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  (James) Ramsay MacDonald (1866–1937), by Olive Edis, 1926 (James) Ramsay MacDonald (1866–1937), by Olive Edis, 1926
MacDonald, (James) Ramsay (1866–1937), prime minister, was born on 12 October 1866 in a ‘but-and-ben’ cottage in Lossiemouth, a small fishing port on the coast of Moray in north-east Scotland. He was the illegitimate son of Anne Ramsay, a Lossiemouth farm servant, and John MacDonald, a highlander from the Black Isle of Ross, who worked as a ploughman on the same farm. For most of his life he was known as James Ramsay MacDonald, but his birth certificate described him as ‘James MacDonald Ramsay, child of Anne Ramsay’.

Early influences and first steps

MacDonald was an only child, brought up by two devoted women—his mother and his grandmother Isabella (Bella) Ramsay. Perhaps because of this he was always more at ease with women than with men. It is not an accident that he was the first prime minister to give cabinet office to a woman (Margaret Bondfield) or that his faithful private secretary Rose Rosenberg played a significant role in his political activities. Some of his less happy traits may also have stemmed from the circumstances of his birth. The insecurities of a fatherless boy never quite disappeared. He came, he once wrote, ‘of a people who were as ready to use their dirks as their tongues’ (Marquand, 50); and throughout his life he was quick to take offence and apt to dwell on wounds which he would have been wiser to forget. The legacies of place and culture, on the other hand, were much more fortunate. MacDonald spent most of his adult life in London, but Lossiemouth was in his blood. He returned there whenever he could and, for form's sake, attended the free kirk on Sundays; his ashes, like those of his wife, were buried in nearby Spynie churchyard. The dogged determination and appetite for hard work that helped to take him to the summit of politics were part of his inheritance. So were the brooding Celtic emotions which helped to make him one of the most inspiring platform speakers of his generation.

MacDonald owed a special debt to the parish school at Drainie, and to the dominie, James McDonald. At fifteen, after a few months working on a nearby farm, MacDonald was appointed as the dominie's pupil teacher. His appointment saved him from the fields and gave his talents room to flower. During his time as pupil teacher he read widely in English literature, founded the Lossiemouth field club, whose members went on scientific expeditions in the neighbourhood and read scientific papers to each other, and spoke regularly at the mutual improvement society. He owed a different kind of debt to the stubborn radicalism of the fishermen and farm workers among whom he grew up. He subscribed to the Christian Socialist and read Henry George's Progress and Poverty. Among his papers are the drafts of painstaking, argumentative youthful speeches condemning superstition, attacking landlords, and calling for land nationalization (MacDonald papers, TNA: PRO).

MacDonald's pupil teachership ended in April 1885. He left Lossiemouth to help set up a boys' club at a Bristol church. The venture failed, and by the end of the year he was back in Lossiemouth, but he soon left home again, this time for London. He arrived to find that the post he expected to take had been filled. For some weeks he tramped the streets in search of work, living on oatmeal sent from home, an occasional beefsteak pudding, and hot water in place of coffee or tea. He found a job addressing envelopes at 10s. a week, but it lasted for only four weeks. In May 1886, after another spell of unemployment, he was taken on as an invoice clerk in the City at 12s. 6d. a week, rising to 15s. On that, he claimed later, he lived ‘like a fighting cock’ (Elton, 54). He also began to cut his political teeth. In Bristol he had joined the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), founded in 1884 by the wealthy Marxist convert H. M. Hyndman. In the uproar that followed the discovery that the Conservatives had helped to finance at least two SDF candidates in the general election of 1885, MacDonald sided indignantly with Hyndman's critics. In London he joined the breakaway Socialist Union, and contributed to its journal, Socialist. He was present in Trafalgar Square on the notorious ‘bloody Sunday’ of 13 November 1887, when a free-speech demonstration was broken up by soldiers and mounted police. But in his early London days politics were a secondary interest. He spent his lunch hours reading in the Guildhall Library, went to evening classes in science at the Birkbeck Institute, and worked for a scholarship in science at the South Kensington Museum. A mysterious breakdown prevented him from sitting his examination and shattered his hopes of a scientific career. Only then did political ambitions displace scientific ones.

Political apprenticeship and marriage

MacDonald's first step on the political ladder came early in 1888, with his appointment as private secretary to a radical home-ruler and tea merchant, Thomas Lough. The salary was £75 a year, rising to £100—affluence after 15s. a week. He organized Lough's campaign as Liberal candidate for West Islington, and began to write for the radical press. He was an avid joiner, still unsure of his future path. He became a star of the ‘St Pancras parliament’, where would-be local politicians taught themselves parliamentary procedure, served briefly as secretary of the London committee of the Scottish Home Rule Association, and joined the recently founded Fabian Society. Like many social reformers of his generation, anxious to reconcile a Christian inheritance with the scientific advances of the time, he also joined the growing ethical movement, which hoped to base a secular, but morally uplifting ethics on a conception of man ‘as a rational being, fighting out his spiritual battles within himself’ (Ethical World, 18 June, 2 July 1898). More idiosyncratically, he played a leading part in an obscure socialist sect called the Fellowship of the New Life, which held that ‘a reform of the ideals of individuals’ was a prerequisite for a socialist society (Seedtime, April 1892). For a while he was the secretary of a co-operative (if flea-ridden) New Life household in Bloomsbury, whose members included Edith Lees, who later married Havelock Ellis, and the former Fabian essayist and future Labour minister Sydney Olivier.

In 1892 MacDonald left Lough to throw himself into labour and socialist politics, relying on the meagre earnings of his pen to make ends meet. It was an exhilarating but confusing period in labour history. The burgeoning labour movement faced a profound and divisive strategic question, which in one form or another was to haunt MacDonald for more than twenty years. How should it relate to the Liberal Party, the dominant anti-Conservative force in Britain, whose values most socialists and Labour people shared even when they castigated its timidity? Like the Fabians and the ‘lib–labs’ of the so-called Labour Electoral Association, MacDonald's initial answer was to try to work within the Liberal Party in the hope that it could be persuaded to pay more heed to labour interests. In 1892 the Labour Electoral Association in Dover selected him as its prospective parliamentary candidate. In 1894 the Southampton association tried unsuccessfully to win him the nomination as the second of two Liberal candidates in that two-member constituency. But his approaches to his putative Liberal allies were more menacing than supplicatory. Labour and the Liberals should come together in a ‘great progressive party’, he told his Dover adoption meeting. Pending that, Labour would adopt ‘no shibboleth which will tie us to the old parties’ (Dover Express, 7 Oct 1892, in Marquand, 34–5). The obvious implication was that if the Liberals spurned Labour's advances, Labour would fight on its own. When the Southampton Liberals turned him down, he duly announced that he would stand as an Independent Labour candidate anyway. Soon afterwards, the Liberals of the Attercliffe division of Sheffield followed Southampton's example and refused to adopt a trade unionist run by the local Labour Electoral Association. MacDonald promptly joined Keir Hardie's recently founded Independent Labour Party (ILP), which proclaimed a rugged independence from both the old parties.

MacDonald was bottom of the poll when the general election came in 1895, but his Southampton campaign changed his life. It brought him into contact with Margaret Gladstone (d. 1911) [see ], a vivacious and unconventional charity organization visitor from Bayswater, whose experience of social work in the East End had converted her to socialism. The Gladstones were a solid professional family; Margaret's father, , was professor of chemistry at the Royal Institution. She and MacDonald met in the summer of 1895 and married in November 1896. They had six children, one of whom died of diphtheria in early childhood. Their second child, , followed his father into politics and later held a series of high commissionerships in Africa and Asia. Margaret had a private income of about £460 a year—enough for them to live in a roomy, chaotic flat at 3 Lincoln's Inn Fields, where they gave regular ‘at homes’ for British and foreign radicals and socialists, and to indulge a mutual passion for foreign travel. Notable examples are a visit to the United States in 1897, to South Africa immediately after the South African War, to Canada, Australia, and New Zealand in 1906, and to India in 1910.

Building a party

MacDonald's decision to throw in his lot with the ILP was a milestone too. The ILP catered for both sides of his character: for the practical organizer of Lough's committee rooms and for the utopian idealist of the Fellowship of the New Life. In doing so, it gave him a political home as well as a political base. Not that MacDonald was an orthodox ILP-er. He remained an active Fabian until 1900, when he resigned from the society in disgust because it refused to condemn the South African War. He had no patience with the sectarianism that frequently marked ILP attitudes to cross-party co-operation. He was an instinctive coalition builder, anxious to build bridges to potential allies in different camps; on a deeper level, his brand of gradualist socialism was an outgrowth of the radical Liberalism he had absorbed in his youth, not an alternative to it. He never abandoned the dream of a ‘great progressive party’, that would include ‘advanced and sturdy Radicals’ (MacDonald to Hardie, 12 July 1899 TNA: PRO, MacDonald papers). In that spirit he played a leading part in the , a discussion group of progressive intellectuals whose debates foreshadowed the new Liberalism of the following decade; other members included J. A. Hobson, the pioneer of under-consumptionist economics, and Herbert Samuel, the future Liberal leader. But after Southampton he shared the fundamental ILP premise that Labour would have to be prepared to fight the Liberals to win a fair share of seats, as well as its view that the official Liberal Party was moribund. In 1896 he was runner-up in the elections to the ILP's ruling body, the national administrative council (NAC); by the end of the decade he was unmistakably one of the party's leading figures, along with Hardie, Philip Snowden, and Bruce Glasier.

MacDonald was ideally placed to exploit the shift in trade-union attitudes which paved the way for the creation of the Labour Party early in the twentieth century. He could reassure trade unionists who feared that socialism might be rammed down their throats as well as socialists who feared for their ideological purity. It is not certain what role he played in the manoeuvres that led to the foundation conference of the in February 1900. His role in the sequel was pre-eminent. The LRC conference unanimously elected him as secretary of the new body. He was the only person in the entire LRC whose responsibility was to the whole rather than to any of the constituent parts. He had no salary, little formal power, and few resources. But on the strategic questions that determined its fate, his was the decisive voice.

