Ramsay MacDonald on architectural economics


“Economic rent must be taken by the State, because it is created by circumstances of which the whole community is entitled to take advantage …. It is fundamental.”

“In a theological form …’the land is God’s common gift to all.’ Cast in its severely economic form, however, the point is equally effective. Rent is a toll, not a payment for service. By it social values are transferred from social pools into private pockets, and it becomes the means of vast economic exploitation. . . .Rent is obviously a common resource. Differences of fertility and value of site must be equalised by rent, and it ought to go to common funds and be spent in the common interest.”

We have all taken risks in the making of war. Isn’t it time that we should take risks to secure peace?

He was born a bastard in a Scottish peasant fishing village to a maidservant and a plowman he hardly ever got to know, yet he became one of the great architects of the British Labour party and was three times the prime minister of Great Britain. Furthermore, he is still respected as one of the great pioneering pacifists in world history. Yet his descent was as spectacular as his rise, as he was to be bitterly reviled as a traitor by the party he shaped, and he died a broken, half-mad and pathetic figure.

James Ramsay MacDonald was brought up in his grandmother’s cottage and, with a simple local education, showed no signs of his meteoric ascent. 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 and stood unsuccessfully as a parliamentary candidate in 1895, but continued to rise through the party ranks. It has to be said that what gave him his big break was not just his raw abilities. He married into money – lots of it. In 1897 he married into the Gladstone family – wife Margaret bucked the classist culture of her times to marry way below her station in life, and was thereafter able to finance Ramsay’s political career, as well as their extensive travels which undoubtedly broadened his perspective. With his skills as a great orator, dashing good looks and with a rare ability to plan and organise, he became leader of the reformed Labour Party in 1911.

The early Labour Party was a largely unimaginative grouping of ageing trade-unionists, but Ramsay sought to give the new party a distinct ideology, and revitalised its direction with a new sweeping policy platform. But in 1914, the principled Ramsay resigned as party leader because of his opposition to Britain’s entering the Great War. Many of us would applaud his stance today on this ridiculous war, but in those times, with the drum-beat of infantile nationalism banging loud, Ramsay’s stance was a brave one. For instance, in 1916 he was expelled from his golf club for allegedly bringing the club into disrepute because of his pacifist views.

He returned to officially become party leader again 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.

In 1929 Ramsay returned to power, but his government was soon faced with a worldwide economic recession, for which it was not prepared. But in 1931, Ramsay and a group of leading ministers felt they had no alternative but to cut public expenditure, including unemployment benefits. The cabinet split, leaving Ramsay to form a National Government with Conservative, and some Liberal, support – this was the outrageous sell-out that angered the Labour faithful. The subsequent general election decimated the Labour Party but left Ramsay and his tiny handful of ‘National Labour’ MPs in power – although as little more than a front for a Conservative-dominated administration.

Ramsay had taken in his geoist views more by osmosis than formal study. The period of 1909 to 1920 was when British geoists, led by PM Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, took the fight for land taxes to the brink of victory, only to be defeated by the landed gentry in the House of Lords. In 1924 Ramsay appointed Philip Snowden as Chancellor of the Exchequer, whose geoist credentials were made clear when he asserted, “Every reform not based on common ownership of the land was simply subsidising landlordism.” In fact in that same year an article by Ramsay on economic rent was published in the British geoist magazine, Land and Liberty.

Ramsay soldiered on as prime minister until 1935, when he lost his seat and left parliament. By then, however, he was 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 physical and mental health, when he died in 1937.

His actual geoist achievements add up to a big fat nothing, so what went wrong? Many put it down to personality flaws, as Ramsay was basically a shy and insecure man. His loneliness made him vulnerable to friendships in aristocratic circles later in life especially when the Conservatives unintentionally became his political allies in his second government. And let’s not forget the tumultuous period in which he was living and governing – political intrigue, shifting alliances, the Great Depression as well as the Great War and its lingering aftermath. Let’s understand him, if not entirely forgive him.