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|Anti-Conscription in Parliament
When we looked at the pro-conscription arguments in Parliament, we saw that the tactics and arguments of the government were simple and effective, amount to (in the words of Henry Duke) “those who are not with us are against us”. But the debate over the introduction of Conscription in 1916 was not one sided, and though the bill was passed quickly, long and sometimes bitter debates raged over it’s passing. The main arguments of the anti-conscription group were no less passionate or important than the pro-conscription arguments - but they failed nonetheless.
Anti-Conscription arguments can be grouped into three main positions - the practicalities of conscription, the disunity and division it would promote and the more familiar anti-war, anti-liberty moral argument.
Many of the arguments concerned with the practicalities of conscription were directly opposed to the “thin end of the wedge” argument used in proposing the bill. If, as the supporters of conscription successfully argued, it was only to apply to a small section of the population, with many exemptions, what was the point of introducing the bill in the first place? With the first iteration of the bill proposing a limited range of single, young men with many avenues to exemption, the effects of conscription seemed to far outweigh the benefit.
Percy Alden, Tottenham MP, rationally stated this position, that Conscription would not “make any difference so far as the War is concerned; whereas I do think it is the case of losing the keen, enthusiastic support of at least a million men in the country— a million men upon whom we are absolutely dependent for the supply of munitions, for the working of our transport, and for the working of our coal”. Here, the economic effects of conscription - decimating key industries - are clearly stated to outweigh any possible military benefit.
The failure of this argument was twofold. Firstly, the numbers of men likely to be caught up in conscription had been vastly, and deliberately, understated by the government. The system of exemptions and tribunals to assess them was critically flawed and would guarantee few exemptions in practice, while the possibility of extending the conscription act to sweep up more men had already been tentatively stated. Secondly, in engaging with the debate on practical principles, adherents of this argument found their position undermined before it even began. If conscription was likely to have little effect, the argument they advanced was in essence not against conscription per se, only against an inefficient system of enforcing it.
Members of Parliament arguing that Conscription would bring disunity seemed to be on firmer ideological footing. Conscription was undoubtedly unpopular, and the groups opposed to it appeared powerful and united in opposition. Lief Jones, Rushcliffe MP, argued persuasively that:
“The moment this Bill passes there will be disunion. I do not want it; I regret it, but there is no use in shutting our eyes to the fact.”
Disunity seemed to be a powerful argument, and the united opposition of the Trade Unions, though a paper tiger in reality, could have been a powerful force in opposition to conscription. It is not strictly true that this argument failed to convince, as disunity and concerted Trade Union opposition remained a threat in the minds of ministers, but the implications and very nature of conscription were well known in Parliament - and offered a simple and direct solution to the problem. Conscript any dissenters.
In the end, on the 12th of January 1916 when the House divided, the vote was a foregone conclusion. 431 for, and only 39 against.