The article tests the claim that certain Labour MPs and ministers in the 1920s succumbed to an ‘aristocratic embrace’. It begins with a short account of debates in the early Labour Party over social mixing, which culminated in the 1924 dispute over the wearing of Court Dress by some Labour ministers. The extent of ‘embrace’ is assessed through the examination of who wore Court Dress (and why), who was offered and accepted honours, and of patterns of residence, income and wealth, and participation in London Society, measured by club memberships and appearances in the Court & Social columns of The Times. The article concludes by examining the usefulness of the idea of ‘aristocratic embrace’ in explaining the defection of J.R. MacDonald and others from the Labour Party in 1931.
What is the aristocratic embrace?
Aristocratic embrace needs to be carefully distinguished from other explanations of Labour’s political failures. Its essence is the separation of leaders from the movement they lead, through the privileges they enjoy as leaders and the efforts of the higher classes to suborn them. It therefore differs from explanations based on claims about the restricted scope of working-class ambitions, in which leaders merely express the limited demands of their followers. It also differs from theories of ‘labour aristocracy’, in which the class interest of better-paid, more securely-employed workers leads them to collaborate with the employing classes; and embourgeoisement, in which better pay leads to the adoption of middle-class habits and modes of living. Aristocratic embrace is rather a phenomenon of representative politics, in which the representatives of labour, through the privileges they gain as representatives, adopt the attitudes and style of living of higher social classes.
The notion of the aristocratic embrace is important to several conceptualisations of the history of the Labour Party. It is now widely accepted that the rise of the Labour Party was not, or not simply, a matter of articulating a pre-existing working-class consciousness, but of constructing a popular politics in which Labour’s capacity to speak for the people was contested. One important difficulty in this project was the tension between the collective social transfomation that was the formal objective of the party, and the remarkable individual intra-generational mobility of much of its leadership.
Secondly, these new understandings of the motors of Labour’s growth have focused attention on the 1920s, and in particular on the multiple groups and identities within the party, and the varied political strategies it employed to build its support. Examination of the social behaviour of the party leaders, and the rules and norms that governed it, provides a useful means of testing the extent and effects of these differences of identity.
Finally, work on social elites in twentieth century Britain has been impressed by their capacity to deflect and absorb challenges from below, whether through the political manoeuvres of party leaders studied by Cowlingites, the conspicuous displays of public service discussed by historians of monarchy or of charity. Consideration of the aristocratic embrace, as another mechanism of deflection and absorption, allows us to examine in more detail how these efforts were received by those they were designed to impress.
1. COURT DRESS
When Labour became the official Opposition in 1922, the question arose as to whether it would accept royal invitations. These were problematic because they were not quite state occasions (which Labour had few problems attending) nor simply Society events (which could easily have been ignored). The issue split the party three ways: between ‘incorruptibles’ – the Clydeside MPs were prominent – who thought such invitations should be refused; those who wished to accept them on the grounds that following traditional practice was a sign that Labour was to be accepted on the same terms as the other parties; and Labour’s upper- and upper-middle-class supporters, who feared that of Labour’s working-class leaders got close to Society they might be corrupted.
The question of ‘court dress’ – the uniform that Labour’s ministers were expected to wear on formal occasions, and which is illustrated to the left – expressed these divisions. Court dress, at least as worn by Cabinet Ministers, was known to the Court as ‘civil uniform’, and understood simply as such, it could be worn as a sign that Labour had attained a status indistinguishable from that of the other parties. Understood as aristocratic garb, however, it suggested that its wearers had lost their own identities as representatives of the working-class. The controversy over court dress arose largely because clothing (with accent) was one of the two most powerful indicators of social class in 1920s Britain, and hence of whether such a transformation had occurred. Ramsay MacDonald, with the authority of an incoming Prime Minister, made a crucial and unnecessary concession in agreeing to wear court dress himself, largely out of gratitude to the King, whom he believed had shown fairness in resisting pressure to keep Labour out of office. The rest of the Cabinet did their best to get this decision reversed, and managed to force MacDonald and the King to concede that only those Ministers who wished to wear it need do so, and that a less elaborate version of the costume might be worn as an alternative.
