2016 09 – 1917 debates on the Labour Party and the war

Parliament And World War One

by Dick Barry


On 14 February 1917 Labour MP George Wardle spoke about what he believed to be the position of the Labour Party on the War. In his speech he referred to that made two days earlier by Ramsay MacDonald. MacDonald’s speech appeared in the last issue (July/August) of Labour Affairs.

George James Wardle CH (15 May 1865-18 June 1947) was editor of the Railway Review. In 1906 he was elected a Labour MP for Stockport. At the 1916 Labour Party conference, he made a speech which resulted in the conference passing a resolution as to the party stand on World War 1, something the party leader Ramsay MacDonald had failed to establish. He was a founding member of the Order of the Companions of Honour in 1917, and between 1917 and 1919 he served as Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade. In the 1918 General Election he successfully stood for election as a Coalition Labour candidate. He resigned as a Member of Parliament on 9 March 1920 by becoming Steward of the Chiltern Hundreds.


I do not desire to follow the course of the Debate which has already taken place. I should like to say I have listened to it with the closest attention, and that I take the stand in regard to this matter that the greatest question of importance to the working classes of this country at the present time is the question of food and the question of food prices, and that I hope that in dealing 698 with this question the Government will not deal with it on the abstract lines such as we have been used to in Debates in this House before, but will deal with it on the severely practical line of its application to the food situation in regard to this War. I quite share the views of many of my hon. Friends opposite that a diminution in the drinking in the country would be for the good of all, but I feel quite sure that any attempt to impose forcibly prohibition at this stage would lead to determined opposition in certain quarters. I venture to think that the suggestion which was thrown out, that the method adopted should be rather to deal with the question of manufacture than sale, is the right way to approach this question. I think none of us can deny that the question of the food supplies of the country is of immense importance, and particularly at the present stage, and I trust that both in regard to quantity and in regard to price, which is exceedingly important, the Government will take every step which the circumstances demand to see that there is a sufficiency so far as our Allies are concerned.

I rise to-day to deal with the question of the speech delivered by the hon. Member for Leicester (Mr. Ramsay Macdonald) on Monday last, and in doing so I am sorry the hon. Member is not at the present moment in his place. That speech was to me an amazing speech. During the course of that speech he used time and again the word “we.” I should like to know who he meant when he used that word “we,” and for whom was he speaking, and for whom does he speak in this House. [An HON. MEMBER: “No one!”] Certainly he does not speak for the Labour party. At a conference which was held recently in Manchester the policy which he advocated the other day—and I must do him the justice of saying ably advocated—was argued out on a definite, distinct resolution, which was defeated by a large majority, and a Motion which was moved by my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Mr. W. Thorne) declared that the conference was inflexibly resolved to fight until victory is achieved. The two positions were clearly put before the Conference. The position of the Labour party is distinct and emphatic. When the hon. Member for Leicester uses the word “we,” he certainly is not speaking for the Labour party. [An HON. MEMBER: “Nor for his Constituents!”] That is a matter he must settle with them himself.

I ask, also, was he speaking for the Independent Labour party, of which he is a member? I venture to say “no.” He certainly was not if we are to take notice of the decision taken at conferences of the Independent Labour party. What has happened? At the annual conference of the Independent Labour party, of which the hon. Member is a member, which was held at Norwich last Easter, what did the Independent Labour party do? They passed a resolution against war of all kinds, whether for national defence or not. Not only was that their policy then, but recently, both at Newcastle and at Govan, at two conferences held within the last two or three weeks, that policy was again adopted unanimously. For whom does the hon. Member speak? I doubt whether he speaks for any members of the Labour party who sit opposite. I should doubt whether he speaks for the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Snowden), at any rate. I do not wish to raise old controversies at the present time, but it would not be difficult to show that the hon. Member for Leicester has not always spoken during this War in the sense in which he addressed the House on Monday. In speaking of the policy of the War, he used the words: What is the best way to procure the real victory which we all desire? If accepted standards are anything to go by, we must judge of this desire by the efforts made to secure its realisation. Those who will the end ought to be prepared also to will the means. I am prepared to grant that, although the hon. Member and his friends have never resisted any Vote of Credit, they have often, in this House and outside, professed their admiration for Dr. Liebknecht because he took his stand in the German Reichstag and voted with one or two others against Votes of Credit. The hon. Member and his friends have never done that, but, on the other hand, they have never said that they approved of those Votes of Credit, which is quite another matter. They would take no part in recruiting, and they have never by word or deed shown their desire for a real victory in a very enthusiastic way. The hon. Member for Leicester wants definitions; he wants to know what is meant by “fighting to a finish” and by “victory.”


