Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Women get the vote: The political impact of war

Some historians have described Britain’s experience in the First World War as its first taste of ‘total war’ (war in which entire societies are mobilised against each other, with the home front becoming just as important as the fighting front). Around six million British people had direct experience of trench warfare while most of the remaining population became involved in the war effort in some way. This meant change and upheaval in some way. There is, however, a debate about the nature and extent of the change produced by the war. This centres on whether the war is seen as the cause of fundamental change or whether, alternatively, it can be seen as a catalyst that accelerated existing political, social and economic trends[1].

There is one particular problem historians face when trying to assess the significance of wartime experience for the women’s cause. This relates to one’s view of the stage reached by 1914 and is further complicated by the need to distinguish the direct from the indirect effects of the war. By 1913, there was a clear suffragist majority in parliament and this, combined with the emergence of a politically realistic proposal to enfranchise women in 1913, meant that the immediate effect of the war was negative. It ended the suffrage campaign and pushed the issue off the political agenda.

What was the political impact of the war?

The outbreak of war in August 1914 led to a wave of patriotism and anti-German feeling and all-party support for the Liberal government’s declaration of war. Until May 1915, Asquith attempted to conduct the war through existing structures of party government. Then, on 14th May 1915, the so-called ‘Shell Scandal’ broke when an article was published in The Times claiming that British soldiers were unable to make headway because they were being left short of shells to fire at the enemy. This precipitated a political crisis that led to the creation of a coalition government under Asquith[2].

Conservatives took up senior positions in the government with Bonar Law as Colonial Secretary and Arthur Balfour as First Lord of the Admiralty (replacing Winston Churchill, whose handling of the Gallipoli campaign made him expendable). Lloyd George took over as head of the new Ministry of Munitions and his position was strengthened in July 1916 when he took over as Minister for War (following Lord Kitchener’s death on a mission on Russia).  Lloyd George was popular in the Liberal Party at large, but he had too many personal enemies in the Cabinet. This made it unlikely that he would every succeed Asquith as Liberal leader. The creation of the coalition government changed this and increasingly Lloyd George promoted himself as an alternative War leader. He focused on two issues – the need for conscription (compulsory military service) and the creation of a smaller War Cabinet that, he claimed, would be more efficient and effective. Both brought him into conflict with Asquith.

Conscription was a sensitive issue in the Liberal Party and Asquith tried to reconcile his party’s historical commitment to individual freedom with the demands of total war. His response to Lloyd George’s demand for full conscription was the ‘Derby Scheme’ of October 1915. This compromise allowed the adult male population to be classified by age, marital status and occupation as the first step on the road to conscription. This ended in failure. By December 1915, recruitment had fallen to 55,000 per month (compared in the 450,000 men who had joined in September 1914). Despite Asquith’s continued reluctance, conscription was introduced in January 1916 though John Simon, the Home Secretary resigned over the issue.  Lloyd George’s call for a small War Cabinet intensified when he succeeded Lord Kitchener at the War Office. This issue triggered the end of the Asquith coalition and Lloyd George’s promotion to the position of Prime Minister. On 1st December 1916, Lloyd George suggested the formation of a small War Cabinet with himself in the chair and Bonar Law and Edward Carson as members. Asquith would remain prime minister but would not be a member. Asquith was, at first, hostile but agreed to the plan on 3rd December once Conservative resignations had been threatened. Asquith then changed his mind and rejected the plan the following day following the publication of an article in The Times that discussed the plan in terms that put Asquith in a very bad light. This led to the resignation of first, Lloyd George, second, Conservative ministers and finally, on 5th December, Asquith. The following day, a conference of party leaders at Buckingham Palace took place. The king offered the position of prime minister to Bonar Law who said that he would only accept if Asquith agreed to serve under him. Asquith refused to do this. It then emerged that Conservative ministers were prepared to serve under Lloyd George. On 7th December 1916, the king reluctantly invited him to become prime minister. The other Liberal ministers resigned with Asquith. Lloyd George secured the support of the Conservative, Labour and about 100 Liberal MPs. The other Liberal MPs remained loyal to Asquith. The split within the Liberal Party was clearly drawn.

The war did not harm the long-term prospects of the Labour Party though initially it served to emphasise divisions within the party.  When the war broke out, Ramsay MacDonald resigned as chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party. He was joined in opposition to the war by Philip Snowden and a small group of largely Independent Labour Party MPs. The majority of party members, however, supported the war and MacDonald and his supporters became a target of abuse from many trade unions and the popular press. MacDonald was replaced as chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party by Arthur Henderson. Henderson did not attempt to expel those Labour members who were against the war. This avoided the harmful split that severely damaged the Liberal Party.