The crucial question was how to deal with the Liberals. It was given extra edge by the ‘khaki election’ of September 1900. Only two LRC candidates out of fifteen were successful. In the two-member constituency of Leicester, MacDonald had two Liberal candidates to contend with, and came bottom of the poll. The obvious moral was that the LRC could not make an electoral breakthrough without a deal with the Liberals, and a few months after the election MacDonald put out feelers to Jesse Herbert, private secretary to the Liberal chief whip, Herbert Gladstone. Before long, the Taff Vale judgment of 1901, which made the unions liable for damages caused by their members in pursuance of a trade dispute, provoked a flood of new trade-union affiliations to the LRC and made it possible for MacDonald to negotiate with the Liberals from a position of strength. He played his hand with great skill, mixing blandishments with threats; and in September 1903 he and Gladstone reached an imprecise but far-reaching secret understanding, ensuring that about thirty LRC candidates faced no Liberal opponent (Bealey and Pelling, 157; Marquand, 78–80). In many ways it was the most portentous achievement of his life.

Evolutionary socialism: theory and practice

Party management and electoral strategy went hand in hand with polemical journalism and socialist theory. From 1901 to 1905 MacDonald contributed a weekly column to the Liberal Echo and wrote substantial articles for the New Liberal Review. He published two important pamphlets: a savage attack on British policy during and after the South African War (What I Saw in South Africa, 1902) and a collectivist critique of the tariff reform movement, arguing that it was a diversion from the task of industrial modernization (The Zollverein and British Industry, 1903). Above all, he produced an elaborate statement of the case for an evolutionary socialism, distinct from both the class-war Marxism of the SDF and the social liberalism of his radical friends, designed to give the new labour alliance a theoretical rationale (Socialism and Society, 1905). He started from the organic conception of society then current in progressive circles. Society was an organism, to be understood in terms of Darwinian biology; it was evolving inexorably towards socialism. Marx was wrong in thinking that socialism would come through revolution; in social evolution, as in biological, higher forms of life slowly emerged out of lower forms. Individualistic theorists were wrong too: they were like ‘cell philosophers’ trying to prove ‘that the body existed for them and that the modifying and moving force in the organism was the individual cell’. Biology also held the key to socialist politics. Parties had finite lives; the Liberal Party's was moving to a close. No gulf of principle prevented socialists from working with Liberals. ‘Socialism, the stage which follows Liberalism, retains everything of value in Liberalism by virtue of being the hereditary heir of Liberalism.’ But the proper place for socialists was a Labour Party, inevitably socialist in spirit, even if not in declared policy.

The MacDonald–Gladstone pact passed its first big test with flying colours. In the general election of 1906 twenty-nine LRC candidates were elected, only three against official Liberal opposition. In Leicester, MacDonald won comfortably, with Liberal support. The LRC members, together with a miners' MP who joined them after the election, elected Keir Hardie as their chairman, MacDonald as secretary, and Arthur Henderson as chief whip. The annual conference of the LRC then changed its name to ‘Labour Party’. The evolutionary theory sketched out in Socialism and Society, however, had a more bumpy ride. Central to MacDonald's whole argument was the proposition that the Liberal Party was dying. Now it had been restored to health; indeed, the new Labour Party owed its parliamentary presence to a Liberal triumph. Not only did the mostly untried Labour MPs have to contend with one of the biggest government majorities of modern times; they had to do so in circumstances that called into question their reason for existence.

MacDonald stuck to his evolutionary guns. The government was not afraid of ‘socialist speeches’, he insisted, but it could be influenced by ‘successful criticism in details’ (Labour Leader, 10 May 1907). Like the Benthamites in the nineteenth century, socialists could shape the ‘common sense’ of the age by offering practical solutions to immediate problems (Socialism and Government, 1909, 2.86). He practised what he preached, overcoming his early qualms about speaking in the chamber, and turning himself into a powerful debater. Balfour thought him a ‘born parliamentarian’ (DNB); J. R. Clynes remembered him as a ‘bitter and dour fighter’ in debates on unemployment (J. R. Clynes, Memoirs, 1869–1924, 1937, 124).

Unfortunately, the stolid trade unionists on the Labour benches were ill suited to the role MacDonald had sketched out for them. Though Snowden rivalled him in forensic ability, the party's performance was, in general, lacklustre. Morale gradually sagged, even in the parliamentary party; outside parliament the euphoria of 1906 gave way to a mood of disillusioned acrimony. It was concentrated in the ILP, which saw itself as the socialist leaven in the Labour lump, and which became increasingly restive with the constraints imposed by the trade-union alliance and the pact with the Liberals. MacDonald, the ILP chairman from 1906 to 1909, had to devote most of his political energies to a long, dragging struggle to quell a rank-and-file rebellion against the electoral and political strategies he had done so much to shape, symbolized by the magnetic, ill-starred figure of Victor Grayson. The battle evoked one of the most powerful platform speeches of his life—a passionate affirmation at the ILP conference in 1909 of his commitment to parliamentary methods—and ended in defeat for the rebels. But it led him to resign from the NAC and left an ominous residue of bad blood.

Leader and widower

In parliament and the wider Labour Party MacDonald's star continued to rise. The ‘people's budget’ of 1909, the struggle over the veto power of the House of Lords, and the two general elections of 1910 brought Labour and the Liberals closer together, and strengthened the case for a politics of non-sectarian progressivism. They also gave MacDonald a tailor-made opportunity to shine, and added to his following, particularly on the trade-union right of the party. In February 1911 he was unanimously elected as chairman of the parliamentary party, on the understanding that the term of office would no longer be restricted to two years and that he would relinquish the party secretaryship in favour of Arthur Henderson.

MacDonald's chairmanship was soon blighted by personal tragedy. On 8 September 1911 Margaret MacDonald died of blood poisoning. Part of MacDonald died with her. For some weeks he was in shock. The day after her cremation at Golders Green, Bruce Glasier remembered later, MacDonald told him, ‘I have sorrowed so much and wept so much that I have no more sorrow or tears left’ (Thompson, 173). To his ten-year-old son Malcolm
my father's grief was absolutely horrifying to see. Her illness and death had a terrible effect on him of grief; he was distracted; he was in tears a lot of the time when he spoke to us, and, as I say, it was almost frightening to a youngster like myself. (Marquand, 134)
Little by little MacDonald gathered up the threads of his life. Financially, his circumstances were unchanged. The income from Margaret's trust fund—now about £800 a year—was paid to him. A housekeeper was engaged to look after the children; the household at Lincoln's Inn Fields went on. He wrote a memoir of Margaret which was privately printed, and a fuller biography which was published in the ordinary way. Both were among the most revealing things he ever wrote, but they produced no catharsis: the wound never healed. As time went on he made warm friendships with a number of women—Lady Margaret Sackville, Molly (Mary Agnes) Hamilton, Cecily Gordon-Cumming, Marthe Bibesco, Lady Londonderry—who gave him some of the emotional support he needed. But at the centre of his life there was an aching loneliness.

Grief-stricken though he was, MacDonald was soon back in harness. It was a more onerous one than he could have foreseen at the time of his election. The turn to the left on which the government had embarked in the budget of 1909 continued; in doing so, it deepened the fissures in the labour movement. MacDonald and the bulk of the parliamentary party drew ever nearer to the Liberals, becoming for all practical purposes part of a tacit progressive coalition embracing most of anti-Conservative Britain. In the ILP, and among a younger more militant generation of trade unionists, the compromises of coalition politics seemed pusillanimous or even treacherous. The National Insurance Act (1911) was the most striking case in point, and confronted MacDonald with the first big test of his leadership. It was the most radical measure of the period and one of the most radical in modern British history. MacDonald hailed it as an advance of the sort that happened ‘about once every century’ (Hansard 5C, 26, 1911, 718–36). He and most of his parliamentary colleagues voted for it, and in detailed negotiations with ministers obtained significant concessions for the trade unions. But their gains won them no credit from the socialist left. The scheme was based on the contributory principle, anathema to the normally moderate Fabian Society as well as to the ILP. But MacDonald strongly supported it, on ideological grounds as well as on grounds of political expediency. The result was a deep party split, pitting socialists against trade unionists and parliamentarians, which soon extended well beyond the contributory principle to the even more sensitive questions of purpose, unity, and discipline.

The years 1912 and 1913 saw more splits: over strikes in the railways, docks, and coalfields; over the party's attitude to suffragette militancy; and, more embarrassingly, over the Labour national executive's refusal to put MacDonald's seat at risk by contesting a by-election in Leicester in violation of the MacDonald–Gladstone pact. By the early months of 1914 MacDonald and the majority of the parliamentary party were closer, on most issues, to the Liberal government than to the ILP. Meanwhile, the logic of progressivism increasingly pointed towards an open coalition between the Liberal and Labour parties in place of the existing tacit one. In March 1914 Lloyd George and the Liberal chief whip offered MacDonald and Henderson a wide-ranging deal, involving an early election on Irish home rule, an agreed election programme, a substantial increase in the number of Labour candidates to whom the Liberals would give a clear run, and Labour representation in the cabinet (Marquand, 159–60). Nothing came of it. But there is not much doubt that MacDonald was attracted, or that the offer was a striking vindication of the evolutionary socialism he had preached for more than a decade.

Peace campaigner and public enemy

It was the last such vindication for some time. The outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 fractured the tacit progressive coalition beyond repair, set in motion the most far-reaching political realignment of the century, transformed the balance of power in the Labour Party, and swept MacDonald from the moorings he had occupied since his pact with Herbert Gladstone. On a deeper, emotional level he went through a time of trouble more testing than any he had faced in his political life before. Having been a quintessential insider, at any rate in Labour politics, he became an outsider, in lonely rebellion against the leadership in which he had been a pivotal figure since the party's birth. Paradoxically, however, his rebellion helped to equip the party with a distinctive programme which paved the way for its transformation from a trade-union pressure group into the main anti-Conservative force in the state.

In 1914 most of the Labour Party rallied to the flag; so did most Liberals. Most of the ILP opposed the war, as did a small number of radical intellectuals, some of whom were Liberal MPs. MacDonald's position was characteristically complex, but he stuck to it for four years of obloquy and misrepresentation. He did not want Germany to win. He was not a pacifist. He accepted that war might in certain circumstances be justified; he even had a certain respect for the military virtues. Yet no pacifist could have loathed violence and the hatreds bred by violence more than he did. In the particular case of the First World War he believed that Britain and Germany were equally to blame, that the British government was lying when it claimed to have gone to war for Belgium, and that the bellicose emotions it had let loose would lead to a punitive peace and sow the seeds of future wars. The true cause of the war, he thought, lay in the ‘policy of the balance of power through alliance’ (Labour Leader, 5 Aug 1914). If that policy continued after the war, the result would be ‘new alarms, new hatreds and oppositions, new menaces and alliances; the beginning of a dark epoch, dangerous, not merely to democracy but to civilisation itself’ (ibid., 29 Aug 1914). The only hope was to change opinion. That could be done only by exposing the true nature of the diplomacy which had made war inevitable in the first place, and by mobilizing support for a democratic alternative. That in turn implied that the British people had to be convinced that they were following dishonest leaders in a bad cause—a hard lesson for a nation engulfed by the first total war in history.