May I ask the hon. Member if he gave the hon. Member for Leicester notice of the attack he was going to make upon him?


The hon. Member never gave me notice the other day that he intended to make the speech he did, and I do not see that I am called upon to give him notice. He was in the House a few minutes ago, and he has hon. Friends here who can communicate with him, I do not see that I am called upon to give him the notice suggested by the hon. Member. I would have done so on my own account if I had seen him. I saw him in the House, but I was not able to speak to him.


It is quite Parliamentary.


I am quite within my right, as a Member of this House, in replying to an hon. Member who makes a speech in this House. If he desires to hear my speech, he should be here.


He never gave the Prime Minister notice when he made a personal attack himself.


I should prescribe for the hon. Member for Leicester his own medicine. I have gone through his speech very carefully and have tried to find out what he means by the words— the real victory which we all desire, but I have looked in vain. He is a master of phrases. He can coin phrases which are as absolutely meaningless as the best. I have done my best to understand what he meant by the speech he delivered, and I confess it is very difficult. If I understand its meaning, it is this: that in spite of the submarine campaign, which he rightly condemns as a relapse into barbarism, he still says that the War should be ended in such a way that the two peoples will accept what has happened, and begin, for the first time in the history of Europe, a peace by consent of the two peoples who have hitherto been at war. Is that the real victory which we all desire, and who is “we” there?


The hon. Member for Hanley (Mr. Outhwaite) is one.


Certainly, it is not the victory which the people desire or which the Labour party desires. Therefore, I venture to say that in using the words which we all desire the hon. Member was guilty of a misleading phrase. How are we to get at the end of this War a peace by the consent of the peoples who have hitherto been at war? We hear a great deal about wide and considered views, co-related views, moderate and calm views. We are told that that is all for which the hon. Gentleman and his friends ever asked. They have shown a curious way of asking for it. Putting all that on one side, what is the one proposal which the hon. Gentleman put forward in the phrase he used? If I have read his speech rightly, it comes to this: the hon. Gentleman does not see how the enemy is going to be dislodged, certainly in the East, except by negotiation. He does not believe that a military victory is possible. He does not believe that the military victory, even if possible, can produce anything but a patched-up peace, and his “real victory,” which we are supposed to desire, is to be obtained by some undefined action of the Foreign Office which, according to his statement, is to keep defining its position, expounding its position and removing misunderstandings. Negotiations, definitions, expounding positions, will not remove the misunderstandings which have arisen in this War. A nation guilty, as Germany was in this War, of an unprovoked attack upon Belgium, a nation guilty of Zeppelin outrages and of murder on the high seas, is not going to be deflected from its purpose by explanations and by expounding positions. Was such a futile policy as that ever proposed in this House? Peace by negotiations! How is it to be obtained? Example after example was given to us to show that military victories are useless. Nearly every one of those examples is a clumsy inversion of facts.

It was not the military victory of Germany over France which sowed the seed of future trouble; it was the terms Germany imposed after that military victory. Contrast that, with the results of the South African War, when military victory was followed by political sagacity and foresight, and where we have, as a consequence, Boer and British now fighting side by side in a greater fight for liberty. Surely the real test was the Napoleonic War. There military victory did result in peace for a long number of years. There the military victory over Napoleon, because it was followed by giving France the old borders she had before the Revolution, resulted in France harbouring no revenge. France did not again seek to enter into war with her neighbours. If military victory achieved that result in the Napoleonic War, why should it not be the same now? [Interruption.] Will the hon. Member allow me to make my speech. I have as much right to speak in this House as the hon. Member for Leicester, and I did not interrupt him.


They do not believe in civil liberties!


I so totally differ from the views held by the hon. Member for Leicester that I take this opportunity, which I think I have a right to take, as the Chairman of the Labour Party, being elected by members of that party, to state their views. If I cannot speak so cleverly or so ably as the hon. Member for Leicester I hope the House will make allowance for that. [An HON. MEMBER: “You are doing it very well!”] The hon. Member said he wanted to see Belgium restored and reparation made, and France restored and, I suppose, reparation made. With whom are we going to negotiate to get Belgium and France restored? How can we get at the people of Germany? It is impossible. The people of all Germany are fighting with their Government against this country and the Allies. Therefore to speak of peace by negotiation is to suggest the most futile policy which we could adopt at the present time.




