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12 June 2008

Another George Lansbury?

The New Statesman's Stephen Brasher contrasts two very different politicians who both quit parliamen

By Stephen Brasher

It is very difficult to imagine two more different politicians that David Davis, Tory MP for Haltemprice and Howden and George Lansbury the one time leader of the Labour party who died in 1940.

Lansbury was a Christian pacifist who visited both Hitler and Mussolini in the hope of averting the Second World war, Davis is a pugnacious ex-SAS reservist.

But with Davis’s resignation to fight a by-election over the matter of 42 day detention, they now share an unusual distinction in parliamentary history – resignation on a matter of principle.

In 1910 after several parliamentary fights, Lansbury won the Bow and Bromley seat from the Unionist Alfred Du Cros and looked set for a long career in parliament. But only two years later he was out of the house again, not to return for a decade.

Lansbury had clashed with the Liberal prime minister Herbert Asquith and his home secretary Augustine Birrell over the treatment in prison of suffragettes and was famously excluded from the House of Commons after he had accused them of “the most disgraceful thing in the history of England, and will go down in posterity as the murder of innocent women”.

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He then resigned the seat he had won in the general election of 1910. In the subsequent by-election Lansbury was beaten by a Conservative and Unionist candidate called (irony of ironies), Mr Blair. He only returned in the general election of 1912.

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In his 1928 autobiography, My Life Lansbury gave his reasons for his decision: “It was a question on which I felt it was impossible to compromise.” Not so very different from David Davis’s resignation statement.

The contrasting attitude of their respective party leaders is interesting. David Cameron was immediately quoted as saying that Davis’s decision was a personal one that did not originate from the shadow cabinet or the Conservative party and filled his place in the shadow cabinet.

In contrast, as John Shepherd points out in his exemplary biography of Lansbury George Lansbury: At the heart of Old Labour, Ramsay Macdonald took a far warmer line towards his resigned colleague. He sent Lansbury a note more in sorrow than in anger: “ dear man are you sure that you are right? Is all this going to enfranchise women?”. Macdonald, although one of the most vilified figures in Labour history was only two years off a principled resignation of his own as party leader over the outbreak of the First World War. Like Lansbury, Macdonald was a pacifist and never saw his older colleague as a rival.