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Among other things (learning to breed racing pigeons and winning an essay prize) Fenner Brockway learned to overcome a stammer and make speeches in school debates. He even managed to slip regularly out of school to deliver election leaflets for the local Liberal candidate. Eventually he was caught, and the headmaster promised him a very poor end-of-school reference when he left. But Fenner Brockway took this on the chin. ‘I regarded myself as a martyr in the cause of progress, victimised for my political activities.’
Sport, however, made a difference. The headmaster, hearing that Fenner Brockway wanted to become a journalist, told him he could attend shorthand classes at the school’s expense - if he stayed on to play for the school Rugby team. He did.
But in 1906 he had left school and was alone in London, looking for work in politics and journalism, and a room to live in, wherever he could find them. ‘By degrees I began to learn some of the realities of life, including trying to make ends meet.’
Starting to oppose war
The ‘Labour Leader’ of July 23 1914 carried an article by Fenner Brockway on the front page, with the headline THE WAR MUST BE STOPPED.
A few weeks later the paper published an article by Ramsay MacDonald, the leader of the ILP in Parliament. The article included these words: ‘It is a diplomatists’ war, made by about half a dozen men. Up to the moment ambassadors were withdrawn [from the countries embarking on war] the peoples were at peace. They had no quarrel with each other, they bore each other no ill-will. A dozen men brought Europe to the brink of a precipice and Europe fell over it.’ This declaration, said Fenner Brockway, ‘was the best anti-war propaganda we could have’.
On August 6, Fenner Brockway covered the whole front page of the ‘Labour Leader’ with an anti-war manifesto. The slogan DOWN WITH THE WAR was printed at the top and bottom. ‘Workers of Great Britain,’ he wrote, ‘you have no quarrel with the workers of Europe. The quarrel is between the RULING classes of Europe. Don’t make their quarrel yours.... The future is dark, but in the solidarity of the workers lies the hope which shall, once again, bring light to the peoples of Europe.’
But by the autumn of 1914 opposition to the anti-war protest had grown, and was getting aggressive. At one meeting Fenner Brockway was shouted down by a hostile audience for two hours, and had to be protected by police when he left. Another time, ‘five men waited for me at a lonely place on the canal bank, and beat me up. I must have been a pacifist in temperament as well as conviction, for even when the first blow came I did not lift a hand in retaliation.’ Fortunately a passer-by appeared and the attackers fled.
Early in 1916 conscription came into force. Now Fenner Brockway’s ‘Labour Leader’ office was raided by the police and the paper was taken to court for printing anti-war material. Fenner Brockway went into the witness box and ‘enjoyed myself immensely’ though there were few people present to hear him demolish the prosecution, who had demanded that the case was held in private (no doubt to stop anti-war ideas getting any further publicity). The defence won. ‘I’m not sure that the judgement was a political compliment,’ remarked Fenner Brockway: ‘if we weren’t dangerous to the government we were failing in our duty!’ Labour party bookshops were also raided and lorry-loads of ‘seditious’ books and leaflets removed.
With conscription now made law, the NCF embarked on a full-scale campaign of political opposition to it, and met plenty of opposition themselves. On the way to the NCF’s second assembly in London, someone handed Fenner Brockway a paper - ‘there was a full page article demanding my arrest and execution.’
The gate to the building where the meeting was held was locked, but a few angry sailors managed to climb over - and were astonished to be greeted with handshakes and cups of tea. They also heard the chairman ask that there should be no cheering of the speakers - the sound would rouse the hostile crowds outside: the audience should show their appreciation silently. ‘No-one who was present will forget the effect of this’; and the distinguished speakers were greeted with thousands of fluttering handkerchiefs, making the soft sound of a rising and falling breeze.
Despite government hostility the NCF was never banned. But they were persecuted - and were well prepared for it: a duplicate organisation had been set up to carry on the work if necessary. Attempts were made to stop the publication of the NCF’s journal ‘The Tribunal’ (which among other things reported on the trials of conscientious objectors) . But these were foiled. The NCF had a duplicate printing machine, which came into use when the police destroyed the first, and several hidden caches of paper. Members of staff and contributors became expert at eluding the police’s efforts to arrest them.
