(How) is Barack Obama like Ramsay MacDonald?

Laura Beers

Laura Beers

When Barack Obama decided not to visit Ferguson, Missouri the other week, my husband suggested to me that this was a moral failing on a par with the David Cameron’s failure to meet with the Duggan family or to visit Tottenham following the riots there in August 2011.  It showed, he argued, an insensitivity to the real grievances of the black community that underlay the riots, and a lack of empathy for and solidarity with that community.

On one level, it is hard not to agree with that analysis.  But, I was hesitant to accept the analogy.  In a promo for an interview which aired on Monday (December 8) on BET, an African-American news outlet in the United States, Obama gave a sermon on gradualism. “This isn’t going to be solved overnight … we have made progress … typically, progress is in steps, its in increments. … You have to recognize that it is going to take some time, and you just have to be steady.” It is incredibly measured language, given the felt need, on the part of many Americans, black, white and latino, for the federal government to take immediate action to overhaul a broken system of law enforcement.

But, the US president is constrained, or at least sees himself to be constrained, in ways that Cameron was not.  He is a black man in a society where many people believe that the mere fact of his blackness makes him unsuitable to lead the country.  His aim is to do his best to dispel that prejudice by doing nothing that might substantiate it.   And, for better or for worse, he believed that taking a public stand in solidarity with Michael Brown and his family (or with Eric Garner’s family earlier this week), would have fueled the perception that he represented the interests, and only the interests, of black America.

In some ways – and I say this with all due recognition to the vast moral differences that separated the Ferguson and Brooklyn grand jury trials from the abandoned Crown prosecution case against the communist editor J.R. Campbell in 1924 – Obama reminds me of Ramsay MacDonald. (Caveat: if you don’t have a taste for potentially specious moral analogizing, stop reading now.)

Many of his contemporaries on the British left, including my pet left-radical Ellen Wilkinson, thought that Ramsay MacDonald was an ineffectual prime minister.  He led too cautiously, too gradually.  He did not stand up for the people who had elected him.  He did not advocate for the immediate revolution of the British class system. He was a white man’s Uncle Tom, adopting court dress, and apologizing for his colleagues’ inexperience of parliamentary practice.  During the 1926 general strike, and again in the face of the 1931 debt crisis, he failed to stand by his party and his class.

MacDonald was a disappointment to many, even before the “great betrayal” of 1931.  This was not, however, because he was not sincerely committed to the British working class. As an early member of the ILP and the founder of the Labour Party, he had given his life to working-class politics, and he never forgave his for supporters for failing to realize that he had always acted in their best interests (or so he believed).  But MacDonald was hamstrung by his desire to prove that Labour could be an effective party of government.  The British constitution would be safe in Labour’s hands. If elected, the party would not be merely a “sectional” faction, but could govern in the interests of the entire nation.  And an illegitimate son of a Scottish agricultural labourer could serve as the king’s first minister as effectively as the son of a duke.

MacDonald needed to prove Labour wasn’t only on the workers’ team (1923 General Election poster)

MacDonald needed to prove Labour wasn’t only on the workers’ team (1923 General Election poster)

MacDonald’s moderate gradualist strategy was arguably effective in allowing Labour, in a few short decades, to displace the Liberals as the second party of the state.  But it also hamstrung him.  Thus, when the Attorney-General, Sir Patrick Hastings, came to him in August 1924 to ask how he should proceed with the case against Campbell, the temporary editor of the Communist Workers’ Weekly, who had been detained under the Incitement to Mutiny Act of 1797 for publishing an article that allegedly incited mutiny by discouraging troops from taking arms against striking workers, MacDonald saw the issue not in terms of the protections of the workers from state violence, but in terms of the political protection of the Labour ministry from accusations of partisanship or unconstitutionality.  Although he knew that many in his party agreed with the Workers’ Weekly’ s artice and that the actual evidence against Campbell was weak (he was the acting editor and had not written the piece), he hesitated to withdraw the case.  When the government did ultimately abandon the prosecution, he quietly resigned his ministry rather than allow the issue to mushroom into an even larger scandal.  And despite a vicious campaign by Labour’s opponents to brand the party as a threat to the British constitution, twenty-one year’s later, a majority Labour government would be in office, albeit in this instance one led by an Oxford alumnus.

MacDonald may deserve a credit for making the Labour party respectable, but so doing, many of his supporters would argue that he betrayed the very people and principles that put him in office.  If, in twenty year’s time, the idea of a black man in the Oval Office has ceased to be as incendiary as many Americans still currently perceive it to be, Obama will have a lot of the credit.  But in the meantime, he may end up leaving many of those who came out in force to elect him in 2008 feeling abandoned and betrayed.


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