Ramsay MacDonald

British statesman; prime minister of the United Kingdom (1866-1937)

Ramsay MacDonald (12 October 18669 November 1937) was a British statesman who was the first ever Labour Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, leading a Labour Government in 1924, a Labour Government from 1929 to 1931, and a National Government from 1931 to 1935.

Ramsay MacDonald



  • Mr. Rockefeller not only owns the Standard Oil supplies: he controls the railways, the banks, the shops...upon which his Trust depends. The Steel Corporation not only makes steel; it owns coal and iron fields, ore steamers, the Erie and Pittsburgh mineral railway, as well as the operatives in Homestead. We oppose the Trust, not as an organisation, but because it is controlled by individuals for their own ends...But the Trust points out the line of British advance. In this country, however, the introduction of the Trust should be marked by public ownership.
    • The Zollverein and British Industry (1903), pp. 159-160
  • Factory Laws, Fair Wages resolutions, Trade Unionism itself, are...all Protection - not the Protection of Mr. Chaplin, the landlord, nor of Mr. Chamberlain, the demagogue, but the Protection of the Socialist.
    • The Zollverein and British Industry (1903), p. 164
  • Lower forms merge into higher forms, one species with another, the vegetable into the animal kingdom; in human history one epoch slides into another...Socialism, the stage which follows Liberalism, retains everything of value in Liberalism by virtue of its being the hereditary heir of Liberalism.
    • Socialism and Society (1905), pp. 164-165
  • He had been across the veldt, he had seen the battlefields, the still open trenches, and it all came to Chinese labour. They were told it was going to release the slaves, the Uitlanders, to open up South Africa to a great flood of white emigrants. They were told it was going to plant the Union Jack upon the land of the free. But the echoes of the muskets had hardly died out on the battlefields, the ink on the treaty was hardly dry, before the men who plotted the war began to plot to bring in Chinese slaves. (Cheers.) They could talk about their gold; their gold is tainted. (Hear, hear.) They could talk about employing white men; it was not true, and even if it were true, was he going to stand and see his white brothers degraded to the position of yellow slave drivers? No, he was not. (Loud and continued cheers.) These patriots! These miserable patriots! If they had had the custodianship of the opinions of the country 75 years ago, slavery in the colonies would have continued. When the north was fighting the south for the liberty of men, these men would have counted their guineas, would have told them how many white men had plied the lash in the southern states, and they would have said that for miserable cash, miserable trash, the great name of the country required to be bought and sold. Thank God there were no twentieth century Unionist imperialists in office then. (Loud cheers.)
    • Leicester Daily Mercury (6 January 1906)
  • Of the Budget as a whole, I say "Bravo". I am going to support it through thick and thin.


  • Mr. Lloyd George will not resign on anything anti-German. He is anti-German, and the trust which the reasonable Peace people place in him is altogether misplaced.
    • 'From Green Benches', Leicester Pioneer (20 July 1911)
"Lower forms merge into higher forms, one species with another, the vegetable into the animal kingdom; in human history one epoch slides into another...Socialism, the stage which follows Liberalism, retains everything of value in Liberalism by virtue of its being the hereditary heir of Liberalism."
  • When Sir Edward Grey failed to secure peace between Germany and Russia, he worked deliberately to involve us in the war, using Belgium as his chief excuse.
    • Leicester Pioneer (7 August 1914), quoted in The Times (18 January 1924), p. 14
  • The only reason from beginning to end is that our foreign office is anti-German and that the Admiralty was anxious to seize any opportunity for using the Navy in battle practice. ... Never did we arm our people and ask them to give us their lives for less good cause than this.
    • Leicester Pioneer (7 August 1914), quoted in The Times (9 April 1918), p. 8 and The Times (18 January 1924), p. 14
  • Might and spirit will win and incalculable political and social consequences will follow upon victory. Victory must therefore be ours. England is not played out. Her mission is not accomplished. She can, if she would, take the place of esteemed honour among the democracies of the world, and if peace is to come with healing on her wings the democracies of Europe must be her guardians...History, will, in due time, apportion the praise and the blame, but the young men of the country must, for the moment, settle the immediate issue of victory. Let them do it in the spirit of the brave men who have crowned our country with honour in times that have gone. Whoever may be in the wrong, men so inspired will be in the right. The quarrel was not of the people, but the end of it will be the lives and liberties of the people. Should an opportunity arise to enable me to appeal to the pure love of country - which I know is a precious sentiment in all our hearts, keeping it clear of thought which I believe to be alien to real patriotism - I shall gladly take that opportunity. If need be I shall make it for myself. I wish the serious men of the Trade Union, the Brotherhood and similar movements to face their duty. To such it is enough to say 'England has need of you'; to say it in the right way. They will gather to her aid. They will protect her when the war is over, they will see to it that the policies and conditions that make it will go like the mists of a plague and shadows of a pestilence.
    • Letter to the Mayor of Leicester, declining to speak at a recruitment meeting (September 1914), quoted in David Marquand, Ramsay MacDonald (Metro, 1997), p. 175
  • Let us understand what we are out for. I say unhesitatingly...I say perfectly definitely that this country, if it retains any shred of honour at all, cannot accept a peace unless peace is forced upon it which means the sacrifice of Belgian sovereignty to any extent. If Germany imagines that there is any section of this country that is prepared to accept peace at the sacrifice of any portion—and I emphasise this—not merely of Belgian sovereignty, but of any portion of it, then the sooner German public opinion is disabused of that delusion the better.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (24 May 1916)
  • In youth one believes in democracy, later on, one has to accept it.
  • Were I a German Minister I should sign [the Treaty of Versailles] only after making it clear that my signature was obtained under compulsion and that the provisions were such that I could not guarantee they would be carried out.
    • Forward (25 June 1919), quoted in Quintin Hogg, The Left was Never Right (1945), p. 31


