It is a hundred years ago today since Britain entered the First World War. This event and the military conflict which ensued, is at the moment being brought to our attention solidly by the media. However, the war also brought in its wake massive social change. Up to the outbreak of the war, the main form of employment for women (and the leading form of employment throughout the country itself) had been domestic service. But to replace men who had rushed to sign up to fight for their country, women then entered into a wide range of employment which they had mainly been excluded from in the past. As the war ended, they gained their first major form of enfranchisement.
Then dramatic events shaping the political future of the Labour Movement took shape around the time that Britain declared war on Germany on 4th August, 1914.
Sunday, 2nd August - a massive anti-war demonstration was held in Trafalgar Square addressed by Keir Hardie (below), Will Thorne, George Lansbury and Arthur Henderson - who was the General Secretary of the Labour Party. By that time the Joint Board of the Labour Party, the Trade Union Congress and the General Federation of Trade Unions had summoned a representative Conference for 5th August to agitate against British involvement in the the war.
Monday, 3rd August - with that day's German invasion of Belgium, Ramsay MacDonald made what was to be his last parliamentary speech as the then Leader (known as Chairman) of the Parliamentary Labour Party. He argued that "this country ought to have remained neutral".
Tuesday, 4th August - at 11pm Britain declared war on Germany.
Wednesday, 5th August - Ramsay MacDonald resigned as Labour Leader (only being re-appointed to that role on 21 November 1922). He was replaced by Arthur Henderson. MacDonald resigned as he opposed our entry into the war, whilst the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party either supported the war effort or accepted that they would have to work through what was then a fait accompli. Henderson came to look for a peace agreement.
The Labour movement meeting that had been convened for 5th August to organise against Britain's entry into the war, found itself faced with a stark new situation. So it changed tack and set itself up as "The War Emergency Workers' National Committee" in order to safeguard working-class interests during the period of the conflict. Arthur Henderson was appointed as Chairman, until he entered the Coalition Government in 1915. Ramsay MacDonald was eventually appointed to serve on the Committee from the Labour Party itself.
Thursday, 6th August - "Labour Leader" the newspaper of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) put forward its case against the war as shown here. The ILP was affiliated to the Labour Party.
"The War Emergency Workers' National Committee" was a remarkable body which covered a wide variety of people. Some were solidly pro-war. Others generally supported the war effort, but looked for avenues to reach a peace settlement. Then others opposed the war, either for pacifist or political reasons. Yet due to the War Emergency Commission concentrating their efforts on the protection and advancement of working class interests, they found a remarkable area of common ground - outside of attitudes to the conflict itself.
Sidney Webb (who was often at his very best as a committee man) was immediately elected to the Emergency Committee. He soon produced a comprehensive set of relevant demands entitled "The Workers And The War" which can be found here. In 1915 he was then appointed to the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party, working closely with Arthur Henderson and producing both the traditional Clause 4 of the Labour Party Constitution, calling for the "common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange". He also shaped Labours Manifesto in the 1918 General Election with his publication "Labour and the New Social Order". Although Sidney Webb held a solid role through the Fabian Society as a leading socialist intellectual, it was his work with the Emergency Committee which finally drew him into the centre of Labour Party activity and its (then) democratic socialist development.
The Emergency Committee pressed solidly for working class interests and concerns. It also shaped future approaches within the Labour Movement, even though it took a Second World War to create the conditions which went on to lead to full employment, the welfare state and the public ownership of key industries. A heritage, much of which has been undermined in recent years.
For an invaluable analysis of "The War Emergency Workers" National Committee, 1914-20", see Royden Harrison's article in "Essay's In Labour History 1886-1923" (MacMillan, 1971).