Last week I was in Derby to talk about CAAT’s Arming all Sides project with the Derby People’s History Group (DPHG). I’m a big fan of local history societies with a radical edge and DPH has done some impressive work, especially towards the rehabilitation of Alice Wheeldon. Born in Derby, Alice, a feminist and socialist, was sent to jail in 1917 on the weak evidence given by an undercover MI5 agent (who had been planted in her house) for plotting to kill Lloyd George.
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“Social reforms which involve expenditure are at a standstill; we are making drastic cuts in the supplies for education and for housing; our hospitals are seriously embarrassed; our industries are crippled; our unemployed number more than 1,500,000, and yet in the last financial year we spent more than 23 million upon armaments. No wonder the taxpayer grumbles and the financiers shakes their heads.”
– Major General Sir Frederick (Barton) Maurice in 1921 (1)
Today, Monday 14 April, we are taking action with people across the world to challenge military spending and to say it’s time to shift priorities and fund human needs, not war. Meanwhile, researchers for Selling to Both Sides: the arms trade and the First World War have been exploring debates about military spending before and after the First World War, and the parallels with today.
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‘Rabbit brained louts’ is what the Daily Express called ‘Young Oxford’; the Oxford Union debating society students who in February 1933 voted by a large majority of 122 that ‘this house will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country’.
© Imperial War Museum, recruitment poster 1914, by artist Lawson Wood.
Sparked by a bogus letter to the Daily Express, the right-wing papers were spitting fire and fury within days. They declared the vote ‘an outrage on the memory of those who gave their lives in the Great War’. Retired colonels, ex-Oxford men and Conservative MPs all condemned the students in no uncertain terms as ‘aliens and perverts’, ‘woozy-minded communists’ and ‘sexual indeterminates’.
So was this mass pacifism? The students were rejecting what they knew of Lord Kitchener’s famous recruiting slogan in 1915 – ‘your country needs you!’ By the 1920s, the public was questioning what the war had actually achieved. At the time of the debate, the early 1930s, the public backlash against the arms trade – popularly considered to be a cause of the war – had been growing for a decade.
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