Ramsay MacDonald

Ramsay MacDonald

Infobox Officeholder
honorific-prefix = The Right Honourable
name = Ramsay MacDonald

order=Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
term_start =24 August 1931
term_end =7 June 1935
monarch =George V
predecessor =himself, leading Labour Government 1929-1931
Resigned and reappointed same day
successor =Stanley Baldwin
term_start2 =5 June 1929
term_end2 =24 August 1931
monarch2 =George V
predecessor2 =Stanley Baldwin
successor2 =himself, leading National Government 1931-1935
Resigned and reappointed same day
term_start3 =22 January 1924
term_end3 =4 November 1924
monarch3 =George V
predecessor3 =Stanley Baldwin
successor3 =Stanley Baldwin
birth_date =birth date|1866|10|12|df=yes
birth_place =Lossiemouth, Morayshire, United Kingdom
death_date =death date and age|1937|11|9|1866|10|12|df=y
death_place = The Atlantic Ocean, on holiday
aboard the liner "Reina del Pacifico"
nationality = British
party=Labour (until 1931), National Labour (from 1931)
alma_mater =Birkbeck,University of London, United Kingdom
profession =Journalist
spouse=Margaret Gladstone

James Ramsay MacDonald (12 October 1866 – 9 November 1937) was a British politician and twice Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. He rose from humble origins to become the first 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 who accused him of 'betrayal'.

He remained Prime Minister of the National Government from 1931 to 1935, however his health rapidly deteriorated and he became increasingly ineffective as a leader. He was forced to resign in 1935 and died two years later.

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. [Marquand, David: Ramsay MacDonald, London, 1977, pp. 4, 5] 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% [Marquand, op.cit., p.6] 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'. [Drainie School log books ] He remained in this post until 1 May 1885 to take up a position as an assistant to a clergyman in Bristol. [Lord Elton: The life of James Ramsay MacDonald, 1939, London, p. 39] 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). [Bryher, Samual: An Account of the Labour and Socialist Movement in Bristol, 1929] [Elton, op. cit., p.44] 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. [Marquand, David: op.cit., 9. 17]


He arrived in London jobless [Marquand, op.cit., p. 19] but after some short-term menial work, he found employment as an invoice clerk. [ Tracey, Herbert: J. Ramsay MacDonald, 1924, p.29] 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. [Marquand, op.cit., p.20] : Tory Terrorism in 1887". [Marquand, op.cit., p.21]

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. [MacDonald Papers P.R.O. 3/57] 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. [MacDonald Papers P.R.O. 5/54] [Marquand, op.cit., p. 23]

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. [Elton, op.cit.,pp 56, 57] In 1888, MacDonald took employment as private secretary to Thomas Lough who was a tea merchant and a Radical politician. [Obrien, Conor Cruise: Parnell and his Party, 1957, p. 275] [Sidney Webb to MacDonald, 22 January 1890, MacDonald Papers P.R.O. 5/1] 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. [Sidney Webb to MacDonald, 22 January 1890, MacDonald Papers P.R.O. 5/1]

Active politics

The TUC had created the Labour Electoral Association (LEA) and entered into an unsatisfactory alliance with the Liberal Party in 1886. [Marquand, op.cit., p. 31] 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 [Dover Express, 17 June 1892; 12 August 1892] and the Association, however, and was adopted as its candidate. MacDonald, though, announced that his candidature would be under a Labour Party banner. [Dover Express, 7 October, 1892] 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. [Marquand, op.cit., p35]

