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The Right Honourable
 James Ramsay MacDonald

In office
5 June 1929 – 7 June 1935
Monarch George V
Preceded by Stanley Baldwin
Succeeded by Stanley Baldwin
In office
22 January 1924 – 4 November 1924
Monarch George V
Preceded by Stanley Baldwin
Succeeded by Stanley Baldwin

In office
22 January 1924 – 3 November 1924
Preceded by The Marquess Curzon of Kedleston
Succeeded by Austen Chamberlain

In office
22 January 1924 – 3 November 1924
Prime Minister Himself
Preceded by Stanley Baldwin
Succeeded by Stanley Baldwin
In office
5 June 1929 – 7 June 1935
Prime Minister Himself
Preceded by Stanley Baldwin
Succeeded by Stanley Baldwin

In office
7 June 1935 – 28 May 1937
Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin
Preceded by Stanley Baldwin
Succeeded by The Viscount Halifax

In office
21 November 1922 – 22 January 1924
Monarch George V
Preceded by Herbert H. Asquith
Succeeded by Stanley Baldwin
In office
4 November 1924 – 5 June 1929
Monarch George V
Preceded by Stanley Baldwin
Succeeded by Stanley Baldwin

Born 12 October 1866(1866-10-12)
Lossiemouth, Morayshire, Scotland, United Kingdom
Died 9 November 1937 (aged 71)
The Atlantic Ocean, on holiday
aboard the liner Reina del Pacifico
Nationality British
Political party Labour (until 1931)
National Labour (from 1931)
Spouse(s) Margaret Gladstone
Residence 10 Downing Street
Alma mater Birkbeck Literary and Scientific Institution, United Kingdom
Profession Journalist
Religion Presbyterian

James Ramsay MacDonald (12 October 1866 – 9 November 1937) was a British Labour politician, who served two separate terms as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. He rose from humble origins to become the first ever Labour Prime Minister in 1924.

His first government lasted less than one year. Labour returned to power in 1929 but was soon overwhelmed by the crisis of the Great Depression, which split the Labour government. In 1931, he formed a "National Government" in which a majority of MPs were from the Conservatives. As a result, he was expelled from the Labour Party, which accused him of 'betrayal'.

He 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 but stayed in the Cabinet as Lord President of the Council until retiring from politics in 1937 and dying later that year.

He is generally viewed with contempt by left-wing members of today's Labour Party who view him as a "traitor" from the Labour Right, mainly for forming the National Government with the Conservatives, and for nearly destroying as a national force the party that had supported him.


Early life


MacDonald was born in Lossiemouth, in Morayshire in northeast Scotland, the illegitimate son of John Macdonald, a farm labourer, and Anne Ramsay, a housemaid.[1] Although registered at birth as James McDonald 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%[2] and it is unclear to what extent the associated stigma affected MacDonald throughout his life. He received an elementary education at the Free Church of Scotland school in Lossiemouth, and then from 1875 at the local Drainie parish school. In 1881 he became a pupil teacher at Drainie and the entry in the school register as a member of staff was 'J. MacDonald'.[3] He remained in this post until 1 May 1885 to take up a position as an assistant to a clergyman in Bristol.[4] It was in Bristol, that he joined the Democratic Federation, an extreme Radical sect. This federation changed its name a few months later to the Social Democratic Federation (SDF).[5][6] 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 Lossiemouth for London.[7]


He arrived in London jobless[8] but after some short-term menial work, he found employment as an invoice clerk.[9] Meanwhile, MacDonald was deepening his socialist credentials. He engaged himself energetically in C. L. Fitzgerald's Socialist Union which, unlike the SDF, aimed to progress socialist ideals through the parliamentary system.[10]

Bloody Sunday 1887

MacDonald witnessed the Bloody Sunday of 13 November, 1887 in Trafalgar Square and in response to this he had a pamphlet published by the Pall Mall Gazette entitled Remember Trafalgar Square: Tory Terrorism in 1887.[11]

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 Scotsmen who were London residents and who, on his motion, formed the London General Committee of Scottish Home Rule Association.[12] 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.[13][14]

