Ramsay MacDonald

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia - View original article

The Right Honourable
Ramsay MacDonald
FRS
Ramsay MacDonald ggbain 35734.jpg
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
In office
5 June 1929 – 7 June 1935
MonarchGeorge V
Preceded byStanley Baldwin
Succeeded byStanley Baldwin
In office
22 January 1924 – 4 November 1924
MonarchGeorge V
Preceded byStanley Baldwin
Succeeded byStanley Baldwin
Leader of the Opposition
In office
4 November 1924 – 5 June 1929
MonarchGeorge V
Preceded byStanley Baldwin
Succeeded byStanley Baldwin
In office
21 November 1922 – 22 January 1924
MonarchGeorge V
Preceded byHerbert Henry Asquith
Succeeded byStanley Baldwin
Leader of the Labour Party
In office
22 November 1922 – 1 September 1931
DeputyJohn Robert Clynes
Preceded byJohn Robert Clynes
Succeeded byArthur Henderson
Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs
In office
22 January 1924 – 3 November 1924
Prime MinisterHimself
Preceded byThe Marquess Curzon of Kedleston
Succeeded byAusten Chamberlain
Leader of the House of Commons
In office
5 June 1929 – 7 June 1935
Prime MinisterHimself
Preceded byStanley Baldwin
Succeeded byStanley Baldwin
In office
22 January 1924 – 3 November 1924
Prime MinisterHimself
Preceded byStanley Baldwin
Succeeded byStanley Baldwin
Lord President of the Council
In office
7 June 1935 – 28 May 1937
Prime MinisterStanley Baldwin
Preceded byStanley Baldwin
Succeeded byThe Viscount Halifax
Member of Parliament for the
Combined Scottish Universities
In office
31 January 1936 – 9 November 1937
Preceded byNoel Skelton
Succeeded bySir John Anderson
Member of Parliament for Seaham
In office
30 May 1929 – 14 November 1935
Preceded bySidney Webb
Succeeded byEmanuel Shinwell
Member of Parliament for Aberavon
In office
15 November 1922 – 30 May 1929
Preceded byJohn Edwards
Succeeded byWilliam Cove
Member of Parliament for Leicester
with Henry Broadhurst (to March 1906)
with Franklin Thomasson (1906–1910)
with Eliot Crawshay-Williams (1910–1913)
with Sir Gordon Hewart (1913–1918)
In office
8 February 1906 – 14 December 1918
Preceded byJohn Fowke Lancelot Rolleston
Henry Broadhurst
Succeeded bySir Gordon Hewart (Leicester East)
Personal details
BornJames MacDonald Ramsay
(1866-10-12)12 October 1866
Lossiemouth, Morayshire, Scotland, UK
Died9 November 1937(1937-11-09) (aged 71)
Atlantic Ocean, (on holiday aboard the ocean liner Reina del Pacifico)
NationalityBritish
Political partyLabour (until 1931)
National Labour (from 1931)
Spouse(s)Margaret Ethel Gladstone
Children6
Residence10 Downing Street
Alma materBirkbeck Literary and Scientific Institution, University of London
ProfessionJournalist
ReligionPresbyterian
SignatureCursive signature in ink
 
Jump to: navigation, search
The Right Honourable
Ramsay MacDonald
FRS
Ramsay MacDonald ggbain 35734.jpg
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
In office
5 June 1929 – 7 June 1935
MonarchGeorge V
Preceded byStanley Baldwin
Succeeded byStanley Baldwin
In office
22 January 1924 – 4 November 1924
MonarchGeorge V
Preceded byStanley Baldwin
Succeeded byStanley Baldwin
Leader of the Opposition
In office
4 November 1924 – 5 June 1929
MonarchGeorge V
Preceded byStanley Baldwin
Succeeded byStanley Baldwin
In office
21 November 1922 – 22 January 1924
MonarchGeorge V
Preceded byHerbert Henry Asquith
Succeeded byStanley Baldwin
Leader of the Labour Party
In office
22 November 1922 – 1 September 1931
DeputyJohn Robert Clynes
Preceded byJohn Robert Clynes
Succeeded byArthur Henderson
Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs
In office
22 January 1924 – 3 November 1924
Prime MinisterHimself
Preceded byThe Marquess Curzon of Kedleston
Succeeded byAusten Chamberlain
Leader of the House of Commons
In office
5 June 1929 – 7 June 1935
Prime MinisterHimself
Preceded byStanley Baldwin
Succeeded byStanley Baldwin
In office
22 January 1924 – 3 November 1924
Prime MinisterHimself
Preceded byStanley Baldwin
Succeeded byStanley Baldwin
Lord President of the Council
In office
7 June 1935 – 28 May 1937
Prime MinisterStanley Baldwin
Preceded byStanley Baldwin
Succeeded byThe Viscount Halifax
Member of Parliament for the
Combined Scottish Universities
In office
31 January 1936 – 9 November 1937
Preceded byNoel Skelton
Succeeded bySir John Anderson
Member of Parliament for Seaham
In office
30 May 1929 – 14 November 1935
Preceded bySidney Webb
Succeeded byEmanuel Shinwell
Member of Parliament for Aberavon
In office
15 November 1922 – 30 May 1929
Preceded byJohn Edwards
Succeeded byWilliam Cove
Member of Parliament for Leicester
with Henry Broadhurst (to March 1906)
with Franklin Thomasson (1906–1910)
with Eliot Crawshay-Williams (1910–1913)
with Sir Gordon Hewart (1913–1918)
In office
8 February 1906 – 14 December 1918
Preceded byJohn Fowke Lancelot Rolleston
Henry Broadhurst
Succeeded bySir Gordon Hewart (Leicester East)
Personal details
BornJames MacDonald Ramsay
(1866-10-12)12 October 1866
Lossiemouth, Morayshire, Scotland, UK
Died9 November 1937(1937-11-09) (aged 71)
Atlantic Ocean, (on holiday aboard the ocean liner Reina del Pacifico)
NationalityBritish
Political partyLabour (until 1931)
National Labour (from 1931)
Spouse(s)Margaret Ethel Gladstone
Children6
Residence10 Downing Street
Alma materBirkbeck Literary and Scientific Institution, University of London
ProfessionJournalist
ReligionPresbyterian
SignatureCursive signature in ink