MacDonald's breach with the pro-war majority of his own party opened on 5 August 1914, when the Parliamentary Labour Party voted for war credits, thereby making nonsense of the anti-government line, which he had put forward on its behalf only two days before. He promptly resigned from the chairmanship, and in collaboration with a group of anti-war radicals, including Arthur Ponsonby, Charles Trevelyan, E. D. Morel, and Norman Angell, helped to set up the (UDC) to campaign for parliamentary control over foreign policy, negotiations with the democratic forces on the continent, and peace terms which would not humiliate the losers. By the end of the year he had become the leading figure in a bitterly unpopular but passionately committed cross-party campaign for a negotiated peace, centred on the UDC and the ILP.

In the labour movement memories of his wartime stand eventually became a priceless political asset, winning MacDonald the support of a war-radicalized left which saw him, for a while, as a mixture of hero and martyr and forgot his pre-war flirtations with the Liberal government. At the time he paid a heavy price. As the casualty lists lengthened, the anti-war movement became ever more isolated and MacDonald, its most prominent embodiment and symbol, became the target of a savage campaign of press vilification. Sometimes his meetings were broken up; occasionally he was stoned. More often the press reported disturbances when none had taken place, so as to deter proprietors from letting their halls to him. Two episodes in particular cut deep. The first came in September 1915, when Horatio Bottomley's journal John Bull, which had been running an anti-MacDonald campaign for months, published a facsimile reproduction of his birth certificate in an article headed ‘James MacDonald Ramsay. Leicester MP's name and origin—can he sit in Parliament?’ According to his diary, the article gave MacDonald ‘hours of the most terrible mental pain’ (Marquand, 191). The second episode hurt even more. It came a year later, when the Lossiemouth golf club voted by seventy-three to twenty-four to expel him from membership, on the ground that he had endangered the character and interests of the club. He never played on the Lossiemouth links again.

The British Kerensky

In public MacDonald preserved a stoic front, but the scars were not difficult to detect. Political isolation accentuated the suspiciousness, defensiveness, and self-righteousness which were among the most unfortunate legacies of his fatherless childhood. He became ever more sceptical of human nature in the mass, ever more aware of the fickleness of public moods. (‘In youth one believes in democracy’, he noted in a diary entry shortly after the war ended; ‘later on, one has to accept it,’ (TNA: PRO, MacDonald papers, diary, 20 March 1919).) He also became more convinced both of his own rectitude and of his opponents' lack of moral fibre. In particular, he became steadily more contemptuous of the pro-war trade-union MPs who, as he saw it, had allowed themselves to become ‘pliable putty’ in the government's hands (Marquand, 195). When Arthur Henderson, his successor as chairman of the parliamentary party, joined the coalition cabinet which Asquith formed in May 1915, the breach between the pro- and anti-war factions widened further. When Henderson took office in the much more bellicose Lloyd George coalition of December 1916, an act which provoked MacDonald to make his first public attack on the majority's good faith, an outright split seemed to be on the cards.

Yet within a few months the UDC's struggle began to bear fruit. The February revolution in Russia and the emergence of a regime committed to a peace without annexations or indemnities gave a much needed psychological fillip to the British anti-war left and brought MacDonald in from the political cold. ‘A spring-tide of joy had broken out all over Europe’, he told the ILP conference in April 1917 (ILP Conference Report, 1917). If his diary is to be believed, he detected a revolutionary spirit even in sober Leicester (Marquand, 208). In June 1917 he was a keynote speaker at the so-called Leeds convention of anti-war socialists, which called for councils of workers' and soldiers' delegates on the Russian model—an act which led Lloyd George to opine in retrospect that he might have become the Kerensky of a British revolution (War Memoirs of David Lloyd George, 1938, 2.1124).

Leeds was a detour. The real significance of the February revolution for British politics lay elsewhere. It was no longer possible to dismiss MacDonald and the UDC as disloyal eccentrics: in Petrograd their heresies were orthodoxies. Shortly after the Leeds convention the government granted him a passport to visit Petrograd and confer with the Russian leaders; though the visit was aborted in the end, the responsibility lay with the violently pro-war seamen's union, not with the government. Little by little, a change of heart took place on the pro-war right of the Labour Party, exemplified most dramatically by Arthur Henderson's resignation from the war cabinet in August 1917. Thereafter MacDonald and Henderson worked together—warily, even suspiciously, but nevertheless successfully—for a statement of British war aims on UDC lines. Relations between the pro-war trade-union wing of the Labour Party and the anti-war ILP remained uneasy—not least because the new constitution which the party adopted in February 1918 gave the unions even more power within it than they had enjoyed before. On the central issue of the peace terms, however, the two factions gradually came together. When a more or less united Labour Party went in to the general election of 1918 with an essentially UDC foreign policy, MacDonald and Henderson could both claim the credit. But MacDonald was the true victor.

In the short run the victory availed him little. The Lloyd George coalition won a crushing majority in the election. Though Labour emerged as the largest opposition party, most of its leading figures lost their seats. In Leicester West MacDonald received only a paltry 6437 votes against the coalitionist candidate's 20,510. At fifty-two he was out of parliament, his career apparently in ruins. The parliamentary party was dominated by his opponents. With Lenin in power in Petrograd, and a victors' peace soon to be promulgated in Paris, the values for which he had stood since his earliest days in politics seemed to be in universal retreat.


As so often, opinion was more volatile than it looked. The hot blood of total war soon cooled. Lloyd George's popularity faded. The Versailles settlement lost its glitter. Cracks appeared in the coalition's imposing façade. The political realignment which had begun in August 1914, and of which Lloyd George's election victory was a delusive epiphenomenon, proceeded apace. By 1922 MacDonald was in parliament again, and leader of the opposition to boot. It was one of the most remarkable political recoveries in twentieth-century British history. It was made possible by a seismic shift of political allegiances, reflecting the split in the Liberal Party, the growth in trade-union membership, and the upsurge of class-consciousness which the war had brought in its train. But it would not have occurred without MacDonald's determination, flair, and personal magnetism.

Three interwoven themes dominated MacDonald's political life in these years. He played a leading part in a long, complex, and ultimately successful struggle to construct a post-war successor to the social-democratic second international of pre-war days. He consolidated his hold on the ILP, contriving with masterly ambiguity to combine the roles of darling of the left and hammer of the communist international which the Bolsheviks set up in March 1919. Slowly but surely he fought his way back into the inner councils of the Labour Party and re-established himself as its natural leader. In each of these arenas he adopted broadly the same line, expressed most powerfully in one of the most effective polemics he ever wrote: a 30,000 word defence of parliamentary socialism against the communists' call for a dictatorship of the proletariat (J. R. MacDonald, Parliament and Revolution, 1919). Lenin, MacDonald insisted, offered ‘a tyranny to end all tyrannies’, as dangerous a notion as the militarists' war to end all wars. The communist short cut to socialism was a blind alley. If the society concerned was ripe for socialism, socialists could win power through the ballot box; if it was not, they could not ripen it by force. In essence, this was his old evolutionary argument in a new guise. Yet the flavour and tone were subtly different. ‘Before the war’, he confessed in a booklet of 1918, ‘I felt that what was called “the spirit of the rebel” was, to a great extent, a stagey pose. It is now required to save us’ (MacDonald, Socialism after the War, 17). His campaign against communism was conducted in that spirit. He fought on two fronts, not one—against the former pro-war socialists to his right as well as against the communists on his left—and his attacks on the tyrannous intolerance of the third international were coupled with bitter criticisms of the feebleness and pusillanimity of the second. In a diary entry of July 1920 he noted that he had spent the preceding year ‘calling on the ILP to be strong & upon the Labour Party … to forget the purple bondage & the flesh pots of Egypt which were its reward for the sorry part it played in the war’ (MacDonald papers, TNA: PRO). That was the leitmotif of his politics on the long road back to Westminster. It epitomized the mood of a labour movement seething with discontent, yet wedded to democratic norms.

MacDonald suffered one bad setback before his recovery was complete. In January 1921 ill health forced the veteran Labour MP Will Crooks to resign his seat in Woolwich East. The national executive invited MacDonald to stand at the by-election, and after some initial hesitations he duly did so. After a bitter campaign—trams passing through Woolwich were covered with placards asking ‘A Traitor for Parliament?’—he was narrowly defeated. He had already been selected as prospective candidate for the south Wales seat of Aberafan, however, and his exalted oratory and air of brooding mystery were ideally suited to a political culture still saturated with the influence of the chapel. In 1918 Aberafan, like most of Wales, had been a Lloyd George fief, but when the general election came in November 1922 MacDonald was elected with a majority of 3207.

Eight days after the general election the new parliamentary party met to elect its officers for the coming session. In normal circumstances the incumbent chairman, J. R. Clynes, a Manchester Labour MP since 1906 and minister of food control in the closing stages of the wartime coalition, could legitimately have expected to be re-elected. But the circumstances were far from normal. The Labour Party had increased its representation by more than eighty seats. Most of the leading figures of the pre-war years were back, together with an impressive array of newcomers. One hundred of the 142 Labour members belonged to the ILP, where attacks on the parliamentary leadership's alleged feebleness were almost de rigueur. Before the parliamentary party met, the ILP group agreed to nominate MacDonald for the chairmanship. He was elected with sixty-one votes to Clynes's fifty-six. The ILP paper the New Leader commented enthusiastically that MacDonald would ‘infallibly become the symbol and personification of the party’ (New Leader, 24 Nov 1922).

Prime minister

MacDonald's overarching aim as leader of the opposition was to complete the realignment which had begun during the war: to elbow the Liberals aside and make Labour the permanent alternative to the Conservatives in a new two-party system. Three corollaries followed. He had to position his turbulent and inexperienced party as the natural custodian of the liberal tradition of ordered progress through the ballot box. He had to show that it was now a potential party of government, capable of exercising power, not in an already egalitarian society, contemptuous of class distinctions, but in the class-divided, hierarchical, and deferential Britain of the 1920s. And he had to do all this without stifling the élan and sense of mission which had accompanied its mushroom growth since pre-war days.

