James Ramsay MacDonald

Posted in Scottish Political Figures

Labour's first Prime Minister who's achievements have been overshadowed by his perceived failure to address the threat of Hitler. Died 1937.

Ramsay MacDonald was born 12 October 1866, in the north-east fishing town of Lossiemouth. He was the illegitimate son of Mary Ramsay, a maidservant, and a ploughman from the Black Isle, called MacDonald. He was an avid reader when young, and stayed on at school when he was 16, as a pupil-teacher.

He went first to Bristol, where he was introduced to radical socialism by the Social Democratic Federation, then moved to London where he joined the Fabian Society. He scraped a bare living working as a clerk before being taken on as a secretary to a prospective Parliamentary candidate. An attempt to gain a science degree in his spare time was abandoned due to ill-health.

In 1894 he joined the Independent Labour Party, standing as a candidate in Southampton in 1895. The following year he married Margaret Ethel Gladstone, a great-niece of Lord Kelvin. This allowed him financial security, social graces, and six children. He continued to juggle his background and current circumstances with a political career in an evolving left-wing set up, becoming Secretary of the Labour Representative Committee (later the Labour Party) and a member of London County Council (1901).

He became Member of Parliament for Leicester in 1906, and was soon the party's best speaker. He succeeded Keir Hardie as leader in 1911 (when his wife also died), and led the party until 1914 when he resigned in protest at Britain having declared war on Germany. Confusion reigned when he also stated that Britain should make every effort to win the war, and he lost popularity both with the country (who thought he had betrayed his country), and with the ILP (who thought he had betrayed the party). He lost his seat in 1918, but was returned as member for Aberavon in 1922, along with an influx of Red Clydesiders. With their support he was re-elected leader of the party.

With the support of the Liberal Party, MacDonald became prime minister and foreign secretary in 1924. That year Britain recognised the Soviet government, the Geneva Protocol for security and disarmament was initiated, and all out violence in Ireland was averted.

During his third Labour administration (1931-5), rapidly moving events, both global and national, found his leadership qualities wanting. He had broken with James Maxton and the Clydedside socialists, the worldwide economic recession was overpowering, while his moderate stance on many views caused a waning in his support. He lost his seat in 1935 to Emmanuel Shinwell. Eventually, Stanley Baldwin became head of government, MacDonald resigning his lord presidency in 1937. He died later that year, while on a sea voyage to South America.

He is buried in the churchyard of Spynie, close to Lossiemouth.