James Ramsay MacDonald, FRS[1] (12 October 1866 – 9 November 1937) was a British statesman who was the first ever Labour Party Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, leading a Labour Government in 1924, a Labour Government from 1929 to 1931, and a National Government from 1931 to 1935.

Historians credit MacDonald, along with Keir Hardie and Arthur Henderson, as one of the three principal founders of the Labour Party. His speeches, pamphlets and books made him an important theoretician, but he played an even more important role as Leader of the Labour Party. He entered Parliament in 1906 and was the Chairman of the Labour MPs from 1911–14. His opposition to the First World War made him unpopular, and he was defeated in 1918. The fading of wartime passions made it easier for an anti-war politician to find a platform, and he returned to Parliament in 1922, which was the point at which Labour replaced the Liberal Party as the second-largest party.

His first government — formed with Liberal support — in 1924 lasted nine months, but was defeated at the 1924 General Election when the Conservatives made large gains at the expense of the Liberals and won a majority. Nevertheless his short term demonstrated that the Labour party was sufficiently competent and well organized to run the government. A powerful orator, by the 1920s he had earned great public respect for his pacifism.[citation needed]

He initially put his faith in the League of Nations. However by the early 1930s he felt that the internal cohesion of the British Empire, a protective tariff, and an independent British defense program would be the wisest British policy. Nevertheless budget pressures, and a strong popular pacifist sentiment, forced a reduction in the military and naval budgets.[2]

Labour returned to power—this time as the largest party—in 1929 but was soon overwhelmed by the crisis of the Great Depression, in which the Labour government was split by demands for public spending cuts to preserve the Gold Standard. In 1931, he formed a National Government in which only two of his Labour colleagues agreed to serve and the majority of whose MPs were from the Conservatives. As a result, MacDonald was expelled from the Labour Party, which accused him of betrayal. The Gold Standard soon had to be abandoned after the Invergordon Mutiny and MacDonald's National Government won a huge "doctor's mandate" at the 1931 General Election, at which the Labour Party was reduced to a rump of around 50 seats in the House of Commons.

MacDonald remained Prime Minister of the National Government from 1931 to 1935; during this time his health rapidly deteriorated and he became increasingly ineffective as a leader. He stood down as Prime Minister in 1935—losing his seat in the General Election that year and returning for a different constituency—but stayed in the Cabinet as Lord President of the Council until retiring from the government in 1937 and dying, still an MP, later that year.

Early life[edit source | edit]

Lossiemouth[edit source | edit]

MacDonald was born in Lossiemouth, Morayshire, Scotland, the illegitimate son of John MacDonald, a farm labourer, and Anne Ramsay, a housemaid.[3] Although registered at birth as James McDonald [sic] Ramsay, he was known as Jaimie MacDonald. Illegitimacy could be a serious handicap in 19th-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%.[4] His mother had worked as a domestic servant at Claydale farm, near Lossiemouth, where her future husband was also employed. They were to have been married, but the wedding never took place, either because the couple quarrelled and chose not to marry, or because Anne's mother, Isabella Ramsay, stepped in to prevent her daughter from marrying a man she deemed unsuitable.[5]

Ramsay MacDonald received an elementary education at the Free Church of Scotland school in Lossiemouth from 1872 to 1875, and then at Drainie parish school. He left school at the end of the summer term in 1881, at the age of 15, and began work on a nearby farm.[6] He was not to be destined for a working life in agriculture. In December 1881 he was appointed as a pupil teacher at Drainie parish school (the entry in the school register of staff recording him as 'J. MacDonald').[6][7] He remained in this post until 1 May 1885, when he left to take up a position as an assistant to Mordaunt Crofton, a clergyman in Bristol who was attempting to establish a Boys' and Young Men's Guild at St Stephen's Church.[8][9] It was in Bristol that Ramsay MacDonald joined the Democratic Federation, an extreme Radical sect. This federation changed its name a few months later to the Social Democratic Federation (SDF).[10][11] 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 for London.[12]

London[edit source | edit]

