Tag Archives: Politics

94. Pioneering Pacifist Journalism: the Peace News Story

This week, two little pamphlets which tell the story of a unique newspaper: Peace News.  The history of  Peace News is that of the peace movement in Britain.  Written, edited and read by activists, it reflected and shaped campaigns and debates.

Cover of The Peace News Story by Harry MisterThe Peace News Story was written by Harry Mister.  This particular issue dates from around 1951 or 1952, just after Allen Skinner became editor.  It begins with a potted and very positive account of the early years of the paper.

Half-title page of The Peace News Story by Harry Mister, image of paper's founder Humphrey S. MooreThe paper’s first editor, Humphrey S. Moore, a young Quaker journalist, believed that existing peace publications did not reach out to ordinary people.   A popular newspaper-style weekly could explain and promote pacifism more effectively.  On 6 June 1936, with the support of the Wood Green Study Group (who became the Peace News Group), the first issue was published.

The Peace Pledge Union quickly saw the potential of this new publication to share pacifist ideas.  The PPU was born in 1934 from the mass response to a letter by clergyman Dick Sheppard.  In this famous letter, Sheppard renounced war and called on others who felt the same to join him.  The Union had recently taken a more organised form.  Peace News became the official newspaper of the PPU.

From the first print run of 1,500 copies, the paper grew quickly as it tapped into concern about the threat of war.  Peak circulation of 35-40,000 was reached during the late 1930s.

The Second World War saw circulation drop considerably, for several reasons, including the varying responses of pacifists to the war and the refusal of printers and newsagents to handle the paper.  Peace News survived (and actually made a profit) thanks to dedicated street sellers and other volunteers.  Given these difficulties and restrictions on the use of newsprint, the paper concentrated on supporting conscientious objectors rather than reporting on general peace issues.

Front page of Peace News a short history 1962

A similar yet intriguingly different version of the pamphlet appeared in 1962.  Much of the history section in the 1952 version came from a PPU source.  The version in the 1962 pamphlet was based on another Peace News Story by Margaret Tims* and has a different, more candid tone.

Tims shows how from the explosion of the first atomic bombs in 1945, Peace News helped to create “a new movement against nuclear war based on the idea of unarmed resistance to tyranny”.

From about 1948 we see (and the newspaper reports on) pacifists studying Gandhian ideas of nonviolent resistance and considering how these might be used to campaign against the Bomb.   Hugh Brock, who became editor of Peace News  in 1955, played a key role in these groups.  Although very small, these organisations were exploring ideas and methods which came into their own from 1957, when (as we have seen) the testing of Britain’s H-Bomb led to mass protest and the founding of CND.  There was great overlap between Peace News people and the Direct Action Committee (who organised the first major Aldermaston march in 1958).

Photograph of protesters with placards at Non-Violent Resistance Group demonstration against colonial policy (Cwl HBP 1/19 image 22). Photographer and date unknown.

Non-Violent Resistance Group demonstration against colonial policy (Cwl HBP 1/19). Photographer and date unknown.

Alongside campaigning against nuclear weapons and exposing the dangers of nuclear tests, Peace News encouraged struggles for colonial freedom and campaigned against apartheid in South Africa.  Gene Sharp, the American campaigner, joined the staff in 1955 and began to cover the black civil rights movement.  Increasingly the paper, like the peace movement of which it was part, sought to address the causes of conflict by calling for changes in society.

These developments worried some absolutist pacifists such as the PPU’s Sybil Morrison.  She complained in I Renounce War (1962)  of the paper’s “all-out support and advocacy of the CND” and that Peace News “appeared to be the organ of the Movement for Colonial Freedom”.   The paper became independent of the PPU in 1961.

However, this split, like those amongst CND’s leaders, was perhaps less relevant to activists.  There were not really two sides: traditionalist PPU versus the new campaigns.  Individuals involved in the latter were active in the PPU too; indeed the first studies of Gandhi’s ideas in Britain were PPU initiatives.

