Philip Snowden, the son of a weaver, was born in the village of Cowling, in the West Riding of Yorkshire on 18th July, 1864. His parents were devout followers of the religious ideas of John Wesley and as a boy he was brought up as a strict Methodist. John Snowden was a member of the Temperance Society and Philip followed his father's example and never drank alcohol. Philip did well at school and at the age of fifteen was able to work as a clerk in an insurance office.
Snowden joined the Keightley Liberal Club and he agreed to present a paper on the dangers of socialism. While researching this paper Snowden became converted to this new ideology. Snowden left the Liberal Party and joined the local branch of the Independent Labour Party (ILP). Snowden soon developed a reputation as a fine orator and for the next few years he travelled the country making speeches for the ILP. He drew large crowds and only Keir Hardie was considered his equal as a platform speaker.
In 1899 Snowden was elected to the Keightley Town Council and the School Board. He also served as editor of a local socialist newspaper. Snowden continued to travel the country and in 1903 was elected as the national chairman of the Independent Labour Party. Like Keir Hardie, Snowden was a Christian Socialist, and in 1903 the two men wrote a pamphlet together on their beliefs, The Christ that is to Be.
In 1903 Snowden married Ethel Annakin, an active member of the NUWSS. Ethel converted her husband to the cause of votes for women. Over the next ten years, Snowden, who was a member of the Men's League For Women's Suffrage and gave considerable support to the campaign for equal rights.
Snowden made several attempts to enter the House of Commons. Snowden was defeated at Blackburn in the 1900 General Election. He also failed at the Wakefield by-election in 1902. Snowden was finally successful in the 1906 General Election when he was elected as the Labour MP for Blackburn.
During this period Snowden wrote a great deal about his views on Christian Socialism, the Temperance Movement and economics issues. This included The Socialist's Budget (1907), Old Age Pensions (1907), Socialism and the Drink Question (1908), Socialism and Teetotalism (1909) and the Living Wage (1909). In the House of Commons Snowden developed a reputation as an expert on economic issues and advised David Lloyd George on his 1909 People's Budget.
Philip Snowden was a pacifist and refused to support Britain's involvement in the First World War. Philip and Ethel Snowden both joined the Union of Democratic Control (UDC). Other members included Arthur Ponsonby, J. A. Hobson, Charles Buxton, Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, Norman Angell, Arnold Rowntree, Philip Morrel, Morgan Philips Price, George Cadbury, Helena Swanwick, Fred Jowett, Ramsay MacDonald, Tom Johnston, Arthur Henderson, David Kirkwood, William Anderson, Isabella Ford, H. H. Brailsford, Israel Zangwill, Bertrand Russell, Margaret Llewelyn Davies, Konni Zilliacus, Margaret Sackville, Olive Schreiner and Morgan Philips Price.
The Union of Democratic Control soon emerged at the most important of all the anti-war organizations in Britain and by 1915 had 300,000 members. Frederick Pethick-Lawrence explained the objectives of the UDC: "As its name implies, it was founded to insist that foreign policy should in future, equally with home policy, be subject to the popular will. The intention was that no commitments should be entered into without the peoples being fully informed and their approval obtained. By a natural transition, the objects of the Union came to include the formation of terms of a durable settlement, on the basis of which the war might be brought an an end."
When the First World War was declared two pacifists, Clifford Allen and Fenner Brockway, formed the No-Conscription Fellowship (NCF), an organisation that encouraged men to refuse war service. The NCF required its members to "refuse from conscientious motives to bear arms because they consider human life to be sacred." As Martin Ceadel, the author of Pacifism in Britain 1914-1945 (1980) pointed out: "Though limiting itself to campaigning against conscription, the N.C.F.'s basis was explicitly pacifist rather than merely voluntarist.... In particular, it proved an efficient information and welfare service for all objectors; although its unresolved internal division over whether its function was to ensure respect for the pacifist conscience or to combat conscription by any means"
Snowden also gave his support to the No-Conscription Fellowship. Other members of the group included Bertrand Russell, Bruce Glasier, Robert Smillie, C. H. Norman, William Mellor, Arthur Ponsonby, Guy Aldred, Alfred Salter, Duncan Grant, Wilfred Wellock, Maude Royden, Max Plowman, John Clifford, Cyril Joad, Alfred Mason, Winnie Mason, Alice Wheeldon, William Wheeldon, John S. Clarke, Arthur McManus, Hettie Wheeldon, Storm Jameson and Duncan Grant.
When Ramsay MacDonald formed the first Labour Government in January, 1924, he appointed Philip Snowden as his Chancellor of the Exchequer. Snowden reduced taxes on various commodities and popular entertainments, but was criticised by members of the Labour Party for not introducing any socialist measures. Snowden replied that this was not possible as the Labour government had to rely on the support of the Liberal Party to survive. When Stanley Baldwin, the leader of the Conservative Party, became Prime Minister later that year, Snowden's period in office came to an end.
Snowden returned as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Labour Government of 1929. This coincided with an economic depression and Snowden's main concern was to produce a balanced budget. However, he did manage to make changes to the tax system that resulted in the wealthy paying more and the poor paying less. The economic situation continued to deteriorate and in 1931 Snowden suggested that the Labour government should introduce new measures including a reduction in unemployment pay. Several ministers, including George Lansbury, Arthur Henderson and Joseph Clynes, refused to accept the cuts in benefits and resigned from office.
Ramsay MacDonald now formed a National Government with Conservative and Liberal politicians. Snowden remained Chancellor and now introduced the measures that had been rejected by the previous Labour Cabinet. Labour MPs were furious with what MacDonald and Snowden had done, and both men were expelled from the Labour Party.
Philip Snowden died on 15th May, 1937.