MacDonald, James Ramsay

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MacDonald, James Ramsay (1866–1937). Prime minister. Between 1900 and 1929 Ramsay MacDonald contributed more than any other individual to building the Labour Party into a credible, national party of government. Throughout his career he retained a consistent vision of a democratic socialist movement which would unite middle-class radicalism with working-class votes and achieve its goals by parliamentary means. As prime minister and foreign secretary in the first Labour government of 1924 he went a long way to demonstrating Labour's fitness to govern. Yet under pressure, defects of temperament undermined his effectiveness. Basically a shy and insecure man, despite his achievements, MacDonald depended greatly upon the support of his wife Margaret Gladstone; her early death in 1911 dealt him a blow from which he never recovered. His loneliness made him vulnerable to friendships in aristocratic circles later in life. But to his critics his fondness for the marchioness of Londonderry looked like social climbing and a desire for acceptance by the establishment. This was all the more natural when the failures of his second government led to his participation in the National Government in 1931. This decision immediately destroyed his standing on the left; and he has been regarded as a traitor ever since.

Born into poverty in Lossiemouth on the north-east coast of Scotland, MacDonald was the illegitimate child of a servant girl and a farm labourer. His early career in the 1880s took him back and forth across the borders of Liberal and Labour politics. He joined the Rainbow Circle, worked as secretary to a Liberal MP, and could well have emerged as a Liberal politician had he managed to get elected to Parliament earlier. But by the 1890s he had become a leading figure in the new Independent Labour Party. He fought several elections without success, handicapped by the lack of a trade union base and his own poverty. He supported himself by journalism and, from 1896, his wife's personal income. By 1900 he was sufficiently well known and respected to be invited to serve as secretary to the new Labour Representation Committee which became the Labour Party in 1906. In this capacity he was directly responsible for what proved to be the crucial breakthrough for the party. In 1903 he negotiated an electoral pact with Herbert Gladstone, the Liberal chief whip, which meant that the Liberals would refrain from running candidates in 29 of the 50 constituencies contested by Labour at the 1906 general election. In 24 of the 29 seats Labour candidates proved successful, including MacDonald himself, elected for Leicester.

As an MP his oratorical powers and capacity for mastering legislative detail made him the outstanding parliamentarian on the Labour bench. In 1911 he became chairman of the parliamentary party. In this period he suffered attack from socialists such as Ben Tillett and Victor Grayson for excessive loyalty towards the Liberal government. He also encountered much resistance from local ILP activists who wished to field candidates in Liberal constituencies in by-elections. However, up to 1914, it appears that he intended to maintain the pact.

The First World War interrupted both this strategy and MacDonald's steady rise. By opposing British entry into the war he put himself in a minority and gave up the party chairmanship. Instead he founded the Union of Democratic Control, a pressure group which advocated a negotiated peace and a League of Nations. As a result he was vilified by the right-wing press, which even published a copy of his birth certificate. In the chauvinistic mood of the 1918 election MacDonald suffered a heavy defeat at Leicester.

He achieved his come-back in 1922 when he became the member for Aberavon. Now that opinion had turned against the pre-war arms race and wartime casualties, he gained much credit for the principled stand he had taken in 1914, and many left-wing MPs supported him in the contest for the party leadership in which he narrowly defeated J. R. Clynes. For some years MacDonald stood out as a popular hero to socialists, but he took care to smother radical policies, such as the capital levy, which he thought likely to lose votes.

MacDonald deserves great credit for the skill with which he played a difficult hand in the aftermath of the 1923 election. With only 191 MPs he was invited to form a government. He deliberately avoided any deal with the Liberals, so as to prevent a return to the client relationship Labour had enjoyed before 1914. He strengthened his administration with former Liberal and Conservative ministers, avoided controversial economic policies, and, as foreign secretary, played a constructive role in reducing German reparations. Although the government was defeated in Parliament after nine months, MacDonald had largely succeeded in his object of establishing Labour as a competent governing party.

During the next five years the inability of the Baldwin government to tackle unemployment helped Labour to a further advance. In 1929 they won 288 seats, not far short of a majority. But this time MacDonald's conventional economic policy proved inadequate; the commitment to the gold standard, an over-valued pound, and the restoration of British export markets proved fatal. As unemployment mounted the prime minister seemed indecisive and self-pitying—the ‘Boneless Wonder’ in Churchill's derisive phrase. By August 1931 the balance of payments deficit obliged the cabinet to attempt to restore confidence by balancing its budget. But it split over proposed cuts in unemployment benefit. MacDonald astonished his colleagues by accepting the king's invitation to lead a National Government with the Liberals and Tories. Though originally seen as a temporary expedient, the National Government rapidly assumed a permanent form by holding a general election in October 1931. MacDonald thus retained the premiership until 1935 and continued in office until 1937. An isolated and ineffectual figure, he presided over a disastrous phase in foreign policy in which the League of Nations collapsed in the face of aggression by the fascist dictators; he clung to office largely because he had nothing else to live for.

Martin Pugh


Elton, G. , The Life of James Ramsay MacDonald (1939);
Marquand, D. , Ramsay MacDonald (1977);
Morgan, A. , J. Ramsay MacDonald (Manchester, 1987)


James Ramsay MacDonald

views updated Jun 08 2018

James Ramsay MacDonald

The British politician James Ramsay MacDonald (1866-1937), three time prime minister of Great Britain, was one of the great architects of the British Labour party. In 1924 he formed the first Labour government.

