Ramsay MacDonald

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Ramsay MacDonald

FRS
Ramsay MacDonald ggbain 35734.jpg
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
In office
5 June 1929 7 June 1935
Monarch George V
Preceded by Stanley Baldwin
Succeeded byStanley Baldwin
In office
22 January 1924 4 November 1924
Monarch George V
Preceded byStanley Baldwin
Succeeded byStanley Baldwin
Leader of the Opposition
In office
4 November 1924 5 June 1929
Monarch George V
Prime MinisterStanley Baldwin
Preceded byStanley Baldwin
Succeeded byStanley Baldwin
In office
21 November 1922 22 January 1924
Monarch George V
Prime Minister Bonar Law
Stanley Baldwin
Preceded by H. H. Asquith
Succeeded byStanley Baldwin
Leader of the Labour Party
In office
22 November 1922 1 September 1931
Deputy John Robert Clynes
Preceded byJohn Robert Clynes
Succeeded by Arthur Henderson
In office
6 February 1911 5 August 1914
Chief Whip George Henry Roberts
Arthur Henderson
Preceded by George Barnes
Succeeded byArthur Henderson
Lord President of the Council
In office
7 June 1935 28 May 1937
Prime MinisterStanley Baldwin
Preceded byStanley Baldwin
Succeeded by The Viscount Halifax
Leader of the House of Commons
In office
5 June 1929 7 June 1935
Preceded byStanley Baldwin
Succeeded byStanley Baldwin
In office
22 January 1924 3 November 1924
Preceded byStanley Baldwin
Succeeded byStanley Baldwin
Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs
In office
22 January 1924 3 November 1924
Preceded by The Marquess Curzon
Succeeded by Austen Chamberlain
Member of Parliament
for the Combined Scottish Universities
In office
31 January 1936 9 November 1937
Preceded by Noel Skelton
Succeeded by Sir John Anderson
Member of Parliament
for Seaham
In office
30 May 1929 14 November 1935
Preceded by Sidney Webb
Succeeded by Emanuel Shinwell
Member of Parliament
for Aberavon
In office
15 November 1922 30 May 1929
Preceded by John Edwards
Succeeded by William Cove
Member of Parliament
for Leicester
In office
8 February 1906 14 December 1918
Preceded byJohn Rolleston
Henry Broadhurst
Succeeded by Constituency abolished
Personal details
Born
James 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 )
Resting placeSpynie Cemetery, Morayshire
Nationality British
Political party Labour (until 1931)
National Labour (from 1931)
Spouse(s)
Margaret Gladstone
(m. 1896;died 1911)
Children
Parents
  • John MacDonald
  • Anne Ramsay
Alma mater Birkbeck, University of London
ProfessionPolitician
Signature Ramsay Macdonald Signature.svg

James Ramsay MacDonald FRS ( James McDonald Ramsay; 12 October 1866 9 November 1937) was a British statesman who was the first Labour Party politician to become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, leading minority Labour governments for nine months in 1924 and then in 1929–31. From 1931 to 1935, he headed a National Government dominated by the Conservative Party and supported by only a few Labour members. MacDonald was later vehemently denounced by and expelled from the party he had helped to found.

Fellow of the Royal Society Elected Fellow of the Royal Society, including Honorary, Foreign and Royal Fellows

Fellowship of the Royal Society is an award granted to individuals that the Royal Society of London judges to have made a 'substantial contribution to the improvement of natural knowledge, including mathematics, engineering science, and medical science'.

The Labour Party is a centre-left political party in the United Kingdom that has been described as an alliance of social democrats, democratic socialists and trade unionists. The party's platform emphasises greater state intervention, social justice and strengthening workers' rights.

Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Head of UK Government

The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, until 1801 known as the Prime Minister of Great Britain, is the head of government of the United Kingdom. The Prime Minister directs both the executive and the legislature, and together with their Cabinet are collectively accountable for their policies and actions to the Monarch, to Parliament, to their political party and ultimately to the electorate.

