A politician of conscience: Thomas Edmund Harvey (1875-1955) and conscientious objection

Ahead of Tuesday’s Virtual IHR Parliaments, Politics and People seminar, we hear from Mark Frankel, a PhD candidate at the University of Birmingham. He will be responding to your questions about his research on Thomas Edmund Harvey on Zoom between 5:15 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on 23 June 2020. Details on how to join the discussion are available here or by contacting mspychal@histparl.ac.uk

This blog is based on Mark’s full-length seminar paper, ‘T. Edmund Harvey, politician of conscience’, which is available here. Alternatively you can listen to Mark reading his paper, either by downloading the MP3 (right click ‘save link as’) or streaming the audio from the player below:

Mark Frankel, ‘T. Edmund Harvey, politician of conscience‘ – recording of full seminar paper (40 minutes 20 seconds). Download the MP3 here (right click ‘save link as’)

T. Edmund Harvey (1875–1955) is a distinctive figure in the political history of Britain in the first half of the twentieth century. He was a Quaker (a member of the Religious Society of Friends), pacifist and social reformer. He was one of only 17 MPs to have sat in Parliament during both world wars. He represented Leeds West, 1910–18, and Dewsbury, 1923–24, as a Liberal, and the Combined English Universities seat, 1937–45, as an Independent.

In 1912 Harvey and his wife Irene were painted by Mark Gertler, she in Quaker dress. (C) Leeds Art Gallery

A neglected figure in Britain’s political history, nothing is published on Harvey apart from a brief but vivid chapter in Duty And Democracy: Parliament And The First World War. My research argues that Harvey was the quintessential politician of conscience, whose Quaker faith was central to his actions as a politician. 

Eleanor Rathbone,
MP for Combined English Universities, 1929-1946.
CC NPG

The moniker of a ‘politician of conscience’ has been applied by Susan Pederson to Eleanor Rathbone (1872–1946). Rathbone makes a good comparison with Harvey because from 1937 to 1945 the two shared the double-member parliamentary constituency of the Combined English Universities.  

Pedersen argues that Rathbone, as a political independent and a woman, might have been expected to be marginal to the Commons but that she made these two elements work in her favour. She used her personal power and non-party status to speak on the basis of conscience alone. Harvey’s politics of conscience, however, went beyond just acting free of party constraints.  

There are two types of politics of conscience. Firstly, there is the overt act of conscience such as the refusal of an official or legal requirement. Secondly, there is the sustained commitment to a cause arising from a deeply held conviction, typically but not necessarily one based on faith or religion.

Harvey carried out the first type on Britain’s entry into war in August 1914 when he resigned as a parliamentary private secretary rather than be part of the governmental war machine. Instead he threw himself into relief work on the continent. The picture below shows him in the uniform of the Friends’ Ambulance Unit, together with his wife, Irene, in France in 1915.

Harvey in the uniform of the Friends’ Ambulance Unit with his wife Irene. Likely taken at Sermaize, France in 1915 © Mark Frankel

In protecting and promoting the rights of the conscientious objector, Harvey was a politician of conscience of the second kind. In January 1916 he successfully amended the military service bill to grant conscientious objectors an exemption from military service, non-combatant as well as combatant, on the condition that the applicant was engaged in work of national importance. This was a novel measure in unprecedented times so it is not surprising that problems arose.

Harvey’s amendments to the 1916 military service bill secured exemption from military service on the grounds of work of national importance CC IWM

One of these was the lack of advice about what constituted work of national importance. The government set up the Pelham committee to tackle the problem, to which Harvey was appointed.

On 14 April 1916 the Pelham committee issued a circular to tribunals, listing occupations recommended as of national importance and advising tribunals to allow conscientious objectors a choice as to the alternative service they provided. During the remainder of the war, Harvey helped place 4,000 exempted men into work of national importance.

As an MP for the Combined English Universities from March 1937, Harvey was one of the many MPs who welcomed back Neville Chamberlain after the Munich Agreement, writing to his wife how the Prime Minister ‘carried the House away – many congratulated him, me included.’ However, when by May 1939 it was evident that war was not far off, the government began to reintroduce conscription with a preliminary military training bill.

Harvey was one of seven MPs to oppose the 1939 National Service Act CC Parliamentary Archives

As an independent and without the ties to a local constituency which had vexed him in the first war, Harvey was free to criticise the principle of the bill. He argued that totalitarian preparation for war was out of step with British freedoms, while at the same time paying tribute to the government for their efforts to ensure justice for conscientious objectors.

Once war broke out in September 1939, an emergency national service bill was rushed through Parliament, opposed in the Commons only by Harvey and six others. In January 1941 the government introduced conscription for civil defence but with no exemption for conscience only for hardship. Harvey rightly foresaw this would cause trouble.

A striking instance was that of Kathleen Lonsdale (1903–71). Lonsdale was a Quaker and scientist who served a month in Holloway prison for refusing to register for civil defence duties though, had she done so, she could have claimed exemption on grounds of hardship as the mother of small children. Harvey for his part, far from resenting Lonsdale’s self-martyrdom, collaborated with her by intervening with the authorities.

Harvey worked with Kathleen Lonsdale to mitigate the consequences of conscription. Photograph by Walter Stoneman (1945) CC NPG

In June 1943, Harvey led a delegation which included Lonsdale to the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police on the question of repeat prosecutions of those defying the conscription laws. It is a testament to Harvey’s character that, on the one hand, he praised the government’s concessions to conscientious objection and, on the other, worked with the likes of Lonsdale to mitigate the consequences of their determination to test the legislation to destruction.

Harvey reminded the absolutist pacifists that conscription was regarded by the government, rightly or wrongly, as essential to the survival of the country.  He cautioned against too much stress being laid on conscientious objection as opposed to conscientious obligation, a phrase he used to describe his theory of the rights and duties of the pacifist as citizen. The effect of this was that, while his fellow parliamentarians saw Harvey as a man of principle, many among his own faith community saw him as a compromiser.

Showing how in a long career Harvey balanced principle and pragmatism as a politician of conscience is the challenge for his biographer.

Mark Frankel (University of Birmingham)

Mark will be responding to your questions about his research on Thomas Edmund Harvey on Zoom between 5:15pm and 6:30pm on 23 June 2020. Details on how to join the discussion are available here or by contacting mspychal@histparl.ac.uk

This blog is based on Mark’s full-length seminar paper, ‘T. Edmund Harvey, politician of conscience’, which is available here. Alternatively you can listen to Mark reading his paper, either by downloading the MP3 (right click ‘save link as’) or streaming the audio from the player below:

Mark Frankel, ‘T. Edmund Harvey, politician of conscience‘ – recording of full seminar paper (40 minutes 20 seconds). Download the MP3 here (right click ‘save link as’)

Further reading

Chris Blanchett, Duty and Democracy: Parliament And The First World War  (2018)

Susan Pedersen, Eleanor Rathbone and the Politics of Conscience (2004)

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