Parliament And World War One: Unified Administration Of Supply
(Or the efficient use of labour and resources. And how Germany prepared for war.)
by Dick Barry
My Hansard search has taken me to 21 April 1915. With the exception of the debate following the statement by Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey on 3 August 1914, there appears to have been no further detailed discussion of the war itself. Instead, MPs’ attention turned to questions concerning the mobilisation of labour and resources at home and other related matters. Workers (labour) were a particular focus, being accused by some Conservative MPs and firms of not pulling their weight. Labour MPs, such as Will Thorne (see July/August issue) came to their defence, but his effort(s) largely fell on deaf ears. On 21 April 1915, there was a major debate on this issue introduced by William Hewins a Conservative backbencher. The first half of Hewins speech relating to Germany is reproduced. George Barnes replied on behalf of the Labour Party. There is a passage in his speech which reflects accurately the attitude of most politicians and the bulk of the British people towards Germany. Barnes led an interesting life, hence his potted biography below is somewhat longer than that of Will Thorne and other colleagues in previous issues.
William Alfred Samuel Hewins (11 May 1865 – 17 November 1931) was the son of Samuel Hewins, an iron merchant. He was educated at Wolverhampton Grammar School and Pembroke College, Oxford. He graduated with a degree in mathematics and later worked as a university extension lecturer. He was the first Director of the London School of Economics from 1895 to 1903. Hewins resigned from teaching to work for Joseph Chamberlain and his campaign for tariff reform. He unsuccessfully contested Shipley in 1910 and Middleton in 1912 but was returned to Parliament for Hereford in a 1912 by-election. He served in the coalition government of Lloyd George as Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies from 1917 to 1919. In later life Hewins wrote articles for the Encyclopaedia Britannica and the Dictionary of National Biography. He also published among other works, Trade in Balance (1924), Empire Restored (1927), and the Apologia of an Imperialist (1929).
George Barnes (2 January 1859 – 21 April 1940) was born at Lochee near Dundee. His father, James Barnes, was a mechanic at a local textile mill but in 1866 the family moved to Liverpool and the following year settled in London. At the age of eleven Barnes began work at a jute mill. In 1872 the family returned to Dundee and Barnes found work at Parker’s Foundry. When he completed his apprenticeship he moved to Barrow-in-Furness where he worked in the town’s shipyard. In 1879 Barnes moved back to London. After ten weeks unemployment he obtained work constructing the Albert Dock in the Thames. In 1882 he began work at Lucas & Airds in Fulham and joined the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE) where he met Tom Mann and John Burns. Barnes attended meetings of the Social Democratic Federation and the Socialist League, but rejected the idea of socialist revolution and declined to join either organisation.
In 1889 Barnes was elected to the executive of the ASE. He supported the election of John Burns as general secretary in 1890. Two years later Barnes was appointed as assistant general secretary. He worked closely with other socialist trade unionists and in 1893 joined with Keir Hardie, Robert Smillie, Tom Mann, John Glasier, H. H. Champion and Ben Tillett to form the Independent Labour Party. In the 1895 General Election the ILP put up 28 candidates but won only 44,325 votes. All the candidates were defeated, including George Barnes at Rochdale. In 1896 Barnes was elected General Secretary of the ASE. The ASE was the third largest union. In July 1897 Barnes led the ASE in a long strike in an attempt to win an eight-hour day. The strike ended in January 1898 without this being achieved, but the Employers Federation agreed that in future it would negotiate wages and conditions with the ASE.
Barnes went on a fact-finding tour of Europe in 1898. Although the trip convinced him that British engineers were the best in Europe, he also discovered that Britain was falling behind other nations in wage levels and working conditions. He became convinced that real progress would only be made when more trade unionists were elected to the House of Commons. In 1900 Barnes was involved in the setting up of the Labour Representation Committee, the forerunner to the Labour Party. He argued strongly that not only working class men should be selected as LRC candidates in elections, pointing out that people like Frederic Harrison and Sydney Webb had important qualities to contribute to the labour movement. Barnes motion was passed by 102 votes to 3.