Well, that is my opinion. In the speech referred to we had an excursion into the Balkans, where my hon. Friend desired to set up an International Commission. I have no objection myself to a proposal for an International Commission to consider the question of the Balkans after the War. But surely no International Commission is sitting, and no International Commission could deal with this problem as the matter stands at present! He also had something to say about the danger in the East to the future peace of the Continent of Europe if Constantinople goes to Russia. But what about the danger if Constantinople is allowed to remain in the hands of Germany, for it is practically in the hands of Germany now? What, if we leave this War unfinished, without a military victory, and we leave Germany in possession of Middle Europe, with a straight run from Berlin to Bagdad, and with the East in her possession? I think we shall have sown the seeds of future wars there with a vengeance, indeed—a vengeance which not only our children but our children’s children will have to pay for. What is the position at present? The real danger is not of Constantinople getting into the hands of Russia. The position at present, according to a writer in the “Deutsche Politik”—and I believe there is a good deal of truth in these words—is that the war was kindled in the East, and it seems now as if the first flicker of peace were also to come from the East. But his view was quite different from that. The War comes from the East, the War is waged for the East, and he says the War will be decided in the East. The whole tenor of this article is this: Germany is now in possession of Serbia and Roumania, and in consequence has a straight run through to Constantinople, and being Allies with Turkey and Bulgaria, she will soon, if she does not now, dominate Egypt and the route to India. To talk of peace by negotiation under these circumstances seems to me to be folly, and I think, too, an impossibility.

The hon. Member spoke of a policy which is yet to happen. We have to win before Constantinople goes to Russia, and I would much prefer to see it Russian than to see it in German hands. I am not myself very keen about the policy of Constantinople being given to Russia, but surely it is possible, if it be in the hands of Russia, and Russia au Ally, that we can make arrangements for the internationalisation of the Dardanelles, and can make such arrangements with regard to the East as will preserve not only the British Empire, but the peace of the East for some time to come. Therefore, I am not very much disturbed at the idea of Constantinople going to Russia, but I am disturbed at the prospect of seeing the German Empire and its Allies, who are merely potential parts, dominated by the German Empire, reaching from Berlin to Bagdad. I admit that we have a long way to go, but the Labour party says that it is with the Government and with the country for a fight until victory is achieved. We want something to say about the peace terms when they come. We want, if possible, that when this War is over there shall be a chance of peace for many, many years. To me the attitude of the hon. Member is amazing. He does not vet seem to realise what Germany is, what she is doing, and what she is prepared to do. How can it be that we should look on Germany for some time to come in the same light as we regarded her before this War? So unprovoked, so savage, so barbarous has been her conduct that it seems to me an impossibility that anyone, looking at the facts of the War as it has been actually waged by Germany, apart altogether from the way she started it, that it ought to make our blood boil, and instead of being willing to talk about the peoples coming together now we should certainly demand some chastisement and some reparation for the injury she has inflicted upon the world.

It is for that reason largely that my Friends and myself have supported each Government as it has come along. We did not go into this War willingly. We did not seek it. It was forced upon us, and to talk about making peace until Germany has given up the war aims with which she set out seems to me an impossible position for anyone who loves his country to take up. To me fighting to a finish and victory do not mean the same thing as they seem to mean to the hon. Member. They mean to me much more. They mean the defeat of the war aims of Germany. They mean the destruction of the vilest plot that ever disgraced humanity. They mean chastisement for crimes which will remain for ever an indelible stain on the page of history. They mean, first, a military victory, and then a reasonable and a settled peace. The hon. Member says this War will, indeed, be fought in vain unless it is the last of all wars. That is an impossible position for any man to take up. We cannot rule the future. We can fight as far as we can to make this the last war, but it does not rest with us to say that it shall be the last war. We can only take care that in the settlement, as far as possible, we shall do our part to remove the causes of future war; but if it is necessary in order to do this to talk Germany into peace, I for one refuse to accept such a statement. Germany cannot be talked into peace. The Americans have tried it long enough, and the very fact that peace-loving America, her patience strained to the uttermost, has had to come to breaking off diplomatic relations, simply proves that the hon. Member’s speech had no relation at all to the facts as they now stand