Guest Author - Asha Sahni
Ramsay MacDonald, the first Labour Prime Minister, was born in 1866 in Lossiemouth, Morayshire, Scotland. Lossiemouth has in modern times been home to a Royal Air Force (RAF) base which has been in the news due to potential closure/contraction in light of the economic downturn.
Ramsay MacDonald presided over a troubled time in UK history, facing issues that many politicians today may recognise and identify with. He was an unusual man – illegitimate, interested in homeopathy, accepting financial support from his wife to allow him to advance his political career, anti-war and leader of a coalition government which struggled to stabilise or flourish.
MacDonald was the son of a maid and a crofter. He taught whilst still a pupil at the local board school he attended (common for students of the time who did not have the resources of their wealthier peers).
He moved to England at the age of 18. In Bristol he worked for a short time as a clergyman’s assistant and whilst there became a member of the Social Democratic Foundation. At the time the Bristol Homeopathic Dispensary/Hospital was developing, and during Ramsay MacDonald’s life/career several of his friends and colleagues (including King George V) were interested in homeopathic medicine.
In London MacDonald started to work his way in to national politics. He joined the Independent Labour Party in 1894 and stood as their candidate for Southampton. His party gained few votes in the General Election of 1895. He met Margaret MacDonald, his future wife, at a political meeting. They married in 1897 and had six children. Margaret had a private income, and this helped support her family, giving them the freedom to travel and pursue political aspirations.
Ramsay MacDonald was involved in the formation of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC ) a new party focused on trade union and socialist principles. As a member of the LRC he won a seat for Leicester in the 1906 General Election. He became Chairman of the Labour Party in 1911 but found his views challenged, particularly his reluctance to support the events that led up to the First World War, and resigned as Party leader. He became Labour leader again in 1922.
MacDonald became Prime Minister in 1924 when he was asked by the king to take over from a failing Conservative government - his first reign lasted under a year, for he lost the election he called early in his term. He returned to power in 1929, when he faced issues which contemporary politicians would recognise – worldwide recession, an urgent need to cut public expenditure and review welfare benefits. The difficulties he faced resulted in a divided cabinet, and MacDonald turned to the other parties to help form a new coalition government. Many in his party felt betrayed by this move and, recognising his loss of support, he resigned in 1935. MacDonald died two years later.