MacDonald had left for London because a friend living there had written to tell him of a post which was vacant, and which might suit him. However, when he arrived he found that it had already been filled.[13] Following a short period of work addressing envelopes at the National Cyclists' Union in Fleet Street, he found himself unemployed and forced to live on the small amount of money he had saved from his time in Bristol. MacDonald eventually found employment as an invoice clerk in the City warehouse of Cooper, Box and Co.,.[14] During this time he was deepening his socialist credentials, and engaged himself energetically in C. L. Fitzgerald's Socialist Union which, unlike the SDF, aimed to progress socialist ideals through the parliamentary system.[15]

Bloody Sunday 1887

MacDonald witnessed the Bloody Sunday of 13 November 1887 in Trafalgar Square, and in response, had a pamphlet published by the Pall Mall Gazette, entitled Remember Trafalgar Square: Tory Terrorism in 1887.[16]

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 6 March 1888, MacDonald took part in a meeting of London-based Scots, who, upon his motion, formed the London General Committee of Scottish Home Rule Association.[17] 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.[18] However, MacDonald never lost his interest in Scottish politics and home rule, and in his Socialism: critical and constructive, published in 1921, he wrote: "The Anglification of Scotland has been proceeding apace to the damage of its education, its music, its literature, its genius, and the generation that is growing up under this influence is uprooted from its past."[19]

Politics in the 1880s was still of less importance to MacDonald than furthering himself in employment. To this end he took evening classes in science, botany, agriculture, mathematics, and physics at the Birkbeck Literary and Scientific Institution but his health suddenly failed him due to exhaustion one week before his examinations. This put an end to his having any career in science.[20] In 1888, MacDonald took employment as private secretary to Thomas Lough who was a tea merchant and a Radical politician.[21] Lough was elected as the Liberal Member of Parliament (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 freelance journalist. As a member of the Fabian Society for some time, MacDonald toured and lectured on its behalf at the London School of Economics and elsewhere.[22]

Active politics[edit source | edit]

The TUC had created the Labour Electoral Association (LEA) and entered into an unsatisfactory alliance with the Liberal Party in 1886.[23] 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[24] and the Association, however, and was adopted as its candidate. MacDonald, though, announced that his candidature would be under a Labour Party banner.[25] 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.[26]

In 1893, Keir Hardie had formed the Independent Labour Party (ILP) which 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[27] but was heavily defeated at the election of 1895. MacDonald stood 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.[28] 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.[citation needed]

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,[29] thus giving Labour its first breakthrough into the House of Commons. He married Margaret Ethel Gladstone, who was unrelated to the Gladstones of the Liberal Party, in 1896. Margaret MacDonald was comfortably off, although not wealthy.[30] 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.

It was during this period that MacDonald and his wife began a long friendship with the social investigator and reforming civil servant Clara Collet[31][32] with whom he discussed women's issues. She influenced MacDonald and other politicians in their attitudes towards women and especially their work. In 1901, he was elected to the London County Council for Finsbury Central as a joint Labour–Progressive Party candidate, but he was disqualified from the register in 1904 due to his absences abroad.[33]

In 1906, the LRC changed its name to the "Labour Party", and absorbed the ILP.[34] In that same year, MacDonald was elected MP for Leicester along with 28 others,[35] 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 Herbert Henry 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.[citation needed]

Party leader[edit source | edit]

Hoist with this own petard.
Mr. Ramsay MacDonald (Champion of Independent Labour). "Of course I'm all for peaceful picketing – on principle. But it must be applied to the proper parties."
Cartoon from Punch 20 June 1917

In 1911 MacDonald became Party Leader (formally "Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party"),[36] but within a short period his wife became ill with blood poisoning and died. This affected MacDonald greatly.[37] 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.[38] Although the Parliamentary Labour Party generally held an anti-war opinion, when war was declared in August 1914, patriotism came to the fore.[39] 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.[39] Arthur Henderson became the new leader while MacDonald took the party Treasurer post.[40] During the early part of the war he was extremely unpopular and was accused of treason and cowardice. Horatio Bottomley attacked him through his magazine John Bull in September 1915 by publishing an article carrying details of MacDonald's birth and his so-called deceit in not disclosing his real name.[41][42] 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 should suffer heavy penalties and have his election declared void. MacDonald received much support but the way in which the disclosures were made public had affected him.[43] 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."

Despite his opposition to the war, MacDonald visited the warfront in December 1914.[44] 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."

Election poster produced for the 1923 election

As the war dragged on his reputation recovered but nevertheless he lost his seat in the 1918 "Coupon Election", which saw the Liberal David Lloyd George coalition government win a large majority.

MacDonald stood for Parliament in the 1921 Woolwich East by-election, and lost to war veteran and Victoria Cross winner Robert Gee. In 1922 the Conservatives left the coalition and Bonar Law, who had taken over from Lloyd George, called an election on 26 October. MacDonald was returned to the House as MP for Aberavon in Wales and his rehabilitation 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."'[45]

By now the party was reunited and MacDonald was re-elected as Leader. At the 1922 election Labour replaced the Liberals as 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 Labour 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.

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. He became the first Labour Prime Minister, the first from a working-class background and one of the very few without a university education.[citation needed]

First government (1924)[edit source | edit]

Ramsay MacDonald by Solomon Joseph Solomon, 1911.

