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April 2015

Parliament and conscription

Political machinations never seem to really change. Deals are struck, debates are held, concessions made and bills passed into law. They are couched in innocent language, supported by MPs on record as opponents and have enormous and unforseen consequences.

The Military Service Act 1916, which introduced conscription into Britain, is no different in this respect to any other. Though it starts our story of Conscription and the Conscientious Objectors who refused it, we haven’t looked at it in any particular detail. With political debate and discussion so topical, it’s definitely time to correct that. In a three-part look at the passage of Conscription into law, we’ll survey the tactics of the Supporters, Opponents and the Lords in passing and debating the forcible transformation of men into soldiers.

The Act began life as the Military Service Number 2 Bill, introduced into Parliament for debate on the 5th of January 1916. By the 27th of January it had become law. Within that time the Commons only sat for six days. For a bill with such revolutionary powers, broad scope and far reaching consequences, this seems to be a startlingly short time. It was.

The supporters of the bill were numerous. The Conservatives, the largest party in opposition, were united in support, many having pushed for conscription for some time - as their successors still do today under the guise of Private Member’s Bills on “National Service”. The Liberals were largely behind their leader - Prime Minister Herbert Asquith - who was attempting to repair the damage to his reputation done by the political crises of 1915. They needed to appear “Tough enough for the War” - looking not towards the military necessity of the day, but towards their reelection prospects in the years afterwards.

The Conservative and Liberal Coalition controlled the vast majority of Parliament. A bill they wanted passed could, with no particular trouble, be swiftly signed into law. But the final vote on the bill was an even more overwhelming majority in favour than the Coalition could ordinarily muster - 383 to 36. We know that Conscription was contentious, unpopular and controversial. How then did it pass so easily?

Three main - and very familiar - tactics were used.

The first was the age-old principle of “Divide and Rule”. Individual MPs and smaller political parties were neatly offered incentives to quietly relinquish their opposition to Conscription. The junior partner in the Coalition that had put Asquith in power in 1910 were the Irish Parliamentary Party, a fairly formidable block of 71 members. Their abstention from opposition was easy to secure - conscription would not be introduced to Ireland, at least not with the 1916 bill, and the question would soon become a deeply dangerous one with the Easter Rising on the horizon.

The Labour Party was also dealt with effectively, though the 42 members could not have put up effective opposition to an effective 500+ seat voting block. Labour members were caught by their decision to support the war, and funding for it, in 1914. Leading Labour figures had been placed on the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee which had enthusiastically supported National Registration and the Derby Scheme. What was conscription, then, if not a delivery on the promises they had made?

Others were comfortably ensconced in ministerial positions within Asquith’s coalition, or simply bought off. With the leader of Labour, Arthur Henderson, in place as the President of the Board of Education, the mainstream Labour party could be relied upon to follow his position.

This ensured the opposition relied upon individuals rather than parties, and guaranteed that a coherent platform of opposition could not be put together. While small groups did coalesce in the Liberal and Independent Labour Parties, the lack of a significant voting bloc doomed the opposition to failure before the bill had even been tabled.

The second, and equally familiar, tool in the proponent’s armoury was the “thin end of the wedge”. Conscription was introduced to the House skillfully as a minor issue. Asquith began his support for the bill merely by suggesting it was a confirmation of commitments made in 1915. The House had given authority to the government to raise an additional million men for the army in December 1915. Conscription was the obvious answer to this commitment. No suggestion was made of the consequences, moral, socio-economic or political, and, as Asquith successfully suggested, why would there be consequences at all? All it was was a simple rubber stamp on the promises made the year before - so why wouldn’t a sensible member of Parliament vote for it?

Aside from the rhetorical techniques used in diminishing the impact of the bill, the bill itself was carefully limited in it’s effects. It applied only to Great Britain. Only to unmarried, childless men. Only to those between 18 and 41. On top of that there were restrictions on residency, on the reserve and territorial forces, on men who had attested their willingness to join the army already, and then the promise of Exemptions for those worthy, in one way or another, of them. Such a small range of men, it seemed - and surely only those already expected to voluntarily enlist would be affected?

The stage was set for a seemingly minor bill, and those MPs prepared to oppose it on behalf of married men and those with children, were effectively silenced. Of course, the government was well aware that minor extensions could be added, drip by drip, until, in the words of Kitchener, Britain’s manpower had been “pumped to the last million”.

The third was the minor concessions added to the bill before introduction and during debate. In making the bill restricted - especially with the exemption of married men - it was possible to further silence opposition, and minor, but increasing, concessions were offered to minor members. Exemptions were steadily widened in scope in response to questions and wavering supporters. What amounted to minor bribes to constituency interests were offered. Labour received exemptions based on Industry which gave the Unions influence over who would and would not go to the army. The defenders of the Established Church were (especially in the Lords) soothed by the guarantee that serving ministers would not be called up. Business interests were placated by the Tribunal system. In theory, in the confines of the House of Commons (and only there would such a flawed system be taken at face value), these concessions promised a fair system, and one that the constituencies of dissenting MPs would support.

The vast majority of these tactics were employed well before conscription was introduced. The bill was read to a Parliament primed and ready to vote for it. The opposition were not just handed a stacked deck, but one frozen solid. Nevertheless, they fought long and hard against the Bill - just how will be discussed in our next article.

Ben Copsey