Contents

MacDonald, along with Keir Hardie and Arthur Henderson, was one of the three principal founders of the Labour Party. He was chairman of the Labour MPs before 1914 and, after an eclipse in his career caused by his opposition to the First World War, he was Leader of the Labour Party from 1922. The second Labour Government (1929–31) was dominated by the Great Depression. He formed the National Government to carry out spending cuts to defend the gold standard, but it had to be abandoned after the Invergordon Mutiny, and he called a general election in 1931 seeking a "doctor's mandate" to fix the economy. The National coalition won an overwhelming landslide and the Labour Party was reduced to a rump of around 50 seats in the House of Commons. His health deteriorated and he stood down as Prime Minister in 1935, remaining as Lord President of the Council until retiring in 1937. He died later that year.

Keir Hardie Scottish socialist and labour leader

James Keir Hardie was a Scottish trade unionist and politician. He was a founder of the Labour Party, and served as its first parliamentary leader from 1906 to 1908.

Arthur Henderson British politician

Arthur Henderson was a British iron moulder and Labour politician. He was the first Labour cabinet minister, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1934 and, uniquely, served three separate terms as Leader of the Labour Party in three different decades. He was popular among his colleagues, who called him ‘Uncle Arthur’ in acknowledgement of his integrity, his devotion to the cause and his imperturbability. He was a transitional figure whose policies were, at first, close to those of the Liberal Party. The trades unions rejected his emphasis on arbitration and conciliation, and thwarted his goal of unifying the Labour Party and the trade unions.

Leader of the Labour Party (UK) Most senior politician within the Labour Party in the United Kingdom

The Leader of the Labour Party is the most senior political figure within the Labour Party in the United Kingdom. Since 12 September 2015, the office has been held by Jeremy Corbyn; who has represented the constituency of Islington North since 1983.

MacDonald's speeches, pamphlets and books made him an important theoretician. Historian John Shepherd states that "MacDonald's natural gifts of an imposing presence, handsome features and a persuasive oratory delivered with an arresting Highlands accent made him the iconic Labour leader". After 1931, MacDonald was repeatedly and bitterly denounced by the Labour movement as a traitor to their cause. Since the 1960s, historians have defended his reputation, emphasising his earlier role in building up the Labour Party, dealing with the Great Depression, and as a forerunner of the political realignments of the 1990s and 2000s. [1]

Early life

Lossiemouth

MacDonald was born at Gregory Place, Lossiemouth, Morayshire, Scotland, the illegitimate son of John MacDonald, a farm labourer, and Anne Ramsay, a housemaid. [2] 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%—nearly every sixth person was born out of wedlock. [3] MacDonald's mother had worked as a domestic servant at Claydale farm, near Alves, where his father 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. [4]

Lossiemouth town in Scotland

Lossiemouth is a town in Moray, Scotland. Originally the port belonging to Elgin, it became an important fishing town. Although there has been over a 1,000 years of settlement in the area, the present day town was formed over the past 250 years and consists of four separate communities that eventually merged into one. From 1890 to 1975 it was a police burgh as Lossiemouth and Branderburgh.

Alves, Moray village in United Kingdom

Alves is a small agricultural village in Moray, Scotland.

Bloody Sunday. 1887BloodySunday.jpg
Bloody Sunday.

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. In December 1881, he was appointed a pupil teacher at Drainie parish school. [5] In 1885, 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. [6] In Bristol Ramsay MacDonald joined the Democratic Federation, a Radical organisation, which changed its name a few months later to the Social Democratic Federation (SDF). [7] [8] He remained in the group when it left the SDF to become the Bristol Socialist Society. In early 1886 he moved to London. [9]

Free Church of Scotland (1843–1900) Calvinist Church, founded 1843

The Free Church of Scotland was a Scottish denomination which was formed in 1843 by a large withdrawal from the established Church of Scotland in a schism or division known as the Disruption of 1843. In 1900 the vast majority of the Free Church of Scotland joined with the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland to form the United Free Church of Scotland. The House of Lords judged that the minority continuing after the 1900 union were entitled to all the assets. While the denomination clearly had a starting date, in their own eyes their leaders had a legitimate claim to an unbroken succession of leaders going all the way back to the Apostles.

