JAMES RAMSAY MACDONALD. New course lesson 7
In nineteenth century being born outside marriage was a very considerable disadvantage. It was in such unpropitious circumstances that James Ramsay MacDonald was born. He had a double barrel surname not because he was well got but because he took one from his mother and one from his father to reflect his status as one born outside of holy matrimony. James mother was a maidservant and his father was a farm labourer. However, illegitimacy was not as uncommon then as you might think especially in the rural farming community.
You might expect that someone who rose to be Prime Minister of the United Kingdom would be born in or near London. James Ramsay MacDonald was born in Lossiemouth, Scotland. That is a seaside village in northern Scotland. Despite such an unpromising start in life he ascended the greasy pole. James attended the local school. Schooling had only just been made compulsory and free of charge at the time.
In those days there might be one teacher a hundred pupils. How could this work? The older pupils would teach the younger ones. This kept costs down. The school leaving age was 12 and most people left at that point. It was possible to stay on until the age of 18. Very few people remained in school until 18. The 12 year olds would teach the 5 year olds. The 15 year olds would teach the 12 year olds. The 18 year olds would teach the 15 year olds and the teacher would teach the 15 year olds. It worked like that. The idea is that any 12 year old knows more than a 5 year old. Only the abler pupils stayed at school after the age of 12. Those pupils who taught others were called pupil-teachers. A pupil-teacher received no pay at first but was taught for free. In time a pupil-teacher would be paid a little. The salary would go up. When he or she was 18 and reckoned to be good enough he or she would become a teacher and receive no lessons but only teach lessons. This was called the Madras System.
Ramsay MacDonald became pupil teacher. He joined the Liberal Party. After a few years of teaching in North Britain he gravitated towards London. Therefore he embraced progressive causes. He worked as a secretary to a Liberal Member of Parliament. He tried vegetarianism. He studied theosophy and he considered free love. James also endorsed the policy of Scottish Home Rule.
James was concerned about the lives of ordinary people. He saw a country with untold wealth. Yet there was plenty of poverty. Some children went hungry and had no shoes on their feet even in the snow. This unnecessary suffering horrified him. His compassion drove him to do something about it. The prevailing political and economic system was failing millions of people. James believed that there must be a solution. A small number of people live in opulence yet did not work. Millions toiled long hours in filthy, noisy and dangerous conditions yet led desolate lives. James resolved to put an end to such suffering and degradation. He believed it was a moral imperative to stop this. He would wage war on injustice.
In the 1880s some Liberals were dissatisfied with the Liberal Party. They felt it was not doing enough for the working class. The Social Democratic Federation existed. There were a few Marxists in the United Kingdom. The idea of socialism was starting to be articulated.
In the 1890s James was one of a handful of Liberals who split off the party to found the Labour Party. The party was so small it had to form an electoral pact with the Liberals. Some constituencies in the UK were double seater. That means that the seat returned two MPs. Usually the Liberals would field two candidates and the Conservatives would field two candidates. Under the Lib Lab pact in certain industrial towns the Liberals and Labour would agree to put up one candidate apiece. The Conservatives would usually put up two candidates. Under such a situation it was almost guaranteed that either the Liberals or Labour win at least one seat.
The Labour Party won a few seats. Its founder was James Keir Hardie who was from Lanarkshire Scotland. These were difficult years for the Labour Party. It was tiny and had very little money. It was sworn to improve the lives of working people. The working class had precious little money. They could not afford to donate much. Some trades unions affiliated to the Labour Party. Donations were made to Labour. James went around the country addressing public meetings and writing newspaper articles. He did his level best to spread the message of the party. In time the Conservatives began to perceive the Labour Party as a significant threat. Labour was roundly abused in the Tory (Conservative) press. James was called all manner of names.
James was a fabulous public speaker. His vociferation left a deep impact in audiences. James was tall and broad shouldered. He was blessed with a boyish shock of hair and he had a bushy moustache. In due course he was returned to Parliament.
In 1900 Labour broke away from its pact with the Liberals. It became a proper political party. Before long it was contesting every constituency in the UK. The party articulated democratic socialism. It proposed to win an election through peaceful means. Labour would then form a government. Labour would pass laws to confiscate certain properties – factories, mines, railways and so on. These things would be run for the benefit of the public and not for the few. There would be welfare payments. The government would strive to provide healthcare to all paid for by taxing the affluent more. The government would build decent housing for low income families.
