Records of the Union of Democratic Control



Admin History:

The UDC was established during the first days of the First World War to work for parliamentary control of foreign policy and a moderate peace settlement. There was a belief in some quarters that Britain had been dragged into the war because of secret military agreements with France and Russia. The early leaders of the group initially called the Committee of Democratic Control, were Charles Trevelyan (the only member of the Liberal government to resign over the declaration of war), James Ramsay Macdonald, Arthur Ponsonby, Norman Angell and ED Morel. Morel became the secretary and initial driving force behind what was soon re-named the Union of Democratic Control. The group was formally launched with an open letter to the press in early September 1914. The UDC's stated objectives were: parliamentary control over foreign policy and the prevention of secret diplomacy, a movement for international understanding after the war, and a just peace. A Committee of 18 members was established, including Arthur Henderson, JA Hobson and Bertrand Russell. Operations were initially based at Charles Trevelyan's London home, but offices were quickly acquired off the Strand, and later, on Fleet Street. Running costs were met from subscriptions, plus large donations received from several major Quaker business concerns. In late 1917 the UDC reached its maximum membership of some 10,000 individuals in over 100 branches. By 1918, 300 other groups (mainly co-operatives, trade unions and women's organisations) with 650,000 members were also affiliated to the UDC.

The UDC undertook a massive publicity effort in support of its aims. During the War, 28 pamphlets, 47 leaflets and 18 books were issued, plus a journal, The UDC (later re-titled Foreign Affairs). The pamphlets, in particular, were very successful, and the first 15 sold over 500,000 copies by 1915. The UDC also played a part in the terminal decline of the Liberal Party, especially after the formation of the Lloyd George coalition government in December 1916. Joining the UDC became a sort of half-way house between leaving the Liberals and joining the rising Labour Party. Morel himself started the War as a prospective Liberal Parliamentary candidate, but in 1918 joined the Independent Labour Party. Members of the UDC (especially Morel, with his Germanic name) were often harshly criticised for their views (and Morel was even imprisoned). But this was softened by two factors: the publication by the Bolsheviks after the Russian revolution of the secret treaties between Britain, France and Russia before 1914; and the first of President Woodrow Wilson's 'Fourteen Points', referring to 'open covenants openly arrived at'. However, the UDC's campaign to modify the Treaty of Versailles peace settlement was largely ineffective.

Nevertheless, the UDC, established as a wartime phenomenon, continued to thrive after the War. By July 1921 organisations affiliated to the UDC contained over one million members. Thirty members of the UDC were elected as Labour MPs in 1922, and in November 1922 Morel himself defeated Winston Churchill (then a National liberal) at Dundee for Labour. The first ever Labour government in 1924 included five members of the UDC Executive and eight members of its General Council - although not Morel, owing to personal animosity between him and the Prime Minister, Ramsay Macdonald. Again, in practice the UDC still had very little influence on government policy, except in gaining British recognition of the Soviet Union.

ED Morel died suddenly in 1924 at the age of 51. The UDC was never really the same again, even though membership subsequently included the likes of Fenner Brockway and Harold Wilson. From the 1920s the UDC concentrated its efforts on highlighting and offering solutions to problems in international affairs, eventually becoming a leading anti-colonial organisation. In the 1920s, it pressed for the keeping of peace by open diplomacy and a reformed League of Nations (to include Germany and Russia); in the 1930s, it challenged the growth of armaments and imperialism in China and East Africa; and in the 1940s it supported the struggles for independence in Asia and Africa. With the virtual disintegration of the British Empire by the mid-1960s, the UDC was eventually wound up in December 1966.

The surviving records, many of which were found at the bottom of a lift shaft in the organisation's former London headquarters, reflect the changing interests of the organisation. There are minutes (of the General Council, Executive Committee and sub-committees), accounts (particularly relating to the sale of publications), subject and correspondence files, press cuttings, photocopies, and numerous copies of UDC publications (books, pamphlets, leaflets and its journal), including some original drafts and typescripts by, amongst others, Kenneth Kaunda.