2016 03 – Banning Bertrand Russell

Parliament And World War One

by Dick Barry


On 28 November 1916 the banning of Bertrand Russell from delivering lectures in Britain and the United States was once more raised in the House of Commons, on this occasion by Charles Trevelyan.

(Sir) Charles Trevelyan, 3rd Baronet, PC (28 October 1870-24 January 1958) was a Liberal, and later Labour politician and landowner. He was elected Liberal Member of Parliament for Elland, Yorkshire in a by-election in 1899. He served under H.H. Asquith as Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Education between 1908 and 1914, when, as an opponent of British entry into the First World War, he resigned from the government. In 1914, he founded the Union of Democratic Control an all-party organisation rallying opposition to the war. In the 1918 general election he lost his Elland seat, running as an Independent Labour candidate. He won Newcastle Central for Labour in 1922 and held it until 1931. He was a member of Ramsey MacDonald’s cabinet as President of the Board of Education between January and November 1924 and between 1929 and 1931, when the Labour government collapsed. In early 1939, following Stafford Cripps and with Aneurin Bevan among others, Trevelyan was briefly expelled from the Labour Party for persisting with support for a “popular front” – involving co-operation with the Liberal Party and Communist Party- against the National Government.

Mr. TREVELYAN  I gave notice at Question Time to-day that, in consequence of an answer of the Secretary of State for War, I should raise the subject of the prohibition of the Government against Mr. Bertrand Russell going into prohibited areas. It has already been discussed in the House, but there is this peculiarity about all the answers given on this subject, that a different story is given by the Government every time they speak, and I think when they circumscribe the liberty of a very distinguished man they should at least know why they do it. To-day the Minister for War said: It is not the fact that Mr. Bertrand Russell was ever prohibited from delivering in Glasgow a course or lectures which he has now delivered in Manchester. That is the present answer of the Secretary of State for War. On 18th October the right hon. Gentleman told me: We had information from a very reliable source that Mr. Bertrand Russell was about to engage in the delivery of a series of lectures which would interfere very seriously with the maiming of the Army.”—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 18th October. 1916, col. 589, Vol. LXXXVI.] It was those very lectures which at that time were given as the reason for prohibiting Mr. Bertrand Russell from going into about half of England. I suppose the Government found that that excuse would not hold, because as a matter of fact they very soon heard that although Mr. Bertrand Russell was not able to deliver his lectures in his own person at Glasgow, the first lecture he had proposed to deliver before the prohibition was delivered for him by Mr. Robert Smillie before an audience of 1,000, who afterwards passed a motion of protest because Mr. Bertrand Russell was not allowed to come there himself. They did not prosecute Mr. Robert Smillie, because they were afraid of popular discontent in Glasgow. This excuse for stopping the lectures, therefore, would not hold any longer, so the next time the Home Secretary spoke he gave a different excuse. He said that Mr. Bertrand Russell’s liberty was being circumscribed because of a speech made at Cardiff which was “vehemently anti-British.”

I shall have something more to say about that in a moment, but I wish to call the attention of the House to this speech of the Home Secretary. What he said was accompanied by a series of inaccuracies, the most serious of which was this: He was speaking of the reason why Mr. Bertrand Russell had not been allowed to go to America to deliver a series of lectures at Harvard College on mathematics and philosophy—nothing whatever to do with politics or the War—and the Home Secretary said: He was asked whether he would give an undertaking, if he were given a permit to go to America, to give lectures at Harvard and not to engage in anti-British propaganda—propaganda which might reasonably be regarded as hostile to or as hindering and hampering the efforts of this country in the prosecution of the War He refused to give that undertaking, Commander Wedgwood: Was that in writing? Mr. Samuel: I do not think there was any correspondence. It was done verbally as far as I remember.”—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th October, 1916,. col. 880, Vol. LXXXVI.] There was not a single word of truth in the whole of that. It was pure fabrication by someone who informed the Home Secretary wrongly. Mr. Bertrand Russell was never asked for an undertaking either in word or in writing, and he never even asked for a passport to go to America, but Harvard asked that this distinguished man might have a passport, and was abruptly refused by the Foreign Office.

