IT says a great deal about the current Labour Party, its internal strife and failure to know its own history, that there are no official plans that anyone has published widely to celebrate tomorrow’s 150th anniversary of the birth of one of the party’s founding fathers who was the first Labour Prime Minister as well as the first PM from any party to hail from the lowest ranks of the working class.

Ramsay MacDonald’s sesquicentennial will thus pass by unnoticed by the vast majority of the Labour movement and most Scots, too, despite the fact that this extraordinary figure from the early part of the 20th century was at one time the most popular politician in the UK.

He came to be hated after being expelled by his party for putting aside Labour’s concerns and forming a National Government as Britain fell into the Great Depression in 1931. Despite many attempts to rehabilitate his reputation, and despite Labour lurching much further right than MacDonald ever did, there are still many older Labour Party members who revile him, while many of the party’s new Corbynite adherents probably know next to nothing about him. Most younger Scots probably do not either.

Which is a great pity because Ramsay MacDonald was a towering figure in the early years of the Labour movement who overcame his own humble beginnings and class bias to hold the highest elected office in the land for nearly seven years in total.

Ramsay MacDonald was born on October 12, 1866, in Lossiemouth. He was the illegitimate son of a ploughman, James MacDonald, and a domestic servant Anne Ramsay. Family lore has it that his parents had arranged to get married, but for some reason the wedding did not go ahead.

There is a stone plaque in Lossiemouth at 1 Gregory Place recording the birthplace of the “First Labour Prime Minister of Great Britain 1924” as it states. He was raised there in his grandmother’s small house, and from an early age it was clear that he was a highly intelligent individual.

Known as Jamie or Jimmy to his family, he was educated at Drainie School where he was encouraged to take extra lessons, and after leaving to start work as a farmhand, he was so well thought of at the school that he was brought back to become a pupil-teacher. We know what an assiduous student he was because his schoolbooks, including his translations from Latin and Greek, survive to this day.

Determined to travel and improve himself, with an ambition to be a scientist of some kind, MacDonald moved south to Bristol at the age of 19, where he worked as an assistant to a clergyman and with his interest in politics growing, he joined the Social Democratic Federation, Britain’s first organised socialist party.

In 1866, he moved to London, and had a variety of low-paid jobs as well as periods of unemployment, and through illness, he also failed to take examinations after two years of evening classes in various sciences at Birkbeck Institution.

MacDonald had a lucky break in 1888 when he was employed by Thomas Lough, the Liberal MP for West Islington. He was able to start a career as a journalist and also joined the Fabian Society which numbered George Bernard Shaw among its members. Years later, as Prime Minister, MacDonald offered Shaw a knighthood, the great playwright replying that as a socialist, MacDonald should know why he could not accept it. Perhaps that reply also coloured MacDonald’s view as he himself refused a knighthood late in life.

The newly-formed Independent Labour Party (ILP) attracted MacDonald who joined in 1894, and a year later he stood unsuccessfully for the ILP in Southampton in the 1895 general election. That same year he met Margaret Gladstone, a well-off daughter of a chemistry professor. They were married in 1897, three years before MacDonald again stood unsuccessfully for parliament, this time in Leicester. Theirs was a genuine love match and they travelled widely together, somehow managing to combine visits to India and other countries while having six children before Margaret died in 1911 of septicaemia due to a perforated ulcer.

His son Malcolm later wrote: “At the time of my mother’s death... my father’s grief was absolutely horrifying to see. Her illness and her death had a terrible effect on him of grief; he was distracted; he was in tears a lot of time when he spoke to us... it was almost frightening to a youngster like myself.”

Yet MacDonald was soon back at work, though other setbacks were to come, this time of a political nature.

In 1900, with his abilities recognised by all in the movement, MacDonald had become the first secretary of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC), forerunner of the Labour Party which was led by James Keir Hardie whose life we have featured already in Back in the Day. The LRC put up MacDonald as its candidate in Leicester in the 1906 general election and this time the “tall, strong, vigorous young man,” as the Leicester Mercury called him, was elected.

THOSE travels with Margaret broadened his mind, but it was still Lossiemouth that called him and as well as a London residence, he established an alternative family home at The Hillocks in Moray Street, occupied today by his granddaughter who is the proud keeper of those schoolbooks we mentioned.

