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 Yet MacDonald remained withdrawn emotionally, isolated by the death of his wife Margaret in 1911.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.