Ramsay MacDonald: Labour’s Great Villain

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On 22 January 1924, Britain awoke to the news that it would have its first Labour Prime Minister. Considering that the party had been formed a mere 24 years prior, this was a remarkable political feat. The new Prime Minister was Ramsay MacDonald, who at the time was seen as a conscientious and idealistic figure: the perfect tonic for a war-weary nation. Popular both within his party and outside it, he had helped attract many voters away from the Liberal Party to the more progressive looking Labour Party. Yet like many who enter office enjoying broad support, by the time MacDonald left office after his second term in 1935, he was despised by many of his former admirers. Today, many members of Labour Party would prefer to believe that Clement Attlee was the first man from their grouping to lead the country. MacDonald had gone, in just a little over a decade, from being the man of the hour to (according to the Guardian) “the most vilified figure in Labour history.”

James Ramsay MacDonald was born in a small fishing town in the rural north of Scotland. Although he left full time education at the age of 12, he continued his studies via a system whereby he  taught the younger pupils, enabling him to supplement his learning for another six years until he travelled to Bristol. It was here that his socialist ideals first took shape, and he joined the Social Democratic Foundation, marking the beginning of his foray into politics. 

He made his first attempt to become elected as an MP as a member of the Independent Labour Party in 1895. Although he was heavily defeated in that election, he persevered and was elected as secretary of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900. His rise to prominence within the LRC was assisted by a remarkable stroke of good luck, as according to a Daily Record article published upon his election, many members intended to vote for Jimmie MacDonald (a notable member of the London trade union scene of the day) only to accidentally vote for Mr J.R. MacDonald instead of Mr J. MacDonald. 

Although Ramsay MacDonald was extremely fortunate in these early stages of his career, the Labour Party was struggling to assert itself. Most of its success in the 1906 general election was down to negotiations between MacDonald and Liberal Chief Whip Herbert Gladstone, which eventually culminated in an electoral pact. For the Labour Party, this deal was a masterstroke. Terrified of splitting the anti-Conservative vote, the Liberal party gave Labour a clear shot at 31 seats. Labour would win 24 of these 31 seats, a substantial proportion of their overall 29 seats. Without such an entente between the parties, it is possible that the Labour movement would have never gotten off the ground in the first place. MacDonald was elected party leader in 1911 on the back of this success, and he pushed for attacking the Liberals from the left and squeezing them to the centre, so that Labour could become the major left-wing force in British politics. Yet a tough balancing act had to be struck, as in order to maintain electoral success, the party had to be perceived as moderate and willing to work with the Liberals to oppose the Conservatives – something that would be increasingly unlikely if Labour was viewed as too radical.

MacDonald’s political career was completely altered in 1914, when he vocally denounced the war and made it clear he intended to maintain contact with German social democrats. This led to ridicule and anger, he immediately lost the Labour leadership to his second in command, Arthur Henderson, and was seen as nothing less than an enemy of the state. Consequently, whilst the nation was still in the midst of a ‘Hang the Kaiser’ frenzy in the 1918 election, MacDonald lost his seat to someone running as ‘patriotic socialist’. MacDonald was not surprised by these developments, but by the time of the 1922 General Election, views on the morality of the war had shifted dramatically in Britain. MacDonald was comfortably elected as MP for Aberavon and was soon welcomed back as the leader of the Labour Party once more. That election witnessed the implosion of the Liberal party, meaning that MacDonald was now the Leader of Opposition. Within two years, the Conservatives lost a vote of no-confidence, and MacDonald was invited to form a government (with the tacit support of the Liberals) by the King. In a mere decade, MacDonald had gone from pariah to Prime Minister.

His first government lasted nine months, but in that time MacDonald granted recognition to the Soviet regime in Russia, cancelled all debt to Ireland and passed a Housing Act which significantly expanded housing for low income workers. However, MacDonald also provoked the ire of the Labour Party when he declared that strikes for increased wages “not only are not Socialism, but may mislead the spirit and policy of the Socialist movement.” 

