March 20, 2024   6 mins

The Conservative government losing office was no great surprise; after a decade in power, damaged by cabinet resignations and defecting MPs, it had lost the will to govern. But the scale of their defeat in the general election of 1906, the utter collapse that saw the Tories win just 156 seats, down dramatically from 402 — that was beyond expectations.

The big beneficiaries were the Liberals, who gained over 200 seats — who only rubbed it in the Tories’ faces by creating the welfare state with pensions and National Insurance, by curbing the power of the House of Lords, and by legislating for Irish Home Rule. And as though that were not bad enough, the 1906 election also saw 29 MPs elected for the Labour Representation Committee, a grouping that promptly reconstituted itself as the Labour Party.

These were early days, and the Labour vote was less than 5% of the national total, but behind the parliamentary party were two million members of the trade unions. The demand to extend the franchise, to allow votes for the working class and for women, was growing and would become irresistible. The Conservatives had more to fear than even the radicalism of the Liberals: the future was surely socialist.

That, at least, was the conclusion of John Dawson Mayne, a former advocate-general of Madras and sometime Conservative election candidate whose dystopian fears serve as something of a precursor to our own Tory tailspin. So concerned was he at the terrible prospect confronting the nation that — at the age of 79 — he turned to fiction and wrote his first novel, The Triumph of Socialism, and How It Succeeded, published in 1908. Its premise is a landslide election victory for Labour as early as 1912. The new government introduces a minimum wage and an eight-hour working day, and nationalises the railways; it abolishes the House of Lords, turns churches into places of entertainment and makes divorce much easier. The King is exiled, and the National Anthem replaced by a hurriedly written new song, “God Save Ourselves”. The result is misery and mass starvation.

Mayne wasn’t alone in his concern. There was also William Le Queux, a prolific writer whose big hit had been The Invasion of 1910, which predicted — with great inaccuracy — the forthcoming war with Germany. Unperturbed by that event not happening on schedule, Le Queux published a new scare-story, in 1910 itself, entitled The Unknown Tomorrow: How the Rich Fared at the Hands of the Poor, Together with a Full Account of the Social Revolution in England. This was set at a more cautious distance, in 1935, and depicted a socialist revolution, under the slogan “Britain for the British”, that unleashes a Red Terror to rival Robespierre.

Then there was Ernest Bramah’s What Might Have Been (1907) — about a near-future when a Labour government has already been ousted by a more militant socialist regime — R.H. Benson’s epic Lord of the World (1907), set 100 years in the future but hinging on the election of a Labour government in 1917. Eclipsing all rival accounts, Benson’s ends with the rise of the Anti-Christ and the destruction of the Vatican in an air-raid, after which the only surviving cardinal flees to the Holy Land. “That place, father,” he asks a Syrian priest, gesturing towards a small settlement, “what is its name?” And the man replies: “That is Megiddo. Some call it Armageddon.”

No one else was quite that apocalyptic, but all these books had the same theme: the arrival of Labour in Parliament was a harbinger of national decline and disaster. The policies of the various fictional governments were much the same as well. Socialism means economic incompetence; the dismantling of defence; the abolition of the churches, the House of Lords and the monarchy. It was essentially unpatriotic, un-British.

Were these concerns rooted in reality? Probably not. Labour wasn’t a revolutionary party even then, seeking reform through Parliament. Ramsay Macdonald, one of the new Labour MPs elected in 1906, could sound ominous when defining socialism — “The State is going to take over the means of production into its own hands, and private property will come to an end” — but he was also keen to soften the blow: “Suddenness and revolution are not the socialist ideal.” The role of Labour at this stage was to drag the Liberal government to the Left, securing, for example, legal rights for trade unions. In the great conflict between the Commons and Lords, Labour called for the abolition of the Upper Chamber, but that was as extreme as it cared to be.

