James Macdonald Ramsay (Ramsay MacDonald), pupil teacher, invoice clerk, private secretary, journalist, author, biographer, County Councillor, politician, Member of Parliament, and the first Labour Prime Minister in British history, was born on the 12th of October, 1866.
Ramsay MacDonald was a remarkable man and he had a political career to match. He rose from a working class background to become Britain's first Labour Prime Minister. That occurred in 1924, thirty years after he joined the Labour movement as a member of the Independent Labour Party alongside another famous Scottish politician, Keir Hardie. Reflecting his humble origins, MacDonald was also one of the very few men to become Prime Minister without having had a university education. Nevertheless, he was a brilliant speaker who could make a lot of empty non-sense sound alluring. He became highly respected, not only for his oratory and debating skills, but also due to his capacity for mastering legislative detail. In his prime, he was regarded as the outstanding Parliamentary performer on the Labour bench; a man whom Balfour called “a born parliamentarian”. Along with Hardie, he was one of the great architects of the British Labour party and he perhaps contributed more than anyone else to its becoming a credible party of government. MacDonald sought to give the new party a distinct ideology and throughout his career he retained a clear vision of a democratic, socialist movement, intended to unite middle class radicalism with working class votes. He wrote numerous pamphlets and books on that theme and forced the pace on the shift from the Liberal tradition to the real new Labour movement. He was a proponent of evolutionary socialism in a Fabian sense and firmly rejected the notions of revolution and class conflict. His was more of a Darwinian approach than that of a Karl Marx.
As an MP, he first represented the Leicester constituency and subsequently Aberavon in Glamorganshire, Seaham in County Durham, and latterly, he held the combined Scottish Universities seat. He was singularly responsible for the great Labour breakthrough in the 1906 General Election, when he negotiated an electoral pact with Herbert Gladstone’s Liberal Party. That deal, which gave Labour candidates a clear run at a number of seats in working class areas, firmly established the Party, with its twenty-nine elected MPs led by MacDonald and Keir Hardie. In total, MacDonald formed three governments, but he never had the luxury of having been backed by an overall party majority. His legacy is that Labour's rapid growth from pressure group to a party of government was played out during his lifetime; an achievement for which he was largely responsible. He has had his critics and he certainly had critical moments, which perhaps he could have handled better, but war and economic crises put a ‘spanner in the works’. He would have made a wonderful Foreign Secretary, but who amongst his colleagues would have – could have – taken his place and achieved what he did for the Party. In her ‘Diary’ in 1930, Beatrice Webb wrote of MacDonald, stating, “[he] owes his pre-eminence largely to the fact that he is the only talent in a Party of plebeians and plain men.” Unjustly, he has been accused of being a traitor to the Labour Party, but in truth he was caught ‘between a rock and a hard place’. Without MacDonald, there would not have been a Party to betray.
MacDonald was born in Lossiemouth on the 12th of October, 1866, and registered under the name of James MacDonald Ramsay. Whilst growing up, he was known as Jaimie MacDonald and in adulthood up to 1910, his name was usually styled Ramsay Macdonald; thereafter Ramsay MacDonald. The MacDonald stemmed from his father and Ramsay was his mother’s surname; he was born illegitimate and brought up by his mum and her mum. Wee Jaimie was educated at the Free Kirk School, then at Drainie Parish School where, in 1881, the star pupil became a pupil teacher. In 1885, MacDonald worked for a while in Bristol and associated with the local branch of the Marxist-oriented Social Democratic Federation (SDF). Then, in 1886, after a brief return to Lossiemouth, he went to London, where he earned a living as a clerk, then as a political secretary for a Liberal candidate and became involved in journalism. He immediately became interested in politics, and joined the London Trades Council and the Fabian Society, whose intellectual approach to socialism he found more to his liking than that of the SDF. In 1894, he joined up with Keir Hardie as a member of the newly formed Independent Labour Party and the stage was set.
MacDonald rose through the Party ranks, got elected with the other twenty-eight MPs in 1906 and, in 1911, became leader of what had by then become the Parliamentary Labour Party. In 1914, MacDonald got a taste for foreign policy when he helped found the Union of Democratic Control, which sought parliamentary control over overseas policy and the repudiation of hitherto ‘secret’ diplomacy. That same year, he resigned as Party leader, because, although not a pacifist, he was opposed to Britain's participation in World War One. His stance led to public accusations of treason and cowardice, and the scurrilous ‘John Bull’ magazine even tried to blacken his name by revealing his illegitimacy and confusion over his name. Such jingoistic larceny and vilification convinced the public that he had betrayed his country, despite his having been one of very few senior politicians to have visited the Western Front. In 1918, he lost his seat in Parliament and remained out of political office for the next four years.
However, all was forgiven in 1922, when he was restored as Leader of the Opposition; the Liberals had become a spent force. In fact, as public opinion had turned against the War and its toll of casualties, MacDonald gained a lot of credit for his principled stand. Famously then, on the 21st of January, 1924, Ramsay MacDonald frae Lossiemouth became Prime Minister at the head of the first ever Labour Government in Great Britain. MacDonald also took on the role of Foreign Secretary, but did suffer from the strain of two demanding roles. To some extent, he neglected domestic for foreign affairs and his minority Government soon ran into problems. However, he achieved success through the ‘Dawes Plan’, which ammended the reparations imposed on Germany under the ‘Treaty of Versailles’ and he also set a precedent as the first British Prime Minister to visit the United States, but above all, MacDonald took pride in showing Labour's fitness to govern. His landmark Labour Government was overwhelmingly defeated in October, 1924, when the fear of Bolsheviks and media manufactured 'red scares' over proposed trade agreements with the Soviet Union caused its downfall.
MacDonald returned to power in 1929, in another minority government, but his Cabinet was soon faced with the Great Depression. It became badly split between devaluation and dramatic cuts in spending and, in 1931, a General Election was called. Labour didn’t win and although MacDonald went to resign, the King persuaded him to stay and form the ‘National Government Coalition’ with its massively Tory-dominated administration. The shock of MacDonald’s capitulation, coupled with Labour having been almost wiped out at the Election, is still seen as ‘the great betrayal’. MacDonald soldiered on until 1935, when he lost his seat at Westminster. He spent his last years in Parliament, until 1937, as Lord President of the Council. James MacDonald Ramsay died of heart failure aboard the liner ‘Reina del Pacifico’ in the Atlantic en route to South America on the 9th of November, 1937.