James Ramsay MacDonald (October 12, 1866 – November 9, 1937) was a British politician and three times Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. He rose from humble origins to become the first Labour Prime Minister in 1924. His third period as Prime Minister was during the crisis of the Great Depression when he formed a "National Government" in which a majority of MPs were from the Conservatives, and as a result he was expelled from the Labour Party. However, Labour increasingly took over the position of being the party of opposition to the Conservatives, a role that the Liberal party had previously fulfilled. The next Labour government was that of Clement Attlee, who was PM from 1945 until 1951.
MacDonald's first government (January-November 1924) depended on Liberal support but managed to pass social reform legislation especially in the area of housing. The 1924 Housing Act required local councils to build social housing (known as Council Housing) for affordable rent. MacDonald's recognition of the Soviet Union resulted in allegations that his government was actually communist, which resulted in electoral defeat. His second term as Prime Minister (1929-1931) saw the appointment of the first woman cabinet member, Margaret Bondfield (1873-1953). The Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression led to the formation of a National Government in 1931, with Conservative participation. The government was not especially successful in tackling the problems of the Depression. However, MacDonald established the Economic Advisory Council whose members included John Maynard Keynes, who advised that the Government needed to create a demand for goods and labor, even if this resulted in a deficit. Famously, the Gold Standard was abandoned in 1931. Nine ministers resigned that year over reductions in unemployment benefits. Called a traitor to socialism, MacDonald was expelled from the party. As war with Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany began to seem likely, MacDonald's pacifism became unpopular. In 1930, he was one of the promoters of the World Disarmament Conference (1932-1934) He was forced to retire in 1935 by those who wanted to take a more military stand against Germany, including Winston Churchill.
MacDonald was born in Lossiemouth, in Morayshire in northeast Scotland, the illegitimate son of John MacDonald, a farm labourer, and Anne Ramsay, a housemaid. Although registered at birth as James MacDonald Ramsay, he was known as Jaimie MacDonald. Illegitimacy could be a serious handicap in nineteen century Presbyterian Scotland, but in the north and northeast farming communities, this was less of a problem; In 1868 a report of the Royal Commission on the Employment of Children, Young Persons and Women in Agriculture noted that the illegitimacy rate was around 15 percent and it is unclear to what extent the associated stigma affected MacDonald throughout his life. He received an elementary education at the Free Church of Scotland school in Lossiemouth, and then in 1875 at the local Drainie parish school. In 1881 he became a pupil teacher at Drainie and the entry in the school register as a member of staff was 'J. MacDonald'. He remained in this post until May 1, 1885 to take up a position as an assistant to a clergyman in Bristol. It was in Bristol, that he joined the Democratic Federation, an extreme Radical sect. This federation changed its name a few months later to the Social Democratic Federation (SDF). He remained in the group when it left the SDF to become the Bristol Socialist Society. MacDonald returned to Lossiemouth before the end of the year for reasons unknown but in early 1886 once again left Lossiemouth for London.
He arrived in London jobless but after some short-term menial work, he found employment as a clerk. Meanwhile, MacDonald was deepening his socialist credentials. He engaged himself energetically in C. L. Fitzgerald's Socialist Union which, unlike the SDF, aimed to progress socialist ideals through the parliamentary system. in 1884 he enrolled as a part-time student at London's Birkbeck College, reading for a science degree. On 13 November, 1887, MacDonald witnessed the Bloody Sunday of November 13, 1887 in Trafalgar Square and in response to this he had a pamphlet published by the Pall Mall Gazette entitled Remember Trafalgar Square: Tory Terrorism in 1887.
MacDonald retained an interest in Scottish politics. Gladstone's first Irish Home Rule Bill inspired the setting-up of a Scottish Home Rule Association in Edinburgh. On March 6, 1888, MacDonald took part in a meeting of Scotsmen who were London residents and who, on his motion, formed the London General Committee of Scottish Home Rule Association. He continued to support home rule for Scotland but with little support from London Scots forthcoming, his enthusiasm for the committee waned and from 1890 he took little part in its work.
