Ramsay MacDonald
Ramsay MacDonald; drawing by David Levine

A British political party has no chance of success if its leadership appears to be weak. The Liberals after Gladstone’s retirement, the Tories under Balfour, the Labour Party under Gaitskell, harassed as he was by an ever-growing alliance of left-wingers and fellow travelers, all languished in the wilderness because too many of the faithful felt unable to rally with enthusiasm behind the leadership. Yet in the Labour movement loyalty to the leadership, based as it was on the knowledge that unquestioning solidarity alone brought results in trade union disputes, became part of the mythology of the party. Despite the contending groups in 1900 when the party began to form, despite the bitter struggle between the syndicalist and revolutionary wing and the social democratic groups between 1911 and 1926 (the year of the General Strike), appeals at party conferences to loyalty prevented the party from splintering if only because the delegates knew that the British electoral system does not reward politicians who put unyielding adherence to principles before the compromises which hold all large parties together.

Precisely because left-wing politics are ideological, loyalty to the leadership was all the more important. British socialists in the first half of this century were agreed that equality and common ownership of the means of production were essential if the lot of the poor was to be improved and each man was to be assured a fair share of the products of his labor. The founding fathers of the Labour Party learned from Marx and from the Fabians that the power of capitalists had to be shorn: but how was this to be done in order to bring about equality and a classless society? Some wanted to destroy capitalism by strikes. Others were guild socialists and wanted to decentralize government and bring about worker’s control by evolutionary means. The Fabians wanted to make capitalism less wasteful and inefficient and believed this could be done by the nationalization of industries. All were internationalists and anti-imperialists: numbers of them were pacifists.

The man who brought these conflicting groups together and by his own magnetism formed the first and second Labour government was Ramsay MacDonald. From the time that he displaced Keir Hardie as the leader of the party, he managed with extraordinary skill to hold it together and reduced breakaway movements such as the Social Democratic Federation to the status of fringe groups. He won recognition of the infant party by forging an alliance with the Liberals when they were strong, and when they were weak he induced them to give Labour parliamentary support so that he was able to form two governments. He linked the party indissolubly to the trade union movement even though it fought against his policies on more than one occasion. This was not done by time-serving. Indeed, in the First World War MacDonald was a pacifist and after twelve years in the House of Commons lost his seat in the general election which Lloyd George adeptly called when the armistice was announced.

But such was MacDonald’s power as an orator, such was his skill as a profuse pamphleteer, such was his ability to appeal, and indeed to enter into the minds of so many of the disaffected groups in the country in the years of the postwar depression, that he was able to become again the leader of the worthy, drab, or eccentric members of the parliamentary Labour Party. In the Twenties his power over it was unchallenged. Yet in the mythology of the party he remains, and will continue to remain, the betrayer of the movement, the arch-scab, the snob seduced by marchionesses and high society, the man who treacherously went over to the enemy, who formed the National government in 1931 and broke his party by so doing.

Or will he so remain? David Marquand, a Labour MP and son of a stalwart Labour minister, who has now left the House of Commons to become a commissioner in the EEC in Brussels, has for long been writing this biography. The length shows it. The book is 800 pages long (300 fewer than the definitive biography of Baldwin). Nothing could be more just, more encyclopedic, more accurate. There is no attempt to whitewash, but no chance is lost to explain. On even the minutest issue of ward politics, Marquand sets the record straight, and purely as a compendium of Labour Party history his biography would earn honor. He does not attempt to excuse MacDonald’s vanity, touchiness, aloofness from his colleagues, suspicion of possible intrigues. After the death of his wife in 1911 he was always a lonely man, a Highlander who sorrowed alone: the upper-class women who took him up later, so Marquand argues convincingly, never seduced him physically or mentally. Nor are we left in any doubt about the pettiness, or instability, or impracticality of most of his colleagues. The verdict is that he did about as well as could be expected.


