Arthur Henderson, the son of a cotton spinner, was born in Glasgow on 13th September, 1863. His father, suffered long periods of unemployment, and so Arthur was forced to leave school at nine years old to find work as an errand boy in a photographer's shop. Arthur's wages became even more important to the family income after the death of his father in 1874.
When Arthur's mother married Robert Heath, the family moved to Newcastle-upon-Tyne. At the age of twelve Arthur found work at the Robert Stephenson locomotive works. Despite a ten hour day, Arthur attended evening classes in an effort to improve his education.
Henderson had been brought up as a staunch Congregationalist, but in 1879 he was converted by the preacher, Rodney Smith, to Methodism. He became a lay preacher and an active member of the Temperance Society. After finishing his apprenticeship at seventeen, Arthur Henderson moved to Southampton for a year and then returned to work as a iron moulder in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Henderson became an active trade unionist and formed a reading a debating society at the Stephenson locomotive works. In 1884 Henderson lost his job and was out of work for fourteen months. Henderson used this time to continue his education and to work as a lay preacher.
In 1892 Henderson was elected as a paid organiser of the Iron Founders Union. Henderson was one of the worker representatives on the North East Conciliation Board. A strong believer in arbitration and industrial co-operation, Henderson opposed the formation of the General Federation of Trade Unions as he believed it would increase the frequency of industrial disputes.
On 27th February 1900, representatives of all the socialist groups in Britain (the Independent Labour Party, the Social Democratic Federation and the Fabian Society, met with trade union leaders at the Congregational Memorial Hall in Farringdon Street. Arthur Henderson was one of the 129 delegates who decided to pass Hardie's motion to establish "a distinct Labour group in Parliament, who shall have their own whips, and agree upon their policy, which must embrace a readiness to cooperate with any party which for the time being may be engaged in promoting legislation in the direct interests of labour." To make this possible the Conference established a Labour Representation Committee (LRC).
In 1903 Henderson was elected treasurer of the LRC. He was opposed by members of the Independent Labour Party who objected to the fact that Henderson was a liberal rather than a socialist. In a by-election later that year, Henderson was elected as MP for Barnard Castle. Three years later Henderson chaired the conference at which the LRC was transformed into the Labour Party. The party's first Chairman was James Keir Hardie, but he was not very good with dealing with internal rivalries within the party, and in 1908 resigned from the post and Henderson became chairman.
Henderson did not have the full-support of the Labour Party and in 1910 he resigned as chairman.
Ramsay MacDonald was expected to become the new leader but recently his youngest son had died of diphtheria. Eight days later his mother also died. It was therefore decided that George Barnes should become chairman.A few months later Barnes wrote to MacDonald saying he did not want the chairmanship and was "only holding the fort". He continued, "I should say it is yours anytime".
Henderson also suggested that MacDonald should become chairman. As David Marquand, the author of Ramsay MacDonald (1977) pointed out: "It is unlikely that he did so out of a sudden access of personal affection, or even out of admiration for MacDonald's character and abilities. He wanted MacDonald as chairman, partly because he wanted to be party secretary himself and believed correctly that he would be a good one, partly because he believed - again correctly - that MacDonald was the only potential candidate capable of reconciling the ILP to the moderate line favoured by the unions.... MacDonald and Henderson differed in taste, temperament and political background, and it is doubtful if either ever liked the other. Henderson was frequently exasperated by MacDonald's moodiness, unpredictability and unwillingness to communicate; he may also have suspected, not altogether unreasonably, that MacDonald undervalued his talents and took him too much for granted. MacDonald, for his part, found Henderson unimaginative and domineering, and, in later years at any rate, was never quite sure of his support."
The 1910 General Election saw 40 Labour MPs elected to the House of Commons. Two months later, on 6th February, 1911, George Barnes sent a letter to the Labour Party announcing that he intended to resign as chairman. At the next meeting of MPs, Ramsay MacDonald was elected unopposed to replace Barnes. Henderson now became secretary. According to Philip Snowden, a bargain had been struck at the party conference the previous month, whereby MacDonald was to resign the secretaryship in Henderson's favour, in return for becoming chairman."
MacDonald was totally against Britain's involvement in the First World War. His views were shared by other Labour Party leaders such as James Keir Hardie, Philip Snowden, George Lansbury and Fred Jowett. Others in the party such as Arthur Henderson, George Barnes, Will Thorne and Ben Tillett believed that the movement should give total support to the war effort.