Really I should like the House to take this case seriously, and not with any prejudice with regard to Mr. Russell’s opinion, because his treatment, as I know from many of my friends who do not agree with either him or me, is seriously shocking many people in England who do not agree with him in politics, and, what is more, his treatment is resounding through the world. America does not hear of the treatment of conscientious objectors. The Censor takes care of that. But the Censor cannot take care when a distinguished man who wants to lecture at Harvard is prevented from going there because of the prejudices of the Foreign Office. That is the way a Grey now treats a Russell! As a matter of fact, it is rumoured, fairly circumstantially, that the Harvard chair of philosophy is likely to be offered to Mr. Bertrand Russell in retaliation, or rather to show the resentment of Americans at his treatment. Why is he treated in this way? The last excuse by the Home Secretary is that he made a “vehemently anti-British” speech at Cardiff. It was so anti-British, and it was so bad, that the Home Secretary could not read it out to the House. It would give too much advertisement to such wickedness. But he sent me the passages which I suppose, he thought worst in this speech. Of course, I am not going to read them out to the House, but I think I was right in showing them to Mr. Bertrand Russell.

Mr. Bertrand Russell has been condemned, according to the Home Secretary, on this speech. He had never been shown this speech. It had never been published in any paper. That is the worst of spy-reporting. Any sneaking sort of distortion may be made of what a man said, and it is not possible to correct it. Mr. Bertrand Russell flatly denies that he said a good many of these things. You have not given him the chance of saying whether he did or did not utter them, but you said that what he said was anti-British. It is quite true he was arguing against a good many of the actions of the British Government. Who does not? Are you so popular that you think anything that is anti-Governmental is anti-British? Is that your creed? Was that the creed of the right hon. Gentleman throughout his career? Anti-British, indeed! Mr. Bertrand Russell was saying that it is anti-British to conceal foreign policy. He was attacking the concealment of foreign policy before this War, and during this War, and he said some strong things, I agree. He said—and I am going to quote this because it is so quoted in a newspaper in Wales— We knew so little about what the real policy of the Government was with regard to the War and its commitments at Constantinople and elsewhere that the Government might be pursuing an infamous policy. I wonder whether the Secretary for War has never said that a Government might be pursuing an infamous policy. That is not the same thing as saying a Government is pursuing an infamous policy. There might be something to be said for requesting men of education, and presumably discretion, not to say that the Government is pursuing an infamous policy, but there are a great many people in this country who think that if the Government are committing themselves to certain lines of policy and continuing indefinitely the War for certain purposes who would be ready and glad to say that it would be infamous.

I was reading a passage the other day from a letter from Lord Loreburn in which he denounced the secrecy of the Government and criticised them. He did not say it was infamous, but he said it might be bankruptcy to the nation if we pursued such courses. Mr. Russell was criticising, as any free Briton has the right to criticise, the past and present policy of this Government, and according to the Home Secretary that is why he has only to be allowed to enter half of England, as if he were a German spy. That is the sort of liberty there is in England at the present time. I have attacked my right hon. Friends for this, but I want to say that I do not believe either the Home Secretary or the Secretary for War initiated this attack on Mr. Bertrand Russell. I believe they have been making excuses for someone else, as they will go on making excuses to the end of the War for more infringements to our liberties, unless they stop at an early stage. I believe this attack was initiated by a soldier without, probably, the Secretary for War knowing very much about it, and the right hon. Gentleman thinks it necessary to defend what that soldier has said. It is the general who issues orders and decides if a politician has gone past the point he thinks justifiable. This letter was written to Mr. Russell when he asked to be allowed to deliver his lecture on “Social Reconstruction” in different parts of the country. A general wrote to him and said: The subjects on which you wish to speak could, I think, with little difficulty or loss of interest be treated without any direct or obvious reference to the controversies of the day. On the other hand, they might not. Such topics as the sphere of compulsion in good government’ and ‘the limits of allegiance to the State’ would in particular seem to require very careful handling if they are not to be mistaken for propaganda of the type which it is desired to postpone till after the conclusion of hostilities.