Nor can anyone doubt that on the main issue of the betrayal of 1931 Marquand’s account is virtually unassailable. When the crisis blew up, and American bankers as the price for saving the pound demanded deflation of the British economy and immediate cuts in public expenditure including in particular a reduction in unemployment relief, the “dole,” MacDonald in theory had the option of going off the gold standard. Keynes privately advised him to do so. The Treasury, the Bank of England, the City, and all the Labour leaders were opposed. MacDonald himself had for long been convinced that cuts in public expenditure were necessary and that unbalanced budgets would lead to bankruptcy. The “bankruptcy” of Germany which had precipitated the run on sterling appeared to him to be a cowardly escape from reality as well as a wicked blow at the international order in which he believed and which Germany’s decision to repudiate its debts had undermined. Again, although Ernest Bevin and Walter Citrine for the Trades Union Congress were later to argue for abandoning parity, they did not take that stand when they met MacDonald for a crucial meeting on August 20. MacDonald’s original plans for dealing with the crisis should in theory have had the full support of his colleagues. But as the crisis deepened, and the terms of support for the pound became stiffer, MacDonald could not carry his colleagues in Cabinet with him. He reluctantly concluded that he would have to resign.

It was at this point that the influence of the king began to be felt. George V appealed to MacDonald in each of three meetings to form a National government—not a coalition but an administration of all men of good will—to see the country through the crisis. It was intended to be a mere interim affair. Marquand admits that vanity played its part in MacDonald’s compliance to this appeal: but so did patriotism, duty, and self-respect. He accepted the call. Practically all his former colleagues went into opposition. To MacDonald they were cowards who reneged on what only a few days before they had accepted as inevitable. Then the crisis worsened: Britain went off the gold standard. The Labour Party voted to expel all those who supported the National government, and more fatally the National government—in reality the Conservative and Liberal parties with the handful of Labourites who followed MacDonald—decided to go to the country.

This was the very course of action which, six week previously, MacDonald had promised he would never do. So there he was, in a country with 3 million unemployed and a perturbed and bewildered electorate, fighting an election against his own party which had given him for years a very special personal allegiance. In the election MacDonald pulverized his own party. It won only forty-six seats and polled only 6,600,000 votes against the 14,500,000 votes of the National parties. Thereafter, he was reviled by his old party and became more and more the prisoner, as he well knew, of the Conservatives. He was now well into his sixties. His power began to fail, his speeches became incoherent and absurd. But he clung to power. Eventually he resigned the premiership to Baldwin, and after barely eighteen months died worn out and cast off by his old friends and foes alike. Perhaps he was luckier than Baldwin, who lived to hear the hiss of the world in his ears during the war which he was supposed to have brought about by his indolence.

Every summary of MacDonald’s life always centers upon this episode in his career—and rightly so, because, more than any other event, it became the cornerstone of Labour Party ideology. The myth took the form of a gallant and beleaguered working-class government which international capitalists regarded as too dangerous to continue to exist. It was therefore destroyed by a “banker’s ramp”; but its destruction could never have been effected but for the fact that it was destroyed from within by the treachery of its own leader, who tricked the British people into voting for a coalition, having first been fooled into believing that only by implementing the right-wing measures of deflation could the country be “saved.”

This reading of history molded the thinking of Labour politicians ever since. Distrust of the leadership after MacDonald became engrained. Most of their leaders who held office in 1945 wanted to continue the wartime coalition; but the party executive was firm and the resounding victory Labour won confirmed them in their judgment. So was the distrust of any financial measures which appeared to strike at the benefits of the welfare state. The familiar charge of betrayal was heard every time Stafford Cripps introduced more austerity measures after the war. So too after Gaitskell’s proposal to cut public expenditure by introducing charges for medicine under the Health Service. Harold Wilson’s refusal to devalue the pound until 1967 has become again a symbol of the leadership being trapped by Treasury orthodoxy. “Revisionism” began to assume the same overtones of treachery as it does in communist language, and “Keep Left” became the slogan that it was prudent for a young member of parliament to adopt.


Attlee reassured the party because he was so palpably the antithesis of a MacDonald. He totally lacked star appeal or rhetoric: yet he was astonishingly tough and had the tough men of the parties and trade unions on his side. But Gaitskell was always under attack from those who scented betrayal whether of the party’s international stance (which meant opposition to the bomb and to America) or of further nationalization. Harold Wilson came to power as the one man who could hold the party together. He was determined that the left should never throw against him the charge of MacDonaldism. The price was enervation of the party’s discipline, the disintegration of the old center block consisting in former times of three quarters of the parliamentary party, the growth of power in the party’s national executive and among its constituency activists.

