Labour history uncut: It’s war!

by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal

By 1914, Labour’s internal politics were in a well-worn rut. The routine was familiar: socialists complained about the party’s moderation, moderates complained that the socialists were making the party unelectable and strikers up and down the nation didn’t care what either of them had to say, they had a nationwide wave of industrial unrest to organise.

Then, in summer 1914, Germany’s Kaiser did his holiday planning. France looked nice, but he didn’t want to go abroad. So what better solution than to make France part of Germany? He was a problem solver, that Kaiser.

Kaiser’s top tip – recycle those leftover Christmas baubles into a stylish and practical outfit

So he gathered a few hundred thousand of his closest friends and began stockpiling sun cream, beach towels and heavy artillery.

On 29th July, alarmed by the accumulation of passports and spiky hats in Germany, Keir Hardie represented British labour at a meeting of the International Socialist Bureau (contrary to the title, not a dispensary for people looking to hire or purchase a continental socialist). They “resolved unanimously that it shall be the duty of the workers of all nations concerned not only to continue but to further intensify their demonstrations against the war, for peace, and for the settlement of the Austro-Serbian conflict by international arbitration…”

The problem was that, for many working class Brits, workers sticking up for workers was all very well, but these guys were foreigners, so surely they didn’t count. There was much enthusiasm for nipping over to Germany to stick it to the sausage munchers.

Which is why, when George Lansbury, Keir Hardie and Arthur Henderson led a peace demonstration in Trafalgar Square on 2nd August, they were greeted by heckles, abuse and one poor speaker being hit over the head with an umbrella.

Nevertheless, these plucky socialists were determined to avoid the war through the power of the people. Unfortunately for Labour, the Kaiser, for his part, was determined to begin the war through the power of guns and bombs.

The day after the peace demonstration, the German touring party crossed the border into Luxembourg and ploughed through Belgium towards France.

Hans was certain his novelty “carry your rifle across your chest” look would soon catch on with the rest of the invading German army

War had begun.

In fact, this being Britain, there were actually still a few days of paperwork to complete before war could start officially. On the 4th of August 1914, with all the forms signed in triplicate, Britain declared war on Germany.

And with it, at a stroke, all the old certainties were gone. The domestic political status quo was shattered: impending civil war in Ireland became a non-issue and industrial unrest suddenly faded to irrelevance.

At the same time, all the old splits and faultlines that had characterised the Labour party so far were transformed.

It was as if, in an early version of the 1980s children’s TV classic Runaround, everyone scattered crazily around then jumped into whole new and unfamiliar factions.

When war was declared and the positions of the various Labour luminaries became clear, the party had divided into three basic groups.

First was the war stag party. They wanted nothing more than to dress everyone up in matching t-shirts with their nicknames on the back, pack plenty of grenades, then head over to Europe to have it large.

Will Crooks' career as a children's author never really got off the ground

Will Crooks, MP for Woolwich was typical of this group. When war was declared, he was so eager that he led the House of Commons in a rousing rendition of the national anthem. Say what you like about the Iraq war, at least we didn’t have to listen to John Prescott singing. 

This group featured many of the old right of the party, often union leaders elected early in the previous decade. Less predictably, it also included some unexpected recruits from the hard left. Serial agitators like Ben Tillet, Victor Grayson and even the grand old man of the loony fringe, Henry M Hyndman all became fervent supporters of the war.

Previously this bunch of unlikely lads had been united their hatred for the right of the Labour party, the desire for a workers’ revolution and a tendency to flounce out of the Labour party when they hadn’t got their way. And now they were in a patriotic embrace with Labour’s right wing.

The second group were the reluctant supporters of the war. This pragmatic mob recognised that, whatever they may really feel, when a war has just begun, it’s difficult to oppose the government without sounding like you want your country to lose. They knew the war was wildly popular with the working class and if Labour wanted to retain any of their support, it had to back the conflict.

They numbered most of Labour’s mainstream leaders. For example, de facto deputy leader Arthur Henderson spoke at the Trafalgar square peace rally denouncing militarism only to pop up in the House of Commons days later cautiously backing the case for war.

The final group were the uncompromising opponents of the war. They stood up and said things that spoiled everyone else’s fun, like “you do realise a lot of people will die, right?”

Perhaps surprisingly, the most prominent of these men of principle was Ramsay Macdonald, the man whose gradual, compromising and pragmatic approach to politics had done so much to annoy the more enthusiastic socialist members previously.

Unfortunately for him, the discovery of firm principles was not accompanied by the admiration he might have hoped for. The public were not at all keen on these naysayers and wherever they spoke hecklers would follow.

Macdonald himself received letters  addressed to “Herr Macdonald”, that bastion of balance the Times declared him to be an agent of Germany and several people swore they saw him hanging out with Jimmy Saville.

The result of these new and exciting divisions in the party was the very real risk of a catastrophic split.

On the 5th of August 1914, the parliamentary Labour party debated whether to support granting the government a £100m war credit in an upcoming vote. Macdonald recommended abstention.

His party, with a mix of conviction and fear of the electoral consequences, told him to stuff it.

Macdonald told them to stuff it back, and resigned.

He was replaced by the capable but uninspiring Arthur Henderson, taking on his second stint as caretaker leader. Macdonald wrote in his diary,

“The men were not working, were not pulling together, there was enough jealously to spoil good feeling.” He then added, “The party was no party in reality,” an experience familiar to many members at their annual CLP Christmas drinks.

Despite all that, Macdonald had previously made a telling prediction. “I have been through this before,” he said, in reference to the Boer war, “and 1906 [when Labour made substantial electoral advances] came as part recompense.”

But with a party apparently fatally divided, how could that possibly be true?  The answer? WENWC

Not very snappy, true. But the war emergency national workers committee or WENWC would prove to be Labour’s surprising salvation.

Pete and Atul are not historians

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2 Responses to “Labour history uncut: It’s war!”

  1. McCurry says:

    You should make this stuff into a book.

  2. LesAbbey says:

    Yes McCurry, a book written by those that hate their own history, although I guess they are a part of the party that actually disowns its history.

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