  • Felt the virtues of the Victorian times so condemned by Mr Strachey. The simple honesties can always be made a butt by the impish unrealiabilites.
    • Diary entry (23 April 1921), quoted in David Marquand, Ramsay MacDonald (Metro, 1997), p. 246. MacDonald was reading Strachey's biography of Queen Victoria. He finished the book two days later and wrote in his diary that he was relieved that Strachey "enmeshed in Victoria's virtues & the real drama of her last phase. As a good Victorian I shd. like to let myself loose upon him. A psychological study of unusual interest" (Marquand, p. 246)
  • We will endeavour to unite the whole country in opposing French aggression. ... We cannot stand by and allow the resources of Germany to be deteriorated by French action. The British occupation of the Rhine, if it is part of the French policy, cannot be allowed to continue.
  • The policy of Great Britain is not the policy of alliances with any certain set of nations. It is a policy of friendship with those nations that believe in democratic forms of government and democratic development. The policy of Great Britain now is, and must be, and will be, that all nations in good will, in singleness, and in disinterestedness of heart will meet together, consider the great problems of Europe and the problems of the whole world, and agree, as the result of cooperation, discussion, and joint exchange of opinion, on a common policy which will make alliances absolutely a thing of the past.
    • Address to the German Reichstag (15 October 1928), quoted in The Times (16 October 1928), p. 15
  • [I]f we lose our chance now...that chance will not return either to us or to our children. The memories of the last War will grow dim. The world will get back into the old rut, familiar professions and piety about peace will again soothe us to sleep, and the various countries will once more base their security upon military preparation. So they will all, in the end, find themselves drifting hopelessly upon those currents that make for war. ... And remember what the next war will be like. The old lines which divide combatants from non-combatants, the weak and the diseased from the strong and the robust, men from women and children, will all be obliterated and civilization itself assailed, and from sea and sky will be brought to a heap of ruins.
    • Speech at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester (24 May 1929), quoted in David Marquand, Ramsay MacDonald (Metro, 1997), p. 487
  • I am so much concerned for the quiet development of industry, the peaceful mind and confidence both at home and abroad, that I will use every ounce of influence I have to prevent another election for the next two years. ... I wish to make it quite clear that I am going to stand for no monkeying.
    • Statement to a London correspondent of the Associated Press (1 June 1929), quoted in The Literary Digest, Volume 101 (1929), p. 14 and Current History, Volume 30 (1929), p. 660


