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Ramsay Macdonald: A Biography [Hardcover]

David Marquand
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

3 Mar 1977
A biography of the first Labour Prime Minister.


Product details

  • Hardcover: 976 pages
  • Publisher: Jonathan Cape Ltd; 1st Edition edition (3 Mar 1977)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0224012959
  • ISBN-13: 978-0224012959
  • Product Dimensions: 23.9 x 16 x 4.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 656,628 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
By MarkK TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
Though a key member of the early Labour Party and its first member to become prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald's reputation has long suffered as a result of the 'great betrayal' of 1931. As a result of his resignation as head of a Labour government and his assumption of the premiership of a National Government he was reviled by party stalwarts as the man who broke his party and went over to the enemy. In this biography, David Marquand sets out to rehabilitate this long-reviled figure and restore him to his proper place in British history, giving him credit for the many accomplishment that were overshadowed by the legacy of his decision.

Born in 1866 to a single mother, young Ramsay grew up in Lossiemouth, a small fishing village in north-eastern Scotland. Excelling in school, he went first to Bristol, then to London, where he was quickly involved in radical politics. Joining the Independent Labour Party in 1894, he rapidly rose in their ranks and became secretary of what would become the Labour Party when it was formed in 1900. As secretary he stressed Labour's shared goals with the Liberal Party, a view that made the "Lib-Lab" electoral pact of 1903 (which paved the way for the party's foothold in the House of Commons in 1906) a natural fit. Marquand gives MacDonald considerable credit for his work in laying the groundwork for the Parliamentary Labour Party in the succeeding years, work that set the stage for Labour's emergence as the primary rival to the Conservatives in the 1920s.

In spite of his prominence, MacDonald nonetheless endangered his career by his opposition to Britain's entry into the First World War, with his stand forcing his resignation as leader of the party.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ramsay MacDonald by David Marquand 18 Feb 2011
Format:Hardcover
One of those biographical gems written with love, care, intelligence and meticulous detail. 795 pages of thoroughly well researched and original material on the life and times of Ramsay MacDonald. It is too easy to dismiss the man with the word 'traitor' after his accomplishments and dedication to the Labour cause. This book reveals the way MacDonald was being boxed in by events, those around him and his own weaknesses. It is a well balanced account of a hugely important politician of 20th Century and is a much needed segment of political history. Marquand writes in a rich style with an eye for bringing the crisp, fresh moments of a misty British epoch to life.
In August 1931, as the economy collapsed, Britain was brought to the brink of bankruptcy with a massive unsustainable budget deficit. MacDonald worked tirelessly for a united Labour Cabinet to implement cuts to stop the haemorrhaging of cash and credit to maintain parity with the gold standard. After being pressured by the King to remain as Prime Minister in spite of the bitter split in the Labour Cabinet over cuts to unemployment benefit, MacDonald felt compelled to stay and form a National Government.
"MacDonald then returned to Downing Street [on 24th August 1931] , taking a copy of this memorandum [a communique drawn up between the political leaders] with him. At noon, the Labour Cabinet met for the last time.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Labour's Lost Leader 29 Oct 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This a superb biography on one of the most talked-about characters of British political history. David Marquand writes a brilliant account in nearly 800 pages of the man who divided a generation, more than once, and the interesting thing is that one still wants to read more.
Perhaps Marquand underestimates the "cussedness" of MacDonald. Those of us who experienced Scottish Presbyterianism at first hand would be less inclined to do so! But it was the "cussedness" that led him to his brave stand against the First World War, although Marquand correctly points out that he was not a coward, he was not even a conscientious objector, for he felt that the struggle should be against German militarism, not the German people. MacDonald saw, more presciently than anyone else, that the important thing was the Peace settlement, which had to be fair - and manifestly was not.
1931 will always be a watershed year in Labour history. In March when Ramsay met the teams at Hampden Park before the Scotland v England international, he was cheered to the echo, as befitted the messianic hero of the Scottish working class. Six months later his fall from grace was absolute, and he can never really be forgiven for what he did. Marquand does give us all the reasons for his actions, including the pressure put upon him from Buckingham Palace, but that would cut little ice in the eyes of those who were condemned to suffer unemployment ("pettifogging indifference" from middle classes as Marquand brilliantly describes it) and would only be rescued by (ironically and indirectly) Adolf Hitler and then the far more benign, determined and positive socialism of Clement Attlee and Nye Bevan.
I took a trip recently to Spynie churchyard on a grim atmospheric Scottish autumn afternoon. The grave is simple and unimpressive.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 5.0 out of 5 stars  1 review
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great biography of a misunderstood Prime Minister 27 Sep 2004
By MarkK - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Though a key member of the early Labour Party and its first member to become prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald's reputation has long suffered as a result of the "great betrayal" of 1931. As a result of his resignation as head of a Labour government and his assumption of the premiership of a National Government he was reviled by party stalwarts as the man who broke his party and went over to the enemy. In this biography, David Marquand sets out to rehabilitate this long-reviled figure and restore him to his proper place in British history, giving him credit for the many accomplishment that were overshadowed by the legacy of his decision.