Once there was an anxious few hours after Fenner Brockway left a bag of documents about the back-up arrangements in a taxi: ‘never have I felt more humiliated than when reporting this disaster’. But the NCF’s political secretary, Catherine Marshall - a clever, determined and committed member - contacted her brother who was a police officer and persuaded him to help ‘a young friend of hers’ who had lost his briefcase. The taxi driver had handed the case in to a local police station, and in due course it was recovered - unopened.
It was a bad night, too: a group of soldiers kept him awake with verbal abuse and threats. In the morning, an officer ordered him to ‘fall in’ with the other men: ‘You’re in the army now!’ But Fenner Brockway politely refused, saying he would not obey any military order. The officer barked ‘You’re for the cells!’ and left.
Then came a surprise: the ordinary soldiers gathered round Fenner Brockway, laughing. ‘Told the Colonel off proper!’ ‘Not a coward, anyhow.’ Then they began to listen to his explanation of why he was a ‘conchie’. ‘Some of them were hearing the socialist case against war for the first time.’ On the way to prison in Chester, where Fenner Brockway was to await court martial, his escort allowed him to chat with NCF members picketing the Tower, agreed that Lilla Brockway could travel with him - and even escorted her to where she was staying, before taking her husband on to the barracks.
His experiences in Chester Castle prison weren’t easy, but, he said, ‘they were easy compared with those of the COs who had been imprisoned in the first days of conscription’: he suffered no physical violence, and was not forcibly made to wear uniform. He also recorded that after that unhappy night in the Tower he never again received any abuse from soldiers.
And it was in Chester that he first met a frail young CO, who looked amazed when Fenner greeted him as friend. ‘Are you a conchie too?’ he asked. ‘Yes.’ ‘Are there many?’ ‘Six thousand.’ ‘Six thousand! I thought I was almost the only one.’
This was a kind of imprisonment new to him. No letters or visits. Bread-and-water punishments. Sewing 70 feet of mailbags a day. Outdoor manual work in tough weather conditions. When Lilla Brockway was finally allowed to visit (just once), she brought their 18-month-old daughter with her, and the meeting took place in a cubicles separated by strong wire mesh. ‘I can still see,’ Fenner Brockway wrote 25 years later, ‘the wondering eyes with which my daughter looked at her father in a cage.’
As far as the army was concerned he was still a conscripted soldier. When he had finished his jail sentence, once again he refused to obey military orders, once again he was imprisoned for it. This time he was sent to Liverpool. He had entered the Scrubs in an exalted frame of mind: ‘I wasn’t in mental revolt against imprisonment. I was proud to undergo it as witness to anti-war beliefs.’ But he went to Walton jail defiantly, determined to ‘pit my wits against the authorities and defeat them if I could’.
Breaking the rules
True to his character, he began organising and editing a prison newspaper. The ‘Walton Leader’ had 40 toilet paper pages covered (using capital letters so that his handwriting wasn’t revealed) with news, articles, jokes, a Letters Page, and cartoons (the cartoonist went on to work for a national paper after the war). Each issue of the ‘Walton Leader’ was smuggled from cell to cell with the help of a sympathetic non CO prisoner. A major news item in one issue was the Russian Revolution. In another an ‘exclusive’ was a survivor’s account of the slaughter at Passchendaele: this graphically described ‘the ruthless, machine-like way the generals sent in wave after wave of thousands of men to be massacred’. The ‘free’ press outside the prison were banned from printing the story.
Imprisonment was tough on all the inmates. ‘We were treated like animals without minds or personality.’ Sensual deprivation was painful. ‘One day I saw a few blades of grass growing between two slabs of stone in the exercise yards. Young and green, they excited me like wine. I feasted my eyes on them each day.’ But then a working party scoured the yard and the grass had gone. Fenner Brockway wept.
