Thomas was a leading trade unionist and served in three governments, the Labour governments of 1924 and 1929-31 and in the National government of 1931-35, as Colonial and Dominions secretary and Lord Privy Seal. From 1920, he lived at 125 Thurlow Park Road, West Dulwich, in a house bought for him by his union, the National Union of Railwaymen. He was also president of the Dulwich and Sydenham Hill golf club. 125 Thurlow Park Road is now part of Oakfield Preparatory School.
Thomas is a largely forgotten figure in British labour history. He has no entry in the 15 volume Biography of Labour History, and there is only one biography of him, by Gregory Blaxland, published in 1964 under the rather odd title of ‘ A Life for Unity’. Thomas published his own autobiography in 1937 as My Story. The possible reasons for this disregard is that firstly Thomas, together with Philip Snowden, joined MacDonald’s National government after the 1931 economic crisis and is therefore widely seen as a traitor to the labour movement, and secondly that Thomas in later life became a butt of ridicule, especially by the cartoonist, David Low - for drinking too much, for aping the style of the aristocracy ( a tendency shared with Ramsay MacDonald) and finally for being caught up in a budget leak scandal, which led to his resignation. The snobbish and puritanical Fabian, Beatrice Webb noted in her diary in December 1929 – “ his ugly and rather mean face made meaner and uglier by an almost exaggerated sense of personal failure … Jimmy is a boozer, his language is foul, he is a stock exchange gambler, he is also a social climber…”
This perspective however overlooks the fact that he was one of the leading trade unionists and Labour politicians in the interwar era, and made significant contributions to both industrial and political life. He must have had a sense of humour as several of Low’s cartoons are included in his autobiography.
Thomas was born in Newport in Wales in 1874. Like Ramsay MacDonald, he was illegitimate. His mother was a domestic servant – his father is not known. He was brought up by his grandmother, a washerwoman and left school at the age of 12. He worked in shops and as a decorator before joining the Great Western Railway in 1889, at the age of 15, working for five years as an engine cleaner, before promotion to the role of fireman. He joined the Amalgamated Union of Railway Servants, becoming chair of his union branch, president of the Newport Trades Council and a delegate to his union’s national conference. He married in 1898. He then transferred to Swindon, where he also became Trades Council president, and in 1901 he was elected to Swindon council, defeating his own railway superintendent. One of his supervisors recorded that ‘Thomas is a young agitator of whom no notice need be taken’. Thomas became chairman of the Council’s Tramways and Electricity committee and then chairman of the Finance and Law committee. At the same time, he was cooking his breakfast of bacon and egg on the shovel in the fire of his train’s engine.
Thomas had joined his union’s national executive committee in 1902. He became union president in 1905, at the age of 31, and was then appointed organising secretary, a full-time post, moving to Manchester, Cardiff and then London. His union had a list pf prospective parliamentary candidates, and when Richard Bell, the union general secretary who had been the Lib-Lab MP for Derby since 1900, and who had been sponsored by the union, disagreed with the Labour Party standing candidates independent of the Liberal Party, the union decided to withdraw his sponsorship and selected Jimmy Thomas to stand in his place. Bell had been chair of the Labour Representation Committee as well as President of the TUC but had left the small Labour group of MPs because he could not stick to the LRC rules which required independence from other parties. Before parliament was dissolved for the 1910 election, Bell took an appointment with the Board of Trade, a move not approved by the union or the LRC.
Thomas was elected MP for Derby in January 1910 in tandem with the Liberal, Thomas Roe, who had first been elected in 1900 – the constituency had two members and as a result of Ramsay Macdonald’s agreement with Liberal chief whip, Herbert Gladstone, Bell was not opposed by the Liberals, on the basis that Labour did not stand two candidates either. Thomas was to hold the seat until 1936. He was also elected assistant general secretary of his union, which became the National Union of Railwaymen in 1913, taking over as general secretary in 1916, a post he continued to hold while a Minister. Thomas came to national prominence in the 1911 railway strike. Thomas was also one of the triumvirate who ran the Triple Alliance of 1914, when the NUR allied with the Miners Federation of Robert Smillie and the Transport workers union, led by Will Thorne and Robert Williams. Thomas supported British entry into the First World War but was opposed to Labour joining Asquith’s government in May 1915. However, he supported Labour joining the coalition government led by Lloyd George in December 1916. He had hoped for a post in the war cabinet, but Arthur Henderson, the Labour Party leader was appointed instead. He then declined the post of Minister of Labour (which went to the Labour MP, John Hodge) and other offers of ministerial posts. He was however appointed to the Privy Council (which caused some controversy in his union) and to the government’s reconstruction committee.