Politics at this time, however, was still of less importance to MacDonald than furthering himself in employment. To this end he studied science at evening classes but his health suddenly failed him due to exhaustion one week before his examinations. This put an end to any thought of having a career in science. In 1888, MacDonald took employment as private secretary to Thomas Lough who was a tea merchant and a Radical politician.  Lough was elected as the Liberal MP for West Islington, in 1892. Many doors now opened to MacDonald. He had access to the National Liberal Club as well as the editorial offices of Liberal and Radical newspapers. He also made himself known to various London Radical clubs and with Radical and labour politicians. MacDonald gained valuable experience in the workings of electioneering. In 1892, he left Lough’s employment to become a journalist and was not immediately successful. By then, MacDonald had been a member of the Fabian Society for some time and toured and lectured on its behalf.
The TUC had created the Labour Electoral Association (LEA) and entered into an unsatisfactory alliance with the Liberal Party in 1886. In 1892, MacDonald was in Dover to give support to the candidate for the LEA in the General Election and who was well beaten. MacDonald impressed the local press and the Association, however, and was adopted as its candidate. MacDonald, though, announced that his candidature would be under a Labour Party banner. He denied that the Labour Party was a wing of the Liberal Party but saw merit in a working relationship. In May 1894, the local Southampton Liberal Association was trying to find a labour minded candidate for the constituency. MacDonald along with two others were invited to address the Liberal Council. One of three men turned down the invitation and MacDonald failed to secure the candidature despite the strong support he had among Liberals.
In 1893, Keir Hardie had formed the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and had established itself as a mass movement and so in May 1894 MacDonald applied for membership of, and was accepted into, the ILP. He was officially adopted as the ILP candidate for one of the Southampton seats on 17 July 1894 but was heavily defeated at the election of 1895. MacDonald stood again for Parliament again in 1900 for one of the two Leicester seats and although he lost was accused of splitting the Liberal vote to allow the Conservative candidate to win. That same year he became Secretary of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC), the forerunner of the Labour Party, while retaining his membership of the ILP. The ILP, while not a Marxist party, was more rigorously socialist than the future Labour Party in which the ILP members would operate as a "ginger group" for many years.
As Party Secretary, MacDonald negotiated an agreement with the leading Liberal politician Herbert Gladstone (son of the late Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone), which allowed Labour to contest a number of working-class seats without Liberal opposition, thus giving Labour its first breakthrough into the House of Commons. He married Margaret Gladstone, who was unrelated to the Gladstones of the Liberal Party, in 1896. Margaret Gladstone MacDonald was very comfortably off, although not hugely wealthy. This allowed them to indulge in foreign travel, visiting Canada and the United States in 1897, South Africa in 1902, Australia and New Zealand in 1906 and to India several times.
In 1906, the LRC changed its name to the "Labour Party," and absorbed the ILP. In that same year, MacDonald was elected MP for Leicester along with 28 others, and became one of the leaders of the Parliamentary Labour Party. These Labour MPs undoubtedly owed their election to the ‘Progressive Alliance’ between the Liberals and Labour which at this time was a minor party supporting the Liberal governments of Henry Campbell-Bannerman and H. H. Asquith. MacDonald became the leader of the left wing of the party, arguing that Labour must seek to displace the Liberals as the main party of the left.
In 1911 MacDonald became Party Leader (formally "Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party"), but within a short period his wife became ill with blood poisoning and died. This affected MacDonald very much and took him some time to recover. MacDonald had always taken a keen interest in foreign affairs and knew from his visit to South Africa just after the Boer War had ended, what the effects of modern conflict would have. Although the Parliamentary Labour Party generally held an anti-war opinion, the fact was that when war was declared in August 1914, patriotism came to the fore. Labour supported the government in its request for £100,000,000 of war credits and, as MacDonald could not support this, he resigned the Chairmanship, having declared that it had been morally wrong to declare war on Germany. Arther Henderson became the new leader while MacDonald took the party Treasurer post. During the early part of the war he was extremely unpopular and was accused of treason and cowardice. The journal, John Bull published in September, 1915 an article carrying details of MacDonald’s so-called deceit in not disclosing his real name. His illegitimacy was no secret and he hadn’t seemed to have suffered by it, but according to the journal he had, by using a false name, gained access to parliament falsely and that he should suffer heavy penalties and have his election declared void. However, MacDonald received much support but the way in which the disclosures were made public had affected him. He wrote in his diary
…I spent hours of terrible mental pain. Letters of sympathy began to pour in upon me…. Never before did I know that I had been registered under the name of Ramsay, and cannot understand it now. From my earliest years my name has been entered in lists, like the school register, etc. as MacDonald.