MacDonald's first big test came sooner than he could have expected. In November 1923 the new Conservative prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, suddenly called a general election. The Conservatives lost their majority, but with 259 seats they were still easily the largest party in the House of Commons. Labour, with 191 seats, was comfortably ahead of the barely reunited Liberals with 159. The prospect of a Labour government provoked extravagant expressions of horror in the more excitable sections of the political class, and a revealing mixture of incredulity and apprehension in much of the labour movement, but when Asquith, the Liberal leader, made it clear that he would not keep the Conservatives in office or join a coalition to keep Labour out, horror and apprehension both subsided. In the new year Baldwin presented a king's speech to the new parliament and lost the vote on the address. On 22 January 1924 he left office and MacDonald kissed hands as prime minister. The king complained about the singing of the ‘Red Flag’ and the ‘Marseillaise’ at a Labour victory demonstration at the Albert Hall a few days before. MacDonald told him that if he had tried to stop it there would have been a riot, and that it had required all his influence to prevent his followers from singing the ‘Red Flag’ in the House of Commons itself when Baldwin fell.

Labour's musical tastes had little bearing on the government's conception of its task. The cabinet was one of the least experienced of modern times (though it was more so than Blair's in 1997). After some hesitation MacDonald decided to be his own foreign secretary. The Treasury went to Snowden, and the Home Office to Henderson. Thus, of the three great offices of state, only one was held by a former minister. Inexperienced though it was, however, the government bent over backwards to demonstrate its respectability. On the left, some thought it should ride for a fall, introduce socialist legislation which the opposition parties would be bound to vote down, and call a general election on ground of its own choosing. To MacDonald such ideas were anathema. As he saw it, he and his colleagues were in office not to defy or even to subvert the established order, but to infiltrate it—to show that they could carry on the king's government with as much authority and competence as the old parties had displayed, and in so doing to consolidate their lead over the Liberal Party. To do that they had to persuade a sceptical country that a Labour government was now part of the normal scheme of things, and they had to behave accordingly. There is no evidence that any minister quarrelled with this assertive moderation. The alternative of riding for a fall had no friends on Labour's front bench. MacDonald's decision to give high office to two non-Labour dignitaries—the former Liberal minister Viscount Haldane, who became lord chancellor, and the lifelong Conservative Lord Chelmsford, who became first lord of the Admiralty—provoked no discernible opposition. The cabinet was united in deciding to invoke emergency powers to quash a threatened transport strike in London. Curiously, MacDonald's most contentious concession to respectability was his willingness to appear at Buckingham Palace arrayed in the traditional splendour of court dress. But the mutterings which could be heard in the more Cromwellian sections of the Labour Party were not echoed in the cabinet.

One reason was that respectability paid dividends. Public opinion polls had not then been invented, but the evidence of by-elections and press comment suggests that the government's stock rose fairly steadily during its first six months. There were some bad parliamentary hiccups at the beginning, largely owing to lack of co-ordination in the cabinet, but after MacDonald instituted a regular weekly meeting of an inner group of senior ministers matters improved. Snowden's tax-cutting budget, proudly described by its author as ‘the greatest step ever taken towards the Radical idea of the free breakfast table’, was popular as well as adroit. So were the housing policies followed by the Clydeside health minister John Wheatley. Despite frequent ministerial meetings the government discovered no domestic solution to the endemic unemployment problem, but it was not alone in that. It shared the prevailing view that economic recovery at home depended on a revival of British exports, and believed that the key to such a recovery lay in a return to normality in international relations, above all in the relationship between France and Germany, a goal which could hardly be reached overnight. It failed to reach an understanding with the Liberals, on whose support its tenure of office depended, partly because MacDonald could not help resenting the patronizing tone which Asquith habitually adopted towards him and his ministers, but chiefly because the Liberal and Labour parties were inevitably in competition for the role of principal anti-Conservative party. As a result, the government could never count on getting its business through and had to live, in parliamentary terms, from hand to mouth. But when the house rose for the summer recess in July 1924 few doubted that MacDonald and his party had both added to their stature.

Foreign secretary

The credit was due to MacDonald the foreign secretary's assiduous pursuit of normality abroad even more than to MacDonald the prime minister's conduct of affairs at home. When Labour entered office an ugly international crisis, springing from the reparations burden imposed on Germany at Versailles, had just entered a new phase. In January 1923 French and Belgian troops occupied the Ruhr in response to a German default on deliveries of coal and timber. The occupation dealt a savage blow to the fragile Weimar republic and provoked a German campaign of passive resistance as well as a catastrophic fall in the value of the mark. Eventually the reparations commission set up two expert committees to find a way of reconciling Germany's formidable obligations under the peace settlement with its diminished resources. The first, chaired by the American General Dawes, started work a week before the change of government in Britain. MacDonald had consistently denounced the ‘madness’ of the Versailles settlement (Labour Leader, 22 May 1919) and the diplomatic approach it reflected. Now the onus was on him to show that his alternative was more effective as well as more uplifting: that a foreign secretary operating in the spirit of the UDC could succeed where Balfour and Curzon had failed.

It was not an easy task. Behind the reparations crisis lay profound conflicts of interest and perception which could not be wished out of existence. MacDonald had to devote seven months to a bravura display of personal diplomacy before the French were persuaded to leave the Ruhr on terms which Germany and Britain could accept. Though the appearance of the Dawes report in April was a big step forward, it was not until the final stage of a major, and frequently stormy, international conference in London from 16 July to 16 August that a settlement was reached. In a genial closing speech MacDonald told his fellow negotiators that the agreement they had reached ‘may be regarded as the first Peace Treaty, because we have signed it with a feeling that we have turned our backs on the terrible years of war and war mentality’ (Proceedings of the London Reparations Conference, 2.7–8). The boast was hard-won. At the time, it also seemed well founded.

After London, however, the government's fortunes turned down. At the beginning of September MacDonald made a triumphant appearance at the League of Nations assembly at Geneva. In another bout of intensive diplomacy he and the French prime minister, Edouard Herriot, hammered out a joint resolution that paved the way for the so-called Geneva protocol—a comprehensive plan for a system of collective security, linking compulsory international arbitration, disarmament, and sanctions, which might have sucked the poison out of Franco-German relations and tied Britain in to a new concert of Europe. But it was a false dawn. The protocol was never implemented; and well before it was agreed the opposition parties were joining forces to turn Labour out. A miscellany of leading Liberals, including both Asquith and Lloyd George, joined the Conservatives in furious denunciation of the government's hard-won and recently concluded commercial and general treaties with the Soviet Union. Meanwhile MacDonald's prestige and morale had both been dented by the discovery that the biscuit manufacturer Alexander Grant—who had been awarded a baronetcy in the honours list—had previously given him the use of a chauffeur-driven Daimler and the interest on £30,000 worth of McVitie and Price preference shares. Adding to the government's woes, the political world was awash with rumours that the attorney-general, Sir Patrick Hastings, had been improperly subject to instructions from the cabinet when he had decided, in mid-August, to withdraw his earlier decision to prosecute John Campbell, a decorated war veteran and temporary editor of the Communist paper the Weekly Worker, for incitement to mutiny.

The rumours were false: Hastings had consulted the cabinet, as he had every right to do, but the decision to withdraw the prosecution was his own. Unfortunately, the cabinet minutes did not make this clear; and the relevant minute leaked out. On that less than awesome rock the government fell. In answer to a private notice question when the house resumed after the summer recess, MacDonald said untruthfully and provocatively that he had not been consulted either about the institution or about the withdrawal of the proceedings against Campbell. Understandably, the opposition parties, whose leaders realized that he had misled the house, insisted on a debate. The Conservatives put down a motion censuring the government for its handling of the affair. More insidiously, Asquith put down an amendment calling for a select committee to investigate. The Conservatives voted against their own motion and for the Liberal amendment, which was duly carried by a majority of 168. The king then granted MacDonald a dissolution, and one of the most savagely fought general elections of the century began.

Red letter and direct action

The Conservative Party and press did their best to make sure that the campaign was dominated by the twin themes of the Campbell case and the Russian treaties, and that both merged into the simpler theme of the red peril. When the Daily Mail published the now notorious ‘Zinoviev letter’—almost certainly a White Russian forgery, purporting to have been sent to the British Communist Party by Grigory Zinoviev, the president of the Comintern, and instructing the British Communist Party to set up cells in the army and navy and to intensify the struggle for ratification of the Russian treaties—it looked as if they had succeeded. For the embattled and hard-pressed Labour Party the Foreign Office's reaction was even more embarrassing than the letter itself. After only perfunctory checks on the letter's authenticity, it prematurely released the text of a draft protest to the Russian chargé d'affaires in London, thus giving the impression that the letter was genuine, despite MacDonald's well-merited suspicion that it was not. MacDonald had seen the draft protest, and had substantially rewritten it in the intervals between Aberafan electioneering, but he had carefully refrained from initialling it; when it was published he was ‘dumbfounded’ and appeared both evasive and incoherent (TNA: PRO, MacDonald papers, diary, 31 Oct 1924; ‘A Most Extraordinary and Mysterious Business’: the Zinoviev Letter of 1924, foreign and commonwealth office, 1999; Marquand, 381–7). He was not alone. Labour's campaign was thrown into confusion as unbriefed Labour candidates improvised hasty and unco-ordinated responses. Yet the political impact of the affair can easily be exaggerated. The Conservatives won a crushing majority, but Labour also gained votes, despite losing forty seats. The real victims were the Liberals, who lost 119 seats and saw their share of the vote plummet from 29.6 per cent to 17.6 per cent. The realignment which MacDonald had tried so hard to push forward was not quite complete, but the goal of a new two-party system was clearly in sight.

MacDonald's achievement was soon under threat. As so often after losing office, Labour shifted to the left. The ILP fell increasingly under the influence of the flamboyant and intransigent Clydeside group of MPs, who thought socialism would come through stepping up the class war and radicalizing the masses. Clifford Allen, the party chairman, was an ally of MacDonald's, but in November 1925 he resigned from the chairmanship, giving the Clydesiders effective control of the NAC. Still more ominous from MacDonald's point of view was a parallel movement among the trade unions. The early post-war years had seen a rising tide of union militancy. It had subsided when the post-war boom broke in 1921, but even before the 1924 election there had been signs that the pendulum of union opinion was swinging back towards militancy, and after the election it swung much harder. The threat of wage cuts in the coalmines, which dominated the industrial scene in the summer of 1925, gave it a further push. So did the events of ‘red Friday’, 31 July 1925, when the government surrendered to the unions' threat to embargo the movement of coal, and announced a six months' subsidy to the mining industry, together with a royal commission to inquire into it. Despite misgivings among some trade union leaders, the tide continued to flow towards direct action until it reached its high-water mark in the general strike of 1926.

