Fenner Brockway

Archibald Fenner Brockway, the son of Christian missionary, was born in Calcutta on 1st November 1888. While being educated at the School for the Sons of Missionaries at Blackheath he became interested in politics. He worked for the Liberal candidates for the 1905 London County Council elections.

After leaving school he worked at the offices of Quiver, a monthly magazine published by Cassells. He retained an interest in politics and in the 1906 General Election, worked as a Liberal sub-agent in Tunbridge Wells.

Brockway also began to read the work of left-wing writers such as William Morris, Robert Blatchford, George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells and Edward Carpenter. He also found work on the Daily News and in 1907 he was sent to interview James Keir Hardie. Brockway spent an hour listening to Hardie's views on a wide range of different subjects including his experiences as a child working in a colliery. He later recalled that he went to Hardie "as a Young Liberal and left him a Young Socialist".

Brockway joined the Social Democratic Federation, but left after a few months as a result of hearing a speech made by one of its leaders, Harry Quelch. Brockway transferred his allegiance to the Independent Labour Party (ILP). He also attended Fabian Society meetings and was particularly impressed by a lecture by George Bernard Shaw on How to Achieve the Superman.

As a staff reporter on the Christian Commonwealth, each week Brockway was allowed to interview a radical thinker. This enabled him to meet people such as William Anderson, Edward Carpenter, H. Wells, and George Bernard Shaw. Anderson was impressed with Brockway and invited him to become assistant editor of the ILP newspaper, The Labour Elector.

In 1913, the twenty-five year old Brockway was promoted to editor of the Labour Elector. Brockway was a pacifist and strongly opposed British involvement in the First World War. Initially this hurt circulation but within a year the sales of the Labour Elector had gone from 40,000 to 80,000.

When the First World War was declared Fenner Brockway and Clifford Allen formed the No-Conscription Fellowship (NCF), an organisation that encouraged men to refuse war service. The NCF required its members to "refuse from conscientious motives to bear arms because they consider human life to be sacred." As Martin Ceadel, the author of Pacifism in Britain 1914-1945 (1980) pointed out: "Though limiting itself to campaigning against conscription, the N.C.F.'s basis was explicitly pacifist rather than merely voluntarist.... In particular, it proved an efficient information and welfare service for all objectors; although its unresolved internal division over whether its function was to ensure respect for the pacifist conscience or to combat conscription by any means"

Other members of the NCF included Bertrand Russell, Philip Snowden, Robert Smillie, C. H. Norman, William Mellor, Arthur Ponsonby, Guy Aldred, Alfred Salter, Duncan Grant, Wilfred Wellock, Maude Royden, Max Plowman, John Clifford, Cyril Joad, Alfred Mason, Winnie Mason, Alice Wheeldon, William Wheeldon, John S. Clarke, Arthur McManus, Hettie Wheeldon, Storm Jameson and Duncan Grant.

In August 1915 the Labour Leader office in Manchester was raided and Brockway was charged with publishing seditious material. The government lost its case but soon afterwards bookshops in Manchester and London were raided and material produced by the Independent Labour Party were seized. So also was an anti-armament play that Brockway had written called The Devil's Business.

In 1916 Fenner Brockway and Clifford Allen were arrested for distributing a leaflet criticizing the introduction of conscription. When they refused to pay their fines, they were sentenced to two months in Pentonville Prison. Soon after being released, Brockway was re-arrested under the Military Service Act. As if he were a traitor, Brockway was held for one night in the Tower of London. He was later transferred to a dungeon at Chester Castle and finally served his sentence in Walton Prison in Liverpool. Brockway continued to write, and after meeting a soldier imprisoned for desertion, wrote an account of the Battle of Passchendaele. The article was discovered and Brockway was sentenced to six days on bread and water.

Fenner Brockway, like most other conscientious objectors, was not released from prison until six months after the First World War came to an end. Brockway had been replaced by Katharine Glasier as editor of the Labour Leader, and so he concentrated on his work as organizer of the India League (an organisation campaigning for Indian Independence) and chairman of the No More War Movement. During the 1926 General Strike Brockway became editor of the TUC newspaper, the British Worker.

In the 1929 General Election Brockway was the successful Labour Party candidate at East Leyton. Brockway opposed the formation of the National Government and as a result lost his seat in the 1931 General Election. The following year Brockway and the Independent Labour Party disaffiliated from the Labour Party.

With the arrival of Fascist dictators in Europe he began to have doubts about the political merits of pacifism. He was involved in organising resistance to Francisco Franco in Spain and Adolf Hitler in Germany. As he pointed out: "If I were in Spain at the moment, I should be fighting with the workers against the Fascist forces."

Brockway was a supporter of the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War and in the summer of 1937 visited Barcelona. He met George Orwell and reported that the "Communist Party newspapers contain wildest attacks on POUM as a Fascist organisation and demanding the death penalty. He also had discussions with Francisco Largo Caballero who told him that the "Communist Party is using every means to destroy its political opponents, not refraining from manipulating justice and power over the police."

Brockway's experience of the Spanish Civil War had an impact on his pacifist views: "There is no doubt that the society resulting from an anarchist victory (during the Spanish Civil War) would have far greater liberty and equality than the society resulting from a fascist victory. Thus I came to see that it is not the amount of violence used which determines good or evil results, but the ideas, the sense of human values, and above all the social forces behind its use. With this realisation, although my nature revolted against the killing of human beings just as did the nature of those Catalonian peasants, the fundamental basis of my old philosophy disappeared."

Brockway also supported Britain's involvement in the Second World War. He later wrote: "It was in all my nature opposed to war. I could never see myself killing anyone and had never held a weapon in my hands. But I saw that Hitler and Nazism had been mainly responsible for bringing the war and I could not contemplate their victory. In a sense, the Spanish Civil War settled this dilemma for me; I could no longer justify pacifism when there was a fascist threat."

After the war Fenner Brockway rejoined the Labour Party and in the 1950 General Election won at Eton & Slough. In the House of Commons Brockway was a member of the left-wing group Tribune Group led by Aneurin Bevan. Brockway disagreed with Bevan on the issue of nuclear weapons and in 1958 joined with Bertrand Russell, Victor Gollancz, J. B. Priestley, Canon John Collins and Michael Foot to form the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).

Brockway's left-wing views upset some of his constituents and he lost his seat in the 1964 General Election. Brockway accepted a life peerage and gave selective support to the Labour Government (1964-1970) in the House of Lords. During this period Brockway was also chairman of the Movement for Colonial Freedom. He continued to campaign for world peace and was president of the British Council for Peace in Vietnam and chairman of the World Disarmament Campaign (1979-88).

