Ramsay MacDonald

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The Right Hon. Ramsay MacDonald
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Periods in Office: 22 January, 1924 - 4 November, 1924
5 June, 1929 - 7 June, 1935
PM Predecessor: Stanley Baldwin, both times
PM Successor: Stanley Baldwin, both times
Date of Birth: 12 October 1866
Place of Birth: Lossiemouth, Scotland
Political Parties: Labour; National Labour

James Ramsay MacDonald (October 12, 1866November 9, 1937), British politician, was twice Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. One of the pioneers of British socialism, he rose from humble origins to become the first Labour Prime Minister in 1924. During his second government, faced with the crisis of the Great Depression, he formed a "National Government" in coalition with the Conservatives and was expelled from the Labour Party.


Early career

MacDonald was born in Lossiemouth, in Morayshire in northern Scotland, the illegitimate son of John MacDonald, a farm labourer, and Anne Ramsay, a housemaid. At first known as James Ramsay, he later adopted his father's surname and used Ramsay as his preferred given name. Illegitimacy was a serious handicap in 19th century Presbyterian Scotland, and the associated stigma affected MacDonald throughout his life. He received an elementary education at the nearby town of Drainie, and worked there as a pupil teacher until he was 18, when he left for London. For the remainder of his life he had little affection for Scotland or Scottish attitudes.

Working as a clerk in London, MacDonald furthered his education through night classes and incessant reading, particularly in science, economics and social issues. In 1894 he joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP), one of the earliest socialist parties in Britain, and began writing for socialist papers. He met and was heavily influenced by Kier Hardie, one of the first Labour MPs. He stood for Parliament for the first time in 1895, and again in 1900. In that year he became Secretary of the Labour Representation Committee, 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 Labour Party, and ILP members operated as a "ginger group" within Labour for many years.

As Party Secretary MacDonald negotiated an agreement with the leading Liberal politician Herbert Gladstone (son of the late Prime Minister William 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. His closeness to Gladstone was helped by his marriage in 1896 to Margaret Gladstone, a distant cousin of Herbert's. During this period he also travelled widely: to Canada and the United States in 1897, to South Africa in 1902, to Australia and New Zealand in 1906 and to India several times.

In 1906 MacDonald was elected MP for Leicester, and became one of the leaders of the Parliamentary Labour Party, which at this time was a minor party supporting the Liberal governments of Henry Campbell-Bannerman and Henry Asquith. MacDonald, despite his links to the Gladstonian Liberals, became the leader of the left wing of the party, arguing that Labour must seek to displace the Liberals as the main progressive party.

Party leader

In 1911 MacDonald became Party Leader (formally "Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party"), but in 1914 he adopted a position of opposition to British involvement in World War I. The party majority, led by Arthur Henderson, refused to support this stand, and MacDonald resigned as Leader. During the early part of the war he was extremely unpopular and was accused of treason and cowardice, but as the war dragged on his reputation recovered. Nevertheless he lost his seat in the 1918 "khaki election", which saw the David Lloyd George coalition government win a huge majority.

In 1922 MacDonald returned to the House as MP for Aberavon in Wales. By now the party was reunited and MacDonald was re-elected as Leader. The Liberals 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 left and abandoned the rigorous socialism of his youth. He strongly opposed the wave of radicalism that swept through the labour movement in the wake of the Russian revolution, 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, and 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 (and some would say last) from a working class background and one of the very few not to have had a university education.

First government

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.

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. These were great achievements for a neophyte minority Prime Minister, and MacDonald was widely praised. In September he put a plan for general European disarmament to the League of Nations Assembly in Geneva.

MacDonald's government came to grief when he proposed extending diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union. The Conservatives and their supporters in the press whipped up an anti-Communist campaign, and the Liberals withdrew their support in the House of Commons. The Conservatives then moved a censure motion, in which Labour was defeated, and MacDonald sought and obtained a dissolution. He knew Labour would be defeated, but his objective was to wipe out the Liberals and create a two-party system in which voters would have only the choice of Labour or Conservative. This objective was achieved in the October 1924 election. Labour fell from 191 seats to 151, but the Liberals fell from 158 to 40.

Second government

Baldwin formed a strong majority Conservative government, but it was racked by crisis throughout its term, particularly the General Strike of 1926 and the sharply deteriorating economic situation, marked by a rapid rise in unemployment. At the May 1929 election, Labour won 287 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 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 Snowdon 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 during 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, which had been 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.

