His first government lasted less than one year. Labour returned to power in 1929 but was soon overwhelmed by the crisis of the Great Depression, which split the Labour government. In 1931 he formed a "National Government" in which a majority of MPs were from the Conservatives. As a result, he was expelled from the Labour Party who accused him of 'betrayal'.
He remained Prime Minister of the National Government from 1931 to 1935, however his health rapidly deteriorated and he became increasingly ineffective as a leader. He was forced to resign in 1935 and died two years later.
MacDonald retained an interest in Scottish politics. Gladstone's first Irish Home Rule Bill inspired the setting-up of a Scottish Home Rule Association in Edinburgh. On 6 March 1888, MacDonald took part in a meeting of Scotsmen who were London residents and who, on his motion, formed the London General Committee of Scottish Home Rule Association. He continued to support home rule for Scotland, but with little support from London Scots forthcoming, his enthusiasm for the committee waned and from 1890 he took little part in its work.
Politics at this time, however, was still of less importance to MacDonald than furthering himself in employment. To this end he took evening classes in science, botany, agriculture, mathematics, and physics at the Birkbeck Literary and Scientific Institution but his health suddenly failed him due to exhaustion one week before his examinations. This put an end to any thought of having a career in science. In 1888, MacDonald took employment as private secretary to Thomas Lough who was a tea merchant and a Radical politician. Lough was elected as the Liberal MP for West Islington, in 1892. Many doors now opened to MacDonald. He had access to the National Liberal Club as well as the editorial offices of Liberal and Radical newspapers. He also made himself known to various London Radical clubs and with Radical and labour politicians. MacDonald gained valuable experience in the workings of electioneering. In 1892, he left Lough’s employment to become a journalist and was not immediately successful. By then, MacDonald had been a member of the Fabian Society for some time and toured and lectured on its behalf at the London School of Economics and elsewhere.
In 1893, Keir Hardie had formed the Independent Labour Party (ILP) which had established itself as a mass movement and so in May 1894 MacDonald applied for membership of, and was accepted into, the ILP. He was officially adopted as the ILP candidate for one of the Southampton seats on 17 July 1894 but was heavily defeated at the election of 1895. MacDonald stood again for Parliament again in 1900 for one of the two Leicester seats and although he lost was accused of splitting the Liberal vote to allow the Conservative candidate to win. That same year he became Secretary of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC), the forerunner of the Labour Party, while retaining his membership of the ILP. The ILP, while not a Marxist party, was more rigorously socialist than the future Labour Party in which the ILP members would operate as a "ginger group" for many years.
As Party Secretary, MacDonald negotiated an agreement with the leading Liberal politician Herbert Gladstone (son of the late Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone), which allowed Labour to contest a number of working-class seats without Liberal opposition, thus giving Labour its first breakthrough into the House of Commons. He married Margaret Gladstone, who was unrelated to the Gladstones of the Liberal Party, in 1896. Margaret Gladstone MacDonald was very comfortably off, although not hugely wealthy. This allowed them to indulge in foreign travel, visiting Canada and the United States in 1897, South Africa in 1902, Australia and New Zealand in 1906 and to India several times.
In 1906, the LRC changed its name to the "Labour Party", and absorbed the ILP. In that same year, MacDonald was elected MP for Leicester along with 28 others, and became one of the leaders of the Parliamentary Labour Party. These Labour MPs undoubtedly owed their election to the ‘Progressive Alliance’ between the Liberals and Labour which at this time was a minor party supporting the Liberal governments of Henry Campbell-Bannerman and H. H. Asquith. MacDonald became the leader of the left wing of the party, arguing that Labour must seek to displace the Liberals as the main party of the left.
Up to 1910 his name was usually styled Ramsay Macdonald, thereafter Ramsay MacDonald.