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 [Southampton Times, 21 July 1894] but was heavily defeated at the election of 1895. MacDonald stood again 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. [Marquand, op.cit., p.73] 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, [Mackintosh, John P (Ed.): British Prime Ministers in the twentieth Century, London, 1977, p.157] 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 Gladstone MacDonald was very comfortably off, although not hugely wealthy. [MacDonald Papers, P.R.O. 3/95] 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. [Clegg, H.A, Fox, Alan, Thompson, A.F.: A History of British Trade Unions since 1889, 1964, vol I, p. 388] In that same year, MacDonald was elected MP for Leicester along with 28 others, [Leicester Pioneer, 20 January , 1906] 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"), [Leicester Pioneer, 11 February 1911] but within a short period his wife became ill with blood poisoning and died. This affected MacDonald very much [Thompson, Laurence: The Enthusiasts, 1971, p. 173] 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. [Marquand, op. cit., p. 77] 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. [Marquand, op. cit., p. 168] 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. [Marquand, op. cit., p. 168] Arthur Henderson became the new leader while MacDonald took the party Treasurer post. [MacKintosh, John P (Ed.):British Prime Ministers in the Twentieth Century, London, 1977, p.159] 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. [Marquand, op.cit., p.189] 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. [Marquand, op.cit., pp 190, 191] 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. [Elton, op.cit., pp. 269-71] 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.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." [New Leader, 17 November 1922]
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 after the election on 21st January 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!" [Sir Harold Nicholson, "King George V: His life and reign (1952)]

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..

MacDonald took the decision in March 1924 to end construction work on the Singapore military base despite strong opposition from the Admiralty [MacDonald Papers, P.R.O.I/86] . 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 signed. This was followed by an Anglo-German commercial treaty. MacDonald the neophyte Prime Minister was hugely proud of what had been achieved and was the pinnacle of his administration's achievements. [Marquand, op.cit., pp.329-51] 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. [Limam: The First Labour Government, 1924, p. 173]

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. [Hansard (1924), vol. 169, cols. 768-9] 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. [Lyman: The First Labour Government, 1924, pp. 195-6] The treaties were not popular with the Conservatives nor with the Liberals who, in September, criticized the loan so vehemently that negotiation with them seemed impossible. [ Lyman: The First Labour Government, 1924, p. 204]

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. [Cabinet Minutes, 54(24)] 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. [Marquand, op. cit., p. 378]

The Zinoviev letter

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 [Marquand, op.cit., p. 382] but had not been swift footed enough. MacDonald always believed that the letter was forgery [MacDonalds Diary, P.R.O. classification 8/1, entry 31 October 1924] 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 while the Liberals lost 118 seats leaving them with only 40.

econd government (1929-1931)

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. [A Century of Change: Trends in UK statistics since 1900, Research Paper 99/111, 1999, House of Commons Library] 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.

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.

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 Davies, A.J. (1996) "To Build A New Jerusalem: The British Labour Party from Keir Hardie to Tony Blair", Abacus, ISBN 0349 108099] . 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.

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 Party, 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.

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.

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. Morgan, Kevin. (2006) "MacDonald (20 British Prime Ministers of the 20th Century)", Haus Publishing, ISBN 1-904950-61-2]

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.

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.

Retirement and death

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".. 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.

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.


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, [ [http://www.labourhistory.org.uk/?p=16 labourhistory.org] ] 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" [Attlee, Clement "As it Happened" Heinemann 1954] .

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 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 [ [http://www.britmovie.co.uk/directors/r_boulting/filmography/008.html brimovie.co.uk] ] .

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 "Mussolino is one of the greatest men in the world, far more so than Ramsay Macdonald". This suggests that Brodie did have some respect for the PM, but not nearly as much as for Mussolini. It could also be seen to suggest that they were of a similar vein, if she thought to compare them.

