Arthur Greenwood

Arthur Greenwood

Arthur Greenwood, the son of William Greenwood, a painter and decorator, and his wife, Margaret Nunns, was born at 13 Carey Street, Hunslet on 8th February, 1880. When he was thirteen, he won a scholarship to Bewerley Street School and from 1895 became a pupil teacher as a way of continuing his education.

Greenwood began reading The Clarion while still at school and was converted to socialism. He also heard a lecture by Philip Snowden on Christian Socialism that had a great influence on his political thinking. He eventually joined the Labour Party.

In 1899 he entered the Yorkshire College in Leeds on one of the scholarships available to teachers. His degree was translated into a BSc from Leeds University in 1905 to mark the Yorkshire College's transformation into university status. Under the terms of his scholarship he had to return to school teaching, but he went on to become head of economics at Huddersfield Technical College. According to his biographer, Richard Whiting: "In 1913 he moved to the economics department at Leeds University, where his most public act was to join Professor D. H. MacGregor and Henry Clay in criticizing Sir Michael Sadler, the vice-chancellor, for offering students as volunteers to keep local services running during a strike by municipal workers."

Greenwood moved to London in 1914 where he became secretary to the Council for the Study of International Relations. During the First World War he published The Reorganisation of Industry (1916). During the war worked closely with Christopher Addison and Arthur Henderson in the Ministry of Reconstruction.

In 1920 he became Secretary of Research and Information Department of the Labour Party (1920-22). In the 1922 General Election Greenwood was elected to represent Nelson and Colne in the House of Commons. In the 1923 General Election, the Labour Party won 191 seats. Although the Conservative Party had 258 seats, Herbert Asquith announced that the Liberal Party would not keep the Tories in office. If a Labour Government were ever to be tried in Britain, he declared, "it could hardly be tried under safer conditions". Ramsay MacDonald agreed to head a minority government, and Greenwood was appointed as parliamentary secretary to the minister of health, John Wheatley.

In October 1924 the MI5 intercepted a letter written by Grigory Zinoviev, chairman of the Comintern in the Soviet Union. The Zinoviev Letter urged British communists to promote revolution through acts of sedition. Vernon Kell, head of MI5 and Sir Basil Thomson head of Special Branch, told MacDonald that they were convinced that the letter was genuine.

It was agreed that the letter should be kept secret but someone leaked news of the letter to the Times and the Daily Mail. The letter was published in these newspapers four days before the 1924 General Election and contributed to the defeat of MacDonald. The Conservatives won 412 seats and formed the next government and Greenwood, who was successful at Nelson and Colne, went into opposition. Soon afterwards Beatrice Webb referred to Greenwood's problems with alcohol.

In the 1929 General Election the Labour Party won 288 seats, making it the largest party in the House of Commons. One again, Ramsay MacDonald became Prime Minister, but as before, he still had to rely on the support of the Liberals to hold onto power. Greenwood was appointed as minister of health. In this post he improved widows' pensions in 1929, and the Housing Act of 1930 permitted slum clearance and rebuilding in the 1930s.

The election of the Labour Government coincided with an economic depression and MacDonald was faced with the problem of growing unemployment. As Richard Whiting has pointed out: "he came out early, in January 1931, against cuts in social services as a means of balancing the budget, a line he maintained through the summer crisis."

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, including Greenwood, voted against the measures.

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.

In October, MacDonald called an election. The 1931 General Election was a disaster for the Labour Party with only 46 members winning their seats. MacDonald, now had 556 pro-National Government MPs and had no difficulty pursuing the policies suggested by Sir George May. Greenwood lost his seat at Nelson and Colne but the following year he became MP for Wakefield in April 1932. Three years later he was elected deputy leader and served under Clement Attlee for the next ten years. In the late 1930s Greenwood was an outspoken critic of Neville Chamberlain and his government's appeasement Foreign policy.

Ben Pimlott, the author of Labour and the Left (1977) has argued: "Greenwood was a political rarity among the younger leaders in that he was both working-class in origin and an intellectual.... Greenwood was respected as a shrewd and balanced leader with a remorseless appetite for detail... Open-hearted, genial, and with great personal warmth, he aroused more affection than any other Labour leader. Yet he remained more of a back-room intellectual than a politician. In some ways he was too nice. He lacked forcefulness. A heavy and near-compulsive drinker, a point on which his enemies readily capitalised, he was too tolerant and kindly in his treatment of others to be a really effective administrator."

In 1936 the Conservative government feared the spread of communism from the Soviet Union to the rest of Europe. Stanley Baldwin, the British prime minister, shared this concern and was fairly sympathetic to the military uprising in Spain against the left-wing Popular Front government.

Leon Blum, the prime minister of the Popular Front government in France, initially agreed to send aircraft and artillery to help the Republican Army in Spain. However, after coming under pressure from Stanley Baldwin and Anthony Eden in Britain, and more right-wing members of his own cabinet, he changed his mind. In the House of Commons on 29th October 1936, Greenwood, Clement Attlee and Philip Noel-Baker argued against the government policy of Non-Intervention. As Noel-Baker pointed out: "We protest with all our power against the sham, the hypocritical sham, that it now appears to be."