Bristol City and county in England

Bristol is a city and county in South West England with a population of 459,300. The wider district has the 10th-largest population in England. The urban area population of 724,000 is the 8th-largest in the UK. The city borders North Somerset and South Gloucestershire, with the cities of Bath and Gloucester to the south-east and north-east, respectively. South Wales lies across the Severn estuary.

St Stephens Church, Bristol church in Bristol, UK

St Stephen's Church in St Stephen's Avenue, is the parish church for the city of Bristol, England.

Young semi-socialist in London

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 warehouse of Cooper, Box and Co. [10] 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. [11] 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. [12]

The National Cyclists' Union (NCU) was an association established in the Guildhall Tavern, London, on 16 February 1878 as the Bicycle Union. Its purpose was to defend cyclists and to organise and regulate bicycle racing in Great Britain. It merged with the Tricycle Association in 1882 and was renamed the National Cyclists' Union in 1883.

Fleet Street street in the City of London, England

Fleet Street is a major street mostly in the City of London. It runs west to east from Temple Bar at the boundary with the City of Westminster to Ludgate Circus at the site of the London Wall and the River Fleet from which the street was named.

Charles L. Fitzgerald was a British socialist activist and journalist.

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 the Scottish Home Rule Association. [13] For a while he supported home rule for Scotland, but found little support among London's Scots. [14] However, MacDonald never lost his interest in Scottish politics and home rule, and in 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." [15]

Politics in the 1880s was still of less importance to MacDonald than furthering his education. 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, which put an end to any thought of a scientific career. [16] In 1888, MacDonald took employment as private secretary to Thomas Lough who was a tea merchant and a Radical politician. [17] 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 made himself known to various London Radical clubs among Radical and labour politicians. MacDonald gained valuable experience in the workings of electioneering. At the same time he left Lough's employment to branch out as a freelance journalist. Elsewhere, 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. [18]

Active politics

The Trades Union Congress had created the Labour Electoral Association (LEA) and entered into an unsatisfactory alliance with the Liberal Party in 1886. [19] In 1892, MacDonald was in Dover to give support to the candidate for the LEA in the General Election, who was well beaten. MacDonald impressed the local press [20] and the Association and was adopted as its candidate, announcing that his candidature would be under a Labour Party banner. [21] He denied the Labour Party was a wing of the Liberal Party but saw merit in a working political relationship. In May 1894, the local Southampton Liberal Association was trying to find a labour-minded candidate for the constituency. Two others joined MacDonald to address the Liberal Council: one was offered but turned down the invitation, while MacDonald failed to secure the nomination despite strong support among Liberals. [22]

In 1893, Keir Hardie had formed the Independent Labour Party (ILP) which had established itself as a mass movement. In May 1894 MacDonald applied for membership, and was accepted. He was officially adopted as the ILP candidate for one of the Southampton seats on 17 July 1894 [23] 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 generously accused of splitting the Liberal vote to allow the Conservative candidate to win. [24] That same year he became Secretary of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC), the forerunner of the Labour Party, allegedly in part because many delegates confused him with prominent London trade unionist Jimmie MacDonald when they voted for "Mr. James R. MacDonald". [25] MacDonald retained membership of the ILP; while it was not a Marxist organisation it was more rigorously socialist than the once and future Labour Party in which the ILP members would operate as a "ginger group" for many years. [26]

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, [27] 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. Although not wealthy, Margaret MacDonald was comfortably off, [28] and 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 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 [29] [30] with whom he discussed women's issues. She was an influence on MacDonald and other politicians in their attitudes towards women's rights. 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. [31]

Macdonald (third from left) in 1906, with other leading figures in the party Labour Representation Committee leaders 1906.jpg
Macdonald (third from left) in 1906, with other leading figures in the party

In 1906, the LRC changed its name to the "Labour Party", amalgamating with the ILP. [32] In that same year, MacDonald was elected MP for Leicester along with 28 others, [33] 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, 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. [34]

Party leader

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 Ramsay MacDonald - Punch cartoon - Project Gutenberg eText 17629.png
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 "Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party", the leader of the party. He was the chief intellectual leader of the party, paying little attention to class warfare and much more to the emergence of a powerful state as it exemplified the Darwinian evolution of an ever more complex society. He was an Orthodox Edwardian progressive, keen on intellectual discussion, and adverse to agitation. [35]

