to jot down any ideas they might have about what to do for “Herbert’s big book of war-winning notions.” As leadership goes, it wasn’t exactly “Once more unto the breach dear friends.”
Things got worse when Tory grandee Lord Landsdowne, did jot his ideas down. They weren’t exactly what Asquith was hoping for.
“[the war’s] prolongation will spell ruin for the civilised world, and an infinite addition to the load of human suffering which already weighs upon it.”
He put this upbeat prognosis in a letter he offered to the Times, to perhaps publish for a bit of fun alongside the horoscopes and sudoku. The Times was appalled by what they saw as the anti-British letter and refused to publish it, as they believed any decent paper would.
The Telegraph happily ran it.
The letter triggered a row about loyalty, patriotism and how Dear Deirdre was getting a bit bleak these days. Throughout, Arthur Henderson and his Labour colleagues sat tight, keeping their heads down and staying out of trouble.
But for one man in particular, it was time for action. Lloyd George had become secretary of state for war on Lord Kitchener’s death in June. After some success dealing with the munitions crisis, he had the support of a number of Tories. He also had a bagful of confident answers to Britain’s war problem.
Asquith’s pallid response to Landsdowne’s disloyal letter was the final straw for Lloyd George. Plotting with the Tories, he proposed a novel idea to pursuing the war. This included implementing a new streamlined three-man, war cabinet with executive powers to make quick and binding decisions. Oh, and none of the three men on the committee was the prime minister.
On 25th November Asquith considered the plan and, unsurprisingly, told Lloyd George and his Tory mates to stuff it.
Arthur Henderson backed his prime minister. On 1st December 1916, he described Asquith as “the indispensable man.”
Unfortunately for his political career, Asquith seems to have believed it.
This explains his reaction when, to bring matters to a head, on the 4th December Lloyd George resigned.
“Two can play at that game,” thought Asquith, “Let’s see how they do without the indispensible man.” He resigned too.
Asquith was promptly dispensed with.
With the support of the Conservative leaders and, notably, not many Liberals, David Lloyd George became the new prime minister. He set about forming a new coalition government.
A shell shocked Asquith (not literally, even though those western front guns could be just about heard in central London) retreated with the majority of his Liberal cabinet colleagues and backbenchers into opposition.
Henderson, who along with the rest of Labour had been little more than a bystander to all this action, may have been inclined to follow Asquith out of the government. But for the sake of form he agreed a meeting between Lloyd George and the NEC and Parliamentary Labour Party on the 7th December.
The new PM was no fool and he knew he needed Labour support. A war effort without the working man onside was as doomed as a movie teenager having sex in a deserted old cabin.
So at the meeting, like a political wizard of Oz he started giving out presents to the Labour party. State control of coal mines, new ministries of Labour and Pensions to be placed under control of Labour ministers and a promise to never implement industrial conscription were just some of the blandishments on offer.
At this point Lloyd George made no mention of his thoughts on compulsory national service that he had been discussing with the Tories and included, among other things, industrial conscription. Well, you can’t expect a busy prime minister to remember everything can you?
But he did make a point of mentioning jobs. Nice important jobs for those lovely important people in the Labour party. Chief amongst these was a place for Henderson as minister without portfolio on the five man war cabinet.
Heads started to turn. Maybe the national interest did after all call for Labour to remain in the government?
In fairness to Labour’s leaders, it was an exceptional offer. More ministers, control of pensions which had long been a key Labour issue, and state control of coal that could demonstrate the potential benefits of government intervention in industry.
Plus, there was always the chance that Lloyd George might just have answer on how to win the war. He certainly talked a good game.
Obviously, Labour couldn’t just say yes – not without having a conference first, that would be crazy.
In January 1917, 700 delegates gathered in Manchester for what was billed as the movement’s most important conference, which was a bold claim, given the sheer number of conferences they’d been having lately.
The debate was robust. Arthur Henderson’s speech was disrupted by boos and catcalls while anti-war, anti-coalition MP, Phillip Snowden used his address to denounce the leadership as “dumb dogs.” All very fraternal.
But when it came to the vote, the party was largely united: Labour membership agreed with their leaders, seeing the value in keeping a hand on the levers of power. They approved entry into the Lloyd George cabinet by a whopping 1,849,000 to 307,000.
Sure, the coalition was, like Eric Pickles’ car, heavy with Conservatives, but this was wartime after all, so normal rules did not apply.
For a brief moment, hope welled up across the movement.
Pete and Atul are not historians