This continuity at the grassroots can be seen in the “practical guide for propagandists” in the pamphlets.  The text changes little between the two editions, offering  advice to activists on getting Peace News read: ask your local librarian to take it, advertise at the railway station, write to the press, leave old copies where they will be seen … The main differences between 1951 and 1962 are technological (in 1962 you can get colourful green and yellow posters and a Peace News sticker for your car).

*A small mystery: I have never encountered a copy of this work or seen it on a library catalogue.

5 Caledonian Road soon after it was acquired for Peace News and Housman's bookshop in 1959 and remains home to both today.  Image is frontispiece to Articles of Peace, photographer not known.

5 Caledonian Road soon after it was acquired for Peace News and Housmans bookshop in 1959. It is still home to both paper and bookshop. Image from Articles of Peace.

Sources and credits. Quotations are from the pamphlets, unless otherwise noted.

Peace News created a huge published and archival presence which can be seen in Special Collections and Commonweal Library.  Two key books from 1986, the paper’s anniversary year: the short history Against All War and the more reflective discussions in Articles of PeaceIn Special Collections, most of our peace archives, but in particular  Peace News Archive, the papers of Hugh Brock, our pamphlet and ephemera collections and the artworks of Peggy Smith who sold the newspaper on the street for most of her life.   Commonweal has a complete run of Peace News.

Recent editions of Peace News are freely available online on the paper’s website and a welcome initiative to digitise historic issues is under way.

And finally, thank you to our PaxCat Project archivist, Helen Roberts, who catalogued the Peace News and Hugh Brock archives and to my colleague Martin Levy who has been cataloguing the pamphlet collection.

74. Just and Moderate Measures of Reform: Notes from Sir Isaac Holden, MP

On 9 June 1885 Sir Isaac Holden, then MP for Keighley, wrote this short note to his Dear Sarah to let her know that, “In consequence of the resignation of the Government, I shall come down tomorrow by the train leaving London at 12.20”.

Letter from Sir Isaac Holden to his wife Sarah 9 June 1885 (HOL 1_2_24) on House of Commons notepaper.

Letter from Sir Isaac Holden to his wife Sarah 9 June 1885 (HOL 1_2_24) on House of Commons notepaper.

He adds, angrily, “It was owing to the carelessness and absence of many Liberal members that the Government was defeated”.

The Holden Papers are full of similar notes – keeping in touch with his wife about train times and travel arrangements in the fast-moving world of late Victorian politics.  Their immediacy, like Barbara Castle’s cabinet diaries, helps us understand how it felt to be involved in political events – as they happened.

Isaac Holden had suffered a breakdown from exhaustion during the 1860s.   Passing the burden of business on to the extensive younger generation, as advised by his doctors, he found in politics an absorbing new interest.  In 1865 he was elected Liberal member for Knaresborough in a closely fought event, beating Tom Collins “a jovial Yorkshireman of the horsey type” by four votes (although it had only a couple of hundred electors, Knaresborough then returned two members: Holden and Collins were contending for the second place).  Holden seems to have been quiet, self-possessed and incisive at the hustings: when taunted with being a Wesleyan, he quietly replied that he was proud to be numbered among such a company of the best subjects of the realm.

Holden was a conscientious politician; he does not seem to have been personally ambitious for office and he rarely got involved in debating.   His maiden speech was in favour of the Reform Bill.  As one might expect given his Methodism, he believed in extending the franchise, abolishing church rates, taxing all classes fairly, and moving towards a better educated and more moral society.

This was the era in which Disraeli and Gladstone were coming to the fore.   Holden had huge respect for the latter (in 1884 he wrote a delightful letter to Mrs Gladstone suggesting her husband try a favourite solution of oils in the bath, to prolong his life).   Gladstone showed his appreciation of Holden’s loyalty by recommending in 1893 that he be made a Baronet.  A famous anecdote tells how in 1893 he and Gladstone, two “Grand Old Men”, by then both over 80, paced the division lobbies for two solid hours on a hot summer night to get the Home Rule Bill through, putting younger men to shame by their energy.