In 1902 Barnes formed the National Committee of Organised Labour for Old Age Pensions. He spent the next three years travelling the country urging this social welfare reform. The measure was extremely popular and was an important factor in his defeat of Andrew Bonar Law, the Conservative cabinet minister, in the 1906 General Election. David Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Liberal government, was also an opponent of the Poor Law in Britain. In 1908 he introduced the Old Age Pensions Act that provided between 1s. and 5s. a week to people over seventy. These pensions were only paid to people on incomes that were not over 12s. Ramsay MacDonald argued that the Labour Party should fully support the budget. Although Barnes welcomed Lloyd George’s reforms, he argued that the level of benefits were far too low. He also suggested that the pensions should be universal and disliked what was later to be called the Means Test aspect of the reforms.
The 1910 General Election saw 40 Labour MPs elected to the House of Commons. Two months later, on 6 February 1911, Barnes wrote to the Labour Party announcing that he intended to resign as chairman, a post he was elected to in 1910 following the retirement of Arthur Henderson. In 1914 Barnes strongly supported Britain’s involvement in the First World War. He toured industrial districts making recruitment speeches. He also went to Canada where he helped to persuade trained mechanics to work in British industry. Barnes’s eldest son, Henry, was killed fighting on the Western Front in September 1915. This did not change his views on the war and in 1916 he was one of the few Labour MPs to support military conscription.
Barnes became disillusioned with the way Asquith was running the country and in 1916 helped Lloyd George gain power. Lloyd George rewarded him by making Barnes head of the recently formed Pensions Ministry. At the end of the war the Labour Party withdrew from Lloyd George’s coalition government. Barnes resigned from the party in order to remain as Minister of Pensions. He remained in the post until poor health forced him to resign in January 1920. Unable to gain the support of the Labour Party in the 1922 General Election, Barnes resigned from the House of Commons.
“I beg to move, ‘That this House, while welcoming well-considered steps for increasing the mobility and efficiency of labour, is of the opinion that it is urgently necessary that the resources of all firms capable of producing or of co-operating in producing munitions of war should be enlisted under a unified administration in direct touch with such firms.’
“The policy which I wish to see adopted in regard to munitions of war is set forth in general terms in the Resolution which stands in my name. I want unity of administration by an authority which is in direct touch with the firms, and that the workers to be employed should be employed as far as possible in situ, and that there should be the greatest possible co-ordination of industry in regard to the position to be effected. I shall have to develop that resolution in some detail, but I may say that my object in putting it forward is not for criticism of the Government. I shall make a certain number of observations which inferentially may be said to be critical of the Government; but what I want especially is an increase in the munitions of war, and I am totally indifferent as to who sits on the Treasury Bench so long as Ministers do the work which the country wants at the present time. Why should anyone care about mere questions of party politics at the present moment?”
“We are contemplating the wreck of the world as we have known it. Every country is affected, every institution will be modified, every treaty we have got at the present time has got to be remodelled; all party questions will be affected, and at the present moment we can only fight as well as we can to secure the preservation of those great Imperial objects for which we stand. If, out of the wreck, we can preserve that great inheritance we have had, that hierarchy of autonomous institutions throughout the British Empire—the principles of justice and the strict interpretation of treaties upon which our power has been built—we shall be exceedingly happy, and those objects are far too great for me or anybody to raise mere party questions upon, and I am only anxious by this Resolution, and what I say upon it, to help, if I can, in solving the great problems with which we are confronted.”