MacDonald, although he had never held office, demonstrated energy, executive ability, and political astuteness. He consulted widely within his party, making Haldane the Lord Chancellor, and Snowden Chancellor of the Exchequer. He took the foreign office himself. Besides himself, ten other cabinet members came from working class origins, a dramatic breakthrough in British history.[46] His first priority was to undo the damage caused by the harsh 1919 Treaty of Versailles, by settling the reparations issue and coming to terms with Germany. The king noted in his diary that "He wishes to do the right thing...Today 23 years ago dear Grandmama died. I wonder what she would have thought of a Labour Government!"[47]

While there were no major labour strikes during his term, MacDonald acted swiftly to end those that did erupt. When the Labour Party executive criticized the government, he replied that, "public doles, Poplarism [local defiance of the national government], strikes for increased wages, limitation of output, not only are not Socialism, but may mislead the spirit and policy of the Socialist movement."[48] The Government lasted only nine months and did not have a majority in either House of the Parliament, nevertheless it was still able to support the unemployed with the extension of benefits and amendments to the Insurance Acts. In a personal triumph for John Wheatley, Minister for Health, a Housing Act was passed which greatly expanded municipal housing for low paid workers.[49]

Foreign affairs[edit source | edit]

MacDonald had long been a leading spokesman for internationalism in the Labour movement; at first he verged on pacifism. He founded the Union of Democratic Control in early 1914 to promote international socialist aims, but it was overwhelmed by the war. His 1916 book, National Defence, revealed his own long-term vision for peace. Although disappointed at the harsh terms of the Versailles Treaty, he supported the League of Nations but by 1930 he felt that the internal cohesion of the British Empire and a strong, independent British defense program might turn out to be the wisest British government policy.[50]

MacDonald moved in March 1924 to end construction work on the Singapore military base despite strong opposition from the Admiralty. MacDonald believed the building of the base would endanger the disarmament conference; the First Sea Lord Lord Beatty considered the absence of such a base as dangerously imperilling British trade and territories east of Aden, and would mean the security of the British Empire in the Far East being dependent on the goodwill of Japan.[51]

In June, 1924, 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 was signed. This was followed by an Anglo-German commercial treaty. Another major triumph for MacDonald was the conference held in London in July–August 1924 to deal with the implementation of the Dawes Plan.[52] MacDonald, who accepted the view of the economist John Maynard Keynes of German reparations as impossible to pay successfully pressured the French Premier Édouard Herriot into a whole series of concessions to Germany.[52]

A British onlooker commented that “The London Conference was for the French 'man in the street' one long Calvary...as he saw M. Herriot abandoning one by one the cherished possessions of French preponderance on the Reparations Commission, the right of sanctions in the event of German default, the economic occupation of the Ruhr, the French-Belgian railroad Régie, and finally, the military occupation of the Ruhr within a year.”[53] MacDonald was proud of what had been achieved, which was the pinnacle of his short-lived administration's achievements.[54] 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.[55]

But before all of this the United Kingdom had recognised the Soviet Union and MacDonald informed parliament in February 1924 that negotiations would begin to negotiate a treaty with the Soviet Union.[56] 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.[57] The treaties were popular neither with the Conservatives nor with the Liberals who, in September, criticised the loan so vehemently that negotiation with them seemed impossible.[58]

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.[59] 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.[60]

The Zinoviev letter[edit source | edit]

On 25 October 1924, just 4 days before the election, the Daily Mail reported that a letter had come into its possession which purported to be a letter sent from Grigory 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 Bolsheviks' London chargé d'affaires and had already decided to make public the contents of the letter together with details of the official protest[61] but had not been swift footed enough. Historians mostly agree the letter was a forgery, although it closely reflected attitudes current in the Comintern. In any case it had little impact on the Labour vote—which held up. It was the collapse of the Liberal party that led to the Conservative landslide. However many Labourites for years blamed their defeat on the Letter, thereby misunderstanding the political forces at work."[62][63] 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. The Liberals lost 118 seats (leaving them with only 40) and their vote fell by over a million. The real significance of the election was that the Liberals - whom Labour had displaced as the second largest political party in 1922 - were now clearly the third party.

Second government and third government (1929–1935)[edit source | edit]

Second Labour government (1929–1931)[edit source | edit]

The strong majority held by the Conservatives gave Baldwin a full term during which it would have to deal with the 1926 General Strike. Unemployment remained high but relatively stable at just over 10% and, apart from 1926, strikes were at a low level.[64] 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.