Court dress might just be excused on the grounds that it was, as John Burns had put it in 1906, ‘the tools of the trade’, no more and no less than was necessary for government duties. But there was a much more powerful storm of protest when some of the Cabinet and their wives were seen to be entering Society. To measure the extent to which this was done, and by whom, I used the Court & Social columns of The Times, January 1918 – August 1931, which can be analysed easily now The Times has been digitised. The tables below give the frequency of appearances, and the percentage in the periods of government indicate the proportion of events which were ‘non-official’, i.e. not part of ministerial duties.
|Snowden (Ethel)||14 (71%)|
|Snowden (Philip)||8 (75%)|
|Snowden (Ethel)||114 (59%)|
|Snowden (Philip)||37 (57%)|
Before 1924, hardly any Labour MPs were well known in Society and even those who were known at all had only a small presence. Of the members of MacDonald’s first Cabinet, none of the Labour MPs had been mentioned more than seven times in the previous six years, compared thirty or more mentions each for the non-Labour ministers Haldane, Parmoor and Chelmsford. These three and others who had joined Labour from Liberal or Conservative backgrounds, also participated more frequently than those who had not. Moreover, when the working-class Labour Ministers appeared at all, it was almost always at fundraising events concerned with charitable causes, such as industrial welfare, hospitals for the poor, or schemes for working-class youth. Since they attended as representatives of the beneficiaries, their status on these occasions clearly differed from that enjoyed by other guests.
Once Labour entered Government, however, Labour’s senior Ministers appeared more frequently, and not just at official events. The more junior Labour ministers, with the exception of recent recruits from other parties, were barely visible at all. These patterns diverged somewhat after the Government fell. From January 1925 to May 1929, most of the Labour ministers disappeared from the Society pages. Ex-Conservatives such as Parmoor, and new recruits from other parties, such as Mosley, Sankey and Thomson all appeared much more frequently. However, they were joined by MacDonald, the Thomases and, above all, Ethel Snowden, who is recorded at 49 events in the period between the two Labour Governments, and 114 events, 67 of them non-official, during the period of the second Labour Government. The strictly non-official events were dominated by the Snowdens, MacDonald and Thomas, the lawyers Sankey and Jowitt, and Parmoor, Thomson and Mosley. As in 1924, other ministers from working-class backgrounds were almost entirely absent at Society’s private events, and seem to be less frequent attenders even at the official Government events too.
This indicates a hierarchy of sociability, in which the senior positions were taken by the recruits Labour had made from other parties, joined only by the Snowdens, MacDonalds and Thomases.
This impression is strengthened if attention is paid to the most prestigious Society events. This was measured by examination of the visitors’ books of the six principal Society hostesses of the 1920s: Lady Londonderry, Lady Cunard, Mrs Greville, Lady Astor, Lady Granard and Lady Colefax. Labour’s working-class ministers met Society at public and official occasions – an extension of the necessary and permitted interactions of the Westminster lobbies – but not at home. They rarely, if ever, attended the familial rituals of Society, such as the Coming Out Ball or the Society Wedding, or the most sought-after events of the London Season. These remained closed affairs, except to Labour’s recruits. Society weddings in the 1920s, for example, were attended very frequently by Mosley, Chelmsford, Jowitt and Benn, and a little less so by Buxton, Sankey and Ponsonby. Their own children and other relatives also married in Society style, sometimes spectacularly so. Trevelyan’s and Noel Buxton’s eldest sons married Colonels’ daughters, Ponsonby’s son the daughter of a Viscount and Parmoor’s eldest son the Duchess of Westminster. To these occasions, the recruits invited each other – they were already somewhat interrelated as families – but not their other Labour colleagues. And, of course, there was no instance of inter-marriage between the families of Labour’s working-class leaders and the upper classes. Once again, MacDonald, Thomas and Ethel (though rarely Philip) Snowden mark partial exceptions to this pattern, appearing as occasional guests. One of Thomas’ daughters, for example, married in April 1927 amid the full Society treatment, with Baldwin and Lloyd George signing the register.
