August Bank Holiday by the seasideIf the impression that you have is of a people and parliament united in disgust at the possibility of a German ‘invasion’ of Belgium, this most certainly was not the case on 3 August 1914. It was the Bank Holiday Monday. What’s more it was exceptionally hot, the kind of Bank Holiday weather that is talked about in awe long afterwards. That happened, of course, but in sadder, more wistful remembrance, for no-one who soaked in the sea-side sun, or picnicked in public parks, or simply sat on their doorsteps enjoying the break from work, had any notion that Britain was being led to war. In the House of Commons the foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey ended his statement and promptly walked out, impervious to the outrage that he left behind within his own party. What followed was truly remarkable.

The leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party, Bonar Law, solemnly acknowledged that the government had done everything in its power to preserve peace, but ‘if any other course is taken, it is because it is forced upon them, and that they have no alternative ’. This same man had described Asquith, Churchill, Lloyd George and Grey as ‘the most incompetent, policy-less people to be found on earth’ [1] and warned they were drifting to disaster. These members of the Secret Elite played the parliamentary game of charades to preserve the facade of democracy. Sir Edward Grey knew well in advance that fellow placemen in the Conservative Party would support war. Churchill had carefully vetted their attitude and Asquith was sent a personal letter of unqualified Conservative support. [2] It was a prearranged pantomime, a pantomime that played well to the press gallery. The Secret Elite had never let party politics interfere with its spheres of influence. They controlled them all.

John Redmond Irish Home Ruler

That John Redmond, leading member of the Irish Home Rule party, should have risen to promise the support of Catholic Ireland appeared much more astonishing. His bold suggestion that Ireland could defend itself, thus releasing the British Army for service elsewhere, was astounding but effective. Asquith noted gratefully that Redmond ‘cut in effectively’ to offer support to the government. [3] No one on the Irish Home Rule benches expected Redmond to make any comment. There had been no prior consultation, as was both customary and obligatory on important issues. Redmond was, by understanding and agreement, more of a party chairman than a leader. He appeared to have been swept away by Grey’s rhetoric, but an article in The Times on 1 August, stating that government troops could be withdrawn safely from Ireland, [4] exposed that as a lie. There was also evidence that Redmond met with Asquith immediately before Grey’s speech. [5] The Times? Secret meetings? Deals? What was Redmond’s association with the Secret Elite? Of the party leaders, only Labour’s Ramsay MacDonald stood firm against the swelling tide of orchestrated ‘inevitability’. He rejected the idea that the country was in danger. He ridiculed the concept of statesmen appealing to their nation’s honour and reminded the Commons that Britain had ‘fought the Crimean War because of our honour. We rushed into South Africa because of our honour.’ [6] MacDonald asked what was the use of talking about going to the aid of Belgium when what was really happening meant engaging in a pan-European war that was going to alter the boundaries of many nations?

 Ramsay Macdonald Labour Leader

He wanted to know what this would mean for Russian domination when it was over. Then, quite remarkably, this historic assembly, which has long considered itself the champion of free speech, was denied precisely that by the prime minister. Members wanted to discuss Grey’s statement at length. Had he not just said that the House was free to decide what the British attitude should be? Asquith responded by promising an early opportunity for discussion. ‘Today?’ shouted a number of Members of Parliament. The reply was unequivocally negative. There would be no debate that day. The Commons had listened in good order to a singularly biased statement, laced with emotional blackmail, but was refused permission to discuss these affairs at that very point where delay made any response worthless. A very fragmented Cabinet had been ground into acquiescence.

The decision to go to war had already been taken by the Secret Elite, by their Cabinet agents, through the mobilisations of fleet and army, by the Northcliffe press, and all with the full knowledge of the monarch. They were not interested in giving air to alternative views. Asquith and his pro-war colleagues cynically abused democracy, but democracy has the capacity to express itself in unexpected ways. The prime minister had tried to close the matter to debate, but the speaker of the House of Commons was not privy to the secret machinations and made an unexpected offer. He suggested a procedural manoeuvre that would allow the House to adjourn at 4.35 p.m. and reassemble at 7 p.m. that same night. Asquith was not to have his way. When the House of Commons reconvened, a number of prominent Liberals rose to express their horror at the prospect of war being visited on Britain. Philip Morrell stressed that Germany had never refused to negotiate and had guaranteed Belgian integrity. [7] He added: ‘we are going to war now because of fear and jealousy fostered by large sections of the press . . . the fear and jealousy of German ambition, that is the real reason’. He summed up the calamitous situation by ending: ‘I regret very much at the end of eight years of the policy which has been pursued of the Triple Entente, that it should have landed us into such a war as this.’ This theme was continued by Edmund Harvey, [8] who claimed that war had been caused ‘by men in high places, by diplomatists working in secret, by bureaucrats who are out of touch with the peoples of the world . . .’ [9]

Poverty was rife in many parts of Britain

Keir Hardie implored the government to consider the plight of the poor, the unemployed and ‘starving children’. Both Houses of Parliament had unanimously passed a bill for the relief of the Stock Exchange, but Hardie was more interested in a bill to compel local authorities to feed local schoolchildren. He was barracked from the Conservative benches when he added: ‘Most of the members of this House have more of a direct interest in the Stock Exchange than they have in the sufferings of the poor.’ [10] Little changes. Though this short adjournment debate ended at 8.15 p.m., a further debate on Grey’s speech began again at the insistence of angry Liberal members. It was a futile exercise. Most of those whose minds the anti-war Members of Parliament sought to change chose not to stay. They were off, preparing for war.

1. Joseph King in Hansard, House of Commons, War in Europe Debate, 3 August 1914, vol. 65, cc1864.
2. Asquith, Letters to Venetia Stanley, Monday, 3 August 1914, p. 148.
3. Ibid., p. 149, footnote 6.
4. The Times, 1 August 1914, p. 6.
5. Asquith, Letters to Venetia Stanley, p. 149, footnote 4.
6. Ramsay MacDonald in Hansard, House of Commons, Debate, 3 August 1914, vol. 65, cc1830.
7. Philip Morrell was Liberal MP for Burnley. Strongly opposed to the war, he was part of the Union of Democratic Control organised to oppose the secrecy of foreign policy and military influences on government. The UDC included Ramsay MacDonald, E.D. Morel and Charles Trevelyan.
8. Edmund Harvey, Liberal MP for Leeds West, was a Quaker and pacifist who worked to have conscientious objectors permitted to take on non-combatant duties in the army.
9. Germany and Belgium, Hansard, House of Commons, Adjournment Debate, 3 August 1914, vol. 65, cc1839.
10. Keir Hardie was MP for Merthyr Tydfil. Hansard, House of Commons, Germany and Belgium Adjournment Debate, 3 August 1914, vol. 65, cc1840.