Sue Young Histories

James Ramsay MacDonald 1866 – 1937

March 14, 2010

James Ramsay MacDonald 1866 – 1937 was a British Labour politician, who served two separate terms as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. He rose from humble origins to become the first ever British Labour Prime Minister in 1924.

Ramsay MacDonald was looked after as a child by his father’s housekeeper, Mrs. Grey, the widow of a homeopathic doctor (?James Joseph Gray)(James Ramsay MacDonald, Margaret MacDonald, Jane Cox, A singular marriage: a Labour love story in letters and diaries, (Harrap, 1988). Page 27).

Ramsay MacDonald served under George V, and Ramsay MacDonald counted Richard Stafford Cripps and Sidney Webb in his cabinet, and Havelock Ellis and George Bernard Shaw as colleagues in the Fabian Society, so he would have also known Annie Wood BesantOliver Joseph Lodge, Frank Podmore, Katherine Maria RoutledgeHerbert George Wells, Leonard Sidney Woolf. Ramsay MacDonald was also a colleague of Herbert Henry Asquith, Henry Campbell BannermanStanley Baldwin,

Ramsay MacDonald moved to Bristol just as the Bristol Homeopathic Hospital was flourishing, and he was a private secretary to Thomas Lough (whose cousin, also called Thomas Lough (?-?1905), was a homeopath and whose Obituary is in The British Homeopathic Review, Volume 49 in 1905 (Anon, The British Homeopathic Review, Volume 49, (1905). Pages 319 and 590). This volume also contains the Obituary of Homeopath George John Lough (?-?)).

From MacDonald was born in Lossiemouth, in Morayshire in northeast Scotland, the illegitimate son of John Macdonald, a farm labourer, and Anne Ramsay, a housemaid. Although registered at birth as James McDonald Ramsay, he was known as Jaimie MacDonald.

Illegitimacy could be a serious handicap in 19th-century Presbyterian Scotland, but in the north and northeast farming communities, this was less of a problem; In 1868 a report of the Royal Commission on the Employment of Children, Young Persons and Women in Agriculture noted that the illegitimacy rate was around 15% and it is unclear to what extent the associated stigma affected MacDonald throughout his life.

He received an elementary education at the Free Church of Scotland school in Lossiemouth, and then from 1875 at the local Drainie parish school. In 1881 he became a pupil teacher at Drainie and the entry in the school register as a member of staff was ‘J. MacDonald’.

He remained in this post until 1 May 1885 to take up a position as an assistant to a clergyman in Bristol. It was in Bristol, that he joined the Democratic Federation, an extreme Radical sect. This federation changed its name a few months later to the Social Democratic Federation (SDF). He remained in the group when it left the SDF to become the Bristol Socialist Society.

MacDonald returned to Lossiemouth before the end of the year for reasons unknown but in early 1886 once again left Lossiemouth for London. He arrived in London jobless, but after some short-term menial work, he found employment as an invoice clerk.

Meanwhile, MacDonald was deepening his socialist credentials. He engaged himself energetically in C L Fitzgerald’s Socialist Union which, unlike the SDF, aimed to progress socialist ideals through the parliamentary system.

MacDonald witnessed the Bloody Sunday of 13 November, 1887 in Trafalgar Square and in response to this he had a pamphlet published by the Pall Mall Gazette entitled Remember Trafalgar Square: Tory Terrorism in 1887.

MacDonald retained an interest in Scottish politics. William Ewert Gladstone’s first Irish Home Rule Bill inspired the setting-up of a Scottish Home Rule Association in Edinburgh.

On 6 March 1888, MacDonald took part in a meeting of Scotsmen who were London residents and who, on his motion, formed the London General Committee of Scottish Home Rule Association. He continued to support home rule for Scotland, but with little support from London Scots forthcoming, his enthusiasm for the committee waned and from 1890 he took little part in its work.

Politics at this time, however, was still of less importance to MacDonald than furthering himself in employment. To this end he took evening classes in science, botany, agriculture, mathematics, and physics at the Birkbeck Literary and Scientific Institution but his health suddenly failed him due to exhaustion one week before his examinations. This put an end to any thought of having a career in science.

In 1888, MacDonald took employment as private secretary to Thomas Lough who was a tea merchant and a Radical politician. Thomas Lough was elected as the Liberal MP for West Islington, in 1892.

Many doors now opened to MacDonald. He had access to the National Liberal Club as well as the editorial offices of Liberal and Radical newspapers. He also made himself known to various London Radical clubs and with Radical and labour politicians. MacDonald gained valuable experience in the workings of electioneering.

In 1892, he left Thomas Lough’s employment to become a journalist and was not immediately successful. By then, MacDonald had been a member of the Fabian Society for some time and toured and lectured on its behalf at the London School of Economics and elsewhere…

Ramsay MacDonald married Margaret Gladstone, who was unrelated to William Ewert Gladstone of the Liberal Party, in 1896. Margaret Gladstone MacDonald was very comfortably off, although not hugely wealthy. This allowed them to indulge in foreign travel, visiting Canada and the United States in 1897, South Africa in 1902, Australia and New Zealand in 1906 and to India several times…

In 1906 MacDonald was elected MP for Leicester along with 28 others, and became one of the leaders of the Parliamentary Labour Party. These Labour MPs undoubtedly owed their election to the ‘Progressive Alliance’ between the Liberals and Labour which at this time was a minor party supporting the Liberal governments of Henry Campbell Bannerman and Herbert Henry Asquith.

MacDonald became the leader of the left wing of the party, arguing that Labour must seek to displace the Liberals as the main party of the left.

In 1911 MacDonald became Party Leader (formally “Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party”), but within a short period his wife became ill with blood poisoning and died. This affected MacDonald very much and it is doubtful whether or not he truly recovered…

His first government lasted less than one year. Labour returned to power in 1929 but was soon overwhelmed by the crisis of the Great Depression, which split the Labour government. In 1931, he formed a “National Government” in which a majority of MPs were from the Conservatives…

He remained Prime Minister of the National Government from 1931 to 1935; during this time his health rapidly deteriorated and he became increasingly ineffective as a leader. He stood down as Prime Minister in 1935 but stayed in the Cabinet as Lord President of the Council until retiring from politics in 1937 and dying later that year.