In 1924 the Liberals felt they could leverage their position and force Labour to cede them more power. They combined with the Conservatives to force through a vote of no-confidence in the leadership of Ramsay MacDonald, assuming he would grant them favourable terms to avoid an election. Yet MacDonald called their bluff and scheduled an election, which saw the Conservatives gain a majority in Parliament. Despite this, the election was seen as a moderate success by MacDonald, as Labour had managed to obliterate the Liberal vote, gain a million more votes themselves and cement their place as a major party, while the Liberals effectively fell into bankruptcy. 

Five years later, under MacDonald’s strong and stable leadership, Labour became the largest party in government and formed a minority government backed implicitly by Lloyd George’s Liberals. In his second term, MacDonald managed to raise unemployment pay and improve workers’ conditions, but struggled to cope with the Great Depression. Unemployment levels doubled, and MacDonald’s cabinet was bitterly divided over how to handle the economic meltdown. 

A vocal faction in the country, led by Lloyd George and Oswald Mosley (and supported by a majority of Labour MPs), was calling for massive public works and government spending, akin to the later New Deal in America. Instead, MacDonald opted to use conventional methods to try and alleviate the effects of the Depression, and he began making cuts to the National Budget. Matters came to a head in 1931, during a budget crisis in which the Labour Party refused to continue to support MacDonald, while the Cabinet made it clear they would no longer back its leader. 

On 24 August, MacDonald handed in his resignation to the King. Yet the King refused to accept his resignation and insisted that MacDonald, widely perceived as a safe pair of hands, remained as leader of a National Government to manage the crisis. The original plan was for this to only last a few weeks, during which MacDonald would break the budget crisis and then return to being the Prime Minister of a Labour government. 

But as soon as news reached them that MacDonald had accepted the King’s offer, Labour supporting cities across the nation descended into riots. Despite the fact he was theoretically their leader, members of the Labour Party expelled MacDonald, who was in turn forced to found the National Labour Party to maintain power. MacDonald insisted this was for the common good. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those who remained within Labour viewed it as a betrayal of the highest order and a pathetic attempt to hold on to power. MacDonald could no longer return to the party he had been expelled from and, as Britain had to abandon the gold standard at this time, was persuaded to continue to lead the National Government into an election as a cohesive unit.

In the 1931 General Election, MacDonald’s National Government won two-thirds of the popular vote, revealing that the country was broadly supportive of his actions. Yet traditional Labour strongholds voted overwhelmingly against MacDonald, who almost lost his own seat. Despite his huge mandate, by this point MacDonald himself was seen largely as a figurehead, and many in the nation saw Neville Chamberlain and Stanley Baldwin as those who truly ran the country. As 473 of the National Government’s 554 seats were formerly Conservative MPs, MacDonald effectively surrendered almost all control of domestic policy to Baldwin. Therefore, the government’s program consisted of endorsing cuts (especially to military spending) and introducing tariffs. These policies helped lower unemployment from 15% to 9%. MacDonald himself was instead attempting to try and achieve a global financial consensus with the Americans. These efforts came to nothing. Throughout 1934, MacDonald’s performances in Parliament made it clear that his health was rapidly deteriorating and in 1935, having previously negotiated a timetable for his resignation with Baldwin, he stepped down as Prime Minister.

MacDonald died in 1937, lonely and despised by those in his former party. Reflecting on his decision to lead a National Government in his diary in 1932, MacDonald wrote “Was I wise? Perhaps not, but it seemed as though anything else was impossible.” Historians are divided on whether MacDonald was motivated by a desire to cling onto power or by a genuine belief that the country needed stability. While the National Government’s program was far from ambitious, MacDonald did display skill in maintaining such a broad coalition. In a way, Ramsay MacDonald was a tragic figure: an idealist of strong convictions, he found himself trapped in a situation with no good options that forced him down the road of self-destruction.

Clarke, P., 1996. Hope and Glory Britain 1900-2000. Penguin

Marquand, D., 1977. Ramsay MacDonald. J.Cape