“There are certain reflections which are exceedingly germane to the practical question of increasing production. I suppose that scarcely anything has ever been known so well as the general object of German policy during the last generation. It is not question of whether Lord Haldane, or anybody else, has had private conversations with the German Chancellor and picked out reasons for a feeling of uneasiness in the course of those conversations. The object of German policy has been openly avowed; its tendency has been publicly manifest; the object they have in view has been set forth in countless speeches, and I suppose that no subject of modern thought in regard to politics or economics has ever been so carefully worked out, so fully expressed, as the trend and object of German preparations. What is it that has characterised German policy? There is one broad distinction between the aims pursued by Germany and the aims pursued here.
For a very long time the Germans have in all the measures which they have adopted kept in view one great and supreme object, that is, the increase of efficiency, the fighting efficiency of that country, not only in a military and naval sense, but also by the organisation of their civil, industrial, and economic life. There has never been anything in Germany or, at all events, in modern Germany, at all analogous to the way in which we have regarded these questions in this country. The organisation of the industry and the civil life of the community in Germany is from their point of view, and has been for years past quite as much a war measure as the building up of their Army and Navy. I am quite certain that there are many Members in this House who have followed German policy—and they will appreciate what I say—which has been set forth quite clearly and in book after book, that when you go to war you do not go to war merely with military and naval forces, but you go to war with your civil and your industrial life, and everything is brought together. That Germany has carried out in the most efficient way.
I should like to say that, although I think that country has certainly achieved a very great work in the last thirty or forty years, yet I am not a great admirer of German organising methods, and I do not say in the least that they would have been at all applicable to this country. I sincerely believe that the English genius for organisation is far greater than that of Germany. After all, the British Empire exists, and it is the outcome of the organising genius of its inhabitants. What I complain of is not that we have no organising power in this country—I think that is a perfectly ridiculous libel on the English people—but that in the course we have adopted we have not given full scope to that organising power. The Germans have everywhere inquired into every trade, into all kinds of official movements, and into our social weaknesses.
In every undertaking, in all the Colonies and Dependencies, we have had everywhere those people coming along; and it is not your German waiter who is the dangerous alien: it is your highly educated, suave, and pleasant-faced German that comes to our dining-table, and we are quite pleased to talk over questions between the two countries. And he has got together a vast mass of evidence at the present moment, and the German Government knows a great deal more about our social and economical organisations than we know ourselves. I do not say their knowledge is always in proper perspective, but certainly they have done their best to know all about us and our institutions, and they have done so for the purposes of war. We have not done that. It is not a party question because we have had that Government in office; it is the prevalence of certain ideas and views for a great many years, and those views—I am not going into it in any detail—encouraged a sort of watertight separation between the departments of British life.
To come to the immediate question. While those ideas have been prevalent our soldiers have not been encouraged to know much about our civil and economic life and institutions, and the British people have not been encouraged to study our institutions from the war point of view. I should like to bear witness to the immense and valuable work done by both soldiers and business men in connection with the problem. With soldiers’ work I have been somewhat familiar for a great many years, and also with the work of business men, and one of the complaints I have to urge against the Government is, why have they not brought to bear on the great problems with which we are faced the knowledge, capacity and skill which business men could bring to bear on them?
The result of the prevalence of those views has been that all through the atmosphere of British life there has been discouragement rather than encouragement to study the concrete fighting problems with which we are faced at present. I think myself that if by any ill-chance we, through this war, lost to the sons and daughters of England their great heritage we should be absolutely without excuse. The ignorance that has caused the prevalence of the views I have indicated has been to a large extent deliberate ignorance, and you would have nothing to say to the brothers and sisters of this splendid young generation who are laying down their lives in Belgium and in France if anything went wrong with this war.”
“The war in which this country is now engaged has brought about many changes in this House, most of them, I think, for the best. Some of them have been illustrated during the last hour or two while I have been listening to the Debate. I think I am right in saying that now we are thinking more of the human aspect of things than of the party aspect, and the speech of the hon. Member for Sheffield, who has just spoken (Mr James Hope), has rightly emphasised the human aspect of the problem now presented to us. With much of what he said, if not with all, I entirely agree. Some people have been disposed to regard workmen as things with arms and legs that can be moved this way and that by scientific gentlemen, whereas we are now coming to understand that workmen are essentially human beings with feelings and opinions like the rest of us. Arising out of that, one comes to the further conclusion that in order to get the best out of workmen in regard to munitions, or any-thing else, you must secure their good will and wholehearted sympathy with what they have to do. If I rightly interpret the sense of the House hon. Members on both sides pretty well accept that conclusion.”
