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Friday, 29 January 2016

“Conscientious Objection 100 years on” - Richard Durning Holt’s Diary

This week I attended a Reception at the Houses of Parliament arranged by Quakers in Britain to mark the 100th Anniversary of the Military Service Act. Rev Feargus O’Connor of the Unitarian Peace Fellowship was able to join me. We were reminded of the significance of the introduction of conscription and of the conscience clause in the Act providing for conscientious objection to military service which was a fundamental shift towards individual freedoms. Conscientious objection is now recognised as a universal human right but not yet implemented across the world. 

Richard Durning Holt (1868-1941) was prominent among those Liberals who tried without success to oppose the legislation. He was a member of a famous Liverpool Unitarian family and was Liberal MP for Hexham between 1907 and 1918 and prominent in Liverpool affairs and later nationally for the first three decades of the twentieth century. Another Unitarian opponent was H G Chancellor, MP for Haggerston.  Unitarians and World War 1 is a previous blog entry of mine.

Holt’s diary records his opposition and his disappointment at the outcome. It is held at Liverpool City library and an edition was published in 1988 by “The Record Society of Lancashire and Cheshire” (Vol CXX1X) by David J. Dutton. With the title “Odyssey of an Edwardian Liberal: the political diary of Richard Durning Holt” it offers some interesting insights on the passage of conscription Bill in early 1916.

Dulton points out that Holt felt that” the War was demanding unacceptable measures of encroachment by the state” (page 41). He was committed to the late 19th Century Liberal, and indeed nonconformist approach, to support for peace and voluntaryism along with restricting the role of the State.

2 January “The years opens with a gale and every prospect of political disturbance for the Prime Minister has let it be known that he has adopted the policy of conscription towards which the Tories have been pressing him for the past twelve months.”

9 January “On Wednesday and Thursday we debated the Conscription Bill, Sir J. Simon, who resigned the Home Secretaryship on the question, leading the opposition. They was a good deal of excitement and I thought the opponents made out a case (I was one of them) but sentimentality and fear of defeating the Government carried the day and we were defeated by 403 to 105. I told for the minority and also spoke I had hoped for a better show but several of our friends failed us at the last moment including dear J.W. Wilson, Chas. Hobhouse who was very strong against conscription most unaccountably went back on us, made an inconclusive speech and abstained.”

16 January “Came home on Thursday. We debated the Conscription bill on Tuesday and Wednesday when the Irish deserted us and some others and the division was 431 to 39. I did not speak but voted of course.

4 February “The little group who had opposed conscription formed themselves into a permanent organisation – Sir J. Simon, chairman, Whitehouse, secretary, J.H. Thomas, the railway men’s representative, Leif Jones and R.D.H. committee.”

He records that on 25 February 1918 he had attended what Dutton calls an “important” meeting at Essex Hall to support Lord Lansdowne’s proposals for peace by negotiation (17 March 1918).

He paid the price. The public did not share his views and neither did his local party and he was “forced” to seek another seat at the forthcoming General Election. 

Throughout his life Holt was active in Unitarian affairs. In 1903 he spoke at the National Triennial Conference held in Liverpool proposing a resolution condemning the Education Act. In 1918 he records that he was elected President of the British and Foreign Unitarian Association “an office I always coveted for the childish reason that I was the first whose great-grandfather (Richard Potter, MP for Wigan) had held it” (11 June 1918).  

Out of Parliament, having been defeated in 1918, he chaired a public meeting of the Liverpool District Missionary Society with Dr Estlin Carpenter and Sir Alfred Booth speaking in support of the League of Nations idea at the Royal Institution (19 January 1919). He chaired a meeting at the Unitarian Memorial Hall in Manchester which passed a resolution demanding that the Versailles Treaty be referred to the League of Nations (6 February 1923). 

An early diary entry sets out his Unitarian beliefs. Reflecting on the year end (31 December 1900) he notes:

“I trust and believe that the future will show an increase in and a strengthening of our own views of simple Christianity which I believe to be the true basis on which to establish the community.  I know I have expressed my meaning badly: I don’t want any established church – Unitarian or otherwise. What I mean is that in the main it is the belief that what God wants of man is that he do right, i.e. love his neighbour, and not that he profess particular theological opinions or requires a consecrated place or an ordained priest, which will bring with it a great improvement in our social and political conditions”.

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