Macdonald, Ramsay (1866–1937)

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Prime minister of the first two British Labour governments of 1924 and 1929–1931.

Ramsay MacDonald is best remembered for his involvement in the financial crisis of 1931, which led to the formation of the National Government under his premiership, an event that resulted in his lasting denunciation by the Labour Party. Yet, despite the obloquy heaped upon him, his reputation has been revived since the 1970s by the political historian David Marquand.

MacDonald was born at Lossiemouth in Scotland on 12 October 1866, the illegitimate son of Anne Ramsay and, possibly, John MacDonald, a ploughman. Educated at a local school, he became a pupil teacher and was expected to become a teacher. However, in the 1880s he took up clerical posts in Bristol and London.

Throughout the 1880s and the early 1890s, MacDonald was active in many socialist and radical organizations. He joined the quasi-Marxist Social Democratic Federation while in Bristol and was active in radical and Liberal Party politics while in London. His attempt to become a Liberal candidate and member of Parliament for Southampton was thwarted in 1894, and so he moved to the new Independent Labour Party and became the ILP and Labour Electoral Association candidate for Southampton in 1895. By that time he had already developed other socialist credentials, becoming a Fabian Society lecturer in 1892. However, he was still toying with radical ideas when in 1896 he joined the Rainbow Circle, a body of radical liberals such as Herbert Samuel, who published the Progressive Review. At this point, in November 1896, MacDonald began to develop his political career as he married Margaret Gladstone (d. 1911), who brought with her a settlement of up to three hundred pounds per year. They moved into a flat at 3 Lincoln's Inn Fields, London, which became the headquarters of the Labour Representation Committee (later Labour Party) in the early twentieth century.

MacDonald's political career blossomed. He was on the Executive Committee of the Fabian Society in 1894, sat on the National Administrative Council of the ILP in 1896, and was often its chairman or secretary until the First World War. However, MacDonald is mainly associated with the rise of the Labour Party. He was often secretary or chairman of the Labour Representation Committee/Labour Party from 1900 to 1914, chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party between 1911 and 1914, and one of the architects of the "Lib-Lab" pact of 1903, which allowed Liberal and Labour candidates an unchallenged run against the Conservatives in a number of constituencies in the 1906 general election. MacDonald was himself a beneficiary of this arrangement, being returned for the two-member seat of Leicester in January 1906 and representing that constituency until 1918.

MacDonald's opposition to the First World War led him to lose his parliamentary seat in 1918, but that allowed him to become deeply involved in building up the Labour Party between 1918 and 1922, which partly paved the way for his return as M.P. for Aberavon in 1922. Almost immediately he was voted leader of the Labour Party, and it is in this capacity that he became Labour's first prime minister in January 1924, keeping a minority Labour government in power for about ten months, during which he, acting as foreign secretary, promoted conferences to secure lasting international peace. This government was defeated in the general election of 1924, which occurred in the climate of the infamous "Zinoviev letter," or "Red Letter scare," a fake letter indicating the intention of the Soviet Union to use the Labour Party to gain its revolutionary objectives. After being returned for Seaham, MacDonald was able to form a second minority Labour government in June 1929. However, the onset of the world recession, resulting from the Wall Street crash, raised unemployment in Britain from one to three million and effectively bankrupted the government. Forced to contemplate major cuts, including a 10 percent reduction in unemployment benefits, the Labour cabinet split in August 1931 and was replaced by a national coalition government, headed by MacDonald. L. MacNeill Weir, MacDonald's parliamentary private secretary from 1924 to 1931, along with the Labour critics, accused MacDonald of treachery, but more recently David Marquand has defended his actions as those of a man who put country before party.

After the general election of 1931, MacDonald headed a coalition government that was dominated overwhelmingly by Conservatives. He was little more than a figurehead but was allowed to indulge his interest in foreign policy and in 1931 was involved in the Geneva Disarmament Conference and the Lausanne Conference. Ill health forced him to resign on 7 June 1935. Although he lost his seat in the 1935 general election, he was found a safe seat for the Scottish Universities and remained a member of the House of Commons until his death on 9 November 1937, while cruising in the Caribbean. The fact that few of his old comrades attended his funeral indicates the enduring hatred the Labour Party felt for his actions in 1931. Indeed, one might reflect that had it not been for the events of 1931, MacDonald would probably be one of the lionized figures in the party he helped to create.

See alsoLabor Movements; United Kingdom .


Marquand, David. Ramsay MacDonald. 2nd ed. London, 1997.

Tanner, Duncan. "Ideological Debate in Edwardian Labour Politics: Radicalism, Revisionism, and Socialism." In Currents of Radicalism, edited by Eugenio F. Biagini and Alastair J. Reid, 271–293. Cambridge, U.K., 1991.

Weir, L. MacNeil. The Tragedy of Ramsay MacDonald: A Political Biography. London, 1938.

Keith Laybourn

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Macdonald, Ramsay (1866–1937)

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