A League of Nations, For Nations? Part 2

Labour Party Plaque from Caroone House, 14 Farringdon Street

As the Party Conference took place, Benito Mussolini invaded Ethiopia, which increased the urgency of the situation, and the “need” to adopt the National Executive Committee’s [the chief policy and executive body of the Labour Party] resolution which called upon the National Government to use “all necessary measures provided by the Covenant,” and called for sanctions against Italy. [1]

The debate was controversial throughout. It had to be, as it was as much a confict over the Party’s conscience as over its policy toward Italian aggression. Hugh Dalton opened the debate on October 1 with a strong speech, asking at one point: “Do we stand firm, or shall we run away?… Who is for running away? We shall count them at the end of this Debate.” [2] He concluded his speech with a question:

Are we going to play the part of a great comrade among nations, or are we going to slink impotently into the shadows; impotent by our own choice; unfaithful to our solemn pledges; not a comrade but a Judas among the nations; deservedly left, as we should be, without a friend in the world; preparing, through our own dishonour, our own sure downfall at no distant date?” [3]

This question was answered by Sir Stafford Cripps, who spoke after Dalton. In his speech, he attempted to shift the emphasis of the debate, saying: “To me, the central factor in our decision must turn not so much upon what we as a country should or should not do, but upon who is in control of our actions.” [4] In other words, the Labour Party should not consider for a moment giving arms to the National Government, for they might well use the weapons against the Soviet Union rather than Germany or Italy. [5] The following year, he wrote that:

it is impossible for us to serve two masters – our own selfish interests as British imperialists and our own desire for peace as wrold citizens. The interests of the British Empire and the world are not identical. [6]

But the real controversy came two days later, on October 3, when Lansbury made the most memorable speech of his life attacking the resolution. He began by saying:

I want everyone to understand that it is difficult for me to stand here today and publicly repudiate a big fundamental piece of policy. If I were in any doubt about that policy, I am sure that I should not take the line I am taking, but I ask Conference to believe me when I say that I have never been more convinced that I am right, and that the Movement is making a terrible mistake, than I am today. [7]

He stated his belief that “force never has and never will bring permanent peace and permanent goodwill in the world.” [8] He then spoke of what he would do if he were Prime Minister:

If I had the power to go to Geneva [the League of Nations] backed by our people… I would say… that Great Britain… was finished with imperialism, that we were willing that all the peoples under our flag, wherever you can establish government, should be free to establish their own Governments, that there should be no such thing as domination… And I would say further that… we would be willing to become disarmed unilaterally. [9]

He realized that he espoused the minority position in the Labour Party, and that he might never again address the Conference as Party Leader – at which point, cries of “No,” rang throughout the hall. Nevertheless, he repeated his belief that “Those who take the sword shall perish by the sword.” He concluded his speech by saying:

When I was sick [10] and on my back ideas came into my head, and one was that the only thing worth while for old men to do is to at least say the thing they believe, and to at least try to warn the young of the dangers of force and compulsion… It is said that people like me are irresponsible. I am no more irresponsible a leader than the greatest Trade Union leader in the country. I live my life, as they do, amongst ordinary people… If mine were the only voice in this Conference, I would say in the name of the faith I hold, the belief I have that God intended us to live peacefully and quietly with one another, if some people do not allow us to do so, I am ready to stand as the early Christians did, and say, “This is our faith, this is where we stand, and if necessary, this is where we will die.” [11]

It was a superb peroration, with all delegates save those from two of the trade unions rising to to sing “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow.” [12] It seemed for a moment that Lansbury had captured the hearts, and perhaps the votes, of many of the delegates. [13] At just that moment, however, Ernest Bevin rose and proceeded slowly to the rostrum. The speech he gave would also be memorable, known not for its idealism, but for its brutality. He began:

