Arthur Augustus William Harry Ponsonby (18711946), by Sir William Rothenstein, 1925
Ponsonby, Arthur Augustus William Harry, first Baron Ponsonby of Shulbrede (18711946), politician and peace campaigner, was born on 16 February 1871 in Windsor Castle, the third and youngest son of , Queen Victoria's private secretary, and his wife, [see under ], the daughter of John Crocker Bulteel MP. , was his elder brother. The Ponsonbys came from Cumberland, where they were established in the thirteenth century; an Irish branch of the family became the earls of Bessborough. His paternal grandfather, Sir Frederic Ponsonby, served in the Peninsular War and miraculously survived the battle of Waterloo. Arthur Ponsonby grew up in the courtly atmosphere of Windsor Castle, served as page of honour to the queen, and went to school (188590) in Warre-Cornish's house at Eton College, of which he became captain, and was elected to Pop, the Eton society. After two years at Balliol College, Oxford (189092), he went abroad to learn German and French and in 1894 passed into the diplomatic service. Following service in Constantinople and Copenhagen he moved to the Foreign Office in 1900.
While still in the diplomatic service Ponsonby married, on 12 April 1898, Dorothea
, the daughter of the composer . They settled down at Shulbrede Priory, Sussex, which Ponsonby was able to buy in 1905. Restoring this semi-ruined Augustinian priory turned farmhouse became a lifelong interest, about which he wrote in The Priory and Manor of Lynchmere and Shulbrede (1920). The couple's first child, Elizabeth, was born in 1900 and their son, Matthew, in 1904. All the family are musically portrayed in Hubert Parry's delightful piano pieces Shulbrede Tunes. While at Oxford in the 1920s Matthew became a friend of Evelyn Waugh, and his sister, Elizabeth, whose exotic life in the social set known as the bright young people caused her parents much anguish, became in part the model for Waugh's heroine Agatha Runcible in his novel Vile Bodies.
Ponsonby resigned from the Foreign Office in 1902 in order to further a career in politics. He served first in the Liberal Central Association office and then in 1906, after defeat at Taunton, was appointed principal private secretary to the prime minister, Campbell-Bannerman. When Campbell-Bannerman died in 1908, Ponsonby won the resulting by-election for the Stirling burghs, a seat he held until 1918. He achieved notoriety almost immediately after his election by voting against the king's proposed visit to Russia and in consequence found himself excluded from the guest list of the king's garden party. This storm in a teacup established Ponsonby as a radical, opposed to Liberal Imperialism.
Ponsonby's move to the left was evident in his reflections on luxury and poverty, The Camel and the Needle's Eye (1910), and The Decline of the Aristocracy (1912), which, in spite of its title, was a critique of the upper classes' continued social dominance. About 1908 he gave up the Anglican faith into which he was born. His particular interest was in foreign affairs. The radicals had some success in creating parliamentary machinery to control defence spending and were working on the creation of a foreign affairs committee before being overtaken by events in 1914.
In 1914 Ponsonby, who had refused appointment as a junior whip in the previous year, was leading a small group of radical Liberals opposed to Grey's foreign policy, and he was one of only five MPs who spoke out against war in the debate of 3 August 1914. After the declaration of war, together with E. D. Morel, Norman Angell, C. P. Trevelyan, and Ramsay MacDonald, Ponsonby founded the , a pressure group whose actions during the war not only sustained the dissenting tradition in English politics but significantly shaped the debate on war aims. Planning a new international order to replace the balance of power became an overriding objective. Ponsonby was a member of the Bryce group that began in late 1914 to formulate proposals that would eventually lead to the covenant of the League of Nations. He argued in vain against coercive sanctions, believing only in moral force as a basis for international authority.
Wartime pacifism inevitably entailed defeat for Ponsonby, who stood for election at Dunfermline as an independent democrat in the torrid atmosphere of the coupon election of 1918. He was now free to join the Labour Party and was elected to represent Sheffield Brightside in 1922. When the first Labour government was formed in 1924 Ponsonby was appointed parliamentary under-secretary at the Foreign Office. The Ponsonby rule was soon on the statute books, establishing the constitutional convention that all treaties should be laid on the table of the House of Commons for twenty-one days before ratification. Ponsonby was also instrumental in providing government sanction for the publication of Origins of the War, the British diplomatic record before 1914. His major achievement was the successful negotiation of a treaty with the Soviet Union, but it was never ratified as the government, caught out by the Campbell case, opted for a dissolution and lost the Zinoviev letter election.
Out of office and once again a back-bencher, Ponsonby found his invidious position as an aristocratic socialist who was in the party but not of it was further emphasized by his failure to get elected to the shadow cabinet. He decided to go outside the party in his ambitious solo effort to make the democratic control of foreign policy a reality through his peace letter campaign. Without any organization he succeeded, by 1927, in collecting over 100,000 signatures, enough pledges to encourage him to continue but nowhere enough to influence foreign policy. By far his biggest success at this time was his book Falsehood in Wartime (1928), which exposed many atrocity stories of the war as propaganda lies.
Ponsonby was never afraid to propose alternative policies and, when disarmament became an issue in 1928 at Geneva, he called for unilateral disarmament. In doing this without Labour Party sanction, he so distanced himself from MacDonald that in the new government he was offered only the position of under-secretary for the Colonies and Dominions Office. He later became parliamentary secretary to the Ministry of Transport before his elevation to the peerage (17 January 1930) as Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede and his appointment in 1931 as chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster.