The King, more anxious than anyone that social relations with the Labour Party went well, gave audiences to all his new Ministers, but it was more often the middle- and upper-class intermediaries, such as Haldane and Parmoor, who were invited to dine. The working-class ministers and their families were invited only to the controlled setting of the garden party, which well symbolized the limits within which they were desirable guests. The evidence of their diaries suggests that they too found such occasions socially stressful. Meetings with royalty, which were largely a matter of duty on both sides, never provided an entrée into Society, which was viewed with suspicion or indifference. The cultural resistance to embrace was considerable.
Other measures of upward mobility suggest further impediments to the operation of an aristocratic embrace. Although becoming an MP meant higher status in itself, large gains in personal wealth were rare. The financial rewards of political office were held down by parliamentary self-restraint and labour movement suspicion.
MP pay did not keep up with the general advance in wages. A Labour MP (non-miner) on the eve of the First World War earned about four times as much as a male skilled worker and fell into the top 1% of paid employees, alongside the higher professions. By 1931, a Labour MP’s parliamentary salary amounted to only 60% of what would have been needed to keep pace with inflation over that period, and 45% of what would have been needed to match rises in average wages. This placed it at a level equivalent to the earnings of the clergy and qualified male teachers, and about twice those of male skilled workers. The MP also had to maintain two homes, pay their own travel and office expenses and secretarial support, and meet demands from parties and related associations for financial support, especially at election time. Ministers were better paid, but the expenses of office, which reflected the assumption that a government minister would have a large independent income, made significant inroads into them. Many MPs took on extra work, especially journalism, to supplement their pay; others, sometimes unwisely, took loans or gifts from rich donors; and trade union allowances were sometimes still paid, if at levels which reflected the strong feeling that Labour MPs should set an example in an era of high unemployment and economic depression, and cultural hostility to anything that might permit high living. No Labour MP relying solely or largely on his or her parliamentary salary could live on a grand scale.
Probate records can be used to measure wealth accumulated over the lifetime. Bill Rubinstein’s judgment, based on analysis of the 1922 Parliament, that the Parliamentary Labour Party was ‘overwhelmingly a party of the poor’ is confirmed by my own analysis of the probate records of Labour MPs over a longer period.
The table below compares the median estate at probate (at 1913 prices) left by Labour MPs with the data obtained by Rubinstein and Harold Perkin for a series of elite groups, for pre-war and post-war cohorts.
|Top civil servants||8,400||5,200|
|University vice-chancellors (non Oxbridge)||10,700||8,000|
|Presidents of professions||22,300||15,200|
|Liberal Cabinet Ministers||53,700||6,200|
|Conservative Cabinet Ministers||59,500||44,000|
|Big company chairmen||118,300||79,800|
|SOURCE: HAROLD PERKIN AND W.D. RUBINSTEIN.|
As Perkin suggests, the occupants of elite roles in the interwar years were not especially wealthy, unless the elite was one already defined by wealth (e.g. landowners, company chairmen etc). But even in such company, the Labour MPs were on average badly off. However, this was in the setting of a society still characterized by gross inequalities of wealth; so that, in other company, Labour MPs were decidedly well off. In the interwar years only about 10% of adults left estates in excess of £1,000, while more than 60% of Labour MPs did so. Personal upward mobility is therefore very evident. Few of the Labour MPs seem to have inherited much, if anything. Yet they generally left amounts well in excess of the popular average. It is harder to tell how this position changed in the longer term, but such evidence as is available now therefore supports the idea that Labour MPs did not grow relatively more wealthy, but were brought closer to the elites by the declining wealth of those above them and the recruitment of richer people to the party; and closer to the people by more rapid rises in affluence below.