What we are to talk about is to be decided by a general, and he is to decide what we should postpone to the conclusion of hostilities. Under a Liberal War Minister we are to be directed by a general as to what we are to discuss, and he is to tell us what our political philosophy is to be. The general tells us that Mr. Russell is not to discuss “the sphere of compulsion in good government.” That is not to be discussed, but we do discuss it. The Secretary for War may go down to Manchester and may explain the new Liberalism to the world, and say that compulsion is the essence of democracy. The right hon. Gentleman may do that, but there is danger if Bertrand Russell does it, there is danger in him saying that there is not enough liberty and that compulsion is perhaps an evil. If he were permitted to say that, the sleeping souls of Liberal associations might wake up to understand that Liberalism means liberty if that sort of thing were talked. In these and other actions of the Government our liberties are rapidly being lost. I think it is very regrettable that men with the record of my two right hon. Friends, the Secretary for War and the Home Secretary, should be the people who defend this sort of thing. Remember that from a Liberal point of view, at any rate, these things are indefensible. They may rejoice the minds of many hon. Members opposite, but there are masses of men who do not agree with us about the War who do not like this sort of thing. I say, as one who dislikes this War, and as one who thinks that we ought to try to end it, that there is no reason why the people’s liberties should not remain the same now as they were before the War, and these two right hon. Gentlemen ought to have been the guardians of those liberties. I regret that they should defend subordinates, generals, or officious chief constables who have done stupid and impolitic things. I do say that this case which the Secretary for War is going to defend now is a bad thing for him to defend before the Liberals of the country to whom I suppose he feels he still owes some allegiance.

The SECRETARY of STATE for WAR (Mr. Lloyd George) made a remark which was inaudible in the Reporters’ Gallery.

Mr. TREVELYAN You do not.

Mr. LLOYD GEORGE Who said so? What right has the hon. Gentleman to put such an interpretation as that upon what I said.

Mr. TREVELYAN What did you say?

Mr. LLOYD GEORGE First of all, the hon. Gentleman ought to understand what I did say before he makes a remark of that kind and it only shows how unscrupulous he is.

Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER I think the hon. Member had better address the Chair.

Mr. TREVELYAN I apologise for an implication which I uttered in the heat of the moment. I say that the right hon. Gentleman, as a Liberal, might really consider a paragraph in a leading Liberal weekly, written in regard to a book which Mr. Bertrand Russell has just published. These are the words of a review published in the “Nation” only the other day: At length the War has given us a much bigger and deeper book of prophecy, and the man who has written it is the ablest and most unpopular figure in contemporary England. It will outlive the War by many a year and decade. It will be translated, if we mistake not, into the chief languages of Europe. It will be for foreigners the supreme joke of the War and for Englishmen the supreme shame, that its author is the man whom our universities and our Government singled out for their pettiest persecutions. That is the man who is not allowed to speak through half of Great Britain.

Mr. LLOYD GEORGE This, I believe, is the second or third occasion on which this question has been raised. I have no complaint to make of that and I am only making that statement to show that I can merely repeat exactly the reply which has been given on the first two occasions. To talk about Mr. Bertrand Russell as a distinguished mathematician who wants to go about the country to lecture on mathematics or some equally harmless topic is really to try and delude the House of Commons. Why was this main fact suppressed by the hon. Member who has just spoken in the name of Liberalism—that Mr. Bertrand Russell has been prosecuted on his own admission for publishing and organising the distribution of a pamphlet appealing to the people of this country not to carry out the terms of the Military Service Act? [An HON. MEMBER: “No!”] I simply state the fact that he was tried in Court and convicted.

Mr. MORRELL made an observation which was inaudible in the Reporters’ Gallery.

