Philip Snowden

Philip Snowden

Philip Snowden, the son of a weaver, was born in the village of Cowling, in the West Riding of Yorkshire on 18th July, 1864. His parents were devout followers of the religious ideas of John Wesley and as a boy he was brought up as a strict Methodist. John Snowden was a member of the Temperance Society and Philip followed his father's example and never drank alcohol. Philip did well at school and at the age of fifteen was able to work as a clerk in an insurance office.

Snowden joined the Keightley Liberal Club and he agreed to present a paper on the dangers of socialism. While researching this paper Snowden became converted to this new ideology. Snowden left the Liberal Party and joined the local branch of the Independent Labour Party (ILP). Snowden soon developed a reputation as a fine orator and for the next few years he travelled the country making speeches for the ILP. He drew large crowds and only Keir Hardie was considered his equal as a platform speaker.

In 1899 Snowden was elected to the Keightley Town Council and the School Board. He also served as editor of a local socialist newspaper. Snowden continued to travel the country and in 1903 was elected as the national chairman of the Independent Labour Party. Like Keir Hardie, Snowden was a Christian Socialist, and in 1903 the two men wrote a pamphlet together on their beliefs, The Christ that is to Be.

In 1903 Snowden married Ethel Annakin, an active member of the NUWSS. Ethel converted her husband to the cause of votes for women. Over the next ten years, Snowden, who was a member of the Men's League For Women's Suffrage and gave considerable support to the campaign for equal rights.

Snowden made several attempts to enter the House of Commons. Snowden was defeated at Blackburn in the 1900 General Election. He also failed at the Wakefield by-election in 1902. Snowden was finally successful in the 1906 General Election when he was elected as the Labour MP for Blackburn.

During this period Snowden wrote a great deal about his views on Christian Socialism, the Temperance Movement and economics issues. This included The Socialist's Budget (1907), Old Age Pensions (1907), Socialism and the Drink Question (1908), Socialism and Teetotalism (1909) and the Living Wage (1909). In the House of Commons Snowden developed a reputation as an expert on economic issues and advised David Lloyd George on his 1909 People's Budget.

Philip Snowden was a pacifist and refused to support Britain's involvement in the First World War. Philip and Ethel Snowden both joined the Union of Democratic Control (UDC). Other members included Arthur Ponsonby, J. A. Hobson, Charles Buxton, Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, Norman Angell, Arnold Rowntree, Philip Morrel, Morgan Philips Price, George Cadbury, Helena Swanwick, Fred Jowett, Ramsay MacDonald, Tom Johnston, Arthur Henderson, David Kirkwood, William Anderson, Isabella Ford, H. H. Brailsford, Israel Zangwill, Bertrand Russell, Margaret Llewelyn Davies, Konni Zilliacus, Margaret Sackville, Olive Schreiner and Morgan Philips Price.

The Union of Democratic Control soon emerged at the most important of all the anti-war organizations in Britain and by 1915 had 300,000 members. Frederick Pethick-Lawrence explained the objectives of the UDC: "As its name implies, it was founded to insist that foreign policy should in future, equally with home policy, be subject to the popular will. The intention was that no commitments should be entered into without the peoples being fully informed and their approval obtained. By a natural transition, the objects of the Union came to include the formation of terms of a durable settlement, on the basis of which the war might be brought an an end."

When the First World War was declared two pacifists, Clifford Allen and Fenner Brockway, formed the No-Conscription Fellowship (NCF), an organisation that encouraged men to refuse war service. The NCF required its members to "refuse from conscientious motives to bear arms because they consider human life to be sacred." As Martin Ceadel, the author of Pacifism in Britain 1914-1945 (1980) pointed out: "Though limiting itself to campaigning against conscription, the N.C.F.'s basis was explicitly pacifist rather than merely voluntarist.... In particular, it proved an efficient information and welfare service for all objectors; although its unresolved internal division over whether its function was to ensure respect for the pacifist conscience or to combat conscription by any means"

Snowden also gave his support to the No-Conscription Fellowship. Other members of the group included Bertrand Russell, Bruce Glasier, Robert Smillie, C. H. Norman, William Mellor, Arthur Ponsonby, Guy Aldred, Alfred Salter, Duncan Grant, Wilfred Wellock, Maude Royden, Max Plowman, John Clifford, Cyril Joad, Alfred Mason, Winnie Mason, Alice Wheeldon, William Wheeldon, John S. Clarke, Arthur McManus, Hettie Wheeldon, Storm Jameson and Duncan Grant.

Like other anti-war Labour MPs, Snowden was defeated in the 1918 General Election. Snowden was eventually forgiven and was elected to represent Colne Valley in the 1922 General Election.

