National Government (United Kingdom)

In the United Kingdom, National Government is an abstract concept referring to a coalition of some or all major political parties. In a historical sense it usually refers primarily to the governments of Ramsay MacDonald, Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain which held office from 1931 until 1940.

The all-party coalitions of Herbert Henry Asquith and David Lloyd George in the First World War and of Winston Churchill in the Second World War were sometimes referred to as National Governments at the time, but are now more commonly called Coalition Governments. The term "National Government" was chosen to dissociate itself from negative connotations of the earlier Coalitions.[1][2] Churchill's brief 1945 "Caretaker Government" also called itself a National Government and in terms of party composition was very similar to the 1931–1940 entity.

The crisis of 1931

The Wall Street Crash heralded the global Great Depression and Britain was hit, although not as badly as most countries. The government was trying to achieve several different, contradictory objectives: trying to maintain Britain's economic position by maintaining the pound on the gold standard, balancing the budget, and providing assistance and relief to tackle unemployment. The gold standard meant that British prices were higher than its competitors, so the all-important export industries did poorly.

In 1931 the situation deteriorated and there was much fear that the budget was unbalanced, which was born out by the independent May Report which triggered a confidence crisis and a run on the pound. The Labour government agreed in principle to make changes in taxation and to cut expenditure to balance the budget and restore confidence. However the Cabinet could not agree on the two options available: either introduce tariffs (taxes on imports) or make 20% cuts in unemployment benefit. When a final vote was taken, the Cabinet was split 11-9 with a minority, including many political heavyweights such as Arthur Henderson and George Lansbury, threatening to resign rather than agree. The unworkable split, on 24 August 1931, made the government resign.

The political crisis generated much concern and the leaders of both the Conservative and Liberal Parties met with King George V and MacDonald, at first to discuss support for the measures to be taken but later to discuss the shape of the next government. On 24 August, MacDonald agreed to form a National Government composed of "men from all parties" with the specific aim of balancing the Budget and restoring confidence.

The government would then dissolve itself and a general election would be held on party lines. A small Cabinet of just ten ministers was formed to take emergency decisions, with ministerial posts divided as proportionally as possible between the three parties, but relatively few Labour members joined the government.

Early days

The Government was initially applauded by most, but the Labour Party were left in a state of confusion with the loss of several of their most prominent figures, and MacDonald, Philip Snowden and James Henry Thomas did little to explain themselves, with the result that the Labour Party soon swung fully against the government. Efforts to bring public expenditure cuts produced further problems, including a mutiny in the Royal Navy over pay cuts (the Invergordon Mutiny), with the result that the pound sterling came under renewed pressure, and the government was forced to take the radical step of taking the pound off the gold standard altogether.

Debate then broke out about further steps to tackle the economic problems. At the same time the Labour Party officially expelled all of its members who supported the National Government, including MacDonald. Increasingly, the majority of the Cabinet came to believe that a protective tariff was necessary to support British industry and provide revenue and that a general election should be fought to secure a mandate but this was anathema to the Liberal Party. The Liberals' acting leader and Home Secretary, Sir Herbert Samuel, fought in Cabinet against an election but found the Liberal Party dividing in several directions over the course of action. One group, under Sir John Simon emerged as the Liberal Nationals, was prepared to accept the tariff and expressed willingness to take the place of the main Liberals in the government. The party's official leader, David Lloyd George was incapacitated at this time but called for the Liberals to abandon the government altogether and stand independently in defence of free trade, but his call was heeded only by four other MPs, all related to him.

It was eventually agreed that the government as a whole would seek a "Doctor's Mandate" to take a free hand and that each party would issue its own manifesto. Supporters of MacDonald formed the National Labour Organisation and the parties agreed to allow their local organisations to agree whether or not to oppose each other. The government was opposed by the Labour Party, Lloyd George and his Liberals and the New Party of Sir Oswald Mosley. Within the parties there was particular conflict between the Conservatives and Liberals. The result of the 1931 general election was the greatest landslide ever, the National Government winning a total of 556 seats and a Parliamentary majority of 500.

MacDonald's National Government 1931–1935

Although the Conservatives had a bare majority in Cabinet of 11, compared with to 9 non-Conservatives, the former held comparatively few of the most important jobs. The two groups of Liberals were also disbalanced, the official Liberals holding one more seat than the National Liberals, despite the parliamentary position being reversed. That balance was to cause tensions, particularly as the Diehard wing of the Conservative party felt unrepresented (see below).

The government entered protracted wrangling over whether or not to introduce tariffs. Both the Liberals and Snowden found it particularly difficult to accept but were in a heavy minority. However, both MacDonald and Baldwin wished to maintain the multiparty nature of the Government. On the suggestion of Hailsham, it was agreed to suspend the principle of Cabinet collective responsibility to allow the Liberals to oppose the introduction of tariffs while remaining in government. This would hold for some months.

In 1932, Sir Donald MacLean died. MacDonald came under pressure not to merely appoint another Liberal, particularly as it was felt that the would be over-represented, and so instead appointed the Conservative Lord Irwin (later Lord Halifax). Further tensions emerged over the Ottawa Agreement, which set up a series of tariff agreements within the British Empire, and the remaining Liberals and Snowden resigned their ministerial posts although they continued to support the government from the backbenches for another year. MacDonald considered resigning as well to allow a party government to take office but was persuaded to remain even though his health was now in decline. In domestic politics, he increasingly allowed Baldwin to give a lead, but in foreign affairs, the main direction was determined by MacDonald and Simon.

