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John Burns: The First Working-Class Government Minister

John Simkin

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In the 1892 General Election John Burns was elected to represent Battersea in the House of Commons. Burns now joined the other socialist who won a seat in the election, James Keir Hardie. Whereas Burns was willing to work closely with the Liberal Party, Hardie argued for the formation of a new working class political party. Burns attended the meeting in 1900 that established the Labour Representation Committee, the forerunner of the Labour Party, but refused to join and continued to align himself to the Liberal Party.

Burns knew that the Liberal Party might win the next election whereas the Labour Party would take a long time before it was in a position to form a government. When the Liberal Party won the 1906 General Election, the new Prime Minister, Henry Campbell-Bannerman, offered John Burns the post of President of the Local Government Board.

Burns, the first member of the working-class to become a government minister, disappointed the labour movement with his period in office. Burns was responsible for only one important piece of legislation, the Housing and Town Planning Act of 1909, during his time in government. Burns, who was now earning £5,000 a year, was bitterly attacked in the House of Commons by old comrades such as Fred Jowett, when he argued for no outdoor relief to be given to the poor. Burns was reminded how he had been a strong critic of the Poor Law and the workhouse system when he had been a member of the Social Democratic Federation.

Burns was retained in the cabinet when Herbert Asquith replaced Henry Campbell-Bannerman as prime minister in 1908. Supporters of Burns point out that he did have his successes. For example, he piloted through the House of Commons the 1910 Census Bill that sought to obtain more information about both family structure and urban conditions in order for the government to develop policies to tackle problems such as infant mortality and slum housing. By 1913 his administrative reforms had resulted in a more effective deployment of medical staff in the infirmaries.

Burns gradually began to question the growth in the Welfare State. He told a conference in August 1913, that the government and charity organisations should not "supersede the mother, and they should not by over-attention sterilise her initiative and capacity to do what every mother should be able to do for herself." Beatrice Webb was furious with this approach to poverty: "Burns is a monstrosity, an enormous personal vanity feeding on the deference and flattery yielded to patronage and power. He talks incessantly, and never listens to anyone except the officials to whom he must listen in order to accomplish the routine work of of his office. Hence he is completely in their hands and is becoming the most hidebound of departmental chiefs." Fred Jowett argued that he had clearly gone over to the other side.


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