Brockway wrote over twenty books on politics. This including four volumes of autobiography: Inside the Left (1942), Outside the Right (1963), Towards Tomorrow (1977) and 98 Not Out (1986).

Fenner Brockway died on 28th April 1988, six months before his 100th birthday.

He told me how he had gone down the mine as a boy, wished to be a journalist, taught himself shorthand with a pin on a slate, organised the first miners' union at this pit of virtual slavery; how how he was nominated as Liberal Parliamentary candidate but turned it down because he was a working man. He told me of his formation of the Scottish Labour Party, how he became a Socialist after meeting European miners' leaders, how he initiated the Independent Labour Party in 1893 and was elected to Parliament for West Ham. He described how he worked to win the Trade Union Movement to political independence and his gratification when Labour was returned as a group in 1906, and then, his voice warming, explained what Socialism meant to him, his confidence in its triumph, and his belief that by international action the workers of Europe would prevent war. I cannot convey the depth of his ringing Scottish accent as he declared his faith. I went to him as a Young Liberal and left him a Young Socialist

It was ironical that Lloyd George, when he gave the vote to women in 1919 (though even then not on the same terms as men) declared that they deserved it for their war service and this was widely accepted as the explanation of their success in 1919. I regard this as a myth. I believed they would have won the vote earlier and on better terms if there had been no war. If the General Election due in 1915 had taken place there is little doubt that the supporters of women's suffrage would have been in a majority in the House of Commons.

Every individual gives loyalty to something which counts more than anything else in life. In most men and women this supreme allegiance is inspired by national patriotism; if their Government becomes involved in a war it is a matter of course they will support it. The socialist conscientious objector has a group loyalty which is as powerful to him as the loyalty of the patriot for his nation. His group is composed of workers of all lands, the dispossessed, the victims of the present economic system, whether in peace or war.

After a brief stay at Scotland Yard I was taken to the Tower of London and locked in a large dungeon where there were twenty or so prisoners, mostly sitting or lying on a sloping wooden platform, which I learned was a communal bed, running the length of the longer wall. Six of the prisoners, still in civilian clothes, were objectors.

I was to be taken to Chester Castle and my wife travelled to Chester with me. The Cheshire Regiment did not have a good reputation for its treatment of objectors. The previous week the newspaper had carried reports of how George Beardsworth and Charles Dukes, both subsequently prominent trade union leaders, had been forcibly taken to the drilling ground and kicked, punched, knocked down and thrown over railings until they lay exhausted, bruised and bleeding. I was a little apprehensive.

The General Strike failed because the TUC never believed in it; the Government forced it on them by the impulsive Downing Street action. It was said the strike was beginning to break, but in most industrial centres the problem was not to keep the workers out but to keep the exempted workers in. The betrayal of the miners was the worst consequence. Under the leadership of Yorkshire Herbert Smith, the chairman, dour and of few words, and of Welsh Arthur Cook, the secretary, extrovert and of many words, they decided to carry on alone. I came to admire Cook greatly. In contrast with many union leaders he never left the rank and file. During the nine months' struggle he refused a salary, taking the lock-out pay and nothing else. He was loved by his men, and never spared himself, travelling night after night from coalfield to coalfield. Admittedly he failed and the miners were driven back to work at cruel wage reductions. Admittedly a shrewder negotiator might have gained a better result earlier.

Spain proved an even more damaging blow to socialist "pacifism" than Abyssinia. Striving to keep the W.R.I. pacifist, Runham Brown predicted stoically to Ponsonby on 27 September 1936: In these days of crisis may will depart from us but we shall be proved right and ultimately we shall win. Our job is to keep our Movement steady. We now have to face a more difficult position raised by the Spanish War. Some like Fenner Brockway will leave us, but we shall go on.

Spain did, indeed, complete Brockway's gradual process of realization, which had begun with the Russian revolution and was later considerably furthered by the political and economic crisis of 1931, that the absolute socialist pacifism which had led him to found the N.C.F. in 1914 was, in reality, an extreme socialist pacificism.

I had long put on one side the purist pacifist view that one should have nothing to do with a social revolution if any violence were involved... Nevertheless, the conviction remained in my mind that any revolution would fail to establish freedom and fraternity in proportion to its use of violence, that the use of violence inevitably brought in its train domination, repression, cruelty.

There is no doubt that the society resulting from an anarchist victory (during the Spanish Civil War) would have far greater liberty and equality than the society resulting from a fascist victory. With this realisation, although my nature revolted against the killing of human beings just as did the nature of those Catalonian peasants, the fundamental basis of my old philosophy disappeared.

The war forced on me a dilemma. I was in all my nature opposed to war. In a sense, the Spanish civil war had settled this dilemma for me; I could no longer justify pacifism when there was a Fascist threat. It had not quite settled it. I was prepared to defend the workers' revolution in Barcelona, but I had no wish to defend Britain's capitalist regime or its imperialist government. I had to compromise. I could not oppose the war unreservedly as I had in 1914, but I would cooperate in civilian activities, and I would work for the ending of the war by Socialist revolution - democratic one hoped.

Hitler triumph had it not been for the epic resistance of her people to the Nazi invasion. Stalingrad was immortal. Churchill's greatness one had to recognise. I did so profoundly as I listened to his broadcast welcoming Russia as an ally despite his hatred of invasions. My thoughts were continually with my associates in France, Belgium, Holland, Norway, typifying many others in their courageous resistance. We were never invaded, never occupied, but our men and women, British and Commonwealth, held fast when all seemed lost. America's intervention was decisive. At rare moments one could escape from tension to be philosophic and recognise that a similar courage, however bad the cause, was shown on the other side. One could also contemplate on the tragedy that all this heroism, all this acceptance of suffering, was directed to war.

Towards the end of the war the mood of the people began to change. They had demonstrated national unity against Nazism, but they became increasingly alive to Britain's social inequalities and injustices. The wives of soldiers began to tell of letters expressing a growing resentment among servicemen of the class division between officers and the ranks and of a rising anger against injustice in a society which they had been fighting to defend. Our dream of Socialism after the war was becoming real; we glimpsed the gathering clouds but we did not foresee the storm which would sweep the Churchill Government away when peace came. That was to surprise us all.

News from the Working Class Movement Library

On Wednesday 12 May at 2pm we welcome Hazel Kent to speak on ‘A socialist witness for peace: Fenner Brockway’s conscientious objection during the First World War’.

The Quaker concept of witness can be defined as action inspired by faith. Fenner Brockway, although not a Quaker, witnessed for peace in a variety of ways during WW1: through his journalism, his political activity, work for the No-Conscription Fellowship, and being imprisoned for 28 months as a conscientious objector. This talk will explore these varied experiences along with the socialist and spiritual convictions which underpinned them.

