Macdonald was the first British Labour prime minister, but his decision in 1931 to lead a coalition government was considered a betrayal by many in the party he had done much to create.
James Ramsay MacDonald was born on 12 October 1866 in Lossiemouth, Morayshire, the illegitimate son of a crofter. He worked as a teacher locally and then moved to London where he became a clerk and then a journalist. He joined the Independent Labour Party in 1893. He stood unsuccessfully as a parliamentary candidate in 1895 and rose through the party ranks. He became leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) in 1911.
The early PLP was a largely unimaginative grouping of ageing trade-unionists, but MacDonald sought to give the new party a distinct ideology, and wrote on the relationship between socialism and parliamentary democracy, and between labourism and the Liberal tradition.
In 1914, MacDonald resigned as party leader because of his opposition to Britain's participation in World War One. He officially became leader again only in 1922. By this time, Labour had replaced the Liberals as the main anti-Conservative party, and in 1924 took office for the first time, with the support of the Liberals. The 1924 Labour government was overwhelmed in less than a year by various 'red scares', manufactured by the press and by opposition parties. MacDonald, however, had achieved his main ambition - that of demonstrating that Labour could govern responsibly and effectively.
In 1929, MacDonald returned to power, but his government was soon faced with a worldwide economic recession, for which it was not prepared. MacDonald and other leading ministers, notably the chancellor Philip Snowden, felt they had no alternative but to cut public expenditure, including unemployment benefit. The cabinet split, and MacDonald formed a National Government with Conservative, and some Liberal, support. The subsequent general election decimated the Labour Party but left MacDonald and his tiny handful of 'National Labour' members of parliament in power - although as little more than a front for a Conservative-dominated administration.
MacDonald soldiered on as prime minister until 1935. He was, however, an increasingly forlorn and unhappy figure, treated with contempt by Conservatives and with hatred by members of the party of which he had once been the unchallenged and charismatic leader. He was on a ship on his way to America, in an attempt to restore his health, when he died on 9 November 1937.