‘War to end war’: the Union of Democratic Control and the call for alternatives to conflict

David Hanson shares a leaflet from his collection of political memorabilia to help tell the story of the Union of Democratic Control

‘War to end war’: Liverpool, 1915. Click for larger image

Founded at the very start of the first world war by an alliance of socialists, liberals and pacifists, the Union of Democratic Control represented a brave attempt to stand against jingoism and to demand alternatives to conflict based on new international structures and a democratic voice in decision-making in foreign affairs.

The leaflet shown here advertised a meeting to be held in Liverpool in February 1915, just seven months after the outbreak of war and in the face of large-scale army recruitment campaigns, often actively supported by leading Labour and trade union figures. This meeting was to be held at the Ethical Church in Windsor Street, founded in the city in 1912 and building on the work of the Liverpool Ethical Society, which had been running since 1904.

Chaired by Harry Youldon, a former Baptist minister with strong Labour links who had been recruited to lead the Ethical Church and take the humanist approach to a wider audience, the meeting came at a turbulent time for the Union of Democratic Control. The speaker, Langdon Davies, a former President of the Cambridge Union and recent Labour recruit from the Liberals, had embarked on a speaking tour – but on his visit to Dublin the previous week he had been strongly criticised for the Union of Democratic Control’s failure to include women’s suffrage in its programme.

The suffragette and Irish nationalist Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington declared that Langdon Davies was ‘another of those they were so tired of – our “best friends”… asking women to come in and help while sidetracking and shelving their own movement. Then possibly after the war they would get some concessions’. As the Irish Citizen reported (Saturday 6 February 1915), she went on: ‘The Union had shouldered a gigantic programme, but the one thing they could not include was woman suffrage. Perhaps they found it possible to get English suffragists to work for them on those terms; but they would not get Irish.’

What transpired at the Liverpool meeting a few days later is unknown. There appears to have been no contemporary newspaper coverage of the event. But Langdon Davies clearly reported back to the leadership of his organisation, and on 20 February the Irish Citizen carried a letter from him ‘announcing that the Union of Democratic Control has taken the step urged upon it by suffragists, and has declared by a formal vote of its Executive Council, its conviction that “democracy must be based on the equal citizenship of men and women”.’

From small beginnings the Union of Democratic Control rapidly grew into a body with substantial nationwide backing. It had strong support from the start from Liberal MPs including Philip Morrell, Arthur Ponsonby and Charles Trevelyn, who stood down from the government to become a founder member; from leaders of the Independent Labour Party, including Ramsay MacDonald, Philip Snowden, Henry Noel Brailsford, Margaret Bondfield and Arthur Henderson; and from the ILP newspaper the Labour Leader. By the time of its first annual general meeting, there were 69 branches in England, five in Scotland, four in Wales and three in Ireland.

The Union of Democratic Control’s programme would prove influential on Labour Party policy both during and after the first world war, and its demand for a non-vindictive post-war settlement would later prove to have been prescient. The organisation continued to be influential well into the 1920s, and fifteen ministers in the 1924 Labour government were members. Under the influence of Arthur Ponsonby, it would later become more pacifist in tone and actively anti-fascist. Though much reduced in size and influence it would survive until the 1960s.

As to those who attended the Liverpool meeting, Harry Youldon did not survive to see the end of the war – he died in 1916 aged just 48. Langdon Davies, however, continued to agitate for peace until his own death many years later in 1952.

Sir David Hanson has been a Labour Party member since 1976. He served as MP for Delyn from 1992-2019 and as a minister in the governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Follow him on Instagram to see more of his collection of Labour memorabilia.

Further information

The Working Class Movement Library has a collection of resources on the Union of Democratic Control, and tells more of its story online (here).

Hull History Centre holds minute books, accounts, subject files, correspondence, press cuttings and publications (found here) as part of a wider collection of material on first world war conscientious objection collected by the labour historian Robin Page Arnot (found here).