Union of Democratic Control

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.

In the 1930s the Union of Democratic Control campaigned against fascism in Germany and Italy, supported China in its struggle with Japanese aggression and advocated Indian independence.

Primary Sources

(1) Morgan Philips Price, My Three Revolutions (1969)

All these doubts about the circumstances under which we had become involved in the First World War were welling up in my mind in the latter part of 1914. In London, I went to see my cousin, Sir Charles Trevelyan, who held the same views as I did, and together we went to see Bertrand Russell, E. D. Morel, Arthur Ponsonby, Lowes Dickinson and Ramsay Macdonald, who had made a very courageous speech in the House on the declaration of War. I became one of the founder members of the Union of Democratic Control: at that time we thought that the best way to expose the European anarchy that had caused the War was to form a society of this kind to which people who had not lost their heads could belong. Also I sat down and wrote a book which was entitled The Diplomatic History of the War. This aimed to show that all the European Powers were in some way responsible for the disaster. Messrs George Alien & Unwin displayed considerable courage in publishing the book, which was heavily attacked by most reviewers, as war fever was rapidly rising. Nevertheless, the book sold like hot cakes and soon went to a second edition.

(2) Ramsay MacDonald, speech in the House of Commons on why he was opposed to Britain's involvement in the First World War (3rd August, 1914)

There has been no crime committed by statesmen of this character without those statesman appealing to the nations' honour. We fought the Crimean War because of our honour. We rushed to South Africa because of out honour. The Right Hon. Gentleman (Sir Edward Grey) is appealing to us today because of our honour. What is the use of talking about coming to the aid of Belgium, when, as a matter of fact, you are engaging in a whole European War which is now going to leave the map of Europe in the position it is in now?

(3) Union of Democratic Control Manifesto (August, 1914)

1. No Province shall be transferred from one Government to another without the consent by plebiscite or otherwise of the population of such Province.

2. No Treaty, Arrangement, or Undertaking shall be entered upon in the name of Great Britain without the sanction of Parliament. Adequate machinery for ensuring democratic control of foreign policy shall be created.

3. The Foreign Policy of Great Britain shall not be aimed at creating alliances for the purpose of maintaining the 'Balance of Power', but shall be directed to concerted action between the Powers, and the setting up of an International Council, whose deliberations and decisions shall be public, with such machinery for securing international agreement as shall be the guarantee of an abiding peace.

4. Great Britain shall propose, as part of the Peace Settlement, a plan for the drastic reduction, by consent, of the armaments of all the belligerent Powers, and to facilitate that policy shall attempt to secure the general nationalization of the manufacture of armaments and the control of the export of armaments by one country to another.

5. The European conflict shall not be continued by economic war after the military operations have ceased. British policy shall be directed toward promoting free commercial intercourse between all nations and the preservation and extension of the principle of the Open Door.

(4) Frederick Pethick-Lawrence joined the Union of Democratic Control in 1914.

I joined the Union of Democratic Control and became its treasurer. As its name implies, it was founded to insist that foreign policy should in future, equally with home policy, be subject to the popular will. The intention was that no commitments should be entered into without the peoples being fully informed and their approval obtained. By a natural transition, the objects of the Union came to include the formation of terms of a durable settlement, on the basis of which the war might be brought an an end.

At first we were able to hold public meetings everywhere and state our case, but as time went on, an organised opposition was worked up by a section of the Press, which represented us as opponents of the brave men who were fighting the country's battles. Our meetings in London were accordingly broken up. I remember one in particular where, as chairman, I was thrown from the platform. In the middle of the struggle a young soldier called out: "Don't hurt the old man." I heard the epithet with some amusement. I was only 43.

(5) Charles Trevelyan, letter to his wife, Mary Trevelyan, about his brother, George Macaulay Trevelyan (14th September, 1914)

I know that wisdom may begin to come to poor human beings through misery. But even I doubt when I see people like George (George Macaulay Trevelyan) carried away by shallow fears and ill-informed hatreds... It shows how absurdly far we are from brotherly feeling to foreigners when even in him it is a shallow veneer. He like all the rest wants to hate the Germans... I am more discouraged by it than anything else because it shows the helplessness of intellect before national passion.

