At the end of July, 1914, it became clear to the British government that the country was on the verge of war with Germany. Four senior members of the government, David Lloyd George (Chancellor of the Exchequer), Charles Trevelyan (Parliamentary Secretary of the Board of Education), John Burns (President of the Local Government Board) and John Morley (Secretary of State for India), were opposed to the country becoming involved in a European war. They informed the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, that they intended to resign over the issue. When war was declared on 4th August, three of the men, Trevelyan, Burns and Morley, resigned, but Asquith managed to persuade Lloyd George, his Chancellor of the Exchequer, to change his mind.
The day after war was declared, Trevelyan began contacting friends about a new political organisation he intended to form to oppose the war. This included two pacifist members of the Liberal Party, Norman Angell and E. D. Morel, and Ramsay MacDonald, the leader of the Labour Party. A meeting was held and after considering names such as the Peoples' Emancipation Committee and the Peoples' Freedom League, they selected the Union of Democratic Control.
The four men agreed that one of the main reasons for the conflict was the secret diplomacy of people like Britain's foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey. They decided that the Union of Democratic Control should have three main objectives: (1) that in future to prevent secret diplomacy there should be parliamentary control over foreign policy; (2) there should be negotiations after the war with other democratic European countries in an attempt to form an organisation to help prevent future conflicts; (3) that at the end of the war the peace terms should neither humiliate the defeated nation nor artificially rearrange frontiers as this might provide a cause for future wars.
The founders of the Union of Democratic Control produced a manifesto and invited people to support it. Over the next few weeks several leading figures joined the organisation. This included J. A. Hobson, Charles Buxton, Ottoline Morrell, Philip Morrell, Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, Arnold Rowntree, Morgan Philips Price, George Cadbury, Helena Swanwick, Fred Jowett, Tom Johnston, Bertrand Russell, Philip Snowden, Ethel Snowden, David Kirkwood, William Anderson, Mary Sheepshanks, Isabella Ford, H. H. Brailsford, Eileen Power, Israel Zangwill, Margaret Llewelyn Davies, Konni Zilliacus, Margaret Sackville and Olive Schreiner.
Ramsay MacDonald came under attack from newspapers because of his opposition to the First World War. On 1st October 1914, The Times published a leading article entitled Helping the Enemy, in which it wrote that "no paid agent of Germany had served her better" that MacDonald had done. The newspaper also included an article by Ignatius Valentine Chirol, who argued: "We may be rightly proud of the tolerance we display towards even the most extreme licence of speech in ordinary times... Mr. MacDonald' s case is a very different one. In time of actual war... Mr. MacDonald has sought to besmirch the reputation of his country by openly charging with disgraceful duplicity the Ministers who are its chosen representatives, and he has helped the enemy State ... Such action oversteps the bounds of even the most excessive toleration, and cannot be properly or safely disregarded by the British Government or the British people."
Trevelyan's house (14 Great College Street, London) became the UDC's headquarters. As the organisation expanded the organisation took larger premises at 37 Norfolk Street (1915) and 4-7 Lion Court, Fleet Street (1917). The UDC was mainly funded by prosperous Quaker businessmen such as George Cadbury and Arnold Rowntree.
The UDC was one of the first political groups to appoint women to senior positions in an organisation. Helena Swanwick was a member of the Executive Committee and twelve women were on the General Council. This included Isabella Ford, Margaret Llewelyn Davies and Margaret Sackville.
The Union of Democratic Control soon emerged at the most important of all the anti-war organizations in Britain and by 1915 had 300,000 members. E. D. Morel, as secretary and treasurer, became the dominant figure in the UDC. In August 1915, the UDC decided to pay Morel for his secretarial duties. Morel also wrote most of the UDC pamphlets published during the war. Others who wrote pamphlets included Ramsay MacDonald, Norman Angell, Arthur Ponsonby, J. A. Hobson, Charles Buxton, Norman Angell, Helena Swanwick, Richard Tawney and H. H. Brailsford. Members of the UDC also established a League of Nations Society.
