Ramsay MacDonald becomes Britain's 1st Labour PM
Ramsay MacDonald, an underdog from the start, was an unlikely prime minister. 19th Century Scottish society was woven together with an austere Presbyterian fabric, and as an illegitimate son of farmer John MacDonald and housemaid Anne Ramsay, he stood at a disadvantage. That he would became the Labour Party’s first prime minister owed much to his socialist principals and adroit electioneering, learned whilst private secretary to Thomas Lough, Liberal MP for West Islington. Reaching the summit of the vertiginous climb of the British parliamentary model, was a statuesque achievement for a humble boy from Lossiemouth .
MacDonald became politically active while living in Bristol . There, he joined the Democratic Federation (soon to be the Social Democratic Foundation). Fundamentalist and radical, his membership billeted him in the leftist sphere of political ideology. Moving to London in 1886, MacDonald saw his radicalism wane. But his socialist principals were cast in granite.
C.L Fitzgerald’s Socialist Union heavily influenced Ramsay MacDonald ’s parliamentary standpoint. This was a more pragmatic stance on socialism, endorsing the Westminster model. MacDonald’s profile soared during his time with Lough. He made connections, alliances with Liberal MPs, pamphleteers and Radical newspapers. As a Fabianist, he would deliver lectures in harmony with Labour’s early leftist manifesto.
Elsewhere, the political topography was changing. This was certainly true of the socialist movement, which was now coalescing round organisations like the TUC’s Labour Electoral Association, and Keir Hardie ’s Independent Labour Party. MacDonald’s positioned himself as potential Labour leader when he was leader of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC). But it wasn’t until 1906 that he won his first seat. His Leicester victory was the product of the Labour/Liberal alliance. Five years later he became leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party.
Life was not easy for MacDonald. His wife died, exerting huge personal strain on him. And in resigning from his position before the onset of the First World War he endured a number of personal attacks – his illegitimacy was seized upon. In 1922, he was once again leader of the party. Labour were now the preeminent opposition to the Conservatives. By 1924, Labour were in power for the first time. It was all too brief, lasting less than a year after scare stories in the press buried the minority government. But MacDonald had proven that his party were fit for purpose. Socialism and leftist politics were now electable.
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