Was Eglantyne Jebb the best MP Cambridge never had?

…and was it her own party, the Liberal Party under Sir Henry Campbell Bannerman and H H Asquith who denied her the chance to stand for election by opposing not just votes for women, but also the right for women to stand for parliament?

It seems like every day, I make another new finding about Cambridge Hero Eglantyne Jebb.

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Miss Eglantyne Jebb – Cambridge civic activist who would later co-found the Save the Children charity.

“That’s quite a question – and an accusation!”

The background is this.

The 1910 the country went to the polls amidst a constitutional crisis. The House of Lords had blocked David Lloyd George’s People’s Budget – a transcript of the speech can be found here. They blocked it because of the financial penalties many would have to face from the proposed new land value tax and of the proposed super-tax on the very wealthy. In an era where all of the peers of the realm had seats in the Lords through birthright, the idea that they could block a budget was (and is) a democratic outrage. The result of which was something that still affects us today – the House of Lords may not block a Finance Bill.

As Andrew Marr explains, there were a host of pressures: Building more battleships, and to deal with poverty that was stubbornly persistence not just in Cambridge, but across the country. You can see why the People’s Budget would have been popular with someone like Eglantyne Jebb given her report on Cambridge in 1906.

As Marr says in the video, Lloyd George’s People’s Budget was passed following the January 1910 general election. But that wasn’t the end of it – Asquith then took on the Lords. In 1910 King Edward VII died and was replaced by George V. Worried about the security of his throne, Marr said Asquith would need to win another special general election in order to get his way. Asquith – again with the support of the Irish Parliamentary Party was able to form a government again. And from a national level, the rest is history.

Cambridge Liberals lose by less than 400 votes

It was also in the January 1910 General Election that Liberal MP for Cambridge, Stanley Owen Buckmaster KC (King’s Counsel) was defeated by Almeric Paget. Buckmaster was one of many Liberal MPs to lose his seat as the numbers show, and as Phil Rodgers tweeted below.

Asquith remained in office as Prime Minister due to the support of the Irish Parliamentary Party. Remember in those days, there was no Republic of Ireland – it pre-dated the Irish War of Independence. Instead, constituencies in what is now the Republic were represented in Westminster.

The London Daily News of 30 November did not pull its punches with Paget.

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“For the last eleven months Cambridge might as well have been disfranchised for all the impression its member has made on the assembly to which he was sent as a member…he has yet to make his maiden speech in the House”

Understandably, the Liberals wanted to regain Cambridge as soon as possible, and the news that they had a chance got Eglantyne mobilised, as the London Daily News again writes.

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“The Liberal organisation has been materially strengthened since January, thanks largely to the efforts of Miss Eglantyne Jebb, and there is no reason why the Conservative Majority of 585 should not be converted into a healthy deficit.

Unfortunately for the liberals and for Eglantyne, Paget was returned again in December 2010, the polls barely moving.

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She got a glowing write-up in the Cambridge Independent Press in the middle of 1910 – before she knew there would be a general election in December of that year.

 

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She was quoted above as saying the following:

“I was a long time realising that the social reform on the part of the Conservatives is like charity in the hands of a Lady Bountiful – everything to be made nice and pleasant, but the ‘upper class’ is to be respected and obeyed. The corruption of elections first opened my eyes and I came to believe that no social reform could be of use that did not promote the independence of the people.”

Almost as a footnote, the Cambridge Independent Press writes:

“Miss Jebb has written a book on Cambridge which has gone into a second edition, and that she is a member of the Borough [of Cambridge – ie what is now Cambridge City Council] Education Committee…and is an excellent public speaker”

Provocatively, I tweeted through my dragon Puffles that she should have been the candidate in 1910 – noting that women were barred from voting for Parliament.

Phil Rodgers again, stating that women could not stand for Parliament until 1918. Which makes me wonder what would have happened if Asquith’s government pre-war had lifted the ban on women voting and standing for Parliament. (I rephrased that from Asquith giving them the right – for me the right to vote and the right to stand for election is eternal. It requires someone to take those rights away to stop them).

Following the 1910 general elections, it makes me wonder what would have happened if the Liberals had made clear in their program for government that women would not only have the vote but also the ability to stand for election to Parliament, whether Eglantyne Jebb would have been prepared, supported and encouraged to put her name forward for what would have been the 1914 or 1915 general election. As it turned out, war intervened and Cambridge returned Conservative candidates up until the 1945 general election.

It’s too easy for someone like me to blame Asquith single-handedly for Eglantyne Jebb not being selected as a liberal candidate for Cambridge. In any case the upheaval of not just the First World Wars, but the Balkan wars of 1913 took her attention away from Cambridge, and onto her greater achievements in founding Save The Children. Just before writing this blogpost I noticed a volunteer in south-eastern Europe from Save The Children was being interviewed on TV for Channel 4 news. And I thought of Eglantyne & her legacy.

But there was another reason she needed to leave Cambridge as well as the poor health of her mother, who she accompanied on journey to the various treatment spas of continental Europe.

According to Clare Mulley’s excellent biography of Eglantyne, she was bisexual, and was at the peak of a passionate relationship with Margaret Keynes – sister of John Maynard Keynes. They way Mulley describes their relationship is one of the most wonderfully written yet some of the most saddest pieces of literature I have ever read. Perhaps because as a reader I have become so enthralled at the work Eglantyne did for Cambridge – my home. It was when Margaret accepted a proposal from Archibald Hill in 1913 that Eglantyne moved onto the work that she would become internationally famous for, starting off with a journey to the Balkans.

Such was the nature of Eglantyne that even if the Liberals had picked her out as a future MP for Cambridge, the impact of her separation from Margaret would have been too great for her to cope with. I can imagine her wanting to have moved on elsewhere rather than staying inside the social bubble that she otherwise thrived in to the benefit of the people of Cambridge. The one thing that strikes me as I read Mulley’s book, newspaper articles, other biographies and even her own works is that Eglantyne had a huge yearning for a close adult life companion and had a huge amount of love to give. A situation I can empathise with. Yet tragically Eglantyne never found that long term love she was searching for. Such was the force that she threw herself into the work that she did, she worked herself into an early grave, dying at the age of 52.

The few photographs that I’ve been able to see of Eglantyne also speak volumes. We know she had a thyroid problem – her hair turning bright white by her forties from the flame-haired beauty we see described in her teens and twenties. You can see when she’s healthy, and you can also see when she is going through a period of ill health.

Despite all that, I still like to think that had things turned out differently, Eglantyne would have made a wonderful Member of Parliament for Cambridge. Differently- whether in her personal life or whether with the outbreak of the First World War, or even the dates of securing votes for women. But it was never to be. Yet she left Cambridge with the incredible legacy not just of the book that she wrote, but how she went about researching it. This is something I’m going to be coming back to in a future post.

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