Whereas the Manchester Guardian and The Nation, were fairly sympathetic to the aims of the UDC, most newspapers and journals were extremely hostile. The Daily Express, edited by Ralph Blumenfeld, led the campaign against the UDC. In April 1915 it printed wanted posters of E. D. Morel, Ramsay MacDonald and Norman Angell. Under headings such as: 'Who is E. D. Morel? And Who Pays for his Pro-German Union? it suggested that the UDC was working for the German government.
Horatio Bottomley, argued in the John Bull Magazine that Ramsay MacDonald and James Keir Hardie, were the leaders of a "pro-German Campaign". On 19th June 1915 the magazine claimed that MacDonald was a traitor and that: "We demand his trial by Court Martial, his condemnation as an aider and abetter of the King's enemies, and that he be taken to the Tower and shot at dawn." On 4th September, 1915, the magazine published an article which made an attack on his background. "We have remained silent with regard to certain facts which have been in our possession for a long time. First of all, we knew that this man was living under an adopted name - and that he was registered as James MacDonald Ramsay - and that, therefore, he had obtained admission to the House of Commons in false colours, and was probably liable to heavy penalties to have his election declared void. But to have disclosed this state of things would have imposed upon us a very painful and unsavoury duty. We should have been compelled to produce the man's birth certificate. And that would have revealed what today we are justified in revealing - for the reason we will state in a moment... it would have revealed him as the illegitimate son of a Scotch servant girl!"
The Daily Express listed details of future UDC meetings and encouraged its readers to go and break-up them up. Although the UDC complained to the Home Secretary about what it called "an incitement to violence" by the newspaper, he refused to take any action. Over the next few months the police refuse to protect UDC speakers and they were often attacked by angry crowds. After one particularly violent event on 29th November, 1915, the newspaper proudly reported the "utter rout of the pro-Germans".
The Daily Sketch joined the campaign against the UDC. It told its readers on 1st December, 1915, that to: "kill this conspiracy we must get hold of the arch-conspirator, E. D. Morel". Over the next few months E. D. Morel was physically attacked several times. He continued to run the organisation and by 1917 membership of the UDC and affiliated organizations had reached 650,000.
The government now saw E. D. Morel as an extremely dangerous political figure. Basil Thompson, head of the Criminal Investigation Division of Scotland Yard, and future head of Special Branch, was asked to investigate Morel and the Union of Democratic Control. Thompson reported that the UDC was not a revolutionary body and its funds came from the Society of Friends and "Messrs. Cadbury, Fry and Rowntree".
Despite Thompson's failure to find any evidence of criminal activity, the Home Secretary gave instructions for Morel's arrest. On the 22nd August, 1917 Morel's house was searched and evidence was discovered that he had sent a UDC pamphlet to a friend living in Switzerland. This was a technical violation of the the Defence of the Realm Act and Morel was sentenced to six months in prison. Morel, whose health was already poor, never fully recovered from the harsh conditions of Pentonville Prison.
Frederick Pethick-Lawrence was treasurer of the Union of Democratic Control (UDC) and in the spring of 1917 was chosen as the organisation's candidate in the South Aberdeen by-election. Pethick-Lawrence obtained only 333 votes whereas the government representative won with 3,283 votes. Although he was forty-six years old, the government attempted to conscript Pethick-Lawrence in 1917. He refused but instead of being imprisoned he was assigned to a farm in Sussex until the end of the war.
In the 1918 General Election all the leading members of the Union of Democratic Control lost their seats in Parliament. However, by 1924, they had returned and several, including Ramsay MacDonald (Prime Minister/Foreign Secretary), Philip Snowden (Chancellor of the Exchequer), Arthur Henderson (Home Secretary), Charles Trevelyan (Minister of Education) and Fred Jowett (Commissioner of Works) were all members of the new Labour Government. E. D. Morel was not given a Cabinet post but was MacDonald's leading adviser at the Foreign Office.
Members of the Union of Democratic Control were strong opponents of the Versailles Treaty. Several senior army officers joined the UDC in protest against the treaty including General Hubert Gough, Brigadier-General C. B. Thompson, Commander Kenworthy and Colonel Bruce Kingsmill.