'Ramsay MacBlair' (Kirsty O’Connor - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

January 17, 2024   7 mins

Ramsay MacDonald should be one of the great figures in Britain’s political imagination: the man who rose from nothing through force of personality and circumstance to become the country’s first Labour prime minister 100 years ago next week. But he is not. Few in Labour will even want to mark his anniversary. This is partly because, like most pre-Churchillian prime ministers of the 20th century, he has been eclipsed in our national imagination. But mainly it is because today MacDonald is a shunned figure: Labour’s Judas, the man who betrayed his party for power, a traitor to his class.

To understand Labour’s seething discomfort about its first prime minister is to begin to understand why that great angst-ridden movement seems unable to drag itself into power without cries of treason being raised against its own leaders.

MacDonald is shunned because of his fateful decision in 1931, during his second stint as prime minister, to form a “national government” coalition rather than go into opposition with the rest of his party who wouldn’t back the spending cuts he wanted to balance the budget during the Great Depression. MacDonald had offered the King his resignation, but was asked to stay on at the head of a new emergency government. He accepted and when he was expelled from Labour, created his own “‘National’ Labour Organisation” which he led to the biggest landslide in British electoral history, crushing his old party in the process.

The problem for MacDonald was that the vast bulk of this new national government wasn’t his. There were 473 Conservatives to only 13 new “National Labour” MPs and 68 Liberals. MacDonald had, in effect, enabled a Tory landslide, leaving his old party with just 52 seats. No wonder the Labour party felt betrayed by MacDonald. Imagine if something like this had happened after the great financial crisis of 2008, with Gordon Brown creating a national government to impose George Osborne’s austerity programme.

To understand just how appalled Labour was — and still is — by MacDonald’s behaviour, you need only take a look at its official account of what happened. “The 1924 government lasted only a few months,” reads the quickfire history of its first prime minister published on the Labour Party website. “Five years later came the election of the second. Dominated by the world economic crisis, the following two years were focused on action to tackle the unemployment of the Great Depression. It was not an easy Parliament and the 1931 election saw only 52 Labour MPs elected.” I suppose “not an easy parliament” is a fair description.

The party’s refusal to even mention MacDonald’s break reveals far more than it conceals: both how uncomfortable it is about that first failure as a political party, when it proved itself singularly incapable of managing the crisis it faced, and about the dangers of its own kind abandoning the cause once in power. “The fear of the great betrayal starts with MacDonald,” one senior Labour figure put it to me. “It starts there and has never left us.”

There have only been three other elected Labour prime ministers — Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair — each of whom faced repeated claims of betrayal, all of which were indelibly shaped by MacDonald’s memory. Throughout his premiership, Blair was, rather straightforwardly, accused of being “Ramsay MacBlair”. And Clement Attlee, despite loathing MacDonald for his actions, ended up being accused of treachery for introducing prescription charges.

Even Harold Wilson, who had made his name as a Bevanite man of the Left, was tarred, particularly during the depths of the “July crisis” of 1966, when he announced a fresh round of austerity to protect the value of sterling. To fend off such comparisons, Wilson used a centenary lunch that year, intended to mark 100 years since MacDonald’s birth, to claim Labour’s first prime minister had died in 1931 when he joined the national coalition and not, in fact, five years later when he actually passed away. An appalling assessment by any measure.

For some, the depth of their loathing for MacDonald has a lot to do with class snobbery. He was easily Britain’s most working-class prime minister. And as such, he could not win, assailed from both sides for getting above his station — for enjoying the company of the rich and the royal far too much. A century on, Angela Rayner must know how he feels. As ever, class remains the sedimentary rock of British life upon which all else is built. And much as I think this is true, the tragedy of MacDonald is far more profound. MacDonald could have rejected the King’s advances and taken Labour into opposition. But he could not have avoided the charge of betrayal forever, for it is the fate of all Labour leaders to campaign as liberals but govern as conservatives.

The conservative philosopher Maurice Cowling wrote that the essence of liberalism was the belief that “there can be a reconciliation of all difficulties and differences” in life (which he said was plainly false). In The Meaning of Conservatism, Roger Scruton argued that this was the liberal faith that lay at the heart of today’s “spirit of improvement” — the inclination of the liberal, as he put it, to “change whatever he cannot find better reason to retain”. Conservatives like Scruton and Cowling, by contrast, do not believe all difficulties and differences can be reconciled — or, in fact, should be. To govern is to weigh up competing goods and to make least worst choices based on incomplete information.