Mr. LLOYD GEORGE That means that the hon. Gentleman does not accept the verdict of the Court.

Mr. MORRELL Hear, hear! Nor does anyone.

Mr. LLOYD GEORGE I beg the hon. Gentleman’s pardon. His very distinguished colleagues in the University of Cambridge who knew Mr. Bertrand Russell, and know the facts full well, accepted it, and the vast majority of the people of this country also accepted it. The gravamen of the pamphlet was not that it described the sentences inflicted upon conscientious objectors and complained of them, but that it ended with an appeal to others to do the same and to resist the operation of the Military Service Act. That was the reason the pamphlet was proscribed. Those are the facts.

Mr. MORRELL That was the Home Secretary’s statement of the facts.

Mr. LLOYD GEORGE Those are the facts as accepted by the Court.

Mr. L. WILLIAMS indicated dissent.

Mr. LLOYD GEORGE The hon. Gentleman is the last man in the world who ought to challenge the Courts of Justice in this country. He sits in a Court of Justice himself, and if every person who was tried and sentenced by him were to say “Well, it is a travesty of justice,” then I should like to know where justice would be in this country. There is no suggestion except on the part of two or three Gentlemen here that Mr. Bertrand Russell did not get a perfectly fair hearing, and after that perfectly fair hearing he was found guilty, not upon the evidence of a sneaking spy, but upon his own testimony and upon a document which he himself admitted that he had written, and which contained an appeal which, if it had been responded to by the majority of people of military age in this country, would have left us without an Army to face our foes.

Mr. MORRELL Can the right hon. Gentleman quote a single word from that document?

Mr. LLOYD GEORGE The hon. Gentleman has already given his opinion upon the subject. I am giving mine. It is not merely my opinion. It is also the opinion of a Court of Justice which sat upon the subject and delivered that verdict. I am prepared to accept it until it is proved to me that it is the flagrant travesty of justice which I am now told it is. Here is a gentleman who is convicted of writing and distributing a pamphlet which would have the effect of making it impossible, if he succeeded in his appeal, to carry on the War at all, and we are told that he is simply a gentleman who wants to deliver harmless lectures in Glasgow and in areas where there is a good deal of inflammable material of that kind. The hon. Gentleman was good enough to describe the report which we had of the meeting at Glasgow as the evidence of a sneaking spy. How does he know who it was who gave the evidence? Why should he so describe a person who is as reputable as himself and far more patriotic in this War? How does he dare describe a reputable journalist known in Cardiff and who in the pursuit of his profession attended that meeting as a sneaking spy?

HON. MEMBERS Withdraw!

Mr. LLOYD GEORGE May I just say that he was not sent by the Government. He did not represent the Government. He was there in the pursuit of his profession representing his newspaper.

Mr. TREVELYAN There was no publication of the report.

Mr. LLOYD GEORGE Why does the hon. Member make a statement of that kind? He has no right unless he knows it. I tell him that the gentleman who gave that information to the Government was a Cardiff journalist who was there in pursuit of his profession, and the editor refused to print the report because it was too bad to print. What business has he to call a gentleman of that kind, a professional man, an honourable man who is earning his living by his profession, a sneaking spy? He comes here. Let him dare go outside of Parliament and make that charge.

HON. MEMBERS Withdraw!

Mr. TREVELYAN That is exactly what I want to do. Of course, with regard to that matter I withdraw.

Mr. BARLOW I thought you had not the pluck to say it outside.

Mr. TREVELYAN I wish to say that the implication that there is no publication of the speech and that the Government punished a man—

Mr. R. McNEILL Do not make it worse.

Mr. TREVELYAN On a speech which is reported to—

Mr. LLOYD GEORGE I have only a little time. I allowed the hon. Member to get up to withdraw.

Mr. TREVELYAN I withdraw it.

Mr. LLOYD GEORGE And apologise, I hope.

Mr. TREVELYAN I do not withdraw this, that the way in which the Government got the information was as from a spy. I withdraw it with regard to the gentleman entirely.

