Ramsay MacDonald

Ramsay MacDonald

James Ramsay MacDonald, PC, FRS (12 October 1866 – 9 November 1937) was a British statesman who was the first ever Labour Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, leading a Labour Government in 1924, a Labour Government from 1929 to 1931, and a National Government from 1931 to 1935.

Historians credit MacDonald, along with Keir Hardie and Arthur Henderson, as one of the three principal founders of the Labour Party. His speeches, pamphlets and books made him an important theoretician, but he played an even more important role as Leader of the Labour Party. He entered Parliament in 1906 and was the Chairman of the Labour MPs from 1911 to 1914. His opposition to the First World War made him unpopular, and he was defeated in 1918. The fading of wartime passions made it easier for an anti-war politician to find a platform, and he returned to Parliament in 1922, which was the point at which Labour replaced the Liberal Party as the second-largest party.

His first government - formed with Liberal support - in 1924 lasted nine months, but was defeated at the 1924 General Election when the Conservatives made large gains at the expense of the Liberals and won a majority. Nevertheless his short term demonstrated that the Labour party was sufficiently competent and well organized to run the government, and was not a threat to the established social or political order.

MacDonald was a powerful orator and by the 1920s had earned great public respect for his pacifism. He at first put his faith in the League of Nations. However by the early 1930s he felt that the internal cohesion of the British Empire, a protective tariff, and an independent British defense program would be the wisest British policy. Nevertheless budget pressures, and a strong popular pacifist sentiment, forced a reduction in the military and naval budgets.

Labour returned to power - this time as the largest party - in 1929 but was soon overwhelmed by the crisis of the Great Depression, in which the Labour government was split by demands for public spending cuts to preserve the Gold Standard. In 1931, he formed a National Government in which only two of his Labour colleagues agreed to serve and the majority of whose MPs were from the Conservatives. As a result, MacDonald was expelled from the Labour Party, which accused him of betrayal. The Gold Standard soon had to be abandoned after the Invergordon Mutiny and MacDonald's National Government won a huge "doctor's mandate" at the 1931 General Election, at which the Labour Party was reduced to a rump of around 50 seats in the House of Commons.

MacDonald 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 - losing his seat in the General Election that year and returning for a different constituency - but stayed in the Cabinet as Lord President of the Council until retiring from the government in 1937 and dying, still an MP, later that year. For at least fifty years he was demonized by the Labour Party as a turncoat. In the last quarter century scholarly opinion has raised his status as an important founder and leader of the Labour Party, and a man who held Britain together during its darkest economic times.

Read more about Ramsay MacDonald:  Active Politics, Party Leader, First Government (1924), Last Years and Death, Reputation, In Popular Culture, Personal Life

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