Like all governments of the time, MacDonald's government had no effective response to the economic crisis which followed the Wall Street Crash of October 1929. Snowden was a rigid exponent of orthodox finance and would not permit any deficit spending to stimulate the economy, despite the pleadings of Mosley, Lloyd George and the economist John Maynard Keynes. Even if the government had proposed such measures, the Conservatives and the more conservative Liberals (let alone the House of Lords) would not have supported them.

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. MacDonald, Snowden and Thomas supported such measures, as necessary to maintain a balanced budget and to prevent a run on the pound, but the rest of the Cabinet, almost the whole of the Labour Party, and the trade unions, bitterly opposed them. In August 1931 MacDonald, without consulting his colleagues, resigned his commission and obtained a new one for a "National Government," including the Conservatives and Liberals (minus Lloyd George). MacDonald, Snowden and Thomas were expelled from the Labour Party and formed a new National Labour Party, but this had little support in the country or the unions.

National Government

MacDonald did 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, 35 National Labour, 32 Liberals 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 a prisoner of the Conservatives, as was shown after the election when Neville Chamberlain became Chancellor and Baldwin, as Lord President, the real power in the government. MacDonald was deeply affected by the anger and bitterness caused by the fall of the Labour government. He continued to regard himself as a socialist and 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: he was later seen as the father of appeasement. 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 bye-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 defection from Labour and his alliance with the Conservatives, as well as the decline in his powers as Prime Minister after 1931, left him a discredited figure at the time of his death, and he received rough treatment from generations of Labour-inclined British historians. It was not until 1977 that he received a sympathetic biography, when Professor David Marquand 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 tried 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.

Personal life

The marriage between Ramsay MacDonald and Margaret Gladstone was a very happy one, and they had two children, Malcolm MacDonald (1901-81), who had a prominent career as a politician, colonial governor and diplomat, and Ishbel MacDonald {1903-82), 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. In the 1920s and '30s 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 Governments

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


  • 1932 - Stanley Baldwin succeeds Lord Snowden as Lord Privy Seal. Sir John Gilmour succeeds Sir Herbert Samuel as Home Secretary. Sir Godfrey Collins succeeds Sir Archibald Sinclair as Scottish Secretary. Walter Elliot succeeds Sir John Gilmour as Minister of Agriculture. Lord Irwin succeeds Sir Donald Maclean as President of the Board of Education.
  • 1933 - Stanley Baldwin ceases to be Lord Privy Seal, and his successor in that office is not in the cabinet. He continues as Lord President. Kingsley Wood enters the cabinet as Postmaster-General.
  • 1934 - Oliver Stanley succeeds Sir H. Betterton as Minister of Labour.

Further reading

  • Bernard Barker (editor), Ramsay MacDonald's Political Writings, Allen Lane, London 1972
  • David Marquand, Ramsay MacDonald, Jonathan Cape, London 1977
  • Jane Cox, A Singular Marriage: a Labour Love Story in Letters and Diaries (of Ramsay and Margaret MacDonald), Harrap, London 1988
  • Ramsay MacDonald, Labour and Peace, Labour Party 1912
  • Ramsay MacDonald, Parliament and Revolution, Labour Party 1919
  • Ramsay MacDonald, Foreign Policy of the Labour Party, Labour Party 1923
  • Ramsay MacDonald, Margaret Ethel MacDonald, 1924

Preceded by:
Founding Secretary
Labour Party Secretary
Succeeded by:
Arthur Henderson
Preceded by:
George Nicoll Barnes
Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party
Succeeded by:
Arthur Henderson
Preceded by:
John Robert Clynes
Leader of the British Labour Party
Succeeded by:
Arthur Henderson

Template:Succession box two to two

Preceded by:
The Marquess Curzon of Kedleston
Foreign Secretary
Succeeded by:
Sir Austen Chamberlain

Template:Succession box two to two

Preceded by:
Stanley Baldwin
Lord President of the Council
Succeeded by:
The Viscount Halifax

Template:End boxcy:James Ramsay MacDonald de:Ramsay MacDonald eo:Ramsay MACDONALD fr:Ramsay MacDonald nl:Ramsay MacDonald sv:Ramsay MacDonald


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