Politics at this time, however, 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 any thought of having a career in science.[15] In 1888, MacDonald took employment as private secretary to Thomas Lough who was a tea merchant and a Radical politician.[16][17] Lough was elected as the Liberal 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 journalist and was not immediately successful. By then, MacDonald had been a member of the Fabian Society for some time and toured and lectured on its behalf at the London School of Economics and elsewhere.[18]

Active politics

The TUC 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 and who was well beaten. MacDonald impressed the local press[20] and the Association, however, and was adopted as its candidate. MacDonald, though, announced that his candidature would be under a Labour Party banner.[21] 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.[22]

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[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 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, 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.

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,[25] thus giving Labour its first breakthrough into the House of Commons. He married Margaret Gladstone, who was unrelated to the Gladstones of the Liberal Party, in 1896. Margaret MacDonald was very comfortably off, although not hugely wealthy.[26] 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.

In 1906, the LRC changed its name to the "Labour Party", and absorbed the ILP.[27] In that same year, MacDonald was elected MP for Leicester along with 28 others,[28] 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 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.

Up to 1910 his name was usually styled Ramsay Macdonald, thereafter Ramsay MacDonald.

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 June 20, 1917

In 1911 MacDonald became Party Leader (formally "Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party"),[29] but within a short period his wife became ill with blood poisoning and died. This affected MacDonald very much[30] and it is doubtful whether or not he truly recovered. It made him a lonely figure prone to self-pity. 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.[31] Although the Parliamentary Labour Party generally held an anti-war opinion, the fact was that when war was declared in August 1914, patriotism came to the fore.[32] 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.[33] Arthur Henderson became the new leader while MacDonald took the party Treasurer post.[34] During the early part of the war he was extremely unpopular and was accused of treason and cowardice. The journal, John Bull published in September, 1915 an article carrying details of MacDonald’s so-called deceit in not disclosing his real name.[35] 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 that he should suffer heavy penalties and have his election declared void. However, MacDonald received much support but the way in which the disclosures were made public had affected him.[36] 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.

Yet, despite his opposition to the war, MacDonald still visited the front in December 1914.[37] 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.

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

Election poster produced for the 1923 election

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.[38]

By now the party was reunited and MacDonald was re-elected as Leader. The Liberals by this point were in rapid decline and at the 1922 election Labour became 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 hard 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.

Although he was a gifted speaker, 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. MacDonald thus became the first Labour Prime Minister, the first from a "working-class" background and one of the very few without a university education.

First government (1924)

MacDonald took the post of Foreign Secretary as well as Prime Minister in January 1924 and made it clear that his main priority was to undo the damage which he believed had been caused by the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, by settling the reparations issue and coming to terms with Germany. He left domestic matters to his ministers, including J.R. Clynes as Lord Privy Seal, Philip Snowden as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Henderson as Home Secretary. King George V 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!"[39]

The Government was only to last 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.[40].

MacDonald took the decision in March 1924 to end construction work on the Singapore military base despite strong opposition from the Admiralty[41]. In June, 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[42] 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[43] 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” [44] MacDonald, the neophyte Prime Minister, was hugely proud of what had been achieved; this was the pinnacle of his short-lived administration's achievements.[45] 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.[46]

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.[47] 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.[48] 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.[49]

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.[50] 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.[51]

The Zinoviev letter

MacDonald picture from Swedish Encyclopedia Nordisk familjebok 1925

On 25 October, 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 Bolshevik’s London chargé d'affaires and had already decided to make public the contents of the letter together with details of the official protest[52] but had not been swift footed enough. MacDonald always believed that the letter was forgery[53] but damage had been done to his campaign.

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 Labour displaced the Liberals as the second largest political party.

Second government (1929-1931)

MacDonald at Tomb of Unknown Soldier, 9 October 1929

The strong majority enjoyed by Baldwin’s party allowed him to preside over a government that would serve a full term during which it would have to deal with the General Strike and miners’ strike of 1926. Unemployment in the UK during this period remained high but relatively stable at just over 10% and, apart from 1926, strikes were at a low level.[54] 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.

