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 George Lansbury

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George Lansbury

  • Birth 21 Feb 1859 Haverhill, St Edmundsbury Borough, Suffolk, England
  • Death 7 May 1940 Highgate, London Borough of Camden, Greater London, England
  • Burial Cremated, Ashes scattered at sea
  • Memorial ID 26717672

Christian pacifist and leader of the British Labour Party.

George Lansbury, grandfather of actress Angela Lansbury, was the leader of the British Labour Party from 1932 to 1935. The esteemed historian, A. J. P. Taylor, regards Lansbury as "The most lovable figure in modern politics" due to his integrity at great personal cost and and unwavering, tireless work for peace.

Born in Suffolk, he was influenced by a Government advertising campaing to move to Australia at a young age with his wife, seeking to escape the destitution in late Victorian England. Finding conditions in Queensland to be just as harsh as at home, he returned to England, determined to expose the false advertising in the Government campaign and thereby joined the [Gladstonian] Liberal Party. Here he also became increasingly determined to improve conditions for the working poor in the slums around the major cities. He ran as a councillor in 1889 in order to campaign for legal enshrinement of the Eight Hour Day.

After failing to gain support for these industrial relations reforms from the party, he switched allegiance joined the Social Democratic Foundation in 1892. Lansbury found his relationship with H.M. Hyndman, leader of the SDF, increasingly difficult. Lansbury disliked Hyndman's dictatorial method of running the party, he also disagreed with his Marxist views. Lansbury's socialism had been inspired by the teachings of Jesus Christ, whereas Hyndman was a devout follower of Karl Marx, an atheist.

In 1903 Lansbury left the Social Democratic Federation and joined the Independent Labour Party, an organisation that contained a large number of Christian Socialists. Here he was elected to the House of Commons.

In 1912 he resigned his seat on principle in order to campaign for women's suffrage, a rare cause for a man of that era to become involved in. Losing a by-election on this issue, he did not return to parliament for ten years.

In 1913, charged with sedition for his support of the suffragettes, Lansbury was imprisoned in Pentonville.

Peace, however, was his earliest love, and at the age of 11 he silenced his elders with concern over the Franco-Prussian War. In 1900 he braved the jingoist patriotism of the Boer War to stand in the 'khaki' election as a socialist, denouncing the war as wicked. These statements put Lansbury at the very forefront of the modern pacifist movement, which had not moved beyond the narrow confines of Quakerism and other smaller religious sects into the wider public consciousness until after the First World War. Indeed, it was Lansbury who helped pave the way for the birth of modern pacifism due to his unshakeable conviction in its truth at a time when society still accepted warfare and nationalism as something "glorious". Few other secular voices apart from Emily Hobhouse and a few suffragettes were actively denouncing the Boer War.

In 1912, Lansbury founded the newspaper, Daily Herald, which became one of the most active voices in providing opposition to the First World War, publishing a headline "War Is Hell" upon outbreak of fighting.

As Labour Mayor of Poplar, one of London's poorest boroughs, Lansbury was instrumental in opening the first training school for destitute Poplar children in 1905 called Hutton Poplars situated near Hutton in the Essex countryside, the model for subsequent children's homes.

Lansbury then led the Poplar Rates Rebellion in 1921, opposing not only the Government and the London County Council, but leaders of his own party. The borough council, instead of forwarding the precept of collected tax monies to LCC, dispersed the money as aid to the needy. Thirty councillors, including six women, were jailed by the High Court for six weeks. Council meetings during this time were held in Brixton Prison, until the government grew uneasy about the imprisonment and LCC asked the High Court to release the prisoners. A rates revision was achieved and Lansbury returned to Parliament at the 1922 general election, this time standing for the British Labour Party, and he regained his old seat of Bromley and Bow.

Lansbury's standing within Labour continued growing and in 1927 he was elected Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party for 1927-28. In 1929 Lansbury became First Commissioner of Works in the second Labour government under Ramsay MacDonald. In this capacity, he was associated with the construction of numerous public works. This led to him gaining the popular title "First Commissioner for Good Works".

Two years later the government fell, MacDonald deserted the Labour party to form the National Government and the party went to a massive defeat in the 1931 General Election. The party's new leader Arthur Henderson and nearly every other leading Labour figure were defeated. Lansbury was the one exception and became Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party in 1931. The following year Henderson stood down from the leadership of the overall party and Lansbury succeeded him.

The Fulham East by-election in June 1933 was dominated by the issue of re-armament against Nazi Germany, following Germany's withdrawal from the League of Nations. Lansbury, a lifelong Christian pacifist, sent a message to the constituency in his position as Labour Leader:

"I would close every recruiting station, disband the Army and disarm the Air Force. I would abolish the whole dreadful equipment of war and say to the world 'do your worst'."