“I also agree with what the hon. Gentleman has said upon the drink question, as to which, I believe, far too much has already been said. I propose, however, to add a very words to that discussion. I heard the explanation of the Chancellor of the Exchequer this afternoon in regard to what has been attributed to him, and I believe he was quite within the letter in reading out what he actually said. But he did not read out all that he said, and one sentence he omitted to read out had more effect in the country, and a worse effect on the minds of working men, than anything he read out this afternoon. The employers went to the right hon. Gentleman and made a certain indictment against the workmen. They gave figures as to time lost, or time that might have been made. And with regard to that I have to say that, although figures cannot lie, they may sometimes be used very cleverly. The right hon. Gentleman having had these figures submitted to him by the employers, said—if he was correctly reported—that ‘he accepted all they said as the simple truth’ “
Mr Lloyd George:
“The hon. Gentleman is making the same mistake as he attributed to me. That was not all that the employers said. They also said that considerable numbers of the men were doing their work as truly and as gallantly by this country as if they were in the trenches.”
“I will later on give the right hon. Gentleman an opportunity of explaining that particular point, but I can assure him that the passage I have just quoted was the one that stuck in the throats of a great many of the workmen of this country. They said, ‘Our employers come and make a one-sided statement to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. We know it is not true, but the Chancellor of the Exchequer accepts it holus-bolus!’ That is how it appears to their minds. I am sure it was not true. I do not know where the figures were wrong, but I have spent twenty-two years of my life in the workshop. I speak with actual knowledge of workshop conditions, and, when an employer, or an association of employers of labour, comes forward and says, as in this case, that a body of men has had an opportunity of working sixty, seventy, or more hours per week, and has only worked below the normal, I know there has been something dropped out, and that the figures do not represent all the truth. As a matter of fact, the Prime Minister yesterday knocked the bottom out of a good many of the figures. He had a statement sent to him last week by the representatives of forty-eight firms at Barrow, Newcastle, Manchester and elsewhere, to the effect that only about 5 per cent of the workmen in the factories in those cities were working above the normal, and that 95 per cent were below. But what did the Prime Minister say yesterday? He said that in the firms that were engaged on armaments the men had been working sixty-seven or sixty-nine hours a week on average.”
Mr Lloyd George:
“Those figures did not refer to the same class of workmen. The figures given by the forty-eight firms referred to the shipyards, and are, I am sorry to say, substantially accurate. The figures quoted by the Prime Minister referred to a totally different class of workers.”
“With all due deference to the Chancellor of the Exchequer I say they referred to a very large extent to the same class of men. The names were given of the firms. There was Vickers of Barrow, one of the largest firms in the country, engaged not only in shipbuilding, but in engine building, submarine building, and many other phases of engineering activity. There was also Whitworths of Manchester. As a matter of fact, I could give some explanation of the discrepancy. It so happens that the night shifts work only forty-five hours per week, and that is quite enough for night work. That condition applies to a large number of the cases represented by the forty-eight firms, and when they trot out these figures, and tell us that only 5 per cent of the men are working above fifty-three or fifty-four hours, they are putting the figure eight hours above the normal, for the men on the night shift cannot work more than forty-five hours. That partly explains the figures presented by these forty-eight firms. I speak with some knowledge. I have taken the pains to inquire, and I say that probably, the Prime Minister was absolutely right yesterday when he said the men were working from sixty-seven to sixty-nine hours per week on the average. I put it to the Members of the House that if a man has been working sixty-seven hours per week for six months on end he is likely to be jumpy and ill-natured, and that his ill-nature is not going to be improved by the sort of statements that have been made and the lectures which have been thrown at him during the last few months.”