Hazel Kent is an Associate Tutor in History at Bishop Grosseteste University, Lincoln.

This talk will be live-streamed. Please click on the following link shortly before 2pm on Wednesday:

Or use:
Meeting ID: 885 4194 6088
Passcode: 719496

The rest of the new talks series is as follows (full details at

19 May Frances Chiu, 'Thomas Paine's Rights of Man: uncommon sense for the 21st century' (NB 3pm start time)

26 May Terry Dunne 'Land & labour: the agrarian question in the Irish Revolution (1913-23)'

2 June Steve Illingworth 'The rebellion of the ‘basement lecturers’: the Wandsworth Prison disturbances of 1918-19'

9 June 'A tale of two libraries - an exchange between the Portico and Working Class Movement Libraries'. Festival of Libraries event (NB 4pm start time)

16 June Kerrie McGiveron ' "What is Big Flame?": exploring a revolutionary socialist feminist organisation 1970–84'

All talks are free and are held online, with a Zoom link available to ebulletin subscribers on the Monday ahead of each talk. The talks are also recorded, and all to date can be viewed at

Fenner Brockway - History

Fenner Brockway was born in Calcutta in 1888. In his remarkable long life (he died just 6 months before his 100th birthday) he experienced some of the most significant, and horrific, events in 20th century history: two world wars, the Cold War, the development of nuclear weapons. For over 80 years he worked in every way he could to promote peace.

A natural rebel
Fenner Brockway’s parents were Christian missionaries working in India, but they sent their son home to England for his education. ‘The only thing I learned to do well at school was play Rugby football.’ He was a natural rebel, and by the time he was 16 he was spending his homework hours writing political pamphlets complete with covers of his own design. ‘There was only one other boy who ever read them, but I got a lot of satisfaction out of them myself.’

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
It wasn’t long before he realised that ‘socialism had become the passion of my life’. In 1907, just after his 19th birthday, he joined the Independent Labour Party (founded in 1893) and ‘immediately felt at home’. He began public speaking on the socialist issues of the day, and wore a red tie as a sign of his commitment to left-wing opinions. By 1911 he had become the editor of the ILP’s paper, the ‘Labour Leader’, based in Manchester.

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.

Opposing conscription
In 1914 Fenner Brockway co-founded the No Conscription Fellowship (NCF) to resist the introduction of compulsory service in the army, and in support of the principle of ‘the sacredness of human life’. At first the NCF (which Fenner Brockway acknowledged had been his wife Lilla’s idea) was based in their house in Derbyshire, but membership grew fast and a London office was opened. At that time a national recruiting campaign was in full swing. Men who agreed to be called up were given khaki arm bands, and men without them were accosted in the street and handed a white feather, a silent accusation of cowardice. The NCF, of course, met with a storm of abuse from the press, who called them ‘the save-their-own-skin brigade’, ‘the won’t-fight funks’, and worse. Yet membership went on growing.

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.

First imprisonments
But in July 1916 Fenner Brockway was in court again, and this time he was sent to prison, the first of several stretches. This was for publishing anti-conscription leaflets. In November he was arrested again, and this time it was personal: as a conscientious objector he had been offered exemption from military service on condition that he did work of ‘national importance’ to help the war effort. He had refused, and now was forcibly handed over to the army. On the way to the barracks under escort, Fenner Brockway suggested that he take the two soldiers out to lunch - it turned out that it was the birthday of one of them (‘the best I ever had!’ said the ex-navvy after tucking into a huge meal). But Fenner Brockway spent a night in the Tower of London as a traitor.

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.’

'Hard labour’
The court martial was ‘as good as a pantomime’. The room was tiny, and crowded with journalists. The three army officers conducting the trial ‘were new to their job and didn’t know a thing about it’. They stared at their copy of the Military Regulations, baffled by its complexity. Fenner Brockway, however, knew it well, and was able to conduct them through its pages - ‘it became a case of a prisoner conducting his own trial’. Fenner Brockway’s defence statement was widely reported in the papers and reprinted as a popular leaflet. But there was no way he could win the case. Three days later his sentence was announced: six months’ imprisonment with hard labour. Fenner Brockway was locked up in Wormwood Scrubs.

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
One rule which Fenner Brockway and his fellow COs planned to overcome was ‘the silence rule’: prisoners were forbidden to communicate with each other in any way. This was a real hardship for many COs, lively articulate men who were hungry for talk, news, ideas and human contact. The first step was the NCF’s bright idea: the men smuggled in pencil leads, taped to the underside of their feet where they didn’t show even when the prisoners stripped naked for compulsory showers on arrival at the jail. (There was a nasty moment when a warder noticed that Fenner Brockway’s feet seemed to be turning the shower water purple, but the man put it down to too much disinfectant.) With the leads, prisoners could write messages on fragments of toilet paper (not the soft stuff available nowadays). One of the first notes provided the code which the prisoners used to tap out messages along the water pipes running through the cells. And one of the first messages tapped out to Fenner Brockway was ‘Welcome’.

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
This time it was Chester Castle again. Now the COs were in a mood to protest not only against military authority but also against the prison regime: ‘it, too, was destructive of all that was best in human personality’. In 1918 some improvements were made in the lot of those imprisoned for more than a year: they could have books sent in, and for 40 minutes each day they could talk to one other prisoner during exercise. But the sense of ‘mind and spirit being crushed’ remained. Because the CO prisoners had a feeling of fellowship with each other, were supported by the strength of their resistance to war, and were not inclined to crime, Fenner Brockway began to think it was the duty of COs to change the prison system. A disciplined revolt against prison rules began. Its leaders devised a sensible timetable, allowing for conversation, lectures, and even concerts - given through the cell windows to what was indeed a captive audience. The rebellion lasted a heady 10 days, and then its leaders were transferred Fenner Brockway was now taken to Lincoln prison.

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’
Convalescing at Scarborough after his release, Fenner Brockway watched his daughters playing on the beach and vowed to do what he could to save them from war. Although he became deeply involved in the campaign for prison reform, he made sure there was time for leading roles in the British ‘No More War’ movement and the newly founded War Resisters International.

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
And as Europe drew closer to another World War, resisting war was Fenner Brockway’s mission. But he also felt that fascism in Germany had to be overcome. In 1938 the ILP’s International Centre (which was also helping refugees from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia) launched an International Workers’ Front Against War, with the aim of encouraging workers’ organisations to resist war - and to continue the struggle against capitalism. ‘We recognised that as long as capitalism continued the alternatives were either a patched-up imperialist peace or an imperialist war.’ As we know, the first was attempted and the second was carried out.

