From the April 1916 issue of the Socialist Standard
Despite the protests to the contrary by the Daily News and other organs of Liberalism, the conscriptionists are winning point after point in their campaign. With the usual British cant, humbug and fraud, the campaign has been carried on under various disguises and pretences so beloved by our politicians, though it is none the the less effective in obtaining results, as we can see all around us.
A brief examination of the progress of this campaign will not only be interesting in itself, but will be useful in showing clearly the sinister character of those who claim that the Allies are fighting for Justice, Freedom, Righteousness, and—er— the capture of German Trade.
Having secured a victory in the Cabinet, their first step was to arrange a scheme to save the faces of Liberals who still professed to believe in the "voluntary" system. This was the "Registration Act" that was merely "to take stock of our resources in men," and Liberal members of the Cabinet indignantly repudiated the suggestion that it was the beginning of conscription. Based on this Act the "Group Scheme" was set up with Lord Derby, a wealthy Lancashire landowner, "with a stake in the country," at its head. He announced that, though a conscriptionist, he would do his utmost to make the "voluntary" system a success, while declaring in the same breath that he was going "to wind up a bankrupt concern." About halfway through the period allotted to the scheme he suddenly announced that the married men joining the army under the scheme would not be called up until all the single men, except those engaged in munition and other national work, had been called up first. If the single men did not come forward, "voluntarily" then they would be fetched. That master of shuffle and ambiguity, Mr. Asquith, endorsed the statement in a "pledge" of curious clearness, coming from such a source.
This cunning move of Lord Derby, or his employers, resulted in a double success. Firstly, large numbers of married men, taking Lord Derby's remark that "he hoped it would be possible to have sufficient young men to bring the war to a successful conclusion without having to put the older and, married men into the field of operations" as another "pledge," joined up in the belief that they would escape service. Secondly, the loudly advertised claim that this scheme gave the "last chance" for the "voluntary" system drove many to become unofficial recruiting agents, who called the single unattested men "slackers," and used various means to bully these "slackers" into the army even to the extent of threatening to strike against working with them in some factories and workshops. This stupidity enabled the conscriptionists to claim that the demand for compulsion came from "the people" and not from any small section.
Then came the notorious "Derby Report" on the results of the scheme. This Report was specially prepared to show that the scheme had failed to bring in the single men required, although it admitted that the amazing total of 2,829,263 men (married and single) had offered their services. When it is remembered that the Prime Minister admitted that 3,000,000 men were in the army before the scheme started the total becomes more remarkable still.
But the conscriptionists were determined to have compulsion and started an agitation among the married men—attested and unattested—calling for the "fetching" of the single men. Doubtless large numbers of the married men believed that by supporting this campaign they would save themselves from being called upon to serve in the army. So the Military Service Bill was introduced. To show how completely they were bound to, and depended upon, the master class for their jobs, the majority of the "Labour" Party supported the Bill. Some of the Radical opponents of conscription, however, were not so subservient, and Sir J. Simon, Mr. Hogge, and Mr. Pringle severely criticised both the Bill and Report upon which it was based. But the most crushing and merciless exposure of the fraud of the whole report came from Mr. T. Lough (W. Islington). For some peculiar reason practically every daily paper forgot to report this speech that will be found in the Official Report of Parliamentary Debates for 11th Jan., 1916.
It had been loudly proclaimed that the married men had joined in large numbers while the single men held back. Mr. Lough showed that not only was this not true, but that twice as many single men bad joined the army as married men, and "The whole agitation was a sham." (col. 1518). He pointed out the significant fact that while 10 per cent. of the population of France and in Germany 11.4 percent. had come forward, in Great Britain 14 per cent. had offered themselves. Then proceeding to deal with the 651,000 single "slackers," he showed that about 500,000 of these consisted of men who had been rejected as medically unfit when trying to enlist, before the Derby scheme was started. How strikingly true is this statement was shown in our leading article in the March "S.S." No wonder he could claim that his figures "knock away the whole basis on which the Bill had been brought in." (ibid). On March 16th Sir J. Simon supported this view when he described the Report as "that interesting work of imagination and fancy" and stated "that the whole calculation upon which the National Service Bill was based was a calculation got at by subtracting a figure of which, according to the Under Secretary of State for War, "no record exists, from another figure which, according to the accurately compiled."—Official Reports, cols 2294 and 2300.
