Many voters and politicians aren’t students of history and it shows. Postmodern politicians, especially, see history like ideologies as meta-narratives that can be ignored or cherry-picked to suit weak arguments. We’ve had two hung parliaments in the space of seven years, yet to hear the media and some politicians talk, you’d think the hung parliament was a recent phenomenon. It is not. On the other hand, we have Tory politicians like Crispin Blunt complaining that it’s the electorate’s fault that we have a hung parliament. Blunt needs to look at our deeply-flawed electoral system and his own party’s dismal election campaign before spouting such nonsense.
I have already commented on Heath’s disastrous 1974 snap election, which resulted in a hung parliament and a Labour minority government. Like Heath, May’s own snap election was born partly from arrogance and partly out of stupidity. Both Prime Ministers wanted to cling onto power at any cost, and neither wanted to admit defeat.
One previous Conservative Prime Minister that hasn’t been mentioned in the history of hung parliaments, and who gambled away a decent-sized majority was Stanley Baldwin, who later became the First Earl of Bewdley and who supported Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy towards Nazi Germany in 1939. Baldwin is also remembered for failing to rearm Britain during the 1930s, while he was PM. He was also known for the ‘Iron Gates Crisis‘.
In 1923, Bonar Law, the shortest-lived PM of the 20th century, resigned because of terminal throat cancer. His chancellor, Stanley Baldwin, was chosen by the ‘men in grey suits’ to succeed him. Law had fought the previous year’s general election on free trade and tariff reform and Baldwin felt committed to his pledge during the 1922 election, namely that there would be no introduction of tariffs without an election. But external pressures were exerting themselves upon the Tories’ trade policy and Baldwin felt compelled to introduce a degree of protectionism. This violated Law’s pledge and Baldwin called a snap general election for 6 December, 1923 to strengthen his grip on his restive party. It was a gamble, for the election resulted in a hung parliament. The Tories lost their 70 seat majority and although they were the largest party, they could not command the confidence of the House. Baldwin remained as PM until the new parliament in January 1924.
The Tories’ King’s Speech was defeated in the Commons on 24 January, 1924 and Baldwin resigned immediately. This led to the first Labour government, which lasted until October 1924 when it was brought down by a combination of intrigue and a smear and fear campaign, remembered mostly for the notorious Zinoviev Letter. The Tories won a landslide and had a 220 seat majority. Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour Party was reduced to 151 seats, while Herbert Asquith’s unpopular Liberals lost 118 seats and were reduced to 40 seats.
Baldwin’s Tory government of 1924 – 1929 contained former political allies of Lloyd George, and former Coalition Conservatives like Austen Chamberlain, the half-brother of Neville. It lasted for around five years and is remembered mainly for the General Strike of 1926. Baldwin went to the country in 1929 and expected to win a similar majority to the one he had. He lost again. Memories of the General Strike were still fresh in the memories of many voters and, consequently, MacDonald’s Labour Party won the largest number of seats and formed a minority government but this wouldn’t last. The Great Depression, which began in the same year, created fresh problems for MacDonald and George V urged him to form a National Government. This was the beginning of the end for MacDonald but signalled a new beginning for Baldwin, who would lead the National Government to victory in 1935. It was this government, which comprised mostly of Conservatives, that fought the 1931 general election.
Let’s come back to the present. Over the weekend there were some murmurings from some commentators that the only way to solve the Brexit Crisis is to form a National Government. This would be an unwise move for any self-styled ‘moderate’ Labour members tempted by such an arrangement. However, I am aware that many of these ‘moderates’ are completely ignorant of their own party’s history. In 1931, Labour suffered heavy losses that were mainly caused by MacDonald’s formation of a National Government and the creation of the National Labour Organisation to support it. The Liberals split into three parties, while the Tories remained a single bloc. When Tories talk of wanting to govern in “the national interest” what they really mean is that they will govern in the interests of themselves and their class.
Have a look at this British Pathé film clip of the National Government.
If Labour and the rest of the opposition parties work together and peel off some socially liberal Tories, May’s government can be defeated. They should not pass on that opportunity.