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.

Anti-war, anti-Nazi
But as far as the Second World War was concerned, Fenner Brockway found himself in a painful dilemma. Though ‘instinctively a pacifist’ - ‘I could never see myself killing anyone and had never held a weapon in my hands’ - he could not now be wholly anti-war. ‘The thought of mass killing was unbearable. But I also thought of the Nazi brutality I had seen. And I thought of brave German comrades who would now face concentration camps and the firing squad. I thought of what a Hitler victory could mean for Europe.’ But he went on speaking out for the ILP’s anti-war views, urging that the war should be ended by a people’s revolution across Europe’s frontiers, not by military victory. He also took part in the ILP’s vigorous protest against British carpet-bombing of civilian areas in Germany.

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 our 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.’

War work
Fenner Brockway was in London through the war, and it was at his suggestion that the government set up a national Fire Service to watch through the bombing raids to spot fires and put them out before they spread. He organised a nightly fire watch for the buildings where the ILP office was, and took his turn regularly.

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.’

After the war Fenner Brockway rejoined the Labour party and began working to become an MP again. In 1947 he got a surprising invitation: Hamburg Trades Union Council would like him to speak at their first May Day demonstration for 14 years. The foreign secretary said that he could go - but must report to the army’s Whitehall office first. ‘I was told I could only go to Germany if I joined the army temporarily. I was given the rank of captain and handed a uniform. I laughed at the irony of it. In the First World War I was court-martialled for refusing to put on army uniform, and here I was accepting it to go on a socialist mission!’

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
Why ‘Moscow’? This was the period of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race. Fenner Brockway was a founder member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament - and had been the first to gather MPs together in 1954 to start the movement which led to CND. Later (1979) he was co-founder of the World Disarmament Campaign.

‘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
Perhaps it’s surprising that Fenner Brockway, with his socialist principles, accepted a life peerage in 1964 and he wrote later that he remained doubtful as to whether he had done the right thing. Certainly his second wife, Edith, would have none of it, and consistently refused to answer to the title ‘Lady Brockway’ - something that had to be learned (and accepted) by everyone she dealt with. But the peerage meant that Fenner Brockway was still in Parliament, where, until he became too deaf to do so, he asked more parliamentary questions, introduced more parliamentary bills, and started more parliamentary debates than anyone else.

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.

Do you have more information or a photo of Fenner Brockway? Let us know

About the men who said NO


Born: 1 Nov. 1888
Died: 18 Apr 1988
Address: 19 Clare Road, Levenshulme,
Prison:Pentonville, Wormwood Scrubs, Walton Prison, Chester Castle, Lincoln Prison
HO Scheme: NO
CO Work: NO
Occupation: Editor

‘We were treated like animals without minds or personality. 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.’

Fennre speaking at a Peace Pledge Union exhibition about nonviolence.

PRISONS | more

Fenner Brockway

The purpose of this piece is to look at Fenner Brockway, who, after the outbreak of the First World War formed the No Conscription Fellowship (NCF). Initially conscription was not an issue, although it was seen as a cruel blow to the Independent Labour Party (ILP) when, in 1914, the workers ‘marched off relatively happily to war’ (Ellsworth-Jones, 2008: 84). At the time, Fenner was editor of the Labour Leader, which was the paper of the ILP, and many of its members were decidedly anti-militaristic. Fenner, as he so often did throughout his long and distinguished career, looked to the future and, along with many others, saw conscription on the horizon. He avoided ‘protracted ideological argument’ with fellow ILP members over policy (Ellsworth-Jones, 2008: 84), and was ably assisted by his wife who wrote a letter to the Labour Leader, which he published. It stated ‘It would perhaps be well for men of enlistment age who are not prepared to take the part of a combatant in the war, whatever the penalty for refusing, to band themselves together so we may know our strengths’ (cited in Ellsworth-Jones, 2008: 84).

Fenner and the No Conscription Fellowship

Thus the No Conscription Fellowship became a viable entity, with Fenner becoming the secretary of the NCF paper, The Tribunal. The formation of the NCF was principally as a result of the both the ‘Derby Scheme’, which was the recruitment drive by Lord Derby, and the fact that conscription was imminent. The NCF was made up of some inspirational characters, including Clifford Allen, Bertrand Russell, and Edward Grubb. Grubb, who became the treasurer of the NCF and was also a Quaker, was regarded as ‘the father of the movement’ (Brockway, 2010: 67). Catherine Marshall, who often came to Fenner’s rescue, was seen as one of the most exceptional members, given her ability to hold the NCF together (Brockway, 2010). The NCF was constantly under attack and, with no support from Labour Party or the unions, had to contend with everything from the Defence of The Realm Act, which could often mean imprisonment, through to having their printing presses smashed and copies of The Tribunal seized and destroyed. However, the No Conscription Fellowship always bounced back.

It would perhaps be well for men of enlistment age who are not prepared to take the part of a combatant in the war, whatever the penalty for refusing, to band themselves together so we may know our strengths.

Eventually, the conscientious objectors (C.O.s) began to be court marshalled. Some took alternative duty. Others, however, were absolutists. Some died and nearly all were treated badly, often appallingly. Fenner was imprisoned and his diary of his time there includes accounts of being kept in isolation, the various methods of communication and sympathetic prison staff. The prison paper, The Walton Leader, was produced twice weekly and, written on forty sheets of toilet paper, records some of the most riveting accounts of his time in prison.

Fenner’s Experience of Prison as a C.O.

There appear to be few times in his life when Fenner lost some of his resolve but unsurprisingly a couple of these occurred during his imprisonment. In his autobiography Fenner describes that he wrote mainly about unusual incidents but he goes on to say that ‘In doing so [he] may have failed to give an impression of the deteriorative effect of prison life’ (Brockway, 2010: 103). The C.O.s were mostly ‘Hard Labour Prisoners’ (Brockway, 2010: 103), but, unlike other prisoners, they had a degree of comradeship and the fortitude that comes from a belief in their principles and convictions. On one occasion the prisoners erupted, the catalyst being the imminent execution of an inmate. Fenner describes the scene thus: ‘Within a few minutes from cell to cell the nervous storm spread every prisoner appeared to be thundering at his door in a fury of pent-up emotions which swept reason away. I had the greatest difficulty in not joining in. I stood at my door, my fists clenched within an inch of it, my whole body tense, my arms vibrating, my teeth clenched, a bursting pressure in my head…. To me it brought futile despair. I flung myself on the ground and held my head tight in my arms to overcome the temptation to crush it against the wall’ (Brockway, 2010: 103-4).