In the 1900s Labour was distracted by other issues. Should women be allowed to vote? James believe that they should. However, not all men could vote then. Men over the age of 21 could vote if they had been living in the same constituency for over a year. Many migrant labourers could not vote therefore. Some in Labour wanted to ensure all men could vote before extending the franchise to women. There was a war in South Africa also distracted the party from socio-economic issues. The party was dovish. This was partly because of humanitarian reasons. But war is also expensive. It would make it impossible to afford social programs.
James married and had children. He educated his children privately. Some people said this was hypocritical.
In 1914 the First World War broke out. James opposed the UK’s involvement in the war. He responded to the popular clamour for fighting. James said ‘no war is at first unpopular.’ He privately acknowledge that the government had a good case for war.
James was calumniated for opposing the war. He was branded as a coward and a traitor. But he did not desist from his anti-war activism. As the war dragged on and millions died people came to respect him. Some thought that he had been right all along.
In the 1918 election the Conservatives found a man who had been decorated with a medal called the Victoria Cross. The put him as a candidate against James. James was voted out. Some years later he won his seat back.
In the 1920s James was taken seriously by the establishment. He was invited to parties by Liberals and Conservatives. He had a love affair with a duchess. He and she exchanged letters. The content of this correspondence was deeply embarrassing.
James became leader of the party again. In 1923 his party won an election but only just. James became Prime Minister. He was the first Labour PM. He did not have a car to go to Buckingham Palace. He went there on foot. The Labour Government had great difficulty passing legislation. It lasted for only ten months. Then James was forced to call an election. A document called the Zinoviev Telegram was published in the right wing press. It helped to swing the election to the Conservatives. The debate rages whether that was a real telegram or a hoax. Labour lost.
Labour was in opposition in the late 1920s. They supported the National Strike to no avail. There was high unemployment at the time. People felt that the government could not spend much to help the country because there was a huge war debt to service.
James was not a pacifist. He recognized the need to spend on defence. He was a reforming imperialist. In the late 1920s he said that India should advance to dominion status.
In 1929 Labour won an election. James was back as PM. Then came the Great Depression. Unemployment increased hugely. The government struggled. There was a naval mutiny in 1931.
To balance the books James decided to cut some benefits. That was anathema to many Labour politicians. James then formed a national government with Conservative support and the backing of half the Liberals. James remained as PM. He was expelled from the Labour Party. James and his followers formed the National Labour Party.
James called an election. The National Government won by a huge margin. He remained as PM and gradually pulled the country out of the Depression. In 1935 he was induced to retire.
In 1937 he died.
- In which town was James born?
- What was his full name?
- Were his parents married?
- What was his mother’s job?
- What was his father’s job?
- Which country was he born in?
- Did he do well at school?
- What is a pupil-teacher?
- Which big city did he move to?
- What party did he first join?
- What were his early beliefs?
- What party did he join later?
- Who was the first Labour leader?
- Was James and MP?
- Did he marry?
- Did he have children?
- What did he say about the First World War?
- Was he a pacifist?
- What did he say about votes for women?
- What did he say about India?
- When did he lose his seat?
- When did he first become PM?
- What happened in 1931?
- When did he retire?
- When did he die?
New course lesson 6 Adam Smith
The father of economics is the title that some people accord to Adam Smith. Smith is best known as the author of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. This book is the best early encapsulation of capitalism. His book is more commonly called by its short title The Wealth of Nations.
In 1723 Smith was born in Kirkcaldy (pronounced ‘ker KOD ee’). Adam Smith’s father had been an advocate (lawyer) and judge. However, the man died two months before Adam Smith was born. Adam grew up in Kirkcaldy. His family was upper middle class but feel on relatively hard times owing to the decease of his father. The Smith family were Christians, they were members of the Church of Scotland. This was the established church in the country at the time. Those who belonged to other religious denominations were not treated equally.
The boy was schooled locally. He was an outstanding pupil. The child was obsessed with learning and was noted for his extraordinary diligence and clarity of mind. He excelled in several subjects. He spoke English and Scots. Scots is a language very close to English in its written form but somewhat different in pronunciation. Many people in North Britain spoke only Scots and not English. The boy learnt Latin and Ancient Greek too.