In 1911 MacDonald became Party Leader (formally "Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party"), but within a short period his wife became ill with blood poisoning and died. This affected MacDonald very much and it is doubtful whether or not he truly recovered. It made him a lonely figure prone to self-pity. MacDonald had always taken a keen interest in foreign affairs and knew from his visit to South Africa just after the Boer War had ended, what the effects of modern conflict would have. Although the Parliamentary Labour Party generally held an anti-war opinion, the fact was that when war was declared in August 1914, patriotism came to the fore. Labour supported the government in its request for £100,000,000 of war credits and, as MacDonald could not support this, he resigned the Chairmanship. Arthur Henderson became the new leader while MacDonald took the party Treasurer post. During the early part of the war he was extremely unpopular and was accused of treason and cowardice. The journal, John Bull published in September, 1915 an article carrying details of MacDonald’s so-called deceit in not disclosing his real name. His illegitimacy was no secret and he hadn’t seemed to have suffered by it, but according to the journal he had, by using a false name, gained access to parliament falsely and that he should suffer heavy penalties and have his election declared void. However, MacDonald received much support but the way in which the disclosures were made public had affected him. He wrote in his diary
... I spent hours of terrible mental pain. Letters of sympathy began to pour in upon me... Never before did I know that I had been registered under the name of Ramsay, and cannot understand it now. From my earliest years my name has been entered in lists, like the school register, etc. as MacDonald.Yet, despite his opposition to the war, MacDonald still visited the front in December 1914. Lord Elton wrote:
... he arrived in Belgium with an ambulance unit organised by Dr Hector Munro. The following day he had disappeared and agitated enquiry disclosed that he had been arrested and sent back to Britain. At home he saw Lord Kitchener who expressed his annoyance at the incident and gave instructions for him to be given an “omnibus” pass to the whole Western Front. He returned to an entirely different reception and was met by General Seeley at Poperinghe who expressed his regrets at the way MacDonald had been treated. They set off for the front at Ypres and soon found themselves in the thick of an action in which both behaved with the utmost coolness. Later, MacDonald was received by the Commander-in-Chief at St Omer and made an extensive tour of the front. Returning home, he paid a public tribute to the courage of the French troops, but said nothing then or later of having been under fire himself.As the war dragged on his reputation recovered but nevertheless he lost his seat in the 1918 "khaki election", which saw the Liberal David Lloyd George coalition government win a huge majority.
In 1922 the Conservatives left the coalition and Bonar Law, who had taken over from Lloyd George, called an election on 26 October. MacDonald was returned to the House as MP for Aberavon in Wales and his rehabilitation was complete; the Labour New Leader wrote that his election was
enough in itself to transform our position in the House. We have once more a voice which must be heard.By now the party was reunited and MacDonald was re-elected as Leader. The Liberals by this point were in rapid decline and at the 1922 election Labour became the main opposition party to the Conservative government of Stanley Baldwin, making MacDonald Leader of the Opposition. By this time he had moved away from the hard left and abandoned the socialism of his youth — he strongly opposed the wave of radicalism that swept through the labour movement in the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917 — and became a determined enemy of Communism. Unlike the French Socialist Party and the German SPD, the Labour Party did not split and the Communist Party of Great Britain remained small and isolated.
Although he was a gifted speaker, MacDonald became noted for "woolly" rhetoric such as the occasion at the Labour Party Conference of 1930 at Llandudno when he appeared to imply unemployment could be solved by encouraging the jobless to return to the fields "where they till and they grow and they sow and they harvest." Equally there were times it was unclear what his policies were. There was already some unease in the party about what he would do if Labour was able to form a government. At the 1923 election the Conservatives lost their majority, and when they lost a vote of confidence in the House in January 1924 King George V called on MacDonald to form a minority Labour government, with the tacit support of the Liberals under Asquith from the corner benches. MacDonald thus became the first Labour Prime Minister, the first from a "working-class" background and one of the very few without a university education.
The Government was only to last nine months and did not have a majority in either House of the Parliament, nevertheless it was still able to support the unemployed with the extension of benefits and amendments to the Insurance Acts. In a personal triumph for John Wheatley, Minister for Health. A Housing Act was passed which greatly expanded municipal housing for low paid workers..
