Radical Opposition to World War I

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Lecture date: Tue, 21st Oct, 2014
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On the declaration of war against Germany, four members of Asquith’s cabinet offered their resignations – John Burns, John Morley, John Simon and Lord Beaumont. They were joined by one junior Minister, Charles Trevelyan. These resignations demonstrate that the Liberal Government was far from united – and there is a case that in fact there was a majority of cabinet members opposed to joining the European war and that the British entry into the war was driven not so much by the German invasion of Belgium, but by the Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey’s secret commitments to France and Russia and by the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill’s premature mobilisation of the fleet. The British entry into the war was far from inevitable. The purpose of this talk is to trace the origins of the Liberal opposition to engaging in the carnage.

The Anti-War Traditions

Within the Liberal party there was a strong anti-war tradition. In fact there were a number of different traditions. Firstly there was the free trade and anti-war tradition of the Manchester School, represented by Richard Cobden – the perspective that war interrupted free trade and that trade between nations was the way to avoid a European war but also that trade rather than imperial conquest was the most effective way of extending civilization to what were seen as the least civilized parts of the world. This perspective was adopted by Gladstone both as Prime Minister (despite his reluctant sanction of a number of imperial adventures) and in opposition (for example in the Bulgarian atrocities campaign of 1876) – a tradition inherited by John Morley, Irish secretary, Gladstone’s biographer and the elder statesman in Asquith’s 1914 cabinet, and by leading Liberal intellectuals such as James Bryce: Thirdly there was the positivist tradition — in effect a belief that both national and world progress depended on cooperation between national states rather than aggressive imperial competition – this perspective was best demonstrated in Richard Congreve’s essays on International Policy and the Anti-aggression League established by the positivists and active Liberal, Frederick Harrison, to argue against the wars inthe Sudan and Afghanistan in the 1880s.

There was then the Quaker pacifist tradition, exemplified by the Peace Society led by the Welsh radical MP Henry Richards, but also represented by John Bright, who resigned from Gladstone’s government in 1882 in protest against the naval bombardment of Alexandria in Egypt. There was an even earlier Liberal tradition of world federation and international governance originating with Jeremy Bentham in the 1820s which influenced radical and socialist thinkers throughout the 19th century, notably the Owenites, and especially the radicals in the years before the first world war.

There was also a strong internationalist tradition within working class Liberalism. This can be traced back to the chartist William Lovett*, who adopted Bentham’s arguments for international government, the international solidarity movements of late chartists such as George Julian Harney and William Linton, which with the increasing propaganda efforts of European republicans such as Mazzini and Kossuth, generated significant support among radical Liberal MPs such as Joseph Cowen of Newcastle and Peter Taylor of Leicester. Important and less studied by historians of the Labour and radical movements (with the notable exception of Paul Laity) is the active engagement in international peace movements of a number of London based trade unionists. Both the Reform League of 1865 and the International Working Men’s Association (or First International) of 1864, actually emerged from international solidarity movements established by London radicals and trade unionists, which focused on solidarity with Polish republicans and French trade unionists.

A number of London trade unionists had been active supporters of the north in the American civil war. In 1870, while Marx was writing his polemics on the French civil war and the commune, William Randal Cremer together with other London trade unionists, George Odger, Ben Lucraft and Thomas Mottershead, established a Workmens Peace Committee, with Edmond Beales of the Reform League as chairman. As is well known, Cremer and other London trade unionists including Mottershead, Robert Applegarth and George Howell withdrew from the First International, in the case of Odger and Lucraft, who had both played leading roles within the organisation, when Marx added their signatures to his Civil War in France pamphlet supporting the Paris commune without asking for their agreement. Cremer switched his attention from international trade union solidarity to the international peace movement and established the Arbitration and Peace Association. He became the Liberal MP for Haggerston and Shoreditch in 1885 and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1903. He was also co-founder of the Inter Parliamentary Union and the International Arbitration League.

A number of other working class Liberal MPs known to posterity as the ‘Lib Labs’ were also active in the international peace movement, including the Northumbrian miner, Thomas Burt, the agricultural workers leader, Joseph Arch, Frederick Maddison, compositor, TUC president and MP for Sheffield Brightside, James Rowlands, watchmaker and MP for East Finsbury and then for Dartford, Henry Broadhurst, stonemason, TIC secretary, MP for Stoke and Home Office under secretary under Gladstone in 1885 and Ben Pickard, miner and MP for Normanton in Yorkshire.