Within the Labour Party, the distribution of estates was distinctly unequal, especially at the lower levels. Ranking the estates of the Labour ministers (at 1913 prices) produces a familiar order at the top. Whatever their earnings from journalism, Labour ministers from lower class backgrounds never caught up with successful lawyers such as Amulree (2), Haldane (3), Sankey (4) or Jowitt (5), or with the recruits to the party who had inherited substantial property such as Buxton (1), Wedgwood (6), Parmoor (7), or Trevelyan (8). MacDonald (12) came closest to doing so, partly through an advantageous marriage which had brought him a trust fund worth around £25,000 (not far from £2M today), but neither Thomas (22) nor Snowden (27) amassed significant personal wealth. The lower half of the Labour MPs held only a tiny fraction of the wealth: the bottom 50% held less than 10%.
These differentials of wealth were expressed in residential patterns. Here I have used the residential addresses provided to biographical dictionaries such as Who’s Who. Labour leaders in the 1920s formed probably the most geographically dispersed group of any twentieth century Government. The recruits from other parties stayed where they were, which usually meant socially exclusive districts such as Westminster (Trevelyan), Belgravia (Chelmsford), St James’s (Haldane), Chelsea (Benn, Ponsonby), Knightsbridge (Buxton, Parmoor), Mayfair (Jowitt) or in mansion flats near Parliament (Amulree, Mosley). They invariably employed residential domestic servants. The working-class members generally recorded only their non-London constituency residences, and lived in cheap hotels, or shared service flats in Victoria or Battersea without the servants and facilities needed for entertaining on a significant scale. Geographic mobility was, again, confined to MacDonald, who moved in 1925 from Belsize Park to a large house in Hampstead; Thomas, who in 1920 acquired a property in Dulwich, and the Snowdens, who moved to West Sussex in 1923, purchasing a £3,500 ‘slap-up mansion’, as Henderson described it. But in each case, this was dependent upon additional funds: in MacDonald’s case a donation from Henry Markwald, in Thomas’s with a trade union whip-round for his leadership in the previous year’s railway strike, and in the Snowdens from the unusual case of a husband and wife, both of whom made significant sums from journalism and lecturing tours.
The honours list is also a useful source of evidence. Labour MPs accepted honours in large numbers. Of the 532 who sat in the House of Commons before the election of 1945, 158 (around 30%) were honoured at some point in their lives. Although there was a tendency for later cohorts to be rewarded with higher honours than earlier ones, no generation or group lay altogether beyond the pale of the honours system. Indeed, the chances of a Labour MP from a working-class background being honoured in some way were hardly lower than those of a colleague from a middle-class background.
Even so, the table below, which shows these chances broken down into three grades of honour for different groups in the party, suggests there were certain important differences. The lower social classes generally received honours of a lesser grade and at a greater age. The average age of those knighted and given peerages from the core working class group – the skilled workers – was 68.2, some ten years older than the average for the highest occupational class (58.3). This suggests that Labour leaders were safer to honour, or felt able to accept honours, once their connections to working-class politics were dormant. Another indication is that party disloyalty was especially well rewarded – recruits from other parties were much likelier to be honoured, to be honoured at an earlier age, and to be given the higher honours; as, to a lesser degree, were those who defected from the party.