When his time in Walton was up, he yet again refused to accept military authority. This time he was sentenced to 2 years hard labour. The sentence was announced in front of 3,000 soldiers lined up on a parade ground. ‘I shall be proud to do it,’ he told the officers, loud enough for the soldiers to hear, and the lines of men ‘seemed to shiver with shock’.
Opposing the prison system
Here, of course, he continued his resistance, and was put on punishment diet for a month, until the medical officer said it had to stop (though Fenner Brockway received no treatment for the month’s harsh effects). Even when the war ended he wasn’t released: the sentence had to run its course. He finally left Lincoln in April 1919, having been in one prison or another for 28 months, the last 8 entirely in solitary confinement.
Yet he was able to say ‘I think our wives had a harder time than we prisoners did; they had to live in the middle of a war-mad world’ - and were often victimised for their anti-war views and for being married to a jailed ‘conchie’. Lilla Brockway had a little girl and a younger baby daughter to look after, living in hardship in a caravan. In the last 8 months she had no news of Fenner at all - except for one letter smuggled out of Lincoln with the help of friendly Irish prisoners. (One of them was Eamonn de Valera, a future prime minister of Ireland).
‘The finale of my war-time experiences came a few weeks after leaving Lincoln. The postman brought a buff envelope with On His Majesty’s Service printed bold and black. Inside was a form from the War Office recording that I had been discharged from the army, and stating that my behaviour had been so bad that if I ever attempted to join the army again I would be subject to a sentence of 2 years’ imprisonment with hard labour. The War Office certainly had no sense of humour.’
‘No More War’
He also resumed his work for the anti-war and strongly socialist Independent Labour Party, editing its journal (now called the ‘New Leader’) from 1926 to 1929, when he became a Labour MP for two years. In Parliament he spoke frequently on the issues of disarmament and peace. In 1932 he and the rest of the ILP cut their links with the Labour party, having found that parliamentary procedure provided no way to achieve the social changes, and the restraining of capitalism, that the ILP believed were necessary.
Fenner Brockway knew and admired Gandhi, and helped him with research into a publication about nonviolence. ’There is no doubt that nonviolent non-co-operation is the ideal method. Hitler would never have been able to occupy Europe if the peoples had refused in an organised way. The pacifists have the solution...but the peoples are not yet ready to adopt it.’
He travelled in Europe, and in Germany saw for himself the effects of Nazism. This was a decade of deeply complicated and passionate political feeling. Fenner Brockway was not immune. Behind his thinking about war at this time lay his detestation of all kinds of fascism, and his belief that human salvation could only be found in a world of social equality and the end of empires.
Such views influenced his response to the Spanish Civil War. Some ILP members went to Spain to fight alongside socialists there: Fenner Brockway helped them to get to Spain, and, in 1939 after the war, helped them to get home again. ‘We saw the war in Spain as a national manifestation of a disaster threatening the whole world.’
The war in Spain, as he put it, ‘undermined’ his pacifism - but that didn’t mean that he ever approved of war. He belonged to a world-wide working-class movement which struggled for social change under the slogan ‘Against War and Fascism.’
Onset of war
In June 1938 Fenner Brockway took part in a public debate about conscription. One of the other speakers was Winston Churchill’s son Randolph, who ‘passionately called for the mobilisation of all the nation’s forces for war. As I listened to the speeches that followed I began to think I was back in 1914. There was even the old man who wished himself forty years younger so that he might fight, and who would proudly give up his sons. I lived in another world of thought. My loyalties were not to a country, but to the dispossessed of all countries who were denied real life in peace and summoned to die in war for the very system of which they were the victims. When I rose to speak I tried to say this. I tried to depict the possibilities of a new socialist world to make both poverty and war unnecessary. At the end an eminent lawyer told us that he was shocked to his inner being by what I had said’, and had expected the very portraits on the debating-room walls to step down in protest.