(6) The Daily News (5th August, 1914)

Among the many reports which are current as to Ministerial resignations there seems to be little doubt in regard to three. They are those of Lord Morley, Mr. John Burns, and Mr. Charles Trevelyan. There will be widespread sympathy with the action they have taken.

Whether men approve of that action or not it is a pleasant thing in this dark moment to have this witness to the sense of honour and to the loyalty to conscience which it indicates... Mr. Trevelyan will find abundant work in keeping vital those ideals which are at the root of liberty and which are never so much in danger as in times of war and social disruption.

(7) Charles Trevelyan, letter to his constituents explaining why he had resigned on the decision of the Liberal Government to declare war on Germany (5th August 1914)

However overwhelming the victory of our navy, our commerce will suffer terribly. In war too, the first productive energies of the whole people have to be devoted to armaments. Cannon are a poor industrial exchange for cotton. We shall suffer a steady impoverishment as the character of our work exchanges. All this I felt so strongly that I cannot count the cause adequate which is to lead to this misery. So I have resigned.

(8) On the 4th September, 1914 C. P. Scott, recorded details of a meeting he had with David Lloyd George.

He (Lloyd George), Beauchamp, Morley and Burns had all resigned from the Cabinet on the Saturday before the declaration of war on the ground that they could not agree to Grey's pledge to Cambon (the French ambassador in London) to protect north coast of France against Germans, regarding this as equivalent to war with Germany. On urgent representations of Asquith he (Lloyd George) and Beauchamp agreed on Monday evening to remain in the Cabinet without in the smallest degree, as far as he was concerned, withdrawing his objection to the policy but solely in order to prevent the appearance of disruption in face of a grave national danger. That remains his position. He is, as it were, an unattached member of the Cabinet.

(9) David Kirkwood, joined the Union of Democratic Control in 1914. He wrote about his decision in his autobiography My Life of Revolt (1935)

I hated war. I believed that the peoples of the world hated war, and had no hate for each other. A terrific struggle tore my breast. I could not hate the Germans. They loved their land as I loved mine. To them, their traditions and their history, their religion and their songs were what mine were to me. Yet I was working in an arsenal, making guns and shells for one purpose - to kill men in order to keep them from killing men. What a confusion ! What was I to do ? I was not a conscientious objector. I was a political objector. I believed that finance and commercial rivalry had led to war.

(10) Vernon Lee, Peace With Honour (1915)

We must ask ourselves whether Germany would be more likely to be cowed into submission or exasperated into revenge by... measures of repression' This is a question of psychology. And psychology is merely the study of human nature by means of observation of our own thoughts and feelings ... How should we feel and behave if a victor... tried to crush us? Would we not use all the resources of a stimulated birth-rate, of improved intellectual and industrial training, in defying or circumventing the restrictions placed upon us ... Should we spare any sacrifice, any intrigue, to attain freedom and revenge? ... A humiliated, insecure, or hemmed-in Germany would probably mean a Germany arming once more for a Leipzig after a Jena.

(11) E. D. Morel, editorial, Union of Democratic Control (10th October, 1916)

The politicians are preparing a worse world for our children than the one they were born into. And we should be inclined almost to despair of the future were it not that we still preserve our faith in the ultimate triumph of reason over the national and international dementia now prevailing, and that we believe there is a vast mass of opinion in this country represented by the politicians nor by the Press, and considerably saner than either.

(12) The Union of Democratic Control (10th October, 1916)

The Council of the Union of Democratic Control re-affirms its unshaken conviction that a lasting settlement cannot be secured by a peace based upon the right of conquest and followed by commercial war, but only by a peace which gives just consideration to the claims of nationality, and which lays the foundation of a real European partnership.