Just as the theory of balanced budgets was discarded, so now Keynesian economics has become an old orthodoxy to be discarded. A new economic doctrine has begun to emerge in which the United Kingdom should go it alone and “follow the example of Sweden”: it should quit the European community, throw up tariff barriers behind which to re-equip its obsolescent industrial plant, discover new sources of cheap food, and nationalize not just industries but the whole financial complex of the country so that investment can be directed where it is needed and not where the investor thinks he can get the best return. Ministers who are Eurocrats, or refer to the balance of payments, or advertise their belief in a “mixed economy,” are to be regarded as potential MacDonalds. The present Lib-Lab pact, which alone keeps a Labour government in office, is detested by the left and only tolerated as a device that will enable the government to survive long enough for the revenues from North Sea oil to strengthen the pound, sanctioning large increases in wages, which it is believed will increase the falling standard of living of unionized labor. So it probably will—at any rate for six months.

All Labour governments, therefore, fall under the shadow of the Great Betrayal. They start in 1945, 1964, or 1974 by fervently implementing the party’s manifesto and rejoicing the hearts of the faithful. Then as the economy becomes overheated by overspending and overmanning, the government, responding to the political pressures of the West, is accused of operating another betrayal. The IMF become the bogey men that the American bankers were in 1931 (only much less tough). In a sense it is idle to speculate whether the left of the Labour Party is right or wrong. The trade union movement is divided against itself on the issues of worker participation in management and maintenance of substantial differentials between skilled and unskilled workers. The two-party system gives positive shape to the belief that there are alternative economic and governmental strategies. No Conservative ever refers to Labour—they always call their opponents the Socialists. For Labour supporters, Tories have the same evil name and intentions as they had in 1931. It is of course possible to believe that the two-party system is now going to be modified by the emergence of nationalist parties, particularly in Scotland. But this would do no more than intensify the divisions in Britain over how to run the economy and manage the country. Traditionally regarded by other nations as the most united and consensus-minded people, the United Kingdom today is in fact the most disunited in Europe where its own future is concerned.

Perhaps I am ungenerous in recalling Namier’s view that political biography may be history’s worst enemy. Somehow the Recording Angel’s verdict in the enormous volumes in which the British political leaders of this century are now being entombed is always the same. “He was a man of some virtues and many failings, but he did about as well as could be expected if you examine his life as a whole and the men and women he had to deal with.” Biographies such as that of David Marquand suffer from the very scrupulousness in putting every incident in their hero’s life into perspective. They obscure the sweep of events. It is like looking at Michelangelo’s Last Judgment through a magnifying glass. The supporting figures are out of focus: a figure as important as that of Arthur Henderson, the party leader who served both as home and foreign secretary during the 1920s, never emerges clearly and is not assessed: and yet he was the ablest of MacDonald’s colleagues and some would consider him superior.

But, far more important, the grand design is lost. Thanks to the researches of economic historians we have a pretty fair idea what happened to the British economy and hence to its class structure during this century. No one man can reverse the impersonal forces in history, and the decline of British power and prestige is the result of these forces and also of the changes, or lack of change, in the morality, spirit, and collective consciousness of the British people. But one man can give the impersonal forces a twist, even a check, and can deflect the trend of events. Churchill did so in 1940. Perhaps de Gaulle did so in France then and again more forcibly in the Fifties.

It is also sobering to reflect that the greatest prime ministers in this and the last century all split their parties. It was MacDonald’s tragedy that, whereas Peel was right to do so over the price of corn, and Gladstone arguably right over Irish Home Rule, and Lloyd George right to seize the direction of the war from Asquith, MacDonald was not right to split his party in 1931. He could, and did, justify every step he took during that year as being in accordance with common sense and duty. Unfortunately for him he presided over the fortunes of the Labour Party at a time when it could govern only in cooperation with the Liberals, and when the leaders of the West were almost without exception incapable of understanding how to handle the financial crisis of that time, a failure which led everywhere to mass unemployment and disillusion with parliamentary democracy.

This Issue

October 27, 1977