Objectors and Tribunals

I’ve been dipping into Philip Snowden’s Autobiography (found yesterday in a charity shop). Snowden was the M.P. most consistently arguing for the rights of conscientious objectors. He is very interesting on the tribunals, claiming that the Military Service Act was generous in intention, giving definite rights to those unwilling to fight.

I cannot speak too highly of the efforts that Mr Walter Long [President of the Local Government Board] made to secure a fair hearing and a just treatment by the tribunals set up for the purpose of hearing claims for exemption. Indeed, not only Mr Long […] but Mr Asquith and Sir Herbert Samuel all did their best to secure the rights conferred by the Conscription Act upon the genuine conscientious objector.

These liberal intentions were thwarted by those given the power to enforce the Act. Local tribunals were ‘partly chosen from lists sent up by the political associations in the constituency, and the members consisted to a large extent of aged men who had made themselves notorious in the recruiting campaign’. When a Stipendiary Magistrate or a County Court Judge was made chairman of the tribunal, ‘their judicial experience was a real check upon their prejudiced colleagues’ – but many tribunals remained unchecked, and prejudice had free rein.

Snowden has many stories of unfair treatment of objectors, and some of blatant favouritism:

The Market Bosworth tribunal made a special name for itself. This tribunal had a conscientious objector before it, to whom the chairman said: ‘This man puts his own skin first. It was the first of the breed he had met, and he hoped there would not be any more.’ He then went on to exempt, in the national interest, all the members of the local hunt!

The chapter is text-book of how well-intentioned legislation passed in a time of unprecedented emergency can have unintended consquences, and can be undermined in practice – which seems very relevant relevant in days when there is talk of compulsory vaccination and vaccine passports. Would such matters be administered fairly?

Then as now there were those who thought there should be one rule for them, and a different rule for the others. I like Snowden’s story of a patriot in parliament:

A young Conservative member, Mr Harold Smith, a brother of ‘F.E.’ was denouncing these resisters with great vigour as cowards and shirkers. I quietly interrupted him by asking: Seeing that the Hon. Member is himself of military age, will he kindly tell us why he is not serving in the Army?’ For a moment he was completely confounded, and then made this amazing answer: ‘That is a matter for my own conscience.’ The House was aghast at the inanity of this remark. The member stumbled through two or three more sentences and then sat down. I do not think he ever spoke again in that session.


  1. Tom Deveson
    Posted August 13, 2021 at 7:16 am | Permalink

    Thank you, as ever, for a good morning read.

  2. Steve Paradis
    Posted August 14, 2021 at 3:18 pm | Permalink


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