Opposition to the Boer War

The Boer War of 1899-1902 witnessed growing opposition to imperialist ventures within the leadership of the Liberal party. While Liberal imperialists such as prime minister Lord Roseberry, Grey and Asquith support intervention, critics of the war included Henry Campbell Bannerman, who was to become prime Minister in 1906, James Bryce, Henry Labouchere, Leonard Courtney, John Morley and William Harcourt, who had been Home secretary in Gladstone’s last government. Campbell Bannerman attacked ‘methods of barbarism’ while Labouchere chaired ‘Stop the War’ rallies. Cremer’s International Arbitration League in 1899 also included almost the full compliment of Lib-Lab MPs – Arch, Broadhurst, Maddison, Pickard, Burt, together with Charles Fenwick, Will Steadman and John Wilson.

By the mid-1900s, with Grey pursuing an imperialist foreign policy first under Campbell Bannerman and then under Asquith, the anti–imperialists were joined by a group of radical journalists – G H Perris, Henry Nevinson**, H N Brailsford, W C Stead, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, and Norman Angell***, author of the Great Illusion, together with the journalist and economist, J A Hobson****, who had been a critic of the Boer war and of broader imperialist policies and in fact the source of much of Lenin’s thinking on the subject.

Given this historical background, it is therefore not surprising that in the late summer of 1914 there was strong the opposition to engaging in a European war both within Asquith’s Liberal government and within the wider Liberal party.Douglas Newton, in his recent book, the Darkest Days: the truth Behind Britain’s Rush to War, demonstrates that there was in fact a majority within the cabinet in favour of some form of neutralism and avoiding a commitment to support France or Russia. He also demonstrates that Britain was committed to war before the Germans invaded Belgium, though this invasion provided a useful retrospective justification. He also demonstrates that there was no treaty obligation for Britain to support France, though the Foreign secretary, Grey, thought there was a moral obligation and considered that Britain was honour bound to intervene to support its Entente ally. In fact he threatened to resign if Britain remained neutral, and Asquith would have resigned with him. In fact it was the possibility of the Government falling and being replaced by a Liberal imperialist/ Tory war coalition that kept some of the more neutralist Ministers within the government.

Churchill pre-empts the Cabinet

It was in fact Winston Churchill as Lord of the Admiralty who actually pre- empts Cabinet decisions by ordering the mobilisation of the navy, which encouraged both Russia and France to adopt a more aggressive position. The times led a pro-war campaign, and Churchill certainly encouraged the Tory leadership of Andrew Bonar Law and Austen Chamberlain to adopt a pro- intervention position. It is Newton’s study of the Liberal neutralists which is perhaps most interesting. John Burns, often criticised by socialist historians, was the strongest opponent of intervention and resigned first, to be followed by John Morley. John Simon, the solicitor general and future Liberal leader and Lord Beauchamp, Liberal leader in the Lords, also resigned, but were persuaded to keep their resignations secret and to rejoin the cabinet once was actually declared. In fact Beauchamp was to chair the Privy Council meeting with the King which signed the declaration of war. Interestingly, neither parliament nor cabinet formally debated the declaration of war. Some 16 backbench radical MPs managed to speak on an adjournment debate just before the declaration, but no vote was taken, and the Liberal leadership, including the cabinet dissidents, absented itself from the debate.

In the last few days before the war, the radicals established a British Neutrality committee. This was led by Arthur Ponsonby who established a Liberal Foreign Affairs Group, and Charles Trevelyan, who resigned his junior ministerial role as parliamentary secretary to the Board of Education, with the Fabian Graham Wallas. Trevelyan had previously published a pamphlet for the National League of Young Liberals on Democracy and Compulsory Service which opposed conscription.

The foreign policy dissident, Norman Angell, established his own British Neutrality League. On the eve of the declaration of war, on Sunday 2nd August,a mass anti-war rally of 20,000 people was held in Trafalgar Square, called by the British Section of the Second International, whose leaders had just returned from a crisis meeting in Brussels. Keir Hardie was among the speakers, together with Arthur Henderson, Ben Tillett and Bob Smillie and the leaders of the labour women’s movement, who had been active in opposing the rush to war -Charlotte Despard (General French’s sister), Margaret Bondfield, Mary MacArthur and Marion Phillips.

A number of radical Liberals favoured neutralism, but did not publicly oppose Grey and Asquith and stayed in the cabinet. The role of Lulu Harcourt, chief whip and son of Sir William Harcourt, is critical here. Radicals such as Reginald McKenna, the Quaker Joseph Pease (who was actually president of the Peace Society) and Herbert Samuel also supported Asquith and Grey and stayed within the Government. Charles Masterman, radical on domestic issues, was a Liberal imperialist when it came to foreign policy. So an administration with a neutralist majority was forced to adopt an interventionist policy under pressure from Grey, Churchill and to a lesser extent Asquith, combined with the ‘force of events’.

The British government, despite the large number of neutralists within it,actually contributed to the outbreak of the continental war. This was not inevitable. Grey rejected a number of opportunities for negotiation and on a number of occasions clearly misled the cabinet and parliament. Churchill could not wait to get the war started. He kept arguing that a quick naval war would cost very little to the British taxpayers.

