Malcolm MacDonald

A pen portrait of the forty-year-old member of the Mother of Parliaments who comes to Canada as Britain's new High Commissioner

JOHN STEVENSON April 15 1941

Malcolm MacDonald

A pen portrait of the forty-year-old member of the Mother of Parliaments who comes to Canada as Britain's new High Commissioner

JOHN STEVENSON April 15 1941

Malcolm MacDonald

A pen portrait of the forty-year-old member of the Mother of Parliaments who comes to Canada as Britain's new High Commissioner


ONCE more a MacDonald, to wit, the Right Honorable Malcolm, the new High Commissioner for Britain, is to live in Earnscliffe, the lovely house on the banks of the Ottawa, which was long the dwelling place of a more famous clansman, the great Sir John A. Macdonald. The shade of the old statesman should be rejoicing in the Elysian fields, where it ought to be living happily, for the ties of clanship are strong among the Macdonalds. They and their close kinsmen the Macdonnells had their original habitation in the region of the Scottish Highlands known by the heart-stirring name of “The Rough Bounds of Clanranald,” but today they are scattered to the ends of the earth and of all the Highland clans none can show such a notable roster of famous names.

The new High Commissioner is the latest member of the clan to reach the international limelight and his name, his lineage and his record should assure him a warm welcome when he comes into our midst. He was born in London in 1901, the offspring of a romantic marriage between Ramsay MacDonald, then a somewhat obscure propagandist of Socialism, and Margaret Gladstone, a charming young woman and a kinswoman of the great Liberal statesman, who was also a devotee of the Socialist faith. A cheque which Miss Gladstone had sent as a contribution to Ramsay MacDonald’s campaign fund in the first election that he ever fought led to their first meeting and the result was a supremely happy marriage, to which there were born in the order named four children—Alastair, Ishbel, Malcolm and Sheila.

Malcolm MacDonald was cradled in an atmosphere of politics, for the home of the Ramsay MacDonalds in Lincoln’s Inn Fields was the head centre of the activities of the youthful Labor Party. In it there was always running a busy propagandist mill for the Socialist cause and open house was kept on a modest scale for all its friends. Often in his childhood young Malcolm must have had his head patted by such famous figures as Keir Hardie, John Burns, Cunninghame Graham. Jean Jaurès, the great French Socialist, and Prince Kropotkin, the Russian exile. It was in London that his childhood years were mainly spent but every summer Ramsay MacDonald took his family north to his birthplace, Lossiemouth, a little fishing town on the Moray Firth, which was always for him the dearest spot on earth.

They lived plainly but comfortably in an unpretentious house called “The Hillocks” and, while Ramsay foregathered with the friends of his youth, Malcolm, with his brother and sisters, played with the village children, learned rounders, shinny and other local games and wandered at will through the adjacent countryside and over the sand dunes on the shores of the firth. But his closest and dearest friend was his mother, to whom he was devoted from his infancy. All who ever knew her agree that Margaret MacDonald was one of the most lovable and remarkable women of her day, and the fine tribute which her husband paid to her virtues in a modest biographical volume, is neither overstrained nor undeserved. Unfortunately, she wore herself out prematurely by her zealous labors for Socialism and for all alleviation of the hardships of the poor of London and, when she died comparatively young in 1912, young Malcolm felt the blow as grievously as did his father, and her loss saddened his young life for several years. But she had left him with her blood, rich legacies of a gentle spirit, a serene temper and a passion for disinterested public service for the betterment of humanity’s lot.

The new High Commissioner is probably well content to show in his face and physique more resemblance to his mother than to his father, for he has not inherited the latter’s singularly handsome presence and does not cut the same magnificent figure in a court uniform. He is of medium stature, well and sturdily built, and has what can be described as a good honest face, easily lit up with a friendly smile. He is endowed with that indefinable quality called charm, in such a measure that men and women are instinctively attracted to him and feel that he would always be a warm and loyal friend. His ways of life are simple and the hostesses of Ottawa need not reckon upon him as a frequenter of tea parties in their drawingrooms or dances at the country club. He has always preferred the peace of his library to the gaieties of the salons of Mayfair and, if he is left any spare time by his duties, which will be very arduous in the coming months, he will probably elect to spend it in exploring the great wooded wilderness which lies north of our capital, and studying therein bird life, upon which he is an authority. He has long felt an affinity with the Scottish King who said that he would always rather hear the lark sing than the mouse squeak.