MacDonald watched these developments with horrified dismay. Direct action was the negation of the parliamentary socialism he had preached since his twenties. Apart from his philosophical objections to it, he believed that in a conflict between the state and organized labour, the state would be sure to win. But, like Neil Kinnock during the miners' strike in 1984–5, he could not risk a head-on attack on the unions. From the sidelines he gave occasional coded warnings of the dangers they were courting, but during the run-up to the strike he was little more than a spectator; and he was careful to make no public criticism of the miners, despite his growing contempt for their general secretary, the wayward firebrand A. J. Cook. At the Memorial Hall meeting of trade union executives which decided to issue strike notices MacDonald made what Walter Citrine, the TUC general secretary, later described as a ‘glorious speech’ (W. Citrine, Men and Work, 1964, 163). Once the strike began, McDonald's main objectives were to keep the party together and to maintain its morale. He pleaded for negotiations, defended the miners, and kept his criticisms of the unions to himself.

Labour and the nation

MacDonald's circumspection paid dividends. The failure of the strike, the crushing defeat which the government and the coal owners proceeded to inflict on the miners, and the passage of the Trade Disputes Act (1927), which made sympathetic strikes illegal, transformed the climate of working-class opinion. The union pendulum swung back to parliamentary politics. MacDonald still had to walk warily. For him, the moral of the general strike was plain. As he put it soon after the strike, it was now clear that industrial action could be used for political purposes only ‘with arms in our hands’ (Forward, 22 May 1926). But he did not want to rub salt into the wounds of potentially friendly union leaders or to exacerbate the inevitable demoralization of the rank and file; though a wounding note of ‘I told you so’ occasionally crept into his public comments, he was generally content to let the facts speak for themselves. His reward was a rapprochement between the industrial and political wings of the movement which gave him a seemingly unassailable hold on the Labour Party at large.

MacDonald's ascendancy over it sprang from deeper sources as well. Towards the end of the 1924 parliament the German Social Democrat Egon Wertheimer thought MacDonald had become ‘a legendary being—the personification of all that thousands of downtrodden men and women hope and dream and desire. Like Lenin … he is the focus for the mute hopes of a whole class’ (Wertheimer, 176–7). No doubt one reason was that his ideological imprecision, with its fluctuating mixture of immediate pragmatism and distant hope, mirrored his party's. His commanding presence, handsome features, and uplifting oratory also deserved part of the credit. In his early thirties the Labour Leader had judged MacDonald to be one of the two best-looking men in the ILP (Labour Leader, 21 April 1900). A quarter of a century later the dashing, matinée-idol good looks of his early manhood had given way to a statesmanlike, yet still romantic, gravitas, accentuated by greying hair and deeply etched lines on an expressive face. A similar combination of gravitas and romanticism marked the stirring yet elusive platform style which led the Glasgow ILP-er P. J. Dolan to call MacDonald the ‘Gladstone of Labour’ (K. Middlemas, The Clydesiders, 1965, 79) and Molly Hamilton to see him as one of those great speakers ‘who can seize and play on the nerves of their hearers’ without engaging in exaggerated histrionics (Hamilton, 123). MacDonald's expansive gestures and exalted language were already a little old-fashioned; and it is worthy of note that he was slower than Baldwin to exploit the new media of radio and film (Williamson, Baldwin, 78–86). But Labour was in many ways an old-fashioned party. In the inner circle of Labour MPs criticisms of MacDonald's aloofness and brusqueness were rife, but he dominated the party's annual conference as no leader, with the possible exception of Neil Kinnock in the 1980s, has dominated it since.

As so often, however, the ILP was an odd man out. On the eve of the general strike its annual conference had adopted a famous resolution calling for ‘socialism in our time’. Ironically, it was based on the report of a party commission chaired by MacDonald's old friend J. A. Hobson, advocating a minimum wage to mop up unemployment (the so-called ‘living wage’). MacDonald welcomed the ‘living wage’ report, but ‘socialism in our time’ was a different matter. The terminology was a deliberate challenge to the gradualism he had preached for a quarter of a century; the content threatened his entire strategy as party leader. On a deeper level he believed that its proponents were betraying the true vocation of the ILP. Socialism would come, he insisted again and again, only when society had been persuaded to ‘think socialistically’ (Forward, 16 April 1927). The true task of the ILP was to preach ‘economic justice made kinetic by reason of human idealism’, not to immerse itself in the everyday ‘patching and puttying’, which should be left to the Labour Party (ibid., 25 July 1927, 11 Aug 1928). But his attempts to halt the ILP's leftward turn got nowhere. When the general election came in 1929 his old base was unmistakably hostile territory.

Compounding the challenge from the left was a more threatening challenge from the centre. In 1926 Lloyd George succeeded Asquith as leader of the reunited but virtually comatose Liberal Party, into which he managed to breathe new life. The most spectacular result was the celebrated Liberal ‘yellow book’ of 1928 setting out an ambitious programme of state-led economic development. Early in 1929 this was followed by the equally celebrated campaign document We can Conquer Unemployment. MacDonald's claim that Labour was now the true repository of the liberal tradition was called into question, while the realignment which had seemed on the verge of completion in 1924 began to look problematic.

MacDonald's response to the Lloyd George challenge resonated powerfully with the constituency for which they were both in competition. He devoted the lion's share of his parliamentary and electioneering energies to disarmament and foreign policy, the issues about which he cared most and on which his reputation stood high and Lloyd George's low. He largely determined the content and approach of Labour's election programme Labour and the Nation, a blend of moralism and scientism, well calculated to appeal to progressive middle opinion. Unlike the government, however, he shrewdly refrained from attacking the Liberal programme head-on. Instead he dismissed it as an electioneering stunt. Lloyd George, he insisted, was ‘an old performer at familiar tricks’. His promise to conquer unemployment was on a par with his promise in 1918 to build homes for heroes; the ‘yellow book’ was a modern equivalent of ‘Joanna Southcott's box’ (Marquand, 463–4, 486–7). Electorally, at least, his judgement was vindicated. When the election came in May 1929 Labour emerged with 288 seats—a net gain of 137—making it the largest party in the Commons. The Conservatives were down to 260. With 57 seats the Liberals were still a poor third. MacDonald, who had left Aberafan for the much safer seat of Seaham Harbour, was returned with a majority of more than 28,000. This time Baldwin resigned before meeting parliament. On 5 June 1929 MacDonald became prime minister for the second time.

Hopes dimmed

As in 1924, MacDonald hated cabinet-making. Particularly hateful was Henderson's refusal to take charge of unemployment policy and his insistence on taking the Foreign Office instead. As a result, cabinet responsibility for unemployment went to J. H. Thomas, MacDonald's original choice as foreign secretary. In spite of his defeat at Henderson's hands, however, MacDonald's mood was noticeably more confident than in 1924. Trade seemed to be reviving; neither of the opposition parties had any reason to force an early election; Labour could reasonably hope for a honeymoon of some months in which to prepare for another election at a time of its own choosing, preferably with some demonstrable successes to its credit. In the closing years of the old parliament MacDonald had warned repeatedly of the dangers of a naval race between Britain and the United States, and he had fought the election largely on the ticket of peace and disarmament. It must have seemed to him that the best way to achieve dramatic short-term success was to concentrate his energies on naval disarmament, and it is not surprising that this became the central theme of the opening months of his second term.

It embroiled MacDonald in long and complex negotiations, first with the United States alone and then with the French, Italians, and Japanese as well. At the end of September he paid a much acclaimed visit to the United States, the first such visit by a prime minister in office, which paved the way for an Anglo-American agreement effectively conceding the American demand for parity. This was followed by a difficult five-power conference in London, at which the French and Italians proved immune to all MacDonald's displays of charm and moral earnestness. The conference ended in April 1930 with a limited five-power treaty, covering all the conference participants, within which was contained a more far-reaching three-power agreement between the British, Americans, and Japanese. As MacDonald was the first to recognize, the achievement was only partial, but he could legitimately boast that his government had done more for disarmament than any of its predecessors.

The political benefits were disappointing. By April 1930 the worst depression of the century was well under way; and the intricacies of naval disarmament paled into insignificance beside the rising tide of unemployment. The political repercussions were as alarming as the figures themselves. Early in February a cabinet committee had been set up to examine the so-called Mosley memorandum—a sparkling if breathless paper by Sir Oswald Mosley, chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster and supposedly an aide to J. H. Thomas, calling for a loan-financed programme of public works on the familiar lines set out in the Liberals' election manifesto, coupled with a drastic overhaul of the machinery of government. Psychologically and intellectually MacDonald was ill prepared for the storm which was now about to break. The evolutionary socialism he had preached since his twenties was based on the premise that capitalism was, in its own terms, a success. It was not easy for him to come to terms with the notion that it was in crisis. On a different level, he was instinctively suspicious of grandiose schemes of the sort that appealed to Mosley and Lloyd George. Yet he did not object in principle to the economic thinking underpinning the memorandum, and he was no friend to the orthodoxies against which Mosley was in revolt. The quasi-Keynesian economics espoused by Mosley were not far removed from the under-consumptionist teaching of his old friend and mentor J. A. Hobson; and it was no accident that his economic adviser was Hubert Henderson, a protégé of Keynes and part author of the Liberals' unemployment policies. Moreover, he liked Mosley, admired his energy, and wanted to keep him in his government. He seems to have hoped that committee investigation would produce a compromise acceptable to all concerned.

If so, he had reckoned without the Treasury. The cabinet committee was chaired by Snowden, once again chancellor of the exchequer; its report was an uncompromising expression of Treasury thinking. Mosley's administrative proposals, it declared, ‘cut at the root’ of cabinet government. His proposals for loan-financed public works would disrupt the capital market, undermine local democracy, and have little or no effect on the unemployment figures. MacDonald still sought compromise, but to no avail. On 20 May Mosley resigned to carry the fight first to the parliamentary party and then to the party conference. A week later the Conservatives more than doubled their majority in a by-election in Central Nottingham. The government survived a censure motion in the House of Commons by twenty-nine votes, but there was no doubt that it had been severely damaged.

