The Politics of the Peace Ballot

Article by Simon Mackley. Edited by Sarah Fagg. Additional Research by Liz Goodwin.

In 1934, Lord Robert Cecil, the president of the League of Nations Union (LNU), embarked upon an effort to survey the views of the British public regarding the issues of League of Nations membership and disarmament, aiming to demonstrate popular support for both policies. Across the country, volunteers balloted communities, and before long the results of the survey, nicknamed the ‘Peace Ballot’, started to flood back in. By 28th June 1935, when the final result was announced, the incredible response to the survey was clear for all to see: over eleven and a half million votes had been cast. It was, in the words of the political scientist Martin Ceadel, ‘Britain’s first referendum’. Furthermore, on every single question, the respondents had overwhelmingly backed the LNU’s policy positions, adding immense weight to demands for the League of Nations to be placed at the centre of British foreign policy. The Peace Ballot was not, however, conducted in a political vacuum: instead it was to become a major weapon in the political battle between Stanley Baldwin’s National Government and the opposition Labour and Liberal Parties, with fascinating results.
The Results of the Peace Ballot
1. Should Great Britain remain a Member of the League of Nations?
Yes: 95.9% No: 3.1% Doubtful: 0.1% No Answer: 0.9%
2. Are you in favour of the all-round reduction of armaments by international agreement?
Yes: 90.6% No: 7.5% Doubtful: 0.1% No Answer: 0.8%
3. Are you in favour of the all-round abolition of national military and naval aircraft by international agreement?
Yes: 82.5% No: 14.6% Doubtful: 0.1% No Answer: 2.8%
4. Should the manufacture and sale of armaments for private profit be prohibited by international agreement?
Yes: 90.1% No: 6.7% Doubtful: 0.1% No Answer: 3.1%
5.(a) Do you consider that, if a nation insists on attacking another, the other nations should combine to compel it to stop by economic and non-military measures?
Yes: 86.8% No: 5.5% Doubtful: 0.2% No Answer: 7.4%
5.(b) …by, if necessary, military measures?
Yes: 58.7% No: 20.3% Doubtful: 0.4% No Answer: 20.4%
Figures taken from Martin Ceadel, ‘The First British Referendum: The Peace Ballot, 1934-1935’, The English Historical Review, 95:377 (Oct. 1980), pp. 810-839
In theory, both the League of Nations Union and the Peace Ballot itself were non-partisan. The LNU claimed to represent a broad body of opinion that crossed over political and social boundaries and, in appearances at least, this claim had some justification. As a former Conservative foreign secretary, Cecil headed a campaign that boasted support not only from leading Labour and Liberal politicians, but also figures as diverse as the Archbishop of Canterbury and the General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress. The LNU’s goal was to promote the League of Nations, the international body set up after World War One tasked with settling the disputes of nations peacefully, and the principles of international justice, collective security and lasting peace. Its focus was on influencing government policy, not bringing about a change of government, and while it did encounter difficulties in building links with the Conservative Party, it nonetheless put considerable effort into maintaining its cross-party and impartial image.

The drive to appear neutral is evident in how the questions of the Peace Ballot were phrased. Of course, the questions were not impartial in the way that modern professional opinion polls are: the stated aim of the ballot was not to conduct a disinterested analysis of public opinion, but explicitly to demonstrate support for the positions of the LNU. Nonetheless, care was taken to present the issues as hypothetical questions of principle, detached from any immediate party-political context. Voters were asked if they favoured the principle of disarmament by international agreement, not whether they favoured the National Government’s specific plans, or if sanctions and military actions should be taken against a hypothetical state, not against Japan or Italy, who had defied the League. Yet for all these attempts to appear non-partisan, the campaign was soon politicised.
From the start, the Peace Ballot was attacked by many in Conservative circles. On 26th October 1934, when the campaign was just getting underway, Lord Beaverbrook’s Daily Express newspaper launched a blistering front-page attack upon the ballot, denouncing it as a ‘pledge for war’ and urging its readers not to sign it. Similarly, the campaign was condemned by many senior figures within the National Government, with the Foreign Secretary Sir John Simon criticising it in parliament for putting complex questions of foreign policy to an ‘uninstructed’ public and accusing its organisers of misrepresenting the international situation.

