Dr Hugh Dalton’s speech to trade unionists on May Day 1920 on Parker’s Piece.

It was advertised in the local press. At the time, Hugh Dalton, a former student at King’s College, Cambridge had just been selected as the new Parliamentary candidate for the Labour Party in Cambridge – having returned to the town following four years in the snow-swept mountains of northern Italy as an artillery officer on the Italian Front against the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the First World War.

Later that evening he was joined by future Labour MP Dr Marion Phillips. Later that year, Dalton would receive a DSc from the London School of Economics, where he was a lecturer, and would often be titled as “Dr Dalton.”

The report from the Cambridge Independent Press of Friday 07 May (it was a weekly paper) reports Hugh Dalton’s remarks are as I have transcribed from the British Newspaper Archive, and read as follows:

“Mr Hugh Dalton began by congratulating the building trades operatives of Cambridge on the fact that by means of their organisation they had secured a new standard of work – a 44 hour week – without reduction of wages. They must develop in the Labour movement, he said, both the industrial organisation on the one hand, and the political organisation on the other. They could not afford to neglect either the one or the other. And the stronger they got, either industrially or politically, the greater would be the opposition and the difficulties they would meet.

“In the political sphere at present many attacks were being made upon the trades unions. The present Government and the present House of Commons were bitterly opposed to and suspicious of the Trade Union movement. There were plenty of examples of it. There was the Bill with the object of preventing trade unions from conducting their own strike ballots without interference and assistance from people outside, there was the Unemployment Bill, to which amendments had been moved with a view to taking away the administration of the trade union unemployment benefits and putting them in the hands of “all sorts of other bodies”.

Labour and Housing Associations.

“There was also the housing problem. The Government who had muddles the whole thing were now trying to put the whole blame on to the organised workers in the building trade. “It has been put about the country” Mr Dalton said, “that it is you men who are responsible for the fact that there are not enough houses in the country. (Laughter.) Now that of course, only ‘takes in’ very ignorant people. But unfortunately there are a number of very ignorant people who need enlightenment upon these matters.”

“Mr Dalton quoted the fact that the Carpenters’ and Joiners’ Society asked all members – about 120,000 of them – what they were doing. Out of the 118,000 who replied, less than nine per cent, were engaged in building new houses or in renovating and repairing old houses. Not one man in ten! Why, there was great a percentage employed in building cinemas. That would show them how the labour supply of this country was being mismanaged. [Note this was the boom in the construction of cinemas both for films and for news reels – people would go to the news reel cinema to watch the news at lunchtime or in the evening].

“As to bricklayers, only about 40 per cent were engaged in building houses, while something like 20,000 building workers, including 13,000 ex-service men, were out of work. It was obvious that the blame for the shortage of houses could not rest on the workers.”

Labour’s orderliness.

“Turning to the political sphere, Mr Dalton said that Mr Lloyd George [the Prime Minister at the time] and his Government [Conservative and Lloyd-George-Backing Liberals, who had split from Asquith’s Liberals] and his Government were continually denouncing the Labour movement as an anarchist, or as a Bolshevist, conspiracy against the liberty of England. The Labour movement must be prepared to make an answer to these accusation. Labour, Mr Dalton urged, was showing a most remarkable orderliness in its movement. “For example when I came today from the station in the procession with many of my friends here, I didn’t notice any special outbursts of violence, either on the part of those marching in the procession or of others. (Laughter). After all, we are all Englishmen, and all accustomed to our own political affairs being run in an orderly fashion!”

“A gross perversion of the truth”

“Mr Dalton pointed out the international significance of those May Day celebrations. In all countries (he said) – whether Allied, neutral or enemy during the war – that day was being observed as a Labour holiday. The moral was that if the workers in every country organised themselves industrially and politically and took hold of the machine of Government – by constitutional methods where possible, and it was possible in every democratic country – they could put in power Governments which were not militarist, which were not based upon capital intrigues and concessions, but which were aware that the first need of the whole world was the maintenance of peace and international co-operation.

“Those present could send a thought to all workers all over the world who were holding similar demonstrations and could pledge themselves in their hearts to build the world better than it had been built in the past. They heard demands for increased production. Well, no sane man could oppose that – provided the wealth obtained was distributed in a sane manner. It was assumed that it was only through idleness and holiday-making of the manual workers that prices were not back to their pre-war level. “That is a gross perversion of the truth,” Mr Dalton declared.

“The continuance of high prices was due to amongst other things, to the face that were still waging war in outlying regions [Russia during the civil war, Greece/Turkey, the League of Nations mandates] instead of resuming trade, and to the great growth of combinations and trusts in British Industry.”

“There is no reason why there should not be a Labour MP for Cambridge” Mr Dalton concluded. “It merely rests upon your determination. I am simply a symbol – I stand for the things we hold in common.”


Above – Dr Hugh Dalton MP as a junior minister at the Foreign Office during the Labour minority government at the start of the Great Depression, and the disaster of the 1931 General Election.

Dr Hugh Dalton MP was one of the most significant Labour Party figures of the first half of the 20th Century. For such a prominent politician, he was well known in Cambridge and popular with the workers – something he reciprocated with regular visits back to Cambridge even though he was unsuccessful in his by-election campaign here. You can read more about how he became only the second person to stand for Labour in Cambridge as a parliamentary candidate.

The evening speeches with Dr Marion Phillips I’ve transcribed here. One of the occasions Dalton returned to Cambridge was for the official opening of the Romsey Labour Club on Mill Road/Coleridge Road. He also returned to Cambridge for the 25th anniversary of the Cambridge Labour Party’s foundation in 1937. Three years later following the resignation of Neville Chamberlain, Winston Churchill appointed him a minister in the wartime coalition government.

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