And anyway, not everyone was consumed by doom. Despite the nightmare visions, some in high society adopted this fashionable new creed of socialism. Daisy Greville, the Countess of Warwick and a former lover of Edward VII, went beyond even the Labour Party, and disapproved of the trade union movement on the grounds that it “only postpones the revolution”. She joined the much more radical Social Democratic Federation, probably the only member of the party who ever hired a private train to take her home after a Marxist discussion meeting. Such figures proved irresistible to satirists. “I am nothing if I am not a socialist,” declares a countess in Philip Gibbs’s novel The Street of Adventure (1909). “I do so pity the poor Poor. I have taken them up as a hobby, and I find it ever so much more elevating and ennobling than poultry-keeping.” In Saki’s The Unbearable Bassington (1912), Lady Caroline Benaresq declares herself a socialist so that she can “disagree with most of the Liberals and Conservatives, and all the Socialists”.

There were also warnings that these wealthy patrons represented a source of temptation for decent working-class politicians. Saints in Society, the debut novel of Margaret Baillie-Saunders, was published in 1905 — even before the Party was officially created — and follows a poor printer from a South London slum who’s elected as a Labour MP. Embraced by the establishment, he loses sight of his roots, his values and himself. He loses touch with his wife as well. “Now, my dear, don’t be silly,” he tells her; “there are matters you can’t, as a woman, be expected to understand.” But of course, it’s she who remains true to their original ideals, while he is corrupted by wealth and prestige.

What’s striking about all the fiction that poured out after the 1906 election is how rapidly the lines of attack on Labour were laid out. And then how very enduring they’ve proved to be. Workers on the boards of companies? Advocating that policy was evidence of Tony Benn’s lunacy in the Seventies. A minimum wage? It would lead to economic ruin, warned the Tories when it was finally introduced in 1998. High taxation? That’s a perennial, as is weakness on defence — hence Keir Starmer’s determination not to show an inch between him and the government on Ukraine or Israel.

The dystopian novels exaggerated, of course, but the fears they expressed were genuine and widespread at the time. Ramsay MacDonald complained that so many people saw socialists as “Mad Mullahs”, hell-bent on “the overthrow of ancient institutions, social organisations and the moral conscience”, and there was no shortage of those.

“The fears they expressed were genuine and widespread at the time.”

A century ago, MacDonald himself went on to become Labour’s first prime minister, embodying Margaret Baillie-Saunders’s fable of the worker seduced by society. Born the illegitimate son of a housemaid and a farmworker, now he could hobnob with the highest nobs in the land. And he revelled in it. As a contemporary commentator noted, MacDonald “enjoys the glory of richly embroidered uniform and white knee-breeches”.

And if that first Labour government didn’t achieve a great deal, it did at least, MacDonald believed, serve to reassure, ending the most extreme predictions of national ruin. As he told the King — he would have approved of that namedrop — he and his colleagues had done much “to dispel the fantastic and extravagant belief which at one time found expression that they were nothing but a band of irresponsible revolutionaries intent on wreckage and destruction”.

He was right. There was still talk of extremists bent on wrecking the nation, but by the Twenties it centred not on Labour but on communists. There was a newly popularised phrase, “the lunatic fringe”, to describe those who, in David Lloyd George’s words, “are always crying for the moon and will take nothing terrestrial in its place”. By definition, a party of government was not on the fringe; it was firmly in the mainstream. Macdonald had set the standard for the future — one where, as we saw yesterday, a Labour shadow chancellor can give a lecture to the City on the importance of “securonomics” and “long-term growth”.

Since Macdonald, just three Labour leaders have won a general election: two were public schoolboys, Clement Attlee and Tony Blair, while Harold Wilson, who went to grammar school, had his own children privately educated. In any event, despite his modest origins, Wilson was a thoroughly respectable member of society, an Oxford don and the recipient of an OBE for his work as a civil servant before he even entered Parliament. In the same way, Starmer — soon to become the fifth man to win — earned his knighthood as the Director of Public Prosecutions a year before he stood for election. Labour has been accepted as a government only when led by those who could move comfortably in establishment circles, smoothing away the fears of wild-eyed insurrectionaries.

Or, as one of Oxfordshire’s landed gentry observed after Macdonald’s government fell in 1924: “Well, we have been through a revolution, and our throats are still intact.”

Alwyn W. Turner is a cultural and political historian.