Fenner’s 1922 Parliamentary Campaign in Lancaster

A few years after Fenner’s release from prison in 1919, he became the prospective Labour candidate for the Lancaster Division. This was an interesting election in many ways, particularly given that it was only four years since the end of the war. Fenner wrote letters throughout 1921 and 1922 to the then Lancaster Observer and Morecambe Chronicle,sometimes in response to letters that had been directed at him and others that explained his socialist views. He also wrote letters about current issues that he felt were of importance, such as The Genoa Conference, which, he said, ‘Represents a belated realisation of the truth of the Labour principle that to harm other people is to harm oneself’. He also went on to say that the Treaty of Versailles was disastrous and that ‘If Britain and America had acted courageously together at the Versailles Conference, we might have had a decent constructive conciliatory treaty. Instead the British delegates surrendered to French Imperialism, and we had a vulgar treaty of vengeance and hate’.

The C.O.s were mostly ‘Hard Labour Prisoners’, but, unlike other prisoners, they had a degree of comradeship and the fortitude that comes from a belief in their principles and convictions.

There was some hostility among Lancaster voters towards Fenner’s pacifist views. For example, a letter from ‘A Bereaved One’ to the Lancaster Observer and Morecambe Chronicle states:

‘It is well known that Mr. Brockway’s conscience would not permit him to lift a finger to protect our women and little ones from violation, injury and death…. What guarantee have we that if the workers of this division send the Labour candidate to Westminster, that his extreme views will ever be modified? His conscience will presumably not allow him to vote for a single penny for the defence of our country, and we should be at the mercy of any warlike nation. Such a number of your readers have lost too many relatives in the war that they cannot support a person who would fail us in our hour of danger.’

Another letter to the same newspaper from ‘An Old Volunteer’ states:

‘Mr Brockway evidently is a “peace at any price” man and I contend that the House of Commons is the last place in the world for a person who entertains such opinions…. if all of us had been of Mr. Brockway’s frame of mind we should have been German vassals, and our women the victims of their debauchery… One would think that the community was in no mood to pay any attention to such an exponent of passive Socialism.’

A ‘Working Man’ wrote in to agree with the above letter, saying that:

‘No right-minded Britisher is in favour of violence and force but he is in favour of defending himself against it, rather than cringe behind some concocted scheme of objection. The sooner the Labour Party of Lancaster realise the mistake they have made in adopting a Socialist with extreme views, the sooner they, I feel sure, will break away from him and his friends, and find a true representative of the British working man.’

As polling day approached, Fenner found himself accused of various wrong-doings, including accusations that Lord Ashton’s workforce had been subject to intimidation. A letter signed by ‘Representatives of The Various Works’ sent to Lord Ashton and published in the Lancaster Observer and Morecambe Chronicle states that ‘It would not be possible for the workpeople of any business concern to be more free from improper influence on the part of their employer than those of your Lordship’. Lord Ashton’s reply goes on to say ‘I thank you very much more than I can express for your letter, and for the copy of the resolution passed at a meeting of my workpeople.’ Fenner was also accused of describing local boiler-men and stokers as ‘drunkards and boozers.’ In response to this, Fenner wrote a letter stating that he never made such a statement. He also said ‘I hereby give notice therefore that if this statement is repeated, I shall take the necessary action to deal with the matter publicly’.

Mr Brockway evidently is a “peace at any price” man and I contend that the House of Commons is the last place in the world for a person who entertains such opinions.

Documenting Dissent research volunteer, Nick Beddoe, restored the plaque at Lancaster Friends Meeting House marking the planting of trees for peace by Fenner Brockway in 1985.

Spokesman Books

Morning Star, Monday 22 March 2010
Reviewed by John Green

Many today will not remember the legendary Labour MP Fenner Brockway, who died in 1988.

Hopefully, this reissue of the first volume of his autobiography by Spokesman Books will make him better known to a new generation.

Like Tony Benn, Brockway was one of those rare figures who started early on as a principled socialist and remained so to the end of his life.

His political career spanned the bulk of the 20th century and for most of that time he was at the centre of progressive politics nationally and internationally.

He was a founder member, among other organisations, of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), the Movement for Colonial Freedom - now Liberation - War on Want and CND.

He became an MP for the ILP at a very young age and, after its demise, for the Labour Party. Vehemently anti-war, he spent several years in various prisons as a conscientious objector during the first world war.

His description of the treatment he and other "conshies" endured makes gruesome reading.

They were subjected to draconian and petty rules, bread and water punishments for the slightest infringement and were so brutalised a number of them didn't survive.

His reporting of the General Strike is a masterpiece of historical documentation.

Brockway writes with eloquence and commitment. This is history seen through the eyes of a courageous, deeply humanitarian, perceptive and intelligent man who fought all his life on behalf of working people and for peace and justice.

But Brockway was not just a journalist. He took an active part in organising and supporting the strikers.

He campaigned lifelong for unity of the left and was never blindly loyal to his party. The people he met and knew intimately reads like a political Who's Who of the great, the good - and not so good.

His portrait sketches of Ramsay MacDonald, Oswald Mosley, Gandhi, Nehru, Keir Hardy, Bernard Shaw, James Maxton, Lenin, Trotsky, Kautsky and many more are fascinating and illuminating.

But with an election looming, this book should be made compulsory reading for all prospective Labour MPs because Brockway's detailed portrayal of the political process, parliamentary manoeuvring and international shenanigans is still as insightful as ever.

His chapter on the role of Parliament is a masterpiece of political writing.

He reports how most elected Labour MPs soon succumbed to the seductive luxury of parliamentary life and signed up all too readily to the comfortable club that Parliament was - and still is - with its all-night bars, cheap food and expenses culture.

It took a person with strong discipline and clear principle to resist the allure of an easy life and very few managed to do so.

Doesn't that sound incredibly contemporary?

Brockway excoriates the numerous vain, power-hungry opportunists who have always bedevilled the movement by selling out when crunch time came.

He himself refused dinner invitations from the Establishment, not out of vindictiveness or inverted snobbery but "due to a realisation of the way in which social life associated with Parliament blunts the sense of identity with the working class in their struggle," as he so succinctly put it.

His description of the second Labour government in 1929 as "being afraid to offer a real socialist programme and kow-towing to the bankers" and "preferring to manage capitalism instead of financing popular social legislation" sounds all too familiar.

As a result, Labour suffered a humiliating electoral defeat shortly afterwards.

Could we see history repeating itself in a few weeks time?

So despite being a history of the 20th century, Brockway's work has such a timeless feel to it that his views and outlook are as relevant today as they were then.