During the passage of the Bill through the House of Commons Mr. Asquith gave another "pledge" in reference to widows' sons, quoting a ballad of the time of Henry V. to strengthen his statement (12.1.16). So many "pledges" had now been given on various points that one of our members suggested that the Government had sufficient to open a pawn-shop. As mentioned in the March "S.S.," there has been a persistent consistency about these pledges. They have all been broken. The records of the Tribunals have shown the complete contempt with which these bodies have regarded that pledge of the widows' sons. Doubtless the widows' sons may gather some comfort from the fact reported in the Daily Chronicle for March 14th that the Market Bosworth Tribunal "exempted all the men employed by Atherstone Hunt," this, of course, being "an industry of national importance"—for the capitalists, who take care to enjoy themselves hunting foxes as a slight relaxation from hunting quids. Market Bosworth Tribunal could, of course, cite Lord Derby himself as one who opposed all exemptions and exceptions —except for capitalists and their fox-hunting attendants.
Still the mythical millions failed to materialise, and so another lie was started, that the Tribunals were granting an "enormous number of exemptions" (Daily Mail, 19.2.16). The facts were in such glaring contradiction to this lie that the conscriptionists saw the need of starting another. Lord Derby practically admitted the fraud of the whole business when he said that neither the Group Scheme nor the Compulsion Act had brought in the men "expected." Even a conscription Act does not seem capable of producing men that, as Mr. Lough had shown, had never existed. So a fresh, lie—that these "slackers" were hiding in munition factories and reserved occupations—was hatched, and a campaign was begun among the married attested men calling for "fair play" and the fulfilment of the "pledge" that "single men should go first." Having been nicely caught in the net, some of these men are prepared to assist in this campaign, but in reality they are only helping the conscriptionists to carry out their full programme. The number of men who can be spared from munition and other works of national importance will be small, and realising this, the conscriptionists have already started their last move. Colonel Yate voiced their views when on March 14th he asked the Prime Minister if he was "aware that married men who had attested are being laughed at and ridiculed for doing so by other married men who have not attested, . . . and whether he will now consider the question of treating all married men of military age upon the same footing" (Official Report, p. 1850.). This drew forth the retort from Sir W. Byles, "Are the married men shirkers now ? "
But a far more dastardly trick has now been brought to light. When the Compulsion Bill was passing through the committee stage a prolonged discussion took place on Jan. 18 as to the position of those men who would refuse to take up military service. A large number of members, including Mr. Whitehouse, Mr. King, Mr. Morrell, Mr. Outhwaite, Mr. Harvey, Mr. Leif-Jones, Mr. Rowntree, Mr. Allan Baker, Mr. Snowden, and Mr. Byles, raised the question from various points of view. For a long time the Attorney-General, Sir F. E. Smith, acting for the War Office, refused to give any undertaking on the matter, and even pretended for a while to misunderstand the questions. At length a statement was drawn from him and embodied in the Act in the following terms :
a man who is deemed to have been enlisted and transferred to the reserve under this section shall not be liable to suffer death in respect of failure to obey an order calling him up from the reserve for permanent service. (Military Service Act, clause I, section 2, Subsection c.)
On the 14th March Mr. Snowden raised the question in the House again, and as practically all the newspapers misrepresented his question it will be preferable to quote the Official Report.
Mr. Snowden asked the Under Secretary for War if the undertaking given by the Attorney-General in the House of Commons on 18th Jan. last . . . extends to a person taken by force under the Military Service Act 1916, who refuses to submit to military orders and discipline; and if so, if he will state what is the maximum penalty of imprisonment in such a case.