On the creation of the National Government of 1931 Ponsonby became the Labour leader in the House of Lords. Outside Westminster he was active in the no more war movement, and, with the Revd Dick Shepherd, he founded the Peace Pledge Union (PPU). These two movements amalgamated in 1937, but the PPU was hardly more successful in collecting peace pledges than had been the earlier solo effort of the peace letter campaign. Ponsonby collaborated with Lansbury in the War Resisters' International, and supported disarmament in opposition to Labour's official policy of collective security. This policy difference led him in September 1935 to resign the leadership of the Labour Party in the House of Lords. Ponsonby supported Chamberlain's efforts to negotiate a settlement with Hitler's Germany and for a short time found himself again in public view in an unholy alliance with The Times and even some right-wing Conservative appeasers. Once war broke out he virtually withdrew from active politics, resigning from the Labour Party on 15 May 1940 when Labour became part of the national government. His last active years were devoted to preparing a life of his father, Henry Ponsonby: his Life from his Letters, which, when it was published in 1942, won the prestigious James Tait Black memorial prize.
Although Ponsonby was often the subject of cartoonists, most were not successful. As he himself described it, his characteristic look of thoughtful melancholy gave him a reputation for solemnity when inwardly he laughed to himself and at himself and at life's comedy. Although an accomplished actor and broadcaster, Ponsonby was never a great speaker in the House of Commons; that he was always listened to, considering the unpopularity of what he often had to say, suggests the respect which his personal integrity gained for him. George V's quarterdeck reprimand to Ponsonby's elder brother, John, that he knew before he opened his Times in the morning he would see Arthur's name doing something wrong, would probably have been regarded by Ponsonby as a compliment. His political career was sustained in spite of all its varied setbacks by a private life centred on Dolly, Shulbrede, and a lifelong circle of friends. The family seem to have an acting gene in their make-up. Although an amateur, Ponsonby was good enough to act in the copyright performance of Israel Zangwill's play The Melting Pot and to be consulted about the plot of Granville Barker's play Waste. His skills in watercolours brought him membership in the New English Art Club. His chief talent lay in writing, not only about pacifism and diarists, but in his own diary, which is a remarkable document. Altogether he wrote seventeen books and more than forty major articles and pamphlets. He contributed regularly to a number of newspapers and journals, especially The Nation before the war and the Manchester Guardian after it.
Beatrice Webb wrote in her diary for 2 November 1936 that she thought Ponsonby's career both queer and nondescript, of little apparent importancequeer in the sense that he began life as an aristocratic establishment insider and ended it as an excluded pacifist outsider, nondescript in that he failed to achieve even moderately high office. But of little importance? While it is true that his contributions to the peace movement have not received any general recognition, it should be remembered that he was one of the troublemakers to whom A. J. P. Taylor credits all changes and advances in history.
Ponsonby suffered an incapacitating stroke in September 1943 from which he never recovered. He was living at the Heather Bank Nursing Home, Hindhead, Surrey, when he died of natural causes on 23 March 1946.
R. A. Jones
R. A. Jones, Arthur Ponsonby: the politics of life (1989) · M. Swartz, The Union of Democratic Control in British politics during the First World War (1971) · M. Caedel, Pacifism in Britain, 19141945: the defining of a faith (1980) · DNB · DLB · R. Douglas, Ponsonby, Arthur Augustus William, BDMBR, vol. 3, pt 2 · Shulbrede Priory, near Haslemere, Surrey, Ponsonby MSS
Bodl. Oxf., corresp. and papers
priv. coll., corresp., diary, and literary papers
PRO, corresp., FO 800/227 | BL, corresp. with H. Campbell-Bannerman
BL, letters to Lord Gladstone, Add. MS 45993
BL, corresp. with Lord Knollys, Add. MSS 4120741208
BLPES, corresp. with Fabian Society
BLPES, corresp. with G. Lansbury
BLPES, corresp. with E. D. Morel
BLPES, corresp. with S. Webb and B. Webb
Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with H. H. Asquith
Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with J. Bryce
Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with R. D. Denman
Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with W. H. Dickinson
Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with J. L. Hammond
Bodl. Oxf., letters to Lewis Harcourt
Bodl. Oxf., letters to Gilbert Murray
JRL, letters to Manchester Guardian
LPL, letters to H. R. L. Sheppard
McMaster University Library, Hamilton, Ontario, corresp. with Bertrand Russell
PRO, MacDonald MSS, corresp. with J. R. MacDonald
U. Birm. L., corresp. with W. H. Dawson
U. Hull, Brynmor Jones L., corresp. with E. D. Morel
U. Newcastle, Robinson L., corresp. with C. P. Trevelyan
BL NSA, Court life, 50 years ago, T.7661/22 TR 2 C 6
W. Stoneman, photograph, 1924, NPG · W. Rothenstein, drawing, 1925, Shulbrede Priory, Surrey · W. Rothenstein, sanguine drawing, 1925, NPG [see illus.] · W. Stoneman, photograph, 1934, NPG
Wealth at death
£18,486 9s. 9d.: probate, 17 Oct 1946, CGPLA Eng. & Wales