He would have liked to see communists and other socialists working together rather than scrapping with each other and he highlights many of the weaknesses and how they came about.

The most tragic result of such divisions was seen in Germany, where Hitler was able to gain power while socialists and communists fought each other on the streets.

If you want to experience a vivid journey through recent history and learn from it, this is the book to read.

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As even Nero is now on the right side of history, perhaps there’s hope for Boris Johnson

“N ero,” it says at the British Museum’s revisionist exhibition about the unlamented Roman emperor, “introduced new forms of entertainment where people of different classes could mingle.” He also had great hair. “It set a new fashion, as people across the empire imitated his look.”

But wait: “Appreciated by the masses, such inclusiveness antagonised some members of the senatorial elite.” At the age of 30, he was forced into suicide, after which enemies spoiled his statues and antique historians made a big thing of his murdering his mother. Even the current exhibition struggles to finesse that blip.

Still, what a thing for Nero if only he could somehow be made aware that, after almost 2,000 years of slander and meanness (he was literally miles away when Rome burned!), he is finally being uncancelled reclaimed as an imaginative, stylish, often affectionate, possibly deserving recipient of popular adulation who behaved as maybe anyone might have done when you factor in contemporaneous slavery and a more easygoing approach to both massacres and matricide. Maybe he was just ahead of his time.

In fact, visitors might conclude on this evidence that Nero was entitled to tell the senate, if only the expression had existed around AD68, that they were on the wrong side of history, that bad side featuring everyone from Churchill, slave traders and the architects of apartheid and genocide to people who resist their designation as “cis”. He, Nero, would meanwhile be on the virtuous, progressive side, one featuring Jesse Jackson, Tony Blair, Yvette Cooper, Bill Clinton, Jeremy Corbyn, the late Fenner Brockway (see below) and, perhaps less promisingly, David Cameron and various pro-Brexit luminaries. High among the difficulties presented by the popular, right/wrong side of history style of argument is the absence of a reliable history-sorting hat or similar mechanism, followed by adequate policing of its decisions and an appeals system for the miscategorised.

What right-side border controls ensure that someone from, say, the Spectator or the Republican party can’t, by identifying into the sacred group, undermine its reputation as progressive, as spiritually if not actually millennial? Any right-side impurity could, for its most energetic proponents, blight the whole exercise. Just last week, a Talk Radio host characterised himself as hailing from (in contrast to Dominic Cummings) the favoured, sunny side of history and therefore entitled to sit at the right hand of Barack Obama, who must bear some responsibility for the evolution of the phrase from idealism shorthand to all-purpose conversation stopper. The Atlantic once calculated that Obama used “wrong side of history” 13 times and the “right side of history” 15.

But much of the vogue for TWSOH in online debate or, more accurately, in shutting down debate, probably lies in its being as a standalone accusation as completely meaningless as it is, at the same time, rich in biblical-sounding conviction. Both commanding and convenient, this time-saving tactic also offers users, when binary thinking runs short of current material, the chance to impose it on the future. Like children at the British Museum, who are urged to judge Nero as either a “good emperor” or a bad one, the advertised judgment day will have no truck with compromise or equivocation. The non-compliant can only rejoice that we will by this time be as dead as Nero.

When, as usually happens, a “wrong side” taunt duly provokes a matching “no, that’s you, that is”, the initiating right-sider is conventionally spared, having bagged it first, not just further debate but also, to a remarkably forgiving degree, any explanation of what “history” means in this context, of why it is more relevant than what’s happening now, of what, most mysteriously of all, accounts for the delusion that history’s view should, so providentially – or myopically – resemble their own.

Because, leave aside countless historians and wrong-siders alerting us to the fragility of civilisations, shouldn’t the elevation of Boris Johnson alone, as Cummings has just mentioned, dispel any fatuous confidence in continuous progress? You don’t have to have read – though it might help manage expectations – Orwell, Margaret Atwood or Robert Harris’s The Second Sleep to wonder who Twitter’s prophets are relying on to ward off dystopian interference with the posthumous vilification of current dissenters. And even with a guarantee, it would hardly compete with the unquenchable fire.

Which could be one reason why OTWSOH was slow to take off, to judge by Hansard, among British political speakers. Not until 1953 did Brockway ask Anthony Eden if (in his not pressing for Tunisian independence) he wasn’t “placing this country on the wrong side of history”. It next appears in 2008, levelled by Gordon Brown at David Cameron’s party before Cameron adapted OTWSOH for personal use. Subsequently, this arguably complacent statement proliferated almost as if in step with publications dwelling on the precariousness of democracies and of liberal ideas of progress.

The mentions multiplied, often in a foreign policy context, until, with the pandemic intensifying insecurities about the future, OTWSOH achieved its current ubiquity, applied to everything from Brexit to data protection. Its close relation, “history will judge”, has enjoyed similar success. As in recently (from Lord Bhatia): “It remains to be seen as to how history will judge Boris Johnson in the coming two to three decades.”

Might it not be more practical to judge him now? In case a revisionist, cruelly non-progressive future depicts him, Nero-like, with his profligacy, debauchery and sociopathy balanced by festivals, showing off and haircuts, as the finest in an unbroken line of Etonians: “Appreciated by the masses, such inclusiveness antagonised some members of the senatorial elite.” After the last few years, an appreciative future verdict seems fully as likely as one that damns him, like the wretches regularly excoriated on Twitter, for being on the wrong side of history.

Brockway, Archibald Fenner (Oral history)

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Fenner Brockway - History

1847-1981 :

A thesis presented to the London School of Economics, University of London,
for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, by Julia Twigg
©AUTUMN 1981 - Thesis Index

The author is now Professor of Social Policy and Sociology at Kent University, England, and has given permission for this previously unpublished thesis to be published on the IVU website. The ownership and copyright remain hers and no part of this thesis may be used elsewhere without her express permission.