A son of a British prime minister—who has also in his veins through his mother the same strains of blood as William Ewart Gladstone and Lord Kelvin, the great scientist—was almost bound to have considerable natural ability, and in Malcolm MacDonald’s case it has been reinforced by a very good education. In his early boyhood he attended private schools in London and then he spent some happy and profitable years at Bedales’ School in

Hampshire, an institution founded by the Quakers and run on co-educational lines. Ramsay MacDonald had always lamented his own lack of a university education and, having decided to send his son to Oxford, he passed up the more fashionable colleges and entered him for Queen’s College, about which there has always been an aroma of intellectual vigor and lively democracy. There Malcolm MacDonald, consorting for three years with as varied a group of able students as Oxford could show, worked hard at his books, played some games, and emerged with a creditable degree from his final examinations.

Brilliant Debater

"D UT THE field in which he achieved greatest distinction during his university career was in the debates at the University Union. At that time there was more notoriety than advantage in having Ramsay MacDonald for his father, for he had, owing to his pacifist views, lost his seat in Parliament in 1918, been defeated at a by-election in 1920 and seemed doomed to political eclipse. But Malcolm A4acDonald was not the sort of young man who would be deterred by his father’s unpopularity from preaching the faith that was in him, and so at Oxford he became a zealous and effective exponent of Socialism, at college debating societies and in the Varsity Union, in which he served as one of its officers before he went down.

His abilities as a speaker brought him to North America for the first time as a member of a debating team representing Oxford University, and as the group journeyed from

one university to another, he made full use of his opportunities. He stayed in Calgary as the guest of A4r. R. B. Bennett, he went mountain-climbing in the Rockies, he visited Hollywood and he acquired a wide circle of new friends in various walks of life.

Back in London with his educational career behind him, he had to think about a livelihood and he found employment in an insurance office. But to keep clear of politics was impossible for any inmate of the household of Ramsay MacDonald, who, having regained a seat in the Commons in 1922, had been elected leader of the parliamentary labor party and was busy building up its organization against the day of the general election, which was obviously near. He availed himself freely of his son’s help in a secretarial capacity and, having discovered that he had a real aptitude for it, he decided that he should be blooded in politics at an early age and be fit to carry on his torch when he was ready to lay it down.

So he sent young Malcolm in the general election of 1923 to fight a hard seat, the Bassetlaw division of Nottinghamshire which was held by a popular Tory lawyer. He put up a good fight but he did not win it and, when he tried again at another general election in 1924, he was encouraged by achieving a substantial reduction in his opponent’s majority. So he continued to nurse the Bassetlaw division and serve his father as private secretary during the years between 1924 and 1929, when, as leader of the Labor Opposition he was battling against Stanley Baldwin’s huge Conservative majority. But all the time he

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was perfecting his political education, getting an insight into the varied problems confronting British statesmen and learning all the tricks of party management at the feet of a very astute master of this art.

First Elected 1929

CO BY the time another election came ^ round in 1929, Malcolm MacDonald was a very experienced politician and, as the tide was running in favor of Labor, his long courtship of the voters of Bassetlaw bore fruit in a victory. It was a considerable feat to win such a Tory stronghold and, when he arrived at Westminster to sit behind his father who soon began his second premiership, he was marked down as a young man to be watched. The House of Commons gave generous approval to his maiden speech but he was content for his first two sessions to remain a modest back-bencher, basking in the sunshine of his father’s glories and lightening his labors as much as possible behind the scenes.

Then came the famous political crisis of 1931, when Ramsay MacDonald parted company with the Labor party and cooperated with the Conservative and Liberal leaders in forming a coalition ministry for the purpose of rescuing Britain from financial embarrassments which now, in retrospect, look very trivial. Young MacDonald was still an ardent Socialist and, as the Labor Party was bound sooner or later to revive, the temptation to stay with it must have been strong. But it is not the habit of MacDonalds to forsake their parents and he had a great affection for his father and deep respect for his views. So he supported the Coalition and it was as a National Laborite that he was re-elected for the Bassetlaw division in 1931.

There was some caustic criticism, particularly in Labor circles, when Premier MacDonald appointed his own son to a junior ministerial post as understudy for the celebrated Jimmy Thomas at the Dominion’s office. But it soon died down as the Laborites, although hating Ramsay as a traitor, always kept a warm spot in the hearts for Malcolm and he was admittedly one of the ablest members of the National Labor group. Jimmy Thomas liked the joys of parliamentary battle better than the dull work of administration and so the main burden of the latter fell upon his Under Secretary, but whenever he spoke in the Commons he had the ear of the House for interesting contributions to debates.

Naturally it fell to his lot to make preparations for the famous Ottawa Conference of 1932 and he was included in the British delegation which attended it. One of his jobs was to act as guide and cicerone for his effervescent chief and keep his indiscretions within reasonable bounds, but he was also assigned the special function of acting as liaison officer with the press for the British delegation and his friendly ways and his willingness to help out with a story, won for him the liking and confidence of the newspaper fraternity, who were covering the conference. When it was over, the Under Secretary for the Dominions was a very tired man and he proceeded to improve his knowledge of Canada by taking a long holiday as the guest of different Canadian friends.

