Arthur Henderson – reformer

35 Henderson pic1


“The Labour Party holds that it is suicidal for the nation to penalise by increased taxation occupiers of land who effect improvements which add to its value. We propose a drastic revision of the entire system of assessment and rating in order that the taxation of land may be used to unrate the improvements made by the occupier.”

“The Labour Party says that if the great landowners of this country desire to put fences round the most productive soil in the world … they must pay for the pleasure of doing so. Accordingly, it is proposed to have the land valued, and to ask the owner to pay a tax on that valuation. I think that by the pressure of the taxation and rating of land-values the owners would soon find that the land held out of use was not so necessary to their pleasure as they thought.”

“I challenge anyone to say that a tax on economic rent is paid by anyone else than the receiver of the rent.”

“The taxation of land-values has been a vital need ever since the private ownership of land formed an integral part of the social system, but the aftermath of a great war has brought us problems which have dragged its urgent necessity more into the light and indicated the essential truths of the doctrine taught by Henry George.”

“The taxation of land-values …… seeks to open the way to the natural resources from which all wealth springs. The labour is here, and with it the will to work, but the land still lies locked in the grip of a tenacious and unrelenting monopoly, while unemployment and poverty haunt us with a terrifying persistence.”

What does it say about conventional education that someone whom poverty forced to leave school at age 9 could still rise to dizzy political heights? And even more telling is that this same man “saw the cat” while most of his university-educated colleagues remained oblivious to the economic, social and environmental absurdity of neoclassical economics.

Arthur Henderson, the son of a frequently-unemployed cotton spinner, was born into “the school of hard knocks” in Glasgow, and his wages as an errand boy became even more important to his family after his father died when Arthur was 11. At 12, he found work as an ironworker, toiling 10 hours during the day while managing scraps of further education through evening classes. But he always attributed his real education to the University of Life, including lively discussions over meal breaks at the iron foundry.

Having joined the Ironfounders’ Union at the age of 18, he was elected within a short time secretary of the Newcastle lodge and for the remainder of his life held office continuously in his union at the local, district, or national level.

The skill in speaking that he developed at the meetings of the Tyneside Debating Society helped to launch him on a political career begun with his election to the post of town councillor in 1892. In the same year he was chosen by his union to be their district delegate, a full-time salaried position. In 1896 he moved his family to Darlington where he was elected to the Durham County Council and in 1903 became the first Labour mayor of Darlington and later that year was elected to parliament.

Arthur was fortunate to be living in the time of Lloyd George’s heroic push for geoist reforms, most notably the 1909 “People’s Budget” which proposed the collection of the unearned increment of land values. Arthur witnessed the fury of the lords, dukes, barons and earls as the House of Lords fought tooth and nail to preserve their privileges in land, succeeding to overturn the House of Commons at a time when the political power of their lordships overrode all else. Arthur’s education in politics as well as economics advanced in great strides.

Arthur was Labour secretary from 1911 to 1934, serving several times as the chairman of the party’s executive committee. In 1918 he took the lead in revising the party’s constitution so as to open its membership to those who by conviction, not necessarily vocation, wanted to join the party, and created the political machinery which made the party a power in the political life of the nation. He held a host of positions – chairman of the parliamentary Labour Party, chief whip three times, president of the Board of Education, paymaster-general, minister without portfolio in the five-man war cabinet and, near the end of his political career, leader of the party.

Henderson fought strenuously to clarify the aims of the Labour Party along geoist lines, but was up against the lost momentum arising from the Great War, the power of the Lords, economic ignorance, and political compromise arising from personal opportunism. Labour retreated from its aims for collection of all land rent, eventually proposing what amounted to mere rural reforms. Henderson was misunderstood frequently, and suffered many setbacks in an era of political turmoil.

Not surprising, along with Arthur’s geoist interests came a commitment to world peace – indeed, he famously declared that “Another essential to a universal and durable peace is social justice.” He worked tirelessly on the international front – his appointment as Foreign Secretary helped him here – and became the embodiment of the League of Nation’s disarmament effort, for which he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1934. The failure of the Disarmament Conference foreshadowed World War II, but his biographer, Mary A. Hamilton, declared “If any man is clear of responsibility, it is Arthur Henderson.” The same may be said about Arthur regarding Britain’s tragic reversal of its great geoist ideals.