Yet, despite his opposition to the war, MacDonald still visited the front in December 1914. Lord Elton wrote:
… he arrived in Belgium with an ambulance unit organised by Dr Hector Munro. The following day he had disappeared and agitated enquiry disclosed that he had been arrested and sent back to Britain. At home he saw Lord Kitchener who expressed his annoyance at the incident and gave instructions for him to be given an “omnibus” pass to the whole Western Front. He returned to an entirely different reception and was met by General Seeley at Poperinghe who expressed his regrets at the way MacDonald had been treated. They set off for the front at Ypres and soon found themselves in the thick of an action in which both behaved with the utmost coolness. Later, MacDonald was received by the Commander-in-Chief at St Omer and made an extensive tour of the front. Returning home, he paid a public tribute to the courage of the French troops, but said nothing then or later of having been under fire himself.
As the war dragged on his reputation recovered but nevertheless he lost his seat in the 1918 "khaki election," which saw the Liberal David Lloyd George coalition government win a huge majority. In 1922 the Conservatives left the coalition and Bonar Law, who had taken over from Lloyd George, called an election on October 26. MacDonald was returned to the House as MP for Aberavon in Wales and his rehabitation was complete; the Labour New Leader wrote that his election was
enough in itself to transform our position in the House. We have once more a voice which must be heard.
By now the party was reunited and MacDonald was re-elected as Leader. The Liberals by this point were in rapid decline and at the 1922 election Labour became the main opposition party to the Conservative government of Stanley Baldwin, making MacDonald Leader of the Opposition. By this time he had moved away from the hard left and abandoned the socialism of his youth—he strongly opposed the wave of radicalism that swept through the labour movement in the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917—and became a determined enemy of Communism. Unlike the French Socialist Party and the German SPD, the Labour Party did not split and the Communist Party of Great Britain remained small and isolated.
Although he was a gifted speaker, MacDonald became noted for "woolly" rhetoric such as the occasion at the Labour Party Conference of 1930 at Llandudno when he appeared to imply unemployment could be solved by encouraging the jobless to return to the fields "where they till and they grow and they sow and they harvest." Equally there were times it was unclear what his policies were. There was already some unease in the party about what he would do if Labour was able to form a government. At the 1923 election the Conservatives lost their majority, and when they lost a vote of confidence in the House in January 1924 King George V called on MacDonald to form a minority Labour government, with the tacit support of the Liberals under Asquith from the corner benches. MacDonald thus became the first Labour Prime Minister, the first from a "working-class" background and one of the very few without a university education.
MacDonald took the post of Foreign Secretary as well as Prime Minister, and made it clear that his main priority was to undo the damage which he believed had been caused by the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, by settling the reparations issue and coming to terms with Germany. He left domestic matters to his ministers, including J.R. Clynes as Lord Privy Seal, Philip Snowden as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Henderson as Home Secretary. Since the government did not have a majority in either House of the Parliament, there was in any case no possibility of passing any radical legislation.
MacDonald took the decision in March 1924 to end construction work on the Singapore military base despite strong opposition from the Admiralty. In June, MacDonald convened a conference in London of the wartime Allies, and achieved an agreement on a new plan for settling the reparations issue and the French occupation of the Ruhr. German delegates then joined the meeting, and the London Settlement signed. This was followed by an Anglo-German commercial treaty. MacDonald the neophyte Prime Minister was hugely proud of what had been achieved and was the pinnacle of his administration's achievements. In September he made a speech to the League of Nations Assembly in Geneva, the main thrust of which was for general European disarmament which was received with great acclamation. On October 2, 1924 the League ratified the Geneva Protocol on Security and Disarmament, which was largely the result of MacDonald's advocacy.