Mr. Tennant: I think my right hon. friend's assurance was limited to the conscientious objector. I think it must be obvious that once a man, deemed to have been enlisted under the Military Service Act 1916 joins for duty with the colours he must be subject to the Army Act in exactly the same way as any other soldier. . . . It would obviously be improper for the death sentence to be applicable to those who have enlisted voluntarily and inapplicable to those who join the Army under compulsion. (Italics mine.)
Note the dirty evasion by the "Honourable" Tennant. The question had nothing to do with a person who "joins for duty with the colours," but with one who refused to join at all.
Mr. Snowden: Are we to understand that the pledge of the Attorney-General which was incorporated in the Act is now withdrawn, and if a person who refuses to act as a soldier because he thinks he has been unjustly treated or because he has conscientious objections he is to be shot ? Are we to understand that to be the purport of the Right Hon. gentleman's reply ?
Mr. Tennant: No, Sir, the Hon. gentleman is not to understand that. What the Attorney-General said was that no conscientious objector would be subjected to the death penalty. I think the Hon. member should put the question to my Right Hon. friend.
Mr. Snowden : I have tried to do so, but the question was not accepted at the table.
Mr. Tennant : I have been in communication with my Right Hon. friend, and the answer I have given is the joint answer agreed upon.
For cool effrontery and calculated contempt for the working class this would be hard to beat, even by the gang that hold such a gigantic record in that direction. With the Act in operation scarcely a fortnight, an important clause is torn out upon "the joint answer agreed upon" by two officials without any legal authority being given them for doing so. Violent resistance to the law was strongly deprecated by Sir John Simon. What does he think of this deliberate violation of the law by two of his colleagues, one of whom is the Attorney-General ?
But the capitalist class of this country is being rapidly pushed on to the horns of a dilemma. Practically all the men available for military service have been taken up. As the Daily Chronicle, (17.3.16) says, "The orange has been nearly sucked dry." More men for the Army can only be obtained by taking them from munition works, and the mills and factories engaged in the trade and commerce of the country so necessary for the maintenance of credit and exchange abroad. The enormous importance of the latter point will be clearly seen when it is remembered that England is the financier for the Allies. The appalling ignorance and extreme narrow-mindedness of the militarist section is quite capable of causing them to involve the business of the country in ruin for the purpose of increasing an army that ultimately could neither be armed nor fed.
The replacement of men by women and of skilled men by unskilled takes a certain amount of time, and this is just what the militarists cannot spare. Signs are not wanting that this replacement has reached its limit for the present, as is shown by the thousands of women vainly seeking employment, and by the fact that many employers, despite the bait of low-priced female labour, are finding that such labour-power can be too dearly bought in bad production and damaged machinery, and are refusing to take more into their works. Even so violent a recruit for the Army as Mr. J. H. Thomas, the "labour" M.P., warns the Government that "It was impossible to replace a single skilled man by an unskilled married man," (Times, 16.3.16) and the First Lord of the Admiralty, Mr. Balfour, admitted that they could not increase their production of aeroplanes because the manufacturers of aeroplane engines were unable to obtain more skilled men for this work. The remedy of the conscriptionists is to take the men that are at work.
Amidst the vast blunders and glaring stupidities perpetrated by the ruling class and its agents we can see the low cunning that, with them, takes the place of the intellectual capacity and grasp required for a scientific organisation of society. The swindle of the Registration Act, the setting of the married men against the single, the attested against the unattested, and so on, are the mean, despicable methods, below the level of Fagin, that they love to employ.
Yet it is to such crafty ignoramuses and slimy incompetents that the working class have handed not only the control of social affairs, but their own limbs and lives for these scum to dispose of as they please.
With power within their reach to take control of the social forces for themselves, with the means, by way of capturing political power, of abolishing wars by uprooting their cause—the capitalist system of production for private profit —with the future showing clear and splendid because of the enormous powers of production now at hand and being developed, making it possible for all to enjoy the best that human knowledge an power can produce, the Socialist sounds a clarion call to the working class:
Away with superstitions, religious or economic. Be men and women in the full sense of the word, self-reliant and confident. Come out to take your glorious heritage, for you have no thing to lose but your chains. You have a world to win.