29th July 1887 to 8th January 1932
Graham was a Labour Party politician who served in both MacDonald governments. In the early 1920s he wrote a book on wages and was chairman of the Industrial Fatigue Research Board.
Graham was born at Peebles in the Scottish Borders on 29 July 1887, the son of a builder. He was educated at an elementary school in Innerleithen, then at George Heriot’s School in Edinburgh. In 1903 he took a job as a junior clerk at the War Office in London, and also took night courses at Pitman’s College. In 1905 he returned to Edinburgh and then took a job with a newspaper in the Borders, the Southern Reporter in Selkirk. In 1908, at the age of nineteen, he was appointed editor. After a disagreement with its proprietor, he left and took a job with a rival paper, the Border Standard. In 1908 Graham joined the Independent Labour Party’s newly established Selkirk Branch, serving as secretary.
While still working full time, Graham enrolled as a student at the University of Edinburgh, completing a degree in economic science in 1915. This was followed by a law degree in 1917. In 1913 he was also elected to Edinburgh city council, representing the Independent Labour Party. He volunteered for military service when the First World War broke out, but was rejected on medical grounds. After graduating in 1915 Graham began lecturing on economics for the Workers’ Educational Association. He married Ethel Dobson in 1919.
In the 1918 general election Graham was elected MP for Central Edinburgh, still representing the Independent Labour Party. Always an energetic man, Graham was soon serving on a number of committees and commissions including the Royal Commission on Income Tax and the Labour Party’s own education committee. In 1920 he was appointed to the Medical Research Council, and as noted above became chairman of the Industrial Fatigue Research Board in 1921.
In Ramsay MacDonald’s first Labour government in 1924, Graham was appointed financial secretary to the Treasury, in which post he worked closely with the chancellor of the exchequer, Philip Snowden. After the fall of the government in November that year, Graham continued to serve as MP for Central Edinburgh, going on to chair the House of Commons public accounts committee. He also served on the select committee on the British Broadcasting Corporation’s charter and became a director of the Abbey National Building Society.
After Labour returned to power in 1929, Graham was appointed president of the Board of Trade. He and the rest of the cabinet were quickly caught up in the economic depression following the financial crash of October 1929. Graham’s policy solution was to rationalise and re-structure British industry on the other hand and support trade liberalisation on the other, in order to restore and re-energise international trade.
Graham failed on both fronts. Rising protectionist sentiment, including in his own party, scuppered any chance of reducing tariffs, while industry and the Bank of England were resolutely opposed to Graham’s restructuring plans. In response he began to harden his own position, considering the prospect of more radical and compulsory restructuring and nationalisation of some industries. As the crisis deepened, Graham found himself increasingly at odds with his fellow ministers, including MacDonald and Snowden. He refused to join the coalition government, and in 1931 lost his Central Edinburgh seat in the general election. Out of office and impoverished, Graham died of pneumonia at his home in Hendon, Middlesex on 8 January 1932.
In addition to a large body of journalism, Graham left behind a book, The Wages of Labour, published in 1921. Interestingly, given his background, he is critical of trades unions as well as employers. He blames the unions for a collapse in the growth of vocational training and apprenticeships, and at one point appears to accuse the unions of not caring about skills or training and being too focused on the subject of wages. He argues that a new approach to the subject of remuneration is needed, one which takes account of both economic and human factors. Although he is critical of payment by results, he argues that fixed wages are equally unfair, as they offer no incentive to work hard or excel. His solution is a fairly typically Labour one of profits-sharing and co-partnership, although he admits that these schemes are not without their problems.
The final two chapters of the book are dedicated to scientific management. Graham was fully familiar with the ideas of many American writers on the subject, including Frederick Winslow Taylor, Harrington Emerson, Henry Gantt, Horace Drury and others. Graham is critical of scientific management, and notes that both workers and employers in the UK have been quick to reject it. He points out, accurately, that one consequence of Taylor’s piece-rate system is the speeding up of work, and draws on his own experience at the Industrial Fatigue Research Board to point out the likely consequences. He also cites Robert Hoxie’s argument that once maximum productivity is reached, employers will then begin cutting piece rates. Unlike some Labour figures such as Sidney Webb, Graham has nothing good to say about scientific management.
Graham is similarly blunt in his Rowntree paper a year later, ascribing much of the unrest in British industry to ‘the waste, and callousness, and folly, and the haphazard way in which industry has been directed, or misdirected, for more than a hundred years.’ He argues that the situation must change and sees the sharing of control between workers and employers as the best way forward. He advocates three kinds of structure: works committees, which he describes as ‘a kind of parish council of the new industrial structure’, trade boards and joint industrial committees, though he acknowledges that the latter have had many problems and are not well liked by either employers or workers. However, the form of control-sharing is ultimately not important; what matters is that it does take place.
Graham also warns of the dangers of big business, particularly the large combines known as trusts, and says these present a threat to industry as well as to employees. The time is coming, he says, when industry will have to choose how it wants to be structured. ‘We have not made the best use of the great material prosperity of the past century’, he says, but he concludes on a reassuring note for his audience:
We shall not really benefit by any sudden upheaval or catastrophic change. We shall make progress by the conscious re-direction of the very industrial tendencies I have just described, if in our re-direction we rid them of every selfish interest, and make them democratic in character. In that way we shall ultimately achieve an industry and a commerce which minister to the best and highest in human life and experience.
The Wages of Labour, 1921.
Graham, T.N., Willie Graham: The Life of the Rt. Hon. W. Graham, London: Hutchinson, 1948.
Knox, W., ‘Graham, William’ in W. Knox (ed.), Scottish Labour Leaders 1918-39: A Biographical Dictionary, Edinburgh: Mainstream, 1984.
Williamson, P., ‘Graham, William’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
‘What’s wrong with industry: the workers’ view’, 7 April 1922, Balliol College