Within a short period his wife became ill with blood poisoning and died. This deeply and permanently affected MacDonald. [36]

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 be. Although the Parliamentary Labour Party generally held an anti-war opinion, when war was declared in August 1914, patriotism came to the fore. [37] After the Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, warned the House of Commons on 3 August that war with Germany was likely, MacDonald responded by declaring that "this country ought to have remained neutral". [38] [39] In the Labour Leader he claimed that the real cause of the war was the "policy of the balance of power through alliance". [40]

The Party supported the government in its request for £100,000,000 of war credits and, as MacDonald could not, he resigned the party Chairmanship. Arthur Henderson became the new leader while MacDonald took the party Treasurer's post. [41] Despite his opposition to the war, MacDonald visited the Western Front in December 1914 with the approval of Lord Kitchener. MacDonald and General Seeley 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. [42]

During the early part of the war he was extremely unpopular and was accused of treason and cowardice. Former Liberal Party MP and publisher 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. [43] [44] His illegitimacy was no secret and he had not 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 internal support, but the way in which the disclosures were made public had affected him. [45] 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.

Election poster produced for the 1923 election MacDonald Poster.jpg
Election poster produced for the 1923 election

In August 1916 the Moray Golf Club passed a resolution declaring that MacDonald's anti-war activities "had endangered the character and interests of the club" and that he had forfeited his right to membership. [46] In January 1917 MacDonald published National Defence, in which he argued that open diplomacy and disarmament were necessary to prevent future wars. [47]

As the war dragged on, his reputation recovered but he still lost his seat in the 1918 "Coupon Election", which saw the Liberal David Lloyd George's coalition government win a large majority. The election campaign in Leicester West focused on MacDonald's opposition to the war, with MacDonald writing after his defeat: "I have become a kind of mythological demon in the minds of the people". [48]

MacDonald denounced the Treaty of Versailles: "We are beholding an act of madness unparalleled in history". [49]

1920–1924

MacDonald stood for Parliament in the 1921 Woolwich East by-election and lost. His opponent, Robert Gee, had been awarded the Victoria Cross at Cambrai; MacDonald tried to counter this by having ex-soldiers appear on his platforms. MacDonald also promised to pressure the government into converting the Woolwich Arsenal to civilian use. [50] Horatio Bottomley intervened in the by-election, opposing MacDonald's election because of his anti-war record. [51] Bottomley's influence may have been decisive in MacDonald's failure to be elected as there were under 700 votes difference between Gee and MacDonald. [52]

In 1922, MacDonald was returned to the House as MP for Aberavon in Wales, with a vote of 14,318 against 11,111 and 5,328 for his main opponents. His rehabilitation was complete; the Labour New Leader magazine opined that his election was, "enough in itself to transform our position in the House. We have once more a voice which must be heard." [53] By now, the party was reunited and MacDonald was re-elected as Leader. Historian Kenneth O. Morgan examines his newfound stature:

as dissolution set in with the Lloyd George coalition in 1921-22, and unemployment mounted, MacDonald stood out as the leader of a new kind of broad-based left. His opposition to the war had given him a new charisma. More than anyone else in public life, he symbolised peace and internationalism, decency and social change.... [He] had become The voice of conscience. [54]

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 now, 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 Social Democratic Party of Germany, the Labour Party did not split and the Communist Party of Great Britain remained small and isolated.

In 1922, MacDonald visited Palestine. [55] In a later account of his visit, he contrasted Zionist pioneers with 'the rich plutocratic Jew'. [55] MacDonald believed the latter "was the true economic materialist. He is the person whose views upon life make one anti-Semitic. He has no country, no kindred. Whether as a sweater or a financier, he is an exploiter of everything he can squeeze. He is behind every evil that Governments do, and his political authority, always exercised in the dark, is greater than that of Parliamentary majorities. He is the keenest of brains and the bluntest of consciences. He detests Zionism because it revives the idealism of his race, and has political implications which threaten his economic interests” [55]

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. [56]

