Duncan Marlor in Fatal Fortnight shows that Britain’s rulers took the country to war in 1914 through deceit and manipulation, finds Dominic Alexander
Duncan Marlor, Fatal Fortnight: Arthur Ponsonby and the Fight for British Neutrality in 1914 (Frontline Books 2014), xv, 240pp.
When governments seek to go to war, the arguments for the decision are always cast in terms of the immediate circumstances, and apart from the odd rhetorical flourish, patterns of history are ruled out of court. That other war might have been an error, but this one is a necessity. It is therefore all the more important to recognise recurring patterns. In this context, it is highly notable to find it argued that Britain entered a catastrophic war due to ‘a pre-commitment at the top of British government behind the backs of parliament’ (p.209). Duncan Marlor, in Fatal Fortnight, remarks on the clear parallel between Blair’s war in Iraq and Britain’s entry into World War I, and raises the question ‘whether democracy prevails in matters of peace and war’.
This question is all the more relevant in that Britain’s entry into the First World War was, at the time, justified as a defence of liberal and democratic values against an authoritarian enemy. This argument has been disinterred time and again in defence of that catastrophic war as if it were common sense. Yet it falls at the first hurdle given the basic fact that the German political system included universal manhood suffrage at the time, while in Britain a large proportion of adult men still did not have the vote (never mind women on either side). Neither country was a true democracy at the time.
The argument goes beyond this simple observation, however, since Britain’s parliamentary system was manipulated and even side-lined in order to bounce the country into war. Marlor’s account of the weeks before the outbreak of the war focuses on the parliamentary opposition to war, in particular those radical liberals among whom Arthur Ponsonby was a leading backbench figure. He was the chair of the Liberal Foreign Affairs Committee, formed in 1911 in response to the Agadir crisis, which saw the government making threatening declarations towards Germany (p.37). The narrative also takes in the activities of leading anti-war Labour MPs Keir Hardy and Ramsay McDonald. Parliament forms a useful vantage point, but along the way the perspective tends to underline the fact that the real decision making was happening elsewhere.
There are points even before the crisis began where it is hard to see leading ministers as being anything other than deceitful. The Foreign Secretary, Edward Grey was asked early in June 1914 if Britain had entered into any commitment to Russia, and answered that ‘there were no unpublished agreements’ which would ‘restrict or hamper’ the government from making its own decision about involvement in any European war (p.26). Yet, when it came to it, the government made precisely the argument that Britain’s agreements with France and Russia morally obligated it to come to their aid in war.
As the crisis mounted, the Liberal government kept parliament in the dark about developments, leaving probing questions unanswered (p.65). It colluded with the opposition front-bench, the enthusiastically pro-war Tories, to shut out the voice of the anti-war MPs in parliament; the government’s own backbench radical MPs, as well as anti-war Labour MPs (p.67). As Marlor observes: ‘Informed Parliamentary democracy was theory rather than practice’ (p.65). It took a considerable effort, amid great vituperation, from the liberal MP for Burnley, Philip Morrell, to force the Speaker to schedule time to discuss Britain’s entry into the war on the 3rd August; there was very nearly no parliamentary debate at all (p.121). The anti-democratic forces at work were exemplified by the Tory suggestion that parliament be adjourned so that the government could deal with the crisis without interference. Marlor quotes this instructive speech from the Tory MP for South Wiltshire:
‘Asked the Prime Minister whether, in view of the present European crisis and the desirability of absolute solidarity among the classes and political parties in this country, he will consider the advantage of adjourning, for the present, this Session of Parliament, and so rendering impossible the continuance or development of acute party controversy with a consequent suggestion of internal discord to the minds of the subjects of Foreign Powers?’ (pp.100-1).
That is to say, opposition to the possible war was illegitimate, and the decision to go to war should not be open to political debate. The implications of this position foreshadowed the later attempts effectively to criminalise the anti-war position.
Part of the pro-war propaganda at the time, and since, focused on Britain’s role as a defender of small nations, Belgium in particular, against the expansionism of aggressive powers. Ponsonby and others were deeply suspicious that this was not the real motive behind the war, and had for long disliked the increasingly close relationship of their country with the autocratic and reactionary Russian state (pp.19-20). The deal with Russia over spheres of influence in Persia was seen by Ponsonby as particularly obnoxious and cynical. When the defence of Belgium appeared as a reason for war, the radical MP Leonard Outhwaite noted that there ‘had been no call for Britain to take on Russia when Russia “suppressed the integrity of Finland” or when Northern Persia was “overrun by Russian troops”’ (p.129). Without quite articulating an anti-imperialist position, the radicals were exposing the self-serving hypocrisy of the pro-war arguments.
Many Liberal and Labour MPs chose to allow themselves to be convinced by the argument about Belgian integrity. Yet, once the October revolution in Russia brought the Bolsheviks to power, who released all the previously secret treaties, it became unescapable for the ‘Liberal and Labour disillusioned’ not to see that the ‘war was being prosecuted for imperialist purposes’ (p.193). Indeed the Birmingham Labour Party, in a resolution read out by Philip Snowden in parliament agreed that:
‘The Labour Party now discovers that it has been utterly deceived and that … the Allied Governments commenced a series of secret conferences at which secret treaties were formulated. In the opinion of the party those treaties flagrantly violate every reason put forward by British statesmen in justification for the war and embody precisely those obnoxious and immoral principles of Junker Imperialism which they were led to believe they were fighting against’ (p.196).
