James Ramsay MacDonald (1866-1937)
Labour Prime Minister 1924, 1929-1935

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James Ramsay MacDonald (1866-1937) Labour Prime Minister 1924, 1929-1935

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Always there is something histrionic and therefore fraudulent about him. I respect and admire him in many ways. But I do see why many people regard him as a complete humbug.
Harold Nicholson, Diary 20th November, 1935.

Additional Information on
James Ramsay MacDonald (1866-1937)
Labour Prime Minister 1924, 1929-1935

James Ramsay MacDonald was the illegitimate son of Anne Ramsay a farm house keeper and John MacDonald the head ploughman. During his former years he was a member of the Social Democratic Federation, and was active in various other social organisations. In 1888 he moved to London and became Private Secretary to Thomas Lough, Liberal candidate for Islington. However, he remained a socialist in belief until he discovered the Independent Labour Party (formed in 1893). He began writing as a (socialist) journalist for various newspapers, journals and the Dictionary of National Biography.

The turn of the century saw MacDonald pressing the Labour movement in England. He became a London County Councillor and helped found the original Labour Party. In 1900 he was made secretary of the Labour Representation Committee which became the Labour Party in 1906. The same year he was made MP for Leicester and began speaking in the House of Commons. He became highly respected for his oratory and debating skills, in fact Balfour called him 'a born parliamentarian'. He was regarded as the most distinguished thinker and speaker of the Labour Group and so in 1911 he became Chairman.

Three years later MacDonald resigned when the other Labour members refused to back his opposition to World War I - he was by now the most hated man in Britain, and a huge Press campaign arose to blacken his name (bringing out revelations about his illegitimate background). In 1918 MacDonald lost his seat and was out of political office for the next four years. In 1922 however he regained both his seat and the leadership of the Labour Party - thus the leadership of the opposition because they had more seats than the Liberals for the first time.

In 1924 MacDonald became the first Labour Prime Minister in British history. He also made himself Foreign Secretary, and the combination of the two demanding roles put too much strain on him. His diligence in foreign affairs meant he rather neglected the domestic question, and his government soon encountered difficulties. It was his questionable friendship with the Soviet Union that eventually led to his downfall - late in 1924 the Labour government was overwhelmingly defeated.

The Conservative party was in power for the next five years until the general election of 1929 when Labour returned. MacDonald was again asked to form a ministry (this cabinet included the first female member of Parliament). He set a precedent as the first British Prime Minister to visit the United States of America, but on his return to England, MacDonald encountered many more problems. Unemployment had risen dramatically with a world-wide economic depression underway, and the government lacked the funds to pay benefits. MacDonald offered to resign, but was persuaded by the King to stay. He agreed, on the basis that he could form a Coalition government with the Conservatives (Baldwin and Samuel) - The National Government. His party survived the following general election, but had by now lost the support of the Labour constituent, and strains of the workload were making him ill. MacDonald resigned in June 1935, and became Lord President of the Council. He died in 1937.


If God were to come to me and say, 'Ramsay, would you rather be a country gentlemen than a Prime Minister?', I should reply, 'Please God, a country gentleman'.
- On himself, in Harold Nicholson, Diary, 1930.

MacDonald owes his pre-eminence largely to the fact that he is the only artist, the only aristocrat by temperament and talent in a Party of plebeians and plain men.
- Beatrice Webb, Diary, 1930.

We know that he has more than any other man, the gift of compressing the largest amount of words into the smallest amount of thought.
- Winston Churchill, Speech in the House of Commons, 1933.

The truth is, he is an old humbug.
- Lord Beaverbrook, in a letter to Sir Robert Borden, Aug 1931.

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