|LESSER HONOURS||KNIGHTHOOD||PEERAGE||AVERAGE AGE ON FIRST RECEIPT OF SUCH HONOUR|
|ALL LABOUR MPS (532)||12.8||11.3||10.7||63.5|
|PARTY BACKGROUND||Always Labour (466)||13.1||8.8||8.8||65.9|
|BIRTH COHORT||Before 1870 (150)||14.0||13.3||3.3||64.0|
|1870 - 1879 (151)||17.2||6.6||7.9||66.4|
|1880 - 1889 (148)||9.5||15.5||18.2||61.6|
|1890 - 1914 (82)||8.5||8.5||15.9||63.4|
(first significant adult occupation)
|III i (50)||8.0||20.0||16.0||63.8|
|III ii (267)||15.0||5.2||4.1||68.2|
|IV and V (43)||20.9||14.0||4.7||66.6|
There were difficulties in using the honours system to incorporate new groups. Existing holders’ concern for status had to be considered, as did the reluctance of traditional clients – the older parties and the state bureaucracies – to make room for newcomers, as well as conceptions of public service which before the Second World War undervalued the contribution of trade unions. On the side of the recipients, moreover, there were financial costs involved in accepting higher honours which the system was slow to address, and party resistance to the social transformation which ennoblement seemed to involve. Here again, there was cultural resistance to the incorporation of Labour.
It was also very rare for Labour MPs to join West End Clubs. Of around 1700 entries in the Labour Who’s Who of 1927, no more than 30 record West End Club memberships, and in nearly every case they were former Liberal MPs, activists or peers.
It seems, therefore, that while MacDonald’s party was distinctly socially stratified at the top, its norms included a definite unwillingness to succumb to an aristocratic embrace – which, in any case, was not being widely offered. They also included a refusal to take direction on matters of lifestyle and behaviour from upper- and middle-class members of the party. The failure of Beatrice Webb’s Parliamentary Labour Club, of her Half-Circle Club for Labour wives, and of Easton Lodge, the Countess of Warwick’s attempt to provide a country house for the Labour Party, are all good evidence of the difficulties of creating a common party culture.
The question of why it was so hard to build a single party life in Britain is a large and complex one, but two of the principal difficulties are apparent in this series of failures. The first is a certain provincialism and under-confidence in British socialism, which never managed to develop at a national level the democratic instincts which were so visible locally in much of branch life, but tended to inhabit, with some resentment, traditional forms. The second was the ambiguity of the behaviour of middle-class recruits to Labour, few of whom felt much sympathy with the Webbs’ efforts, and none of whom abandoned the social world in which they had grown up.
What role did the aristocratic embrace in the behaviour of the three principal defectors from the Labour Party in 1931? In some respects, their behaviour is not significantly different from that of their colleagues. Court dress, for example, was worn during both periods of Labour Government, by those who stayed with Labour, such as Henderson and Clynes, even if MacDonald was its instigator. But while other Labour ministers moved in Society circles, only the three defectors could be said to have entered Society in the 1920s.
This, we can hypothesize, may have mattered in three ways: first, that association with Society disposed the defectors to take a different view of the main issue that finally divided the Cabinet – that is, the case for a 10% cut in the standard rate of unemployment benefit; secondly, that it made them more willing to contemplate governing with the leaders of the opposition parties; and thirdly, that it made them more amenable than their colleagues to the influence of the King who was a powerful force in – perhaps even the ‘instigator’ of – the formation of the 1931 National Governments.
The first of these claims can only be made subject to very heavy qualifications. Very little of the motivations of the defectors is traceable to their social activities. The second claim is a little more sustainable – political alignments are not unaffected by social ones – but there is little evidence that it mattered much. One test case is MacDonald’s close relationship with Lady Londonderry. However, in the several hundred surviving letters, there are seemingly endless pages of tired grumbling and Highland whimsy, but almost no politics at all. Attempts at influence were all the other way, as MacDonald tried to persuade Lady Londonderry, probably with little seriousness, to abandon her Conservative leanings. The third claim is also only tenable with heavy qualifications. The King’s name and authority carried weight with the three defectors. But they had resisted royal pressure on other occasions and it seems unlikely that his preferences carried decisive weight on this occasion. The larger effect was that the ‘aristocratic embrace’ became a way of denouncing the defectors’ betrayal. The importance of the aristocratic embrace is not so much that it made a significant difference to the choices MacDonald, Snowden and Thomas made, than that it helped to make their return to the party impossible.