At the 1923 election, the Conservatives had 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, [57] the first from a working-class background [57] and one of the very few without a university education. [58]

First government (1924)

Ramsay MacDonald by Solomon Joseph Solomon, 1911 (James) Ramsay MacDonald by Solomon Joseph Solomon.jpg
Ramsay MacDonald by Solomon Joseph Solomon, 1911

MacDonald had never held office but demonstrated energy, executive ability, and political astuteness. He consulted widely within his party, making the Liberal Lord Haldane the Lord Chancellor, and Philip 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. [59] His first priority was to undo the perceived damage caused by the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, by settling the reparations issue and coming to terms with Germany. The king noted in his diary, "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!" [60]

While there were no major labour strikes during his term, MacDonald acted swiftly to end those that did erupt. When the Labour Party executive criticised 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". [61] The Government lasted only nine months and did not have a majority in either House of the Parliament, but 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. [62]

Foreign affairs

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 defence programme might turn out to be the wisest British government policy. [63]

MacDonald moved in March 1924 to end construction work on the Singapore military base despite strong opposition from the Admiralty. He 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 could mean the security of the British Empire in the Far East being dependent on the goodwill of Japan. [64]

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 French occupation of the Ruhr. German delegates joined the meeting, and the London Settlement was signed. It was followed by an Anglo-German commercial treaty. Another major triumph for MacDonald was the conference held in London in July and August 1924 to deal with the implementation of the Dawes Plan. [65] MacDonald, who accepted the popular view of the economist John Maynard Keynes of German reparations as impossible to pay, pressured French Premier Édouard Herriot until many concessions were made to Germany. [65]

Ramsay MacDonald and Christian Rakovsky, Head of the Soviet diplomatic delegation. Feb 1924. Ramsay MacDonald Christian Rakovsky 1924.jpg
Ramsay MacDonald and Christian Rakovsky, Head of the Soviet diplomatic delegation. Feb 1924.

A British onlooker commented, "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." [66] MacDonald was proud of what had been achieved, which was the pinnacle of his short-lived administration's achievements. [67] 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 acclaim. [68]

MacDonald recognised the Soviet Union and MacDonald informed Parliament in February 1924 that negotiations would begin to negotiate a treaty with the Soviet Union. [69] The treaty was to cover Anglo-Soviet trade and the repayment of the British bondholders, who had lent billions to the pre-revolutionary Russian government and been rejected by the Bolsheviks. There were in fact two proposed treaties: one would cover commercial matters, and the other would cover a fairly vague future discussion on the problem of the bondholders. If the treaties were signed, the British government would conclude a further treaty and guarantee a loan to the Bolsheviks. 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. [70] However, the Government's fate was determined by the "Campbell Case", the abrogation of prosecuting the left-wing newspaper the Workers' Weekly for inciting servicemen to mutiny. The Conservatives put down a censure motion, to which the Liberals added an amendment. MacDonald's Cabinet resolved to treat both motions as matters of confidence. The Liberal amendment was carried, and the King granted MacDonald a dissolution of Parliament the following day. The issues that dominated the election campaign were the Campbell Case and the Russian treaties which soon combined into the single issue of the Bolshevik threat. [71]

Zinoviev letter

On 25 October 1924, 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 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 for the agreed treaties between Britain and the Bolsheviks to be ratified urgently. 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 with details of the official protest but had not been swift-footed enough. [72] Historians mostly agree the letter was a forgery, but it closely reflected attitudes current in the Comintern. In any case, it had little impact on the Labour vote, which actually increased. 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 by misunderstanding the political forces at work. [73] [74] Despite all that had gone on, the result of the election was not disastrous for 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 Liberal Party, which Labour had displaced as the second largest political party in 1922, was now clearly the third party.