[Numerical links are to the author's footnotes, use your back button to return to the same point in the text. Text links are to relevant items on the IVU website, all open in new windows]

The interwar years saw the continuation of vegetarianism's links with socialism and the left generally. With the rise of the parliamentary Labour Party, achieving power in 1924 and 1929, there comes to be a scattering of vegetarians in the House of Commons. Fenner Brockway, the radical, pacifist and leading figure of the ILP had been a vegetarian since just before the First World War. (1) The ILP was, in the twenties, no longer the grass-roots expression of the Labour Party that it was before the war, since direct membership was now possible, and it became instead a radical group within Labour, containing an alliance - sometimes uneasy - between radical intellectuals and the working-class-based Clydeside group, and aiming at a full socialist reconstruction of society rather than the reformism that dominated the Labour Party. The ILP in the twenties did retain some of the earlier sense of socialism as something that transformed all aspects of life, and Fenner Brockway wrote of their summer schools, where there were always vegetarian tables: 'At the schools we enjoyed a comradeship which we rarely know now. Socialism was to us a personal relationship as well as an ideal for the future'. (2) Rennie Smith (3) - not a member of the ILP, though he shared Brockway's pacifist concerns - and Peter Freeman (4) &ndash from a different background, a theosophist and enlightened business man, though a socialist - were also vegetarians in the House. Ellen Wilkinson - 'Red Ellen', the MP for Jarrow - though not completely vegetarian, was largely so.(5)

Stafford Cripps was a vegetarian, certainly for health reasons, though possibly also for the humanitarian. Broadly speaking there is a tendency for the political-left vegetarians to incline towards the humanitarian rather than the health aspect. (6)

The link appears also in the socialist novelist Walter Greenwood whose best seller, Love on the Dole, exposed the human conditions of life in Salford, where Greenwood was a Labour councillor. (7)

In 1926, with the General Strike, we find the Vegetarian Society sending vegetarian food parcels to the distressed mining areas, though how they were received is not recorded. (8) Such activities, though of limited impact, do indicate broadly where sympathies lay.

Not all favoured the connection, and the Vegetarian Messenger records the continuation of the older criticism, now made by &lsquosocialists and communists' , that vegetarianism would only depress wages. (9)

There are also in the period some muted connections with Social Credit. Based on the theories of the Canadian Douglas, Social Credit was in the thirties a slightly ambiguous political movement including aspects of both left and right. Its diagnosis of the economic crisis was one of plentiful production but no purchasing power, and it sought to solve this by issuing a national dividend. There is a strong theme of individual responsibility in it, which was developed in relation to its health policy with its emphasis on preventative measures and individual self help. (10)

Springingtiger's Blog

Today a friend on Facebook posted a tribute to her newly deceased uncle. In it she referenced his time as a ‘Bevin Boy’ called up to serve during the Second World War not in the Armed Forces, but as a coal miner. We sometimes forget that the whole armed struggle would have been in vain had not the infrastructure existed to support it. The post reminded me of a recently shared picture fron a veterans parade showing a weeping man, alone, carrying a wreath, marching as the last member of his battle group. It occurs to me that very soon there will be none of that generation who endured the Second World War left to remember it. It is not something that should be forgot.

Our politicians and captains of industry are of a generation whose eldest were but children in the war. For many the dark years of World War Two are nothing more than a source of cheap insults to score political points. It is sad to see the sacrifices of so many millions cheapened by a generation so fixed on their own gain that they treat the deaths of millions whether in mid Twentieth Century Europe or Twenty-First Century Syria with utter disregard. I was appalled when Ken Livingstone referenced Hitler’s support for a policy of forced settlement of Jews in Palestine is a cheap criticism of a particular political lobby. I was even more appalled when Michael Foster attacked those who supported Jeremy Corbyn as Nazi Stormtroopers. I was angry not just because of the dishonesty, but because it cheapened the sacrifices of a generation.

I don’t know much about my father’s war except that he spent most of it on a minesweeper keeping open the Mediterranean sea lanes and that he didn’t like Stukas. My mother was in the WRNS when she met him, she drove a lorry. I remember her telling me of how she drove the young men down to their ships and how when the ships returned to port she drove the bodies of those same young men back for burial because sea burials might have provided washed up bodies for Nazi propaganda. My uncle retreated across North Africa before Rommel and then fought his way through Europe from France to Germany. He told stories about his war, but only ever the funny anecdotes, he didn’t like dive bombers either. Every time a politician uses the war to score a debating point he pours contempt on the deaths and the scars seen and unseen of those who were there, that is why it is important that we keep their memories alive. The truth should not be buried along with the dead.

The Chilcott Enquiry stressed the importance of learning the lessons of the Iraq War. The truth is we are very bad at learning the lessons of any war, that’s why we keep fighting them. We dwell on the victories and acts of heroism and conveniently hide the truth of the profiteers who made money from the war, the treachery and cowardice that are also part of any conflict. As long as we glorify war we will breed new generations eager to fight them, of course we also continue to provide a good income for those who make and sell the weapons. Just as fortunes were established by slave owners and still enjoyed by their descendants today, so were the profits of war enjoyed by an elite whose children continue to occupy the upper echelons of society.

There have been commemorations of the battles of the Great War, but much less about the domestic history of that war. We remember Churchill sending tanks into France, but tend to ignore him sending them to crush demonstrations against intolerable labour practices in Glasgow. We are inclined to forget Mary Barbour and the brave women of the rent strikes exploited by profiteer landlords while their husbands were fighting and dying in Flanders. Ironically during all the commemorations of the Great War and the ignoring of the Rent Strike Conservative MPs, many of whom are landlords themselves refused to pass legislation compelling landlords to make the properties they let fit for human habitation. Finally as I think about the Clydesiders and the labour struggles of the earlier Twentieth Century my attention was drawn to a remark in yet another article about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party that quite rightly pointed out the valuable part played by the Jewish community in building the Party one of the writer’s examples was Manny Shinwell. I remembered a conversation I once had with Fenner Brockway about the need to capture the memories of the early campaigners while they were still with us. Of Manny Shinwell he said, “Manny was one of us, but he turned!” Not an anti-semitic comment merely an expression of Brockway’s lifelong refusal to compromise his socialist principles. Not long after that conversation I shared a taxi with Phillip Noel Baker and he talked non stop about Eleanor Roosevelt, I wished I could have recorded him. We allow too many of our past generations to go without leaving a record of their life, times and personal memories and opinions, we need to remember and learn from the lessons of our history.

If there is one lesson to be learned from politics it is that the average politician confuses leadership with management and is happy to replace integrity with expediency. There is a political New Speak that reverses the meanings of words to fit the version of events that best suits the establishment.

In the eyes of today’s Parliamentary Labour Party Winston Churchill would not be considered a leader because even after Britain won the Second World War he could not win the following election. Indeed he was out of office more than id during his political career. In his younger days he had a tendency to break rules to accomplish his ends. By Parliamentary Labour Party standards the most successful leaders of the last century would be Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, both of whom were adept at manipulating systems and structure, both of whom however caused support for their parties to leech away over a decade of observable placing of expediency before principle.

