Back to article index
Back to Labour Values index


Labour was then a group of Socialist and Trade Union organisations, rather than a centrally-organised Party.  It was made into a Party in the course of the War, chiefly through the efforts of Arthur Henderson, who was strong on both the Socialist side and the Trade Union side.  Henderson was against British participation in the European War until it became certain in early August that it would participate.  (He was Lib-Lab by political origin—that is, he was Labour under Liberal Party patronage.  But he was in earnest about constructing Labour into an independent Party, and he had won a seat for Labour in competition with his Liberal patrons in 1906.)

Lloyd George was the guiding star for many Labourites whose orientation was Liberal, and it seems to have been his defection from the anti-War party in the Government to the War-party that decided Henderson in favour of war.

In 1915 Prime Minister Asquith was obliged to end Liberal Government and establish Coalition Government.  Reasons for this were that the Liberal Government was a minority Government depending on the 80 MPs of the Home Rule Party who supported the British war effort unconditionally but refused to take part in government;  that the Unionist Party demanded positions in government as a condition of agreeing that the Parliament elected in 1910 should continue when its mandate ran out at the end of 1915;  and that the Liberal Party just did not have the ruthlessness required for the conduct of the War which it had brought about.


The 1915 Coalition was made up of the Liberal Party, the Unionist Party, and the Labour Party, with Henderson representing Labour.

I am aware of British Labour history only in outline.  I don't know if the killing of James Connolly by the Government of which Henderson was a member caused him any unease.  Ivan Gibbons refers to it only as follows:

"The fact that the most influential section of Irish Labour (Connolly's Irish Citizen Army) had taken part in the Rising did not motivate the British Labour Party to enquire as to the significance of this or to re-examine its own position.  Labour, in effect, acquiesced in Connolly's execution when Arthur Henderson did not resign from the War Cabinet.  The party was obviously concerned about the likely adverse political consequences of linking the British Labour Party  with Connolly's seditious act.  Ireland for the British Labour Party was a marginal issue… with a propensity to explode politically and cause conflict within the party"  (p41).

It must be said that Gibbons, writing as a historian almost a century later, does not go into the matter much more closely than Henderson did as the member of a Government conducting an Imperialist war.

Connolly was not unknown in British Labour circles.  His political origins lay in British politics and he was a frequent contributor to the Glasgow ILP paper, Forward.  The fact that he raised a socialist Army within the British state and went to war with it against the British state as a declared supporter of the German state on both Socialist and anti-Imperialist grounds is something that should be taken due account of, isn't it?


At the end of 1916 Asquith's Coalition was broken by a Liberal coup organised by Lloyd George, supported by the Unionists.  Lloyd George carried most of the Liberal Ministers of Asquith's coalition with him into his own Coalition but he split the Liberal Party.  The mass of the Party went into formal Opposition under Asquith's leadership, though continuing to support the War.

The 1915 Coalition, which brought the Unionists into the Government a year and a half after they had raised a non-state Army to prevent the implementation of a Home Rule Act, was a watershed in Irish affairs.  The ground on which Redmondism stood crumbled beneath it.

The 1916 Coalition was a watershed in British affairs.  It destroyed the Liberal Party.  And, since the Labour Party supported it, and gained increased representation within it, it opened the way for the construction of Labour into the second party of the state.