Gripping ringside account of Labour history

Adam Somerset reviews ‘Memoirs 1869-1924’ by J R Clynes.

“Memoirs 1869-1924” by J R Clynes

(Hutchinson 1937 345 pp)

The Labour Party held an election for its Leader on 21st November 1922. The triumph of Ramsay MacDonald, who was to leave his party in a condition of decade-long trauma, was witnessed by MP David Kirkwood who left a vivid account. “MacDonald’s men sat on the right-hand side of the room. On the left side sat the men who supported Mr Clynes of the General Workers’ Union, Food Controller in 1918 and Chairman of the Labour Party in the House of Commons 1921-1922…Nature had dealt unevenly with these men. She had endowed MacDonald with a magnificent presence, a full, resonant voice, and a splendid dignity. Clynes was small, unassuming, of uneven features, and voice without colour. There they sat: Clynes at ease and indifferent; MacDonald with his head in his hands, looking, drawn, anxious and ill.”

The description is quoted at some length in the first volume of the memoirs of J R Clynes. Political memoirs come in a range of hues and styles. That of Clynes dispenses with common weaknesses of the genre. He does not go in for self-justification on positions taken over policies and issues of interest only to professional historians. He does not do introspection. His first volume, published in 1937, covers the period 1869-1924. Its climax is the Labour Party on the brink of forming its first government. His book has verve and drive; it is in short a tremendous read.

The memoirs have the advantage of an author who is a gifted writer. He observes of Asquith “silver-haired and silver-tongued, [he] seemed the perfect lawyer, able to argue any case without passion or fault.” Politically opposed to Lloyd George Clynes is as awed as any. In the face of his enemies’ critique LG  “scattered them with explosions of wit, and terrified them with a withering fire of sarcasm.” Clynes first great role of responsibility in government was alongside Lord Rhondda in tackling the issue of Britain’s wartime food supply. An appalling winter in the USA is no help to beleaguered Britain. “Forty-five degrees of frost crushed New York harbour in an icy fist. Of British ships alone, nearly 200 lay there, impotent as bubbles in glass, their food cargoes rotting in their holds.”

Under D A Thomas the Food Ministry grows from an organisation of four hundred to six thousand employees. Clynes recognises Thomas’ superb managerial and leadership qualities. On his character “His courage was unbounded…Fearless in decision, unruffled in temper, and with a colossal command of detail, he was great in all respects but one. He was no orator.” Clynes, the once child “little piecer” in a Northern mill, is acutely aware of the price of food. Milk, he worries, rises close to 9d a quart. (He is reminder of the Ernest Bevin of thirty years on who, in conclave with his economic mandarins, would determine sterling’s exchange rate on what it would do to the price of a loaf.). In food-strapped Britain Thomas at one point turns to the author “It might well be, Clynes, that you and I, at this moment, are all that stand between this country and revolution!”

Political memoirs are also a journey through history. Clynes enters a parliament where elderly MPs can remember elections fought over promises to abolish income tax, only a few pence, altogether. He recalls the Labour intake of 1906- “ we were burning with impatience”. Like the Tartan fifty-six of 2015 the group is intolerant of the ways of the Commons. From the perspective of thirty years on he has come to respect the practices of the place.

History is too often deployed as a comfort blanket. The Labour party has many a friend, in the arts in particular, with a soggy view of the past. Clynes’ memoirs dispel all notions of an era of Edwardian tranquillity. Britain is a place of harshness and violence. Lloyd George leads a meeting in Joseph Chamberlain’s heartland. In the ensuing riot two men die and LG himself, in Clynes’ telling, is smuggled out through the roaring crowds in the disguise of a police uniform. His own mill work as a child is one of appalling hazard. Performed bare foot on the greasy factory floor the work, six am to mid-day for a half crown a week, entails darting among the machines in full operation and repairing broken threads on the spindles. There is schooling of a kind to be had in the afternoon and, remarkably, verses from Milton run through the infant worker’s mind. Unsurprisingly to this founder generation the Labour movement, with a forward nod to Orwell, is spurred by purposes that are more than economic. “We urged that man did not live by bread alone. We wanted more than wages. We demanded a share for all in freedom and beauty.”

The issues of politics vary from the straightforward to the dense. A wartime notion from the USA to cease all brewing of beer to conserve the raw materials is kicked into touch. “To the working man” says Clynes “beer is food, drink and recreation; he takes it in moderation.” But the debates in the party over remaining in coalition are deep and fierce. The words of Clynes for coalition are echo to those of Vince Cable who spoke on Newsnight 9th September The party is different, the sentiment the same. In an atmosphere of extremes “I argued that Labour was now the only moderating influence in Britain.”

 The Labour party of 1918 is one of financial responsibility. Clynes details with deftness the fantasies of revenge upon the war enemy and Labour’s own policy on the level of reparations to be expected from a devastated, revolutionary Germany. Labour has a set-back, but its ascent is slow and inexorable. The position of Opposition is one of constitutional gravity. With an election result of one hundred and forty-two seats Clynes records “For the first time in history British Labour was now His Majesty’s Opposition at Westminster.” The great movers and makers of Labour’s history would not for an instant tolerate the posture of opting out of the Privy Council, on personal whim, and eschewing the responsibility of Opposition.

Clynes closes his first volume in Buckingham Palace, one of four men who await their audience with the King to form a Labour government. In a scene that, even if distant, will re-occur he looks at “the gold and crimson magnificence of the Palace”. He looks too to his companions “MacDonald the starveling clerk, Thomas the engine-driver, Henderson the foundry labourer and Clynes the mill-hand.” The King too, it turns out, is a little anxious. “The immediate future of my people, and their whole happiness” he says “is in your hands, gentlemen. They depend upon your prudence and sagacity.”

Adam Somerset is a Critic.

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