This time MacDonald knew he had to concentrate on domestic matters. Arthur Henderson became Foreign Secretary, with Snowden again at the Exchequer. J.H. 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.

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.[40]

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.[40]

Macdonald, c.1929

The Great Depression

MacDonald's government had no effective response to the economic crisis which followed the Stock Market Crash of 1929. Phillip 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.

By the end of 1930 the unemployment rate had doubled to over two and a half million[55 ]. 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, whilst also trying to maintain assistance to the poor and unemployed. All of this whilst 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.[40]

Keynes, though, urged MacDonald to devalue the pound by 25% and abandon the existing economic policy of a balanced budget. Oswald 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 went on to form the New Party, and later the British Union of Fascists after he converted to Fascism.

MacDonald, Snowden and Thomas, however, supported such measures as necessary to maintain a balanced budget and to prevent a run on the Pound sterling, but the proposed cuts split the Cabinet down the middle and the trade unions bitterly opposed them.

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 to 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, but this had little support in the country or the unions.

Great anger in the labour movement greeted MacDonald's move. Mass riots by unemployed people 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 he was sacrificing it for the common good.[40]

1931 general election

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 470 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.

Labour's disastrous performance at the 1931 election, greatly increased the bitterness felt by MacDonalds'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[55 ].

However his former party now turned against him; in their view MacDonald was a traitor who had brought down an elected Labour government, and nearly destroyed it as a parliamentary force.

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 it left MacDonald at the beck-and-call of the Conservatives. Although he remained Prime Minister, MacDonald was overshadowed by Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain who between them effectively controlled domestic policy.[40]

With little influence at home, MacDonald involved himself heavily in foreign policy. Assisted by the National Liberal leader and Foreign Secretary John Simon, he continued to lead important British delegations, including the Geneva Disarmament Conference and the Lausanne Conference in 1932, and the Stresa Conference in 1935.[40]

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. Phillip Snowden, a firm believer in free trade, resigned from the government in 1932 following the introduction of tarrifs after the Ottawa agreement. This robbed MacDonald of his only significant political ally.[40]

Retirement and death

MacDonald in later life

During 1933 and 1934 MacDonald's health declined, and he became an increasingly ineffective leader as the international situation grew more threatening. His speeches to the House of Commons became increasingly 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"..[40] 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.[40]

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, and he died at sea in November 1937. He was buried alongside his wife at Spynie in Morayshire.[40]


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,[56] 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"[57].

It was not until 1977 that he received a supportive biography, when Professor David Marquand, a former Labour MP, 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.

Similarly, opinion about the economic decisions taken in the inter-war period (Winston Churchill's decision to return to the Gold Standard in 1925, and MacDonald's desperate efforts to defend it in 1931) is no longer as uniformly hostile as was once the case. In the late 1960s Robert Skidelsky, in his classic account of the 1929-31 government, "Politicians and the Slump", 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 so critical of the politicians who wanted to achieve stability by cutting labour costs and defend the value of the currency.

Mentions in popular culture

In Howard Spring's 1940 novel Fame is the Spur (later made into film and TV adaptations) the lead character Hamer Shawcross is generally believed to be based upon Ramsay MacDonald[58]. The central character, Hamer Shawcross, starts as a studious boy in an aspirational working-class family in Ancoats, Manchester; he becomes a socialist activist and soon a career politician, who eventually is absorbed by the upper classes he had begun by combating.

In Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Ramsay Macdonald is mentioned in passing by the title character to her class on page 44. She is almost caught by the headteacher saying "Mussolini is one of the greatest men in the world, far more so than Ramsay Macdonald".

In the Doctor Who Big Finish audio play Storm Warning, The Doctor and his companion, Charley Pollard, name a creature they captured Ramsay, as Ramsay McDonald was the current Prime Minister for Charley.

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

Personal life

Ramsay MacDonald married Margaret 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[59]. 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[60]. In the 1920s and '30s 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, and it was said that MacDonald was infatuated with her.

