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Last updated:07 May 2015

Union of Democratic Control

"For freedom as we know is a thing that we have to conquer for ourselves everyday, like love; and we are always losing freedom, just as we are always losing love, because after each victory we think we can settle down and enjoy it without further risk or struggle. If we would keep love or freedom we can never settle down. For consider how many and various are the hosts of freedom's enemies .... I mean the great class of people who are engaged in stifling freedom as a means of livelihood, and take their reward in cash down and the joys of home." 1

Henry Nevinson


Cover of the Union for Democratic Control annual report for 1934The Union of Democratic Control (UDC) was formed by leading Socialists, Pacifists and Liberals in response to the outbreak of the First World War. Its overall aim was to create new international structures and to empower citizens to take greater control of foreign policy. For the following sixty years it acted as watch-dog of global power-abuse, campaigning against militarism and colonial repression. It fought these destructive and oppressive forces, constantly exposing the secret diplomacy which undermined public scrutiny of foreign policy formulation, handing power instead to business interests, armaments manufacturers and governments without mandates. The organisations title refers directly to this.

In September 1914 ED Morel was joined by Charles Trevelyan, Ramsey MacDonald, Arthur Ponsonby (at this point a Liberal MP) and Norman Angell (then President of the Civil Union). They aimed to establish an organisation which would take an independent line over the war. In that year they drew up their "four cardinal points of policy" to which was added a fifth during 1916:

  1. No province shall be transferred from one government to another without the consent by plebiscite or otherwise of the population of such province .
  2. No Treaty Arrangement or Undertaking shall be entered upon in the name of Great Britain without the sanction of Parliament. Adequate machinery for ensuring democratic control of foreign policy shall be created.
  3. The Foreign Policy of Great Britain shall not be aimed at Alliances for the purpose of maintaining the Balance of Power, but shall be directed to Concerted action between the Powers, and the setting up of an international agreement as shall be the guarantee of an abiding peace.
  4. Great Britain shall propose as part of the Peace Settlement a plan for drastic reduction, by consent, of the armaments of all the belligerent Powers, and to facilitate that policy shall attempt to secure the general nationalisation of the manufacture of armaments, and the control of the export of armaments by one country to another.
  5. The European conflict shall not be continued by economic war after the military operations have ceased. British policy shall be directed towards promoting free commercial intercourse between all nations and the preservation and extension of the principle of the open-door.2

From the beginning the UDC was strongly supported by the Independent Labour Party (ILP)Cover of a Union for Democratic Control publicity leaflet leadership; Ramsay MacDonald, Philip Snowden, Henry Noel Brailsford and Arthur Henderson. The Labour Leader, the Party's newspaper, gave Morel regular column space. The UDC attempted to widen this support to the Labour Party and labour movement as a whole in order to create a substantive Labour foreign policy. This was met with public enthusiasm; the UDC's popularity was almost immediate. The first Annual General Meeting reported sixty nine branches in England, five in Scotland, four in Wales and three in Ireland.3 The passing of the Memoranda of War Aims by the Labour Party and the Trade Union Congress at their 1917 Conferences drew them closely into line with UDC policy, and the Party's growing commitment to a non-vindictive peace settlement and the suppression of covert diplomacy further reflected the UDC's influence. By the end of the war labour organisations with nearly 650,000 members had affiliated.4 Leading pacifists and anti-imperialists such as Leonard Woolf, Helena Swanwick and Bertrand Russell were producing numerous penny pamphlets and books. They also held seats on the General and Executive Council.

By November 1916, the UDC was producing its own monthly journal and was confident enough of public awareness to use only its initials as the title: The UDC. According to Helena Swanwick's account of the early years, virulent attacks in the Press against Morel and the movement - the man they had once hailed as King Leopold's defeater - were so numerous as to advertise the organisation world-wide. Morel remained as editor when the name changed in July 1919 to Foreign Affairs: A Journal of International Understanding. On his death in 1924, Helena Swanwick succeeded him. During the war, the UDC developed a large and influential network of European UDC's and other affiliated bodies, links it continued to have in some form throughout its history.