On 5th August, 1914, the parliamentary party voted to support the government's request for war credits of £100,000,000. Ramsay MacDonald immediately resigned the chairmanship of the Labour Party. He wrote in his diary: "I saw it was no use remaining as the Party was divided and nothing but futility could result. The Chairmanship was impossible. The men were not working, were not pulling together, there was enough jealously to spoil good feeling. The Party was no party in reality. It was sad, but glad to get out of harness." Arthur Henderson, once again, became the leader of the party.
In May 1915, Henderson became the first member of the Labour Party to hold a Cabinet post when Herbert Asquith invited him to join his coalition government. Bruce Glasier commented in his diary: "This is the first instance of a member of the Labour Party joining the government. Henderson is a clever, adroit, rather limited-minded man - domineering and a bit quarrelsome - vain and ambitious. He will prove a fairly capable official front-bench man, but will hardly command the support of organised Labour." Henderson was also President of the Board of Education (May, 1915 - October, 1916) and Paymaster General (October, 1916 - August, 1917), during the First World War.
After the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II in Russia, socialists in Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, United States and Italy called for a conference in a neutral country to see if the First World War could be brought to an end. Eventually, it was announced that the Stockholm Conference would take place in July 1917. Arthur Henderson was sent by David Lloyd-George to speak to Alexander Kerensky, the leader of the Provisional Government in Russia.
At a conference of the Labour Party held in London on 10th August, 1917, Henderson made a statement recommending that the Russian invitation to the Stockholm Conference should be accepted. Delegates voted 1,846,000 to 550,000 in favour of the proposal and it was decided to send Henderson and Ramsay MacDonald to the peace conference. However, under pressure from President Woodrow Wilson, the British government had changed his mind about the wisdom of the conference and refused to allow delegates to travel to Stockholm. As a result of this decision, Henderson resigned from the government.
Arthur Henderson disagreed with those politicians who believed Germany should be harshly treated after the First World War, and as a result of the nationalist fervour of the 1918 General Election, he lost his seat. He returned to the House of Commons the following year as MP for Widnes. Henderson became chief whip of the party but was defeated at the 1922 General Election.
Elected for East Newcastle at a by-election at two months later, he was defeated once again in the 1923 General Election. He returned at a by-election at Burnley in February 1924 and joined the government headed by Ramsay MacDonald as Home Secretary.
In October 1924 the MI5 intercepted a letter written by Grigory Zinoviev, chairman of the Comintern in the Soviet Union. The Zinoviev Letter urged British communists to promote revolution through acts of sedition. Vernon Kell, head of MI5 and Sir Basil Thomson head of Special Branch, told MacDonald that they were convinced that the letter was genuine.
It was agreed that the letter should be kept secret but someone leaked news of the letter to the Times and the Daily Mail. The letter was published in these newspapers four days before the 1924 General Election and contributed to the defeat of MacDonald. The Conservatives won 412 seats and formed the next government.
Following Labour's defeat in the 1924 General Election, Philip Snowden and other leading figures in the movement tried to persuade Henderson to stand against MacDonald as leader of the party. Henderson refused and once again became chief whip of the party where he tried to unite the party behind MacDonald's leadership. Henderson was also the main person responsible for Labour and the Nation, a pamphlet that attempted to clarify the political aims of the Labour Party.
After the 1929 General Election victory, Ramsay MacDonald appointed Henderson as his Foreign Secretary. In this post Henderson attempted to reduce political tensions in Europe. Diplomatic relations were re-established with the Soviet Union and Henderson gave his full support to the League of Nations by arguing for international arbitration, de-militarization and collective security.
In 1931 Philip Snowden, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, suggested that the Labour government should introduce new measures to balance the budget. This included a reduction in unemployment pay. Several ministers, including Henderson, George Lansbury and Joseph Clynes, refused to accept the cuts in benefits and resigned from office.
Ramsay MacDonald was angry that his Cabinet had voted against him and decided to resign. When he saw George V that night, he was persuaded to head a new coalition government that would include Conservative and Liberal leaders as well as Labour ministers. Most of the Labour Cabinet totally rejected the idea and only three, Jimmy Thomas, Philip Snowden and John Sankey agreed to join the new government.
In October, MacDonald called an election. The 1931 General Election was a disaster for the Labour Party with only 46 members winning their seats. Henderson lost his seat at Burnley but returned to the House of Commons at a by-election at Clay Cross in September 1933.
Over the next few years Henderson worked tirelessly for world peace. Between 1932 and 1935 he chaired the Geneva Disarmament Conference and in 1934 his work was recognised when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Arthur Henderson died in London on 20th October, 1935.