MacDonald at Tomb of Unknown Soldier, 9 October 1929

This time MacDonald knew he had to concentrate on domestic matters. Arthur Henderson became Foreign Secretary, with Snowden again at the Exchequer. JH Thomas became Lord Privy Seal with a mandate to tackle unemployment, assisted by the young radical Oswald Mosley. MacDonald appointed the first ever woman cabinet minister Margaret Bondfield as Minister of Labour.[citation needed]

MacDonald's second government was in a stronger parliamentary position than his first, and in 1930 he was able to raise unemployment pay, pass an act to improve wages and conditions in the coal industry (i.e. the issues behind the General Strike) and pass a housing act which focused on slum clearances. However, an attempt by the Education Minister Charles Trevelyan to introduce an act to raise the school-leaving age to 15 was defeated by opposition from Roman Catholic Labour MPs, who feared that the costs would lead to increasing local authority control over faith schools.[49]

In international affairs, 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.[49]

Macdonald, c. 1929

The Great Depression[edit source | edit]

MacDonald's government had no effective response to the economic crisis which followed the Stock Market Crash of 1929. Philip Snowden was a rigid exponent of orthodox finance and would not permit any deficit spending to stimulate the economy, despite the urgings of Oswald Mosley, David Lloyd George and the economist John Maynard Keynes. Mosley put forward a memorandum in January 1930, calling for the public control of imports and banking as well as an increase in pensions to boost spending power. When this was repeatedly turned down, Mosley resigned from the government in February 1931 and formed the New Party. He later converted to Fascism.

By the end of 1930, unemployment had doubled to over two and a half million.[65] The government struggled to cope with the crisis and found itself attempting to reconcile two contradictory aims: achieving a balanced budget in order to maintain the pound on the Gold standard, and maintaining assistance to the poor and unemployed, at a time when tax revenues were falling. During 1931 the economic situation deteriorated, and pressure from orthodox economists for sharp cuts in government spending increased. Under pressure from its Liberal allies as well as the Conservative opposition who feared that the budget was unbalanced. Snowden appointed a committee headed by Sir George May to review the state of public finances. The May Report of July 1931 urged large public-sector wage cuts and large cuts in public spending (notably in payments to the unemployed) in order to avoid a budget deficit.[66]

Keynes, a Liberal, urged MacDonald to devalue the pound by 25% and abandon the existing economic policy of a balanced budget. MacDonald, Snowden, and Thomas supported such measures as necessary to maintain a balanced budget and to prevent a run on the pound, but the proposed cuts split the Cabinet down the middle and the trade unions bitterly opposed them. Many leading Labour Party activists denounced MacDonald and expelled him from the Party.[67]

Formation of the National Government[edit source | edit]

Although there was a narrow majority in the Cabinet for drastic reductions in spending, the minority included senior ministers such as Arthur Henderson who made it clear they would resign rather than acquiesce in the cuts. With this unworkable split, on 24 August 1931 MacDonald submitted his resignation and then agreed, on the urging of King George V to form a National Government with the Conservatives and Liberals. MacDonald, Snowden, and Thomas were quickly expelled from the Labour Party and subsequently formed a new National Labour group, which received little support in the country or the unions. Great anger in the labour movement greeted MacDonald's move. Mass riots took place in protest in Glasgow and Manchester. Many in the Labour Party viewed this as a cynical move by MacDonald to rescue his career, and accused him of 'betrayal'. MacDonald, however, argued that the sacrifice was for the common good.[68][69]

1931 general election[edit source | edit]

MacDonald did not want an immediate election, but the Conservatives forced him to agree to one in October 1931. In the 1931 general election The National Government won 554 seats, comprising 473 Conservatives, 13 National Labour, 68 Liberals (Liberal National and Liberal) and various others, while Labour, now led by Arthur Henderson won only 52 and the Lloyd George Liberals four. Henderson and his deputy J. R. Clynes both lost their seats in Labour's worst-ever rout. Labour's disastrous performance at the 1931 election greatly increased the bitterness felt by MacDonald's former colleagues towards him. MacDonald was genuinely upset to see the Labour Party so badly defeated at the election. He had regarded the National Government as a temporary measure, and had hoped to return to the Labour Party.[65]

Premiership of the National Government (1931–1935)[edit source | edit]

The National Government's huge majority left MacDonald with the largest mandate ever won by a British Prime Minister at a democratic election, but MacDonald had only a small following of National Labour men in Parliament. He was aging rapidly, and was increasingly a figurehead. In control of domestic policy were Conservatives Stanley Baldwin as Lord President and Neville Chamberlain the chancellor of the exchequer, together with National Liberal Walter Runciman at the Board of Trade.[70] MacDonald, Chamberlain and Runciman devised a compromise tariff policy, which stopped short of protectionism while ending free trade and, at the 1932 Ottawa Conference, cementing commercial relations with the Commonwealth.[71]

MacDonald involved himself heavily in foreign policy. Assisted by the National Liberal leader and Foreign Secretary John Simon, he continued to lead highly visible British delegations, including the Geneva Disarmament Conference and the Lausanne Conference in 1932, and the Stresa Conference in 1935[72]

Most important of all, he presided at the world economic conference in London in June 1933. Nearly every nation was represented, but no agreement was possible. The American president torpedoed the conference with a bombshell message that the U.S. would not stabilize the dollar. The failure marked the end of international economic cooperation for another decade.[73]

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. One of the only other leading Labour figures to join the government, Phillip Snowden, was a firm believer in free trade and resigned from the government in 1932 following the introduction of tariffs after the Ottawa agreement.