By 1935 Lansbury found he was denouncing war in the face of calls for military action due to a deteriorating international scene; Italy had invaded Abyssinia and the Labour Party executive were urging the government to call upon the League of Nations to act. He offered his resignation, but was persuaded by colleagues to stay on as leader. A few days after a moving speech in the Commons, Lansbury offered his resignation to Labour MPs and, despite their refusal to accept, he insisted and they reluctantly agreed.

As a pacifist and devout Christian, Lansbury had found himself increasingly at odds with the official foreign policy of the party he was leading. On several occasions he offered to resign the leadership but his parliamentary colleagues dissuaded him, not least because there was no clear alternative leader. However in late 1935 the disagreements became more severe and public. Many in the Labour Party, particularly the Trade Union wing led by Ernest Bevin, were pushing for the party to support sanctions against Italy for its aggression against Abyssinia. Lansbury fundamentally disagreed with this. In the weeks leading up to the Labour Party Conference Lansbury's position was weakened when both Lord Ponsonby, the Labour leader in the House of Lords, and the Labour frontbencher and National Executive member Stafford Cripps, widely seen as Lansbury's political heir, resigned from their positions because they too opposed sanctions and felt it would be impossible to lead a party when they were in disagreement with it on the major political issue of the day.

Many wondered how Lansbury's leadership could survive, even though he retained an immense personal popularity. At the Conference this was publicly displayed by delegates, but then during a debate on foreign policy Ernest Bevin launched a withering attack on Lansbury. Heavily defeated in the vote, Lansbury determined to resign as leader. At a meeting of Labour MPs called shortly afterwards there was a great reluctance to accept his resignation, partially out of continued support but also because many Labour MPs feared that the next leader would be Arthur Greenwood, widely seen as heavily aligned to trade unionists like Bevin. In a vote the MPs voted by 38:7 to not accept Lansbury's resignation, but he insisted on stepping down. When it came to selecting a successor (initially envisaged as a temporary position), Greenwood's name was not considered and the party instead unanimously elected Lansbury's deputy, Clement Attlee. As Attlee noted:

"Lansbury was by nature an evangelist rather than a Parliamentary tactician. Yet during those years in which he led the small Party in the House he showed great skill and powers of everyday leadership. A leading Conservative once replied to a Labour Member who said that he thought George Lansbury was one of the best men he had ever known - The best! Is that all? He's the ablest Opposition Leader that I have ever known." It was, of course, a great source of strength to him that he commanded the personal affection of his followers. He had also a wise tolerance - an attribute which is not so common in the enthusiast."

Lansbury was chair of the No More War Movement, chair of the War Resisters' International, 1936-1940, Chairman of the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship and President of the Peace Pledge Union, 1937-1940. He was a critic of British policy towards the Spanish Civil War and worked with Spanish pacifist José Brocca.

His efforts to prevent World War II led him, under the banner Embassies of Reconciliation, to visit most of the heads of government in Europe, including, controversially, both Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. He also visited U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

He was an unusually popular politician, an elder statesman with a considerable following. Amongst his passionate supporters were writers and intellectuals such as Virginia Woolf, Vera Brittain and Aldous Huxley.

One of the few politicians ever formally to move withholding all money from the armed forces, and thereby to abolish them, Lansbury came closer than any other political leader to turning Britain into a true pacifist state. His memoirs indicate that he was not naive about the threat posed by Hitler and Mussolini and he was indeed prepared to live out Christ's command to turn the other cheek. By the same token, his pacifism was in no way "passive" as he worked constructively for peace and sought ways to deal with the totalitarian leaders without giving into either conflict or appeasement. Dick Sheppard, founder of the Peace Pledge Union, of which Lansbury was President at the time of his death, called him 'Public Pacifist Number One'.

Lansbury's greatest legacy is perhaps his attempt to lead a truly Christian life, beyond just lip service, and maintain his personal integrity whilst leading a major party in the world of politics.

He died at the age of 81 at Highgate Hospital, North London. Burial details unknown at this time.

Gravesite Details Cremation at Ilford Crematorium. His ashes were scattered at sea

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  • Created by: D. L.
  • Added: 9 May 2008
  • Find A Grave Memorial 26717672
  • Michael Dunne
  • Find A Grave, database and images ( : accessed ), memorial page for George Lansbury (21 Feb 1859–7 May 1940), Find A Grave Memorial no. 26717672, ; Maintained by D. L. (contributor 46989421) Cremated, Ashes scattered at sea.