But before all of this the United Kingdom had recognized the Soviet Union and MacDonald informed parliament in February 1924 that negotiations would begin to negotiate a treaty with the Soviet Union. The treaty was to cover Anglo-Soviet trade and the situation of the British bondholders who had contracted with the pre-revolutionary Russian government and which had been rejected by the Bolsheviks. There were in fact to be two treaties: one covering commercial matters, and the other to cover a fairly vague future discussion on the problem of the bondholders. If and when the treaties were signed, then the British government would conclude a further treaty and guarantee a loan to the Bolsheviks. The treaties were not popular with the Conservatives nor with the Liberals who, in September, criticized the loan so vehemently that negotiation with them seemed impossible.
However, it was the "Campbell Case" — the abrogation of prosecuting the left-wing newspaper the Workers Weekly — that determined its fate. The Conservatives put forth a censure motion, to which the Liberals added an amendment. MacDonald's Cabinet resolved to treat both motions as matters of confidence, which if passed, would necessitate a dissolution of government. The Liberal amendment carried and the King granted MacDonald a dissolution of parliament the following day. The issues which dominated the election campaign were, unsurprisingly, the Campbell case and the Russian treaties which soon combined into the single issue of the Bolshevik threat.
On October 25, just four days before the election, the Daily Mail reported that a letter had come into its possession which purported to be a letter sent from Zinoviev, the President of the Communist International, to the British representative on the Comintern Executive. The letter was dated 15 September and so before the dissolution of parliament; it stated that it was imperative that the agreed treaties between Britain and the Bolsheviks be ratified urgently. To this end, the letter said that those Labour members who could apply pressure on the government should do so. It went on to say that a resolution of the relationship between the two countries would ‘ assist in the revolutionising of the international and British proletariat …. make it possible for us to extend and develop the ideas of Leninism in England and the Colonies.’ The government had received the letter before the publication in the newspapers and had protested to the Bolshevik’s London chargé d’affaires and had already decided to make public the contents of the letter together with details of the official protest but had not been swift footed enough. MacDonald always believed that the letter was forgery  but damage had been done to his campaign.
Despite all that had gone on, the result of the election was not disastrous to Labour. The Conservatives were returned decisively gaining 155 seats for a total of 413 members of parliament. Labour lost 40 seats but held on to 151 while the Liberals lost 118 seats leaving them with only 40.
The strong majority enjoyed by Baldwin’s party allowed him to preside over a government that would serve a full term during which it would have to deal with the General Strike and miners’ strike of 1926. Unemployment in the UK during this period remained high but relatively stable at just over 10% and, apart from 1926, strikes were at a low level. At the May 1929 election, Labour won 288 seats to the Conservatives' 260, with 59 Liberals under Lloyd George holding the balance of power. (At this election MacDonald moved from Aberavon to the seat of Seaham Harbour in County Durham.) Baldwin resigned and MacDonald again formed a minority government, at first with Lloyd George's cordial support. This time MacDonald knew he had to concentrate on domestic matters. Henderson became Foreign Secretary, with Snowden again at the Exchequer. J.H. Thomas became Lord Privy Seal with a mandate to tackle unemployment, assisted by the young radical Oswald Mosley.
MacDonald's second government was in a stronger parliamentary position than his first, and in 1930 he was able to pass a revised Old Age Pensions Act, a more generous Unemployment Insurance Act, and an act to improve wages and conditions in the coal industry (i.e. the issues behind the General Strike). He also convened a conference in London with the leaders of the Indian National Congress, at which he offered responsible government, but not independence, to India. In April 1930 he negotiated a treaty limiting naval armaments with the United States and Japan.
MacDonald's government had no effective response to the economic crisis which followed the Stock Market Crash of 1929. Snowden was a rigid exponent of orthodox finance and would not permit any deficit spending to stimulate the economy, despite the urgings of Mosley, Lloyd George and the economist John Maynard Keynes.