In the 1868 election, Holden stood down from Knaresborough in favour of his son-in-law Alfred Illingworth (several members of the family were active in local and national politics).  Holden himself was unable to return to Parliament for many years.  He tried twice to gain the Eastern Division of the West Riding (1868 and 1874) and came close to winning the Northern Division in 1872.  He was elected to the latter at last in 1882 and took the Keighley part when Northern Division was split into two.  He was elected again unopposed in 1886 and 1892.

Sir Isaac Holden, photograph by Manley

Sir Isaac Holden, photograph by Manley

Holden’s final speech in the House of Commons in May 1894 was a fitting one given his views on the responsibility of the wealthy to support education and those less fortunate.  He supported Sir William Harcourt’s financial reform: he argued that the poor were overburdened with tax; wealthy manufacturers and landlords, like himself, had deep obligations to the state and should pay more of their share.   The rare intervention of this venerable MP, the richest man in the House, drew much attention.  He retired from politics in 1895.

Sources: I’m grateful to the essential sourcebook for Holden history, The Holden-Illingworth letters, and to a very useful account of Sir Isaac’s early years in Parliament: K. Rix, ‘Holden, Isaac’, in History of Parliament, House of Commons, 1832-68 (forthcoming) – thank you!

PS The title of this piece comes from a speech made by Sir Isaac in 1866 and quoted by Dr Rix, calling for such reform to prevent England suffering as France had done.    More on the French angle another time!

58. A New and Vital Democracy: J.B. Priestley’s Out of the People

In Out of the People (Collins, 1941), J.B. Priestley set out his views on British society and post-war reconstruction.   It is one of his most eloquent and powerful books.

Front of Out of the People by J.B. Priestley (Collins, 1941)

Priestley called for a “new and vital democracy”, an end to the waste and unfairness of social inequalities, which he had pointed out in English Journey.  He argued that society was already changing for the better: the upheaval of war was shattering old systems and bringing people together to work for a common goal.  The war offered an opportunity to build on these changes rather than going back to old, failed systems as had happened after the First World War.

Priestley had already spoken about these issues in his Postscript broadcasts, but Out of the People gave him the opportunity to explain his ideas, unconstrained by time or the restrictions of wartime broadcasting.

Out of the People was intended to be the first in a series, Vigilant Books, in which eminent writers would explore the issues of post-war reconstruction.  However, paper shortages meant the series was not continued.  Copies of the book offer a physical sense of the privations and atmosphere of the period: the classic 1940s style of the dustjacket and the thin wartime paper with its characteristic grainy quality and poor take-up of ink.

The book also illustrates how Priestley was becoming active in political groups.  Early in 1941 he became chairman of the 1941 Committee, a group of writers who called for a declaration of national objectives after the war.   The Committee suggested the Vigilant Books series to Collins, who keenly took up the idea and commissioned Priestley to write the first.

J.B. Priestley reading, circa 1941, photographer unknown (archive ref PRI 21/8/2)

J.B. Priestley reading, circa 1941, photographer unknown (archive ref PRI 21/8/2)

Later the Committee merged with Forward March, led by Richard Acland, to form Common Wealth.  Common Wealth stood for “common ownership, vital democracy, equal opportunity, colonial freedom and world unity” and was willing to field candidates in by-elections, breaking the Labour-Conservative wartime truce: three were eventually elected.  Priestley briefly chaired Common Wealth, but withdrew because of political disagreements with Acland.

Common Wealth performed poorly in the 1945 election: most members defected to Labour although the group remained active until 1993.  Priestley himself stood in that momentous election, as an Independent candidate in Cambridge, where he came third to a Conservative candidate.

While Priestley’s political activities with Common Wealth and as a parliamentary candidate were unsuccessful, Out of the People and his other writings and broadcasts helped create an atmosphere favourable to the 1945 Labour victory and the creation of the welfare state (although this was much more state-led and top-down than Priestley’s vision).

P.S. Common Wealth’s Archive is held by University of Sussex Special Collections.  I am indebted to their site and to Vincent Brome’s biography of Priestley for much of the above.

