Hugh Dalton

Hugh Dalton

Hugh Dalton, the son of the chaplain to Queen Victoria, was born in Neath, in 1887. During his education at Eton he became friends with Rupert Brooke. While at King's College, Cambridge, he became a socialist and joined the Fabian Society. Under the influence of Sidney Webb he took a doctorate at the London School of Economics, and was then briefly a barrister before serving in France during the First World War.

Dalton returned to the LSE as a lecturer, and established a reputation as an economist with the publication of The Principles of Public Finance in 1922. He joined the Labour Party and in the 1924 General Election was elected to represent Camberwell the House of Commons.

Beatrice Webb was impressed by Dalton "I am inclined to agree with Arthur Henderson that if the Labour Government arrives during the next ten years Dalton will certainly attain Cabinet rank". However, she did not like him and added: "In his curiously deferential and ingratiating method of address with persons who are likely to be useful to him, there is just a hint of insincerity, in his colourless face there is a trace of cunning". His close friend, Mary Agnes Hamilton recalled, "he has forthright convictions of a robust kind... No one could charge Hugh with having a thin skin; it is not a quality he admires or comprehends. He is the complete extrovert; he loves the rough and tumble, the shouting and the fight."

The election of the Labour Government in 1929 coincided with an economic depression and Ramsay MacDonald was faced with the problem of growing unemployment. MacDonald asked Sir George May, to form a committee to look into Britain's economic problem. When the May Committee produced its report in July, 1931, it suggested that the government should reduce its expenditure by £97,000,000, including a £67,000,000 cut in unemployment benefits. MacDonald, and his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Snowden, accepted the report but when the matter was discussed by the Cabinet, the majority voted against the measures suggested by Sir George May.

MacDonald was angry that his Cabinet had voted against him and decided to resign. When he saw George V that night, he was persuaded to head a new coalition government that would include Conservative and Liberal leaders as well as Labour ministers. Most of the Labour Cabinet totally rejected the idea and only three, Philip Snowden, Jimmy Thomas and John Sankey agreed to join the new government. MacDonald was determined to continue and his National Government introduced the measures that had been rejected by the previous Labour Cabinet.

Dalton voted to expel Ramsay MacDonald from the Labour Party. Only fifteen other MPs disagreed with Dalton. MacDonald had expected to split the party, but not a single local Labour Party decided to support him. Alfred Salter described the Labour members of the National Government as "renegades" and claimed that it was a "great triumph" that the party remained united.

The 1931 General Election was a disaster for the Labour Party with only 46 members winning their seats. Dalton was one of those who lost his seat. Ramsay MacDonald, now had 556 pro-National Government MPs and had no difficulty pursuing the policies suggested by Sir George May.

Dalton taught at the London School of Economics before re-entering Parliament after the 1935 General Election. His book, Practical Socialism (1935), had a major influence on the new Labour leader, Clement Attlee.

In 1940 Winston Churchill appointed Dalton as Minister of Economic Warfare in his government. While in this post he created the Special Operations Executive (SOE). Two years later he was promoted to Minister of the Board of Trade.

Following the 1945 General Election, the new Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, appointed Dalton as Chancellor of the Exchequer. He nationalized the Bank of England in 1946 but the following year was forced to resign after budget details were leaked to a journalist and was replaced by his long-time enemy Stafford Cripps.

Ben Pimlott, the author of Labour and the Left (1977) has argued: "Dalton's main flaw was a boyish enjoyment of plots and behind-the-scenes deals... Outgoing, worldly and gregarious, with a notoriously booming voice, politics remained for him on one level a compulsive, competitive undergraduate game. Revelling in personal success, with a huge confidence in his own abilities, he was distrusted both for his manoeuvrings and for his fierce careerism."

Dalton returned to office in 1948 as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. He also served as Minister of Town and Planning (1950-51). According to Konni Zilliacus, Dalton should have been Foreign Secretary instead of Ernest Bevin. "Hugh Dalton would have been far better, first of all because he really did know a lot about foreign affairs; secondly because he knew how to manage the Foreign Office officials, instead of being run by them; thirdly, because he was capable of learning from experience and correcting his mistakes; fourthly because he would listen to the views of back bench colleagues instead of treating any criticism or comments as an insult and relying on blind trade union loyalties and the power of the block vote to impose on the Labour Party the Churchillian policies that the Foreign Office had induced him to adopt."

