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The Labour M.P. George N. Barnes and The Creation of the International Labour Organisation in 1919: A Philosophical Re-Evaluation


My PhD thesis examined the role of the Labour MP George N. Barnes (1859-1940) in the establishment of the International Labour Organisation in 1919. It focused primarily on the creation of the Labour Convention (Chapter XIII, the ‘Labour Chapter’ in the Treaty of Versailles) and its adoption by the Peace Conference. Barnes considered this his proudest achievement; however Labour Party historiography had not adequately taken account of his valuable contribution to the advance of social and economic justice for the world’s workers. Barnes' management of the challenges presented by his dual role as representative of British organised labour and plenipotentiary with the British Empire Delegation showed that he was particularly well suited to achieve the Convention's oft-contentious passage. The findings gave clearer understanding of the particular role that Barnes played as an international diplomat and spokesman for organised labour in the novel Peace Conference setting, and how he channelled contemporary ideas about labour’s place in the post-war world while also advancing some of his own long-held policy ideals.
The aim of my thesis was to provide fresh insight into George N. Barnes as a trade unionist and politician and ascertain how his work in Paris helped Britain’s ‘socialist’ Labour Party achieve an image of respectability years before forming its first Government in 1924. This involved in part an assessment of his particular strain of socialism and how it compared to other variants of the age: it was found, for example, that the language of the nascent 'new internationalism' was resonant in many ways with communitarian socialism's core tenets.

An in-depth examination of his background, beliefs and political ideology showed that Barnes was an important figure whom historians of the early Labour Party should take more account. For this seminar, I intend to discuss some of the more salient philosophical points that this research revealed; in part, the extent to which Barnes' agency was a synthesis of his personal beliefs, how he took advantage of the opportunity presented by his association with Lloyd George, and how the competing constraints and demands of public office shaped his evolution from domestic politician to international statesman. This phenomenon not only paralleled the journey of many of Barnes' contemporaries, but also mirrored a universal re-evaluation of nationalism, sovereignty and the ultimate power of the labour movement as total war and its aftermath forced a global reckoning. 

Dr Rebecca Korbet completed her PhD at King’s College London in 2019.

All welcome- this event is free but booking is required.