Home Political science British Humanitarianism and the Congo Reform Movement, 1896-1913
The CRA included an on-again, off-again group of sympathetic MPs called the Parliamentary Committee. The most effective pressure on the Congo Free State and on Belgium came from the British government, and Parliament was the best vehicle for getting the government’s attention. As described in Chapter 8, MPs and Lords advanced the cause through questions, debates, and resolutions. By advocating a consistent position, they exerted pressure on the government and especially on the Foreign Office.
For a cause whose defining moment was the uncontested Commons vote of May 1903, preservation of multiparty unity had symbolic as well as practical importance. The CRA’s initial program backed up its statement that its aims were “absolutely outside Party Politics” by listing eight Liberal MPs and eight Conservative/Unionist MPs as primary supporters.
Emmott led the first Parliamentary Committee in 1904-05, but he resigned upon joining the new Liberal government 1905. Dilke refused to take over for Emmott, in part because of his own responsibilities under the new administration. Socialist solidarity provided the next chairman shortly after the 1906 election when Vandervelde asked British Labour Party leaders to back Congo reform. A few days later, Labour Party Secretary Ramsay MacDonald asked Morel who was handling the Congo question in the House of Commons. Within weeks he had taken over the Parliamentary Committee, preparing questions and organizing a deputation to Sir Edward Grey. But soon he told Morel that he would be “delighted” to turn the Parliamentary Committee over to someone else, due to pressure from his other political commitments. Thus began several years of frustration during which MacDonald devoted little attention to the Parliamentary Committee. From 1907-09, Morel often worked directly with interested MPs, while the Committee’s secretary, E.N. Bennett, gathered signatures when needed and provided minimal coordination, but the Committee met only a few times and had little influence on the movement. MPs continued to bring up the Congo in the House of Commons; indeed, 1908 saw more questions directed to the Foreign Secretary than any other, though the Committee was quiescent. Morel still hoped for a more effective Parliamentary Committee, but he could not find anyone else to run it and felt he could not give orders to MPs. An effort to recruit Parker led nowhere. In May 1909, Morel made a last effort to get MacDonald’s attention, reminding him, “The whole thing depends on your being able to put your individual initiative to it.” Morel assured him that Dilke and others would follow if he would lead.
After the 1910 election, Morel vented to Dilke and others, “I have received nothing from Ramsay MacDonald. He is really a most unsatisfactory chap over this Committee, and I wish to goodness we could get somebody else, but I cannot very well suggest it.” The broad hints reached MacDonald, who resigned. Morel again begged Dilke to be chairman, conveying support from MacDonald (Labour), Parker (Conservative), and Sir George White (Liberal), but Dilke was as adamant as he had been in 1906. Sir George White finally agreed to take the job on the condition that Morel would act as Secretary.
This victory had a perverse outcome for Morel. White and Morel were able to get 162 MPs to sign a Parliamentary Memorial to Prime Minister Asquith in April 1910 regarding the slow pace ofCongo reforms. Due to a misunderstanding, Asquith did not read it until July. He acknowledged the strength of opinion behind it but referred White to what he and Grey had already said. Several weeks earlier, as if anticipating Asquith’s dismissive response, the MPs and Morel had disagreed about the reform movement’s next steps at the Parliamentary Committee meeting on 14 June 1910. British policy as determined by Grey and supported by the Cabinet was to refuse to recognize the Belgian annexation of the Congo until there was proof of satisfactory reforms. In late 1909 Belgium had announced a reform plan that would take effect in different regions in 1910, 1911, and 1912. The Executive Committee had denounced this timetable as far too leisurely and advocated increased pressure on Belgium, but the Parliamentary Committee preferred to wait and see, bringing up questions from time to time to ensure the government did not forget the subject. Morel called the meeting “more or less a fiasco,” and wrote White:
I have done my best, and I don’t see that I can do anything more. If Parliament is not willing to act on the lines of the Memorial signed by 162 of its Members, then there is nothing for it but to sink back in the position of virtually acquiescing in the Government’s policy of non-recognition, and trying to keep the Government to even that policy.
This meeting determined the CRA’s policy for the next three years.
The Parliamentary Committee henceforth played a diminished role. Dilke died in January 1911 and White in May 1912. For the CRA’s last year, Parker, while not formally chairman, would gather a few MPs when needed to speak in the House.
The Parliamentary Committee existed on paper from 1906-12, functioning best in 1906 and then again under White in 1910. Ironically, this final group endorsed a less aggressive strategy than what Morel and the Executive Committee wanted, pulling the CRA into the same posture. From August 1910 until 1913, the Association worked primarily to hold the Belgians to their promises and the Foreign Office to the course that Grey had adopted in 1910.
This analysis of the Congo Reform Association’s structure shows that it was not simply a vehicle for Morel’s reforming zeal. At times, the Executive Committee and Parliamentary Committee determined the organization’s strategy. The Finance and Executive Committees pushed a reluctant Morel toward better governance, improving how the movement functioned, reducing its vulnerability to outside attacks, and strengthening its cash flow. Auxiliaries gave the movement a broader footprint and democratized the Executive Committee. The London Auxiliary enabled John and Alice Harris to use their energies most effectively while learning everything they could from Morel and gave John Harris a laboratory for some of his many ideas. Its success made it a second headquarters for the CRA, aggravating tensions with Morel to the point where he felt that he must transfer the headquarters to London, a belated move that improved access to the Foreign Office and the CRA’s philanthropic allies.
In 1904, the CRA existed only because of Morel, and largely worked the way he wanted it to. By 1908 its increasingly robust structures, which resembled those of other humanitarian organizations, meant that Morel’s freedom of action had decreased. These changes gave the organization the means to function even if Morel had reduced or ended his involvement.
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