Second government and National government (1929–1935)

Second Labour government (1929–1931)

The strong majority held by the Conservatives gave Baldwin a full term during which the government had 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. [75] At the May 1929 election, Labour won 288 seats to the Conservatives' 260, with 59 Liberals under Lloyd George holding the balance of power. MacDonald was increasingly out of touch with his supposedly safe Welsh seat at Aberavon; he largely ignored the district, and had little time or energy to help with its increasingly difficult problems regarding coal disputes, strikes, unemployment and poverty. The miners expected a wealthy man who would fund party operations, but he had no money. He disagreed with the increasingly radical activism of party leaders in the district, as well as the permanent agent, and the South Wales Mineworkers' Federation. He moved to Seaham Harbour in County Durham, a safer seat, in order to avoid a highly embarrassing defeat. [76] [77]

MacDonald at Tomb of Unknown Soldier, Washington, DC, 9 October 1929 MacDonald at Tomb of Unknown Soldier-edit.jpg
MacDonald at Tomb of Unknown Soldier, Washington, DC, 9 October 1929

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. 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. [78] [79]

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. [62]

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. [62]

MacDonald c. 1929 Ramsay MacDonald ggbain.37952.jpg
MacDonald c.1929

Great Depression

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. [80] The government struggled to cope with the crisis and found itself attempting to reconcile two contradictory aims: achieving a balanced budget to maintain sterling 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, to avoid a budget deficit. [81]

Formation of the National Government

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. With Henderson taking the lead, MacDonald, Snowden, and Thomas were quickly expelled from the Labour Party. [82] They responded by forming a new National Labour group, which provided a nominal party base for the expelled MPs but received little support in the country or the unions. Great anger in the labour movement greeted MacDonald's move. 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. [83] [84]

1931 general election

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. [80]

Premiership of the National Government (1931–1935)

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 ageing 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. [85] 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 within the Commonwealth. [86]

Besides his preference for a cohesive British Empire and a protective tariff, he felt an independent British defence programme would be the wisest policy. However, budget pressures and a strong popular pacifist sentiment, forced a reduction in the military and naval budgets. [87] MacDonald involved himself heavily in foreign policy. Assisted by the National Liberal leader and Foreign Secretary John Simon, he continued to lead British delegations to international conferences, including the Geneva Disarmament Conference and the Lausanne Conference in 1932, and the Stresa Conference in 1935. [88] He went to Rome in March 1933 in order to facilitate Nazi Germany's return to the concert of European powers and to continue the policy of appeasement. [89] On 16 August 1932 he granted the Communal Award upon India, partitioning it into separate electorates for Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Untouchables. 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 US would not stabilise the depreciating dollar. The failure marked the end of international economic co-operation for another decade. [90]

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, Philip Snowden, was a firm believer in free trade and resigned from the government in 1932 following the introduction of tariffs after the Ottawa agreement. [91]

Retirement

By 1933 MacDonald's health was so poor that his doctor had to personally supervise his trip to Geneva. By 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 and at international meetings 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". Newspapers did not report MacDonald denying to reporters that he was seriously ill because he only had "loss of memory". [62] [25] 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. His government began the negotiations for the Anglo-German Naval Agreement. MacDonald was aware of his fading powers, and in 1935 he agreed to a timetable with Baldwin to stand down as Prime Minister after King 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. [62]

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". [92]

Last years and death

At the 1935 election 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. King George V died a week before voting began in the Scottish by-election, and MacDonald deeply mourned his death, [93] [94] paying tribute to him in his diary as "a gracious and kingly friend whom I have served with all my heart". [93] [94] There had been a genuine mutual affection between the two; the King is said to have regarded MacDonald as his favourite prime minister. [95] [96]

A sea voyage was recommended to restore MacDonald's health, but he died on board the liner MV Reina del Pacifico at sea on 9 November 1937, aged 71 when with his youngest daughter Sheila. His funeral was in Westminster Abbey on 26 November. After cremation, his ashes were buried alongside his wife Margaret at Spynie in his native Morayshire. [62]

Reputation

For half a century, MacDonald was demonised by the Labour Party as a turncoat who consorted with the enemy and drove the Labour Party to its nadir. Later, however, scholarly opinion 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. [97] [98]

MacDonald's expulsion from Labour along with his National Labour Party's coalition with the Conservatives, combined with the decline in his physical and mental powers after 1931, left him a discredited figure at the time of his death, destined to receive years of 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, with many of his former supporters accusing him of betraying the party he had helped create. [99] [100] [101] Lachlan MacNeill Weir, MacDonald's former parliamentary private secretary, published the first major biography The Tragedy of Ramsay MacDonald in 1938. Weir demonised MacDonald for obnoxious careerism, class betrayal and treachery. [102] 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". [103] 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".