During 1931 the economic situation deteriorated, and pressure from orthodox economists and the press for sharp cuts in government spending, including pensions and unemployment benefits, increased. Keynes, though, urged MacDonald to devalue the pound by 25 percent and abandon the existing economic policy of a balanced budget. MacDonald, Snowden and Thomas, however, supported such measures as necessary to maintain a balanced budget and to prevent a run on the Pound sterling, but the measures split the Cabinet down the middle and the trade unions bitterly opposed them. Although there was a narrow majority in the Cabinet for drastic reductions, the minority included senior ministers such as Henderson who made it clear they would resign rather than acquiesce to the cuts. On August 24, 1931 MacDonald submitted his resignation and then agreed to form a National Government including the Conservatives and Liberals. MacDonald, Snowden and Thomas were expelled from the Labour Party and subsequently formed a new National Labour Party, but this had little support in the country or the unions.
MacDonald did not want an immediate election, but the Conservatives forced him to agree to one in October 1931. The National Government won 554 seats, comprising 470 Conservatives, 13 National Labour, 68 Liberals (Liberal National and Liberal) and various others, while Labour won only 52 and the Lloyd George Liberals four. This was the largest mandate ever won by a British Prime Minister at a democratic election, but it left MacDonald at the beck-and-call of the Conservatives. Neville Chamberlain became Chancellor of the Exchequer while Baldwin held the real power in the government as Lord President. MacDonald was deeply affected by the anger and bitterness caused by the fall of the Labour government. He continued to regard himself as a true Labour man, but the rupturing of virtually all his old friendships left him an isolated figure.
During 1933 and 1934 MacDonald's health declined, and he became an increasingly ineffective leader as the international situation grew more threatening. His pacifism, which had been widely admired in the 1920s, led Winston Churchill and others to accuse him of failure to stand up to the threat of Adolf Hitler. In May 1935 he was forced to resign as Prime Minister, taking the largely honorary post of Lord President vacated by Baldwin, who returned to power. At the election later in the year MacDonald was defeated at Seaham by Emanuel Shinwell. Shortly after he was elected at a by-election for the Combined Scottish Universities seat, but his physical and mental health collapsed in 1936. A sea voyage was recommended to restore his health, and he died at sea in November 1937.
MacDonald's expulsion from Labour along with his National Labour Party's coalition with the Conservatives, combined with the decline in his mental powers after 1931, left him a discredited figure at the time of his death and receiving unsympathetic treatment from generations of Labour-inclined British historians. It was not until 1977 that he received a supportive biography, when Professor David Marquand, a former Labour MP, wrote Ramsay MacDonald with the stated intention of giving MacDonald his due for his work in founding and building the Labour Party, and in trying to preserve peace in the years between the two world wars. He argued also to place MacDonald's fateful decision in 1931 in the context of the crisis of the times and the limited choices open to him.
The marriage between Ramsay MacDonald and Margaret Gladstone was a very happy one, and they had six children, including Malcolm MacDonald (1901-1981), who had a prominent career as a politician, colonial governor and diplomat, and Ishbel MacDonald (1903-1982), who was very close to her father. MacDonald was devastated by Margaret's death from blood poisoning in 1911, and had few significant personal relationships after that time, apart from Ishbel, who cared for him for the rest of his life. One of his mistresses was Lady Margaret Sackville. In the 1920s and 1930s he was frequently entertained by the society hostess Lady Londonderry, which was much disapproved of in the Labour Party since her husband was a Conservative cabinet minister, and it was said that MacDonald was infatuated with her.
MacDonald's unpopularity in the country following his stance against Britain's involvement in the First World War spilled over into his private life. In 1916, he was expelled from the Moray Golf Club in Lossiemouth for supposedly bringing the club into disrepute because of his pacifist views. The manner of his expulsion was regretted by some members but an attempt to re-instate him by a vote in 1924 failed. However a Special General Meeting held in 1929 finally voted for his reinstatement. By this time, MacDonald was Prime Minister for the second time. He felt the initial expulsion very deeply and refused to take up the final offer of membership.MacDonald was one of the founders of the Union of Democratic Control (1914), which began by calling for scrutiny of the aims of World War I and by 1925 advocated pacifism. The Union received strong support from the Quakers. George Cadbury, the businessman and philanthropist, was also a founder member.
First Labour government: January - November 1924
Second Labour government: June 1929 - August 1931
First national government: August - November 1931
Second national government: November 1931 - May 1935
All links retrieved August 25, 2014.
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