Born in 1866 to a single mother, young Ramsay grew up in Lossiemouth, a small fishing village in north-eastern Scotland. Excelling in school, he went first to Bristol, then to London, where he was quickly involved in radical politics. Joining the Independent Labour Party in 1894, he rapidly rose in their ranks and became secretary of what would become the Labour Party when it was formed in 1900. As secretary he stressed Labour's shared goals with the Liberal Party, a view that made the "Lib-Lab" electoral pact of 1903 (which paved the way for the party's foothold in the House of Commons in 1906) a natural fit. Marquand gives MacDonald considerable credit for his work in laying the groundwork for the Parliamentary Labour Party in the succeeding years, work that set the stage for Labour's emergence as the primary rival to the Conservatives in the 1920s.

In spite of his prominence, MacDonald nonetheless endangered his career by his opposition to Britain's entry into the First World War, with his stand forcing his resignation as leader of the party. Yet he soon recovered from this setback, as respect for his decision grew in tandem with dissent towards the conflict. By the end of the decade he was reinstalled as the head of the party, where he presided over the supplanting of the fragmented Liberal party as the dominant party of the left and Labour's victory in the 1923 general election. Their plurality in the House of Commons inaugurated the first of MacDonald's two periods as Prime Minister. Marquand gives MacDonald high marks for both his handling of economic issues and his foreign policies, which helped to establish Labour's legitimacy to hold office. Yet MacDonald remained withdrawn emotionally, isolated by the death of his wife Margaret in 1911.

This isolation became even more pronounced with the crisis of 1931. After Labour's defeat in 1924 MacDonald became Prime Minister again in 1929, just as the world's economies were entering the Great Depression. Faced with a falling pound, the government turned to American bankers; when they demanded cuts in public expenditure as the price for saving Britain's currency, the Cabinet refused and MacDonald resigned. He soon returned as the head of a National government comprised of members of all three parties but dominated by the Conservatives. While acknowledging MacDonald's indecisiveness and failures of judgment, Marquand sees the Prime Minister as a beleaguered figure facing pressure to decide and with nobody in whom he could confide. Increasingly little more than a figurehead, he continued to serve as Prime Minister before turning the office over to Stanley Baldwin in 1935 and retiring from public life.

Though published over a quarter century ago, this book remains the definitive work on its subject largely on its strengths. Well written, it uses a considerable quantity of archival material to present a persuasive case for MacDonald as a Labour Party founder and misunderstood Prime Minister. Yet there is little on MacDonald as party administrator, a glaring weakness given Marquand's argument for MacDonald's role in building the party. Nevertheless, this book is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand this key figure in British political history, one whose reputation has suffered for too long from the many myths surrounding it.
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