Retirement[edit source | edit]

In 1933 and 1934 MacDonald's mental and physical health declined further, and he became an increasingly ineffective leader as the international situation grew more threatening. His speeches in Commons became incoherent. One observer noted how "Things... got to the stage where nobody knew what the Prime Minister was going to say in the House of Commons, and, when he did say it, nobody understood it".[49] 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. MacDonald was aware of his fading powers, and in 1935 he agreed a timetable with Baldwin to stand down as Prime Minister after George V's Silver Jubilee celebrations in May 1935. He resigned on 7 June in favour of Baldwin, and remained in the cabinet, taking the largely honorary post of Lord President vacated by Baldwin.[49]

After Hitler's re-militarisation of the Rhineland in 1936, MacDonald declared that he was "pleased" that the Treaty of Versailles was "vanishing", expressing his hope that the French had been taught a "severe lesson".[74]

Last years and death[edit source | edit]

At the election later in the year MacDonald was defeated at Seaham by Emanuel Shinwell. Shortly after he was elected at a by-election in January 1936 for the Combined Scottish Universities seat, but his physical and mental health collapsed in 1936. A sea voyage was recommended to restore his health, but he died on board the liner Reina del Pacifico at sea on 9 November 1937, aged 71. He was buried alongside his wife at Spynie in his native Morayshire.[49]

Reputation[edit source | edit]

For half a century, MacDonald was demonized by the Labour Party as a turncoat who consorted with the enemy and drove the Labour Party to its nadir. In the last quarter century, however, scholarly opinion has raised his status as an important founder and leader of the Labour Party, and a man who held Britain together during its darkest economic times.[75][76]

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. The events of 1931, with the downfall of the Labour government and his coalition with the Conservatives, led to MacDonald becoming one of the most reviled figures in the history of the Labour Party,[77][78][79] with many of his former supporters accusing him of betraying the party he had helped create. Clement Attlee in his autobiography As it Happened (1954) called MacDonald's decision to abandon the Labour government in 1931 "the greatest betrayal in the political history of the country".[80] The coming of war in 1939 led to a search for the politicians who had appeased Hitler and failed to prepare Britain; MacDonald was grouped among the "Guilty Men".

It was not until 1977 that he received a supportive biography, when former Labour MP David Marquand, later a Professor of Politics, 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. Marquand praised the prime minister's decision to place national interests before that of party in 1931. He also emphasized MacDonald's lasting intellectual contribution to socialism and his pivotal role in transforming Labour from an outside protest group to an inside party of government.

Similarly, opinion about the economic decisions taken in the inter-war period such as the return to the Gold Standard in 1925, and MacDonald's desperate efforts to defend it in 1931, has changed. Robert Skidelsky, in his classic account of the 1929–31 government, Politicians and the Slump (1967), compared the orthodox policies advocated by leading politicians of both parties unfavourably with the more radical, proto-Keynesian measures advocated by David Lloyd George and Oswald Mosley. But in the preface to the 1994 edition Skidelsky argues that recent experience of currency crises and capital flight make it hard to be critical of politicians who wanted to achieve stability by cutting labour costs and defending the value of the currency.[81] In 2004 Marquand advanced a similar argument:

In the harsher world of the 1980s and 1990s it was no longer obvious that Keynes was right in 1931 and the bankers wrong. Pre-Keynesian orthodoxy had come in from the cold. Politicians and publics had learned anew that confidence crises feed on themselves; that currencies can collapse; that the public credit can be exhausted; that a plummeting currency can be even more painful than deflationary expenditure cuts; and that governments which try to defy the foreign exchange markets are apt to get their—and their countries'—fingers burnt. Against that background MacDonald's response to the 1931 crisis increasingly seemed not just honourable and consistent, but right... he was the unacknowledged precursor of the Blairs, the Schröders, and the Clintons of the 1990s and 2000s.[82]

In popular culture[edit source | edit]

In Howard Spring's 1940 novel Fame is the Spur, later made into a 1947 film and a 1982 TV adaptation, the lead character Hamer Shawcross loosely resembles MacDonald; it is the story of a working-class Labour politician seduced by power into betraying his class.[83]

In Graham Greene's 1934 novel It's a Battlefield, Ramsay MacDonald's name repeatedly appears in newspapers and on billboards in reference to a visit to Lossiemouth. He is also mentioned and featured in Noël Coward's film, "This Happy Breed".

In the twenty-fourth episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus, original footage of Ramsay MacDonald entering No. 10 Downing Street is followed by a black and white film of MacDonald (played by Michael Palin) doing a striptease, revealing garter belt, suspender and stockings.

Personal life[edit source | edit]

MacDonald c. 1900s

Ramsay MacDonald married Margaret Ethel Gladstone (no relation to 19th-century Prime Minister William Gladstone) in 1896. The marriage was a very happy one, and they had six children, including 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. Another son, Alister Gladstone MacDonald (1898–1993) was a prominent architect who worked on promoting the planning policies of his father's government, and specialised in cinema design.[84] MacDonald was devastated by Margaret's death from blood poisoning in 1911, and had few significant personal relationships after that time, apart from with Ishbel, who cared for him for the rest of his life. Following his wife's death, MacDonald commenced a relationship with Lady Margaret Sackville.[85]

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.[citation needed]

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 Moray Golf Club in Lossiemouth for supposedly bringing the club into disrepute because of his pacifist views.[43] 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.[86]