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 the Moray Golf Club in Lossiemouth for supposedly bringing the club into disrepute because of his pacifist views.[61] 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.[62]

MacDonald's governments

First Labour government: January - November 1924

Second Labour government: June 1929 - August 1931


First national government: August - November 1931

Second national government: November 1931 - May 1935


  • September 1932 - Stanley Baldwin succeeds Lord Snowden as Lord Privy Seal. Sir John Gilmour succeeds Sir Herbert Samuel as Home Secretary. Sir Godfrey Collins**** succeeds Sir Archibald Sinclair as Scottish Secretary. Walter Elliot** succeeds Sir John Gilmour as Minister of Agriculture. Lord Irwin** succeeds Sir Donald Maclean as President of the Board of Education.
  • December 1933 - Stanley Baldwin ceases to be Lord Privy Seal, and his successor in that office is not in the cabinet. He continues as Lord President. Kingsley Wood** enters the cabinet as Postmaster-General.
  • June 1934 - Oliver Stanley** succeeds Sir H. Betterton as Minister of Labour



  1. ^ Marquand, David: Ramsay MacDonald, London, 1977, pp. 4, 5
  2. ^ Marquand, op.cit., p.6
  3. ^ Drainie School log books
  4. ^ Lord Elton: The life of James Ramsay MacDonald, 1939, London, p. 39
  5. ^ Bryher, Samual: An Account of the Labour and Socialist Movement in Bristol, 1929
  6. ^ Elton, op. cit., p.44
  7. ^ Marquand, David: op.cit., 9. 17
  8. ^ Marquand, op.cit., p. 19
  9. ^ Tracey, Herbert: J. Ramsay MacDonald, 1924, p.29
  10. ^ Marquand, op.cit., p.20
  11. ^ Marquand, op.cit., p.21
  12. ^ MacDonald Papers P.R.O. 3/57
  13. ^ MacDonald Papers P.R.O. 5/54
  14. ^ Marquand, op.cit., p. 23
  15. ^ Elton, op.cit.,pp 56, 57
  16. ^ Obrien, Conor Cruise: Parnell and his Party, 1957, p. 275
  17. ^ Sidney Webb to MacDonald, 22 January 1890, MacDonald Papers P.R.O. 5/1
  18. ^ Sidney Webb to MacDonald, 22 January 1890, MacDonald Papers P.R.O. 5/1
  19. ^ Marquand, op.cit., p. 31
  20. ^ Dover Express, 17 June 1892; 12 August 1892
  21. ^ Dover Express, 7 October, 1892
  22. ^ Marquand, op.cit., p35
  23. ^ Southampton Times, 21 July 1894
  24. ^ Marquand, op.cit., p.73
  25. ^ Mackintosh, John P (Ed.): British Prime Ministers in the twentieth Century, London, 1977, p.157
  26. ^ MacDonald Papers, P.R.O. 3/95
  27. ^ Clegg, H.A, Fox, Alan, Thompson, A.F.: A History of British Trade Unions since 1889, 1964, vol I, p. 388
  28. ^ Leicester Pioneer, 20 January , 1906
  29. ^ Leicester Pioneer, 11 February 1911
  30. ^ Thompson, Laurence: The Enthusiasts, 1971, p. 173
  31. ^ Marquand, op. cit., p. 77
  32. ^ Marquand, op. cit., p. 168
  33. ^ Marquand, op. cit., p. 168
  34. ^ MacKintosh, John P (Ed.):British Prime Ministers in the Twentieth Century, London, 1977, p.159
  35. ^ Marquand, op.cit., p.189
  36. ^ Marquand, op.cit., pp 190, 191
  37. ^ Elton, op.cit., pp. 269-71
  38. ^ New Leader, 17 November 1922
  39. ^ Sir Harold Nicholson, King George V: His life and reign (1952)
  40. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Morgan, Kevin. (2006) MacDonald (20 British Prime Ministers of the 20th Century), Haus Publishing, ISBN 1-904950-61-2
  41. ^ MacDonald Papers, P.R.O.I/86
  42. ^ Marks, Sally "The Myths of Reparations" pages 231-255 from Central European History, Volume 11, Issue # 3, September 1978 page 248.
  43. ^ Marks, Sally "The Myths of Reparations" pages 231-255 from Central European History, Volume 11, Issue # 3, September 1978 page 248.
  44. ^ Marks, Sally "The Myths of Reparations" pages 231-255 from Central European History, Volume 11, Issue # 3, September 1978 page 249.
  45. ^ Marquand, op.cit., pp.329-51
  46. ^ Limam: The First Labour Government, 1924, p. 173
  47. ^ Hansard (1924), vol. 169, cols. 768-9
  48. ^ Lyman: The First Labour Government, 1924, pp. 195-6
  49. ^ Lyman: The First Labour Government, 1924, p. 204
  50. ^ Cabinet Minutes, 54(24)
  51. ^ Marquand, op. cit., p. 378
  52. ^ Marquand, op.cit., p. 382
  53. ^ MacDonalds Diary, P.R.O. classification 8/1, entry 31 October 1924
  54. ^ A Century of Change: Trends in UK statistics since 1900, Research Paper 99/111, 1999, House of Commons Library
  55. ^ a b Davies, A.J. (1996) To Build A New Jerusalem: The British Labour Party from Keir Hardie to Tony Blair, Abacus, ISBN 0349 108099
  56. ^ labourhistory.org
  57. ^ Attlee, Clement As it Happened Heinemann 1954
  58. ^ brimovie.co.uk
  59. ^ http://www.scottisharchitects.org.uk/architect_full.php?id=202048
  60. ^ The Telegraph: Secret love affair of Labour Prime Minister and Lady Margaret is revealed 80 years on
  61. ^ Marquand, op.cit., pp 190, 191
  62. ^ McConnachie, John: The Moray Golf Club at Lossiemouth, 1988