Marking time

Its troubles were only beginning. Unemployment continued to mount. By December 1930 2,725,000 people were out of work; by June 1931 the figure had risen to 2,735,000, against the seasonal trend. Three broad approaches were on offer. Snowden and the Treasury clung to Gladstonian orthodoxy: balanced budgets, free trade, and the gold standard. Mosley, Lloyd George, and part of the Liberal Party were for loan-financed public works, centred on an ambitious programme of road building. The Conservative Party and a widening swathe of business opinion, eventually supported by Keynes and Hubert Henderson, were for protection.

MacDonald was appalled by the bleak negations of his chancellor. Under pressure from the Liberals he was even prepared to flirt for a while with the public works alternative. But the flirtation was short-lived. The Treasury was joined in its opposition by the Ministry of Transport, which argued powerfully and passionately that it was impossible to build roads on the necessary scale in time to make a significant difference to the unemployment total. The combination of Treasury mandarins and Ministry of Transport engineers was too strong to beat; and at the end of September 1930 the cabinet explicitly decided that nothing more could be done through public works. Protection fared no better. MacDonald favoured it himself, but the only senior minister who agreed with him was J. H. Thomas, by now a broken reed. Snowden and Henderson were both passionately opposed. So was Willy Graham, the president of the Board of Trade and, as such, the departmental minister most closely involved. The Liberals stuck to their free-trade tradition; most Labour MPs would probably have been reluctant to break with theirs. Not surprisingly MacDonald shrank from a fight on the issue; and in the absence of a lead from the top the protectionist alternative languished in limbo. With public works and protection both ruled out, only Treasury orthodoxy was left. But although Snowden accepted the Treasury doctrine, and would have liked nothing better than to apply it in practice, the balance of forces in the Labour Party made it impossible for him to make the cut in the soaring total of unemployment insurance expenditure which it logically entailed.

Thus, all roads were blocked. The government was too orthodox for new approaches, but not orthodox enough to make the old ones work. It talked deflation, but failed to control a swelling deficit. In autumn 1930 exasperation with the prevailing immobilisme fuelled a good deal of speculation about the need for a national government to overcome the crisis. On the whole, however, it emanated from the fringes of politics rather than from the summit; the Conservative leadership, by now on course to win a party majority in the next election, had no interest in an arrangement which would, at best, postpone a single-party Conservative government, and at worst prevent it altogether (Williamson, National Crisis, 133–62). MacDonald blew hot and cold, but on the whole his response was hostile. Though he appears to have mentioned the possibility to Baldwin, he beat a hasty retreat when Baldwin produced the flimsy objection that protection ruled it out. The policy log-jam remained, but talk of a national government to break it died down. Meanwhile, MacDonald, like other beleaguered heads of government, before and since, found some respite from domestic crisis in overseas affairs. From November 1930 to January 1931 he presided with his usual panache over a contentious, but in the end surprisingly successful, round-table conference designed to pave the way for eventual Indian self-government. When Baldwin went out of his way to support him, in defiance of the die-hards in his own party, he could legitimately congratulate himself on a striking vindication of the consensus politics he had practised for most of his life.

Despite the steady rise in unemployment, the omens for domestic politics seemed to be improving too. In September 1930 the cabinet had decided that it would try to make a deal with the Liberals over electoral reform, and then recommend it to the party executive. Earlier in the year MacDonald had vigorously opposed such a deal on the grounds that it would give the Liberals a ‘permanent corner on our political stage’ (TNA: PRO, MacDonald papers, diary, 3 Feb 1930) and his opposition had carried the day. But as the economic skies darkened he changed his mind. In December 1930 the cabinet agreed to include the alternative vote in an electoral reform bill as the price for sustained Liberal support. Thereafter, co-operation between the two left-of-centre parties gradually became closer. The Liberals abstained on the government's bill to amend the Trade Disputes Act (1927), ensuring it a second reading; the government accepted a Liberal motion calling, in effect, for a watered-down version of their familiar policy of loan-financed national development; joint committees on which Liberal spokesmen sat alongside Labour ministers were set up to look at telephone development, rural housing, and town planning. By spring 1931 MacDonald, Lloyd George, and their leading colleagues were holding weekly talks. Though the evidence is fragmentary, it seems clear that by July MacDonald was seriously exploring the possibility of an early Liberal–Labour coalition, with himself as prime minister and Lloyd George in a major cabinet post (Marquand, 583–603; Williamson, National Crisis, 229–52).


MacDonald's explorations came too late. Following the collapse of the great Austrian bank the Kreditanstalt in May 1931, a spiralling international financial crisis rapidly undermined confidence in sterling. At the end of July the May committee, set up under Liberal pressure to inquire into possible cuts in government spending, forecast a budget deficit of £120 million and recommended sweeping economies, including a cut of nearly £67 million in unemployment spending. Pressure on sterling redoubled. By 7 August the Bank of England was warning that the reserves were almost exhausted. It was clear that the parity could be held only if confidence were restored, and that the only way to restore confidence was to make heavy cuts in government spending. Keynes thought the parity was past saving and urged the suspension of gold convertibility as the first step towards the creation of a new currency union. But his was a lone voice. The Treasury, the bank, and even Keynes's protégé Hubert Henderson all thought it essential to defend the parity, and all drew the inescapable conclusion that expenditure would have to be cut on May report lines.

There is no direct evidence of MacDonald's reactions when the crisis broke, but there is not much doubt about his priorities. Though he had often been exasperated with Snowden's negativism, he was at one with his chancellor on the need for drastic expenditure cuts. As far back as December 1930 he had gone out of his way to promise Snowden his backing ‘in any proposal you make to reduce expenditure’; and it is clear from his diary that he had no patience with the majority cabinet view that spending on unemployment was sacrosanct (Marquand, 587–8). Not only was he a cutter by instinct; he also believed that, if the cabinet flinched from making the cuts that were needed to save the pound, Labour's claim to be a party of government would be destroyed.

At first it looked as if MacDonald would have his way. When the May report appeared, the cabinet set up an economy committee, consisting of MacDonald, Snowden, Arthur Henderson, Thomas, and Graham. It recommended tax increases of £89 million and spending cuts of £78.5 million, £43.5 million of which was to come from spending on unemployment insurance. This was less than the Treasury had asked for, but Snowden seems to have been content with the package. When it reached the cabinet, however, it was picked apart. The cut in unemployment spending was whittled down to around £20 million, and the global expenditure cut to £56 million. These figures were far too small to satisfy the Bank of England or, a fortiori, foreign sterling holders. They were also too small to satisfy the government's Liberal allies, without whom no package would get through the House of Commons. It soon became clear, however, that they were too big for the TUC. In the evening of 20 August a deputation from the general council told the economy committee that it would not ‘acquiesce in new burdens on the unemployed’ and rejected spending cuts altogether. For MacDonald, as he put it in a disgusted diary entry, ‘it was practically a declaration of war’ (TNA: PRO, MacDonald papers, diary, 20 Aug 1931).

It was a war which MacDonald was determined to fight. For thirty years he had believed that the sectional interests of the trade unions came second to the Labour Party's view of the national interest: that citizenship came before class. He had fought trade-union domination in the name of political principle during the war. As he saw it, he now had to fight the same battle all over again. ‘If we yield now to the TUC’, he noted belligerently the day after the meeting with the general council deputation, ‘we shall never be able to call our bodies or souls or intelligences our own’ (TNA: PRO, MacDonald papers, diary, 22 Aug 1931, referring to 21 August). As during the war, however, Henderson reacted in precisely the opposite way. Before the TUC's démarche he had grudgingly accepted the economy committee's package, including the cuts in unemployment spending. Now he swung into opposition.

The story of the next three days was, above all, the story of a battle to the death between MacDonald and Henderson for the soul of the 1929 government. MacDonald fought with all his old diplomatic skill, backed by a kind of dour passion. In a series of complex negotiations he persuaded the Bank of England and the opposition parties to accept an economy package of £76 million, including a 10 per cent cut in unemployment benefit. Against all the odds, he then won a cabinet majority for it of eleven to nine. But Henderson and an unknown number of his fellow dissidents made it clear that they would resign rather than accept the majority view. It was clear that the government could not carry on. In the evening of Sunday 23 August, at the end of one of the most poignant cabinet meetings of the century, MacDonald was authorized to inform the king that all members of the cabinet had placed their resignations in the prime minister's hands.

National saviour

At that stage MacDonald assumed that he would leave office along with his colleagues, that he would then resign from the Labour leadership and announce his support for cuts in unemployment benefit, and that Baldwin would form a Conservative government, presumably with Liberal support. Already, however, he had come under pressure—first from Neville Chamberlain and Herbert Samuel, and then from the king—to stay on as prime minister at the head of a national government. Their case was hard to refute. A potentially ruinous confidence crisis was well under way. A national government, headed by MacDonald, would stand a much better chance of halting it than would a Conservative government or even a Conservative–Liberal coalition. It is clear from his diary and from contemporaneous notes made by his son Malcolm and his daughters Sheila and Ishbel that MacDonald was profoundly reluctant to accept that logic (Marquand, 627–37). In the end, however, his resistance crumbled. At a Buckingham Palace meeting with the king, Baldwin, and Samuel in the morning of 24 August he agreed to form a temporary national government to restore British credit. That done, there would be a general election fought on normal party lines.

These expectations were soon belied. The cabinet was genuinely non-party. There were four Labour ministers: MacDonald himself, Snowden, Thomas, and Sankey, the lord chancellor. The Conservatives also had four places, and the Liberals two. Only a tiny number of Labour MPs followed MacDonald (partly, perhaps, because he made virtually no attempt to win Labour support), but the government's policies were as consensual as possible. Its economy programme, presented to parliament on 11 September, involved a total cut of £70 million, less than the total which had been accepted by a majority of the outgoing cabinet. Thirteen million pounds came from the 10 per cent cut in unemployment benefit which the Labour dissidents had rejected; with only trivial variations, the rest of the package was the old £56 million programme which the entire Labour cabinet had endorsed. None of this, however, cut any ice with the Labour Party, now free from the restraints of government. MacDonald and Snowden were heckled fiercely in the house, while Labour's front-bench spokesmen came close to denying that they had accepted even the £56 million programme. That was bad enough for foreign confidence, and worse followed. On 15 September units of the Atlantic fleet at Invergordon refused to muster, in protest against the government's pay cuts. After a brief recovery when the National Government was formed, sterling had started to weaken again. Now the drain accelerated. On 20 September the cabinet bowed to the inevitable and decided to leave the gold standard after all.