The Allied post-war settlement was attacked by the UDC for not providing a mechanism for peace. Rather, they argued, it was an attempt by the victorious powers to destroy an economic and military rival that would leave Europe war-torn and in danger of resurgent militarism. As part of their campaign, Morel and Ponsonby visited Germany in 1920 and registered their opposition to the treaty in the German Press.5 Clause three of the UDC's aims is noteworthy as it demonstrates how soon the organisation realised the need for new international peace-keeping structures to replace the treaties and alliances which, far from preserving the peace, had been the immediate cause of the war.

President Woodrow Wilson of the United States, one of the leading international advocates of the League of Nations, was in close contact with the UDC, many of his policies being similar to theirs. Once the League was established they threw their energies into it and the campaign for world disarmament. This was in line with point 4 of their aims and objectives. However, the League was never ratified by the United States Senate, compounding its inherent weakness. Wilson remained close to UDC policy by speaking out against the re-emergence of separate treaties and deals among League members but was unable to overcome the situation. France continued to move against Germany and nascent fascism began to pose new threats to world order. Morel's death in 1924, left the UDC seriously weakened, from which it never fully recovered.

As the world began to slide towards war again, when Japan invaded Manchuria and fascist Italy invaded Abyssinia (Ethiopia), the UDC campaigned to expose the international arms racket making such militarism possible. It produced a series of highly publicised leaflets on the subject. It worked to inform the public of the rise of fascism and aggression, reporting on Manchuria, Abyssinia, Italy, Spain and Nazi Germany. During the 1939-1945 war it used its European contacts to gather information on resistance movements which would otherwise have been unobtainable.

With the end of the Second World War and the intensification of the Cold War, the UDC brought to the fore new activists to face the new challenges; people such as Ben Parkin, MP, Bob Edwards, MP and Frank Allaun, Salford's MP. German re-armament and the proliferation of nuclear weapons were the two major post-war campaigns.

Cover of Britain's Colour Bar in Africa The post-war UDC moved to meet the demands of the nationalist movements emerging in the colonies recognising that an unchangeable and anachronistic system must be ended. Moreover, it acknowledged the threat to peace that arose from attempts to keep the system functioning in many regions including Malaysia, Indo-China and Africa. The new movements and their policies were given platforms and campaigning was linked to other organisations such as the Movement for Colonial Freedom.

With no study of the post-Morel UDC being available, it is difficult to discuss the impact that their campaigns had on the wider labour movement, or whether they reflected general ideas and trends. It may be argued that apart from a diminished role within the Labour Party, the UDC also became a victim of its own success. It was no longer remarkable as an educator of the British public on international affairs because the population in general was better informed and more perceptive of world issues.


1 Henry Nevison. quoted in Basil Davidson, In Greece Today (ca 1950) - Shelfmark: AG Union of Democratic Control Box 2

2 The UDC's aims were regularly published in their pamphlets.

3 Helena Swanwick, Builders of the Peace: being ten years' history of the Union of Democratic Control, (1924) page 50 - Shelfmark: A49

4 Ibid. page 52.

5 Joyce Bellamy and John Saville, Dictionary of Labour Biography, Vol 7 (1975) page 194 - Shelfmark: R03

Resources by and about the UDC in the Library collection

Resources you can read here include:

BN Langdon-Davies, The ABC of the U.D.C. (1915) - Shelfmark: A33

The Work of the UDC: Secretary's Report October 1919 - Shelfmark: AG Union of Democratic Control Box 1

Why France Fell: the Lessons for Us [WWII] - Shelfmark: AG Union of Democratic Control Box 2

Frank Allaun, The Cost of Suez 1956 - Shelfmark: AG Union of Democratic Control Box 1

Sally Harris, Out of Control - British Foreign Policy and the UDC 1914-1918 (1996) - Shelfmark: I25

Marvin Swartz, The UDC in British Politics during the First World War (1971) - Shelfmark: A54