Aspects of British Political History, 1914-1995

By Stephen J. Lee | Go to book overview

7

THE FIRST CRISIS OF LABOUR 1929-39

After a brief spell in office in 1924, Labour returned to power in 1929. Ramsay MacDonald's second ministry was based on a firmer electoral base than his first: in the 1929 general election Labour had, with 288 seats, become the largest party in the Commons, although it was still dependent on Liberal support. MacDonald now had the opportunity to prove that Labour could do more than merely survive. He could continue the foreign and domestic policies of 1924 and demonstrate that, in future, Labour could be entrusted with an overall majority as a mandate for extensive reform.

In fact, the second Labour government of 1929-31 had a very mixed record. There were certainly achievements, although these were mostly apparent in foreign policy, which continued to be MacDonald's main interest. He had already contributed much to the settlement of the German question in 1924; in 1929 he and Henderson, the new Foreign Secretary, helped resolve the two remaining problems of reparations and the occupation of the Rhineland. The 1929 Young Plan reduced by over two-thirds the amount of reparations payable by Germany and rescheduled the repayments over the next 59 years, while in 1930 the last remaining troops of occupation were pulled out of Germany. MacDonald was also determined to give practical application to his pacifist principles by securing arms reductions and planning for a general disarmament conference under the auspices of the League of Nations. His most specific achievement here was the London Conference of 1930, in which it was agreed that the ratio of warship building between Britain, the United States and Japan should be restricted to 5:5:3. At the same time, he also promoted negotiations on trade issues, especially on the vexed question of tariffs.

This was a positive set of achievements which exceeded those of

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