With his powerful personality, his electioneering skills and tremendous speaking voice, it was inevitable that MacDonald would become leader of Labour in the House of Commons and he duly did in 1911.

His interest in foreign affairs convinced him that war was coming and should be strongly opposed – he had already opposed the Boer War to much opprobrium. He resigned his leadership in 1914 when the party would not back his stance against a war funding scheme, and when war eventually did break out, he became an utter pariah to the press, which led to the unmasking of his origins.

MacDonald’s illegitimacy did occasionally colour his life and relationships, but it did not overwhelm him except once – when his mortal enemies at the John Bull magazine revealed during the war that he was “the illegitimate son of a Scotch servant girl!” and that he had actually been registered as James MacDonald Ramsay.

He was on a train south from Aberdeen when he found out, writing later in his diary: “From Aberdeen to Edinburgh, I spent hours of the most terrible mental pain.... Never before did I know that I had been registered under the name of Ramsay, and cannot understand it now. From my earliest years my name has been entered upon lists, like the school register, etc. as MacDonald. My mother must have made a simple blunder or the registrar must have made a clerical error.”

Finding out that his very name was wrong was a blow to MacDonald, but he carried on as Ramsay MacDonald and maintained his anti-war stance regardless. To be fair, his illegitimacy was not greatly remarked upon – imagine what a Donald Trump of those days would have made of it. Indeed, the official internet biography of MacDonald on the website does not even mention it.

It did colour his one major relationship after the death of Margaret – that and his religion, MacDonald having left the Church of Scotland for the Free Church of Scotland.

About a year or so after his wife’s death, MacDonald met Lady Margaret Sackville, a 30-year-old society beauty who was also a published poet and the daughter of the seventh Earl de la Warr. In that year of 1912 she became first president of the Poetry Society, and coming under MacDonald’s influence, she later became a socialist and an anti-war campaigner in the Union of Democratic Control which believed that the war had come about because of secret deals between countries’ leaders.

MacDonald and Sackville began a long affair, much if it recorded in their still extant letters. He once wrote: “Dearest beloved, it is such a beautiful morning that you ought to be here and we should be walking in the garden. And if we were walking in the garden, what more should we do where the bushes hid us?” Saucy...

Despite him proposing on at least three occasions over the 15 years of their relationship, they never married, mainly because she was a Roman Catholic and neither of the two would renounce their faith in those days when religious intolerance forbade interfaith unions.

Their time together ended sadly as his preoccupation with the toils of office left him little time for love. One of his last letters to her stated: “Perhaps you are dead; perhaps you are playing chess; perhaps you have fallen in love; but whatever has happened to you, I had better be wary and not intrude without sending in my card.”

DURING the war it was openly suggested that he and Keir Hardie should be tried for treason or sedition or both – the death penalty for both crimes was still in force – but among the most hurtful wounds was his expulsion from Moray Golf Club by 73 votes to 24.

In the circumstances, MacDonald had no chance in the General Election of 1918 when Sinn Fein won more seats than Labour who were then led by William Adamson from Dunfermline, the MP for West Fife.

As the sheer scale of the losses really hit home across Britain in the early 1920s, the backlash was against those who had promoted the slaughter, and anti-war campaigners such as MacDonald found themselves hailed for their stance. But political rehabilitation with the public did not come quick enough for MacDonald to win the Woolwich East by-election of 1921. The Conservatives put up a wartime winner of the Victoria Cross, Captain Robert Gee, and made much of MacDonald’s pacifism, but even so, MacDonald came within 683 votes of beating the war hero.

That great Labour figure Fenner Brockway, co-founder of War on Want, wrote about the Ramsay MacDonald of the early 1920s: “[He] was a born leader, with a commanding personality and a magnificent presence; the most handsome man in public life. He was a great orator whose deep, resonant voice and sweeping gestures added to the force of his words.”

In the 1922 General Election, MacDonald was selected to fight the Aberavon seat for Labour, and won by a majority of more than 3,000. The Red Clydesiders came down from Glasgow, and the stage was set for a genuine contest for the leadership of the Labour Party, one that would make the incumbent the first Labour MP to be leader of the opposition and possibly, given the nature of 1920s British politics, a future prime minister.

We’ll see next week what happened to the man born 150 years ago tomorrow.