Mr. LLOYD GEORGE And apologise.

Mr. TREVELYAN And apologise to the Gentleman, certainly.

Mr. LLOYD GEORGE Very well, I have nothing more to say. This is not a sneaking spy. This is a journalist who did not represent the Government but his own newspaper and who took the report in shorthand and sent it to the newspaper. The newspaper refused to publish it, and if I do not read it now it is exactly for the same reason that the editor of that paper refused to publish it. I have not the slightest hesitation in saying, “Let the hon. Gentleman name any single one of those gentlemen who are quoted here tonight and who do not agree with him or Mr. Bertrand Russell, but who are indignant at his treatment, and I will show him this document.” Let him say then if this is the sort of speech that in the middle of a great war upon which the life of this country depends we can permit this gentleman to deliver in prohibited areas? It is full of statements of a most scandalous character, attacking the country and attacking the motives with which the country has gone into this War—[An HON. MEMBER: Attacking the Government!] I beg pardon, not attacking the Government. [An HON. MEMBER: “Yes!”] An hon. Gentleman tells me to read a passage.

Mr. PRINGLE Hear, hear!

Mr. LLOYD GEORGE Has he read the passage about Belgium? There is not a word about the Government there.

Mr. PRINGLE Why not read it?

Mr. LLOYD GEORGE About the breaking of the Treaty, and about it being more dishonourable to enforce it. Is that attacking the Government? The hon. Gentleman talks about his Liberalism. This is the Treaty of Mr. Gladstone, and he was prepared to go to war in order to enforce it. Mr. Gladstone was probably the greatest Liberal this country has ever seen. That is not an attack upon the Government. It is an attack upon the whole honour of this country, when this country has gone to war in pursuance of a Treaty to defend a small nationality. I thought that the defence of small nationalities was a Liberal principle.

Mr TREVELYAN. It is not about Belgium at all.

Mr. LLOYD GEORGE This Liberal who wants free speech does not like it when it is administered to him. I listened to his free speech, to his suppression of facts which are most material. The hon. Gentleman is a pacifist. He is against the War. He has been against the War right through, and so has Mr. Bertrand Russell. They do not want the Military Service Act or any other Act. They do not want an Army to fight the battles of this country, but they want to go about delivering lectures, persuading people not to join the Army, persuading them to keep away and become non-combatants, and not to fight. These are the men they are prepared to fight for. These are the men they attack Ministers for preventing from delivering poisonous speeches to paralyse the action of the land at the moment it is fighting for dear life and honour. I have not a word to say about Mr. Bertrand Russell. I have not seen him since the War began. But that makes no difference. There is only one thing that does matter, and that is whether the action of Mr. Bertrand Russell, or any other man, will be to interfere with this country achieving a victory upon which, in my judgment, the whole future of humanity will depend for generations to come.

Mr. MORRELL The right hon. Gentleman has made one of his usual speeches. He has defended his case by raising prejudice against those who are opposed to him. He has made an attack on Mr. Bertrand Russell in respect of a pamphlet which, I venture to say, the right hon. Gentleman has never read, and which he could not quote correctly to this House. He has also stated that Mr. Bertrand Russell at this moment would be delivering not lectures on mathematics but poisonous lectures all about the country, if it were not for the Government. The facts are exactly the opposite. The Government stopped him going to America. They stopped him from accepting the invitation of Harvard University. Why did the right hon. Gentleman not deal with that point? Why did he not tell us on what ground the Government had dared to stop a distinguished mathematician going to America? Is that the way to make good feeling between us and the United States? Why did he leave that subject out of his speech altogether? He knows full well that if it had not been for the idiotic action of this Government in making orders against this man Mr. Bertrand Russell would to-day be lecturing on mathematical logic in Harvard University.

Mr. BARLOW Talking treason like Whitehouse.

Mr. KING Is an hon. Member of this House in order in charging treason against another hon. Member?

Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER It is not in order for an hon. Member of this House to charge another hon. Member with treason, but I did not hear any such charge made.

Mr. KING I beg to inform you that the hon. Member for Salford did make that charge against the hon. Member for Mid-Lanark (Mr. Whitehouse), and under these circumstances I would ask if I am entitled to call upon that hon. Member to withdraw and apologise?

Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER I did not hear the charge, and it appears to me that the matter might be allowed to drop.

Mr. MORRELL Not only did the right hon. Gentleman endeavour to raise prejudice with regard to a pamphlet which he did not read to the House, but he also proceeded to make an attack on Mr. Bertrand Russell with regard to a speech which again he did not quote. What is our objection to the action of the Government? It is simply this, that they chose, instead of allowing a distinguished man to make a speech and prosecute him if necessary, they chose to adopt Russian methods of making administrative Orders against him on a speech incorrectly reported, without allowing him—the accused—to know the charge brought against him and without hearing what he had to say in his own defence. They make these Orders simply as administrative matters, endeavouring to silence this man. These are not the sort of liberties which we entered into this War to defend. The right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that he has put up a defence to an action which is contrary to the whole traditions of Liberalism and liberty in this country. He knew perfectly well the action taken by the Government has been taken without giving the man a fair hearing, and has been taken in a manner which is worthy of autocratic and despotic government, but utterly unworthy of a Liberal Government.

MR LLOYD GEORGE May I ask the hon. Member whether Mr. Bertrand Russell is willing to give an undertaking that he will not deliver his lectures in support of the propaganda against the Military Service Act?.

Mr. MORRELL Mr. Bertrand Russell claims the liberty to deliver his lectures without giving undertakings to the War Office as he is now expected to do. He claims he is perfectly entitled to give his lectures in the way he thinks right without having to justify his action to a general in the War Office. As a matter of fact, what the Government has done has been to prevent him from delivering a lecture in Glasgow which has been delivered in his name by Mr. Robert Smillie, and it is of such a character that they dare not prosecute Mr. Smillie for having delivered it. They have prevented him going to America to lecture on mathematics, his own subject. At the same time they prevented him lecturing in some towns in the United Kingdom, although he has delivered before an audience in Manchester the lecture which he would have delivered in Glasgow if the Government had given leave. I say that the criticism of the “Nation” newspaper is perfectly justified, because the Government have subjected this man to a series of petty persecutions utterly unworthy of the right hon. Gentleman and the Government he represents.

Mr. PRINGLE I am greatly surprised at the attitude which the right hon. Gentleman has taken up. I had not intended to take any part in this Debate, and would not have done so but for his attack on Mr. Bertrand Russell, and for his defence of the arbitrary action of the War Office. That not only surprised me, but it so dismayed me that I think it necessary to enter a protest. He called in the name of Gladstone, the greatest of our Liberal leaders, to support his argument. But I think one of the very last things Mr. Gladstone would have done would have been to call in the name of Liberty to defend such arbitrary action as the right hon. Gentleman is now defending. May I ask why no action was taken against Mr. Bertrand Russell and other speakers in connection with this propaganda in the days of voluntary recruiting or against those who were actively engaged in trying to defeat voluntary recruiting? Why was it that no action was taken against people who would not put Lord Kitchener’s advertisement in their newspapers? The right hon. Gentleman is talking as if Mr. Bertrand Russell was the only man who ever attempted to prevent men going into the Army, when men, in order to shackle this country with Conscription, were doing all they could to prevent them voluntarily going into the Army. In those days the right hon. Gentleman never lifted up a finger against them. Yet those were the vital days of the War. It was in the early spring and summer of 1915 that men were most required for the Army, but nothing was done at that time. Yet now, when the Gentlemen on the Front Bench have been overwhelmed with popular discredit, they are resorting to methods of tyranny which are utterly unworthy of a Liberal Ministry—

It being one hour after the conclusion of Government business, Mr. DEPUTY- SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Order of the House of the 22nd February.