  • The day is coming when we may have to give up orthodox free trade as we inherited it from our fathers.
    • Remark to J. H. Thomas (14 January 1930), quoted in Thomas Jones, Whitehall Diary, Volume II: 1926–1930 (Oxford University Press, 1969), p. 235
  • [The Kellog Pact is] a mighty moral bulwark against war - and we must never underestimate the effectiveness of moral bulwarks with no bayonet nor bludgeon behind them. The entry of the United States into the Permanent Court of International Justice, the growing confidence in the court, and the increase in the number of nations who have signed the Optional Clause mark definite and, I believe, irrevocable steps in the displacement of military power by judicial process in the settlement of international disputes. Public servants like us will fail in our duty if we do not diminish military power in proportion to the increase of political security...I dare affirm that, in the naval programme of the leading naval powers, there is a margin between real security needs and actual or projected strength, and the world expects this Conference to eliminate that margin.
    • Speech as chairman of the London Naval Conference (January 1930), quoted in David Marquand, Ramsay MacDonald (Metro, 1997), p. 510
  • All this humbug of curing unemployment by Exchequer grants is one of the most superficial and ill considered proposals that has ever been foisted upon the Party. There is no more Socialism in it than there was in the cup of tea that I had at breakfast this morning.
    • Letter to Walton Newbold (2 June 1930), quoted in David Marquand, Ramsay MacDonald (Metro, 1997), p. 538
  • If we refuse...what are the prospects? Repression, and nothing but repression, and it is a very uncomfortable repression; a kind of repression from which we shall get neither credit nor success. It is the repression of the masses of the people, the great proportion of these masses being women and children. It is the repression not of organisations and not of bodies; it will develop into the repression of the whole of the population. ... If, on the other hand, you wish to bind India to you by bonds of confidence, to make her happy within your Empire and Commonwealth, if you wish to hear her praise you in gratitude and remain with you in pride, then accept the work that has been done by the Conference, and instruct the Government to proceed with it to a complete conclusion.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (26 January 1931) on Indian constitutional reform
  • We are going to Geneva determined, by persuasion, by arguments, by appeals to what has been written, appeals to measures already taken, appeals to history, appeals to common sense, to get the nations of the world to join in and reduce this enormous, disgraceful burden of armaments which we are now bearing from one end of the world to the other.
    • Speech in the Royal Albert Hall, London, in support of the aims of the Disarmament Conference in Geneva (11 July 1931), quoted in The Times (13 July 1931), p. 14
  • The Socialist Movement in this country is going to rack and ruin, because it is being controlled by people who are nothing more than critics of the Government, inspired by the idea that all you have to do is to hand out largesse to the community. All sense of principle, of communal organisation, and of service given with one's whole heart to the community, has gone and we are in danger of drifting into a Poor Law frame of mind.
    • Letter to Captain Bennett (8 August 1931), quoted in David Marquand, Ramsay MacDonald (Metro, 1997), p. 609
  • If we yield now to the TUC we shall never be able to call our bodies or souls or intelligences our own.
    • Diary entry (22 August 1931) after the TUC rejected cuts in public spending, quoted in David Marquand, ‘MacDonald, (James) Ramsay (1866–1937)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2009.
  • Yes, to-morrow every Duchess in London will be wanting to kiss me!
    • MacDonald to Philip Snowden the day after the formation of the National government (c. 25 August 1931), quoted in Philip Snowden, An Autobiography. Volume Two: 1919-1934 (1934), p. 987
  • The desolation of loneliness is terrible. Was I wise? Perhaps not, but it seemed as though anything else was impossible.
    • Notebook entry (27 December 1932) on his estrangement from the Labour Party, quoted in David Marquand, ‘MacDonald, (James) Ramsay (1866–1937)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2009
  • You are faced with the problem of what to do in respect to this question, to that question, and to the other question, but perfectly obviously, after you have faced the more superficial aspects of the separate questions, you want to know in relation to a complete plan what you are actually giving and what you are actually getting. Therefore, when the departmental, or compartmental, exploration has gone on to a certain extent it cannot be finished until somebody, co-ordinating all your problems, sets out in one statement and declaration the complete scheme that this Conference can pass in order to give security, to give disarmament, to give hope to the future–until that scheme has been placed before you, you cannot complete your examination of compartmental problems and questions...
  • The channels of world trade are so obstructed by the pursuit of nationalist economic policy that steps should be taken at once to make it possible to arrive at an international economic agreement which would revive international trade. A return to free trade pure and simple would only increase unemployment.
    • Speech to the National Labour conference at Caxton Hall, London (28 October 1935), quoted in The Times (29 October 1935), p. 9
  • This nation ought to be quipped to defend itself and to fulfil its responsibility under the League system of mutual assistance in the event of an aggressor coming to threaten us all. A defenceless Britain at this stage of evolution will not be an aid to peace but an incentive to war. But we must watch very closely lest the acceptance of the responsibility to prepare for defence may lead to a policy of militarism for its own sake. We draw this distinction and will continue to observe it.
    • Speech to the National Labour conference at Caxton Hall, London (28 October 1935), quoted in The Times (29 October 1935), p. 9
  • That blot on the peace of the world, the Treaty of Versailles, is vanishing, and for that I am thankful. ... France has again had a severe lesson, and I hope it will take it this time. In any event the folly of pandering to it by standing rigidly to the letter of Versailles or Locarno...must now be plain and this logical and legalistic nation should be brought to face reality.
    • Diary entry (8 March 1936) in response to the remilitarisation of the Rhineland, quoted in Stephen A. Schuker, 'France and the Remilitarization of the Rhineland, 1936', French Historical Studies, Vol. 14, No. 3 (Spring, 1986), p. 314