40. Citizens of a New Age: Dimitrije Mitrinovic and his followers


This week’s Object is a photograph of an intriguing individual: Dimitrije Mitrinović, a utopian philosopher who made his home in England and gathered a group of followers  who wished to learn how to become citizens of a new society.  Mitrinović held that there was a need for a new stage in human development, transcending individualism to form a collective consciousness.  To support such change, he believed it was essential to draw on the wisdom of the past by researching the history of religion, philosophy, sociology, psychology, and the arts.

These researches and the many connections he and his followers had with others active in politics and culture can be explored via their library and archive.  We already encountered the library in Object 17.  It is rich in rare books and pamphlets on politics, philosophy, religions, the occult, and social thought, gathered to help the groups draw on past wisdom.  We are exploring ways to fund the proper cataloguing of the archive, which will offer a fantastic resource for research on the interwar period.

Mitrinović was born in 1887 in Herzegovina.  As a young man he was active in the Young Bosnia movement opposing the Austro-Hungarian empire  and, while at Munich University, was linked with Kandinsky and the Blaue Reiter group.  He moved to London in 1914 to avoid conscription (he was also at risk because of his politics).  There he formed links with other exiled Yugoslavs and gave classes in philosophy and other subjects.  In 1920 he began a famous series of articles about his ideas in the New Age (edited by A.R. Orage): World Affairs by “M.M. Cosmoi”.

Mitrinovic with members of the New Europe Group, 1930s

Mitrinović’s charisma, new ideas and deeply “idiosyncratic and eccentric” prose attracted followers including H.C. Rutherford, Violet MacDermot, Valerie Cooper, Ellen Mayne, Philip Mairet, David Shillan, Nobel prize-winner Frederick Soddy, and (a link to later counter-cultures) Alan Watts.  He and his followers formed or were active in various groups notably the Chandos Group, New Europe Group and the New Britain Movement.

After his death in 1953, Mitrinović’s followers formed the New Atlantis Foundation (recently renamed the Mitrinović Foundation) to continue and promote his ideas.  The Foundation is still active and continues to support our work at Bradford.

(Credits: Quotations are from Andrew Rigby’s biography “Dimitrije Mitrinović” (Sessions, 2006), to which, along with his Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry, I am indebted for help with understanding Mitrinović’s often obscure writings).

9. Fighting All the Way: Barbara Castle’s Cabinet Diaries

Barbara Castle was a Labour politician who served as a Cabinet minister in two governments, 1964-1970 and 1974-1976.  After each Cabinet meeting, she typed up what had been said, from memory and her shorthand notes, creating this week’s object, her Cabinet diaries.  These were later published.

The Cabinet Diaries

The Cabinet Diaries – typescript and more

Barbara Castle never shrank from controversy: she was at the heart of the introduction of seatbelts and the breathalyser to improve road safety, the Equal Pay Act, and, as Secretary of State for Employment, the 1969 white paper “In Place of Strife” which sought to curb the power of the trades unions.  Her diaries show government actually happening, and her candid thoughts about everyone involved.  In his review of her 1974-1976 volume in the London Review of Books, Edmund Dell said, “Barbara Castle’s diary of the period 1974-76 shows more about the nature of cabinet government – even though it deals with only one Cabinet – than any previous publication, academic, political or biographical”.

The Cabinet Diaries in published form plus Castle's autobiography

The Cabinet Diaries in published form plus Castle’s autobiography

The unpublished diaries are exciting to use even though they also exist in published form.  The publications omitted some material (mainly technical), and also lose the vitality of Castle’s input.  The diaries are a melange of typescript, shorthand, handwriting, doodles and caricatures, and give a sense of how she composed them.

Castle’s papers were left to the Bodleian Library (she studied at Oxford University), but she bequeathed her diaries to Bradford University because the city meant so much to her.  Although not born here, she spent her formative years in this hotbed of radical politics.  The University awarded her an honorary degree in 1966.

Barbara Castle at Bradford University in 1966 at the installation of the Chancellor

Barbara Castle at Bradford University in 1966 at the installation of the Chancellor