The most prominent policy of the National Government in the early 1930s was the proposal to introduce Indian Home Rule, a measure fiercely opposed by the Diehard wing of the Conservative party, with Winston Churchill one of the most open opponents. The bill was fiercely opposed but eventually passed in 1947.

Baldwin takes over

Stanley Baldwin, Prime Minister 1923–1924, 1924–1929 & 1935–1937.

With MacDonald's health failing, he retired as Prime Minister in June 1935, to be succeeded by Baldwin. Increasingly foreign affairs were coming to dominate political discourse and in November Baldwin led the government to victory in the 1935 general election on a platform of support for the League of Nations and sanctions against Italy for invading Abyssinia. The following month a massive storm developed when it emerged that the new Foreign Secretary, Sir Samuel Hoare, had negotiated the Hoare-Laval Pact which proposed to cede most of Abyssinia to Italy. Many were outraged, including many government MPs, and the agreement was dropped and Hoare sacked, though he later returned to government.

Baldwin's last years in office were seen as a period of drift, but in late 1936 he achieved a notable triumph in resolving the Abdication Crisis of Edward VIII without major repercussions. Baldwin took the opportunity of George VI's coronation as an opportune moment to retire.

The government of Neville Chamberlain

Neville Chamberlain was seen by many as the only possible successor to Baldwin, and his appointment as Prime Minister was widely credited with bringing a new dynamism to the government. With a strong track record as a radical Minister of Health and competent Chancellor of the Exchequer many expected Chamberlain to provide a strong lead in domestic affairs and here the government had a number of successes, such as over the nationalisation of coal mining royalties, the curtailing of excess working hours by the Factory Act and much slum clearance. Another success was the 1938 Holidays with Pay Act, which gave a fortnight's paid holiday a year to workers, starting in 1939. The school leaving age was also to be increased from Autumn 1939, but was deferred as war loomed. Further reforms were curtailed by the increased international tension which came to occupy most of his time.

In foreign affairs, the government sought to increase Britain's armaments, while maintaining the unity of the Empire and Dominions and preventing any one power from becoming dominant on the continent of Europe. These proved increasingly difficult to reconcile, as many Dominions were reluctant to support Britain in the event of her going to war, and so military action risked splitting the Empire. Chamberlain took a strong personal lead in foreign affairs and sought to bring about peaceful revision of European frontiers in areas where many commentators had long- acknowledged grievances. In this, he received much popular support at the time, but the policy has been much attacked since. The most prominent point in the policy of appeasement came in September 1938, when the Munich Agreement was negotiated. Following the agreement, the government sped up the re-armament process in the hope of being ready for war when it came. At the same time, it took a tougher line in foreign affairs, including making a guarantee to defend Poland against Germany.

The outbreak of war

When Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, Britain declared war in tandem with France, supported by all of the Dominions except Ireland. For some time there had been calls to expand the Chamberlain war ministry by bringing in members of the official Labour and Liberal parties but the latter refused to join. For the first few months of war Britain saw comparatively little action apart from at sea, but the failure of the Norwegian campaign led to a massive outcry in Parliament.

On 7 and 8 May 1940, a two-day debate took place in Parliament, known to history as the Norway Debate. Initially a discussion of what had gone wrong in that field, it soon turned into a general debate on the conduct of the war with fierce criticism expressed by all sides of the House. The government won the debate, albeit with a reduced majority, but over the next two days it became increasingly clear that Labour and the Liberals would have to be brought into government and that Chamberlain was unable to achieve this. On 10 May 1940, Germany invaded the Low Countries and Chamberlain finally bowed to pressure and resigned, bringing the life of the National Government to a close. It was succeeded by an all-party coalition headed by Winston Churchill (see: Churchill war ministry).

The caretaker government of 1945

In May 1945, following the defeat of Germany the coalition government broke up and Churchill formed a new administration, including Conservatives, Liberal Nationals and various non-party individuals who had been previously appointed to Ministerial posts. However, significantly, with the exception of the Earl of Rosebery, there were no other Liberal Nationals in the Cabinet, excluding even the Lord Chancellor Lord Simon. This government nevertheless used the title National Government and could be seen as the heir to the 1930s governments, even though the personnel were very different. The government fought the 1945 general election as a National Government but lost.

Following the defeat, elements of the old National Government 'all party coalition' idea continued with Sir John Anderson (elected as a National MP) and Gwilym Lloyd-George, a former Liberal MP who now sat as an Independent Liberal, occupying important positions in Churchill's Shadow Cabinet team. In addition the Liberal Nationals (National Liberals from 1947–48 onwards) also kept a semi-separate existence and did not finally disappear until 1968, the last political legacy of what happened in the crisis of August 1931.


  1. "MacDonald forms a coalition". The Guardian. 25 August 1931. Retrieved 20 December 2014.
  2. Buchan, John (1932). The Gap in the Curtain. London: Hodder and Stoughton. p. 162. A Coalition...only shares the loot, but a national government pools the brains.
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