Born on Clydeside, Bell made a name for himself as a trade unionist, rising to become General Secretary of the Shipbuilders Union from 1933 to 1939. He was first elected to parliament in 1939 and was immediately appointed Minister of Labour. He later served as Minister for Trade (1944-1947) before becoming Finance Minister (1947-1957), serving as the right hand man to Robert MacDonald during his administration.
Following Labour's defeat at the 1957 general election MacDonald announced his intention to retire. Bell contested the leadership, winning easily. He led Labour unsuccessfully into the 1961 election, but was able to return to power in 1963 after the centre-right coalition collapsed over budget negotiations. A general election that October secured Labour in power. Bell led Labour to two other election victories, in 1965 and 1969, the latter finally saw Labour win the overall majority that Bell had spent the previous 11 years working towards. He retired as Prime Minister in 1970.
A lifelong piper smoker, he died of lung cancer shortly after his retirement. He was accorded a state funeral.
James Francis Bell was born on April 17th 1899 on Clydeside.
In May 1963 Finance Minister Iain McNair announced the government's budget, including some unpopular measures such as increasing petrol tax and most famously raising the duty charged on whisky. Although broadly agreed by the main governing parties, the Liberal Party had not even been consulted by the government before the budget was announced. Consequently on May 21st 1963 the Liberals voted with the opposition against the government's budget. Prime Minister John Campbell then tabled a motion of no confidence in his own government, daring the Liberals to vote him down. On the evening on May 22nd 1963 the motion was debated, and by a vote of 98-100 the government was brought down. A week later the Liberals voted with Labour and three independent MPs to make Bell Prime Minister, without an election, this was the first time a Scottish government had been falllen and another been installed without an election.
A month later Bell presented another budget that received broad support and removed the contraversial measures proposed by the previous government. Despite this Bell announced the government would hold an early election in the autumn in order for the new government to gain a democratic mandate.
The 1963 election saw Labour gain 3 seats, giving the party 90 seats in Parliament. This was a great disappointment to Bell who had hoped for an overall majority. Bell was re-elected Prime Minister with the support of the Liberal Party.
In April 1965 Bell called a snap election, hoping to receive an overall majority. In a barnstorming campaign most, if not all major political pundits predicted a major Labour landslide victory on the scale of 1935 or 1942, and the party winning up to 120 seats. Instead Labour won only 95 seats, an increased number but short of an outright majority. As a response Bell signed a confidence and supply agreement with the Liberal Party, and promised not to dissolve parliament for 4 years.
Labour entered the 1969 election in an optimistic mood, with unemployment low and a strong legislative record in government. Bell himself had privately informed friends and family that this would be his final election as Labour leader. The result saw Labour win an overall majority, winning 103 seats.
Despite the victory Bell's personal health decline made the new government less radical and pro-active than the years of minority government. Bell recognised this and in February 1970 suddenly announced his resignation. He remained a backbencher in parliament until his death in 1972.