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 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. 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 [ [http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1533044/Secret-love-affair-of-Labour-Prime-Minister-and-Lady-Margaret-is-revealed-80-years-on.html The Telegraph: Secret love affair of Labour Prime Minister and Lady Margaret is revealed 80 years on] ] . 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. [Marquand, op.cit., pp 190, 191] 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. [McConnachie, John: The Moray Golf Club at Lossiemouth, 1988]

MacDonald also became close to Harriet Cohen one of the world's finest concert pianists. Harriet Cohen and MacDonald were probably lovers in the 1930's as strongly suggested by their many letters. [ "Music and Men" by Helen Fry page 181 ] Certainly many people did believe they were lovers and Cohen was often referred to as “the old man’s darling”. The newly published book “Music and Men” by Helen Fry and published by the History Press contains the details of Cohen’s relationship with Ramsey MacDonald and her effort to publicise the plight of the Jews in Germany. Harriet Cohen was able to pass MacDonald direct information about the plight of German Jews from 1933 onwards. Harriet Cohen became very aware of the situation of the Jews in Germany especially through her friendship with Dorothy Thompson and what she saw in Vienna.

MacDonald's governments

First Labour government: January - November 1924

* Ramsay MacDonald - Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary and Leader of the House of Commons
* Lord Haldane - Lord Chancellor and joint Leader of the House of Lords
* Lord Parmoor - Lord President of the Council and joint Leader of the House of Lords
* John Robert Clynes - Lord Privy Seal and Deputy Leader of the House of Commons
* Philip Snowden - Chancellor of the Exchequer
* Arthur Henderson - Home Secretary
* James Henry Thomas - Secretary of State for the Colonies
* Stephen Walsh - Secretary of State for War
* Sir Sydney Olivier - Secretary of State for India
* William Adamson - Secretary for Scotland
* Lord Thomson - Secretary for Air
* Lord Chelmsford - First Lord of the Admiralty
* Josiah Wedgwood - Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster
* Sidney Webb - President of the Board of Trade
* Noel Buxton - Minister of Agriculture
* Charles Philips Trevelyan - President of the Board of Education
* Vernon Hartshorn - Postmaster-General
* Frederick William Jowett - First Commissioner of Works
* Thomas Shaw - Minister of Labour
* John Wheatley - Minister of Health

econd Labour government: June 1929 - August 1931

* Ramsay MacDonald - Prime Minister and Leader of the House of Commons
* Lord Sankey - Lord Chancellor
* Lord Parmoor - Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Lords
* J.H. Thomas - Lord Privy Seal
* Philip Snowden - Chancellor of the Exchequer
* J.R. Clynes - Home Secretary
* Arthur Henderson - Foreign Secretary
* Lord Passfield - Secretary of State for the Colonies and Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs
* Thomas Shaw- Secretary of State for War
* William Wedgwood Benn - Secretary of State for India
* Lord Thomson - Secretary of State for Air
* William Adamson - Secretary of State for Scotland
* A. V. Alexander - First Lord of the Admiralty
* William Graham - President of the Board of Trade
* Sir Charles Philips Trevelyan - President of the Board of Education
* Noel Buxton - Minister of Agriculture
* Margaret Bondfield - Minister of Labour
* Arthur Greenwood - Minister of Health
* George Lansbury - First Commissioner of Works


* June 1930 - J.H. Thomas succeeds Lord Passfield as Dominions Secretary. Passfield remains Colonial Secretary. Vernon Hartshorn succeeds Thomas as Lord Privy Seal. Christopher Addison succeeds Noel Buxton as Minister of Agriculture.
* October 1930 - Lord Amulree succeeds Lord Thomson as Secretary of State for Air.
* March 1931 - H.B. Lees-Smith succeeds Sir C.P. Trevelyan at the Board of Education. Herbert Morrison enters the cabinet as Minister of Transport. Thomas Johnston succeeds Hartshorn as Lord Privy Seal.