When Ramsay MacDonald formed the first Labour Government in January, 1924, he appointed Philip Snowden as his Chancellor of the Exchequer. Snowden reduced taxes on various commodities and popular entertainments, but was criticised by members of the Labour Party for not introducing any socialist measures. Snowden replied that this was not possible as the Labour government had to rely on the support of the Liberal Party to survive. When Stanley Baldwin, the leader of the Conservative Party, became Prime Minister later that year, Snowden's period in office came to an end.

David Low, Evening Standard (5th September, 1929)
David Low, Evening Standard (5th September, 1929)

Snowden returned as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Labour Government of 1929. This coincided with an economic depression and Snowden's main concern was to produce a balanced budget. However, he did manage to make changes to the tax system that resulted in the wealthy paying more and the poor paying less. The economic situation continued to deteriorate and in 1931 Snowden suggested that the Labour government should introduce new measures including a reduction in unemployment pay. Several ministers, including George Lansbury, Arthur Henderson and Joseph Clynes, refused to accept the cuts in benefits and resigned from office.

Ramsay MacDonald now formed a National Government with Conservative and Liberal politicians. Snowden remained Chancellor and now introduced the measures that had been rejected by the previous Labour Cabinet. Labour MPs were furious with what MacDonald and Snowden had done, and both men were expelled from the Labour Party.

Snowden did not stand in the 1931 General Election and instead accepted the title that enabled him to sit in the House of Lords.

Philip Snowden died on 15th May, 1937.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) In his book An Autobiography, Philip Snowden described what Cowling was like in the 1860s.

The industrial revolution was late in penetrating this parish. It was not until about twenty years before my birth that handloom weaving disappeared. In my boyhood all the older people had been handloom weavers. The industry had been carried on mainly in the cottages in which the families lived. It was quite common thing for the bedroom of the cottage to contain five or six handlooms, and in this room the weaving was done; and in this room the whole family, which was often very large, had to sleep.

(2) Philip Snowden's father was a Chartist in the 1840s.

I have heard my father relate how a number of handloom weavers contributed a halfpenny a week to buy a copy of the weekly Leeds Mercury, which was then sevenpence, and with these coppers he was sent to a village four miles away each week to get the paper; and then the subscribers to this newspaper met in a cottage and he read the news to them.

The Leeds Mercury in those days was a Radical journal. Those were times of great political and social excitement. The Chartist movement was affecting the industrial population, and the agitation was affecting the industrial population, and the agitation for the Repeal of the Corn Laws was at its height. They were dangerous times for those known to harbour Radical opinions. Throughout the West Riding, as well as other parts of England, men were being arrested and sentenced to long terms of imprisonment for alleged sedition and political conspiracy.

This group of Radical-Chartists in Cowling had to take precautions against the attentions of the constable, and when they gathered together to discuss politics and hear my father read the paper for them they shuttered the window and sometimes placed a scout outside to watch for the constable.

(3) As a child Philip Snowden signed the pledge that he would never drink alcohol.

The vicar of the parish was the Reverend George Bayldon. He was the vicar of the parish for forty years. The only active part he took in the life of the village was in connection with the Temperance Movement. He was the man to whom the boys went when they wanted "to sign teetotal". Mr. Bayldon was the only person in the village who took a daily newspaper, and when the boys wanted paper for their kites it was to Mr. Bayldon they went on the pretext of signing teetotal, but really to beg for old newspapers.

(4) Philip Snowden, An Autobiography (1934)

After the passing of Mr. Forster's Education Act, a few progressive persons in the village started an agitation for the adoption of the Act. The Act was adopted, and the school I attended was taken over by the newly formed School Board. Steps were taken at once to build new school premises. A trained master was appointed, and a new era in child education in the village was opened up. I was between ten and eleven years old when this change took place. It brought me into a new world of learning. We were taught in a new schoolroom, which by comparison with the dingy old place we left seemed like a palace to us. The walls were covered with maps and pictures. Our curriculum was extended to include grammar, geography, history, elementary mathematics, and the simple sciences. We were not troubled with the religious question, for, in order to avoid all controversy, the Board from the beginning banished the Bible from the school, not because they were irreligious, but because they believed that the teaching of religion was best carried out by the sects in their own Sunday Schools.

(5) Philip Snowden, An Autobiography (1934)

In my youth there still survived a few men who had been leaders in the Chartist movement. One of these was George Lomax, a Manchester man, who was a very popular Temperance and Radical speaker. I often heard him. As a young man he had been an eye-witness of the massacre of Peterloo. I heard him tell the story, and he finished a graphic description of the affair by saying: "As I saw the cavalry striking down unarmed and peaceful people I swore eternal enmity to Toryism and all its ways."