There were two distinct obstacles to an aristocratic embrace in the 1920s. The first and more important of these was the degree of resistance to be found in the labour movement. That there was a certain level of working-class deference towards, and even interest in, the activities of the upper ten thousand seems hard to deny. But this was partly what made working-class culture distinct from that of the labour movement, which, was anxious for incorporation (though not assimilation) on equal terms, not much interested in Society, and definitely hostile to the socially ambitious, especially among its own members. This supported forms of behaviour which could easily be mistaken for deference, especially where the forms were themselves ambiguous in their class character.
Participation in traditional parliamentary rituals, for example, was almost always acceptable because Parliament was regarded as a class-neutral arena. Honours were legitimate inasmuch as they recognised the distinct contribution of workers to national life, but not inasmuch as they conferred superior social status on the recipients. Wearing court dress split the party because it could not decide whether it conveyed social superiority, as the ‘incorruptibles’ thought, or equal status, as MacDonald claimed. For the working-class representative to climb the ladder into Society, however, was almost always unacceptable because it blurred the outlines of the labour interest. Even where the code was reasonably clear, however, it was not always easy to judge whether or not it was being observed. This was because what mattered was not simply the form of social behaviour, but the stance: most crucially, whether, in such cases, the representative ‘remained himself’. This was why, for example, MacDonald could be praised in 1922 for much the same social skills that were regarded as his undoing in 1931.
This was matched by reservations on the part of the embracers, who do not seem to have been as adaptable or open as is sometimes suggested. Late nineteenth century aristocratic Society managed to embrace plutocrats because they had money, which was badly wanted, and only wished for a quasi-aristocratic status to match. Proletarians were harder to assimilate because they did not have money and did not want aristocratic status, but only recognition of their distinctiveness, which aristocratic status would blur. Monarchical and elite efforts were also indirect, seeking to integrate Labour more through those who were already known to it, than through those who were not.
This article was published as Nicholas Owen, ‘MacDonald’s Parties: The Labour Party and the Aristocratic Embrace, 1922-31’, in Twentieth Century British History (Oxford University Press) in 2007. You can find the article here.
IMAGE CREDITS: PRESS PHOTOGRAPHS RAMSAY MACDONALD IN THE UNIFORM OF THE LORD PRESIDENT OF THE COUNCIL ON HIS WAY TO A MEETING OF THE PRIVY COUNCIL, 2 SEP 1937 / RAMSAY MACDONALD AND MEMBERS OF THE LABOUR GOVERNMENT ON THEIR WAY TO WINDSOR CASTLE TO RECEIVE THEIR SEALS OF OFFICE, 25 JUN 1929 / RAMSAY MACDONALD, ON HIS TRIP TO THE U.S.A., 5 OCT 1929 / RAMSAY MACDONALD AND SIR JOHN SIMON WALKING TO THE HOUSE OF COMMONS FOR THE STATE OPENING OF PARLIAMENT, 17 FEB 1933 / J. RAMSAY MACDONALD AT LIVERPOOL STREET STATION DRESSED FOR A STATE OCCASION, 3 OCT 1929 / J. RAMSAY MACDONALD AND PHILIP SNOWDEN LEAVING ST JAMES PALACE AFTER SIGNING THE NAVAL TREATY WITH THE U.S.A. AND JAPAN, 22 APR 1930 / J.H. THOMAS PRESENTING OTHER MEMBERS OF THE NATIONAL GOVERNMENT WITH SPRIGS OF HEATHER IN THE GARDEN OF 10 DOWNING STREET, 31 AUG 1931 / RAMSAY MACDONALD LEAVING DOWNING STREET FOR HIS SUMMER HOLIDAY IN LOSSIEMOUTH, 16 JUL 1932.