The fate of all Labour prime ministers, then, is to campaign with the “spirit of improvement” but to be forced, once in power, to choose between options which you previously hoped could be reconciled. Harold Wilson promised to modernise Britain and to protect its global influence, but as prime minister was forced to sacrifice one to save the other — maintaining the value of the pound to protect Britain’s overseas commitments at the cost of dousing the flames of his very own “white heat of technology”. (In the end, of course, the austerity he chose to protect the pound did not work and he lost both his economic plan and Britain’s global influence.)

This Wilsonian attempt to reform Britain at home and conserve the country’s influence abroad lies at the heart of many of the Labour Party’s difficulties over the years. Tony Blair sought to protect British influence in Europe and the United States, but was forced to choose between the two when George Bush insisted on the invasion of Iraq. Clement Attlee was similarly forced to accept the reality of Britain’s financial restrictions after the war, forcing him to betray the Left by chipping away at the NHS’s founding principle of “free at the point of use”.

There is little reason to believe Keir Starmer can avoid the fate of his predecessors. In one obvious sense, he has already been tried and found guilty of betrayal by the Left for breaking the promises he made to secure the leadership. During the Labour leadership campaign, Starmer pledged to “reverse the Tories’ cuts to corporation tax” only to then order his MPs to vote against the Tories’ own decision to reverse their own cuts themselves. He also pledged to “defend free movement as we leave the EU”, only to then make keeping out of free movement a red line in any future relationship with the EU. But the fundamental challenge for Starmer is that it is impossible for him to reconcile all of the competing promises he has made to the wider electorate and so will, inevitably, betray someone.

In his speech at the Labour Party conference in October, he turned to the party’s history to illustrate the scale of his ambition: “If you think our job in 1997 was to rebuild a crumbling public realm, that in 1964 it was to modernise an economy left behind by the pace of technology [and] in 1945 to build a new Britain out of the trauma of collective sacrifice, then in 2024 it will have to be all three.” It was a neat formulation, connecting Attlee, Wilson, Blair and himself — and yet, what if these goals cannot be reconciled, but end up in competition with each other, as they did for Attlee, Wilson and Blair? What if, like Wilson, the truth is that Starmer will have to choose between his ambitions? Modernising the economy and rebuilding public services after the trauma of the pandemic might mean dramatically reducing the amount of money spent on sickness or old age benefits, for example. Good luck with that.

Even Starmer’s neat account of Labour’s record of government is, on closer inspection, as incomplete as the party’s account of MacDonald’s second spell as prime minister. Did Wilson really modernise an economy left behind by the pace of technology, as he promised? That’s certainly not how it looked in 1966, when he abandoned economic planning to protect the pound. “The 1964 Government had been elected with the slogans of ‘purposive’, and ‘scientific’ planning held high,” writes the author Ben Pimlott in his largely sympathetic biography of Wilson. “Wilson had believed in planning, and built his rhetoric upon it. Now planning
 had to be set aside. A hole was created in Labour’s raison d’ĂȘtre which, arguably, has never been filled.”

Pimlott published this in 1992, five years before Blair became prime minister. But Blair did not seek to return Labour to any sort of Wilsonian economic planning either. Instead, he largely accepted the structure of the economy built by Margaret Thatcher and attempted to fill the hole left in Labour’s raison d’etre by using the proceeds of this new economy to improve public services and reduce poverty. The problem for Starmer is that even this option has now gone, blown apart by the financial crash of 2007/08. And so what is left?

Today, Labour’s economic plan remains markedly empty. Rachel Reeves’s £28 billion a year green investment package has already been scaled back. Labour does not plan to rejoin the EU, its single market or customs union — and nor does it show much appetite for a trade deal with the United States. If anything, Reeves’s “securonomics” offers more barriers to growth in order to offer the country more security of supply. Today, it is very hard to see how Labour can fulfil its pledge to make Britain the fastest growing economy in the G7.

The obvious danger for a future Starmer government is that without an economic strategy, there won’t be enough money to build a new Britain or fix its crumbling public realm. Instead of doing all three of the missions Starmer set himself, he will not be able to do any. And so difficult choices will follow. Should this happen, it will not be long before the ghost of Ramsay MacDonald once again starts to haunt the Labour party.

is UnHerd’s Political Editor. He is the author of Betting The House: The Inside Story of the 2017 Election.