MacDonald took the decision in March 1924 to end construction work on the Singapore military base despite strong opposition from the Admiralty. In June, MacDonald convened a conference in London of the wartime Allies, and achieved an agreement on a new plan for settling the reparations issue and the French occupation of the Ruhr. German delegates then joined the meeting, and the London Settlement signed. This was followed by an Anglo-German commercial treaty. MacDonald the neophyte Prime Minister was hugely proud of what had been achieved and was the pinnacle of his administration's achievements. In September he made a speech to the League of Nations Assembly in Geneva, the main thrust of which was for general European disarmament which was received with great acclamation.
But before all of this the United Kingdom had recognised the Soviet Union and MacDonald informed parliament in February 1924 that negotiations would begin to negotiate a treaty with the Soviet Union. The treaty was to cover Anglo-Soviet trade and the situation of the British bondholders who had contracted with the pre-revolutionary Russian government and which had been rejected by the Bolsheviks. There were in fact to be two treaties. One covering commercial matters and the other to cover a fairly vague future discussion on the problem of the bondholders. If and when the treaties were signed, then the British government would conclude a further treaty and guarantee a loan to the Bolsheviks. The treaties were not popular with the Conservatives nor with the Liberals who, in September, criticized the loan so vehemently that negotiation with them seemed impossible.
However, it was the "Campbell Case" — the abrogation of prosecuting the left-wing newspaper the Workers Weekly — that determined its fate. The Conservatives put forth a censure motion, to which the Liberals added an amendment. MacDonald's Cabinet resolved to treat both motions as matters of confidence, which if passed, would necessitate a dissolution of government. The Liberal amendment carried and the King granted MacDonald a dissolution of parliament the following day. The issues which dominated the election campaign were, unsurprisingly, the Campbell case and the Russian treaties which soon combined into the single issue of the Bolshevik threat.
On 25 October, just 4 days before the election, the Daily Mail reported that a letter had come into its possession which purported to be a letter sent from Grigory Zinoviev, the President of the Communist International, to the British representative on the Comintern Executive. The letter was dated 15 September and so before the dissolution of parliament; it stated that it was imperative that the agreed treaties between Britain and the Bolsheviks be ratified urgently. To this end, the letter said that those Labour members who could apply pressure on the government should do so. It went on to say that a resolution of the relationship between the two countries would ‘ assist in the revolutionising of the international and British proletariat …. make it possible for us to extend and develop the ideas of Leninism in England and the Colonies.’ The government had received the letter before the publication in the newspapers and had protested to the Bolshevik’s London chargé d'affaires and had already decided to make public the contents of the letter together with details of the official protest but had not been swift footed enough. MacDonald always believed that the letter was forgery but damage had been done to his campaign.
Despite all that had gone on, the result of the election was not disastrous to Labour. The Conservatives were returned decisively gaining 155 seats for a total of 413 members of parliament. Labour lost 40 seats but held on to 151 while the Liberals lost 118 seats leaving them with only 40.
The strong majority enjoyed by Baldwin’s party allowed him to preside over a government that would serve a full term during which it would have to deal with the General Strike and miners’ strike of 1926. Unemployment in the UK during this period remained high but relatively stable at just over 10% and, apart from 1926, strikes were at a low level. At the May 1929 election, Labour won 288 seats to the Conservatives' 260, with 59 Liberals under Lloyd George holding the balance of power. (At this election MacDonald moved from Aberavon to the seat of Seaham Harbour in County Durham.) Baldwin resigned and MacDonald again formed a minority government, at first with Lloyd George's cordial support.
This time MacDonald knew he had to concentrate on domestic matters. Arthur Henderson became Foreign Secretary, with Snowden again at the Exchequer. J.H. Thomas became Lord Privy Seal with a mandate to tackle unemployment, assisted by the young radical Oswald Mosley. MacDonald appointed the first ever woman cabinet minister Margaret Bondfield as Minister of Labour.
MacDonald's second government was in a stronger parliamentary position than his first, and in 1930 he was able to raise unemployment pay, pass an act to improve wages and conditions in the coal industry (i.e. the issues behind the General Strike) and pass a housing act which focused on slum clearances. However an attempt by the Education Minister Charles Trevelyan to introduce an act to raise the school leaving age to 15, was defeated by opposition from Roman Catholic Labour MPs who feared that the costs would lead to increasing local authority control over faith schools.