On the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War the Spanish Medical Aid Committee, an organization that had been set-up by the Socialist Medical Association and other progressive groups, was formed. Members included Arthur Greenwood, Lord Faringdon, Tom Mann, Ben Tillett, Harry Pollitt, Hugh O'Donnell, Mary Redfern Davies and Isobel Brown. Soon afterwards Kenneth Sinclair Loutit was appointed Administrator of the Field Unit that was to be sent to Spain. According to Tom Buchanan, the author of Britain and the Spanish Civil War (1997), "he disregarded a threat of disinheritance from his father to volunteer."

The Munich Agreement was popular with most people in Britain because it appeared to have prevented a war with Nazi Germany. However, some politicians, including Greenwood, Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden, attacked the agreement. These critics pointed out that no only had the British government behaved dishonorably, but it had lost the support of Czech Army, one of the best in Europe.

In March, 1939, the German Army seized the rest of Czechoslovakia. In taking this action Adolf Hitler had broken the Munich Agreement. The British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, now realized that Hitler could not be trusted and his appeasement policy now came to an end. In the House of Commons Greenwood argued: "I wonder how long we are prepared to vacillate at a time when Britain and all that Britain stands for, and human civilisation, are in peril. We must march with the French."

In the months that followed the outbreak of the Second World War Greenwood played a central part in Labour's strategy of supporting the war effort but refusing full co-operation with Chamberlain. In May 1940 Winston Churchill appointed Greenwood to the War Cabinet as Minister without Portfolio. He was not a success and fellow cabinet member, Hugh Dalton, told Ellen Wilkinson in 1942: "Greenwood had done extremely well at the outbreak of the war, never before or since had he reached the same high standard and it seemed to me that any substitution would have been better than none." He left office in February 1943 and for the rest of the war was acting leader of the Labour Party in the House of Commons.

In the 1945 General Election the Labour Party had its largest victory at the polls. In the Labour government Greenwood served as Lord Privy Seal, Paymaster General and Minister without Portfolio. According to one historian, Greenwood was a major architect of the National Health Service and the national insurance scheme through his chairmanship of the cabinet social services committee. Clement Attlee sacked Greenwood from the cabinet in September 1947.

Arthur Greenwood died on 9th June 1954.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Herbert Morrison, An Autobiography (1960)

Arthur Greenwood, as deputy leader of the opposition, was made a member of Churchill's War Cabinet as Minister without Portfolio. This meant that tnere were no defined duties but he could become a co-ordinating minister.

In his earlier days Greenwood had done much able work for the Labour Party on research and policy. Arthur Henderson had made him chief of the research department. But by 1940 his grip was failing and for this reason he did not play a great part in the wartime administration. He resigned in February, 1943.

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

Greenwood was a political rarity among the younger leaders in that he was both working-class in origin and an intellectual. Born in 1880 in Leeds, he made his way through elementary and secondary schools in the city, and started his career as an elementary school teacher. Largely self-taught, he moved on to become an economics lecturer, and build up a national reputation through his writings, in particular, on the welfare of school-children. These, and connections with the Fabians, led to his selection for Lloyd George's Wartime "Garden Suburb". After a period as an Assistant Secretary at the Ministry of Reconstruction, where he worked closely with Addison and Arthur Henderson, he became Secretary of the new Joint TUC-Labour Party Research and Information Department. He entered Parliament as MP for Nelson and Colne in 1922, and in 1924 was given a junior post at the Ministry of Health. When the Labour Party set up its own Research Department in 1927 he became Head, and with only short breaks remained so until 1948. As Minister of Health in the Second Labour Government, he steered through Parliament the Widows', Orphans' and Old Age Contributory Pensions Act of 1929, and the Housing Act of 1930.

Greenwood was respected as a shrewd and balanced leader with a remorseless appetite for detail. He had worked with the trade unions in the twenties, and maintained closer relations with union leaders than almost any of his political rivals. Open-hearted, genial, and with great personal warmth, he aroused more affection than any other Labour leader. Yet he remained more of a back-room intellectual than a politician. In some ways he was too nice. He lacked forcefulness. A heavy and near-compulsive drinker, a point on which his enemies readily capitalised, he was too tolerant and kindly in his treatment of others to be a really effective administrator; by the mid-thirties, his direction of the Research Department had become weak, and his subordinates tended to be their own masters.

Yet he remained one of Labour's most influential leaders until his apppointment to Churchill's War Cabinet in 1940. His election as Deputy Leader in 1935 meant that he stood in during Attlee's illness in the summer of 1939, convincing many in the Party that he would make the better Leader.

(3) Richard Whiting, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004)

Although those who worked closely with Greenwood sometimes felt they might be damaged by his reputation, he was universally liked for his genuinely friendly and unassuming manner. But was there a more substantial career destroyed by its character's own failings, principally through drink? Greenwood had certainly shown good judgement at various points, as in 1931 and 1939, and his ability to see what was politically promising in the continuing discussions about social policy was valuable for the party. He was also, early in his career, able to win the trust of key figures and so place himself in the right circles. He therefore displayed real political flair and at his death was recognized as one of the key figures in the party's early history. But he lacked some of the unpleasant virtues required for achieving the highest ranks. He was never able or willing to turn his well-known sociability to aggressive effect. He formed no faction which might have pushed him further, even when Attlee's leadership drove the party to despair. Attlee was able to defend himself by knowing everything that was going on in the intrigues and machinations which occasionally swirled around him; Greenwood also had reserves of defence and resilience but largely because everyone liked him. If lives in the Labour Party are sometimes explained by faction, they can also be accounted for by loyalty, and Greenwood's was probably one of these. What to a serious-minded outsider might seem to have been an improbably long career was, when viewed from within, more intelligible.