In 1920, Thomas published his only book (other than his autobiography) When Labour Rules. Thomas set out a programme for government - limited nationalisation, social amelioration and equality of opportunity to be achieved through parliamentary means. He asserted that “Labour rule will be entirely beneficent, and that its dealings with high and low, rich and poor, will be marked with broad-minded toleration and equity.” Thomas was an opponent of both syndicalism and Bolshevism. At the time he was both TUC chairman and chairman of the International Federation of Trade Unions. His view was that political strikes would only subvert the Labour Party. Thomas was a union moderate and preferred conciliation to militancy and strike action. In 1921, the NUR withdrew its support for the Miners Federation. In 1926, he had sought to avoid a general strike and helped to bring the strike to an end. He was critical of the miners’ more militant policy, and was accused of betrayal of the miners.
Thomas was one of the leaders of the Parliamentary Labour Party from 1918, many of the pre-war leaders such as MacDonald, Snowden and Henderson having lost their seats. Thomas was close to MacDonald and had hoped to be foreign secretary, a post which Macdonald kept for himself, when the first Labour administration was formed in 1924. Instead, Thomas was appointed colonial secretary, a post in which he was considered to be fairly successful. Thomas was a patriot and supporter of the Empire, in contrast with internationalists such as E D Morel, who had also hoped for the foreign secretary post. In 1929, in the second Labour government, when Henderson was made foreign secretary, Thomas was given the post of Lord Privy Seal, with responsibility for policy on unemployment. His broader economic policy, so far as he had one, was fairly orthodox. He supported protective tariffs, opposed tax increases and ought to limit expenditure on public works as he considered this would reduce business confidence and the potential for economic recovery. For his junior ministers, he had George Lansbury, Thomas Johnson and Oswald Mosley. Thomas rejected the reflationary programme proposed by Mosley and 16 other Labour MPs including Nye Bevan and John Strachey in the ‘Mosley memorandum’ which was supported by A J Cook of the miners. The rejection prompted Mosley’s resignation. Mosley first established a New Party in February 1931 with other Labour Party radicals from within the Independent Labour Party, before founding the British Union of Fascists the following year.
Without the support of his junior ministers, Thomas’ position became untenable. Macdonald therefore moved him to the post of Dominions secretary, responsible for relations with Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.. Sidney Webb, now Lord Passfield, was Colonial secretary. Thomas’ term coincided with the 1930 Imperial conference, hosted by George V and chaired by Ramsay Macdonald. This brought together the prime ministers of Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Newfoundland (not yet part of the Canadian federation) and the Irish Free State president. India was represented by William Wedgwood Been, the secretary of state.
With the collapse of the Labour government and establishment of a National Government led by MacDonald, Thomas sided with Macdonald. He was a Macdonald loyalist and shared the view of Macdonald and Philip Snowden, the chancellor of the exchequer, that his patriotism required hm to put the country before party. He was an admirer of the King, who apparently supported a National government as the appropriate response to the crisis. An academic, Andrew Thorpe, has however argued that Thomas’ main motivation was that he needed to keep his ministerial salary to maintain his lifestyle. It has been suggested that it was Thomas who first put forward the idea of a National government, though it is unlikely he believed that the Tories would led Macdonald stay on as prime minister. Thomas’ reward was to retain his position as Dominions secretary. He was expelled from the Labour Party and also lost his trade union position. With Macdonald and Snowden, he became one of the three traitors of Labour mythology. Thomas supported Stanley Baldwin and the Tory leadership in creating a more permanent anti-labour coalition. Thomas had to defend his Derby seat, on behalf of ‘National Labour’ with Conservative support and in partnership with a Tory candidate, against two Labour candidates. Thomas held the seat under the same arrangement in 1935. He was however demoted to the role of Colonial secretary. In early 1936, he was found to have leaked budget information to two friends enabling them to make gains on the stock market. Thomas was forced to resign from the government and resigned as an MP in June. In the by-election which followed, Philip Noel-Baker won back the Derby seat for the Labour Party. Thomas withdrew from political life, but went into business, becoming chairman of British Amalgamated Transport.
Thomas died at his Dulwich house in January 1949. The newspaper obituaries tended to focus on anecdotes about his habits. Even his friend and colleague Philip Snowden, could get a laugh out of his audience by commenting: “I calculate that Mr Thomas spends 150 days of each year attending lunches and dinners of various societies, smoking 320 cigars, and consuming nine gallons of champagne, with a laundry bill for starched shirts of £18 a year.” David Low’s most famous cartoons had Thomas as ‘Lord Dress Suit.’ One anecdote had it that King George V burst a post-operative wound laughing at one of Thomas’ rude jokes, just before the 1929 election. On being appointed colonial secretary that year, Thomas asserted that “one must feel proud to live under a constitution which enables a humble boy with a meagre education to become in so short a time one of his Majesties Principal Secretaries of State.” A son, Leslie, an unsuccessful Labour National candidate in 1935, became Conservative MP for Canterbury in 1953.
DNB entry by Philip Williamson
Blaxland, Gregory J H Thomas: A Life for Unity (Muller 1964)
Thomas, J H My Story (Hutchinson 1937)
Thorpe, Andrew I am in the cabinet: J H Thomas’ decision to join the National Government in 1931