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Ramsay MacDonald lived from 12 October 1866 to 9 November 1937. From humble origins in Lossiemouth, he rose to become Britain's first Labour Prime Minister in 1924. In total he was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in three Governments between 1924 and 1935. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Ramsay MacDonald was born in Lossiemouth as the illegitimate son of John MacDonald, a gardener, and Anne Ramsay, a housemaid. At birth he was registered under the name of James MacDonald Ramsay, but while growing up was known as Jaimie MacDonald. MacDonald was educated at the Free Church of Scotland School in Lossiemouth, then at Drainie Parish Church. In 1881 he became a pupil teacher at Drainie. In 1885 MacDonald worked for a while as a Vicar's assistant in Bristol, and joined the radical Social Democratic Federation. In 1886 he left Lossiemouth once more, this time to seek work in London.
In London he did a variety of jobs, and became actively involved in the Socialist Union. On 6 March 1888 he set up the London General Committee of Scottish Home Rule Association. Meanwhile, he studied science at evening classes, but collapsed from exhaustion just before the exams. Later in 1888 MacDonald became private secretary to Thomas Lough, a merchant and a radical politician.
Lough became a Liberal MP in 1892, and MacDonald gained access to the world of Liberal politics in London. Later that year he became a journalist, and joined the Fabian Society. In May 1894 MacDonald joined Keir Hardie's newly formed Independent Labour Party, and was adopted as an ILP Parliamentary candidate for a seat in Southampton, which he heavily lost in the 1895 General Election. He lost again in the 1900 General Election, and in that year became Secretary of the Labour Representation Committee, the forerunner of the Labour Party. Here he led negotiations with the Liberal party that allowed Labour candidates a clear run at a number of seats in working class areas, which was to lead to a breakthrough for Labour in the 1906 General Election.
Meantime, in 1896, MacDonald married Margaret Gladstone (unrelated to the politicians of the same name). Her wealth allowed them to travel extensively, and they visited Canada and the United States in 1897, South Africa in 1902, Australia and New Zealand in 1906 and India on a number of occasions.
At the 1906 General Election, MacDonald was one of 29 Labour MPs elected, under the leadership of Keir Hardie. He represented the Leicester Constituency. In 1911, MacDonald became Leader of the Labour Party, but resigned in 1914 when the party did not support his strongly anti-war stance: a stance that led to public accusations of treason and cowardice, and which in 1915 led the journal John Bull to mount a campaign for MacDonald's removal from Parliament on the grounds he was elected under a false name. It emerged that MacDonald was simply unaware that his birth had been registered under the surname Ramsay. Although MacDonald was actually one of very few senior politicians to have spent time visiting the Western Front during the war, he lost his seat in the 1918 election. His pacifist stance also led, in 1916, to his being ejected from membership of the Moray Golf Club in Lossiemouth. They invited him to rejoin in 1929, but he declined.
In 1922 MacDonald was elected MP for Aberavon in Wales, then re-elected leader of the Labour Party, which by now had displaced the Liberals as the main opposition to the Conservative Government. After the 1923 election the Conservatives found themselves without a majority in the House of Commons, and when they lost a vote of confidence in January 1924, King George V asked Ramsay MacDonald to form a government. With support from the Liberals, he did so, thus becoming the first Labour Prime Minister, the first Prime Minister from a working class background, and one of very few without a university education.
As Prime Minister, MacDonald, also occupied the post of Foreign Secretary. He was open about setting foreign affairs as his key priority, and in particular undoing the damage he felt had been caused by the reparations imposed on Germany under the terms of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. In June 1924 MacDonald convened a conference in London of the wartime allies, and by September that year he had placed proposals for Europe-wide disarmament with the League of Nations Assembly in Geneva. However, in October 1924 the Government suppressed the prosecution for sedition of the Editor of the Communist Workers Weekly and as a result lost a vote of censure in both Houses of Parliament. In the election that followed, the Conservatives returned to power with a large majority: but while Labour lost some seats, the Liberals were virtually destroyed as a real force in British politics. Some have said that this was MacDonald's real intention all along.
Rapidly rising unemployment at the end of the 1920s led to the General Election of May 1929. Labour emerged as the biggest party, with the Liberals holding the balance of power. MacDonald, now representing the seat of Seaham in County Durham, became Prime Minister of a minority government. In 1930 his government passed a revised Old Age Pensions Act, a more generous Unemployment Insurance Act, and an act to improve wages and conditions in the coal industry: so tackling the main cause of the General Strike. He also opened negotiations with India about a degree of self-government. But following the Stock Market Crash of 1929 the country's economic situation deteriorated badly. MacDonald's Government became badly split on whether to abandon a balanced budget and accept the 25% devaluation of the Pound that would result, or to hold firm to a balanced budget and accept dramatic cuts in spending.
On 24 August 1931 MacDonald submitted his resignation as Labour Prime Minister, before being invited by the King to form a National Government including the Conservatives and Liberals. At a General Election in October 1931, MacDonald's National Government won 554 seats, (made up of 470 Conservatives, 13 National Labour, 68 Liberal National and 3 others), while the separate Labour Party won only 52 seats and Lloyd George's Liberals just 4. His running a mostly Conservative Government severed many of MacDonald's life-long friendships and can hardly have sat easily with his own conscience. His health declined in 1933 and 1934, and in May 1935 he resigned as Prime Minister. In the election later that year he lost his Seaham seat, and while he was returned to Parliament in a 1936 by-election in the Combined Scottish Universities seat, he was by now a very ill man. In November 1937 he took a holiday aboard the liner Reina del Pacifico but died during the cruise.