After the Labour Party was defeated in the 1951 General Election, Dalton wrote two books about his political career, Call Back Yesterday (1953) and High Tide and After (1962).

Hugh Dalton, who was made a life peer in 1960, died in 1962.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Hugh Dalton, letter to Lord Halifax (2nd July, 1940)

We have got to organize movements in enemy-occupied territory comparable to the Sinn Fein movement in Ireland, to the Chinese Guerillas now operating against Japan, to the Spanish Irregulars who played a notable part in Wellington's campaign or - one might as well admit it - to the organizations which the Nazis themselves have developed so remarkably in almost every country in the world. This "democratic international" must use many different methods, including industrial and military sabotage, labour agitation and strikes, continuous propaganda, terrorist acts against traitors and German leaders, boycotts and riots.

It is quite clear to me that an organization on this scale and of this character is not something which can be handled by the ordinary departmental machinery of either the British Civil Service or the British military machine. What is needed is a new organization to co-ordinate, inspire, control and assist the nationals of the oppressed countries who must themselves be the direct participants. We need absolute secrecy, a certain fanatical enthusiasm, willingness to work with people of different nationalities, complete political reliability. Some of these qualities are certainly to be found in some military officers and, if such men are available, they should undoubtedly be used. But the organization should, in

my view, be entirely independent of the War Office machine.

(2) Hugh Dalton, diary entry (18th December, 1940)

Stanley Baldwin desired only not to be troubled with foreign affairs at all. He left his successive Foreign Secretaries completely free. (There was, I recall, though I do not mention it tonight, the famous case of Hoare proceeding to Paris to negotiate the Hoare-Laval Pact, and Baldwin, asked in Cabinet by some of the younger Tories whether all was well, and whether there should not be some discussion now before irrevocable decisions were taken, said, "I think we all have confidence in Sam; we can safely leave it in his hands."

Halifax relates that Baldwin, in the year of the Abdication, took three months' holiday (repeat three months), at the end of which he asked Eden, then Foreign Secretary, "Have you had many telegrams about the King?" Eden said no. Then Baldwin said, "I have had a great many, some from the most extraordinary people. I foresee that I shall have a lot of trouble over this. I hope that you will not bother me with foreign affairs during the next three months." Yet these were mois mouvementes in foreign affairs. Hitler was arming, arming, arming, day by day. But Baldwin was focused on the tactics of the Abdication.

(3) Hugh Dalton, diary entry (28th April, 1941)

Oliver Stanley (Conservative M.P. for Westmorland) dined with me alone in a secluded corner of the Lansdowne Club. He asked me what I had thought of the Prime Minister's speech on the air on Sunday. I said that I thought he had done well in a very difficult situation and had heartened his hearers. Stanley said, "It may have gone down very well with the 99 per cent who know nothing, but the 1 per cent of us who do know, feel rather differently."

He then began a long tirade against the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, with whom I had said that I found my personal relations developing very satisfactorily, and that this was additionally important for smooth working, since he was so close to the Prime Minister. Stanley said he did not think he was the sort of man who ought to be close to the Prime Minister. He was, he added, vain, weak and unreliable. He had let down Stanley, Malcolm MacDonald and the rest at the time of his resignation. He had promised to consult them, and they had acted together as a group. They were on many points opposed to Chamberlain's Foreign Policy. Eden, however, chose a most frivolous pretext on which to resign, and gave Stanley and others no warning that he was going to do so. So much so that, at the Cabinet, on the proposal that we should begin again negotiations with Italy, Chamberlain had gone round the table, and got the acquiescence of all of them, and it was only then that Eden had quite suddenly said that he could not go on.

Stanley then proceeded to attack, with such mild vehemence as he could command, the terrible error, as he judged it, of sending anything beyond a small token force to Greece. This, he said, was a crowning blunder. It was the Prime Minister's fault. The decision had been taken against all military and naval advice. It should have been seen from the start that the adventure was quite hopeless. The only real way to help Greece was to win the war. Instead of that we might now lose; both Greece and Egypt. We had thrown away a most valuable Air Force in Greece. At least four squadrons of fighters and three squadrons of bombers had been destroyed. It was quite wrong for Eden to have gone to the Middle East and worst of all to go to Athens. There he had been cheered in the streets and smothered in roses. How in such surroundings could he keep his judgment clear. A Foreign Secretary should stay always in the Foreign Office protected by distance and his officials from such local impressions.

