Ramsay MacDonald

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Ramsay MacDonald
J. Ramsay MacDonald LCCN2014715885 (cropped).jpg
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
In office
5 June 1929 7 June 1935

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. [102] [103]

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. The downfall of the Labour government in 1931, his National coalition with the Conservatives and the electoral defeat were blamed on him, and few spoke on his behalf. [104] 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. [105] 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". [106] 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. [107] [108] Finally in 1977 he received a long scholarly biography that historians have judged to be "definitive". [109] Labour MP David Marquand, a trained historian, 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. [110]

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. However, 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 so-called "labour costs" and defending the value of the currency. [111] 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. [112]

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. [113] 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. [114]

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. [115] [ incomplete short citation ]

Ramsay MacDonald's religious life was varied, starting as a devout Christian and incrementally moving across his life into organised humanism, particularly the British Ethical movement. MacDonald's father held firm Calvinist beliefs, but as an adult Ramsay would join the Church of Scotland. Subsequently, he became interested in the Unitarian movement during his time in London, and led Unitarian worship sessions. His interest in Unitarianism led him to discover the Ethical Church, an early humanist association affiliated with the Union of Ethical Societies (today known as Humanists UK), which he joined as a member. [116] [117] He regularly attended services at the South Place Ethical Society (now Conway Hall), [118] and became intensely involved in Union of Ethical Societies, and friends with its founder, Stanton Coit. Ramsay would write regularly in Stanton Coit's Ethical World, a humanist publication. [119] On more than one occasion, he had been elected chair of the Union at its annual meeting, evidencing the significance of his commitment to organised humanism. [120] He was Chair/President of the organisation from 1900-1901 and again in 1903. [121]

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. [122] 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, which he had framed and mounted. [123]


In 1930, MacDonald was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) under Statute 12. [124] He was awarded honorary Doctor of Laws (LLD) degrees by the universities of Wales, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Oxford and McGill and George Washington University. [125]

The novel Fame is the Spur (1940) by Howard Spring is thought to be based on the life of MacDonald. [126]

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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
Leader of the Opposition
Succeeded by
Stanley Baldwin
Preceded by
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
Leader of the House of Commons
Preceded by
Foreign Secretary
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Stanley Baldwin
Leader of the Opposition
Succeeded by
Stanley Baldwin
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
Leader of the House of Commons
Lord President of the Council
Succeeded by
Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Member of Parliament for Leicester
With: Henry Broadhurst, to March 1906
Franklin Thomasson, 1906–1910
Eliot Crawshay-Williams, 1910–1913
Sir Gordon Hewart, 1913–1918
Constituency abolished
Preceded by
Member of Parliament for Aberavon
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Member of Parliament for Seaham
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Member of Parliament for the
Combined Scottish Universities

Succeeded by
Party political offices
New political party Labour Party Secretary
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Chairman of the Independent Labour Party
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party
Succeeded by
Arthur Henderson
Preceded by
Arthur Henderson
Treasurer of the Labour Party
Succeeded by
Arthur Henderson
Preceded by
Leader of the British Labour Party
Succeeded by
Arthur Henderson
Preceded by
Chair of the Labour Party
Succeeded by
New political party Leader of National Labour
Succeeded by
Awards and achievements
Preceded by
Cover of Time Magazine
18 August 1924
Succeeded by