Peace activism in wartime Cambridge. Spring 1915

A striking historical event took place in Cambridge shortly after the early exchanges of cannon fire in the First World War, at a time when the real pressures of war were beginning to be felt. It was a meeting of the Union of Democratic Control. This was the first public meeting of the organisation since its formation in late 1914. Note the presence of philosopher Bertrand Russell on the panel. Again, it is striking how more than a few things in this speech resonate today, over a century later. This article digitised by the British Newspaper Archive, transcribed below.

150305 Union of Democratic Control Guildhall Bertrand Russell

“The aims of the Union of Democratic Control were again explained to Cambridge audience last evening. A public meeting arranged the Cambridge branch the Union was held at the Guildhall, and presided over the Rev. E. W. Barnes, of Trinity College. Those the platform were:

  • Mr. E. D. Morel, hon. secretary and treasurer of the Union.
  • Mr. G. Lowes Dickinson,
  • the Hon. Bertrand Russell (chairman of the Cambridge branch), and
  • Mr. L. A. Abraham, of Peterhouse.

“The Chairman said that this was the first public meeting since the formation of the Cambridge branch of the Union Democratic Control. He was glad see that there was a good muster present, but not because they assumed that all of them agreed with the policy of the Union. Were that the case their meeting need not have been held, but they were glad of a large attendance, because thought their presence proved how many in Cambridge were prepared consider the hopes and ideas of the founders of the Union. He added that new movements were naturally viewed with suspicion. But it was the hope of those who had organised the meeting that when the people of this country understood alike the motives and the moderation of the Union of Democratic Control they would submit those proposals to careful examination and receive them with a measure sober sympathy.

The Madness of War

“They in common with the vast majority of the people of this country regarded the present war as an overwhelming tragedy. As patriots they recognised that England must use alike its wealth and men to obtain a successful issue, but there were many of them, most them there, who for diverse reasons could not fight, and they believed that they should give their services to the country at the present time in attempting to promote such a policy as would make a repetition the present carnage impossible. (Applause.)

“They felt themselves forced to inquire this sort of madness could not be prevented in the future. He had joined the Union of Democratic Control so far as he knew, it was the only body England to-day which was not only studying the motives which made for war, but which had also definite, practical proposals for ensuring peace between the great nations of Europe. (Applause.)

“He asked them not accuse them, because they dared talk of peace now, of being enemies their country. They yielded to none of their critics in their desire that England might be united, prosperous, happy, free and respected. He stated that the Union was independent of party. It welcomed members irrespective of sex. for women even more than men suffered by war, and their influence should be the strongest factor in the State working for peace. (Applause.)

“He wished especially to emphasise the fact that the Cambridge branch was not confined those connected with the University. They hoped might become thoroughly representative the town Cambridge[My emphasis] and they were anxious that working men’s societies, the I.L.P. [Independent Labour Party], the trade unions, and the like, should affiliated with them in far as they shared their aims and motives. (Applause.)

“Cambridge Leads the Van.”

“Mr. Morel said that this was the first public meeting which had been held in support the principles and the policy the Union. He rejoiced that the first meeting should held in this ancient place of learning, and that the Cambridge branch should have the van. Believing as he did that the Union Democratic Control was a centre to-day for wise political thought, leading wise political action, he was no less firmly persuaded that Cambridge could become, if Cambridge willed, intellectual focus of incalculable strength to this movement. (Applause.)

“He said the movement came into existence under the spontaneous impulse of a few men who differing in much else, were united in three things—

  • belief in one another’s integrity,
  • a conviction that a great task was before them accomplish, and
  • determination. God willing, to bring that task successful issue.

“He believed that this was a movement destined to influence greatly contemporary thought. It had a programme which should appeal all intelligent men and women irrespective of political divergences and social divergences. a programme with constructive political thought and action, and with specific and concrete things in view. These things were to arouse in the public mind clear and unmistakable determination demanding that the eventual terms of settlement in this war should he such would lay the foundation not for future wars, but for permanent amongst the nations. (Applause.) The Union had large and growing public support. They were tackling the biggest thing in the world, and they wanted all the help they could get, brains and energy and service of every kind.

Aims of the Union.

“Proceeding, he dealt with the four principal objects of the society. The first was that no province should be transferred from one Government to another without the consent by otherwise of the population such of such province. In this, said, they crystallised the essential elements of diplomatic government. This was principle which had been systematically set aside by the diplomatists in every postwar settlement which they had placed their hands.

“Another aim was that no treaty arrangement or undertaking should be entered into in the name of Great Britain without the sanction Parliament, [My emphasis] and they asked for adequate machinery be created for ensuring democratic control foreign policy.

“Thirdly, they wanted foreign policy not aimed creating alliances for the purpose of maintaining the Balance of Power, but directed to concerted action amongst the Powers and the setting of International Council whose deliberations should public, and with such machinery for securing international agreement would the guarantee of abiding peace. He described this war as the apotheosis of the Balance of Power.

Criminal Waste of Resources

“The fourth aim, he said, was that Great Britain should propose as part of the peace settlement a plan for the drastic reduction by consent of the armaments of all the belligerent Powers. The fourth aim also included general nationalisation of the manufacture of armaments and control of the export arms from one country to another. said the maintenance of gigantic armaments was a criminal waste of national resources, if only because it could not provide final settlement of disputes between States and only led to an intolerable condition of affairs, out of which war came to be regarded by diplomatists the only way of escape and the existence of private interest, enormously and magnificently organised, and dependent for its profits upon national expenditure in armaments, was virulent cancer in the life of every State which tolerated it. (Applause.)

“He declared the increase power which this private interest had acquired during the last few years, and the international character which it had assumed, constituted alike the vilest conspiracy against the human race which had ever disgraced the history of mankind. (Applause.) “He pointed that this was not a stop-the-war movement, but a stop-the-causes-of-the-war movement.

Clear Government Statement Wanted.

“It was time that the fundamental problems which had been raised this European convulsion should brought into the arena of public debate. They were entitled to ask for clearer and for more definite and for more detailed expression of their views from the Government than they had hitherto received. He said if was not only their right but their manifest duty  to so act; their duty to those who came after them, and if he was told that questions were awkward and troublesome, his reply was that:-

”We did not make this war, we were not consulted about this war, we were not told about the diplomacy which preceded the war, which was kept from us. We were at war. and faced the situation and are facing it. But this war is being waged in our name, by us, by the people, and it is the blood of our sons which is being shed, and our industry and our labour which supplied the sinews for the war, and upon our backs the social and the economic consequences of the war will fall, and it is our future. and what much more important, the future of our children, which is at stake, and surely these things constitute as strong a claim as the convenience any Government. We must have discussion.”

Patriotism and Public Discussion

“It was a prostitution of the word patriotism, he declared, to suggest that public discussion was unpatriotic. Policies which would affect for generations, and possibly for ever, the future of these islands were in the making. Where were we being led, for what purpose and to what end? The emancipation of humanity from, the militarism, the universal militarism which had deformed and defaced it. from the universal statecraft which had paralysed its advance and flung it back into the welter of barbarism, or along the same old oaths worship at the same old shrines, to bow down the same old altars, back into the chains of bondage the same old traditions? Which was it? We must have light. (Applause.)

“The speaker was heartily thanked, on the motion of Mr Lowes Dickinson, who deplored the Press boycott of public opinion, seconded  by Mr. Abraham.”


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