Good Old George, The Life of George Lansbury by Bob Holman book review

LeftCentral Book Review

In 1933 George Lansbury was hospitalised, his injuries sustained whilst campaigning to keep the British Labour Party afloat.  No easy task, the party a rump after the 1931 election – Labour reduced to 52 seats, compared to the 287 won in 1929.  As Labour Leader he played a vital constitutional role during a precarious time for democracy. According to Stanley Baldwin, Lansbury`s leadership of the opposition, “helped to keep the flag of Parliamentary government flying in the world”.  A remarkable tribute, after all he had previously gone to prison in pursuit of his political beliefs, even participating in a hunger strike.  And his commitment to constitutionalism dimmed briefly in 1912 when he flirted with syndicalism.

This biography is a sympathetic portrayal, which endeavours to “correct the neglect and misrepresentation of Lansbury”. It`s not however a hagiography, academic criticism cited from LCB Seaman describing Lansbury as “politically illiterate” and Henry Pelling who considered him “a poor leader because of his tendency to woolly-minded sentimentality.”  The contemporary newspaper the Evening Times ridiculed Lansbury as “Old Muddlehead” revising this scornful view after his successful tenure as Cabinet Minister in the 1929-1931 administration.  Lansbury became the first Commissioner of Works, adroit in dealing with an intransigent civil service a `can do` Minister in a stagnant age. His response to opposition from Whitehall was to say, “Well, brother, you`ve given a very fine explanation of what can`t be done. Now I want you just to sit down and work out what can be done”.  He became known as the “First Commissioner for Good Works”.  He mastered his own department whilst advocating an alternative economic approach.  Lansbury never forgot about the poor, doing everything he could to ameliorate their condition, his abiding legacy.

Lansbury vociferously supported the Mosley economic plan in Cabinet but “Snowden dismissed it out of hand”.  He didn’t resign as he did in 1912 (forcing a by-election which he lost on the issue of female suffrage).  In a stroke of Machiavellian mischief MacDonald handed Lansbury the job of selling the government’s unimaginative and cruel economic policy: based on the prevailing economic orthodoxy of balanced budgets, mass unemployment and cuts.  In Cabinet, Lansbury argued for the opposite but his public advocacy of government policy led to criticism, the need for Cabinet loyalty kept him silent.

Holman’s biography whilst a revisionist thesis is also objective and a well argued appraisal.  He highlights flaws; Lansbury playing an insignificant role in the reorganisation of the Labour Party during the inter-war years.  His editorship of the Daily Herald as Holman concedes, divorced Lansbury from party policy, a view shared by Alan Bullock in his biography of Bevin, who said of the newspaper, “far from being the official Labour daily at the time, it was heretical by instinct as well as conviction”.  One should add a caveat, Bevin and Lansbury were adversaries; Michael Foot arguing that academic opinion, “relied too heavily on the writings and perspectives of Ernie Bevin and Dalton”.

Lansbury played a significant policy role, outside the Labour Party, particularly in the production of the Minority Report.  Resulting from his appointment to a Royal Commission (as a Poor Law Guardian) its recommendations published in 1909.  Among other things, it called for the breaking up of the Poor Law, the findings associated with Beatrice Webb but Lansbury along with Russell Wakefield and Francis Chandler played a part in producing what Margaret Cole ranked as “one of the great State Papers of this century” and Holman argues became “a cornerstone of the future welfare state”.  Cole gave all the credit to the Webb`s “yet Lansbury also made an important contribution.  Unlike Beatrice, he knew about poverty from first hand and, unlike her, he had extensive experience as a Poor Law administrator”.  Holman explains that Lansbury promoted the Minority Report across Britain (assisted by Will Crooks) and Lansbury also wrote extensively on the issue.

George Lansbury came out of the ethical socialist tradition that shaped Ramsay Macdonald and Keir Hardie.  A born again Christian he clearly gained inspiration from the Bible, though he also “went to hear Charles Bradlaugh” speak.  Lansbury read Robert Blanchford, John Bruce and Katherine Glasier.  But his ideas were also fashioned by his direct experience of poverty and injustice.  In 1884 he was hoodwinked by glossy adverts to leave for Australia; in Brisbane the authorities made the new arrivals “feel almost like the convicts who had previously colonized the land”.  George ended up as a “stonebreaker” a role associated with pauperism in Britain.  With the support of his father-in-law he returned to Britain, where he became politically active.

Lansbury worked for the Bow and Bromley Liberal Association, although he was drawn to the socialism of the Socialist Democratic Federation.  The Liberal party realising his enormous potential failed to persuade him to stay. Samuel Montagu a man of significant wealth told Lansbury that he gave a tenth of his wealth away each year to the poor.  Lansbury replied, “Yes, I know how good you are and respect you more than it is possible to say, but, my dear friend, we Socialists want to prevent you getting the nine-tenths”.  Lansbury rejected a generous financial offer from Montagu and left the Liberals.  George eventually also parted company with Henry Hyndman over the issue of violence as a means to a political end, pacifism became an abiding theme throughout Lansbury`s life.  A significant loss, Hyndman stated that Lansbury “was on the whole the best organiser the Social Democratic Federation ever had.”  He eventually found himself in the Labour Representation Committee, later known as the Labour Party.

All the key political stages of Lansbury`s life are outlined in this biography, as a poor law Guardian, Poplarism, imprisonment and the struggle for female suffrage, are detailed in full.  I was delighted to reacquaint myself with this book after so many years. Though somewhat perplexed by the lack of analysis on one particular issue, linked to Lansbury`s pacifism and Ireland.  There is a lengthy quote from a Lansbury speech apparently made in or around 1917, to a mass meeting celebrating the Russian revolution.  In the speech, Lansbury makes a somewhat oblique reference to the Easter Rising in Dublin 1916, “…where Williams is sitting sat James Connolly.  He and his murdered colleagues of a year ago were just too soon, that is all; and, friends, we British people have got to clear that Irish question up…”  This quote required analysis and clarification but I was frustrated to discover no commentary on this in the text, the lack of significance evident, Connolly isn’t even cited in the index.

However this doesn’t detract from what is an outstanding book.  While convalescing from his injuries in the 1930s, Lansbury wrote My England, “written in plain English, this book manages to be both straightforward and beautiful” the same could also be said about this biography.

Bob Holman, Good Old George: The life of George Lansbury Best-loved leader of the Labour party Lion Publishing plc (1990), 208 pages: ISBN 074591574 4

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