William Adamson, the son of James Armstrong Adamson, a coalminer, and Flora Cunningham, was born in Dunfermline on 2nd April 1863. He was educated at a local dame school but at the age of eleven he left to work as a miner in Fife.
Adamson married Christine Marshall, a winder in a damask factory, on 25th February 1887. Over the next few years the couple had two sons and two daughters.
Adamson joined the National Union of Mineworkers but as David W. Howell has pointed out: "The 1870s were a decade of vigorous trade-union activity in the Scottish coalfields, but, with the exception of Fife, union organization proved brittle. The Fife and Kinross Miners' Association survived some difficult periods, not least because the coal owners, sensitive to the pressures of the export trade, preferred negotiation to conflict." Adamson first became active in the union as a branch delegate and became vice-president in 1894, assistant secretary in 1902, and general secretary, in 1908.
Like most trade union leaders during this period, Adamson was initially a member of the Liberal Party. However, Adamson eventually joined the Labour Party and in 1905 was elected to Dunfermline Council. In the 1910 General Election he was elected to the House of Commons.
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. 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.
Adamson was a strong supporter of Britain's involvement in the First World War and although he was at first unhappy about military conscription and voted against the second reading of the Military Service Bill in January 1916. Arthur Henderson became the first member of the Labour Party to hold a Cabinet post when Herbert Asquith invited him to join his coalition government.
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 and as chairman of the Labour Party.
David W. Howell has argued: "His experience as effectively party leader in the Commons was unhappy. Many felt that he lacked the necessary qualities." Beatrice Webb commented in her diary: "He has neither wit, fervour nor intellect; he is most decidedly not a leader, not even like Henderson, a manager of men."
In the 1918 General Election, a large number of the Labour leaders lost their seats. This included Arthur Henderson, Ramsay MacDonald, Philip Snowden, George Lansbury and Fred Jowett. Adamson held the post until February 1921 when he was replaced by John R. Clynes. Snowden commented: "Clynes had considerable qualifications for Parliamentary leadership. He was an exceptionally able speaker, a keen and incisive debater, had wide experience of industrial questions, and a good knowledge of general political issues. In the Labour Party Conferences when the platform got into difficulties with the delegates, Mr. Clynes was usually put up to calm the storm."
In the 1923 General Election, the Labour Party won 191 seats. Although the Conservative Party had 258 seats, Herbert Asquith announced that the Liberal Party would not keep the Tories in office. If a Labour Government were ever to be tried in Britain, he declared, "it could hardly be tried under safer conditions". Ramsay MacDonald agreed to head a minority government, and therefore became the first member of the party to become Prime Minister. MacDonald appointed Adamson as Secretary of State for Scotland. However, he only held the post for eleven months as the Labour Party lost power in November 1924.
In the 1929 General Election the Labour Party won 288 seats, making it the largest party in the House of Commons. MacDonald became Prime Minister again, but as before, he still had to rely on the support of the Liberals to hold onto power. Once again MacDonald appointed Adamson as Secretary of State for Scotland.
The election of the Labour Government in 1929 coincided with an economic depression and Ramsay MacDonald was faced with the problem of growing unemployment. MacDonald asked Sir George May, to form a committee to look into Britain's economic problem. When the May Committee produced its report in July, 1931, it suggested that the government should reduce its expenditure by £97,000,000, including a £67,000,000 cut in unemployment benefits. MacDonald, and his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Snowden, accepted the report but when the matter was discussed by the Cabinet, the majority voted against the measures suggested by Sir George May.
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, Philip Snowden, Jimmy Thomas and John Sankey agreed to join the new government.
MacDonald was determined to continue and his National Government introduced the measures that had been rejected by the previous Labour Cabinet. Labour MPs were furious with what had happened and MacDonald was expelled from the Labour Party. In October, MacDonald called an election. The 1931 General Election was a disaster for the party with only 46 members winning their seats. Adamson also lost his seat in West Fife.
William Adamson died on 23rd February 1936.
From this perspective Adamson's political career culminated in a principled stand. Whatever his caution and flexibility he revealed himself to be a stalwart defender of the labour interest in the face of orthodox financial pressures. Yet alongside his political seniority, Adamson's post-war trade union position became increasingly beleaguered, and this carried political consequences. During the First World War, a critical left-wing current had developed within the Fife miners' union. These radicals emphasized Adamson's responsiveness to coal owners' demands, the implications of mechanization for skilled colliers, and the lack of democracy within the union. Following the miners' defeat in the 1921 lock-out, criticism focused on the democracy issue. The culmination was a split at the end of 1922 with the formation of a separate Reform Union among the Fife miners under Philip Hodge of the Independent Labour Party.
When a general election was called late in 1923, the Reform Union decided to run Hodge as a parliamentary candidate against Adamson in the West Fife constituency. Hodge had tried to secure the official Labour nomination, but having failed ran as a Reform candidate. In a straight fight he polled 6459 votes (over 34 per cent), an indication of many miners' disillusion with Adamson. The enmities meant that reunification of the two unions was achieved only in 1927. Several influential members of the Fife left were now in the Communist Party and that body favoured reunion. The lengthy dispute of 1926 placed a premium on solidarity, but the reunited union had to deal with the consequences of a thorough defeat. Reunification meant new elections both for posts in Fife and for the coalfield's representatives on the Scottish executive. The left made a significant advance and Adamson and his allies endeavoured by creative use of the rule book to evade the consequences. Mining unionism in Fife, and Lanarkshire, descended into chaos. The Fife county board suspended Adamson as secretary on the ground that he had broken his mandate, whereupon he resigned and set up a new union, the Fife, Clackmannan, and Kinross Miners' Union. Significantly this new body became the official Fife union within the National Union of Scottish Mineworkers and therefore within the Miners' Federation of Great Britain. The lack of constitutional procedure involved in creating the new union counted for little against a broad agreement among miners' union officials that communist growth must be blocked at all costs. The shambles was intensified as communists moved towards their sectarian ‘class against class’ policy, which produced yet another union, the United Mineworkers of Scotland. Yet to radicals in Fife, a separate ‘red’ miners' union could seem the only credible response to Adamson's contempt for union decisions.
The imbroglio damaged the veteran leader's position in West Fife. In the 1929 election the Communist candidate, Willie Gallacher, polled over 6000 votes, and two years later he increased this to nearly 7000. Gallacher's intervention effectively cost Adamson his seat in 1931: the Conservative margin of victory was under 2000. Much worse faced him when he contested the seat again in November 1935. Several villages were now communist strongholds. A twelve-week dispute at the Valleyfield colliery saw members of Adamson's union ignoring his pleas to return to work; instead his members co-operated with the ‘red’ United Mineworkers of Scotland. The issue intensified long-standing criticism about his industrial policy. Recently widowed and ageing, he was no match for Gallacher and the Fife communists. He was defeated by 593 votes and died soon afterwards in a nursing home near Dunfermline on 23 February 1936.