Quotes about MacDonaldEdit

  • What is the Prime Minister going to do? I spoke the other day, after he had been defeated in an important division about his wonderful skill in falling without hurting himself. He falls, but up he comes again, smiling, a little dishevelled but still smiling. But this is a juncture, a situation, which will try to the fullest the peculiar arts in which he excites. I remember when I was a child, being taken to the celebrated Barnum's Circus which contained an exhibition of freaks and monstrosities, but the exhibit on the programme which I most admired to see was the one described as "The Boneless Wonder". My parents judged that that spectacle would be too revolting and demoralizing for my youthful eyes, and I have waited fifty years to see the boneless wonder sitting on the Treasury Bench.
    • Winston Churchill in the House of Commons (28 January 1931), quoted in Martin Gilbert, Prophet of Truth. Winston S. Churchill. 1922-1939 (Minerva, 1990), p. 389, n. 1
  • The Gladstone of Labour.
    • Patrick Dollan, New Leader (17 October 1924), quoted in Keith Middlemas, The Clydesiders: A Left Wing Struggle for Parliamentary Power (1965), p. 179
  • He was a much more considerable man than it is now the fashion to admit. He was one of the creators, if not the chief architect, of the Labour Party. He brought it from a small membership in the House of Commons to a position in which it was able to hold office, not without credit...on two separate occasions. ... His actions in 1931, by which he destroyed his own creation and doomed the Labour Party to a long eclipse, naturally caused intense bitterness among his old colleagues. But the formation of the National Government resulted from real devotion to what he sincerely believed to be the interests of the State. ... He cannot be blamed for accepting what was the unequivocal view of almost all the leading experts as to what had to be done. ... The only difference between MacDonald and those who deserted him is that he had the courage to follow the advice which he believed to be sound, while they shrank from the unpopularity of policies which they themselves admitted to be necessary. ... If in his last years MacDonald sank into a woolly confusion of mind and language, the achievements of his life, taken as a whole, are by no means negligible.
  • In the House of Commons once he was not in very good form. He tended to hesitate and repeat himself. I'd never heard him quite so bad ever before. And Jimmy Maxton stood up and said: "Sit down, man, you're a bloody tragedy." You could have heard a pin drop; you could have heard a feather move.
  • Ramsay MacDonald has a front-bench mind. Years ago I tried to get him taken into the Ministry, but others thought otherwise.
    • John Morley's remarks to John Hartman Morgan (September 1914), quoted in J. H. Morgan, John, Viscount Morley: An Appreciation and Some Reminiscences (1924), p. 80
  • [I]n the slums of the manufacturing towns and in the hovels of the countryside he has become a legendary being—the personification of all that thousands of downtrodden men and women hope and dream and desire. Like Lenin...he is the focus of the mute hopes of a whole class.
  • We commemorate a man, a leader, who in the years of creation and achievement towered above his contemporaries in figure and manner, in voice and power, who worked and fought, and who suffered—as they all suffered who dared to preach socialism in an unreceptive and hostile age. He was a man who had vision, and dared all in those years to make that vision a reality; a man who inspired affection in his associates as in his own domestic circle, and who, daring all, created a lasting and durable political instrument which today 60 years after its first political success, provides the Government of this country and in so providing owes more than many are prepared to admit to the young Ramsay MacDonald.
    • Harold Wilson, speech at a luncheon in the House of Commons to commemorate the centenary of Ramsay MacDonald's birth (12 October 1966), quoted in The Times (13 October 1966), p. 12
  • Ramsay was a simpler character than Baldwin, though he did not look it. He too was complicated, but not by S. B.'s desire to seem plain. A 'blend of cosmopolitan distinction and Scottish sense', Harold Nicolson called him, and no greater contrast with his predecessor could have been penned...the key to him was the commonest in human nature—illusion, our stick and carrot. He had an overdose of incentive and I wished him joy of it, though joy he never got...Ramsay really was persuaded with H. G. Wells that 'our true nationality is mankind'...He really did believe that men were naturally good, that they could be brought into line though they looked like horses at a starting-gate for ever facing opposite ways and savaging each other. He had faith in every panacea...He really did hope that politics were a glittering but not endless adventure, especially in foreign affairs where he trusted to magic solutions round green baize...He really did believe that the grumpy wurrld found felicity by its firesides—he overdid firesides—and that he could make it happier still by catching it there. He really did persuade himself, especially on his feet, that we have some appointment with a star, and would rise to it by better ways than class-war, which he called 'pre-socialist and pre-scientific'...In short and in his own words he held that we were eternally moving in a surge toward righteousness...[he was] nearer to the Liberals than of his extremists. He was less absorbed in Socialism than in international events.

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