Read the following text, paying particular attention to the highlighted words.
20th Century British History
This article analyses the constitutional aspects behind the formation of the first and second National Governments, examining in particular the role of the king in the formation of the two governments - a role which, as will be seen, was rather more important than is usually thought.
The key to the formation of the first National Government lies in the parliamentary arithmetic facing the second Labour government as it sought to implement its programme of economies in August 1931. Labour was the largest party with 288 MPs; the Conservatives, who had gained more votes than Labour in the 1929 general election, were, nevertheless, only the second largest party with, by 1931, 262 MPs; and the Liberals had fifty-nine MPs. There were a further ten independents and five MPs who owed allegiance to Sir Oswald Mosley's short-lived New party, formed after Mosley's defection from Labour in February 1931.
It followed, therefore, that if the Labour Government was to secure acceptance of its economic package, it had to secure the support of MPs from either the Liberal or the Conservative party. This obvious feature of the parliamentary arithmetic is ignored by many writers on the 1931 crisis.
They consider, sometimes in fairly abstract terms, the kinds of policies which Labour might have adopted, without asking whether such policies had any chance of securing parliamentary support. A policy of Keynesian expansion, for example, whatever its merits, had no chance whatever of gaining majority support in the conditions of August 1931. Nor would adoption of a tariff obviate the need for economies, given that the Conservatives insisted upon severe retrenchment, whether combined with a tariff or not.
The Labour Cabinet was, it is clear, united in its view that the budget had to be balanced. What it could not agree on was how the budget was to be balanced; and it was this disagreement that led to the break-up of the government. It is sometimes said that the dissident minority in the Cabinet, led by Henderson, were not willing to accept cuts in unemployment benefit. That is not strictly true. They were willing to accept a cut in transitional benefit which would have had the effect of "throwing at least some of those receiving transitional benefit upon public assistance", while Henderson pressed hard for a "premium", a flat deduction of 1s. a week from all unemployment benefits. What the dissidents objected to was a cut in the standard rate of benefit. The whole Cabinet agreed that there should be a cut in the amount that the unemployed were receiving; where they disagreed was in whether this should include a cut in the standard rate of benefit.
The opposition parties, however, were unwilling to accept any programme of economies which did not involve a cut in the standard rate of benefit. As the Labour dissidents in the Cabinet recognised, they did not have the power - they were a minority in the Cabinet as well as in the Commons - to avoid such a cut; all that they could do was to ensure that it was not a Labour government which imposed it. Those commentators who blame Labour for not pursuing an alternative set of more socially just proposals in the conditions of August 1931 ought rather to blame the electorate for not giving Labour sufficient support to form a majority government in 1929. In a minority situation, some form of power-sharing - even if it did not necessarily involve coalition - was inevitable.
Parliamentary arithmetic dictated, therefore, that Labour would have to produce a package which was acceptable to at least one of the opposition parties. This the Cabinet was unable to achieve. The question then arose of what alternative government was available. Such a government had to be able to carry a programme of economies through the House of Commons: this immediately ruled out the possibility of a Labour minority government led by Henderson, as suggested by Moodie in an otherwise illuminating article. It was quite clear that Henderson, the leader of the dissident minority in the Cabinet, had no chance whatever of producing a programme which could secure the support of a Commons majority. If, therefore, the King had turned to Henderson after MacDonald had proffered his resignation, or had sought the views of Labour Privy Counsellors as suggested by Herbert Morrison, he could have been accused of wasting valuable time. In the existing conditions of financial crisis, it was essential for a government to be formed which could ensure a parliamentary majority in support of the economy measures so that they could pass the Commons. Without some grasp of this basic requirement it is impossible to understand what followed.
(20th Century British History by Vernon Bogdanor)
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