British statesman and the first Labour prime minister (1924; 1929–31; 1931–35).
MacDonald was born in Scotland, the illegitimate son of a maidservant, and became a journalist. He joined the Independent Labour Party in 1894 and was the first secretary of the Labour Representation Committee (1900–05) and then (1906–12) of its successor the Labour Party. Elected to parliament in 1906, he led the parliamentary Labour Party from 1911 until resigning in 1914 in protest against World War I. He lost his seat in 1918 but was re-elected in 1922. He became the first Labour prime minister in January 1924; however, his minority government lasted only until November, when the Liberals withdrew their support. Aiming to prove that Labour was a realistic alternative to the Liberals and Conservatives, MacDonald's government did no more domestically than introduce Wheatley's Housing Act, which assisted the building of council houses, and some reforms in secondary education. MacDonald's main interest was in foreign affairs and, acting as his own foreign secretary, he was instrumental in obtaining acceptance of the Dawes Plan to enable Germany to pay war reparations. At the League of Nations he made a powerful plea for collective security and disarmament, to be achieved by means of the Geneva Protocol, a document that was later rejected.
In his second government (1929–31), MacDonald again concentrated on foreign affairs, at the expense of Britain's worsening economic difficulties. His proposal, in response to the international financial crisis in the summer of 1931, to make cuts in unemployment benefits was rejected by Labour's General Council, and MacDonald resigned. The next day he agreed to the king's request that he form a government with the Liberals and the Conservatives, for which he was denounced as a betrayer of the Labour movement and expelled from the party. He remained prime minister of the coalition national government until succeeded by Stanley Baldwin in 1935. He died at sea, on his way to seek a health cure in South America.