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Ramsay MacDonald

MacDonald, Ramsay (James Ramsay McDonald), 1866–1937, British statesman, b. Scotland. The illegitimate son of a servant, he went as a young man to London, where he joined the Social Democratic Federation (1885) and the Fabian Society (1886). He became (1894) a member of the newly formed Independent Labour party and was instrumental in organizing the Labour Representation Committee (later the Labour party), in which he served (1900–1912) as first secretary. MacDonald was elected to Parliament in 1906 and was leader of the Labour party in the House of Commons (1911–14) until he was discredited and labeled a traitor for his pacifist stand at the outbreak of World War I. He lost his seat in Parliament in 1918 but was reelected in 1922 and again chosen to lead the Labour party. In Jan., 1924, he became prime minister and foreign secretary of the first Labour government of Great Britain. Although unemployment benefits were extended, his minority government did not enact strong socialist measures. In foreign affairs, however, MacDonald helped secure acceptance of the Dawes Plan and sponsored the Geneva Protocol (later rejected by the Conservative government), which provided for compulsory arbitration of international disputes. A trade agreement with the Soviet Union and the government's withdrawal of charges against a Communist newspaper editor led to a vote of censure that forced MacDonald to call an election in Oct., 1924. Publication of the Zinoviev Letter (see under Zinoviev, Grigori Evseyevich) helped secure Labour's defeat. In 1929, MacDonald became prime minister in the second Labour government. Again it was a minority government and could not press a socialist program, and its strictly orthodox economic measures proved ineffective against the serious depression. In 1931, when proposed cuts in unemployment benefits split the Labour cabinet, MacDonald agreed to lead a coalition government (the National government), leaning heavily on Conservative support. This action was regarded as apostasy by most of the Labour party, which however was roundly defeated in the election that followed. Never completely trusted by his new Conservative allies, MacDonald was no more than a figurehead in the National government. In 1935 he resigned the prime ministership to Stanley Baldwin and became lord president of the council. He lost his parliamentary seat in the same year but was returned in a by-election and remained in the cabinet until his death. MacDonald's writings include Parliament and Revolution (1920) and Socialism: Critical and Constructive (1924).

See biography by D. Marquand (1977); study by D. Carlton (1970).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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