The appointment of the first Labour government in January 1924 was widely regarded by contemporaries as an event of great political and social significance. The new Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, lacked the governmental experience of his predecessors and had risen from obscure origins. Many on the political right expressed alarmist expectations of attacks on private property and established institutions. Among the more extreme predictions was a claim that women would be nationalised and free love proclaimed as official government policy. Winston Churchill wrote that the enthronement in office of a Socialist government will be a serious national misfortune such as has usually befallen great States only on the morrow of defeat in war'.
Notwithstanding such apocalyptic pronouncements, the government's behaviour proved to be so moderate that its most radical supporters were to be gravely disappointed. After less than 10 months in office, no significant steps had been taken towards the achievement of socialist goals. The party suffered a heavy defeat in the general election of October 1924, winning 151 seats to the Conservatives' 419.
The performance of the first Labour government was to be affected to a large extent by the circumstances in which it took office. It is important to remember that it was a minority administration, which had come to power because of the peculiar outcome of the December 1923 general election. Although the Conservatives had remained the largest party in the Commons, they were outnumbered by the Liberals and Labour. Since the contest had turned on one issue, it could legitimately be argued that Labour, as the largest pro-free trade party, had the right to form a government. On the other hand, this would mean forming a ministry with the help of the Liberals, who could withdraw their support at any time.
In these circumstances Labour's term of office was unlikely to be more than a rather unsatisfactory apprenticeship in power. Some...
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