David Torrance is a constitutional specialist at the House of Commons Library. Prior to that, he was a freelance journalist, broadcaster and writer for almost 20 years. As a Herald columnist, he was one of the leading commentators on Scottish and UK politics during the 2014 independence and 2016 Brexit referendums, while as the author or editor of almost 20 books, he published unauthorised biographies of the SNP leaders and First Ministers Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, as well as the authorised biography of David Steel.
House of Commons Library
Article for Unherd
The Big Issue
The remarkable true story of Britain’s first Labour Government – and the ‘wild men’ who nearly brought down the Establishment.
In 1923, four short years since the end of the First World War, and after the passing of the Act which gave all men the vote, an inconclusive election result and the prospect of a constitutional crisis opened the door for a radically different sort of government: men from working-class backgrounds who had never before occupied the corridors of power at Westminster.
Who were these ‘wild men’? Ramsay MacDonald, their leader and Labour’s first Prime Minster, was the illegitimate son of a Scottish farm labourer; Arthur Henderson was a Scottish iron moulder; J. H. Thomas, a Welsh railwayman; John Wheatley, an Irish-born miner and publican; and William Adamson, a Fife coal miner. Never before had men from such backgrounds occupied the corridors of power in Westminster.
The Wild Men tells the story of that first Labour administration – its unexpected birth, fraught existence, and controversial downfall – through the eyes of those who found themselves in the House of Commons, running the country for the people. Blending biography and history into a compelling narrative, David Torrance reassesses the UK’s first Labour government a century after it shook up a British establishment still reeling from the War – and how the establishment eventually fought back.
This is an extraordinary period in British political history which echoes down the years to our current politics and laid the foundations for the Britain of today.
‘A highly readable, enjoyable and informative book — with fascinating details gleaned from private papers.’
— John McTernan, the Financial Times
‘thoroughly researched… The Wild Men brings superbly to life figures whom history should not have forgotten.’ ★★★★
— Simon Heffer, the Telegraph
‘Lively, interesting [and] based on an impressive amount of archival research. A highly readable guide to a landmark historical episode.’
— Richard Toye, author of Age of Hope: Labour, 1945, and the Birth of Modern Britain
‘With meticulous reconstruction and careful judgement, this is a fascinating piece of work with some intriguing parallels for our own times.’
— Peter Hennessy
‘A meticulously researched collective biography’
— Andrew Marr, New Statesman
‘Torrance tells an absorbing, meticulous and balanced story through the eyes of the main players, using a wide range of sources, some of which have not been seen before.’
— Chris Mullen, The Spectator
‘David Torrance illuminates all of this [history] brilliantly in his engrossing book. He also goes beyond the politics to expose the personalities of the extraordinary group of men who formed the first Labour cabinet.’
— Alan Johnson, The Guardian
‘A really fantastic book… a really good, snappy, beautifully written account of how the first Labour government came about.’
— Matthew D’Ancona
Torrance ‘tells the story of MacDonald’s rise and the first Labour government, its people, policies and purpose, with sympathy and fastidious attention to detail… [A] fascinating portrait’
— Jason Cowley, The Times
‘David Torrance’s lucid account, The Wild Men, tells a lot of the story through a series of well-crafted and elegantly written mini-biographies of the leading players, a good device for navigating a turbulent period of complex events and issues’
— The Observer
‘Torrance tells the story of each of this engrossing era’s main principals in a series of crisp, meticulously researched chapters. It was a fascinating period, and this is a timely, even racy account.’
— Mail on Sunday
‘David Torrance’s admirable, thoroughly researched – and yet very readable – account of the first Labour Government… Torrance offers rich character sketches and takes us through the often difficult history of the Government with exemplary skill. He has written a fully-researched and scholarly book, but one which will have an appeal to the intelligent and interested general reader.’
— The Scotsman