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In 1931, Ramsay Macdonald resigned from his position as leader of the
Labour Party and Prime Minster of Britain, to take up a position a few
days later as the leader of the new National Government set up to run
the country, and thus becoming the countries leader again. Many have
claimed that he betrayed the Labour Party by leaving them so he could
join another party in a better position; in other words he was
motivated by personal ambition. This theory can only be proven if it
was known whether or not Ramsay Macdonald knew if he was going to
remain Prime Minister at the time when he resigned Labour from power.
One view of Ramsay Macdonald's resignation is that he resigned from
the leadership to save the party. He realised that he could take the
party no further for the time being, and pre-empting future
embarrassments resigned the party from power to save face and keep
their reputation intact. It is obvious his main thinking behind this
was the rising unemployment in Britain, which was on the verge of
spiralling out of control at the time. Not forgetting that Ramsay
Macdonald was one of the founding members of the Labour Party and so
presumable would not want to see it fail, this argument seems
feasible. However, this view is not widely accepted by many modern
historians. Historian Norman Lowe accuses Macdonald of being:
'vain, ambitious and out of touch with the grass-roots of the party'
Ramsay Macdonald can only truly be judged as a traitor if he knew
before the National Government was formed that he would be heading it.
We can look at the facts to determine the truth. Macdonald would have
known his name would be mud, and in a job like an MP where reputation
is everything, crossing the floor so dramatically would surely have
been a last resort to gain power. But was it his only resort?
Historian David Marquand feels Macdonald didn't know he would remain
Prime Minister at the time he resigned Labour from power, but was:
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the best way of avoiding an election and restoring confidence.'
The current period in office for Labour had been a struggle. The
previous two years had been marred by crisis after crisis, with Labour
inheriting many problems not dealt with by Baldwin's Tories. The most
pressing issue would be the alarming rise in unemployment that was
showing no signs of slowing down. To address this problem, Macdonald
turned to J. H. Thomas and a small committee including Oswald Mosley.
Macdonald promptly sacked an incapable Thomas. The Mosley Memorandum
put forward included reducing imports, subsiding agriculture,
introducing pensions at 60 and raising the school leaving age to 15.
This was dismissed for being 'too expensive'. Mosley was replaced by
Sir George May, whose May Report was forced through by Macdonald,
eventually winning 11/9.
Given these circumstances (his apart lack of support - only winning
11/9), it was quite likely that Macdonald would resign from power, yet
his final reason looks more like an excuse than a justification.
Macdonald took the 11/9 vote as a sign that he had hardly any support
and no majority, and resigned, yet more than 50% of the votes were in
The fact that Macdonald formed the National Government, or was
persuaded to, shows that he still believed he was able to solve the
problems, especially unemployment. He felt he could relate to many
people's problems due to his middle class upbringing and socialist
background, and so leaving the Labour Party for personal reasons does
not seem such a strange idea.
The argument that Macdonald was motivated by personal ambition has
further weight added to it when it is claimed he resigned Labour to
save not only the parties' reputation, but his own. This is almost
certainly true, as he didn't want to suffer embarrassment on purpose,
yet it is probably not true that he wanted to save is reputation for
running the coalition.
We will never know the truth, as Ramsay Macdonald carried it to the
grave, yet we can surmise that his decision to resign Labour from
power was motivated by 75% wanting to do the best for Labour, and 25%