Good Old George = George Lansbury a modern prophet!
Just before I left Bideford at the final meeting I was able to attend of North Devon Anti Cuts Alliance I was given a book by my good friends Doug and Jim Lowe entitled Good Old George which is Bob Holman's biography of George Lansbury.
There is a story behind this choice of book. At a “Tough Choices” meeting in Bideford organised by Devon County Council as an act of seeking to create the illusion that the cuts the council ruling group had decided on had public support I had been one of a number of protestors. That night I had a real go at County Council leader John Hart quoting Magnificat to him and telling him to get of his knees and fight for the people of Devon like a real man. I also reminded him of councillors in Poplar led by George Lansbury who in 1921 had in defending their people gone to jail uttering the slogan “Better to break the law than break the poor!” Jim has told me since that such was the fury of my onslaught that he thought I was going to hit Councillor Hart – it has to be added the thought of doing so had not occurred to me!
Jim and Doug did however know that I was fascinated by Lansbury who was 100% Christian and 100% socialist.
So how has the book impacted on me?
Firstly I found myself drawn to the very ordinariness of Lansbury. His background as the son of a timekeeper in a firm of railwat contractors in Suffolk was solidly working class. Unlike many of today's politicians he never lost touch with his roots. His political career was very much based on a conviction that the people amongst whom he grew up deserved justice. Indeed while he went on to represent the people of East London where he lived subsequent to an ill feted spell in Australia he remained very much a man of the people with a home that was open to people in need in a way that one cannot imagine being the case with today's politicians. No wonder children called him “Good Old George.”
At a young age Lansbury became a Christian and whilst he drifted away from the church for a period of time in his younger days, the teachings of Christ held great influence over him. Examples of this are his passion to combat poverty which led him to be a Poor Law Commissioner at a young age where his actions significantly improved the wellbeing of residents in the local workhouse and which later fired him as Labour leader in the 1930s when a National Government was permitting mass unemployment with its attendant sufferings. His commitment and passion is that which we need from today's opposition leaders! In between as as leader of Poplar Councillors in 1921 he was imprisoned for defending the interests of some of the poorest people in the country – hence the slogan “Better to break the law than break the poor!”
The same Christian influence made him an inveterate opponent of war. Whilst in recent years the Labour Party has been led by a man who cajoled them into supporting an illegal war sold on false premises, Lansbury heroically and at some cost in terms of being physically attacked, opposed the slaughter that was the First world War. He believed that Christ tells us in word and example that to kill is wrong. This commitment to non violence would eventually be destructive in terms of his leadership of the Labour Party. He knew that faced with the radical evil that is Nazism his principles would be unnacceptable to the party he was so committed to. He was willing to step down but persuaded not to do so until Bevin administered the final and ruthless coup de grace. He carried on making efforts to avert a war but was to sadly die early in the Second World War.
What can one say about this? In a way he was unlucky to lead the Labour Party at a time when the most radically evil force in modern history was threatening all that was decent. Many said that on the peace matter he was not practical but his opposition to the First World War had been practical and if heeded might have saved the world from the horrors not just of 1914-18 but also 1939-45. Still in a world today when so much of politics is conducted by “dessicated calculating machine” type politicians playing a game I find something very attractive about a man who demonstrated deep principles rooted in Christ. Certainly a question that comes from studying Lansbury is how one handles seeming contradictions between real politics and faith. In the case of war Lansbury himself is aware that pacifism has its costs and needs to be conducted with bravery. Yet who can say that war is without cost and often contributes to a continuation of the cycle of violence and destruction.
Lansbury stands out on other issues as well. He was a supporter of womens' suffrage at a time when many in the labour movement regarded it as a side issue. Lansbury even resigned his Parliamentary seat over the issue to fight a by election which he lost. Another example it might be said of principle winning out over political judgement. Equally he stood firm in a conviction regarding the advantages of total abstinence. It is likely that this concern regarding alcohol came from having a father who drank rather too much. The later George Thomas who was later to be Speaker of the House of commons recalled with thanksgiving a visit by Lansbury to his constituency to speak against the demon drink which both men felt had destructive effects on many families.
Of course Lansbury made political misjudgements. Yet I see him as an inspirational follower of Jesus. His life reminds us of the twin gospel imperatives of being in solidarity with the poor and opposing the very principle of war. These stances built on Jesus are stances that Christians and Socialists today would do well to emulate. Every time I read more than a page or two of scriptures I come to the conclusion that to neglect these emphases is inconsistent with being follower as opposed to fans of Jesus.
In the next few weeks I will re read the book with more care than I managed on my first reading. I want to reconnect with the vision of a man whose politics were of the greatest nobility. But then as a follower of Jesus I know that for me discipleship means being in solidarity with the poor and being an inveterate enemy of war even if such a path is countercultural.