This week marks the 94th anniversary of the formation of Britain’s first ever Labour government. Headed by the charismatic highlander Ramsay MacDonald, this ground-breaking administration was overwhelmed in a matter of 9 months. Beset by public scandals relating to the “Red Scare” and the new administration’s supposed links with the Soviet Union, and facing hostility from the Conservative establishment in Parliament, the Civil Service and the Intelligence Services, MacDonald’s government proved to be a flop.
Without a majority in either House of Parliament, the first Labour government was arguably doomed from the outset. However, MacDonald managed to achieve his ultimate aim of proving that the Labour party was capable of responsibly governing Britain. His party would go on to remake the country after 1945 with the heralding in of the post-war consensus where a much enlarged public sector and a greater role for the state in the economy were the order of the day. The result was our National Health Service, and the creation of a much expanded Welfare State.
Ramsay MacDonald’s career was marked by conflicts of conscience and he resigned as leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party in 1914 due to his opposition to the First World War. He came back into office as a Labour Prime Minister in 1929, but once again his administration was overwhelmed by what Harold Macmillan would later term “events.”
The Great Depression struck the second Labour government within a few months of its election, and MacDonald caused a split in his cabinet by following the only solution he knew: to cut public expenditure, especially welfare payments to the unemployed. This necessitated a shift to a “National Government” and a cabinet including Conservatives and Liberals. This controversial move has since been seen as a pragmatic solution to an economic crisis but at the time, it was widely viewed by Labour members as a grotesque betrayal of the cause.
MacDonald remained as Prime Minister until 1935 but as an increasingly powerless and despised figure. Ramsay MacDonald was in many ways a brave trail-blazer for the party that he helped to found, but he was bound by the laws of political gravity as they were in his day. Tragically, he died in 1937, hated by his own party and despised by the Conservatives who had hounded his time in office.
Image: Michael Black