By the 1960s, while union activists maintained their hostile attitude, scholars wrote with more appreciation of his challenges and successes. [104] Finally in 1977 he received a long scholarly biography that historians have judged to be "definitive." [105] Labour MP David Marquand, a trained historian who later became 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 emphasised 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. [106]

Scholarly analysis 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 proposed by David Lloyd George and Oswald Mosley. But in the preface to the 1994 edition Skidelsky argued that recent experience of currency crises and capital flight made it hard to be critical of politicians who wanted to achieve stability by cutting labour costs and defending the value of the currency. [107] 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. [108]

Cultural depictions

Personal life

MacDonald c. 1900s Ramsay MacDonald ggbain.29588.jpg
MacDonald c.1900s

Ramsay MacDonald married Margaret Ethel Gladstone (no relation to 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 distinguished 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 conscientious objector in the First World War, serving in the Friends' Ambulance Unit; he became a prominent architect who worked on promoting the planning policies of his father's government, and specialised in cinema design. [109] 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 acted as his consort while he was Prime Minister and cared for him for the rest of his life. Following his wife's death, MacDonald commenced a relationship with Lady Margaret Sackville. [110]

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. [111]

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 being deemed to bring the club into disrepute because of his pacifist views. [45] 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. [112]

Honours

In 1930, MacDonald was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) under Statute 12. [113] He was awarded honorary Doctor of Laws (LLD) degrees by the universities of Wales, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Oxford and McGill and the George Washington University. [114]

The novel Fame is the Spur (1940) by Howard Spring is thought to be based on the life of MacDonald. [115]

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  110. 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.
  111. Morgan 1987, p. 124.
  112. McConnachie, John. The Moray Golf Club at Lossiemouth, 1988
  113. Gregory, R. A. (1939). "James Ramsay MacDonald. 1866–1937". Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society . 2 (7): 475–482. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1939.0007.
  114. "MacDonald, Rt Hon. James Ramsay, (12 Oct. 1866–9 Nov. 1937), JP Morayshire; MP (Lab.) Aberavon Division of Glamorganshire, 1922–29, Seaham Division Co. Durham, 1929–31, (Nat. Lab.) 1931–35, Scottish Universities since 1936". MacDonald, Rt Hon. James Ramsay. Who Was Who . Oxford University Press. 1 December 2007. doi:10.1093/ww/9780199540884.013.U213229.
  115. Britmovie.co.uk Accessed 6 Nov 2014

Bibliography

Historiography

Primary sources

  • Barker, Bernard (ed.) Ramsay MacDonald's Political Writings (Allen Lane, 1972).
  • Cox, Jane A Singular Marriage: A Labour Love Story in Letters and Diaries (of Ramsay and Margaret MacDonald), London: Harrap 1988; ISBN   978-0-245-54676-1
  • MacDonald, Ramsay The Socialist Movement (1911) online; free copy
  • MacDonald, Ramsay Socialism and Society (1914) online
  • MacDonald, Ramsay. Labour and Peace, Labour Party 1912
  • MacDonald, Ramsay. Parliament and Revolution, Labour Party 1919
  • MacDonald, Ramsay. Parliament and revolution (1920) online
  • MacDonald, Ramsay. Foreign Policy of the Labour Party, Labour Party 1923
  • MacDonald, Ramsay. Margaret Ethel MacDonald (1924) online
  • MacDonald, Ramsay. Socialism: critical and constructive (1924) online
Political offices
Preceded by
H. H. 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
Manny Shinwell
Preceded by
Noel Skelton
Member of Parliament for the
Combined Scottish Universities

19361937
Succeeded by
Sir John Anderson
Party political offices
New political party Labour Party Secretary
1900–1912
Succeeded by
Arthur Henderson
Preceded by
Philip Snowden
Chairman of the Independent Labour Party
1906–1909
Succeeded by
Fred Jowett
Preceded by
George 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
J. R. 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
Charlie Cramp
New political party Leader 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