On the one hand this is indeed ‘a damning indictment’ of the government’s conduct in 1914. On the other, the document only underlines the lack of a more prevalent and clear understanding of the nature of imperialism in 1914, and was still not clearly acknowledging their own country’s imperialism. The Belgium argument would not have had such traction if there was a better grasp on the left that Britain was at least equivalent in its imperial nature to Russia and Germany. Without such an analysis, it is all too easy for individuals to be horrified by one incident of aggression, but then fail to see the larger pattern in the next crisis. Thus someone like David Lloyd-George had opposed the Boer War, but then later, in government, became an aggressive proponent of war (p.37).
Nonetheless, the remaining anti-war radicals were delighted to be vindicated by the revelations from Russia. Ponsonby wrote that ‘the Bolshevists are simply splendid’, and Charles Trevelyan in private said ‘wonderful the Bolsheviks. They have reversed the engines’ (p.193). It might seem surprising for these reformist figures to show such enthusiasm for the October revolution, but the context of war polarised opinion. It had also been quite clear to many of the liberal radicals in 1914 that the outbreak of war would bring to an end the programme of social reform which the Liberal government had been pursuing, and to which radicals like Ponsonby and Trevelyan were passionately committed. A bill to end the half-time system of child labour under the age of fourteen was one of the first casualties at the time of the July crisis (p.86). Ponsonby wrote later in August that:
‘The Government have been telling us lies and we believed them. We were committed and we did not know it, so without being attacked or our own interests in any way threatened we joined in. It is an end of Liberalism, of social reform, of progress itself for the moment’ (cited in Douglas Newton, The Darkest Days,p.15).
It is sometimes argued that the German government opted for aggressive war as a means of containing and diverting the increasingly powerful socialist movement there. A similar argument could easily be made for Britain; the enemy was not only the rival imperialism of Germany, but the growing tide of the labour movement. The Labour Party was well behind the SPD (the German equivalent) in MPs, and in (apparent) radicalism, but the same social equation would have been clear to see. Indeed, no less a figure than Cecil Rhodes argued in 1895 that imperialism was the only alternative to civil war in Britain, an idea that may even have been directly borrowed by equivalent German circles.
Superficially, the Liberal Government’s determination to go to war might seem at odds with its own programme of social reform, but in any case the whole of the rest of the ruling class was clearly committed to a pro-war policy. The conservative newspapers were unsurprisingly vituperative towards anti-war views, particularly in castigating Labour’s Trafalgar Square rally on the 2nd August (Marlor, p.85). The intimidating atmosphere would have had its impact on support for the anti-war side, but the government itself was under pressure from a range of sources, with key elements of the civil service effectively in alliance with the Conservatives (see for example pp.52-3, 68). Amid all this, the handful of firmly anti-war figures in parliament gradually saw their support in the Liberal and Labour parties collapse.
A question that does occur is exactly how effective the group of backbench radical MPs actually were in mustering resistance to the war. Marlor’s view seems to be that they did what reasonably could be done in the circumstances. A somewhat different impression can be gained from another recent history that has covered this story, Douglas Newton, The Darkest Days: The Truth Behind Britain’s Rush to War, 1914. For example, Newton details how Ponsonby and the radicals were managed by Grey to ‘keep quiet’, and were at least outmanoeuvred (Newton, p.99). Nonetheless, while Marlor’s narrative differs from Newton’s in some respects, overall the two books support each other’s contention that Britain’s rulers took a deliberate and unnecessary course to go to war. The arguments of both books therefore do lead to the question whether the war could have been stopped.
The view from the British parliament gave relatively little to comfort the anti-war cause. If the radical liberals largely collapsed into support for their party leaders, it has to be said that the parliamentary Labour Party overall, despite the efforts of Keir Hardy and Ramsay McDonald, was not notably more resolute. The lesson is that just as parliament was not the real seat of decision making from the elite perspective, so it was that more promising signs of an anti-war movement were to be seen outside parliament rather than within.
Whatever might or might not have been done differently before the war, a number of MPs deserve credit for continuing their anti-war stance in dangerous conditions. Ponsonby himself was physically attacked when addressing an anti-war meeting of the Union of Democratic Control, and Edmund Morrell was sent to prison for six months (pp.179-80, 183-6). They certainly emerged with more credit than the mainstream Irish Nationalists whose opportunistic support for the war led to their party later on being largely wiped out by Sinn Féin (Marlor, p.179). The wider Liberal Party was fatally damaged by the war, and a number of the radical liberals, including Arthur Ponsonby and Charles Trevelyan, migrated over to Labour after 1918.
The Liberals had always been a party of the establishment, so it is not really a surprise that they largely fell in line with the imperialist project; indeed during the nineteenth-century, the Empire was at least as much a Liberal project as a Conservative one. Yet even so, a significant part of the Liberal parliamentary party had to be cajoled or bullied into the war camp in 1914. What was needed was an alternative pole of organisation to set against the jingo party of the Tory establishment, but despite pacifist and anti-imperialist currents in the labour movement, this did not have time to coalesce. Of course, there rarely is much time to organise in the context of a major crisis. Only the presence of a consistent anti-imperialist, anti-war organisation over the long-term would be likely to make the difference, and ensure that the lessons of one conflict are remembered for the next time. It might be added that the lesson of 1914 is that the defence of democracy cannot be left to parliament.
The historical argument that Britain was justified in entering World War I has always been an important part of the case for maintaining the country’s imperial role as a junior partner of the US. Another major argument centres on its role in World War II. Here Duncan Marlor makes the excellent point that without British intervention ‘the poison of Nazism would probably never have happened’ (p.136). The destruction and violence of one war, rather more often than not, leads inexorably to the next, as any honest observer of Iraq today can see. There never has been such a thing as a war for the cause of humanitarianism.
Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire book, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018).
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