James Ramsay Macdonlad

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BRIEF PROFILE OF JAMES RAMSAY MACDONALD

James Ramsay MacDonald (left), the illegitimate son of Ann Ramsay, a maidservant, was born in Lossiemouth, a fishing village in Morayshire (Scotland), on 12th October, 1866. He was brought up in his grandmother's cottage and was a student at the local school (1875-1881). An intelligent boy, he became a pupil-teacher and at nineteen found work in Bristol.

In 1886 MacDonald moved to London where he was employed as a clerk for the Cyclists' Touring Club. In his spare-time he studied for a science scholarship but as a result of a near-starvation diet his health declined and was forced to abandon his idea of an academic career.

In 1893 a new national working class party was formed called the Independent Labour Party. MacDonald joined in 1894 and the following year was the ILP candidate for Southampton in the 1895 General Election. MacDonald was defeated and overall, the party won only 44,325 votes. During the campaign in Southampton MacDonald met Margaret Gladstone, the daughter of the wealthy John Hall Gladstone. Margaret, a Christian Socialist, was impressed with MacDonald and despite their very different backgrounds they became engaged. After marriage in 1897, Margaret was able to finance her husband's political career from her private income. The couple travelled a great deal in the late 1890s and this gave MacDonald the opportunity to meet socialist leaders in other countries and helped him develop a good understanding of foreign affairs.

On 27th February 1900, representatives of all the socialist groups in Britain (the Independent Labour Party, the Social Democratic Federation and the Fabian Society), met with trade union leaders in London and the Labour Representation Committee, soon to be known as the Labour Party, was formed. MacDonald was chosen as the secretary of the LRC, one reason being that he was financed by his wealthy wife and he did not have to be paid a salary. The LRC did much better in the 1906 General Election with 29 successful candidates winning their seats. MacDonald became the MP for Leicester and by 1911 he was party leader. Like many socialists, MacDonald was a pacifist and was unwilling to support Britain's involvement in the First World War. Others in the party such as Arthur Henderson, Will Thorne and Ben Tillett believed that the Labour Party should give total support to the war effort. As he was in a minority, MacDonald decided to resign his post and Henderson became the leader of the party.

In the nationalist fervour that followed the end of the First World War, and in the 1918 General Election, MacDonald, and other opponents of the war lost their seats. MacDonald had been forgiven for his pacifism by the time of the 1922 General Election and was elected to represent Aberavon. MacDonald became the leader of the party and in December 1923 was given the opportunity to form the first ever Labour government, albeit a minority one. He subsequently became the first ever Labour Prime Minister of Britain.

MacDonald returned as Prime Minster when Labour won the most seats in the 1929 General Election- however they were still a minority government. His political career however was to end in controversy when in 1931 he broke with Labour over the proposed spending cuts following the 1929 Wall Street Crash. MacDonald split from the majority of his party and from 1931-5 he led what was a Tory-dominated peacetime coalition, a government whose creation and existence was encouraged by King George V. This action has led to him being considered a ‘traitor’ in Labour party history for putting personal ambition against his party interests. It has tarnished his otherwise momentous achievements in the eyes of many.

SOURCES ON MACDONALD (1)- *1st Labour Government:

(1) Bruce Glasier, diary entry (June 1911)

“I noticed that Ramsay MacDonald in speaking of the appeal we should send out for capital used the word 'Democratic' rather than...
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