A League of Nations, For Nations? Part 1

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Labour Party Plaque from Caroone House, 14 Farringdon Street

Before 1935, the “fascist menace” – that is, the threat represented by Italy and Germany, was not a threatening one. Both were right-wing militaristic dictatorships, both virulently anti-labor and anti-socialist. Both had done many unpleasant things inside their borders. Yet neither upset the European balance of power in any significant way. After 1935, this was to change.

In 1935, Benito Mussolini launched an invasion of Ethiopia – ostensibly to avenge Adowa. [1] As this was occurring, the Labour Party’s hidden tensions suddenly emerged and exploded. After the dust settled, the party had a new parliamentary leader, and one of its branches was dealt a fatal blow.

In 1931, in the midst of its greatest electoral defeat ever, [2] the Labour Party had picked George Lansbury, then 72 years old, as its Leader. At the time, Lansbury was, in many ways, the ideal choice. He was, as historian Kenneth Harris has written:

in many ways ideal… He was the only one of the veteran Labour leaders who had survived the carnage of 1931. He had been the wartime pacifist idol of the I.L.P. [Independent Labour Party, or precursor to Labour Party]. He had been the prophet of “Poplarism.” [3] He had built up The Daily Herald and had founded Lansbury’s Weekly. [4] In the 1931 crisis, nobody had more strenuously resisted the cuts in unemployment pay than he had. More than any living Labour leader, Lansbury represented socialist idealism – under no other leader could the little band of forty-six have marched into the voting lobby [of the Commons] singing “The Red Flag.” [5] His followers loved him, and trusted him. They knew that in no circumstances would any duchess want to kiss him. [6]

Yet as Hitler rose to power, and agressors such as Japan [7] began proving the need for sanctions and perhaps rearmament, Lansbury began to look more and more quaint. He was a relic, no doubt revered, but still a relic. As some party leaders, most noticeably Ernest Bevin [a powerful trade union boss, who controlled much of the right-wing of the Labour Party], began to reassess the world situation, they found Lansbury to be out of touch.

This thought was reinforced when Lansbury clung to his beliefs throughout 1935, despite Italy’s increasingly threatening posture towards Ethiopia. In a debate on August 1, 1935, he insisted that the Labour Party stand by the League of Nations in the dispute over Abyssinia, but also said that he would not, if he was Prime Minister, send the British Fleet to intervene. [8] In effect, this admission made the policy of collective security [The prominent foreign policy of Labour during the 1920s and ’30s that promoted national disarmament of weapons, and collective, i.e., League of Nations security instead.] rather a farce. Instead of advocating his Party’s policy, he mused:

Why cannot the British Government, taking the British people into their confidence, go to a disarmament conference and put our whole on the alter of international service, and go to a world economic conference and say, “We are the greatest Imperial nation in the world, we built up the greatest Empire in the world; we are willing, for the sake of peace and security, to put it all at the service of mankind?” [9]

Immediately after Lansbury said this, the various Trade Union leaders began to apply pressure on Lansbury to conform to the Party’s [i.e., their] position. In early September, Lansbury was invited to speak before the Trades Unions Congress [T.U.C., the British equivalent of the AFL-CIO] Annual Conference held in Margate, England.

At the conference, Walter Citrine, head of the T.U.C., told the delegates that to vote against the current Labour foreign policy [of collective security] “… will mean turning down our leader, George Lansbury.” [10] When Lansbury asked Citrine for permission to state his own position on the Ethiopian crisis, Citrine curtly replied that he could only state the Party’s position. Lansbury then gave a non-committal speech, which was interpreted by many of his followers as a sell-out. [11] Lansbury, dismayed at being miscontrued, issued a public statement on September 8, 1935:

During the whole period I have been serving as Leader of the Labour Party, I have made it quite clear that under no circumstances could I support the use of armed force, either by the League of Nations or by individual nations… My own view remains if anything, stronger than ever and… I should quite loyally and cheerfully make way for someone who would be able the voice [the] views… of my colleagues… on this matter than it is possible for me to do. [12]

This and other similar speeches ignited a storm of controversy. Among other things, it aroused the anger of Ernest Bevin, a power to be crossed at one’s peril during the 1930s.

Bevin’s anger was very explicable: Lansbury was being disloyal to the movement. The movement did or was about to make a decision, and Lansbury’s job was to implement it, not to rally against it. As Peter Weiler, a recent biographer of Bevin, has put it, it was Bevin’s opinion that “decisions, once arrived at, had to be accepted and applied.” [13] Bevin said at the time that “If the movement is going to win the country, when it is faced with a crisis, it has got to give confidence it is capable of coming to a decision.” [14]

Thus the stage was set for the Annual Party Conference, which was held from September 30 to October 6, 1935, at Brighton.

Footnotes:

[1] Charles Loch Mowat, Britain Between the Wars, 1918-1940, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1955), p. 542.

Adowa was the 1896 battle in which Italy was defeated by Ethiopia, and her imperialist aims somewhat thwarted.

[2] The Party went from 287 seats that were won in 1929, to 46!! All former Cabinet members, save Lansbury, were defeated.

[3] In 1921, Lansbury and fellow Poplar [a East-End borough of London] government leaders went to jail for six weeks to protest the unfair taxation of poorer areas of London, while richer areas were not taxed as much. He won every one of his demands, and instantly became a hero, and remained one for the remainder of his life, because of this.

[4] The Daily Herald was the party newspaper, edited by Lansbury from 1912-22.

Lansbury’s Weekly was the center of “Left” opposition to MacDonald during the 1920s. See James Jupp, The Radical left in Britain, 1931-41, (London: Frank Case, 1982), p. 6.

[5] The Party’s anthem, a socialist song.

[6] Kenneth Harris, Attlee, (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1982), p. 13.

This last sentence refers to James Ramsay MacDonald, the former leader of the Labour Party, who was commonly known to have desired to be a part of London high society. In fact, some have put forward the idea that he betrayed the Labour Party [in 1931, during the Financial Crisis] to accomplish this!!

[7] In 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria. Despite League of Nations sanctions, it remained, and just resigned from the League. It was the first nation to openly defy the League.

[8] House of Commons Debates, Fifth Series, vol. 304, 1 August 1935, col. 2894.

[9] Ibid., col. 2898.

[10] John F. Naylor, Labour’s International Policy: The Labour Party in the 1930s, (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969), p. 98.

[11] Maurice Cowding, The Impact of Hitler, (NY: Cambridge University Press, 1975), p. 83.

[12] Ibid., quoting Lansbury, statement of September 8, 1935, The Manchester Guardian, September 9, 1935.

[13] Peter Weiler, Lives on the Left: Ernest Bevin, (NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1993), p. 91.

[14] Ibid., quoting Bevin, Labour Party Annual Conference Report, 1935,, pp. 153-56.

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