Triumph of the Poshocracy

Susan Pedersen

  • The British People and the League of Nations: Democracy, Citizenship and Internationalism, c.1918-45 by Helen McCarthy
    Manchester, 282 pp, £65.00, November 2011, ISBN 978 0 7190 8616 8
  • A Lark for the Sake of Their Country: The 1926 General Strike Volunteers in Folklore and Memory by Rachelle Hope Saltzman
    Manchester, 262 pp, £65.00, April 2012, ISBN 978 0 7190 7977 1

After the ‘turnip winter’ of 1916-17 and with no sign of war abating, my husband’s grandfather, the oldest child of an impoverished widow in the central German town of Kassel, ran away to join the navy. He was hungry, and though underage and not really military material imagined sailors probably got enough to eat. This was a good guess, and while he had a chancy time of it – surviving the loss of his ship, the scuttling of the German fleet at Scapa Flow and more than a year’s internment in a Merseyside POW camp – he never starved. His sister back in Kassel got rickets, the result of severe malnutrition.

Behind this story and so many like it was the wartime British naval blockade of Germany. And behind the policy, Lord Robert Cecil, the maverick son of the late Victorian Conservative prime minister Lord Salisbury, and minister for blockade in Lloyd George’s wartime government. The aim of the blockade was to damage Germany’s war effort but not Britain’s relations with neutral states, and it appears to have been fairly successful, for by the winter of 1916-17 there were not only shortages of necessary matériel but also starvation across Central and Eastern Europe – an experience that sapped public support for the war and helped fuel the revolutions of 1917-18.

Did the experience of running the blockade predispose Cecil to his next great cause: the effort to construct a ‘guarantee of peace’ through the League of Nations? Through 1918 and 1919, Cecil teamed up with American counterparts to draft the League Covenant. At the heart of the doctrine of collective security lay the principle that the individual ‘rogue state’ would be brought to reason through collective action by the rest, especially through the ‘economic weapon’ of sanctions. International censure and hardship, it was assumed, would drive people to force their governments into line.

The blockade was still in effect during those discussions. Although it had in a sense done its work – Germany had asked for an armistice, a fragile democracy had emerged – it would not be fully lifted until the Treaty of Versailles was signed. But as the months dragged on, and news of hunger and unrest throughout Central Europe spread, objections grew louder to a ‘weapon’ that did its work by starving women and children. The blockade didn’t so much end the war as shift its target – and ‘for my part,’ one Liberal MP stated, ‘I prefer the weapon which means men facing men with arms in their hands.’ When a diehard Conservative peer, the Duke of Northumberland, made the point that it was ‘those who are always most fervent in the cause of humanity’ who seemed especially eager to support this ‘particularly abhorrent’ weapon, he clearly had Cecil and the internationalists in his sights.

Cecil would have had an answer ready. He was not a hypocrite, and his support for economic sanctions, and indeed for the League project as a whole, was of a piece with his political faith. The public should take responsibility for foreign policy, he would have retorted: that was the whole point. If an ‘old diplomacy’ of secret treaties and the balance of power had caused the war, only a ‘new diplomacy’ of open agreements accountable to democratic publics could make power change its ways. The blockade, doing its work on the young and old alike, was one way to teach that pitiless lesson.

That she was responsible for the good conduct of the nation would probably have struck my husband’s great-grandmother, bent over her washtub, as absurd. But it did not seem absurd to the millions of ordinary citizens of all nationalities who supported the League project in those tumultuous years. In virtually every member state, and in some that were not members, societies sprang up to educate citizens about the League and enlist them behind it. The societies had distinct characteristics and were only loosely affiliated; but together they incarnated what Hume called the ‘party of humankind against vice or disorder’, an alliance of the cosmopolitan and civic-minded determined to keep national hatreds at bay. And of those national societies, none was more important than the British League of Nations Union.

Helen McCarthy’s book is the first full study of the LNU to be published in more than thirty years. It is an important work of recovery. Almost forgotten today, the LNU was one of the largest and most vibrant voluntary associations of the interwar years. With around 400,000 individual members organised in some 3000 local branches at its height in 1931, it rivalled both the major political parties and the churches in its size and reach. Millions of Britons joined LNU branches at some point in their lives; virtually all of them would have heard speeches or radio broadcasts by Cecil, the Oxford classicist Gilbert Murray, the suffragist and internationalist Kathleen Courtney, or some other LNU luminary. Then there’s the LNU’s most famous effort, the ‘Peace Ballot’ of 1935, in which 38 per cent of adult citizens took part and which – so the LNU argued – demonstrated the public’s overwhelming support for the League’s ideals. Although a United Nations Association emerged after the LNU’s demise in the late 1930s, it never gained such a following.

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