Another of the Chartist leaders I heard was Thomas Cooper, who had been a prominent figure in the movement in the forties. He was a very old man when I heard him. He had gone quite blind. His hair fell upon his shoulders, and he looked a patriarchal figure.

(6) Philip Snowden, An Autobiography (1934)

The Trades Unions were very dissatisfied with the attitude of the Liberal Government to the legal position of Trade Unionism. In 1869, at the instigation of John Stuart Mill, an organisation was formed under the name of the Labour Representation League to carry out a national campaign to secure the return of working men to Parliament. It does not appear to have been the intention of this League to form a party which could be permanently in opposition to the Liberal Party. Mills' idea was that, if the working classes put forward working-men candidates and threatened the Liberal majority, the Liberals would be glad to come to terms and provide opportunities for the return of working men. After the election of 1874 the League placed twelve working men in the field, and of these Thomas Burt and Alexander MacDonald were elected at Morpeth and Stafford respectively.

(7) Philip Snowden, An Autobiography (1934)

By the end of 1892 it was felt that the various Labour Unions should be merged into a National Party. So steps were taken to call a Conference, which met at Bradford in January 1893. To this Conference delegates from the local unions, the Fabian Society (which at the time was doing considerable propaganda work among the Radical Clubs), and the Social Democratic Federation, were invited. There were 115 delegates present at this conference, and among them was Mr. George Bernard Shaw, representing the Fabian Society. He played a conspicuous part in the Conference. Mr. Keir Hardie, fresh from his success at West Ham, was elected Chairman of the Conference.

(8) Philip Snowden, An Autobiography (1934)

I brought and carefully studied, among other works, Hyndman's England for All and his Historical Basis of Socialism, which he claimed were the first works on scientific socialism published in English. They were based on Marx's Capital. I did not find these books so interesting and instructive as other volumes on the subject which I read. I derived much help and information from the Fabian Essays and the Fabian Tracts, and from the books of Edward Carpenter - England's Ideal and Civilisation, its Causes and Cure. I collected quite a library of old radical and socialist books and periodicals and pamphlets dating from the days of Hunt and Owen down to modern times.

I have never read Karl Marx. I have read many synopses of his teaching, and that has been quite enough for me. I have met a few men who claim to have read and studied the three huge volumes of Das Kapital, but the fact that they were still alive makes one inclined to cast some doubt about their claim. Neither Keir Hardie nor William Morris derived their socialism from Karl Marx.

(9) Philip Snowden, An Autobiography (1934)

Under capitalism it was greatly to the benefit of the individual to spend his wages on useful things instead of upon drink, though temperance alone would not touch the rot causes of low wages and poverty. The way I put the case in after years, when I often publicly discussed this question, was that drink is an aggravation of every social evil, and, in a great many cases, the prime cause of industrial misery and degradation. The economic waste of expenditure on drink lowers the standard of living and reduces a great many families to destitution, who, if their incomes were usefully spent, would enjoy a reasonable degree of comfort. Universal temperance would undoubtedly bring incalculable benefits and blessings, but so long as the social system is based upon exploitation the mass of the people will remain comparatively poor.

(10) The Weekly Sun (July, 1907)

Philip Snowden is small of stature and frail of frame, with a limp that compels him to lean heavily on a stick as he walks, he regards the world unblinkingly out of a pair of piercing eyes deep-sunken beneath an overhanging brow, across which wisps of lank hair are drawn. The skin is pallid, the cheeks hollow, giving an additional sharpness to the hawk-like nose and the tight-drawn inscrutable lips. and then the hands! Long, thin, and nervous, their fingers twist and writhe and contort themselves like the serpents on the head of Medusa, till shudderingly one draws back instinctively out of their reach.

(11) In his book An Autobiography, Philip Snowden criticised the WSPU.

So long as these women confined their activities to such ingenuous performances as tying themselves to street lamps and park railings, throwing leaflets from the Gallery of the House on the heads of members, or getting themselves arrested for causing obstruction, the public were more amused than angry, though the opponents of women suffrage never failed to point to these antics as proof of the unfitness of women to vote. When they began to destroy property and risk the lives of others than themselves the public began to turn against them. The National Union of Woman's Suffrage Societies, whose gallant educational and constitutional work for women's freedom had been carried on for more than fifty years, publicly dissociated themselves from these terrorist activities.

