Albert Victor Alexander, 1st Earl Alexander of Hillsborough, (1 May 1885 - 11 January 1965) was a British Labour and Co-operative politician. He was the First Lord of the Admiralty during the second World War, and Secretary of State for Defence under Clement Attlee.
Born in Weston-Super-Mare and one of four children, A. V. Alexander was the son of Albert Alexander, a blacksmith and later engineer who had moved from his native Wiltshire to Bristol during the agricultural depression of the 1860s and 1870s, and Eliza Jane Thatcher, daughter of a policeman. He was named after both his father and Prince Albert Victor, Queen Victoria's eldest grandson, but he was known as "A. V." from a young age. His parents had settled in Weston when they married, but the family moved to Bristol after Albert Alexander's death in August 1886. Alexander's mother worked as a corset-maker to provide for her children.
Alexander attended Barton Hill School from the age of three, at a cost of two pence per week. Against his mother's wishes, he chose not to continue to St. George's Higher Grade School in 1898, feeling the increased weekly charge of six pence was too expensive and that he would get nothing more from school. He began work aged thirteen, first for a leather merchant, and five months later as a junior clerk with the Bristol School Board. In 1903 he transferred to Somerset Country Council's newly formed Local Education Authority, where he worked in the School Management Department as a committee clerk. He was by this time a keen chorister and footballer, and a self-taught pianist.
Raised an Anglican, Alexander converted to Baptism in 1908 after he married Esther Chappel, a school teacher and Baptist. Their daughter, Beatrix, was born in 1909, and their son lived from 1911 to 1913. He joined the Weston Co-operative Society and became treasurer of the local Young Liberal Association in 1908, and the local Trades and Labour Council in 1909. He was elected to the board of the Weston Co-op Society in 1910.
He volunteered for service when the first World War began, but was not called-up until two years later. He joined the Artists' Rifles, which principally served to train officers for assignment to other regiments. He trained in London and studied at Magdalen College, Oxford, before earning his commission in December 1917. His health suffered during training, and he never saw active service, instead working as a posting officer in Lancashire. In November 1918 he was promoted to captain and became an education officer, preparing wounded soldiers for civilian life. He was demobbed in late 1919. Within a year of returning home, he became vice-president of the Weston Co-op Society and secretary of the Somerset branch of NALGO.
In late 1920 A. V. Alexander applied for the position of Parliamentary Secretary to the Co-operative Congress and was selected out of 104 candidates, moving to London that November. He directed the presentation of the Co-op's position and interests to government bodies and MPs. In July 1921 he campaigned directly to MPs to oppose a clause in the government's Finance Bill which would impose Corporation Tax on Co-ops. The government, which had a large majority, was defeated by two votes. Shortly after this, the Sheffield branch of the Co-operative Party invited Alexander to be their Parliamentary candidate. He was duly elected for Hillsborough in November 1922, one of only four Co-op MPs. He was re-elected in 1923, 1924 and 1929. He would continue to represent Sheffield, with one break, until 1950.
In his maiden speech, Alexander criticised the Liberal Party for abandoning its progressive principles and championed economic theories that were central to the Labour Party's manifesto. The Labour leadership accepted him as a spokesman on a number of issues, though the Co-op was not affiliated to the Labour Party until 1927. When Labour formed its first government in January 1924, Ramsay Macdonald made Alexander Parliamentary Under-Secretary to the Board of Trade, under Sidney Webb and Emmanuel Shinwell. Alexander's responsibilities included the merchant navy, and answering Parliamentary Questions on all trade matters. The Co-op's Parliamentary Committee had an acting secretary in Alexander's place whilst he was in government, but he continued to take part in appeals to ministers.
After the government fell in October 1924, Alexander returned to working for the Co-op full-time. He became well known for his testimonies before government committees, and used the Co-op's Parliamentary Committee to help co-ordinate responses to government action during the General Strike. In Parliament, he became a front bench spokesman on trade, staunchly criticising the protectionist policies of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Winston Churchill. He also spoke on agriculture, local government and on social security, where he called for increased welfare, citing the suffering of his own constituents during the depression. In early 1929, Alexander applied for the position of General Secretary of the Co-operative Union, but was beaten by R. A. Palmer. Within weeks, he became a member of the cabinet in the second Labour government.
First Lord of the Admiralty
Although many had expected Alexander to be appointed President of the Board of Trade, this position went to William Graham, protege of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Snowden. Instead, Alexander became First Lord of the Admiralty, the only Labour member to hold this position as a cabinet rank. The Admiralty was a political power in its own right, and usually able to resist pressure from the Treasury and from Downing Street. Macdonald's primary concern was international disarmament, and Alexander persuaded the Admiralty to reduce their demands for new cruisers as a prelude to negotiations aimed at ending naval rivalry with the U.S.A.. In January 1930, a conference between the five major naval powers (Britain, the US, France, Italy and Japan) was held in London. This resulted in a treaty between Britain, America and Japan, to limit growth and maintain parity of their naval forces. In the spring of 1931, Alexander and the Foreign Secretary, Arthur Henderson, negotiated France and Italy's entry into the treaty. Though Alexander came into conflict with the admiralty over expansion of the fleet, he defended it against criticism of its spending and staffing levels. He also introduced a system to make it easier for working-class recruits to become officers. During the economic crisis in mid-1931, Alexander supported Snowden's defence of free trade against Macdonald and Henderson's proposals for protectionism, but sided with Henderson against Snowden and Macdonald's proposed cuts in government spending, especially unemployment benefit. He organised the cabinet opponents to the cuts, who advocated devaluation and a socialist economy.
Faced with a cabinet split, the Prime Minister formed a coalition with the Conservative and Liberal parties. Snowden and a few others Labour MPs stayed with Macdonald, but the party went into Opposition. Alexander was prominent on the Opposition front bench, leading attacks on the government's policies, but was careful not to exploit the widespread dissatisfaction with pay cuts in the armed forces (especially the Invergordon Mutiny), concerned that the military should not become involved in political matters. Effectively now number two after Henderson in the Parliamentary Labour Party, he was being talked of as a future leader. Both Alexander and Henderson lost their seats in the 1931 General Election. Henderson was succeeded by George Lansbury, and Alexander's contemporary, Clement Attlee, became deputy leader.
For the next four years, Alexander's main role was again as the Co-op's Parliamentary Secretary. He led opposition to renewed government plans to impose Corporation Tax on co-op stores, a fight that was lost this time with the 1933 Finance Bill. He also worked to have consumer interests represented on the new agricultural marketing boards. He was active in the Brotherhood movement (an organisation for nonconformists), spoke at rallies for the League of Nations, wrote columns for Reynolds' News and gave lectures on the BBC. Regaining his Hillsborough seat in 1935, Alexander became a front bench spokesman on trade and foreign affairs. Attlee, now leader of the PLP, asked him to join a new defence committee, working with Shinwell and Jack Lawson to reverse the pacifist ideals which had prevailed under Lansbury. Alexander had been warning of the dangers posed by fascism for several years, and criticised the government's policy of appeasement. In 1937, with Hugh Dalton and Arnold Lees-Smith, he persuaded the PLP to put aside its mistrust of the Baldwin government and support the Service Estimates Bill which began rearmament. In October 1938, he closed the debate on the Munich Pact, attacking the government's abandonment of the Sudeten Germans.
Under Churchill and Attlee
Alexander was re-appointed First Lord of the Admiralty under Churchill's National Government in 1940 and held the post until the end of war. He held the post again after Attlee's election victory in 1925, before becoming Minister of Defence in 1947.
Alexander was a Member of the Cabinet Delegation to India and Paris Peace Conference, 1946.