It is odd to be writing a review of a book written forty years ago, but having been delighted to discover David Marquand’s biography of Ramsay MacDonald, I find it is a half-forgotten profile of a neglected Prime Minister. Political biography continues to be a flourishing industry, but the four inter-war premiers have fallen notably out of fashion. Bonar Law, Baldwin, Chamberlain and MacDonald are to most people – if they have heard of them at all – drab and colourless, unwelcome reminders of a period in our history which is usually written off as a failure. Biographers return again and again to the glittering figures of the High Victorian and Edwardian ages, to the two wartime leaders, and to the familiarity of the postwar giants. So at forty years old, this is the most recent full biography I have found of MacDonald, and the other inter war leaders have fared just as badly. Even the lesser inter war figures – Curzon, Halifax, Simon, Samuel – have been profiled both well and more recently. Bonar Law was memorably described as the forgotten Prime Minister. I think that’s unfair. In cabinet office or leader of the opposition for the decade before he got to No 10, he is a familiar figure in any history of the period. MacDonald is, to me, far less well known. In large part, this is because there is nobody to wave the flag on his behalf. His reputation was destroyed by being on history’s losing side in that calamitous Labour split of 1931, which makes it all the more brave of Marquand to have written this book. It is worth considering the timing. The book came out in 1977, forty years after MacDonald finally left office. So this is broadly the equivalent of publishing today a biography of Harold Wilson. Many readers will have remembered the subject ands more than a smattering of his associates would have been alive. I have no idea of the contemporary reception, but I would guess that the book was viewed in the context of Labour’s woes in the late seventies, and Marquand’s not insignificant role in that. This would be a shame. This is a sympathetic biography, but it is a well-balanced, warts and all portrayal. The book quotes extensively from MacDonald’s writings, and the effect is to allow the genuine voice to come through. The reader here can well understand the subject, which is the purpose of a biography, and far from always achieved. The book is very thorough, tackling its subject at length, a hefty 789 pages of text (and that’s not counting notes and an index). That is about 50% longer than John Bew’s recent Attlee, and it shows, with none of the gaps of the latter, and about the same length as say Andrew Roberts’ Salisbury (though he had to cover there a far longer career in office). It is on a par with Ben Pimlott’s Wilson– the highest praise – as a highly detailed, very readable, meticulously researched one volume biography. I am surprised to have some across this so late, especially as I have a number of Professor Marquand’s books on my shelves already, but I am very glad at last to have done so. I wish it had a wider availability and I am pleased to recommend it.
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. Yet I felt myself in the presence of greatness. I had been helped to understand Ramsay a great deal better by David Marquand's biography, but I still empathised with my grandfather's repeated truism "Ramsay MacDonald, Ramsay MacDonald, why did you forsake us?". David Potter
Purchased as a gift. Arrived quickly and in good condition for the money. I have no idea what it's about - I'll leave that to others - but my father was very happy and found it a good, informative read.
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. MacDonald announced that the King would invite certain individuals, as individuals, to take on the burden of carrying on the Government; that he had not failed to present the case against his taking part in such a Government; but that 'in view of the gravity of the situation he had felt that there was no other course open to him that to assist in the formation of a National Government on a comprehensive basis for the purpose of meeting the present emergency.' According to Passfield [Secretary of State for the Colonies], 'He announced this very well, with a great feeling, saying that he knew the cost, but could not refuse the King's request, that he would doubtless be denounced and ostracised, but could do no other. We uttered polite things, but accepted silently the accomplished fact'. And so what was intended to be a short temporary arrangement of a National Government until the crisis was resolved turned into an irrevocable split with MacDonald and his small number of Labour allies expelled rapidly from the Labour Party and then MacDonald winning the resultant general election. The wounds were deep and vicious and MacDonald was physically and mentally broken by the ordeal. He had a choice and his fate was to be damned in history, but he did what he thought was right and ultimately the country benefited (and the Labour Party badly damaged) from his leadership. Marquand's account is the definitive biography of Ramsay MacDonald (unless new material is found) and is a superb piece of the political jigsaw to the Labour Party and 20th Century British Government as well as to the man.