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Alexander Macdonald

Alexander Macdonald

Alexander Macdonald, the son of a colliery worker, was born in New Monkland, Lanarkshire, on 21 June 1821. At the age of eight Alexander joined his father down the mines. Macdonald worked in both coal and ironstone mines for the next sixteen years.

As a boy Macdonald had received virtually no formal education, but in his twenties he began attending evening classes where he learnt Latin and Greek. He also took an interest in politics and carefully followed the career of Richard Oastler and his campaign against child labour.

Macdonald was one of the leaders of the 1842 Lanarkshire mining strike and after its defeat he lost his job. Macdonald found work in another colliery and was able to save enough money to attend winter sessions for students at Glasgow University. Every summer he returned to the pits until he had enough money for the next stage of his education.

Macdonald opened his own school in 1851 but after four years decided to concentrate his efforts in improving the pay and conditions of mine workers. In 1855 Macdonald formed the Coal and Iron Miners' Association and the following year the organisation fought a severe cut in wages. After a three month strike, the miners were starved back to work and had to accept the lower wages offered to them.

Undaunted by this failure, Macdonald continued to recruit members to his union. At a meeting in Leeds in November 1863, workers formed the Miners' National Association. Macdonald was elected president and over the next few years the organisation had many successes including the passing of the 1872 Mines Act.

In 1873 Alexander Macdonald was a member of the Royal Commission on Trade Unions and the following year he was invited to stand as the Lib-Lab candidate for Stafford in the 1874 General Election. Macdonald won the seat and joined Thomas Burt as the first working-class members of the House of Commons.

In Parliament Macdonald tended to concentrate on trade union matters but he was also a strong supporter of Irish Home Rule. Macdonald's views became more moderate and some socialists, such as Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels, criticised him for his close relationship with Benjamin Disraeli and the Conservative Party.

Alexander Macdonald was re-elected for Stafford in the 1880 General Election but died the following year on 31st October 1881.