Academic precocity does not always endear a child to his schoolfellows. Smith was curious in both senses of the word. He was very odd in his movements and his speech patterns. He was inclined to daydream. He would have long and lively conversations with people who were not there. It appears that he was had a severe case of Asperger’s syndrome.
The Act of Union had been passed in 1707. By this law Scotland had united with Wales and England. Together they formed the United Kingdom of Great Britain. This was still a controversial issue. Many people in Scotland disliked being part of the UK. Smith’s family did not oppose the Union. Moreover, in 1688 King James had been overthrown. The Hanoverian dynasty was ruling the United Kingdom. Some people detested the Hanoverians and preferred the Stuarts (descendants of King James). The Smith family favoured the Hanoverians.
At the age of 14 Adam Smith matriculated at the University of Glasgow. This was perhaps an unusual choice given that his home town was much closer to the University of Edinburgh and the University of St Andrews. Smith was fortunate to be in North Britain at a time when the Scottish Enlightenment had begun. At Glasgow he was tutored by an Irish academic named Hutcheson. Smith learnt a great deal from Hutcheson and the two became lifelong friends. At university Smith studied history, philosophy and theology. He started to become curious about why some countries were prosperous and others were not. How did behaviour effect this? Why did people behave as they did? Adam Smith’s academic record at Glasgow was stellar.
After Glasgow Smith won the Snell Exhibition to study at Balliol College, Oxford. An ‘exhibition’ in this sense is a scholarship. It was called the Snell Exhibition because Mr Snell had set it up.
Balliol is one of the many colleges of Oxford University. Balliol, takes its name from John Balliol who was a 13th century Scots nobleman. Therefore, Balliol had longstanding links with North Britain particularly Glasgow. Smith was bitterly disappointed with the situation at Oxford. The University was decrepit. The Scots universities enjoyed a deservedly splendid reputation. Oxford was handsomely endowed. Smith reflected that it was the liberality of such gifts which enabled the dined to dine sumptuously and to work little. The university was mostly peopled with idlers. The place had degenerated into little more than a finishing school for the sons of grandees. The academics there cared more for claret and conviviality than they did for serious study or lecturing. Fellowships (academic jobs) were awarded due to nepotism or political favouritism. Merit scarcely entered into anyone’s considerations when doling out the jobs.
Having gone down from Oxford Smith returned to the North. There he worked as an academic. The title professor was only just being used in English at the time. It was a very unusual title back then. Smith commenced work on a book entitled ‘A Theory of Moral Sentiments.’ Smith explained human behaviour. He wondered what motivated people and asked what compromises people ought to make with each other. Why did people work more than they needed to? Why did others work less than they needed to?
David Hume was the foremost British intellectual of the day. Smith and Hume met and formed a close bond. Hume then recommended Smith to the Duke of Buccleuch (pronounced ‘bu KLOO’). The Duke of Buccleuch was one the leading noblemen in the United Kingdom. The duke hired Smith as a tutor for his son. The boy and Smith traveled around France and Switzerland. Smith spoke excellent French like any educated European gentleman of the epoch.
In France Smith met Voltaire. Voltaire was the luminary of French philosophy at the time. Smith and his pupils spent time at Paris. There Smith socialized with physiocrats. The physiocrats were French intellectuals who were determined to understand the natural world and humane behaviour. Like Smith they wondered what explained human conduct. They lamented that France so abundant in land and natural resources had such sluggish economic growth. How was it that the UK with slender resources had a healthier economy? They came to say that ‘laissez-faire, laissez-passer’ (‘let it be, let it pass’). This was because France had many internal tariff barriers. One had to pay a tax to transport goods from one region of France to another. There were also legal monopolies on certain goods and services. There were all sorts of restrictions on trade. The physiocrats wanted to get rid of these. They believed that if the market functioned unhampered by state interference then the country would become affluent.
The physiocrats believed that this retarded their economy. They began compiling encyclopedias. They believed that if they amassed all the knowledge in the world they could make the best informed decisions.
