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June 2015
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.”
Especially due to the fact that:
The Trade Union Congress has been sitting to-day, and they have voted by over two million votes to half a million against this measure. Are the Government going on with it after that? Are they not courting division in the nation if in the teeth of that declaration of organised labour they obtain this Bill?

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.
Another opponent of Conscription, Henry Chancellor, MP for Shoreditch and Haggerston, raised the solution to the problem in his own contribution to the debate:
“When all able-bodied men are subjected to military discipline, when military law is proclaimed at the very outset, the population remaining in their own homes are too cowed to attempt any violent action. That is the effect of compulsory military service.”

In raising the spectre (for spectre it was) of strikes and industrial action against Conscription, MPs simply added another argument in its favour to the serried ranks of Conservative and Liberal MPs looking for another tool to add to their arsenal of anti-union legislation.

The morality of Conscription seems to us in the modern day as one of the most persuasive and enduring arguments advanced in opposition to conscription, but, at the time, it seems to have been the most easily ignored by the proponents of conscription. The arguments we are largely familiar with - that conscription was a move to “break the liberty freedom and justice” of British people (Richard Holt, Hexham), or that it was an affront to the “conscience of thousands” (Philip Snowden, Blackburn), but explicitly anti-war arguments were in the minority.

Instead, MPs concentrated on Conscription as a fundamentally destructive, “un-British” concept, one that was opposed to the history and traditions of Britain. Perhaps more persuasive in the jingoistic, nationalist atmosphere of the House of Commons, these arguments did resonate with many members who wished to see the “unbroken tradition of 200 years of English history on which the whole basis and structure of our social system has been erected” (John Dillon, East Mayo). Unfortunately, a ready answer was all too easily available - harking back to Duke’s “those who are not with us are against us”, Conscription was lauded as the final line of defence for the same liberties it destroyed.
No matter the argument advanced in against conscription, there was always a counter that was glib, nonsensical or sinister. Against “War is wrong” was arrayed “It is right”, against “disunity” the promise of “tools to deal with strikers”. In the hands of a parliament positively dominated by Conservatives and Liberals braying for the chance to introduce conscription - whether “reluctantly” or not - arguments appealing to reason or morality had little chance. In the absence of arguments as simple and irrationalism as the hysterical fear of being labelled as pro-Germany, the result was always going to go against the men who stood up to resist conscription.

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.