“I speak as a teetotaller practically. I think far too much has been said about the drinking habits of the working people. Nobody deplores more than I do the consequences of them, but I repeat far too much has said about them, and far too little has been said in the way of encouragement to the men to do their very best, and in praise of them so far as they have done so. I want to make a reference to the speech made by the hon. gallant Gentleman opposite (Major Baird). I would congratulate him on having the good fortune to serve his country abroad, and on having so far dodged the German bullets. I hope he will be spared to go back and render still more service. There were several things he said with which I also agree. He said, for instance, he wished the Chancellor of the Exchequer would use his grand oratorical gifts, and go about the country making some of the speeches which he used to make on the Budget. It is a strange commentary that we should have an invitation to the right hon. Gentleman from the other side of the House to go about the country and make these fiery speeches.”
“Not on that subject.”
“I agree with the hon. Member that the Chancellor of the Exchequer would be very well employed in making the same sort of speech he made this afternoon. I agree with many who have already spoken that what we want is that our population should realise the big job they are up against, and in order that they should realise it we ought to tell them the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. We have had far too much blinking of the truth. Newspaper editors have been telling us optimistic tales for the last seven months. They have torn the Turk to tatters already; they have annihilated the Austrians about ten times, and have penned all sorts of wonderful things on paper. I believe we are still a long way off the termination of this war. People ought to realise that; they ought to be told the whole truth, and we should cease these vagaries of the Censor, or whoever is responsible for them, of giving us little bits of news—sometimes with not too much truth in them. I therefore agree with the hon. Member that the Chancellor of the Exchequer should tell us more and go about the country getting up the enthusiasm of the people. I agree with the hon. and gallant Member in another thing. He said he could not understand those people who said they had no ill-will against Germany. I cannot understand them either. I have no ill-will against individual Germans, who are good as I am, probably a good deal better.”
Mr James Hope:
“When I think of Germany I think of a country that sent its army into a poor little inoffensive country like Belgium; I think of that army laying waste the sacred places of the Belgian people, having killed her priests, killed the old women and ravaged the young women; and I think also of a nation or that Government that sent submarines round our own coasts two days ago and sent ten or eleven of our own seamen to the bottom of the sea. After all, we are Britons and men of flesh and blood, and, being so, we think of these poor little Belgium people and of the hundreds of our own now lying at the bottom of the sea who might have been with their families and earning an honest livelihood. We are in this War against our will. War is horrible, brutal, barbarous, against reason and common sense, but it is simply filling one’s belly with the east wind to talk like that now. We are in the war, we are up to the neck in it. We are in it against our will, for I believe the Chancellor of the Exchequer and his colleagues did all that mortal men could do to keep us out of the War. Germany would have it. This War was made in Germany, and, as far as I am concerned and so far as the resources of this country in men and money can be made to do it, this War is going to end with Germany.”
“I agree it is a deplorable fact that, during the last few weeks, we have had strikes in the large areas engaged in making munitions of war. I am not going into the causes of that, because that would raise controversial matter, but I will heartily re-echo everything the hon. and gallant Gentleman has said as to the desirability of the forces of labour being devoted to making the munitions of war in the largest possible quantities. To get that we must have good will and the men must be assured of fair play. With these conditions I believe the men will work their hardest to make the munitions required. What we want is that the men who are unemployed, or partially employed, or employed in civil work should, as far as possible, be shunted off to the making of munitions of war. Talking of the unemployed reminds me of a strange sight I saw this morning. Crossing the Epsom road, I saw hundreds of char-a-bancs, motor cars, and all sorts of vehicles taking able-bodied men—as far as I could see, nine out of ten were able-bodied—going to Epsom to see the races. I do not object to racing, I went to see the Derby myself last year, and I hope to see it again before I die. I was not interested in the races, but in the crowd. I should not know one horse from another. I have nothing to say against races or going to Epsom, but I think these men could be better employed just now than going to races. I do not know whether anything of a special character has been done to mobilise this type of man. If not, something must be done.”
