Robert James MacDonald (April 17, 1901 - January 8, 1990) was a Scottish Labour politician who served as Prime Minister of Scotland from 1947 to 1957. He held numerous cabinet positions under Michael James Stewart and Henry Nicholson, and later served as Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister during the Bell government.
The son of Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, he entered parliament in 1925 as an MP for Glasgow East, a seat he would hold until his retirement from parliament in 1978. He was the only minister to serve continuously during Labour's 1935-57 period in government, serving as Minister for Education (1935–38), Minister for Industry (1938–40) and Minister for Finance (1940-1947), before becoming Prime Minister following the death of Henry Nicholson.
MacDonald cemented the reforms made by the Stewart and Nicholson governments and in 1954 there was the first budget surplus since 1922. Considered an able and charismatic technocrat rather than a great political crusader, MacDonald's policies where essentially pragmatic and made on an ad hoc basis.
The 1949 Governance Act was a major constitutional reform, that essentially removed the monarchs role in the political process. At the 1950 election Labour lost its majority but was able to form a minority government until Stewart led Labour to another absolute majority in 1953.
In 1957 Labour finally lost power, and MacDonald stepped down as party leader the following year. However he remained active within the party, and when Labour returned to power in 1963 MacDonald became Foreign Minister. In this position he played a major role in laying the groundwork for Scottish entry into the European Community in 1973. In 1969 he retired as Foreign Minister to become Deputy Prime Minister once again, now very much becoming the elder statesman of the government.
When Labour lost power again in 1973 MacDonald finally stood down from the front bench after 40 years, although he still remained a backbench MP until he stood down from parliament in 1978. Even then he still remained an active commentator on political affairs until shortly before his death in 1990.
Robert James MacDonald was born on April 17, 1901 in Elgin, Moray. He was the son of James Ramsay MacDonald, then a socialist activist within the fledgling Labour Party, and a future Labour leader and Prime Minister. He was initially brought up in Elgin, but his family moved to Edinburgh in 1910 after his fathers election to parliament. He attended the Royal High School from 1914 to 1919, and then studied History at the University of Edinburgh from 1920 to 1923.
Early Political Career
MacDonald was elected MP for Glasgow East in 1925. He remained a loyal backbench MP, supporting his father. He was seen as able but unflamboyant. When Michael James Stewart became party leader in 1933 he promoted MacDonald to the frontbench as Education spokesperson. MacDonald also played a role in organising the Labour campaign for the 1935 general election, running the first real national campaign with Stewart making a series of organised speeches in numerous towns and cities around the country.
Minister for Education
When Stewart formed his first cabinet he appointed MacDonald Education Minister. His most important role as Education Minister was the implementation of the 1935 Education Act, which saw free primary and secondary education up to the age of 16 introduced throughout Scotland.
Minister for Industry
MacDonald became Minister for Industry following the death of David Reid in 1938. He helped prepare the Scottish economy fo the war, and began the process of Scottish rearmarment.
Minister for Finance
In 1940 Stewart reshuffled his cabinet, making MacDonald Minister of Finance. He had the difficult job of managing a neutral nation's economy during wartime, and had to make some unpopular decisions such as introducing rationing for food and fuel and large increases in general taxation.
Following the sudden and unexpected death of Michael James Stewart in June 1942 many expected MacDonald would stand for election to be his successor. However he declined to stand, leaving Foreign Minister Henry Nicholson to be elected unopposed as Prime Minister. In return Nicholson made MacDonald Deputy Prime Minister, as well as Finance Minister.
Following Nicholson's death in 1947 MacDonald became acting Prime Minister, and was elected leader of the Labour Party unopposed.
Upon becoming Prime Minister MacDonald largely continued the policies of his predecessor.
The 1949 Governance Act was the greatest single constitutional reform of the MacDonald government. The Act provided that the monarch was to essentially be removed from the political process, that the Parliament was to elect a Prime Minister from amongst its members, who would then be formally sworn into office by the monarch, thereby ending the royal prerogative that the monarch can select a Prime Minister as long as they command the confidence of Parliament. The reform was opposed in private by Alexander V, who believed that it would end the role of the monarchy as a unifying force in scottish society. The Act was passed by Parliament, and grudgingly signed into law by King Alexander.
At the 1950 election Labour lost the absolute majority in parliament they had enjoyed since 1935. However Labour was clearly the largest party in Parliament, and within a few days was able to negotiate with independents to ensure Labour could continue in government as a minority.
The 1951 election resulted in Labour losing another handful of seats. Together the non-socialist parties held 100 seats, enough to form a government. However disagreements broke out about who should lead such a government and how cabinet seats should be divided. After three weeks of empass the Liberal Party had had enough and agreed to form a coalition government with Labour in exchange for three seats in cabinet.
At the 1953 election MacDonald led Labour to another majority government.
At the 1957 election Labour remained the largest party, however John Campbell was able to form a non-socialist coalition government.
Later Political Career
MacDonald stood down as leader of the Labour Party in March 1958. However he remained on the frontbench, becoming shadow finance minister under James Bell. After the 1961 election MacDonald moved to become shadow Foreign Minister.
He served as Foreign Minister from 1963 to 1969.
He retired from parliament at the 1978 election. He became a key supporter of Andrew Fraser in his bid for the leadership in 1979, and played a crucial role in his victory.
MacDonald is considered by many to have been an able and pragmatic politician.