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John Bright denounces the power of the war party in England (1878)

The Quaker and antiwar MP John Bright opposed the war against Russia in the Crimea in 1854 and opposed similar agitation for war again 25 years later in 1878. He blamed the constant agitation for war on the traditions of the Foreign Office and the control of the British press by a powerful “war party”:

There are still the traditions of the Foreign Office. I once expressed—I was very irreverent towards such an ancient institution—the wish that the Foreign Office might some day be burned down; and at least, correcting myself, that if it should be burned down, that I hoped all its mad, and baneful, and wicked traditions would be burned with it. But these traditions still linger in the Foreign Office, …

But still we cannot disguise from ourselves the fact that there is something of a war party in this country, and that it has free access to some, and indeed to not a few, of the newspapers of the London press. If there is any man here who thinks the question of our policy doubtful, if there is any man in the country who shall read what I say now who is in doubt, I ask him to look back to the policy of twenty-three years ago, and to see how it was then tried, and how it succeeded, or how it failed. The arguments were the same then exactly as they are now. The falsehoods were the same. The screechings and howlings of a portion of the press were just about the same.

There are still the traditions of the Foreign Office. I once expressed—I was very irreverent towards such an ancient institution—the wish that the Foreign Office might some day be burned down; and at least, correcting myself, that if it should be burned down, that I hoped all its mad, and baneful, and wicked traditions would be burned with it. But these traditions still linger in the Foreign Office, and Lord Derby—to whom they are foreign—endeavouring to fill that eminent office, I believe with a true intention to serve his country, and to do right—has been made the victim of the traditions he finds in the office which he has filled for the last four of five years. But I say the heart of the nation is gradually changing. I met at dinner at a friend’s house in Salford only the night before last an old friend of mine, and he came up to me and said, “Do you recollect me twenty-three or twenty-four years ago? You know I walked down Market Street with you that day when you came out of the Town Hall, where you had been hissed and hooted and maltreated, and where you were not allowed to speak to the constituents you were endeavouring to serve, and when you were not allowed to pass down the street without gross insult?” Well, now, a man may have an opinion in favour of peace, and the “dogs of war” will scarcely bark at him.

But still we cannot disguise from ourselves the fact that there is something of a war party in this country, and that it has free access to some, and indeed to not a few, of the newspapers of the London press. If there is any man here who thinks the question of our policy doubtful, if there is any man in the country who shall read what I say now who is in doubt, I ask him to look back to the policy of twenty-three years ago, and to see how it was then tried, and how it succeeded, or how it failed. The arguments were the same then exactly as they are now. The falsehoods were the same. The screechings and howlings of a portion of the press were just about the same. But the nation now—and if nations learned nothing, how long could they be sustained?—has learned something, and it has risen above this. I am persuaded that there is a great difference of opinion as to Russian policy in the main, or Turkish policy in this war, and men may pity especially the suffering on the one side or the suffering on the other—for my share, I pity the sufferings of both sides,—and whatever may be our differences of opinion, I think it is conclusively proved that the vast bulk of all the opinion that is influential in this country upon this question leads to this—that the nation is for a strict and rigid neutrality throughout this war.

It is a painful and terrible thing to think how easy it is to stir up a nation to war. Take up any decent history of this country from the time of William III until now—for two centuries, or nearly so—and you will find that wars are always supported by a class of arguments which, after the war is over, the people find were arguments they should not have listened to. It is just so now, for unfortunately there still remains the disposition to be excited on these questions.

About this Quotation:

There is a certain weariness in this speech John Bright gave to his constituents in Birmingham in 1878. He had paid a heavy price for his opposition to the Crimean War (against Russia) by losing his seat representing Manchester in 1857. He was able to get re-elected the following year to represent Birmingham which he represented for the next 30 years for the Liberal Party. Twenty two years after the war against Russia in the Crimea came to an end, there was another campaign in England to whip up another war against the “Russian Bear”. In this speech he reflects on the apparent contradiction between the peaceful aspirations of the ordinary English person and the fact that they can be so easily manipulated into having pro-war passions. Bright explains this as the result of a mix of factors: the short-term memory of the people concerning the true costs of previous wars; the pro-war and pro-empire sentiments of the professional bureaucrats in the Foreign Office who put pressure on politicians to go to war; and the existence of a pro-war party in the press which exaggerates the powers and intentions of foreign powers and the threat they pose for “British interests”. Bright is convinced that the views of ordinary Britons, “that the nation is for a strict and rigid neutrality”, will eventually be heard over the din for war.

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