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Did the UK Labour Party support The First world War

The Labour Party argued against Britain’s entry into the war. However after war had been declared on the 4 August 1914, the majority voted to back the war effort.

Patriotism played a large part, particularly amongst the trades unions and the rank and file.

The war divided the leadership. Some such as Arthur Henderson took a pragmatic view, preferring to maintain unity within the Party. Ramsay MacDonald resigned as Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and was vilified for his anti-war views. The Independent Labour Party (ILP) was strongly opposed to the war.

Though much divided over the issue, in 1916 the Labour Party reluctantly accepted the need for conscription.

Prior to August 1914 the Labour Party had a largely anti-war stance. It repeatedly called for a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

A peace demonstration was held in Trafalgar Square on the 2 August. The speakers included Keir Hardie, Arthur Henderson and George Lansbury.

After Edward Grey’s speech in the Commons on the 3 August, Ramsay MacDonald stated that ‘without equivocation, if the Right Honourable Gentleman had come here to-day and told us that our country is in danger’ the Labour Party ‘would be with him and behind him…We will offer him ourselves if the country is in danger. But he has not persuaded me that it is’. Britain should remain neutral.

Most of the Labour leadership continued to argue against a war up until Britain’s entry on the 4 August.

On the 4 August 1914 Britain declared war on Germany.

Now war had actually been declared the majority of the Labour Party voted to support the war effort. The main opposition to the war from within the Labour Party came from the ILP.

The National Executive did however issue a statement on 7 August strongly criticising the Government’s foreign policy of alliances and secret treaties, which Labour saw as the principal cause of the war. It also called for peace to be secured ‘at the earliest possible moment’.

On the 29 August, the Labour Party Executive endorsed the PLPs decision to take part in the Government’s recruitment campaign. Soon after the Party published a manifesto defending its decision to take part, stating it was ‘bound in honour’ to ‘resist by arms the aggression of Germany’.

In an apparent departure from its earlier position, instead of blaming the war on British foreign policy it placed the blame on the German Government, which was ‘determined on war’.

After Germany invaded Belgium, a wave of patriotism spread across Britain. Much of the working class which made up the rank and file of the Labour Movement supported the war.

Patriotism was also high amongst the trade unionists. The TUC formally agreed to an ‘industrial truce’ for the war’s duration. Restrictive practices in skilled trades were to be suspended as was any strike action.

Within the Labour leadership men such as Will Crooks did not see their patriotism as going against their socialist views. Crooks led a rendition of the National Anthem in the Commons in September 1914. He also travelled the country encouraging men to enlist.

For those not motivated by patriotism, the majority believed it would be a political mistake to try and undermine the war effort or associate Labour with the anti-war movement.

Arthur Henderson had been a vocal opponent of Britain going to war. When the war began however, he reluctantly gave it his support to keep the Party together. Divisions within the Labour Movement would not help British workers.

J R Clynes wrote in his memoirs that once war was declared most in the Party felt that they could better serve the country with ‘unswerving, if protesting, loyalty’.

Not everyone in the leadership could reconcile themselves with the position the Labour Party had taken. The Labour MPs Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald were part of the dissenting minority.

On the 5 August 1914 the PLP voted to support the Liberal Government’s request for £100,000,000 of war credits. In protest at this and over the Party’s stance on the war, Ramsay MacDonald resigned as Chairman of the PLP.

Arthur Henderson took his place. MacDonald remained in the Party and took up the post of Treasurer.

MacDonald received much support from the ILP for his opposition to Britain’s entry into the war. However the same was not true for the wider public.

MacDonald was sent hate mail, heckled at meetings and vilified by the press for his anti-war stance.

The Times claimed that ‘no paid agent of Germany had served her better’. The Spectator accused him of ‘heartening the enemy’ and questioned why he should be given an MP’s salary.

John Bull published a copy of his birth certificate, revealing him to be ‘the illegitimate son of a Scotch servant girl’. In 1916 he was expelled from the Moray Golf Club.

MacDonald lost his seat at the 1918 General Election.

The National Executive of the Labour Party had agreed in August 1914 to take an active part in the Government’s recruitment campaign. A decision the ILP strongly opposed. It was hoped that enough recruits would volunteer to avoid the need for conscription.

The Labour Party had always been against compulsory military service. There were also fears it might lead to industrial conscription.

As the war progressed, recruitment rates failed to keep pace with the demands for men on the Western Front. The Labour Party reluctantly accepted the need for conscription.

In December 1915 the Government introduced a conscription Bill.

A special conference of Labour organisations held on the 6 January 1916 voted to oppose the Bill in all its stages. A subsequent meeting of the National Executive voted for the withdrawal of the Labour Party from Asquith’s Coalition Government over the issue.

After assurances from the Prime Minister, the three Labour Ministers withdrew their resignations. Instead the matter would be decided at the Party Conference at the end of January. This passed a resolution opposing the Bill, but not to ‘agitate for its repeal’ if it became law. The Labour Ministers remained in government.

On 27 January 1916 the Military Services Act was passed. All single men, with some exemptions, between the ages of eighteen and forty one were liable for conscription.

Despite Asquith’s previous assurances, in April 1916 the Government decided to extend the Act to include married men. Labour were still divided on the issue but this time there was less opposition.

After the trades unions agreed to support it, the National Executive abandoned the special conference it had called to discuss the matter.

The amendments to the Act were passed in May 1916.