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The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

James Ramsay Macdonald

Last week I had some business at the LSE and after lunch took the opportunity to satisfy my curiosity about something by taking a walk in Lincoln's Inn Fields. 

I've been reading David Marquand's excellent biography of Ramsay Macdonald from which I learned that Macdonald and his family lived at 3 & 4 Lincoln's Inn Fields from 1896 until at least 1915 which is the last trace I can find of him in the electoral register  at that address.  

Incidentally in the 1911 Census return which records him living in an apartment with 7 rooms (the Macdonalds had 6 children one of whom had recently died)  he states his occupation as "Secretary and Writer" under which a census official has written in red ink "This is the Leader of the Labour Party". Macdonald's apartment was also  the de facto  headquarters of the Labour Representation Committee and thus can reasonably be regarded as the birthplace of the British Labour Party.

The rather ugly 5 storey building is in the north western corner of the square, just a few doors  away from the Soane museum and is now occupied by lawyers. In 1896 the rear of it would have overlooked the back of what became the Holborn Empire. I must have walked past the address hundreds of times, strange that I've never noticed the ubiquitous blue plaque. Not so strange: there is no plaque and nothing at all on the building to indicate its  connection with British political history not to mention the history of the British working-class.

Macdonald became, of course,  the most despised  figure in the labour movement and is conventionally  branded a sell-out as well as a social climbing lackey. The truth is  more complex as was the man himself. 

If anyone organized the early Labour Party it was Macdonald.  He was the first Labour Prime Minister and came to power at a time when most observers supposed that his political career was finished. He was also someone of considerable political and personal courage. He endured vilification by the right-wing press for his illegitimacy, for his  stand against both the Boer War and the First World War and for the disastrous post-war reparations policy. His command of foreign policy issues was the equal of any British politician of the day and he built a parliamentary party out of the rough brick and straw that was to hand, supported in places by a few Liberal converts. Prior to the National Government the worst that can be said of him is that he was better at getting the Labour Party into a position where they could credibly wield power than at knowing what to do with it. Then again, it's not clear than anyone in the Labour Party during the 1920s knew what to do with power.

I find it incredible that Macdonald's contribution to British politics is not noted on the building where so much was achieved. Maybe the LSE can mount a campaign to have the site recognized. After all as a young man Macdonald aspired to be a lecturer at the new school of economics. Apparently the Webbs, being colossal intellectual snobs, were determined to keep him out.

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