“As to the partially employed men, I suppose that Members of Parliament might be put in that category, because they are working half time and getting full pay, though the work is not so easy as some outsiders imagine, because we have a great deal more correspondence now than we used to have—at any rate, that is so with me, because I should say my correspondence has trebled since the War began, and I have to spend two to three hours every day writing letters. But I say here and now that when this Session of Parliament is over, I shall be quite willing to go back into the workshop and do my bit, if necessary, in making shells. I am glad the scheme of mobilisation of the engineering firms is coming about, because it is very likely that some firm near my home will be making shells—but so far as I can I am willing to do it. Many men are now engaged on civil work who might be engaged on war work. As an illustration of that I have in my mind a factory on the border of my Constituency where some 10,000 people are now operating machines, making sewing machines. Sewing machines might very well be left over for a time, and those people might be better employed, having regard to what is wanted at the present time. We ought to be getting ready for a breakdown. Men cannot work sixty-seven or sixty-nine hours a week indefinitely, and I believe we are reaching the time for breakdown now, therefore it is all the more necessary to be doing something to make provision against it.”
“I am glad that these Committees have been set up. While I agree with the Motion now before the House in spirit, I do not agree with it in practice, because it says that the Committees should be under a unified administration. On the contrary, I believe that you ought to have a large degree of local indiscretion, and get the goodwill of the people in the various localities where the work is required, and who best understand their own local conditions. We must also have on all these local committees representatives of the working people as well as the employers of labour. I am afraid that on the central committees there is not sufficient technical ability. I heard only this week of a case of the manager of a certain firm being sent to Kingsway, where he was shown samples and told he was to do a certain class of work. That work involved the putting of all his small machines on it, but if he did that he would have to stop his big machines, because the small machines fed the big ones. There ought to be someone with practical knowledge in order to avoid that sort of thing, and in order that the works may be used to the fullest possible capacity and, at the same time, in fairness to the employers.”
“My last point is a very important one. It is that the piecework prices of the men engaged on the munitions of war ought to be guaranteed. It is said that men are not doing their best. I believe it is perfectly true that, if you take a narrow view of the matter, they are not doing their best. Supposing I were to go in for making shells, I might bundle into it and do as much as I possibly could for the first few months, but if I had knowledge, and if I had to make my living out of it, I should not want to do it so heartily; I should want provision made that while I was at work my interests should be secured in a permanent fashion. That is what is wanted at the present time. The ordinary workman knows, from bitter experience, that the harder he works the sooner his prices are reduced. Therefore, he says to himself, ‘ Why should I wear myself out; why should I injure my health by working all I possibly can, when I know that, at the end of it, I shall be no better off ‘ If the Government were now to make an authoritative statement that no matter how much a man earned, his prices would not be reduced, I believe the output of munitions of war would be considerably increased, perhaps not immediately, but as the knowledge soaked into the mind of the man that he would not be injuring himself”
“I agree with last speaker that the output is by no means bad at the present time. I have had a letter on the subject from, perhaps, the largest manufacturer of shells. I do not think there is any objection to giving his name—it is Sir Robert Hadfield. He said there had been a good deal of criticism about the men being “ca’ canny”. He said that he was delighted to find that the men were working with a will, and that he had nothing to complain about. That is largely true of the factories all over the country. What we have heard to the contrary has been stated by academic people who know nothing about the workshop. Let us encourage the men in so far as they are doing well. Let us cease lecturing them, and in particular telling them of their faults, of the drinking, and taking exaggerated views of all their vices, and in proportion as we do that we shall encourage the men to do their utmost, so that this War may be ended as speedily as possible, and in the only possible way we can end it—that is, by the overthrow of Prussian militarism.”