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James Ramsay Macdonald

Prime Minister 1924, 1929 - 1935

Plutarch said that politics should be viewed as a way of life, as opposed to an ocean voyage, or a military campaign, with an end in sight. There is no final destination after which the journey can be left off. Some politicians do view politics as a crusade with an end in sight. In the twentieth century the crusading politicians were war leaders, David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill. There was Margaret Thatcher, herself a war leader in a limited way, with a determined vision of a different society. Then there was Britain's first, and only working class prime minister, Ramsay Macdonald. He was potentially the greatest crusader of them all. Ironically, however, like others before and after him, Macdonald made a journey from a crusading politician to a way of life politician, the ideal described by Plutarch. For this he was vilified by his colleagues. But perhaps Macdonald alone had the wisdom to see that in politics there is always another day. There is no end in sight, and politics as a way of life inevitably takes over from any youthful dreams of a triumphant destination.

James Ramsay Macdonald was born 12th October 1866 in Lossiemouth, Scotland, son of a ploughman and a serving girl. While his future fellow parliamentarians were at Eton or Oxford, James lived with his mother, and attended a local free school run by the Church of Scotland. Moving permanently to England in 1886 there was a series of clerical jobs, with study in the evenings. In 1893 the Independent Labour Party was formed in Bradford with Keir Hardie as its leader. Macdonald ended a brief interest in the Liberal Party and joined the Labour Party in Bradford, soon becoming a member of its national council. By 1895 he was unpaid secretary of the Labour Representative Committee, designed to coordinate socialist societies and trade unions. Ironically it was only possible to take this job following marriage to Margaret Gladstone in 1895. Margaret was a member of a distinguished scientific family, and was able to provide her husband with a private income. On this basis Macdonald worked hard to progress, helping arrange a secret agreement with the Liberals where the two parties would give each other a clear run in certain constituencies. While the idealistic Labour figure Keir Hardie argued for unadulterated independence, Macdonald was already much more of a politician. In his pact with the Liberals Macdonald himself entered Parliament as MP for Leicester in the historic election of 1906, which returned twenty nine MPs for Labour.



Ramsay Macdonald - this image is copyright free

The problem now was to work out what the Labour Party had to do, and who exactly it stood for. There were many different ideas, and much infighting, which was interrupted by the First World War. In the unusual circumstances of war Lloyd George could rule without party support, and all other politicians of whatever party had to simply sit and watch. The war was not an easy time for Macdonald. There were accusations of pacifism and many insults. Macdonald's actual attitude was complicated, and could perhaps be summarised as suspicion of rampant war hysteria which demonised the enemy. His view was that perhaps the unrestrained humiliation of Germany would store up problems for the future, which in hindsight was not a completely unreasonable idea. Whatever the rights and wrongs of Macdonald's position it was not popular, leading to the loss of his seat in 1918's general election. This election ironically made some Labour politicians have their doubts about democracy, in just the same way that aristocratic politicians had their doubts. Will the majority actually do the right thing? In the event Macdonald, for all his complaints, kept faith with open democracy and free elections.

Macdonald managed to return to Parliament at the 1922 general election, and was made Labour Party leader. Then in a quite remarkable turn of events, the Conservative and Liberal parties split over a plan to abandon free trade and reintroduce protective tariffs. In this way 1924 saw Macdonald at the head of the only party which could form a government. The great moment had arrived when the first working class prime minister led the first Labour government into power. But once in power the work of government actually seemed to go on much as it did before under other parties. This was disconcerting for many of the more crusading Labour Party members. As Keith Robbins writes of Macdonald: "He ruled the cabinet firmly from the outset as if he had been sitting in the cabinet room all his life. His less confident colleagues were both impressed and alarmed. They were pleased that Macdonald could hold his own with his predecessors, yet this very success meant that he would be unlikely to inaugurate a new style of government. A Labour prime minister seemed to be like any other prime minister. It was also beginning to look as though a Labour government was like any other government." (The Prime Ministers Vol2 P279.)

It was clear to Macdonald that in practice he could do little. Only with Liberal Party support could his government find the majorities needed to survive. The crucial loss of this support was not long in coming, and was precipitated by his government's refusal to press charges against the communist J.R. Campbell on a charge of mutiny. Macdonald's administration collapsed, and the Conservatives under Stanley Baldwin were to take over until 1929. But Macdonald could draw hope from the way his government had, in the last analysis, been like any other government. William Knox said in 1789: "When an opposition gets into office and the king trusts him with the exercise of his power, the farce is at an end, and after a few awkward apologies, and a few ineffectual votes with old connections by way of consistency, the business of government is expected to be taken up and carried on in the usual way." (Quoted by Paul Langford in The Prime Ministers Vol 1 P 134.) This might appear to be a cynical and outdated eighteenth century attitude, but it does in fact have a contemporary resonance. Macdonald demonstrated that after all the suggestions that he would lead Britain into a new socialist world, he did in fact see that the business of government was taken up and carried on in the usual way. Many were to berate him for this. On the other hand you could also say that this realism was the quality which separated Ramsay Macdonald from many of his deluded colleagues. Enough people trusted Macdonald to put him back into 10 Downing Street at the general election of 1929.

Unfortunately for Macdonald's government, almost as soon as it entered office for its second term, the Great Depression began in the United States, and quickly spread world wide. Labour tried to present the disaster as an inevitable crisis of capitalism. That would have been acceptable if a Conservative government was in office. The fact that economic disaster was occurring under a Labour administration meant that things were more difficult. To present the government as simply helpless victims of a capitalist disaster was not helpful. Governments, after all, are supposed to be in control. If Labour were to appear in control, and if they really were the victims of capitalist mistakes, now was the moment when an alternative socialist state actually had to be created. But when it came to it Macdonald wasn't sure what this state should look like, and whether it would actually save Britain from economic calamity. So rather than having a grand plan with a triumphant ending, the government struggled on as all governments do, trying to deal with problems as they arose. Lloyd George suggested huge public works schemes. An Economic Advisory Council was set up, to little effect. Macdonald announced that he would take personal control of unemployment, which continued to go up, reaching 2.5 million in December 1930.




The harbour at Ramsay Macdonald's home town of Lossiemouth. This image is copyright free

In August 1931 the Labour government fell, and was replaced by a coalition "national government" with Macdonald as its largely figurehead leader. He was now a man with no friends. The Conservatives didn't like him, because Macdonald was not one of them. Meanwhile former Labour colleagues felt their former leader had sold out. But Macdonald saw that he was the only man who could represent all sides of parliament and serve at least as an image of nominal unity. Macdonald had realised the realities of power. He saw that there was no utopia of any kind, capitalist or socialist, at the end of the road. There was simply the business of government carried on in the usual way. It must have been a lonely time for the prime minister, and it took its toll on him. In failing health Macdonald handed over the coalition to Stanley Baldwin in 1935. With his health continuing to deteriorate, doctors suggested a sea voyage. Macdonald was to die at sea en route to South Africa, 9th November 1937.

I get the impression of Macdonald as a brave and remarkable man who overcame many disadvantages to become prime minister of Britain. Once there he had the wisdom to understand what the job actually entailed. In a way of course it is sad that his vision of a better world was to vanish in the face of political reality. In another sense, however, the story of Ramsay Macdonald shows that no matter what happens, politics as a way of life will continue. We and our governments can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same.