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100 Years: Ramsay MacDonald Becomes First Labour Party Prime Minister

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Authored by Tommy Dolan
Published on 22nd January, 2024 6 min read

100 Years: Ramsay MacDonald Becomes First Labour Party Prime Minister

On this day (22/01/2024), 100 years ago, Ramsay MacDonald formed the first Labour government in British history. MacDonald held the positions of Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary. It remained in power for nine months, giving way to a Conservative government led by Stanley Baldwin in October 1924. 

In 1914 MacDonald had been forced to resign as leader of the Labour Party due to his conviction that war with Germany was morally wrong. By 1922, when he was reappointed leader, Labour had replaced the Liberals as the Conservative’s main opposition. Following the general election in November 1923, the Conservatives under Baldwin remained the largest party in parliament. For the first time, however, they were outnumbered by the combined force of Labour and the Liberals  (who at this point were led by Herbert Asquith). 

Naturally, these political developments dominated the news. “The Labour Party have been in high spirits since the General Election”, as The Graphic reported (12 January 1924). “Inasmuch as the Conservative majority was wiped out at the polls”, this article continued, “the Labourists, although a much smaller minority than Mr. Baldwin and his followers, are looking forward with eager and confident anticipation to the assumption of office”. This piece explained how, with “the assistance of the Liberals”, Labour “hoped very shortly to defeat the Government, whereupon…the King [George V] will send for Mr. Ramsay MacDonald, who will…agree to form the first Labour Government in this country”. 

The same edition of The Graphic devoted a lavish, full-page spread to this practically inevitable political development. Titled “The Labour Legion”, it supplied readers with photographs of the Executive Council of the Labour Party “Preparing For Power”. It also featured photographs of incoming Labour MPs, such as Dorothea Jewson, one of the first three women (alongside Margaret Bondfield and Susan Lawrence) to be elected to parliament for the party. Also photographed was the Scot, James Maxton, subsequently the subject of a biography penned by a fellow countryman: the former New Labour Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.[1]

A journalist writing for The Sphere (2 February 1924) was keen to flag that the formation of a Labour government had installed another Scotsman as Prime Minister — MacDonald hailed from Lossiemouth in Morayshire — thus upsetting the “fantasy” indulged in by members of the St. George Society, “that England should be governed only by Englishmen”. The previous Scottish occupant of 10 Downing Street had been the Glaswegian, Henry Campbell-Bannerman, between 1905–1908. He is the last leader of the Liberals to secure a parliamentary majority for the party. The Sphere, however, drew a (rather mean) parallel between MacDonald’s appointment as Prime Minister and older phases of British history. “It reminds me”, this journalist wrote, “of a time when the Marquis of Bute, a Scot, was the favourite minister [of King George III] and impoverished Scots were rushing over the border for all the fat jobs, much in the same way they did when James I was proclaimed King of England in 1603”.

The Graphic, 26 January 1924 Britain’s first Labour government was by no means defined by resounding success. There were high points for MacDonald, however, particularly on the international stage, such as the convening of the Allied Conference in London in July 1924. There, the decision was taken to solve the issue of German reparations on the basis of the Dawes Report.

Suffice to say, the novelty of a Labour government soon wore off. Upon hearing MacDonald’s first speech as Prime Minister, one of his predecessors, Lloyd George, remarked that all “the restraints and reservations and compromises which mundane statesmen have hitherto indulged in were repeated in every particular” (The Graphic, 8 March 1924). In the run-up to the general election in late 1924 (the third in three years) a journalist for The Graphic wrote that the career of the first Labour government had induced the dreary feeling that “the Way of the World is much the same as it has always been…that there is not much to choose between the various opponents in the political circus” (The Graphic, 18 October 1924). 


 A somewhat sinister, if technically impressive for the time, choice of image published by The Graphic (15 November 1924) to announce Baldwin's reappointment as Prime Minister.

This article draws upon an excellent primary source collection published by British Online Archives: British Illustrated Periodicals, 1869–1970. This brings together the back catalogues of nine “sister” titles belonging to The Illustrated London News (ILN): The Graphic (1869–1932); The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News (1874–1970); The Sketch (1893–1959); The Sphere (1900–1964); The Tatler (1901–1965); The Bystander (1903–1940); The Illustrated War News (1914–1918 and 1939); Britannia and Eve (1929–1957); and London Life (1965–1966). Comprising over one million images, British Illustrated Periodicals, 1869–1970 is a fascinating resource for students and researchers within the humanities and social sciences.

[1] Gordon Brown, Maxton: A Biography (Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing, 1986).

Authored by Tommy Dolan

Tommy Dolan

Tommy Dolan is Senior Editor at British Online Archives. He gained his PhD in History from the University of Edinburgh in 2016. Between 2019 and 2022 he was a post-doctoral fellow on the Leverhulme-funded project 'Rethinking Civil Society: History, Theory, Critique' at the University of York. He then joined the metadata team at the University of York library. Tommy has published in the Historical Journal, the Journal of the History of European Ideas, and Studia Hibernica. His research focuses on the way in which readings of history have influenced political thought in Ireland, particularly with respect to the architects of the Northern Ireland Peace Process. Tommy is currently also co-editor of Writing the Troubles.

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The British Online Archives Notable Days diary is a platform intended to mark key dates and events throughout the year. The posts draw attention to historical events and figures, as well as recurring cultural traditions and international awareness days, in both religious and secular contexts.

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