Today’s PLP keep telling us that the primary purpose of the Labour Party is to win power. Again they put expediency before principle. As I was listening to the radio it was remarked of Owen Smith after his latest remarks on the National Health Service that he felt that for him to win, ‘he has to be seen as a socialist’. ‘To be seen as a socialist’, there was no suggestion that he had any actual belief in socialism, but the inference was that it was a disguise he had to adopt in order to have any chance of defeating Jeremy Corbyn who is a socialist and has been all his life regardless of the consequences. I remember the hope that Tony Blair gave the party because he appeared before he was elected to be a socialist. When he changed Clause 4 we were told and believed that this was merely expediency and after election he would revert to socialism. He got elected and continued to undermine the Trades Unions and invaded Iraq regardless of what the ordinary people thought. It is no surprise that when asked her greatest legacy, Margaret Thatcher replied, “Tony Blair”. We believed and we were fooled and it probably serves us right.

I think why the right like Owen Smith while no one on the left trusts him is that he comes across as a second Tony Blair. Owen Smith with his pointy thumb and awkward attempts to look comfortable without a collar and tie seems more about presentation than commitment to Labour values. When we look at his record in Parliament and before there is no sense at all of any commitment to socialism. Now I don’t want to diminish the accomplishments of New Labour, Tony Blair did introduce some worthwhile reforms. However apart from some token devolutiion they did nothing to rebuild the political and economic structures of the UK so the succeeding Tory government could, as Thatcher had, quickly undo all the good that had been done.

Owen Smith looks much more comfortable in a suit and tie, he is part of the establishment. Were he ever to be Prime Minister I am absolutely sure he would, like Blair, tinker and introduce some reforms, but it would not be socialism and that is why the Blairites think he can win, because he does not threaten the Conservative establishment, under Smith it will be Business (quite literally) as usual. Given the reigns of power Smith will manage the business and pass it on unbroken to the next manager to follow him.

The reason Corbyn scares the establishment is that unlike Smith and Blair he brings the promise of fundamental reform at every level of the social, economic and political system. Corbyn is not a manager his is not the world of balance sheets like Smith. Corbyn like all leaders is a visionary and his vision inspires people. Smith is a suit like nearly every other politician of the centre ground, he inspires no one. Churchill was not a manager either, but when faced with a challenge he rose to it and inspired a nation. What the Blairites, Tories and other conservatives fear is that Corbyn inspires people with a vision that there is an alternative to vision as usual. The reason so many economists support Corbyn is because he has grasped that the foundations of the economy have changed and that the old ways of managing the economy are no longer working. Corbyn is prepared to think the unthinkable and take radical action to redistribute the wealth and power of our country to give everyone a real stake in the future (whether they’re a mother or not). For all the abuse he receives it is obvious that Corbyn owes more to Cooperators and Trades Unionism than theoretical socialism of a Marxian kind. His socialism, although he may not admit it, owes more to the Gospels than Marx and to the British socialist movements like the Diggers and Levellers than to anything as foreign as the Bolsheviks. The only reason anyone accuses Corbyn of Bolshevism is to play on the prejudices of an English education where history has been manipulated to protect the establishment. (in Scotland to be called a Bolshevik is a compliment, but our heroes are people like Maclean, Maxton, Hardie, Connolly and Barbour). Look at the workload he handles and you see that the Labour tradition into which he belongs is that of Fenner Brockway, Philip Noel-Baker and Tony Benn. Look at the huge rise in Labour Party membership under Corbyn. Look at the thousands of ordinary (and not so ordinary) men and women who attend his rallies. Look at the thousands of volunteers willing to give up their time and energy to campaign for him. Whatever Jeremy Corbyn may or may not be, only a fool would deny that he is a leader. Whatever Jeremy Corbyn may or may not be what is obvious to any sensible person is that he is a leader, an inspiring leader, a visionary leader. A leader able and prepared to break the mould that has confined our stagnating nation for three quarters of a century. A better world is possible only if we are prepared to get off our knees and grasp it so I will stand beside Corbyn. I would rather die on my feet than continue to live on my knees.

It is hard to see what I am typing through my tears, but I cannot allow Tony Benn to go without saying goodbye to my hero. I admired his political stance, but more his personality, his political beliefs arose from who he was. I am happy to have met Tony several times and he was always so warm and courteous. He was one of a small group of socialist philosophers, like Fenner Brockway and the Reverend George MacLeod, whose passion for justice fuelled super human effort when younger men would have given up.

When my wife Neelam Bakshi became the first Asian woman elected to public office in Scotland as a councillor in Strathclyde Region, Tony was generous with his support and advice. I loved that he was available at the end of the phone to encourage young people confronting the challenges of politics.

I remember vividly one Campaign Group fringe meeting where Tony spoke. A few years before Neelam had chaired Tony Benn’s and Eric Heffer’s leadership rallies in Glasgow. At the end of the fringe meeting, Neelam went up to talk to Tony the moment he spotted her he smiled and threw his arms open wide. That is the memory of Tony Benn I will keep to the end of my days, rather than the Socialist giant, the warm human being who treated us all as equals. We shall miss him.

We all need heroes. We need heroes to inspire us by their example. We need heroes to inform our opinions with their words. We need heroes upon whom we cab model our behaviour and we need heroes to give us hope, hope for the human spirit, hope for the future of humanity.

I mourn Hugo Chavez because he gave us hope that despite all the greed and corruption in the world people and nations could aspire to something selfless and noble. He reminded us that politicians can be men of integrity. Above all, like Castro, he showed that we do not have to bow the knee to the USA, we do not have to look on helplessly as the Americans invade weaker nations to feed their greed, we do not have to remain silent as they trample human rights and bomb civilians with their drones.

Chavez did not form my opinions, apart from Tony Benn, most of the heroes who did form my opinions are dead. At their head I must place St. Francis of Assisi who inspired me so much that as a student I gave away almost all my possessions to Oxfam, funnily enough, ever since I’ve always had more than I need! Others who have formed my opinions have included the trades unionist and freedom fighter James Connolly, the great Keir Hardie, James Maxton. There are more some of whom like Tony Benn and Fenner Brockway. I have been privileged to meet and some like Michael Foot and Mick McGachey to hear speak.

Of course I have many other heroes in all walks of life comedians like Dave Allen, George Carlin and Frankie Howerd, writers like Shakespeare and Terry Pratchett, I know some people wouldn’t put Pratchett and Shakespeare together, but I think Shakespeare is that good! There are actors I admire like John Wayne (not for his politics, but for his integrity), Cary Grant, Amitabh Bachchan, Katherine Hepburn and musicians like Johnny Cash and Kishore Kumar.

I think the one thing above all that my heroes have in common is that they all elevate humanity, they all make the world a better place, they all hold up a mirror in which we can see ourselves not only as we are, but as we could be.

Watch the video: Lord Fenner Brockway. British Politician. Socialism. Labour Party. Good Afternoon. 1973 (December 2021).