(4) Hugh Dalton, diary entry (27th August, 1942)

In the Middle East the morale of all our people was most deplorable. Auchinleck had completely lost confidence in himself. Everybody was always looking over their shoulders towards prepared positions to which to retreat. The units at the Front were hopelessly mixed up, and there was no evidence of good staff work. Auchinleck had 180 Generals on his staff. This number has now been reduced to 30 by his successor. We should, of course, have hit Rommel hard when he reached his furthest point of advance. Winston Churchill and Sir Alan Brooke both went up to the line and followed different routes, and met that evening to compare notes. "Both", said Morton, "came back with faces like boots." They were both convinced that drastic and speedy action must be taken. Already there had been a very great improvement. But it was only just in time. Alexander, Auchinleck's successor, has hitherto been in charge of brilliant retreats. He was the last man off the beaches at Dunkirk and since then he has done Burma.

(5) Hugh Dalton, diary entry (7th September, 1942)

All ministers of Cabinet rank are invited to lunch at the Admiralty, and the P.M. makes one of his very attractive, intimate and amusing speeches to his 'pals and comrades'. He recalls our first gathering just before Dunkirk, and how then all seemed very black and we were all prepared to give up everything, including life itself as one of the least things to give up, rather than give in, and how we, by our united determination to go on to the end, sustained him in those days. And now, in spite of all, the prospect is immeasurably brighter. He gave an account, much on the lines that I had heard before, of his visit to the Middle East and Moscow. He said very frankly that Auchinleck had become a very dangerous failure and that the spirit of the troops was not at all good, though he hoped that now it had been improved.

Of Stalin he said many complimentary things. Also "He is very genial out of business hours" and this he had appreciated. He thought that they had got on very well together. The last night, he being due to catch a plane away at 5 next morning, Stalin asked him, when they had finished their formal business about 7 p.m., whether he had any preoccupation that evening. When he said no, Stalin said, "Then let us go and have some drinks together." They then repaired to the Kremlin, to Stalin's private apartments, which were conveniently, but by no means luxuriously, furnished. Stalin then proceeded himself to draw the corks from a large number of bottles, in the midst of which process a pretty red-haired girl entered. She kissed Stalin, who looked to see how Churchill reacted to this. "And I confess", said the P.M., "that I acquired a quite definite physical impression. It was Stalin's daughter."Stalin then asked, "Do you mind if we have Molotov as well?", and added, "There is one thing you can say in defence of Molotov: he can drink." So Molotov was allowed in too. Then they had drinks and food and drinks and talk till 3 a.m., and then the P.M. said that he must go to pack up, as his plane left at 5. The P.M. is quite convinced that the Russians will fight on and on until victory. "Even if we and the Americans were to throw in our hands tomorrow, I am sure that they would go on."

(6) Hugh Dalton, diary entry (22nd October, 1942)

On Sunday night Cabinet changes are announced on the air. Morrison succeeds Cripps in the War Cabinet and the latter drops down to Minister of Aircraft Production, thus becoming a lodger downstairs in my own building. This hole is made by the appointment of Llewellin to Washington. Cranborne is to be Lord Privy Seal, and Oliver Stanley returns to the Government as Colonial Secretary. Eden is to lead the House of Commons.

I write at once to Morrison, "Congratulations! The War Cabinet is strengthened." Next morning the Daily Herald begins its leader with these same last five words. It is, indeed, a great improvement. Nearly all Cripps's 'mystique' is now gone, and he has missed all his chances - never really good - of resigning with credit. He has, I think, been very skilfully played by the P.M. He may, of course, be quite good at the Ministry of Aircraft Production, but seldom has anyone's political stock, having been so outrageously and unjustifiably overvalued, fallen so fast and so far. I add in my letter to Morrison that I would like soon to have a meeting and a talk, and I write also to Ellen Wilkinson summarizing my letter to Morrison.