MacDonald's governments[edit source | edit]

First Labour government: January–November 1924[edit source | edit]

Second Labour government: June 1929 – August 1931[edit source | edit]

Changes[edit source | edit]

First national government: August–November 1931[edit source | edit]

Second national government: November 1931 – May 1935[edit source | edit]

Changes[edit source | edit]

Key[edit source | edit]

References[edit source | edit]

  1. ^ Gregory, R. A. (1939). "James Ramsay MacDonald. 1866-1937". Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society 2 (7): 475–426. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1939.0007.  edit
  2. ^ A.J.P. Taylor, English History 1914-1945 (1965), pp. 359-70
  3. ^ Marquand, David: Ramsay MacDonald, London, 1977, pp. 4-5
  4. ^ Marquand, p. 6
  5. ^ Marquand, p. 5
  6. ^ a b Marquand, p. 12
  7. ^ Drainie School log books
  8. ^ Lord Elton: The life of James Ramsay MacDonald, 1939, London, p. 39
  9. ^ Marquand, p. 15
  10. ^ Bryher, Samual: An Account of the Labour and Socialist Movement in Bristol, 1929
  11. ^ Elton, p.44
  12. ^ Marquand, pp. 9, 17
  13. ^ Marquand, p. 19
  14. ^ Tracey, Herbert: J. Ramsay MacDonald, 1924, p. 29
  15. ^ Marquand, p. 20
  16. ^ Marquand, p. 21
  17. ^ Morgan, J. Ramsay MacDonald (1987) p. 17
  18. ^ Marquand, p. 23
  19. ^ MacDonald, James Ramsay (1921). Socialism: critical and constructive. Cassell's social economics series. Cassell and Company Ltd. 
  20. ^ Elton, pp. 56–57
  21. ^ Conor Cruise O' Brien, Parnell and his Party 1957, p. 275
  22. ^ Marquand, p. 22
  23. ^ Marquand, p. 31
  24. ^ Dover Express, 17 June 1892; 12 August 1892
  25. ^ Dover Express, 7 October 1892
  26. ^ Marquand, p. 35
  27. ^ Southampton Times, 21 July 1894
  28. ^ Marquand, p. 73
  29. ^ Mackintosh, John P. (Ed.): British Prime Ministers in the twentieth Century, London, 1977, p. 157
  30. ^ MacDonald Papers, P.R.O. 3/95
  31. ^ McDonald, Deborah, Clara Collet 1860–1948: An Educated Working Woman; Routledge: 2004
  32. ^ Diary of Clara Collet: Warwick Modern Records Office
  33. ^ Morgan, A., p. 30
  34. ^ Clegg, H.A;, Fox, Alan; Thompson, A.F.: A History of British Trade Unions since 1889, 1964, vol I, p. 388
  35. ^ Leicester Pioneer, 20 January 1906
  36. ^ Leicester Pioneer, 11 February 1911
  37. ^ Thompson, Laurence: The Enthusiasts, 1971, p. 173
  38. ^ Marquand, p. 77
  39. ^ a b Marquand, p. 168
  40. ^ MacKintosh, John P (Ed.): British Prime Ministers in the Twentieth Century, London, 1977, p. 159
  41. ^ Marquand, p. 189
  42. ^ Symons, Julian, Horatio Bottomley, Cressett Press, London, 1955, pp. 168–69
  43. ^ a b Marquand, pp 190, 191
  44. ^ Elton, pp. 269–71
  45. ^ New Leader, 17 November 1922
  46. ^ A.J.P. Taylor, English History: 1914-1945 (1965) p 209
  47. ^ Sir Harold Nicholson, King George V: His life and reign (1952)
  48. ^ Taylor, English History: 1914-1945, pp. 213–14
  49. ^ a b c d e f Morgan, Kevin. (2006) MacDonald (20 British Prime Ministers of the 20th Century), Haus Publishing, ISBN 1-904950-61-2
  50. ^ Keith Robbins, "Labour Foreign Policy and International Socialism: MacDonald and the League of Nations," in Robbins, Politicians, Diplomacy and War (2003) pp. 239-72
  51. ^ Marquand, pp. 315–17
  52. ^ a b Sally Marks, "The Myths of Reparations", Central European History, (1978) 11 #3 pp 231–55
  53. ^ Marks, Sally "The Myths of Reparations", pp. 231–55, Central European History, Volume 11, Issue 3, September 1978, p. 249
  54. ^ Marquand, pp. 329–51
  55. ^ Limam: The First Labour Government, 1924, p. 173
  56. ^ Hansard (1924), vol. 169, cols. 768-9
  57. ^ Lyman: The First Labour Government, 1924, pp. 195–6
  58. ^ Lyman: The First Labour Government, 1924, p. 204
  59. ^ Cabinet Minutes, 54(24)
  60. ^ Marquand, p. 378
  61. ^ Marquand, p. 382
  62. ^ Taylor, English History: 1914-1945, pp 219-20, 226-7
  63. ^ Charles Loch Mowat (1955). Britain Between the Wars, 1918-1940. Taylor & Francis. pp. 188–94. 
  64. ^ A Century of Change: Trends in UK statistics since 1900, Research Paper 99/111, 1999, House of Commons Library
  65. ^ a b Davies, A.J. (1996) To Build A New Jerusalem: The British Labour Party from Keir Hardie to Tony Blair, Abacus, ISBN 0-349-10809-9
  66. ^ Charles Loach Mowat, Britain between the Wars, 1918-1940 (1955) pp 379-401
  67. ^ A.J.P. Taylor, English History: 1914-1945 (1965) pp 291-97
  68. ^ Martin Pugh Speak for Britain!: A New History of the Labour Party (2010) pp 212-16
  69. ^ Reginald Bassett, 1931 Political Crisis (MacMillan, 1958) defends MacDonald.
  70. ^ Harford Montgomery Hyde (1973). Baldwin; the unexpected Prime Minister. Hart-Davis MacGibbon. p. 345. 
  71. ^ David Wrench, "'Very Peculiar Circumstances': Walter Runciman and the National Government, 1931-3," Twentieth Century British History (2000) 11#1 pp 61-82
  72. ^ Kevin Morgan (2006). Ramsay MacDonald. Haus Publishing. p. 79. 
  73. ^ Taylor, English History: 1914-1945 (1965), p 334-35
  74. ^ Stevenson, David (1998). "France at the Paris Peace Conference: Addressing the Dilemmas of Security". In Robert W. D. Boyce. French Foreign and Defence Policy, 1918–1940: The Decline and Fall of a Great Power. London: Routledge. p. 10. 
  75. ^ John Shepherd, "The Lad from Lossiemouth," History Today (Nov 2007) 57#11 pp 31-33
  76. ^ Nicholas Owen, "MacDonald's Parties: The Labour Party and the ‘Aristocratic Embrace’ 1922–31," Twentieth Century British History (2007) 18#1 pp 1-53.
  77. ^ "Labour History". Retrieved 9 May 2010. [dead link]
  78. ^ Blair makes moral case for war BBC News, 15 February 2003
  79. ^ "Nick Clegg and the ghost of Ramsay MacDonald", The Guardian, 9 May 2010
  80. ^ Attlee, Clement. As it Happened. Heinemann: 1954
  81. ^ Robert Skidelsky (1994). Politicians and the slump: The Labour Government of 1929-1931. Papermac. 
  82. ^ Marquand (2004)
  83. ^ Fame is the Spur Britmovie
  84. ^ David Goold (2008). "Alister Gladstone MacDonald (or Alistair Gladstone MacDonald)". Dictionary of Scottish Architects. Retrieved 9 May 2010. 
  85. ^ Fenton, Ben (2 November 2006). "Secret love affair of Labour Prime Minister and Lady Margaret is revealed 80 years on". Telegraph. Retrieved 9 May 2010. 
  86. ^ McConnachie, John. The Moray Golf Club at Lossiemouth, 1988