Union for the Democratic Control of Foreign Policy (UDC)

With their attempt to keep Britain neutral unsuccessful, Trevelyan and Ponsonby, together with Norman Angell and Ramsay MacDonald, considering that it was the secret commitments pursued by Grey, that had dragged Britain into the war, established a new organisation – the Union for the Democratic Control of Foreign Policy, to be known as the UDC. Appointing the anti- colonialist, Edmund Morel, as secretary, the UDC was active throughout the war and in the interwar period, campaigning against secret treaties and for open government.

In the early years of the war, the UDC published pamphlets by Norman Angell,Bertrand Russell, Brailsford and Ponsonby. Ponsonby published in 1915 Democracy and Diplomacy – A Plea for Poplar Control of Foreign Policy, which put forward the idea of a foreign affairs committee in parliament. In 1918, the UDC published the text of the secret treaties with Russia, Italy France and Japan relating to the break up of the Ottoman Empire, the division of Persia, the transfer of Istria from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to Italy and the west bank of the Rhine. The UDC also acted as a forum for radical Liberals to co-operate with anti-war socialists, and a route by which Trevelyan, Morel and Ponsonby among others, transferred their allegiance from the Liberal party to the Labour party.

Some of the radicals later wrote their own justifications for their actions. Morley’s 1914 Memorandum on Resignation was not published until 1928 after his death. Morley had in the pre-war years supported Anglo-German understanding as a bulwark against Russian expansionism. He was highly critical of what he saw as ‘Russian barbarism’ and did not consider Russian dominance of Europe as good for western civilization. He wrote that “to bind ourselves to France is at the same time to bind ourselves to Russia.” He considered Russia not Germany as the real aggressor and did not consider German aggression against Belgium as a justification for the British declaration of war on Germany. He considered that “the atmosphere of war cannot be friendly to order in a democratic system.” Morley refused to follow Simon and Beauchamp in rejoining the cabinet – he considered himself as a notorious ‘peace man’ and ‘Little Englander.’

In contrast, Burns never publicly recorded the reasons for his resignation, though he recorded his views in his diary. He was an isolationist – believing that Britain should not get involved in the continental war. He was not a pacifist – in fact he had an interest in military matters, especially regimental history. He was in 1906 a member of Haldane’s cabinet committee on army reform and attended military manoeuvres on the Salisbury Plain. In 1915 he commented that his position was ‘ splendid isolation, no balance of power, no incorporation in the continental system.’ He had also been active in Cremer’s International Arbitration League, and at one dinner gave a toast to Anglo-German friendship. The main reason for his resignation was his shock to discover Grey’s secret diplomacy. He was also disgusted with the warmongering of much of the press. Once taken, his decision was final.

The Country was Misled

Trevelyan gave an explanation for his resignation in his memoir From Liberalism to Labour, published in 1921. Like Burns, he was opposed to Grey’s secret treaties and the commitments given to France. When Asquith supported Grey, while denying that Britain had any legal commitments, he felt there was no alternative but to resign. In his memoir he wrote that: “On August 3 1914 it was proved that the information given to parliament on the most vital question in a hundred years was incorrect, I therefore resigned my subordinate position in the Liberal government which had misled the county.” He added that “the war was settled by the cabinet before parliament was consulted. Parliament had no power of choice left.”

Other radicals were also to put their position on the record. Robert Reid, Earl Loreburn, who had been Lord Chancellor between 1905 and 1912, published in 1919 a critique of Grey’s foreign policy in How the War Came. The first detailed narrative of the diplomatic manoeuvres which led to the war was actually published in 1915 in New York by the former Liberal MP and playwright, Francis Neilson in How Diplomats Make War. Neilson argued that the arms build up and secret diplomacy of Grey contributed to the outbreak of war. The book was written within six weeks of his resignation from parliament and his ‘flight’ to America.

The UDC was in fact to continue in existence until 1966 – in the period after the second world war it published pamphlets on colonialism in Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia, a pamphlet on the Suez crisis by Frank Allaun and on the Russian intervention in Hungary in 1956 by Basil Davidson. One of its last pamphlets was in fact a critique of misgovernment in the Seychelles by a Peckham vicar, Charles Roach. Ponsonby was to become under-secretary of foreign affairs in Macdonald’s first government in 1924 – Macdonald acted as his own Prime Minister.

Ponsonby introduced a new constitutional convention: that any proposed treaty should be put to parliament 21 days before ratification. This reflected his experience of 1914, when there was no parliamentary vote, and where the declaration was made by the king in Privy Council. The convention was not followed when Tony Blair’s government decided to invade Iraq. The Ponsonby rule was actually incorporated in British statute on 11 November 2010 under Part 2 of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act – 96 years after the startof the First World War.

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