The days when the Prime Minister shopped at the Co-op and was expected to attend E.C meetings

My name is Ramsay MacDonald and I shop at the Co-op because they are good with food

"My name is Ramsay MacDonald and I shop at the Co-op because they are good with food"

Due to exams and suchlike rudely getting in the way, it is taking me quite a while to get through Marquand’s biography of Ramsay MacDonald. Regular readers may recall my Valentine’s Day special post about how the first Labour Prime Minister hooked up with his missus. Well, I’ve just got to 1924 and MacDonald is the new occupant of Number 10 Downing Street. 

His salary was £5000, which the Measuring Worth website indicates was a very reasonable amount. However, the expenses system seems to have been much stricter back then. He had to pay out of his own pocket for such items as linen and china to use in Number 10 (no flat screen TVs back in those days for politicians to splash out on, and MacDonald does not appear to have wanted to keep ducks well-housed in the Downing Street garden).

Even though he was the Prime Minister and so presumably would have to hold political summits, play host to important foreign dignitaries, and things like that, he did not receive an entertainment allowance. It was clear that the political system had not adjusted to workers’ representatives reaching such positions of power – occupants of Number 10 were expected to be wealthy men who could support themselves. Remember that MPs had only been paid an official salary since 1911 and that MacDonald was the first Prime Minister from a working class background.

MacDonald was therefore very keen to economise. He had always shopped at the Co-op and saw no need to change just because he was now PM. Groceries were delivered to Downing Street in a Co-op van. To save coal MacDonald and his family always ate their meals in the official banqueting rooms which were centrally heated rather than in their private quarters. Such frugality should be an example to us all.

They dont make political posters like they used to

They don't make political posters like they used to

It was probably unfamiliarity with civil servants rather than a desire to keep costs to a minimal that led the new Prime Minister to insist that all letters arriving for him should be sent unopenened for his personal attention. This arrangement didn’t last very long. Presumably MacDonald soon realised there were more important things for him to do rather than spend all day reading letters from cranks complaining about there being too many of those damned automobile contraptions on the roads or whinging that the British Empire shouldn’t be marked on maps with the colour pink as it was too sissy.

MacDonald’s Constituency Labour Party in Aberavon were also finding it hard to adjust to the fact that their MP was running the country. MacDonald’s secretary in Downing Street was sent a letter from his constituency agent setting out the arrangements he had made for MacDonald’s next visit: “Monday afternoon two meetings on at the same time…In the evening attend the annual meeting of the divisional Labour Party…I know every district will be asking for him at the E.C meeting”.

MacDonald’s secretary had to politely inform the agent that unfortunately the Prime Minister would not be able to attend as those dates clashed with budget day. This led to an ongoing exchange of letters, with the agent forwarding angry resolutions from local branches of the Labour Party who were demanding that the Prime Minister attend their 1924 versions of pub quizzes and trips to the curry house and MacDonald’s secretary having to patiently explain why it was more important that the Prime Minister be in Parliament for the announcement of Labour’s first national budget.

And here endeth today’s Labour history lesson.



5 Responses to “The days when the Prime Minister shopped at the Co-op and was expected to attend E.C meetings”

  1. antonhowes Says:

    Wow – they don’t make politics or politicians like they used to!
    Great touch with the local associations – makes you sit up and think just how accessible they were. There wasn’t any of this “I suppose he’s probably too important to be thinking about this”, or “I needn’t try, as they never listen”.


  2. captainjako Says:

    Nevermind Ramsay MacDonald, I want to find out more about the Social Liberalist Party! I can’t see a ‘History’ section on your website. Did you set it up recently? Are you actually going to be a candidate in the upcoming election? Is it, like, for real?

  3. antonhowes Says:

    Thanks 🙂
    Yup, the party’s just over 10 months old, and approaching 300 members.
    I’ll probably be a candidate at the next general election.
    The main aim however is to build up support for the one after next – that gives us about 6 years.
    …and yeah, all for real.

  4. LEFTOVERS: the best of the blogging on the left « The Societarian Says:

    […] Frank Owen’s Paintbrush with possibly my favourite post of the week about Ramsay MacDonald and the difference in Politics since his time. […]

  5. Right-wing nutters and their obsession with birth certificates « Frank Owen’s Paintbrush Says:

    […] MacDonald (of whom I have posted a few times before!) faced similarly pathetic […]

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