Edmund Dene Morel, the son of Edmund Morel de Ville, was born in Paris on 15th July, 1873. Edmund's father, a minor official in the French Ministry of Finance, died in 1877. His mother, Emmeline de Ville, brought her four year old son back to England. Emmeline was a member of the Society of Friends and this had a major influence on the development of Edmund's political ideas.
Emmeline de Ville had financial difficulties and Edmund was forced to leave school at fifteen. Edmund found work as a clerk with Elder Dempster, a shipping firm in Liverpool. In an attempt to increase his income, E. D. Morel turned to part-time journalism. Most of the articles that Morel wrote were based on information supplied by merchants and seamen who visited the shipping office. This included stories about British trade in Africa.
At first, Morel's articles reflected the economic interests of Liverpool's merchants. However, he became deeply concerned about the damage that Britain was doing to African culture. This included information that the anthropologist, Mary Kingsley, had given him about Sierra Leonne. Morel was especially worried about stories he heard about the rubber trade in the Congo. He discovered that European merchants were forcing Africans to perform unpaid labour. A series of articles entitled The Congo Scandal appeared in The Speaker journal in 1900. As his own company, Elder Dempster, was involved in this trade, Morel was forced to resign.
Morel now became a full-time journalist working for the newspaper West Africa. In 1903 he founded his own newspaper, West African Mail, and although it provided him with a vehicle to expose the bad behaviour of Europeans in Africa, it failed to make a profit. Morel also established the Congo Reform Association, an organisation that campaigned to persuade European governments to take action against those guilty of human rights abuses.
While carrying out his investigations in Africa E. D. Morel became convinced that diplomats in Britain and France were sometimes involved in immoral deals. In 1912 he published Morocco in Diplomacy, a book where he blamed the governments in Britain and France for the Moroccan crises of 1905 and 1911.
Morel became an active member of the Liberal Party and in October, 1912, he became its prospective parliamentary candidate in Birkenhead. However, Morel, disagreed with the way that Herbert Asquith and his government were dealing with the crisis in Europe. Morel believed that the conflict had been made worse by the secret diplomacy of people such as Britain's foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey.
On the outbreak of the First World War, three senior members of the government, Charles Trevelyan, John Burns, and John Morley resigned. Trevelyan began contacting friends about a new political organisation he intended to form to oppose the war. This included Morel, Norman Angell and Ramsay MacDonald. 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(UDC).
The four men decided that the UDC 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.
Over the next four years the Union of Democratic Control became the most important of all the anti-war organizations in Britain. E. D. Morel, as secretary and treasurer, emerged as the dominant figure in the organisation. 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. Herbert Asquith and his Liberal Government were furious with Morel's actions and he was removed as the Liberal parliamentary candidate for Birkenhead.
In 1915 Morel's book Morocco in Diplomacy was reissued as Ten Years of Secret Diplomacy. The following year he published Truth and the War, an attack on the foreign policy of the British government. Morel also wrote several pamphlets for the Union of Democratic Control including The Morrow of War (1914), War and Diplomacy (1915), Our Ultimate Objects in This War (1917) and The African Problem and the Peace Settlement (1917).
The Daily Express, edited by Ralph Blumenfeld, led the campaign against Morel and the UDC. In April 1915 it printed wanted posters of 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. The Daily Express also 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 Daily Express, 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 Daily Express 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 . 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. On his release from prison E. H. Morel finally left the Liberal Party and like his colleagues at the UDC, Charles Trevelyan and Arthur Ponsonby, joined the Independent Labour Party.
After the war Morel severely criticised the Treaty of Versailles warning that it would lead to another war. In 1922 Morel became the Labour Party candidate at Dundee. In a vigorous campaign dominated by foreign policy issues, he managed to defeat the Liberal Party candidate, Winston Churchill.
When Morel's old colleague at the Union of Democratic Control, Ramsay MacDonald, became Prime Minister in 1924, some people expected Morel to become Foreign Secretary in the new government. Morel was deeply disappointed when MacDonald, took the unusual decision to become Foreign Secretary as well as Prime Minister. However, Morel's advice was sought about foreign policy and it is believed he played an important role in persuading MacDonald to recognize the communist government in the Soviet Union.
The willingness of MacDonald to negotiate with the Soviet Union was used to smear the Labour Party with the with the "pro-communist" label. Part of this strategy was the publication of the Zinoviev Letter during the 1924 General Election campaign. Morel rightly condemned it as a forgery but it was generally believed to be genuine and the Labour Party lost the election.
Edmund Dene Morel died of a heart attack two weeks later on 12th November, 1924.