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No Prime Ministers?

Ramsay MacDonald, looking a little puzzled. Perhaps he's asking himself why he joined the Geological Society...

Geoscientist 17.7 July 2007

Your Editor asks - will our new Prime Minister follow the lead of his predecessors and join the Society? Come off it…

James Ramsay MacDonald (1866-1937, pictured) was born, the illegitimate son of a farm labourer and a housemaid, in Lossiemouth – which, for the benefit of the Sassenachs is a town in Morayshire, and not a disease of cattle.

Although largely remembered for being Britain’s first Scottish Labour Prime Minister, MacDonald also had the distinction of being the second Prime Minister to become a Fellow of the Geological Society (1933). This will come as no surprise to those who have read past page 224 of Gordon Herries-Davies’s fascinating Bicentennial history of the Society (Reviews, June), for they will know that MacDonald had been interested by rocks since his early years.

The same might be said of the first PM to join the Society, Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850). Peel was a far more successful politician than MacDonald, though he started from a higher base. This was not only the man who (as Home Secretary) signed the paper awarding the Society its first rooms in Somerset House (1828), but who also did away with the Corn Laws, established the modern Conservative Party and, of course, laid the foundations for the modern police force. He became Prime Minister for the first time almost exactly a century before Ramsay MacDonald (1834-35) but like him had wide-ranging interests. Unlike MacDonald he had the wherewithal to indulge them.

For example, shortly after the Battle of Waterloo (1815), Peel visited France with a historian friend and fellow MP, John Wilson Croker (1780-1857). Croker was a meticulous collector of material connected to the French Revolution, and Peel’s fortune, derived from the textile industry, helped to fund his enthusiasm. The legacy is now to be found in the British Library, whose collections on this uniquely French topic rival (and, according to many specialists, surpass) those of its French counterpart, the Bibliothèque Nationale.

So, as well as using his political influence to help the Society into its apartments, William Buckland into the Deanship of Westminster and the BGS into existence, Peel’s scholarly benevolence also ensured the safety of Croker’s collection through his personal finance, and influence as a Trustee of the British Museum. How marvellous. But don’t forget - if the subject of this conniving had been, say, slavery rather than scholarship, we might take a different view.

As this Society (through industrial generosity) puts its entire mainstream published output online in the Lyell Centre, the state-funded Bibliothèque Nationale does the same for its archives through its (free) Gallica website (  And where is the state-funded British Library? The answer is – under threat of having its budget cut by 7% - a gauge of the UK Government’s interest in scholarly activity, as measured against that of its forebears, and its contemporaries across the channel.

So Gordon Brown and Prince Philip are not likely to want to become Fellows of the Society as their approximate predecessors did 100 and more years ago. Well, boo-hoo. Geologists are apt to forget that human history is not uniformitarian. Past processes were different both in type and intensity from those we see around us today. Remember that the words of Macdonald’s rival Stanley Baldwin used to adorn the lid of every tin of Presbyterian Mixture. That a serving PM could endorse any product – let alone tobacco – tells us this.

Victorian governments were of the very many by the extremely few, and their rulers’ sympathies reflected the interests of their class. It is a pipe-dream to wish the accidental and occasional benefits of that system back into being. As Council’s recent plan (Geoscientist 17.3 14-15) acknowledges, in a modern age, the challenge is to bring the interests of the scholarly few to the attention of the many.

Only then will scholarship command the greater sympathy of Prime Ministers and our Council consort again with the people’s princes. 

Ted Nield