(8) Philip Snowden, An Autobiography (1934)

I have always been an advocate of what is called "Gradualism" in social progress. "Gradualism" does not mean that progress must necessarily be slow. The rate of advance must depend upon the intelligence of the democracy. But I do insist, and have done so from my earliest days of my Socialist teaching, that every step forward must carry with it the approval of public opinion, and that every change must be consolidated before the next step is taken.

(9) Philip Snowden, An Autobiography (1934)

During the nine days of the strike I remained silent. From one point of view I was not sorry that this experiment had been tried. The Trade Unions needed a lesson of the futility and foolishness of such a trial of strength. A general strike could in no circumstances be successful. A general strike is an attempt to hold up the community, and against such an attempt the community will mobilize all its resources. There is no country in the world which has proportionally such a large middle-class population as Great Britain. They with the help of governmental organisation, with a million motor-cars at their service, could defeat any strike on a large scale which threatened the vital services.

(14) Ramsay MacDonald appointed Clement Attlee as Postmaster General in 1929. He wrote about MacDonald's government in his autobiography, As It Happened (1954)

In the old days I had looked up to MacDonald as a great leader. He had a fine presence and great oratorical power. The unpopular line which he took during the First World War seemed to mark him as a man of character. Despite his mishandling of the Red Letter episode, I had not appreciated his defects until he took office a second time. I then realised his reluctance to take positive action and noted with dismay his increasing vanity and snobbery, while his habit of telling me, a junior Minister, the poor opinion he had of all his Cabinet colleagues made an unpleasant impression. I had not, however, expected that he would perpetrate the greatest betrayal in the political history of this country. I had realised that Snowden had become a docile disciple of orthodox finance, but I had not thought him capable of such virulent hatred of those who had served him loyally. The shock to the Party was very great, especially to the loyal workers of the rank-and-file who had made great sacrifices for these men.

Instead of deciding on a policy and standing or falling by it, MacDonald and Snowden persuaded the Cabinet to agree to the appointment of an Economy Committee, under the chairmanship of Sir George May of the Prudential Insurance Company, with a majority of opponents of Labour on it. The result might have been anticipated. The proposals were directed to cutting the social services and particularly unemployment benefit. Their remedy for an economic crisis, one of the chief features of which was excess of commodities over effective demand, was to cut down the purchasing power of the masses. The majority of the Government refused to accept the cuts and it was on this issue that the Government broke up. Instead of resigning, MacDonald accepted a commission from the King to form a so-called 'National' Government.

(15) Morgan Philips Price, My Three Revolutions (1969)

In February 1931, Philip Snowden made a speech in the House which created a sensation. He hinted at large economy measures, including cuts in the social services and unemployment benefit, in order to balance the coming Budget and maintain the gold standard. Meanwhile wholesale prices continued to fall on a world scale, businesses were losing money in some cases and making very little in others, so that revenue from taxes was declining. A big budget deficit was foreseen. In this debate I remember Lloyd George spoke and referred to the Chancellor sitting on ice surrounded by 'the penguins of the City'. Having received Snowden's speech with stony silence, we on the Labour benches roundly cheered Lloyd George.

The next day there was a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Snowden soundly rated us like naughty schoolboys for having done this. I remember many of us, including myself, replied that we would applaud anyone who talked sense, but we did not get that from some of our leaders.

(16) In his autobiography Philip Snowden described telling the Trade Union Congress about his plans in 1931 to cut wages and unemployment benefits (1934)

The spokesman of the Trade Unions was Mr. Bevin and Mr. Citrine, the Secretary of the Trade Union Committee. This deputation took up the attitude of opposition to practically all the economy proposals which had been explained to them. They opposed any interference with the existing terms and conditions of the Unemployment Insurance Scheme, including the limitation of statutory benefit to 26 weeks. We were told the Trade Unions would oppose the suggested economies on teachers' salaries and pay of the men in the Fighting Services, and any suggestions for reducing expenditure on works in relief of unemployment. The only proposal to which the General Council were not completely opposed was that the salaries of Ministers and Judges should be subjected to a cut!

(17) David Kirkwood, My Life of Revolt (1935)

On August 1, 1931, a National Government was formed. In November the country was thrown into the turmoil of a general election. What an election! I was terribly upset, more than tongue can tell, at the attack made upon the Labour Party by its former leaders.

Admitting that the Party had failed as a Government, it was Ramsay MacDonald, Philip Snowden, and J. H. Thomas who had been the three strongest leaders. But they blamed the rank and file. Some of us were worthy of blame. Our attitude had undoubtedly weakened the Government. But to attack the whole Party and the whole Movement was unjust.

The speeches of Philip Snowden made me think of a case in Glasgow where a man threw vitriol in the face of the girl he had jilted. It was inexcusable.