First national government: August - November 1931

* Ramsay MacDonald - Prime Minister and Leader of the House of Commons
* Lord Sankey - Lord Chancellor*
* Stanley Baldwin - Lord President**
* Philip Snowden - Chancellor of the Exchequer*
* Sir Herbert Samuel - Home Secretary***
* Lord Reading - Foreign Secretary and Leader of the House of Lords***
* Sir Samuel Hoare - Secretary for India**
* J.H. Thomas - Dominions Secretary and Colonial Secretary*
* Sir Philip Cunliffe-Lister - President of the Board of Trade**
* Neville Chamberlain - Minister of Health**

econd national government: November 1931 - May 1935

* Ramsay MacDonald - Prime Minister and Leader of the House of Commons
* Lord Sankey - Lord Chancellor*
* Stanley Baldwin - Lord President**
* Lord Snowden - Lord Privy Seal*
* Neville Chamberlain - Chancellor of the Exchequer**
* Sir Herbert Samuel - Home Secretary***
* Sir John Simon - Foreign Secretary****
* Sir Philip Cunliffe-Lister - Colonial Secretary**
* J.H. Thomas - Dominions Secretary*
* Lord Hailsham - Secretary of State for War and Leader of the House of Lords**
* Sir Samuel Hoare - Secretary of State for India**
* Lord Londonderry - Secretary for Air**
* Sir Archibald Sinclair - Secretary of State for Scotland***
* Sir B. Eyres-Monsell - First Lord of the Admiralty**
* Walter Runciman - President of the Board of Trade****
* Sir John Gilmour - Minister of Agriculture**
* Sir D. Maclean - President of the Board of Education***
* Sir Henry Betterton - Minister of Labour**
* Sir E. Hilton-Young - Minister of Health**
* William Ormsby-Gore - First Commissioner of Works**


* 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


* *=Member of the National Labour Party
* **=Member of the Conservative Party
* ***=Member of the Liberal Party
* ****=Member of the Liberal National Party


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:
* Fry, Helen, "Music and Men, the Life and Loves of Harriet Cohen", Published by The History Press September 2008

External links

* [http://pubs.socialistreviewindex.org.uk/sr203/mcdonald.htm A left-wing criticism of Macdonald's career ]
* [http://www.number10.gov.uk/history-and-tour/prime-ministers-in-history/james-ramsay-macdonald More about Ramsay MacDonald] on the Downing Street website.
* [http://www.musicandmen.com] Biographical website dedicated to Harriet Cohen (Ramsey MacDonald was a close friend of hers)

Political offices


Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Ramsay MacDonald — (um 1900) …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Ramsay MacDonald — Ramsay MacDonald …   Wikipedia Español

  • Ramsay MacDonald — Mandats 56e et 58e Premier ministre du Royaume Uni …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Ramsay MacDonald — [Ramsay MacDonald] (1866–1937) a British ↑prime minister. He was leader of the ↑Labour Party (1911–14 and 1922–31) and the first Labour prime minister (1924 and 1929–31) …   Useful english dictionary

  • Ramsay MacDonald — ➡ MacDonald * * * …   Universalium

  • James Ramsay MacDonald — Ramsay MacDonald MacDonald (Mitte) und Arthur Henderson (links) in Berlin (1931 …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Margaret MacDonald (wife of Ramsay MacDonald) — Margaret MacDonald, née Margaret Ethel Gladstone (1870 – 1911) was a feminist, social reformer, and the wife of British politician and future Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Ramsay MacDonald from 1896 until her death from blood poisoning in …   Wikipedia

  • Ramsay Mac Donald — Ramsay MacDonald Ramsay MacDonald James Ramsay MacDonald (12 octobre 1866 – 9 novembre 1937) est un homme politique britannique, Premier Ministre du Royaume Uni à deux reprises. D origine humble, il s éleva jusqu à devenir le premier Premier… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • MacDonald — oder MacDonald (ursprünglich schottischer Name in der Bedeutung von Sohn von Donald) ist der Name von folgenden bekannten Personen: Amy Macdonald (* 1987), schottische Musikerin Andrew Macdonald (* 1966), britischer Filmproduzent Andrew Archibald …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Ramsay — may refer to:Places*Ramsay, Louisiana, United States of America *Ramsay, Michigan, United States of America *Ramsay, Montana, United States of America *Electoral district of Ramsay, a state electoral district in South Australia. *Ramsay, Calgary …   Wikipedia

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”