Devaluation transformed the political landscape. Demands for an early election had already come from sections of the Conservative Party. Now they intensified. At first MacDonald dragged his feet, but when the Labour Party executive voted to expel all members and associates of the National Government his resistance evaporated. Parliament was dissolved on 7 October, and after a three-week campaign the government swept back into power with a majority of nearly 500. The Labour vote fell by 1.5 million; with fifty-two seats (only forty-six won by officially endorsed Labour candidates) it had fewer MPs than in 1918. MacDonald's personal fate mirrored his government's. He had insisted on fighting his existing Seaham Harbour seat. Against what most observers had considered to be the odds at the start of the campaign, he was returned with a majority of nearly 6000.

Few victories can have had a more bitter taste. MacDonald had been the prime mover in crushing the party to which he had devoted his political life. He, more than anyone else, had embodied the national appeal which had given the Conservatives an overwhelming majority over all parties. For his pains he had become their prisoner. He was surprisingly successful in fending off Conservative place-seekers. Four of the twenty members of the new cabinet belonged to the minuscule group. There were five Liberals and only eleven Conservatives. But Conservative restraint over place was not matched by restraint over policy. They had campaigned on their historic ticket of protection; they had won a decisive majority for it; they also believed that it held the key to economic recovery. They were understandably determined to use their victory to carry it through—if not under a national government, then under a purely Conservative one—and no one could doubt that they would sooner or later do so.

The implications for MacDonald were both painful and paradoxical. He was no longer a free-trader, if he ever had been. On the merits of the case he sided with the Conservatives. But he knew that his government's shaky claim to non-party status, and, by the same token, his own claim to embody a national consensus, rested on the continued adhesion of the free-trade Liberals, led by Herbert Samuel. For the best part of a year he did his best to square the circle, arguing that the real issues lay elsewhere, that the fiscal question was one of practicality not ideology, and that in any event it mattered less than the government's survival. At first he seemed to be succeeding. In January 1932 the free-trade ministers agreed to a remarkable compromise whereby they were allowed to speak and vote against government legislation imposing a tariff, while still holding office. In the end, however, he had to admit defeat. At the Ottawa conference in the summer of 1932 the British delegation, led by Baldwin, agreed to a far-reaching scheme of imperial preference. This was more than the free-traders could stomach. Samuel and his followers resigned, accompanied by Snowden. MacDonald was left behind at the head of a virtually Conservative government, albeit with an increasingly implausible national label.

Labour scapegoat

From then on MacDonald's prime ministership was a long diminuendo. His health had already begun to deteriorate. In 1932 he had two operations for glaucoma, one on each eye. They were both successful, but each had to be followed by weeks out of circulation. Altogether he was out of action for two months in the first half of the year. He was increasingly plagued by insomnia and depression, and, worse still, by the consciousness of failing powers. His memory began to fail, and he found it increasingly difficult to concentrate. Increasingly he dreaded his appearances at the dispatch box and did his best to avoid the public platform: with good reason, since his speeches were often virtually incomprehensible. By June 1934 his eyes were once again giving trouble. His doctors diagnosed a ‘retrograde movement’ and persuaded him to take three months' holiday. While he was away his morale improved, but once he was back in harness his mental and physical decline accelerated again. To judge by his photographs, MacDonald at sixty-five, though obviously worn and tired, still had the erect bearing and more than a trace of the personal magnetism of his earlier years. At seventy he looked an exhausted old man, years older than his real age, peering uncertainly into the camera as though not quite sure what was happening (Marquand, 693–700).

Physical and mental decline went hand in hand with emotional strain. MacDonald may have been blackmailed by a mysterious Viennese woman, known as Frau Foster and variously described as a ‘cocotte’ and a ‘vamp’, with whom he had had an affair in the 1920s and to whom he had written compromising letters (Roskill, 3.162; Marquand, 700–01). In the Labour Party he was the obvious scapegoat for the failures of the 1929 government and the disasters of 1931. Most of his old followers vilified him as a vain and treacherous social climber seduced out of his allegiance by the flattery of the governing class, a charge reinforced by the publication of Philip Snowden's acidulous autobiography alleging that, after the formation of the National Government, MacDonald had told him that ‘tomorrow, every duchess in London will be wanting to kiss me’ (Snowden, 2.957). Almost certainly, the remark was meant ironically, but Snowden was in no mood to appreciate irony and nor were his Labour readers. Some Labour people also believed that MacDonald had deliberately plotted to form the National Government, and had taken advantage of, or perhaps even engineered, the financial crisis in order to do so: that, in Sidney Webb's acid phrase, he had been the ‘author, producer and principal actor’ in a drama whose dénouement he had foreseen long in advance (S. Webb, ‘What happened in 1931: a record’, Political Quarterly, Jan–March 1932). Only a tiny handful of old Labour friends remained on speaking terms with him. The reporter, Sidney Campion, recalled later that in the House of Commons Labour MPs behaved towards MacDonald like hounds ‘straining at the leash to kill’ (Marquand, 680).

No cold-blooded and duplicitous traitor would have reacted as MacDonald did. Outwardly, he maintained a belligerent front. In letter after letter he denounced the new Labour leaders as cowardly time-servers who had abandoned the socialism of old days. It is clear from his diary, however, that their attacks drew blood: ‘The desolation of loneliness is terrible’, he noted in a particularly poignant entry late in 1932. ‘Was I wise? Perhaps not, but it seemed as though anything else was impossible’ (TNA: PRO, MacDonald papers, notebook, 27 Dec 1932). For some years he corresponded with a spiritualist medium, Grace Cooke, who sent him messages from his dead wife, but it is doubtful whether the correspondence did much to mitigate his desolation. For a while friendship with the flamboyant Conservative hostess Lady Londonderry was a more potent solace. MacDonald and she had got to know each other in the 1920s, and had discovered a mutual interest in highland folklore, but although he scandalized some of his followers by going to her parties at Londonderry House, the relationship did not become an important part of his life until the early 1930s. For some years after 1931, however, he was deeply attached to her. Yet even then, their friendship was only a palliative for his sense of isolation, not a cure.

Downward path

In spite of failing powers and deteriorating health, it would be wrong to picture MacDonald as a mere figurehead with no influence on events after 1931. He rarely intervened in domestic affairs, and when he did so the record suggests that his interventions were mostly ineffectual. Yet the mere fact that he was still prime minister, and that the Conservatives would have been damaged politically if he had broken openly with them, gave him a kind of negative influence, at least until his three months' absence in 1934. On foreign policy, moreover, he played a leading role, both in shaping and in executing government policy, for most of the 1931 parliament. Anthony Eden, a junior minister at the Foreign Office from 1931 until his elevation to the foreign secretaryship in 1935, wrote later in his memoirs that when MacDonald spoke on foreign affairs in cabinet, he was conscious ‘of the touch of the master’ (Eden, 23). In 1932 MacDonald led the British delegation at two major international conferences: the long-awaited, but ultimately ill-starred disarmament conference which opened at Geneva in February, and the apparently successful Lausanne conference on reparations in June and July. He spent more time at the Geneva disarmament conference in the early months of 1933, and presided over the long-drawn-out but abortive world economic conference in London in the summer of that year. He also presided over the disarmament committee of the cabinet, which gradually extended its scope until it became a kind of inner cabinet for foreign and defence policy. As late as April 1935 he led the British delegation to the ill-fated Stresa conference, at which the British, French, and Italians fruitlessly discussed how best to respond to Hitler's violations of the peace settlement.

These, however, were milestones on a downward path. Conference diplomacy, of the sort that MacDonald had excelled at in the 1920s, was too tender a plant for the harsher climate of the 1930s. By 1932 the Weimar republic was tottering; in January 1933 Hitler came to power. The liberal, neo-Gladstonian assumptions which had underpinned MacDonald's foreign policy since UDC days were in ruins. There is no way of telling how far his slow, grudging, and painful realization that it was time to look for alternative assumptions contributed to his physical and mental decline, but it must have been an additional source of stress. What is clear is that the deterioration in his health accelerated. In a diary entry before leaving for Canada in June 1934 he noted apprehensively that he was ‘more troubled by my overworked brain than my overworked eyes’ (TNA: PRO, MacDonald papers, diary, 19 June 1934); no sooner had he returned to London in October than his headaches and insomnia returned, while his eyesight started to deteriorate again. There were complaints of his ‘rambling incoherence’ in cabinet; and by early 1935 it was clear both to his doctor, Sir Thomas Horder, and to the cabinet secretary, Maurice Hankey, that he could not carry on as prime minister for much longer (Marquand, 761–3).

The rest of the story is soon told. MacDonald struggled on as prime minister until summer 1935, but with diminishing influence on events. On 7 June, shortly after the jubilee of George V, he and Baldwin swapped offices: Baldwin became prime minister and MacDonald lord president of the council. In October Baldwin called a general election; after a bitter campaign, in which he was frequently denied a hearing, MacDonald lost Seaham Harbour to his old protégé Emanuel Shinwell, with only 17,882 votes to Shinwell's 38,380. He stayed on as lord president, however, and in February 1936 he was elected for the Scottish universities in a convenient by-election. He held office for another seventeen months—a forlorn and almost forgotten figure, with no patronage and no following, who looked increasingly like a ghost from a vanished era. The end of his ministerial life came on 28 May 1937, a couple of weeks after the coronation of George VI, when Baldwin and he left office together. Baldwin, Neville Chamberlain (Baldwin's successor), and the king each offered him a peerage, but on each occasion he declined. He spent most of the summer pottering about in Lossiemouth, and on 5 November he and his daughter Sheila set sail in the liner Reina del Pacifico, for a visit to South America. On 9 November 1937 MacDonald died of heart failure, following a game of deck quoits. His body was returned to Britain on the naval cruiser, HMS Apollo. After a public funeral in Westminster Abbey and a private service in Golders Green, his ashes were taken by train to Lossiemouth and buried on 27 November in the grave at Spynie churchyard overlooking the Moray Firth where Margaret's had been buried twenty-six years before.

