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Ramsay MacDonald

Ramsay MacDonald

First Labour Prime Minister

Ramsay MacDonald went from desperately poor beginnings to become first Labour PM. He joined Keir Hardie’s Labour Party, becoming an MP in 1906 and party leader in 1911. He was a moderate and visionary in international affairs, including the First World War and its aftermath. In 1924 he became leader of the first, minority, Labour Government. PM again in 1929, he was dissuaded from resigning with the rest of his colleagues over the economic crisis, to head up a ‘National’ coalition Government; the break with his party was permanent. He eventually resigned as PM in 1935.

More About Ramsay MacDonald. Not every politician has the luck to be a marvellous subject for cartoonists. Ramsay MacDonald had a rich head of white hair swept in a wave across the front and his good looks may have brought a few extra votes to Labour.

Left-wingers grew to hate him, because he was always ready to compromise his principles, which is the job of a politician. Even today Labour people denounce his 'treason' to the party. MacDonald was a brilliant speaker who could make a lot of empty nonsense sound exciting.

He started off badly, we may think, by being born illegitimate in the little town of Lossiemouth in 1866. Such things would be noticed there, and in those days the illegitimate child got the blame for his condition. Maybe that stigma fired his ambition to rise.

He was crazy about reading and studying, although his formal education ended at the age of 12. When he was 19 he said goodbye to Scotland to look for his fortune in the south. He was a toughie and able to bear hard times. He joined the Independent Labour Party in 1894 and his interest in journalism got him the job of producing the Labour Leader, a fiery weekly propaganda sheet. He was still in his 20s when he met, wooed and wed Margaret Gladstone, a niece of Lord Kelvin. His money troubles were now over.

MacDonald got into Parliament in 1906, winning Leicester in the Labour Representation Committee's interest. In 1911 he succeeded the great Keir Hardie as Labour's parliamentary leader. However, his pacifist stand at the outbreak of the First World War cost him this position, and he lost his seat in the general election of 1918.

MacDonald returned to Parliament in the general election of 1922, as the member for Aberavon. He was also re- stored to the Labour leadership. Two years later there was a hung parliament, and Ramsay was invited by King George V to form a minority government. His Labour colleagues were shocked when he went to see the king all dressed up and even wearing a sword. His government did not last long, losing a second election in November 1924 to the Tories.

Rumours now swirled about MacDonald, alleging that a rich friend was subsidising the leader of the opposition's expensive tastes. His standing with his more left-wing party colleagues was not helped when he argued against the General Strike of 1926, although in hindsight his stand proved to be right. Labour won the most seats at the general election of 1929 under MacDonald's leadership. He formed his government in June, and in October the Wall Street Crash signalled the beginning of the Great Depression. A split in the Cabinet over measures to solve Britain's economic woes caused MacDonald to resign the premiership in August 1931, only to return to the office the following day as part of a Conservative-backed coalition. In the general election that followed, Ramsay's erst-while Labour colleagues went down to defeat at the hands of the coalition.

MacDonald was eased out of 10 Downing Street in 1935, and became lord president of the council. His big days were over, and when he died in 1937 some of his friends assumed it was from despair.