The ‘brave German comrades’ Fenner Brockway kept in mind were those who sent this message to the ILP office just four days before war was declared:
‘In the moment before the cannons speak, before the world faces horror and manslaughter, we send out message to you. The German workers do not want this war. The German peasants do not want war. This war is not our war, this fight is not our fight. We ask you, in the midst of death and destruction: do not forget the ideas for which we died under torture, do not forget the ideals for which we have suffered in the concentration camps.....Comrades, our common fatherland is our humanity.’
He also became chairman of the Central Board for Conscientious Objectors. Not surprisingly, ‘I had no hesitation in supporting the rights of young men who felt they could not answer the compulsory call-up. What liberty is more sacred than liberty of conscience?’ From time to time he took part in tribunals hearing CO cases, and sometimes intervened when there was extreme hardship. ‘I heard of a Jehovah’s Witness who was coming before a court martial for the fifth time. I volunteered to defend him, and got him off.’
In Germany he was shocked by what he saw of the results of war, especially the hunger. ‘I used to save a roll of bread from every meal. At first I offered it shyly to a boy or girl in the street, but soon I realised that no-one was ashamed to accept food.’ In a mental hospital he found patients still on the starvation diet Hitler’s regime had ordered so that they would slowly die, and he was quick to tell the Allied administration to put this right.
This visit was the first of many travels abroad in the interests of human rights, socialist principles and peace. Fenner Brockway became involved in benign diplomacy in many commonwealth countries, speaking for them in Parliament after he became an MP again in 1950. He was MP for Eton and Slough until 1964 - and, because he spoke also against re-armament, was called by one Tory ‘the Member for Moscow and Eton’.
The Cold War
‘I met Philip Noel-Baker in a corridor in the House of Lords. He remarked that the peace movement was missing a great opportunity: it should be campaigning for the disarmament agreement signed by 149 governments in 1978. “Let’s start a campaign,” I said. Philip’s eyes lit up, and he shook my hand. Thus it began. We were both nearly 90, but the response we got showed that the moment was ripe.’
The World Disarmament Campaign called for destruction of nuclear weapons, the phased abolition of conventional weapons, general and complete disarmament, and the transfer of military budgets to development programmes with the aim of ending world poverty. Seven years later Fenner Brockway was still at work for the Campaign, worriedly reminding the House of Lords that the number of strategic nuclear weapons had risen from 6,000 in 1970 to 20,000 in 1985, and demanding support for the Non-Proliferation Treaty: ‘the world’s only multilateral treaty aimed at halting both the spread and build-up of nuclear weapons’.
Working to the end
And his work abroad continued too. In 1965 he started the British Committee for Peace in Vietnam. In 1967 he set up a committee for peace in Nigeria, and helped bring about a truce ending the Biafran war there. In 1975 he was negotiating for peace in Cyprus. In 1982 he was in Moscow with his own draft for a Peace Programme. In 1983 he was in Prague for the World Conference for Peace and Life, and between 1983 and 1985 appeared at peace conferences in Geneva, Athens, Berlin, Perugia, Stockholm, Helsinki....
By the end of his life he had also written over 20 books, The last (‘98 Not Out’) was published two years before his death in 1988.
In a memoir published back in 1963, when he was 75, Fenner Brockway had written: ‘I am satisfied to call myself a Universalist. That is my philosophy. Its application? All that makes for human happiness and friendship, human dignity, human equality, human co-operation across the boundaries of race, colour, language and religion, human conquest of science not for war but to end poverty and disease, human fulfilment, physically, mentally, spiritually, on earth and among the stars.’
And his message for people who, like pacifists, want a more just and peaceful world? The answer is social change. But this needs determination from individual people who aim at being just and peaceful themselves. ‘I used to think that better social systems were the condition for better lives, and I still do. But better lives are also the condition for better social systems.’ That was what Fenner Brockway learned from his vast experience, from despair in a prison cell to hope inspired when people acknowledge their shared humanity and work for peace.