(13) Olive Schreiner, speech on behalf of the Union of Democratic Control (11th March, 1916)

Our Union of Democratic Control has two objects. The one is to draw together into an organised body those English men and women of whom, as in every other country engaged in this war, there are many hundreds of thousands, who have not desired war, and who are determined that when the peace comes it shall be a reality, and not a hotbed for the raising of future wars. We feel that the Governments have made the wars - the peoples themselves must make the peace! We are organizing ourselves, that, when the time comes, we may be able effectively to act. Our second aim is to educate ourselves and others to this end.

(14) Helena Swanwick, Builders of Peace (1924)

When mobs, assiduously working up by a few papers or a few persons, broke up meetings or assaulted speakers, no protection was to be had, and the tone taken by the authorities was it "served them rights". Members of the UDC were shadowed by the police, raids were made on offices and private houses, and in many cases publications passed by the Censor were seized and impounded, and people who were engaged in selling them were taken up, threatened and intimidated.

(15) Hastings Lees-Smith, speech in the House of Commons (21st October 1916)

Security can only be obtained by a scheme by which the nations of Europe and outside agree together that all will guarantee each and each will guarantee all. The purposes of the war will be achieved if there is a League of Nations with an absolute and decisive veto upon any mere aggression, and consideration of any legitimate claims which any of the countries engaged in the War may be able to make good. Go back to the old Liberal tradition and trust yourself boldly to those decent, kindly, humane forces to be found in every man and every nation.

(16) Speech made by Frederick Pethick-Lawrence during the by-election in South Aberdeen in 1917.

There is a choice between two policies. The first is peace by negotiation, the second is going on with the war for months and months - perhaps for years. Peace by negotiation does not mean going to the Kaiser and asking what terms of peace he will graciously give us, and accepting those terms. That would be peace by surrender. Peace by negotiations means a peace in which Great Britain and her allies would insist upon certain irreducible terms and come to a settlement with regard to the others.

(17) G. H. Roberts, report to Sir Edward Carson, Attorney General (10th October, 1917)

No evidence has at present come to light which shows that the Union of Democratic Control or the No-Conscription Fellowship are financed from enemy sources, and the fact that they command the support of very wealthy Quaker families may account for their ability to carry on their present activities.

(18) Basil Thompson, report to the Home Secretary (November, 1917)

The Union of Democratic Control has been more before the public eye than other pacifist bodies, partly on account of the position of Ramsay MacDonald, Arthur Ponsonby, Charles Trevelyan, and Frederick Jowett, and partly because of the notoriety of E. D. Morel. It is not a revolutionary body, and it has been appealing, at any rate in the early days of the war, more to the intellectual classes than to the working class. Beyond the cost of printing, its expenses are not very large. The Society of Friends and Messrs. Cadbury, Fry and Rowntree have all subscribed fairly liberally to its funds.

(19) Bertrand Russell wrote a letter to Lady Ottoline Morrell after visiting E. D. Morel, in prison (27th March, 1918)

His hair is completely white (there was hardly a tinge of white before) when he first came out, he collapsed completely, physically and mentally, largely as the result of insufficient food. He says one only gets three quarters of an hour reading in the whole day - the rest of the time is spent on prison work, etc.

(20) William Gallacher was one of those who queued for four hours in an attempt to hear E. D. Morel speak at the Metropole Theatre in Glasgow in June, 1918.

The theatre was packed out and a huge overflow meeting was held in an open space across the way. Morel confined himself to the inside meeting. But what a reception he got. Outside, across the way, we could hear cheering as though they wanted to lift the roof off. We admired Morel and we turned out in full strength to do him honour.

(21) Richard Tawney, speech at a Union of Democratic Control (11th November, 1920)

For every man who a year ago knew and said that the Peace Treaty was immoral in conception and would be disastrous, there are thousands who say it now. Though there seems little to be said about the Treaties which has not been said already, it is nevertheless of immense importance to let public opinion abroad realise that the heartless and cynical politicians who negotiated them do not represent the real temper of Great Britain.