Let me remind the delegates, that when George Lansbury says what he has said, it is rather late to say it, and I hope this Conference will not be influenced by either sentiment or personal attachment. I hope you will carry no resolution of an emergency character telling a man with a conscience like Lansbury what he ought to do. If he finds that he ought to take a certain course, then his conscience should direct him as to the course he should take. It is placing the Executive and the Movement in an absolutely wrong position to be taking your conscience round from body to body to be told what you ought to do with it. [14]

At this moment, he was interrupted with boos, and he shouted “It is all very well to cheer someone you like and interrupt somebody you do not like, but I ask you to hear the arguments.” [15] He then continued:

There is a quotation from the Scriptures which George Lansbury has quoted today which I think he ought to apply to himself – “Do onto others.” I have had to sit in Conference with the Leader and come to decisions, and I am a democrat and I feel that we have been betrayed… [16]

He ended his speech by belitting the crux of Lansbury’s argument:

They [George Lansbury and other pacifists] say that who takes the sword shall perish by the sword. The man who has taken the sword is Mussolini and because Mussolini has taken the sword we stand by the Scriptural doctrine and say that he shall perish by economic sanctions… [17]

The speech was received with some hostility by the delegates, and when reproached by one of the delegates afterwards over the tone of the speech, Bevin replied “Lansbury has been going around dressed in saint’s clothes for years waiting for martyrdom: I set fire to the faggots.” [18] Hardly any participant at the Conference, when later describing what went on, has failed to censure Bevin for “an unnecessary brutality.” [19]

Yet it was singularly effective in demolishing not only Lansbury but the “pacifist” wing as well. [20] When Lansbury tried to respond, most did not want to listen to him, and the microphones were turned off. [21] The next day, 2,168,000 votes [95 percent of the Conference] were cast in favor of the N.E.C. resolution as opposed to only 102,000 that favored Lansbury’s position. It was perhaps the most crushing defeat of any political leader in the 20th Century. Seldom has a Labour Party Conference vote been so lopsided. [22]

The following week, Lansbury resigned as Leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party.


[1] John F. Naylor, Labour’s International Policy: The Labour Party in the 1930s, (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969), p. 103.

[2] Ibid.

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

[4] Geoffrey Foote, The Labour Party’s Political Thought, 3rd ed., (NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), p. 156, quoting Labour Party Annual Conference Report, 1935, p. 156.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., pp. 156-57, quoting Sir Stafford Cripps, The Struggle for Peace, (London: Victor Gollancz, 1936), p. 156.

[7] Jonathan Scheer, Lives on the Left: George Lansbury, (NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1990), p. 171, quoting Labour Party Annual Conference Report, 1935, p. 175.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Lansbury had suffered an accident in December 1933 at a speech engagement, and broke his thigh. He was out of action for the succeeding nine months, during which Clement Attlee, his deputy, took over as Acting Leader. [See Raymond Postage, The Life of George Lansbury, (London: Longmans, Green & Co, 1951), pp. 290-92.]

[11] Ibid., quoting pp. 175-77. Also see Charles Loch Mowat, Britain Between the Wars, 1918-40, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1955), p. 552.

[12] Postgate, p. 302.

[13] Schneer, p. 172.

[14] Alan Bullock, The Life and Times of Ernest Bevin, v. 1., (London: Heinemann, 1960), p. 568.

[15] Schneer, p. 174.

[16] Andrew Reekes, ed., Documents and Debates: The Rise of Labour, 1899-1951 (London: Macmillan, 1991), p. 91, quoting from Labour Party Annual Conference Report, 1935, quoted by F. Bealey, The Social and Political Thought of the British Labour Party, (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1970), pp. 147-48.

[17] Naylor., p. 107.

[18] Bullock, p. 570, quoting Francis Williams, Ernest Bevin,, (London: Hutchinson, 1952,) p. 196.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Schneer, pp. 174-75.

[21] Postgate, p. 304.

[22] Carl F. Brand, The British Labour Party, (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1974), p. 184.