Further reading[edit source | edit]

Primary sources[edit source | edit]

Political offices[edit source | edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
Herbert Henry Asquith
Leader of the Opposition
1922–1924
Succeeded by
Stanley Baldwin
Preceded by
Stanley Baldwin
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
22 January 1924 – 4 November 1924
Leader of the House of Commons
1924
Preceded by
The Marquess Curzon of Kedleston
Foreign Secretary
1924
Succeeded by
Sir Austen Chamberlain
Preceded by
Stanley Baldwin
Leader of the Opposition
1924–1929
Succeeded by
Stanley Baldwin
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
5 June 1929 – 7 June 1935
Leader of the House of Commons
1929–1935
Lord President of the Council
1935–1937
Succeeded by
The Viscount Halifax
Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Sir John Rolleston
Henry Broadhurst
Member of Parliament for Leicester
19061918
With: Henry Broadhurst, to March 1906
Franklin Thomasson, 1906–1910
Eliot Crawshay-Williams, 1910–1913
Sir Gordon Hewart, 1913–1918
Constituency abolished
Preceded by
John Edwards
Member of Parliament for Aberavon
19221929
Succeeded by
William Cove
Preceded by
Sidney Webb
Member of Parliament for Seaham
19291935
Succeeded by
Emanuel Shinwell
Preceded by
Noel Skelton
Member of Parliament for the
Combined Scottish Universities

19361937
Succeeded by
Sir John Anderson
Party political offices
New political partyLabour Party Secretary
1900–1912
Succeeded by
Arthur Henderson
Preceded by
Philip Snowden
Chairman of the Independent Labour Party
1906–1909
Succeeded by
Frederick William Jowett
Preceded by
George Nicoll Barnes
Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party
1911–1914
Succeeded by
Arthur Henderson
Preceded by
Arthur Henderson
Treasurer of the Labour Party
1912–1929
Succeeded by
Arthur Henderson
Preceded by
John Robert Clynes
Leader of the British Labour Party
1922–1931
Succeeded by
Arthur Henderson
Preceded by
Sidney Webb
Chair of the Labour Party
1923–1924
Succeeded by
Charles Cramp
New political partyLeader of National Labour
1931–1937
Succeeded by
Malcolm MacDonald
Awards and achievements
Preceded by
John J. Pershing
Cover of Time Magazine
18 August 1924
Succeeded by
Edith Cummings

External links[edit source | edit]