(22) Captain E. N. Bennett, speech at a Union of Democratic Control (11th November, 1920)

The fundamental falsehood on which the Versailles Treaty is built is the theory that Germany was solely and entirely responsible for the war. No fair-minded student of the war and its causes can accept this contention; but the propaganda story of Germany's sole guilt has been preached so persistently from pulpit, Press and Parliament that the bulk of our people have come to regard it as an axiomatic truth which justifies the provisions of the most brutal and unjust Treaty in the world's history.

(23) General Hubert Gough, speech at a Union of Democratic Control (11th November, 1920)

It seems to me that the Peace Treaty can be viewed from two points of view, the moral and the purely utilitarian. From either it appears thoroughly bad, and it has failed and must continue to fail to reach any good result, such as all who fought in the war supposed we were to gain. We hoped to establish justice, fair-dealing between nations, and the honest keeping of promises; we thought to establish a good and lasting peace which would, of necessity, have been established on good will. The Peace Treaty has done nothing of the kind.

(24) Martin Ceadel, Pacifism in Britain 1914-1945 (1980)

Siegfried Sassoon... on leave between August 1916 and February 1917, during which time he was influenced by meeting a number of pacifists and by reading H. G. Wells's novel of stoical disenchantment, Mr. Britling Sees It Through. Returning to the front, he was wounded within two months; and it was when he found himself back in an English hospital, in April 1917, that he resolved, with the help of Bertrand Russell, Middleton Murry and Francis Meynell, to make his dramatic protest. After publishing his declaration he drew back, however, accepting psychiatric treatment from the pioneering neurasthenia specialist Professor W. H. R. Rivers, which Robert Graves arranged as the alternative to a court martial, and later returning to the front. As in 1936, when he agreed to be a Sponsor of the P.P.U. (though he never attended a single committee), Sassoon seems to have been not a pacifist but a pacificist with an unusually acute hatred of war compounded of a poet's sensibility towards the tragedy of war, a nostalgic aristocratic fear such as also motivated Lord Lansdowne's similar protest published in the Daily Telegraph on 29 November 1917 that the war was destroying the pre-1914 social fabric, and a lifelong political innocence which caused him to oversimplify the problem of securing peace by negotiation.

Although the circumstances of Max Plowman's protest were remarkably similar - like Sassoon he was a wounded poet who was briefly treated by Professor Rivers and who ultimately escaped military punishment-his objection to war was, in contrast, based on a profound and unshakeable pacifism. Even before the war Plowman had taken risks for his convictions, leaving his father's brick factory to eke out a precarious living as a writer. And, as a socialist, he had always had doubts about the war: he did not volunteer until December 1914, and then only for ambulance work. The first sign that his views on war were being clarified' was his decision in July 1915 that there was no difference in principle between combatant and non-combatant service. At first he decided to fight and was commissioned into an infantry regiment, reaching the front in August 1916. In January 1917, however, he was concussed and invalided home, never to return to the trenches. It was during his sick leave that he gradually discovered he was a pacifist; and it was under the influence of Tagore's Nationalism that, in January 1918, after a year away from the front, he took the step of resigning his commission on the ground that his hatred of war `has gradually deepened into the fixed conviction that organised warfare of any kind is always organised murder. So wholly do I believe in the doctrine of Incarnation (that God indeed lives in every human body) that I believe that killing men is always killing God. He was fortunate not only to escape with a simple dismissal from the army, but also, because of delays in the conscription procedure (to which he was now liable as a discharged volunteer), to avoid prison as an absolutist. He used his liberty to write an explanation of his position which was published in 1919 as War and the Creative Impulse and which defined the classic socialist pacifism which he unwaveringly asserted for the rest of his life. Although similar in most respects to the Christian socialism of, for example, Wilfred Wellock, it was clearly "political" in that it was inspired not by any appeal to supernatural authority but by a mystical, almost anarchist, conception of socialism which Plowman had long admired in his literary hero, William Blake.