James Ramsay MacDonald (1866-1937) was born in Lossiemouth, Morayshire, the illegitimate son of Anne Ramsay. Educated at Drainie Parish School, Ramsay MacDonald became involved in politics during the 1890s, joining the Independent Labour Party, standing as a Labour candidate at Dover and Southampton and becoming secretary of the Fabian Society. He was elected as Labour MP for Leicester in 1906 as a result of a pact with the Liberal Party and played a leading role in the formation of the parliamentary Labour Party, being elected to the Chairmanship in 1911. During the First World War, Ramsay MacDonald was the main spokesperson for the anti-war policy advocated by the U.D.C. (Union of Democratic Control) which earned him much personal hatred and provoked an unpleasant press campaign. Notwithstanding, Ramsay MacDonald became the first Labour Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in January 1924, a government which lasted only until November. After four years as Leader of the Opposition, he was again elected Prime Minister of a Labour government in June 1929, and of a National Government in 1931. Intended only as a temporary measure, the National Government went on to win the General Election of 1931 and this resulted in Ramsay MacDonald's ostracisation from the Labour Party. He resigned the Premiership in June 1935, but remained in the Cabinet as Lord President of the Council until May 1937, when he retired due mainly to ill-health. He died at sea on 9th November on the way to a tour of South America.
Ramsay MacDonald was an extremely complicated man, not easily understood by contemporaries or friends, and whilst he was consistent, courageous, honourable, and deeply committed to the basic tenets of socialism, his shy aloofness, suspiciousness and self-pity prevented him from being completely at ease with the working men with whom he forged a party.
An early member and leading influence upon the Independent Labour Party, his greatest legacy is as the 'master builder' of the Labour Alliance of 1900, which resulted in the election of many Labour members of Parliament, and the creation of a strong parliamentary party. His writings, which included pamphlets, articles and books, did much to shape the party's thinking and he had a great influence upon early strategy and tactics. Throughout the rise of the Labour Party in the early part of this century, Ramsay MacDonald played a dominant role, and enabled Labour to replace the Liberals as the main opposition to the government, by proving that it was not merely a 'working class' movement, and replacing its extremism with a doctrine of moderation. As Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald demonstrated that the Labour Party was capable of holding office effectively, and that working class men could be suitable representatives of their country; his efforts were especially concentrated upon foreign policy and among other things he played a major part in agreements made over German reparations in 1924, arranged the Naval Conference of 1930 which resulted in a genuine advance towards disarmament, and chaired the Indian Round Table Conference. Even when in failing health in the 1930s, Ramsay MacDonald attended conferences at Ottowa, Geneva and London, and organised the World Economic Conference of 1933. He worked longer hours than any previous holder of that office, being a poor delegator and suspicious of others, and suffered constantly from exhaustion and ill-health.
His formation of the National Government in 1931, following a major economic crisis which brought down the Labour Government, was seen as a betrayal of his socialist roots and working class background, a claim which many had made even before this due to his fraternisation with the upper classes, especially Lady Londonderry, who came to be regarded as a major influence upon him both politically and personally.
The decision to remain as Prime Minister cost Ramsay MacDonald his reputation and effectively erased the memory of years of hard work on behalf of the Labour Party: he was instead remembered as the man who betrayed it for his aristocratic friends - a man who had been both a social climber and a political incompetent. Ramsay MacDonald died lonely and disappointed, reviled by both Labourites and Conservatives, and worn out by the last painful years of office.