The Labour Party managed to avoid the lasting splits that occurred in parallel socialist groups in France and Germany. First, those who opposed the war, for the most part did not campaign against it. Instead, they campaigned for measures to prevent future wars and almost all parties could agree with the ideas they suggested. Secondly, all members of the Labour Party were united in demanding that the economic welfare of the working class should be protected even during a national emergency. Both those opposed to the war and those supporting it worked together amicably on bodies like the Emergency Workers’ National Committee, created to press for adequate government protection for soldiers’ families, the restraint of food prices and rent control. Third, even those who supported the war effort were sometimes critical of the ways in which the government conducted it.  Though the Parliamentary Labour Party was represented in government in May 1915 and in the Cabinet after Lloyd George came to power in December 1916, it was never wholly at ease with the coalition. In August 1917, Arthur Henderson resigned from the Cabinet when Labour leaders were refused permission to attend an international socialist conference to discuss peace conditions. This gave Henderson and other leaders in the party the opportunity to encourage party unity to take advantage of Labour’s rising electoral prospects. There was a big growth in party membership during the war and the Representation of the People’s Act of February 1918 trebled the electorate.

The coalition formed by Lloyd George in December 1916 has been described by some historians as a turning point in modern British politics because it led to a four-year post-war experiment in non-party government. Others are more cynical in their views holding that the motive behind continued co-operation between Lloyd George Liberals and the Conservatives was to neutralise the growing threat from Labour. What really happened in the ‘Coupon Election’ of December 1918 was a decisive victory for the Conservatives, the full extent of which was disguised by Lloyd George continuing as prime minister.  From December 1916, Lloyd George organised the war effort through a small War Cabinet. Most historians accept that this arrangement increased the efficiency and effectiveness of decision-making. However, in May 1918, Lloyd George was criticised in the press by the recently retired Director of Military Operations, General Sir Frederick D. Maurice, for misleading the House of Commons about the number of troops in France. The result was a select committee into Lloyd George’s conduct. Ninety-eight Liberals voted against the prime minister and with Asquith. Two separate Liberal organisations now emerged, first at Westminster with their own whips and then in the constituencies. The Maurice debate showed just how dependent Lloyd George was on his Conservative supporters.

It was in the immediate aftermath of the Maurice debate and the growing threat of Communist revolution in Europe that Lloyd George discussed the possibility of co-operating after the war in a ‘Progressive Centre Alliance’. By October 1918, these discussions had formed the basis of the ‘coupon’ arrangement for the forthcoming general election. Lloyd George and Bonar Law approved Liberal and Conservative candidates. Candidates who gained their approval became ‘coalition’ candidates and received a ‘coupon’ signed by both leaders confirming this. Those ‘couponed’ would not be opposed by a Conservative or Lloyd George Liberal. While 150 Liberals were couponed, the number of Conservatives was 300.

The result of the Coupon Election was a triumph for the coalition. It took 473 seats, with Labour 57, Asquith Liberals 36, Irish Nationalists 7, Sinn Fein 73 and others 61[3]. There was some support for making the alliance between Lloyd George Liberals and Conservatives in 1920 but the attempt failed. The coalition finally collapsed in October 1922 when the Conservatives withdrew their support for Lloyd George. The Coupon Election proved not to be a mandate for any fundamental realignment of party politics, but for peace, reconstruction and reform[4].


[1] There are several valuable books on the ways in which the war affected Britain. John Bourne Britain and the Great War 1914-18, Edward Arnold, 1989 and Stephen Constantine, Maurice W. Kirby and Mary B. Rose (eds.) The First World War in British History, Edward Arnold, 1995 provide an excellent introduction. Arthur Marwick The Deluge: British Society and the First World War, 2nd ed., Macmillan, 1991 was the first study to really examine the impact of ‘total war’.

[2] John Turner British Politics and the Great War: Coalition and Conflict, 1915-1918, Yale University Press, 1992 is a classic study.

[3] None of the 73 Sinn Fein elected took up their seats in Westminster. The high number of ‘others’ included 50 Conservatives who were elected even though they did not have the ‘coupon’.

[4] K. O. Morgan Consensus and Disunity: the Lloyd George Coalition 1918-22, Oxford University Press, 1979 is the most detailed study available.

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