In international affairs, he also convened a conference in London with the leaders of the Indian National Congress, at which he offered responsible government, but not independence, to India. In April 1930 he negotiated a treaty limiting naval armaments with the United States and Japan.
By the end of 1930 the unemployment rate had doubled to over two and a half million. The government struggled to cope with the crisis and found itself attempting to reconcile two contradictory aims; achieving a balanced budget in order to maintain the pound on the Gold Standard, whilst also trying to maintain assistance to the poor and unemployed. All of this whilst tax revenues were falling.
During 1931 the economic situation deteriorated, and pressure from orthodox economists for sharp cuts in government spending increased. Under pressure from its Liberal allies as well as the Conservative opposition who feared that the budget was unbalanced. Snowden appointed a committee headed by Sir George May to review the state of public finances. The May Report of July 1931 urged large public-sector wage cuts and large cuts in public spending (notably in payments to the unemployed) in order to avoid a budget deficit.
Keynes, though, urged MacDonald to devalue the pound by 25% and abandon the existing economic policy of a balanced budget. Oswald Mosley, put forward a memorandum in January 1930, calling for the public control of imports and banking as well as an increase in pensions to boost spending power. When this was repeatedly turned down, Mosley resigned from the government in February 1931 and went on to form the New Party, and later the British Union of Fascists after he converted to Fascism.
MacDonald, Snowden and Thomas, however, supported such measures as necessary to maintain a balanced budget and to prevent a run on the Pound sterling, but the proposed cuts split the Cabinet down the middle and the trade unions bitterly opposed them.
MacDonald, Snowden and Thomas were quickly expelled from the Labour Party and subsequently formed a new National Labour Party, but this had little support in the country or the unions.
Great anger in the labour movement greeted MacDonald's move. Mass riots by unemployed people took place in protest in Glasgow and Manchester. Many in the Labour Party viewed this as a cynical move by MacDonald to rescue his career, and accused him of 'betrayal'. MacDonald however, argued that he was sacrificing it for the common good.
Labour's disastrous performance at the 1931 election, greatly increased the bitterness felt by MacDonalds's former colleagues towards him. MacDonald was genuinely upset to see the Labour Party so badly defeated at the election. He had regarded the National Government as a temporary measure, and had hoped to return to the Labour Party.
However his former party now turned against him; in their view MacDonald was a traitor who had brought down an elected Labour government, and nearly destroyed it as a parliamentary force.
With little influence at home, MacDonald involved himself heavily in foreign policy. Assisted by the National Liberal leader and Foreign Secretary John Simon, he continued to lead important British delegations, including the Geneva Disarmament Conference and the Lausanne Conference in 1932, and the Stresa Conference in 1935.
MacDonald was deeply affected by the anger and bitterness caused by the fall of the Labour government. He continued to regard himself as a true Labour man, but the rupturing of virtually all his old friendships left him an isolated figure. Phillip Snowden, a firm believer in free trade, resigned from the government in 1932 following the introduction of tarrifs after the Ottawa agreement. This robbed MacDonald of his only significant political ally.
During 1933 and 1934 MacDonald's health declined, and he became an increasingly ineffective leader as the international situation grew more threatening. His speeches to the House of Commons became increasingly incoherent. One observer noted how "Things... got to the stage where nobody knew what the Prime Minister was going to say in the House of Commons, and, when he did say it, nobody understood it".. His pacifism, which had been widely admired in the 1920s, led Winston Churchill and others to accuse him of failure to stand up to the threat of Adolf Hitler.
MacDonald was aware of his fading powers, and in 1935 he agreed a timetable with Baldwin to stand down as Prime Minister after George V's Silver Jubilee celebrations in May 1935. He resigned on 7 June in favour of Baldwin, and remained in the cabinet, taking the largely honorary post of Lord President vacated by Baldwin.
At the election later in the year MacDonald was defeated at Seaham by Emanuel Shinwell. Shortly after he was elected at a by-election in January 1936 for the Combined Scottish Universities seat, but his physical and mental health collapsed in 1936. A sea voyage was recommended to restore his health, and he died at sea in November 1937. He was buried alongside his wife at Spynie in Morayshire.
