Hugh Dalton

John Plowright examines the career of one of the key ministers in Attlee’s postwar governments.

Hugh Dalton was one of the dominant figures in the history of the Labour party and Chancellor the Exchequer, from July 1945 to November 1947, at a vital time. According to Ben Pimlott, he was the first truly socialist Chancellor, imposing redistributive taxation ‘with a song in his heart’. In fact he revelled in the role of class traitor.

Early Life 

Few socialists have had as exclusive an experience of privilege as the young Hugh Dalton. His father was tutor and then ‘governor’ to the two sons of the future Edward VII – the Duke of Clarence and the future George V – before he was made a canon (and steward) of St George’s Windsor. From this rarefied background the young Hugh proceeded to Eton and King’s College Cambridge (with a closed Eton exhibition in mathematics).  

At Cambridge he was emotionally attached to Rupert Brooke (with whom he joined the Fabian Society) and intellectually engaged by economics (to which he changed after a third in Part I of the Mathematical Tripos) through the teaching of Alfred Marshall and A. C. Pigou.

After a false start in the law he began a long association with the London School of Economics, although he was beaten to a lectureship there in 1913 by Clement Attlee. He secured a commission in the army in 1915 and served with the Army Service Corps in France and the artillery in Italy. Returning to the LSE after the war (where he held the Cassell Readership in Commerce from 1920 until 1935) he entered parliament on his fifth attempt, in November 1924, as Labour MP for Peckham in London. In the 1929-31 Labour government he served as Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs under Arthur Henderson. 

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