Shifting perspectives

When MacDonald died his reputation was in tatters. The Conservatives had never taken him to their hearts, and for most of them he had become a pathetic, if not ludicrous, encumbrance. In the labour movement he was seen as, at best, a vain and weak-willed tool of the governing class, and at worst as a scheming traitor who had deliberately plotted to do down his party and his cause. Death sometimes brings rehabilitation; in MacDonald's case it brought more disdain. In 1938 his former parliamentary private secretary, L. MacNeill Weir, published a savagely critical biography of him (The Tragedy of Ramsay MacDonald). A year later Lord Elton, Malcolm's former tutor and a National Labour peer, published the first of what was to have been a two-volume biography (Ramsay MacDonald), but although this gave a favourable and perceptive account of MacDonald's career up to 1919, it did not redress the balance. MacDonald appeared, thinly disguised, as the opportunistic anti-hero of Howard Spring's novel, Fame is the Spur (1940), while the memoirs and biographies of other Labour politicians were almost all hostile to him, albeit in varying degrees. By the early 1950s the part he had played in creating and cementing the Labour alliance in the first place, and then in establishing the Labour Party as the main anti-Conservative party in the state, had been forgotten. On the left he was remembered only for his alleged perfidy in 1931. On the right he was barely remembered at all.

Though he remained a bogey for some Labour left-wingers until well into the 1970s, the next twenty-five years brought a change of perspective. Labour historians discovered that MacDonald had contributed more to the formation and growth of the early Labour Party than a later generation had realized (Frank Bealey and Henry Pelling, Labour and Politics, 1900–1906). Reginald Bassett, a former Labour supporter who had followed MacDonald in 1931, published a meticulous, blow-by-blow account of the 1931 crisis, demolishing the plot theory which had become the received wisdom of the left (1931: Political Crisis). At a lunch in the House of Commons in October 1966, commemorating the centenary of MacDonald's birth, Harold Wilson, the first leader of the Labour Party too young to have played an active part in politics when the National Government was formed, paid him a warm and compassionate tribute. Eleven years later the present writer published the first biography of MacDonald to be based on his voluminous private papers. It was self-consciously revisionist in aim and perspective. It stressed his ideological consistency, his political skill, and his pivotal role in the growth of the Labour Party and the politics of inter-war Britain. He was depicted as ‘a decent and likeable man who, for most of his term of office, led his party with conspicuous skill’. The true moral of his career was not that he had betrayed his convictions, but that he had been too slow to jettison cherished assumptions in the face of changing realities (Marquand, 795).

There was an irony in that judgement which was not apparent when it was made. The revisionism of the 1970s was soon to need revising. Implicit in the judgement that MacDonald should have been quicker to jettison the assumptions he had cherished in the past was the equally time-bound assumption that it would have been better to take Keynes's advice in 1931 than that of the Bank of England: that in following the nostrums of pre-Keynesian orthodoxy MacDonald was in thrall, albeit understandably, to a dogma which the Keynesian revolution was soon to supersede. But although it was still possible to view the events of 1931 through an essentially Keynesian prism in the mid-1970s, it soon ceased to be possible. In the harsher world of the 1980s and 1990s it was no longer obvious that Keynes was right in 1931 and the bankers wrong. Pre-Keynesian orthodoxy had come in from the cold. Politicians and publics had learned anew that confidence crises feed on themselves; that currencies can collapse; that the public credit can be exhausted; that a plummeting currency can be even more painful than deflationary expenditure cuts; and that governments which try to defy the foreign exchange markets are apt to get their—and their countries'—fingers burnt. Against that background MacDonald's response to the 1931 crisis increasingly seemed not just honourable and consistent, but right.

The 1980s and 1990s taught more complex lessons as well. The 1981 split in the Labour Party, the formation of the Social Democratic Party and later of the Liberal Democrats, the accompanying upsurge in third-party voting, Neil Kinnock's revisionist policies as Labour leader, the emergence of Tony Blair's ‘new labour’ party, and the ideological overlap between the anti-Conservative forces all invited comparison with the fluid and sometimes schismatic politics of MacDonald's day. The stable party loyalties and ideological commitments of the post-war period were as much a thing of the past as the Keynesian economics of the same period. In this climate MacDonald's willingness to defy the dictates of party loyalty seemed less a proof of perfidy than a portent of things to come. On a deeper level, labour and social democratic parties everywhere had learned—often painfully—that the constraints of global capitalism had become much tighter than they had been in the post-war period, and that the scope for ameliorative reformism had narrowed correspondingly. These discoveries threw new light, not just on MacDonald's actions in the supreme crisis of his career, but on the cautious and non-sectarian progressivism he had preached since his twenties. Here too he was no longer an honourable, but misguided prisoner of outworn orthodoxy: he was the unacknowledged precursor of the Blairs, the Schröders, and the Clintons of the 1990s and 2000s.

David Marquand


D. Marquand, Ramsay MacDonald (1977); repr. (1997) · MacDonald papers, TNA: PRO · Lord Elton [G. Elton], The life of James Ramsay MacDonald (1939) · J. R. MacDonald, Margaret Ethel Macdonald (1912) · J. R. MacDonald, Socialism and society (1905) · DNB · M. A. Hamilton, Remembering my good friends (1944) · P. Snowden, Autobiography (1934) · R. Bassett, 1931: political crisis (1986) · F. Bealey and H. Pelling, Labour and politics, 1900–1906 (1958) · E. Wertheimer, Portrait of the Labour Party (1929) · J. R. MacDonald, What I saw in South Africa (1902) · J. R. MacDonald, The Zollverein and British industry (1903) · J. R. MacDonald, Parliament and revolution (1919) · P. Williamson, Baldwin (1999) · P. Williamson, National crisis and national government: British politics, the economy and empire, 1926–1932 (1992) · S. W. Roskill, Hankey, man of secrets, 3 vols. (1970–74), vols. 2–3 · A. Eden, The Eden memoirs (1962) · G. Cooke, Plumed serpent: a story of reincarnation and the ancient wisdom (1942) · L. MacNeill Weir, The tragedy of Ramsay MacDonald (1938) · L. Thompson, The enthusiasts (1971) · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1938)


BL, corresp. relating to Codex Sinaiticus, Add. MSS 68923–9 · BLPES, misc. corresp. and papers · BLPES, corresp. and papers relating to the ILP · Durham RO, letters · JRL, corresp. and papers · Labour History Archive and Study Centre, Manchester, corresp. and papers · NL Scot., albums of letters of condolence on his wife's death, misc. letters and papers · NL Scot., originals of political articles by him · NL Scot., misc. corresp. and tribute to T. Hardy · NL Scot., misc. corresp. mainly with P. Geddes · TNA: PRO, corresp. and papers, 30/69 · TNA: PRO, Cabinet corresp. and papers, CAB 127/282–95 |  Library of Birmingham, corresp. with C. J. Simmons · BL, corresp. with Lord Cecil, Add. MS 51081 · BL, corresp. with Lord D'Abernon, Add. MSS 48926–48931 · BL, corresp. with A. Mansbridge, Add. MS 65253 · BLPES, letters to W. John · BLPES, letters to T. Nodin · BLPES, letters to H. Bryan · BLPES, corresp. with the Fabian Society · BLPES, corresp. with E. D. Morel · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with H. A. Gwynne · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with G. Murray · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Lord Ponsonby · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with H. Rumbold · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Lord Sankey · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Lord Simon · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with A. Zimmern · Bodl. Oxf., letters to E. Marvin · Bodl. RH, corresp. with F. E. Colenso · CAC Cam., official corresp. with E. Phipps · CAC Cam., letters to R. G. Vansittart · CKS, corresp. with J. H. Thomas · CUL, Templewood Papers, corresp. with S. Hoare · CUL, letters to H. Young · Cumbria AS, Carlisle, letters to Lord Howard of Penrith · Harvard U., Houghton L., letters to W. Rothenstein · JRL, corresp. with C. P. Scott, FO 800 · Leics. RO, letters to the Leeson family · Lpool RO, corresp. with earl of Derby · NA Scot., corresp. with Lord Lothian · NL Scot., letters to S. Gordon · NL Scot., letters to Sir A. Grant · NL Scot., corresp. with Lord Haldane · NL Scot., letters to J. K. Annand · NL Scot., letters to H. P. Macmillan · NL Wales, corresp. with Lloyd George · Norfolk RO, corresp. with H. W. Massingham · Parl. Arch., letters to D. Lloyd George · Parl. Arch., corresp. with H. Samuel, memoranda · Parl. Arch., corresp. with Lord Beaverbrook · Parl. Arch., corresp. with J. St Loe Strachey · PRONI, letters to Lord Londonderry · PRONI, corresp. with Lady Londonderry · Queen's University of Belfast Library, letters to O. Kyllmann · Ruskin College Library, Oxford, corresp. mainly with J. M. Middleton · TNA: PRO, corresp. · U. Aberdeen L., letters to J. Leatham · U. Birm. L., special collections department, corresp. with W. H. Dawson · U. Glas. L., Archives and Business Records Centre, corresp. with first Viscount Weir · U. Lpool, department of special collections and archives, corresp. with J. B. Glasier · U. Newcastle, Robinson L., corresp. with W. Runciman · U. Newcastle, Robinson L., corresp. with C. P. Trevelyan · UCL, letters to K. Pearson


W. Small, two pencil drawings, 1889, Scot. NPG · B. Stone, photograph, 1907, NPG · S. J. Solomon, oils, c.1912, NPG · G. C. Beresford, photograph, c.1920, NPG · W. C. Dongworth, miniature, c.1920–1930, NPG · O. Edis, photographs, c.1920–1930?, NPG [see illus.] · W. Rothenstein, sanguine drawing, 1923, Man. City Gall. · W. Stoneman, photograph, 1923, NPG · B. Partridge, pen-and-ink caricatures, 1923–31, NPG; repro. in Punch · M. Beerbohm, caricature drawing, 1924, Man. City Gall. · D. Low, pencil caricature, c.1926, NPG · A. McEvoy, oils, c.1926, Scot. NPG · print, 1926 (after D. Low), NPG · E. J. Walters, oils, 1929, NMG Wales · P. Angus, oils, 1930–39, NPG · J. Lavery, oils, 1931, NPG · Central Press Photos Ltd, double portrait, photograph, c.1932–1934 (with Lord Londonderry), NPG · J. Epstein, bronze bust, 1934, NPG · A. Wysard, pencil and gouache, 1936, NPG · M. Beerbohm, pencil, ink, and watercolour caricature, Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts, Ohio; chalk study, NPG · T. Cottrell, cigarette card, NPG · J. Epstein, bronze bust, Scot. NPG · J. Lavery, group portrait, oils (House of Commons, 1924), Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow · L. M. Mayer, miniature, NPG · A. P. F. Ritchie, cigarette card, NPG · J. J. Tissot, lithograph, NPG; repro. in VF (1 April 1876) · cigarette card (after unknown artist), NPG

Wealth at death  

£21,501 18s. 5d.: confirmation, 12 March 1938, CCI