MacDonald's expulsion from Labour along with his National Labour Party's coalition with the Conservatives, combined with the decline in his mental powers after 1931, left him a discredited figure at the time of his death and receiving unsympathetic treatment from generations of Labour-inclined British historians.
The events of 1931, with the downfall of the Labour government and his coalition with the Conservatives, led to MacDonald becoming one of the most reviled figures in the history of the Labour Party, with many of his former supporters accusing him of betraying the party he had helped create. Clement Attlee in his autobiography As it Happened (1954) called MacDonald's decision to abandon the Labour government in 1931 "the greatest betrayal in the political history of the country.
It was not until 1977 that he received a supportive biography, when Professor David Marquand, a former Labour MP, wrote Ramsay MacDonald with the stated intention of giving MacDonald his due for his work in founding and building the Labour Party, and in trying to preserve peace in the years between the two world wars. He argued also to place MacDonald's fateful decision in 1931 in the context of the crisis of the times and the limited choices open to him.
Similarly, opinion about the economic decisions taken in the inter-war period (Winston Churchill's decision to return to the Gold Standard in 1925, and MacDonald's desperate efforts to defend it in 1931) is no longer as uniformly hostile as was once the case. In the late 1960s Robert Skidelsky, in his classic account of the 1929-31 government, "Politicians and the Slump", compared the orthodox policies advocated by leading politicians of both parties unfavourably with the more radical, proto-Keynesian measures advocated by Lloyd George and Oswald Mosley. But in the preface to the 1994 edition Skidelsky argues that recent experience of currency crises and capital flight make it hard to be so critical of the politicians who wanted to achieve stability by cutting labour costs and defend the value of the currency.
The central character, Hamer Shawcross, starts as a studious boy in an aspirational working-class family in Ancoats, Manchester; he becomes a socialist activist and soon a career politician, who eventually is absorbed by the upper classes he had begun by combating.
In Muriel Spark's "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie", Ramsay Macdonald is mentioned in passing by the title character to her class on page 44. She is almost caught by the headteacher saying "Mussolino is one of the greatest men in the world, far more so than Ramsay Macdonald". This suggests that Brodie did have some respect for the PM, but not nearly as much as for Mussolini. It could also be seen to suggest that they were of a similar vein, if she thought to compare them.
In the Doctor Who Big Finish audio play Storm Warning, The Doctor and his companion, Charley Pollard, name a creature they captured Ramsay, as Ramsay McDonald was the current Prime Minister for Charley.
In the twenty-fourth episode of Monty Pythons Flying Circus, original footage of Ramsay McDonald entering No. 10 Downing Street is followed by a black and white film of McDonald (played by Michael Palin) doing a striptease, revealing garter belt, suspender and stockings.
MacDonald's unpopularity in the country following his stance against Britain's involvement in the First World War spilled over into his private life. In 1916, he was expelled from the Moray Golf Club in Lossiemouth for supposedly bringing the club into disrepute because of his pacifist views. The manner of his expulsion was regretted by some members but an attempt to re-instate him by a vote in 1924 failed. However a Special General Meeting held in 1929 finally voted for his reinstatement. By this time, MacDonald was Prime Minister for the second time. He felt the initial expulsion very deeply and refused to take up the final offer of membership.
MacDonald also became close to Harriet Cohen one of the world's finest concert pianists. Harriet Cohen and MacDonald were probably lovers in the 1930's as strongly suggested by their many letters. Certainly many people did believe they were lovers and Cohen was often referred to as “the old man’s darling”. The newly published book “Music and Men” by Helen Fry and published by the History Press contains the details of Cohen’s relationship with Ramsey MacDonald and her effort to publicise the plight of the Jews in Germany. Harriet Cohen was able to pass MacDonald direct information about the plight of German Jews from 1933 onwards. Harriet Cohen became very aware of the situation of the Jews in Germany especially through her friendship with Dorothy Thompson and what she saw in Vienna.