Why you should care
He played a key role in shaping the politics of modern Britain, helping to make Labour a legitimate player.
The selective memory of history can be extremely cruel. For Ramsay MacDonald, Britain’s first prime minister from the leftist Labour Party, one of the biggest blemishes on his legacy came down to this: betrayal. That is, betrayal of Labour’s working-class supporters when MacDonald, in 1931, joined his Conservative opponents and cut unemployment benefits at the height of the Great Depression. Tens of thousands of workers rioted in Manchester and Glasgow, while sailors facing pay cuts mutinied in the Cromarty Firth, in Scotland, not far from MacDonald’s birthplace in Lossiemouth.
Today, the Labour Party is a British establishment, having sharply moderated its anti-capitalist platform under Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. In the 1920s, it was anything but. Still, if MacDonald left one enduring legacy for Britain, it was the idea that the Labour Party could responsibly assume power without wrecking the nation. For that, he might have done his party more good than he has ever been given credit for, though that view is far from universal. Writing in Britain’s Socialist Review in 1996, Dave Renton of the far-left Socialist Workers Party searched through history to find a Labour leader as despicably right-wing as Blair. “The only candidate who comes even close is Ramsay MacDonald,” he wrote, citing “the ‘Great Betrayal’ of 1931.”
MacDonald wasn’t exactly cut from the cloth of typical British politicians. During one especially nasty public spat in 1915, during World War I, the editor of the ultrapatriotic John Bull magazine, Horatio Bottomley, labeled MacDonald a “traitor, a coward and a cur” — and then proceeded to unveil MacDonald’s birth certificate, proving that he was the illegitimate son of “a Scotch servant girl.” His name wasn’t even Ramsay MacDonald, but James MacDonald Ramsay — a fact apparently unknown to MacDonald himself at the time, according to his biographer, David Potter. MacDonald, you see, took a principled stance to oppose Britain’s joining the war against Germany, a position that forced him to resign as leader of the still-fledgling Labour Party the year before. “He was very much a Scottish self-made man, with a staunch Calvinist background,” Potter tells OZY.
MacDonald’s Labour colleagues abandoned him in anger, while he served as a virtual puppet of the Conservatives until 1935.
Pacifism made MacDonald extremely unpopular and cost him the next election, but political memories are short, especially since Britain seemed to gain nothing from winning the war. What brought him back was brilliant and charismatic oratory, sermons on justice for Britain’s poor delivered with a distinct Scottish brogue, combined with a methodical and calculating political moderation. A few years after the war, MacDonald was back in Parliament and once again head of the Labour Party. After the Conservatives failed to win a majority and couldn’t form a government, he had that fateful call in early 1924 from King George V to come to the palace. The king invited MacDonald to form a government, with the admonition not to shake hands with the “murderers of my relatives” — meaning the Bolsheviks in Moscow, who had executed the king’s cousin, Czar Nicholas, and his family.
Britain’s first Labour government lasted only nine months and accomplished little, though that might have been a good thing. They didn’t do anything crazy, giving no substance to fears that they were Communists in disguise or that they would nationalize industry and impose socialism. (That had to wait until after the next war to happen.) MacDonald did establish diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, but he also managed to cultivate a close relationship with the king, which would serve him well in later years. Nonetheless, an apparently forged letter calling for revolution in Britain from Soviet leader Grigory Zinoviev on the eve of the November elections helped to sink Labour.
Still, the memory of Labour rule was not too terrible. Labour support swelled following the general strike of 1926, and Labour triumphed in 1929, sending MacDonald once again to Buckingham Palace for the king’s approval. Yet the second Labour government was hardly better off than the first, overwhelmed by soaring unemployment from the Great Depression. Britain was on the verge of bankruptcy by 1931, but financiers would lend money only if spending was cut.
Perhaps it was the king who convinced MacDonald to join with the Conservatives to do that, in the interest of the nation. MacDonald’s Labour colleagues abandoned him in anger, while he served as prime minister as a virtual puppet of the Conservatives until 1935 and while his health steadily deteriorated. He died a few years later a lonely man, abandoned by the left and the right. “Ramsay MacDonald would never be forgiven, and his name would seldom be mentioned without a curse or a spit on the ground,” writes Potter.