(7) Hugh Dalton, diary entry (7th September, 1942)

P.M. talks to No. 1 ministers. He has not held one of these general talks for some time. He says that the great battle in North Africa will begin this week. We have a superiority in men of more than two to one, in guns and aircraft of a good deal more. He thinks it will be a Stalingrad. Hitler has been constantly pouring in reinforcements and supplies by sea and air. We have sunk and destroyed much, but much has kept on coming in. This is Hitler's usual obstinacy. But we need not regret it. Hitler is, moreover, playing for time, and we have reason to know that he hopes we shall not start any new large land operations till 1st July. This probably means that he will by then have trained and ready the last 2,000,000 men whom he has scraped and squeezed out of German reserves of manpower. He is still immensely powerful; particularly if the Russians slow down, he could easily detach some thirty Divisions from the Eastern Front for other duties. He may still either push down through Spain or attack Turkey. If we must choose, we should prefer the former. Much thought has been given to our next move after clearing North Africa. There are practically no German troops in Italy or in the islands. The P.M. has been carrying on a double flirtation with Roosevelt and Stalin. The former has gone pretty easily. His relations with the President are most intimate and friendly. He does not want to use the direct approach on routine questions, but on questions of outstanding importance he is always pretty confident that it will work. Stalin is more difficult. But he has received two telegrams from him lately. One is thanking Churchill for the film Desert Victory. This has clearly been much appreciated. It is being shown in many parts of Russia. It demonstrates, says Stalin, how bravely and how skilfully the British are fighting. It disposes of the stories put about by those miscreants who allege that the British are not seriously in the war. The second telegram is in reply to a discouraging message about convoys. He takes the news very well, though not, of course, with pleasure. Further, Stalin always telegraphs congratulations whenever we raid Berlin. He evidently takes very great satisfaction in this. And no wonder!

(8) Konni Zilliacus wrote about the relative merits of Ernest Bevin and Hugh Dalton in his unpublished autobiography, Challenge to Fear.

He (Bevin) was a great working class leader with a fine record. But he was tragically miscast as Labour's Foreign Secretary in 1945. For he did not have a due to the problems facing him. He was too old and set in his ways to learn. Or rather, to unlearn and then learn afresh: that is, to do the kind of painful thinking that goes down to one's own prejudices and assumptions, tests them in the light of reason and facts, and then works out a policy that is genuinely 'realistic' because it is rooted in reality and not to an out-of-date conception of the world in which we are living, and harnessed to Labour's view of the national interest and not to that of the defenders of the old order.

Hugh Dalton would have been far better, first of all because he really did know a lot about foreign affairs; secondly because he knew how to manage the Foreign Office officials, instead of being run by them; thirdly, because he was capable of learning from experience and correcting his mistakes; fourthly because he would listen to the views of back bench colleagues instead of treating any criticism or comments as an insult and relying on blind trade union loyalties and the power of the block vote to impose on the Labour Party the Churchillian policies that the Foreign Office had induced him to adopt.

(9) Harold Wilson, Memoirs: 1916-1964 (1986)

We were therefore closely involved in the economic crisis in the late autumn of 1947, which had persuaded Hugh Dalton in November to introduce an interim budget. It brought about his downfall. On his way to the House, he met by chance the Lobby correspondent of an evening newspaper and nonchalantly told him the main features of the measures he had in mind. These were telephoned by the journalist to his newspaper and, as a result of some misunderstanding, were printed and on the streets before the Chancellor, who as usual began with a general statement analysing the country's economic and financial problems, started to outline his specific proposals. While he was speaking, early copies of the newspaper were being passed from hand to hand on the Conservative benches. At first there was no attempt by the

Opposition to make capital out of the Dalton gaffe, and Churchill spoke in a sympathetic vein about the indiscretion. But this was not enough for some of his backbenchers. The following afternoon, it became clear that Churchill was going to press the matter hard, involving Dalton's continuance in office.