In part these criticisms reflected the Right’s genuine grievances about the way the campaign was being conducted, with the ballot clearly aimed at achieving a specific outcome. More than this however, the attacks can be seen as the result of a wider scepticism among those on the Right about the issues surveyed. Echoing the views of a substantial number on the government backbenches, Beaverbrook had adopted the viewpoint that isolationism was a better strategy for Britain, even going as far as to call for British withdrawal from the 1925 Locarno Agreements, which had committed Britain to guaranteeing the peace in mainland Europe. In light of such views, it’s unsurprising that they regarded the Peace Ballot with such hostility. The National Government itself did not adopt an isolationist stance, but nonetheless that ballot was again seen as an attack on its position. During the Manchuria crisis Simon had been accused by his critics of bypassing the League of Nations and as such any public campaign emphasising the need for a League-centred foreign policy would implicitly be a criticism of the National Government’s existing policy, regardless of how it was worded: the government and its supporters therefore fundamentally saw the Peace Ballot as an attack upon their position, rendering its politicisation inevitable.
Yet it was not just Conservative reaction that led to the Peace Ballot becoming so politically charged: the situation of the British Left in the mid-thirties also played a key factor. The political crisis of August 1931, in which Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald had sacked most of his cabinet and invited the Conservative and Liberal parties to take their place, had severely weakened the left, a situation only made more extreme by the lopsided General Election held the following October, which gave the newly-formed National Government an unprecedented 554 out of 615 seats. These wounds did not heal easily, with the result that by the beginning of 1935 both Labour and the independent Liberals, now in opposition to the National Government, were still desperately searching for a popular issue to rally around; the LNU’s campaign appeared offer them just the opportunity they needed.
Both the Labour and Liberal parties had roots in the pacifist tradition and by rallying in support of the Peace Ballot both parties were able to avoid addressing contentious debates over domestic policy that threatened to derail any hopes of a political comeback. In the House of Commons the Peace Ballot was used as a means to attack the government by senior Labour and Liberal figures, such as Clement Attlee and Sir Archibald Sinclair. Indeed, it was attacks such as these that prompted Simon to make his speech criticising the ballot in the first place. The association of the Peace Ballot with the National Government’s opponents was further cemented outside of parliament, with the Trades Unions Congress and the left-leaning Manchester Guardian both throwing their weight behind the campaign. It is clear therefore that, no matter how much it was intended to be neutral, responses from both Left and Right conspired to politicise the campaign.
Given how the ballot became subsumed into the wider battle between the parties, one would expect that the triumph of the Peace Ballot’s final results would have seriously undermined the National Government’s position: instead, however, the opposite occurred. In a surprise move, Baldwin accepted the results of the ballot which just months ago his government had been condemning. Furthermore, he issued a public declaration claiming that the results actually demonstrated that the overwhelming majority of public opinion was actually behind the government’s foreign policy. Baldwin was able to claim, by focusing on both parts of question five, that these steps were exactly those being taken in response to the Abyssinian crisis. The increased emphasis on the League of Nations was more a matter of presentation as opposed to any real shift in foreign policy, but this was enough for Baldwin: a general election was called for November and, on a platform promising peace and security, the National Government was re-elected with over fifty per-cent of the popular vote.
The politics of the Peace Ballot remain fascinating precisely because the political landscape was left largely unaffected. There can be no doubt that the Left succeeded in using the LNU’s campaign as an effective tool for attacking the National Government: the Conservatives and their allies were forced to go on the defensive, while many of the counter-campaigns of figures such as Beaverbrook undoubtedly did more damage to their own causes than that of the Peace Ballot. Yet for all the political capital they got from the campaign, Labour and Liberal attacks focussed upon the failures of government policy, with the result that when neither party was able to present the final results as a mandate for any given policy of their own, Baldwin was able to seize the initiative and offer his own interpretation of the results. The Left’s failure to exploit the politics of the Peace Ballot thus transformed a political headache for the National Government into an election-winner.

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