In Paris Smith made the acquaintance of a man from Boston, Massachusetts. His name was Benjamin Franklin. The two men got along well. Franklin later became a Founding Father of the United States. After some time Smith and his pupil returned to the British Isles. He had been paid most liberally for his tutoring. His pupil had outgrown his need for Smith. Smith returned to scholarship. Some who met him professed themselves discomposed at the vacuity of his conversation. Smith later vouchsafed that he kept it that way otherwise he would not sell so many copies of his tomes.
The Wealth of Nations is Smith’s best known work. In pellucid prose he explains how the market works. Smith explained that people do what is best for themselves and that can be best for the common weal. A person provides high quality goods and services because others will buy them. Therefore, self-interest is morally praiseworthy. Smith noted that the system had flaws. Politicians linked to special business interests could rig the system. Laws could be passed to ban or restrain trade in certain commodities or services. Moreover, the tax system could create an unlevel playing field. Further, Adam Smith believed there needed to be a public sector. He recognized that the market could not provide everything and there was a very limited role for government. Smith was not the free market fundamentalist that some have held him to be. Some of his much later disciples misunderstood him or perhaps did not read the Wealth of Nations in the first place. There are those who considered this book to be overrated. The book is perhaps too theoretical. Its critics say it is airy fairy since it is speculative and does not include worked examples. Smith wrote of ‘the hidden hand’ suggesting that the market was an unseen force regulating supply and demand. This is bogus since some demands are fixed. We all need a minimum of food, clothing and shelter to survive. He did not take sufficient account of the vagaries of weather and natural disasters. Some say the hidden hand is hidden since it does not exist.
The Wealth of Nations was published in 1776. At this time Smith was turning his mind to the American Question. The Thirteen Colonies had been restive for some time. Adam Smith believed that the United Kingdom should consider two options. One was simply to grant independence to the colonies severally or perhaps as a unit. The other was to reform and grant the colonies representation in the Westminster Parliament. As the population of America grew so too should its representation. In time the British Empire might need to shift its capital city across the Atlantic. Smith argued that whichever of his policy proposals was followed would be better than a war. If America became independent on good terms then it would maintain a cordial relationship with the British Isles. Commerce would continue uninterrupted. Moreover, the United States might be induced to enter a military alliance with the UK. However, his counsel was not heeded.
In 1778 Smith and his mother began to reside at Panmure House on Edinburgh. The house still stands and is open to the public. He was given a post by the government as a tax inspector. After a few years his mother died. He was unusually close to her because he never married.
In 1790 Smith grew gravely ill. The great and the good came to visit him. He lamented that he had achieved but little in his life. He underestimated himself. He died in the house and is laid to rest in the churchyard not a hundred yards away.
Smith is memorialized in numerous statues. There is the Adam Smith Institute named after him. Moreover, his face is on banknotes.
1. In which year was Adam Smith born?
2. Which town was he born in?
3. Is Kirkcaldy in Scotland?
4. When did Smith’s father die?
5. Which religion was Smith?
6. What is Smith’s most famous book?
7. Was Adam smart?
8. What was strange about him?
9. Did he marry?
10. Which university did he attend first?
11. Which Oxford college did he go to?
12. Which academic in Glasgow influenced Smith?
13. What was Smith’s first main book?
14. Who did Smith tutor?
15. Which French philosopher did he meet?
16. Which American did Smith know?
17. Who were the physiocrats?
18. What is laissez-faire?
19. In which year was the Wealth of Nations published?
20. What did Smith think should be done to America?
21. Summarise the Wealth of Nations?
22. What are the flaws of the Wealth of Nations?
23. Who did Smith live with until her death?
24. What was Smith’s last house called?
25. What was his government job?
26. What do you think of Smith?
I met so many from my land lately. Thus is probably why I dreamt of it. I might work for our secret service – in the dream that was.
I was met by a shortish middle aged man. he was the passport officer who inspected my passport in baile ath cliath .. he was not joial this time
I was to be interiwed and tested soething was lput into y mouth. It was to see if I could do accents prioerly .. could I speak with this etal ontraption resting on my tongue. It was discombibaulating and a taduncofrtobale. I ight go on a ission in the wee north I felt anxious. have thoyght of isiting derry In the olden days would I have been a ole for the crown? Appealsed but I lak the mettle. would I have doen a leonard mnally?