Who Was James Ramsay MacDonald and What Is He Known For?
James Ramsay MacDonald (12 October 1866 – 9 November 1937), was a British statesman and the first Labour Party politician to become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, leading minority Labour governments for nine months in 1924 and then in 1929–31.
From 1931 to 1935, he headed a National Government dominated by the Conservative Party and supported by only a few Labour members. MacDonald was later vehemently denounced by and expelled from the party he had helped to found.
MacDonald’s speeches, pamphlets and books made him an important theoretician. Historian John Shepherd states that “MacDonald’s natural gifts of an imposing presence, handsome features and a persuasive oratory delivered with an arresting Highlands accent made him the iconic Labour leader”. After 1931, MacDonald was repeatedly and bitterly denounced by the Labour movement as a traitor to its cause.
Since the 1960s, historians have defended his reputation, emphasizing his earlier role in building up the Labour Party, dealing with the Great Depression, and as a putative forerunner of the political realignments of the 1990s and 2000s.
James Ramsay MacDonald came from a working class family. He grew up in Lossiemouth, Scotland. He worked as a teacher at the local board school he attended, and at 18 moved to Bristol as a clergyman’s assistant, where he joined the Social Democratic Federation. MacDonald was employed as a Liberal candidate’s assistant in London for 3 years, and joined the Independent Labour Party in 1893. He stood unsuccessfully as a parliamentary candidate in 1895, meanwhile working as a journalist. Yet, with the encouragement of his new wife Margaret, he rose through the party ranks.
Elected for Leicester in 1906, he established a reputation as a distinguished thinker. In 1911 he became chairman of the parliamentary Labour group. As the Labour Party grew, however, he was criticised as being too moderate. His opposition to the Great War made him more unpopular still, and he was mercilessly attacked by the press. He lost his seat in 1918, but later returned to represent a Welsh mining constituency.
Back in Parliament, he became party leader and therefore Leader of the Opposition. In 1924 he was asked by George V to form a government when Stanley Baldwin’s small Conservative majority proved ungovernable.
In the first-ever Labour government, the survival of MacDonald’s small Commons majority depended on the good will of opposition parties. This difficult situation prompted him to call an election. During the campaign a newspaper published the notorious ‘Zinoviev letter’. Although later accepted to be a fraud, the letter ruined MacDonald’s anti-Communist credentials. His Labour administration was then heavily defeated in the election.
In 1927 he had a mysterious throat infection and almost died on a visit to the United States. He spent a month recovering at a hospital in Philadelphia.
In his second minority government in 1929, MacDonald set an historic precedent by appointing Margaret Bondfield as the first female minister. Economic crises, including the doubling of unemployment levels, persuaded him to also include the opposition leaders in a cross-party national government. However, this step lost him the support of his own party and he resigned in 1935.
The coalition was considered by many party members to be a cynical betrayal of their hopes and MacDonald subsequently lost his seat. He then fought to return to Parliament, winning a by-election 2 years before his death on the way to South America in 1937.