Ramsay MacDonald, born in October 1866 in the little peasant and fishing village of Lossiemouth in Morayshire, Scotland, was the illegitimate son of Anne Ramsay, a farm servant, and John MacDonald, a plowman and a Highlander from the Black Isle of Ross. He was reared by his mother and his grandmother, Isabella Ramsay, a woman of strong religious convictions, remarkable intelligence, and character. He attended first the Free Kirk School in Lossiemouth and then, the Drainie Parish School, where at 15 he was the leading pupil and at 16 became a pupil-teacher. Politics fascinated him, and he became an ardent Gladstonian.

In 1885 MacDonald went south to Bristol to a position in a Church-sponsored guild for young men. He associated with the Bristol branch of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), a Marxist-oriented society. His employment soon proved unsatisfactory, and, after a brief return to Lossiemouth, he went to London in 1886. There he became an invoice clerk in a warehouse. More significant was his prompt membership in the London Trades Council and in the Fabian Society, whose intellectual and non-revolutionary approach to socialism he found more congenial than the SDF. Secretaryships with the Scottish Home Rule Association in 1888 and with the Fellowship of the New Life in 1892, as well as membership on the executive of the Fabian Society from 1894 to 1900, made him known and respected. In 1894 he joined the Independent Labour party (ILP), whose advocacy of both socialist doctrine and labor representation in Parliament attracted him. In 1895 he was an unsuccessful ILP candidate for Parliament. All these years he was educating himself by voracious reading.

In 1896 MacDonald married Margaret Gladstone, daughter of John Hall Gladstone, a prominent scientist and one of the founders of the YMCA. His marriage made him less skeptical and brought an income sufficient for independence. They lived in London and raised a family of six children. With his wife by his side, MacDonald, it has been said, readily acquired the manners, though not the prejudices, of the ruling class. Their home became a focal point for the labor and socialist world in London. The MacDonalds travels, so important for his later role as diplomat, included a trip around the world in 1906 and a trip to India in 1909. Margaret MacDonald died in 1911.

Labour Party

In the meantime, MacDonald's career developed quickly. He wrote for labor and socialist journals. He opposed the Boer War and resigned from the Fabian Society over the issue. When the Labour Representation Committee (LRC; later the Labour party) was organized in 1900, MacDonald was unanimously elected its first secretary. In 1903 he negotiated with the Liberals an agreement whereby in 35 parliamentary constituencies the Liberals would not oppose Labour. In 1906 the LRC was victorious in 29 constituencies, including Leicester, where MacDonald was elected. He at once became the party's most effective spokesman in the Commons. In 1911 he became chairman of the parliamentary Labour party.

When party differences over the war developed, MacDonald resigned his chairmanship. He condemned the British entry, but he was no pacifist and believed that the war must be won, with peace coming as soon as possible. He was one of the founders in 1914 of the Union of Democratic Control, which sought parliamentary control over foreign policy. Repudiation of secret diplomacy was also a main theme of the Labour party statement on war aims in December 1917, drafted largely by MacDonald.

Defeated in 1918, MacDonald returned to the Commons in 1922 and was elected chairman of the parliamentary Labour party. As such, he formed the first Labour government, in January 1924. His major achievement was the acceptance by France and Germany of the Dawes Plan for the payment of German reparations. His government recognized the Soviet Union but fell in October, when proposed trade agreements with the Soviet Union brought attacks. He drafted, in large part, "Labour and the Nation," the party manifesto in the election of 1929, which gave Labour a plurality in the Commons. In his second government (1929-1931) his main achievements were again in foreign policy; his talks with President Herbert Hoover were a successful preliminary to the Five Power Naval Conference in London, over which he presided with great skill. But the world economic situation steadily worsened, with mounting unemployment placing unprecedented demands on the Unemployment Insurance Fund and rendering precarious the finances of the country. Failure of his Cabinet to agree on measures brought MacDonald's resignation in August 1931.

Under pressure from the King and with the support of other party leaders, MacDonald formed a national government, an action soon repudiated by his party. The new government stabilized the financial situation and won an overwhelming mandate from the electorate in October, MacDonald remaining as prime minister until 1935, though with little Labour support. In general he accepted Conservative policies, notably a return to a general tariff in 1932, but failing health greatly reduced his effectiveness. After inaugurating rearmament in March 1935, he resigned and took the honorary post of lord president of the Council. Though defeated in 1935, he was returned to Parliament in 1936 by a by-election from the Scottish Universities. He died in November 1937, while on a holiday trip to South America.

Further Reading

There is no adequate biography of MacDonald. Lord Godfrey Elton, The Life of James Ramsay MacDonald (1939), is useful but incomplete. Other studies are L. MacNeill Weir, The Tragedy of Ramsay MacDonald (1938), a sympathetic account of MacDonald's political career, and Benjamin Sacks, J. Ramsay MacDonald in Thought and Action: An Architect for a Better World (1952). MacDonald's association with the early history of the Labour party is fully presented in Philip R. Poirier, The Advent of the British Labour Party (1958), and the high points of his career are treated in detail in Richard W. Lyman, The First Labour Government (1924), and in Reginald Bassett, Nineteen Thirty-one (1958). □

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