Friday, November 9, 2012

5 Minutes of Biography: Ramsay Macdonald


“I remember when I was a child, being taken to the celebrated Barnum's Circus, which contained an exhibition of freaks and monstrosities, but the exhibit on the programme which I most desired to see was the one described as "The Boneless Wonder". My parents judged that the spectacle would be too demoralising and revolting for my youthful eye and I have waited fifty years, to see The Boneless Wonder sitting on the Treasury Bench.”

- Winston Churchill on Ramsay Macdonald 

By way of personal comment, when I first read the above quote I thought of it as harsh but ultimately just another example of politicians taking part in the cut and thrust of parliamentary abuse. On looking into the background I came to realise that the taunt was both cruel and sad. 

Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill (1875-1965), British Conservative politician and statesman, was Prime Minister 1940-1945 and 1951-1955. Regarded as one of the greatest wartime leaders, he was also during his lifetime a soldier, writer and artist and the recipient of a Nobel Prize in Literature. 

James Ramsay Macdonald (1866-1937) was a British statesman and one of the founders of the Labour Party. MacDonald’s terms as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom were: 

· 1924, the first Labour PM of the UK; 

· 1929-1931, a further Labour Government; 

· 1931-1935, a National Government. 

Elected to Parliament in 1906, Macdonald's pacifist opposition to WW1 made him unpopular and he lost his seat in 1918. Elected again in 1922, he formed a minority Labour Government in 1924 which lasted 9 months until the next general election. 

Returned to government in 1929, the Labour Government was obliged to deal with the effects of the depression. 

Macdonald supported a balanced budget; prevailing thinking was that spending should be reigned in and cuts made. By 1931 a Government committee, supported by a majority of Cabinet and by the Liberals and Conservatives, demanded drastic spending reductions - large public-sector wage cuts and large cuts in public spending (notably in payments to the unemployed). 

Macdonald resigned and formed a National Government with the Conservatives and Liberals. 

Macdonald was expelled from the Labour Party which was badly defeated at the 1931 general election. Macdonald, however, won so convincingly that he achieved the largest mandate ever won by a British Prime Minister at a democratic election. 

Macdonald had initially regarded the formation of a National Government as a temporary measure and that he, a true Labour man, would eventually return to the Labour Party. 

It was not to be. He was viewed as a traitor to both the Labour party and the Labour cause.  

He was hurt by the anger and the bitterness directed at him by former colleagues and others, and by the loss of nearly all his friendships. Conservatives Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain remained in charge of government domestic policy, Macdonald focusing on foreign policy, but increasingly he became only a figurehead. In 1933 and 1934 his physical and mental health declined further, so much so that his speeches in the House of Commons became incoherent. He resigned in favour of Baldwin in 1935 but remained in cabinet, taking Baldwin’s largely honorary, vacated post of Lord President. When Hitler remilitarised the Rhineland in 1936, Macdonald’s pacifist views caused Churchill and others to be critical of his failure to stand up to the threat posed by Hitler. Following a physical and mental collapse, he was encouraged to take a sea cruise but died aboard ship in 1937, aged 71. 

For half a century Macdonald was one of the most hated figures in the Labour Party and within the labour movement. Already discredited at the time of his death because of his departure from the Labour Party, his alliance with opposition parties to form a government and because of his mental and physical collapse, his reputation was further attacked after death by Labour oriented historians. Over the last 25 years there has been a revision, at least by some historians, of Macdonald’s place in history. Those reassessments have pointed out Macdonald’s role in founding and building the Labour Party, his efforts at seeking to preserve peace and his contribution to socialism. Importantly, the economic measures he implemented and sought to maintain to deal with the Great Depression, against the overwhelming thought and orthodoxy of the day, were the same policies that came to be accepted as appropriate in the 1980’s and 1990’s. They were the same policies that governments applied in dealing with the recent global financial crisis. 

Sadly, he knew only that he died unpopular, reviled and hated.

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