If he’s not yet the UK’s top political historian, David Torrance is certainly the hardest-working. His new work, Wild Men, the Remarkable Story of Britain’s First Labour Government, is his 20th in a canon stretching back 18 years.

Several of his previous works, including an unauthorised (and compelling) biography of Alex Salmond, are rooted in the campaign for Scottish independence which has defined Scottish politics (and to a large extent the UK’s) in the last 25 years. This one, published to mark the centenary of that first Labour administration lifts him into the Champions League places of public chroniclers.

I first encountered him in television studios during the first Scottish referendum campaign. Then, it seemed that anyone with a by-line in a Scottish newspaper was being press-ganged into providing expert analysis during those blue remembered days of constitutional upheaval.

Mr Torrance was perhaps the sharpest and best informed of us: you knew that if you were appearing with him a haphazard grasp of the big issues wasn’t going to cut it. Back then, he was one of The Herald’s main political columnists and would gain a degree of infamy by deploying the locution “Ulsterisation” to describe the conduct of Scottish politics. It was a reasonable observation, but attracted the contrived obloquy of the SNP’s scarecrow wing.

He’d always struck me as a soft Unionist rather than a Union Jack imperialist: open to Scottish independence if the case could have been made.

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A book about Ramsay MacDonald’s first Labour administration couldn’t be more prescient. Sir Keir Starmer will be Prime Minister before the end of the year – Labour’s first in 14 years – and the imprecations once hurled at MacDonald by his own politicians: the great betrayer, the man who formed a National government with the Conservatives (and Liberals) in 1931 – are now gathering at the feet of Sir Keir.   

He points out that Clement Attlee would have been much easier to tackle as he’s generally acknowledged to have been a great Prime Minister who left an enduring legacy. “Labour has always been uncomfortable with MacDonald,” says Mr Torrance. “Yet, after every government, the recriminations always begin immediately: it was a sell-out; they weren’t radical enough; they didn’t achieve much; they were in hoc to the right-wing press. Even after Attlee’s great reforming government gave way to the Conservatives in 1951 they began to beat themselves up.”

If Sir Keir does enter Number 10, he might conclude that MacDonald had an easier time of it. The imprecations being hurled at him started two years ago.

Curiously, the Labour Party chose not to mark the centenary of their ground-breaking forbears. In any other context the suite of challenges that faced Ramsay MacDonald are similar to those Sir Keir Starmer faces. MacDonald and his ministers had to reassure the serried forces of the British political establishment; a politically-adroit King George V; the nation’s security networks and an implacably reactionary press that his party weren’t the “Wild Men” of Conservative nightmares.

Rather, they could be a party who could govern maturely. If Labour wanted to achieve radical reform it must first prove that it wouldn’t scare the horses by waging war on capital, empire and the monarchy.

The Herald: Britain's first Labour (Socialist) Cabinet, 1924.Britain's first Labour (Socialist) Cabinet, 1924. (Image: (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images))

“That first Labour government tested all the established constitutional norms of the time,” says Mr Torrance, “and all of the previously-held societal assumptions, born of centuries of a two-party system. In strictly political terms it was revolutionary, but maybe with a small ‘p’.”

Labour didn’t actually win the election in 1924; they came to power because the Tories lost their majority. Like Theresa May in 2017, they’d called an election to reinforce their position but came out of it reduced. Ramsay MacDonald thus governed with a mere 191 MPs, a cohort which Mr Torrance describes as “not just a minority government, but an absurdly minority one. It was probably a bit of an accident as it comes a few years earlier than Labour would have planned.

“From Ramsay MacDonald’s perspective, he’s aware that internally the party was were nervous about destroying their chances of a future majority. His main focus, I think, is displacing the Liberals as the main progressive party.

“So, it’s steady as she goes and proceeding with extreme caution. He had to neutralise fears that working-class people like him were unfit to govern while cajoling the party into being more mature about accepting the responsibilities of high office.”

As his research proceeded, Mr Torrance grew gradually to admire MacDonald and what he’d actually achieved. Labour history has ruled that Clement Attlee was the great radical statesman whose post-war government did more to improve the lives of working-class people than any other before or since. And that MacDonald must forever be cast in the role of the grand betrayer squandering his people’s birth-right for a mess of potage.  

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“He’s hard to categorise,” he reflects. “He was opposed to the Great War, though he wasn’t really a pacifist. The right of the party liked him because they thought he was moderate. The Trade Unionists supported him because, contrary to received wisdom, they – like him – had had to tread warily. They were focused solely on improving their members’ wages and conditions. This required compromise with the Conservatives who were probably still acclimatising to a world where trade unions actually existed.”

Ramsay was also Foreign Secretary in this most vulnerable of administrations. Following the war, France was occupying part of a Germany economically-crippled by reparations. “By getting France and Germany actually to shake hands for first time in years, he stabilised European and was widely regarded as the continent’s pre-eminent statesman,” he says.

At this point in the 21st century we like to believe that our civic discourse is more refined, elegant and progressive than it ever could have been a century ago. Torrance disagrees. “I found it remarkable how sophisticated it was then and how similar it was to now. We also tend to think that the press and media today is unpleasant and predatory, but it was much more brutal then.”

In a desperate attempt to destroy MacDonald’s government before it had started the Daily Mail published the Zinoviev Letter, a fake document purported to have been written by Grigory Zinoviev, one of the most senior figures in the Soviet government. The letter was a call for British Communists to cripple the UK’s infrastructure.

“The press back then was just as vicious – more so – than now. You might not have had social media but newspapers sold in millions with several editions a day. It was very immediate. And politicians were just as extreme and unguarded in their barbs and imprecations as now. The issues that consumed them in 1924 eerily remain the same: there was a chronic housing crisis; the London Underground was crippled with strikes; the Northern Ireland border issue was a massive one with Belfast refusing to cooperate with London and Dublin.

“The Scottish Home Rule question would lead to the formation of the SNP a decade later and all the while there were accusations of Russian disinformation and the dissemination of fake news. The parallels a century later are striking.”

Several more books will be written about politics as this momentous and turbulent year proceeds. Very few of them will be as good as this one. Mr Torrance reminds us too that politics is cyclical: that we rarely encounter an issue that hasn’t existed before.