(10) Herbert Morrison, An Autobiography (1960)

The 1947 economic crisis was at root largely due to the faulty administration at the Treasury for which Dalton must be held responsible as head of the department. Cripps, who was by this time a close friend of Dalton's, felt that the economic co-ordination required the attention of a full-time economic minister. Cripps, with the support of Dalton, was ready to lay the blame at Attlee's feet. I was told that Cripps wanted Bevin to be prime minister, and that Dalton agreed to this. Bevin, it was said - apparently wrongly - was ready to accept. I was asked what would I do? I have never felt up to indulging in high conspiracy and I refused to participate. Anyway, the conspiracy failed.

(11) George Brown, In My Way (1970)

Dalton had known John Carvel for years and he stopped to chat with him for a moment, very misguidedly mentioning one or two of the things that he proposed to do in his Budget. It never occurred to Dalton that there could be any harm in this; he was on his way into the Chamber to make his Budget speech, and it never crossed his mind that any newspaper could print it before he said it.

But it did. A few lines of Budget news got into the Stop Press column of the old London Star, not, indeed, before Dalton got up, but before he sat down. That was enough to make Dalton feel that he had to resign as Chancellor. He was by then so broken by his struggles in the Cabinet that I think he would have resigned soon, anyway, but he would not have gone because of what was inevitably described as a Budget scandal. Dalton was undoubtedly indiscreet, but whether the incident was sufficiently scandalous to require the resignation of a Senior Minister I am less sure. Dalton himself felt that it was, and that was that.

(12) Ben Pimlott, Labour and the Left (1977)

The most influential Labour politician in the 1930s who was not himself a contender for the Party Leadership was Hugh Dalton. Dalton was an academic economist; yet his greatest impact in the 1930s was in the field of foreign policy. He and Ernest Bevin were first among national leaders to seek to impress on the Movement the need for collective action and rearmament as counter-measures to fascist aggression, and the gradual conversion of the Party to this view was to a great extent their achievement.

John Strachey, when asked by dear old ladies why he became a Communist, had a stock answer. "From chagrin, madam," he would reply, "from chagrin at not getting into the Eton Cricket Eleven." Perhaps Dalton joined the Labour Party because he was never elected to the Etonian elite society. Dalton's background was certainly bizarre fora Labour politician. His father had been Canon of St George's Chapel, Windsor, and for fourteen years tutor to the sons of the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, remaining to his death in iggi an intimate friend of George V. The young Hugh spent his early years in the atmosphere of the Court. After Eton, he went to King's College, Cambridge, where his three primary interests were "Personal Relationships, Politics and Poetry", and one of his closest friends was Rupert Brooke. At Cambridge he became a Fabian, exchanging Joseph Chamberlain for Hardie and Webb, and developing an early dislike for Ramsay MacDonald....

After four unsuccessful contests he became an MP in 1924. Once in the House his progress was meteoric. Within a year he was on the PLP Executive, and in 1926 took third place, beating Thomas, Henderson and Webb. In the same year he was elected to the Constituency Parties' section of the NEC, and though he lost his seat the following year, he was thereafter re-elected annually until 1952. "I am inclined to agree with Henderson that if the Labour Government arrives during the next ten years Dalton will certainly attain Cabinet rank" wrote Beatrice Webb, who did not like him, in 1927. But Dalton did not get into the Cabinet; he was given the Parliamentary Secretaryship at the Foreign Office, and in the course of the Second Labour Government his respect for Henderson grew into hero-worship, while his scorn for MacDonald hardened into a bitter contempt.

In 1931 he narrowly lost his seat at Bishop Auckland. "In the intense and self-regarding life of Westminster," he wrote later, "the absent are soon forgotten or left out of account." Yet Dalton was scarcely ignored; from a firm base on the NEC he was a directing force in the Labour Party in this period, and his absence from Parliament freed him to concentrate on reshaping Labour's economic and financial policies. A product of his efforts was Practical Socialism for Britain, published in March 1935, "the first swallow of the post-1935 summer'" of socialist reformism, which dismissed "all theatrical nightmares of violent head-on collisions", and presented a detailed programme for the next Labour Government.

Dalton's main flaw was a boyish enjoyment of plots and behind-the-scenes deals. "Rather a born intriguer", was Attlee's verdict. Outgoing, worldly and gregarious, with a notoriously booming voice, politics remained for him on one level a compulsive, competitive undergraduate game. Revelling in personal success, with a huge confidence in his own abilities, he was distrusted both for his manoeuvrings and for his fierce careerism.