Further reading

  • Jane Cox, A Singular Marriage: a Labour Love Story in Letters and Diaries (of Ramsay and Margaret MacDonald), Harrap, London 1988
  • Lord Elton, The Life of James Ramsay MacDonald 1939
  • Bernard Barker (editor), Ramsay MacDonald's Political Writings, Allen Lane, London 1972
  • David Marquand, Ramsay MacDonald, Jonathan Cape, London 1977
  • Greg Rosen (ed), Dictionary of Labour Biography. Politicos Publishing, London, 2001. ISBN 1188
  • Greg Rosen, Old Labour to New, Politicos Publishing, London 2005.
  • Ramsay MacDonald, The Socialist Movement, 1911
  • Ramsay MacDonald, Labour and Peace, Labour Party 1912
  • Ramsay MacDonald, Parliament and Revolution, Labour Party 1919
  • Ramsay MacDonald, Foreign Policy of the Labour Party, Labour Party 1923
  • Ramsay MacDonald, Margaret Ethel MacDonald, 1924
  • McConnachie, John: The Moray Golf Club at Lossiemouth, 1988. ISBN:

External links

Political offices

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
Preceded by
The Marquess Curzon of Kedleston
Foreign Secretary
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
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
Succeeded by
William Cove
Preceded by
Sidney Webb
Member of Parliament for Seaham
Succeeded by
Emanuel Shinwell
Preceded by
Noel Skelton
Member of Parliament for the
Combined Scottish Universities

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
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 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

Simple English

The Rt Hon James Ramsay MacDonald

In office
22 January, 1924 – 4 November, 1924
In office
5 June, 1929 – 7 June, 1935
Preceded by Stanley Baldwin
Succeeded by Stanley Baldwin

Born 12 October 1866
Lossiemouth, Moray, Scotland
Died 9 November 1937
The Atlantic Ocean, on holiday
aboard the liner Reina del Pacifico
Political party Labour (until 1931), National Labour (from 1931)

James Ramsay MacDonald (12 October 18669 November 1937) was a British politician and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom three times. He became the first Prime Minister of the Labour Party in 1924. His third period as Prime Minister was during the crisis of the Great Depression when he formed a "National Government" in which a majority of MPs were from the British Conservative Party and was expelled from the Labour Party.

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