When he returned to London, there were plenty of troublesome problems to tackle. There were delicate negotiations with the South African government about the transfer of territories like Bechuanaland, which had been retained under British control, and there were continuous exchanges of view, sometimes leading to sharp controversies with governments of the Dominions about such questions as tariffs, immigration and foreign policy. Close touch has to be kept with the

Dominions’ offices in London and, as high officials would at intervals arrive from Ottawa or Canberra on some special mission, Malcolm MacDonald from 1931 onward spent a good deal of time each week in the company of people from the Dominions. And as Canada, the nearest of them, sent most visitors to his door, if he is not familiar with our problems it will not be for want of hearing or talking about them.

Cabinet Post

TXT’HEN Earl Baldwin took over the ** premiership in 1935 from Ramsay MacDonald, he took the young Undersecretary into his cabinet as its youngest member and gave him the Secretaryship for the colonies, (incidentally, MacDonald lost his Bassetlaw seat in 1935 and shifted to Ross and Cromarty). There were cynics who suggested that MacDonald’s rapid promotion was by way of consolation to his father, who had been plainly notified by his Conservative masters that he must henceforth be content with a back seat in the councils of state. But the new premier had a high estimate of his young colleague’s abilities and a great fondness for him. So Malcolm MacDonald had to face a new set of problems and he found the bitter Arab-Jewish feud in Palestine and labor troubles in the West Indies giving him continuous headaches. But he was as popular with his subordinates as he had been at the Dominions’ office and he kept his place in the affections of the Commons where, after his father’s death in 1938, he became the acknowledged spokesman of the National Laborites.

In his closing years Ramsay MacDonald became more or less a melancholy figure, brooding over his lost popularity with the workers of Britain, and his chief comfort was the devoted companionship of his son. The MacDonald family lived quietly in a house on Hampstead and their home was frequented by a wide and interesting circle of friends. They still spent part of every summer at Lossiemouth and it was to its quiet graveyard that Malcolm MacDonald took his father’s body home for burial after he had died in Bermuda.

When Neville Chamberlain became premier in 1938, he did not shift the Secretary for the Colonies from his post, and he was rewarded by his loyal support through the ominous crises which preceded the war. There were, however, many who wondered why a young Minister of Socialist antecedents was able to swallow the policies of appeasement which drove in turn Tories like Eden and Duff - Cooper to resignation. But MacDonald had inherited from his sire an ingrained loathing for war and was convinced that it might be averted by his leader’s diplomatic strategy.

When the storm broke in August, 1939, his disillusionment was complete, but he had little time to think about it as he was soon up to his neck in organizing the war effort of the Crown Colonies. When the Chamberlain Ministry collapsed he must have expected a return to private life, as Winston Churchill had never loved his

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father, but he was kept in the cabinet as Minister of Health. It should have been a congenial post, as the welfare of the toiling masses of Britain had always been one of his foremost interests, but by all accounts he was not happy in it and public dissatisfaction with his department’s handling of problems created by the aerial blitzkrieg made him the target for considerable criticism in the press.

There is, however, no suggestion that Mr. Churchill sent him to Ottawa to get him out of the cabinet. Undoubtedly he was chosen as High Commissioner because there is no living British politician who has his informed knowledge of Canadian affairs and problems and as large a number of Canadian friends, from Premier King downward, and because it will be an advantage to have Britain represented at Ottawa by somebody who as the result of recent membership of the British Cabinet has a full knowledge of the basic problems involved in the higher strategy of the war.

So Malcolm MacDonald, in the prime of his powers at the age of forty, assumes new duties at a very critical hour and no doubts need be entertained but that he will discharge them well and faithfully. A

High Commissioner at Ottawa has to be a jack-of-all-trades; he has to write long dispatches informing his government about Canadian affairs; he has to present its views to our Ministry, has to conduct negotiations with departments, soothe ruffled feelings and answer complaints. Pie has to make frequent speeches and is expected to be sociable and given to hospitality. As long as the war lasts Mr. MacDonald’s chief concern will be to promote co-operation in the common war effort and for this task he should be well qualified.

Malcolm MacDonald, apart from the fact that he breaks precedents by retaining his seat in the British Plouse of Commons, will be a new sort of High Commissioner for Ottawa to take to its bosom. Not only will he be the first Socialist to live in Earnscliffe; he will be its first bachelor occupant. But his housekeeping problems will be solved as it is forecast his sister Sheila agrees to act as his hostess, and between them they should maintain Earnscliffe’s traditions for pleasant hospitality. He will find many old friends and acquaintances delighted to welcome him to Ottawa and he should soon be completely at home in his new environment.