Ramsay MacDonald responds to the economic crisis

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So what did you think of my speech?

"So what did you think of my speech?"

A week or so ago VoteRedGoGreen wrote a post on what he would like to hear Gordon Brown say in a speech outlining the Labour government’s response to the country’s economic problems.

In October 1930 Britain was suffering from the effects of the Great Depression. The U.S stock market had crashed in 1929 and the worldwide economic downturn was exacerbated by the onset of protectionist fervour (such as the moronic U.S Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act) and a subsequent collapse in global trade. Unemployment was growing and Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour government was feeling the pressure.

Of course, it all went horribly wrong after a bit, but MacDonald’s speech to the 1930 Labour Party Conference (the last he was to make, if I’m not mistaken) was a tour de force which managed to convey the impression that here was a Prime Minister undaunted by the scale of crisis:

“So, my friends, we are not on trial; it is the system under which we live. It has broken down, not only in this little island, it has broken down in Europe, in Asia, in America; it has broken down everywhere, as it was bound to break down.

And the cure, the new path, the new idea is organisation – organisation which will protect life, not property.

I appeal to you, my friends, today, with all that is going on outside – I appeal to you to go back on to your socialist faith. Do not mix that up with pettifogging patching, either of a Poor Law kind or of Relief Work kind.

Construction, ideas, architecture, building line upon line, stone upon stone, storey upon storey; it will not be your happiness, and it will certainly not be mine, to see that every stone laid in sincerity has been well laid.

But I think it will be your happiness, as it is mine, to go on convinced that the great foundations are being well laid…and that by skilled craftsmen, confident in each other’s goodwill and sincerity, the temple will rise and rise and rise until at last it is complete, and the genius of humanity will find within it an appropriate resting place.”

Ok, so the image of a socialist temple being slowly but surely built is a bit wacky, and MacDonald seemingly managed to get through the speech without any serious discussion of government policy.

But it was still a triumph. Through appeal to principle, MacDonald successfully rallied the previously discontented party behind him (temporarily at least).

James Maxton’s motion criticising the government had the misfortune to be scheduled for discussion immediately after MacDonald’s address. After the enthusiastic cheering for the leader’s speech had begun to die down, big leftie Maxton rose to half-heartedly condemn the leadership’s feebleness.

Maxton had to pay tribute to MacDonald’s “very great speech” even as he listed his many complaints against MacDonald’s policies (or lack of). The Maxton motion was then defeated by 1,800,000 votes to 330,000.

Ideally a leader’s speech is solid in both the style and substance departments.

Talk about values and utopian visions (unlikely these days!), fine, but be prepared to explain to your party how you will make those values and visions a policy reality.

We’ll see what Gordo comes up with in the autumn…

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