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Parliament and World War One

Parliment

Here at Finders, the last few years have proven interesting from a historical point of view as we’ve marked several centenaries – from the start of the First World War, to the anniversary of the Easter Rising, the Battle of the Somme and more.

What part did Parliament play in the First World War? A recent publication, Duty and Democracy: Parliament and the First World War, looked at this issue, examining the role of Parliament, its members and staff during that time. It examines the key legislation that was passed at the time, as well as the wider social changes that took place during that period.

During the First World War, 264 MPs fought in the war – 22 of whom were killed. In the House of Lords, 323 members served and 24 were killed. The Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, lost his son Raymond who died at the Battle of the Somme.

The war had a long-lasting effect, its impact felt by generations years afterwards. But it also led to important legislative change – not least an increase in the franchise and votes for women.

The Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918 enabled women to stand as candidates for seats. In the first general election held after the First World War, which took place in December 1918, only one woman, Countess Markievicz, was elected, for Dublin South. Ironically, in line with Sinn Fein absentionist policy, she didn’t take her seat in the House of Commons.

The war moved other enfranchisement up the political agenda. The Representation of the People Act 1918 implemented the most sweeping electoral reforms since 1832. It enfranchised qualifying women aged 30 and over, and a new idea of political citizenship came about – votes shouldn’t apply only to those with property rights or a term of residency, but also to those who served their nation.

Men in the armed forces could vote from the age of 19. Conscientious objectors, however, were banned from voting for five years.

Conscription to the armed forces initially applied to single men aged from 18 to 41, but as the war continued it was extended to married men. In April 1916, a demonstration against conscription took place in Trafalgar Square, attended by some 200,000 people. The No- Conscription Fellowship lobbied for provisions for conscientious objectors and a provision was included in the first Military Service Act 1916.

The war also introduced changes to industry. The newly-created Ministry of Munitions had the power to declare factories as controlled establishment and the restrict the freedom of workers. It could also regulate wages and conditions. Strikes were made illegal, although in practice they took place throughout the war.

Duty and Democracy: Parliament and the First World War adds to our stock of fascinating historical documents about this period of history. It will be of interest to historians everywhere.

The full report is available here.