‘We the peoples’ and ‘the greatest cause of all’

Jamie Perry

Jamie Perry

Jamie Perry just completed his PhD on the United Nations Association, Chatham House and liberal internationalism in postwar Britain. You can contact him on j.perry@bham.ac.uk


Saturday was United Nations Day. It was a special one too. It was the 70th anniversary of the ratification of the United Nations Charter. The Charter is a fascinating text and no dusty diplomatic document to be dismissed. It articulates a bold internationalist communitarian vision: to confront war, poverty, famine, ignorance, disease, economic instability, inequality, unemployment, discrimination and oppression. These endeavours would be soon elaborated upon in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and later the UN would also put its hand to environmental issues.

It’s quite a to-do list. Little wonder then why Britain’s United Nations Association (UNA), the successor to the League of Nations Union (LNU), referred to the UN’s project as ‘The Greatest Cause of All’. There’s even another dimension to the UN’s breadth of ambition that relates to the mobilisation behind this cause. The Preamble to the Charter, drafted by the British historian Charles Webster, begins: ‘We the peoples’. Contrast this with the League of Nations Covenant that begins: ‘The high contracting parties’.

So Saturday was United Nations Day. But how many of us among ‘We the peoples’ (all 7 billion of us) marked this occasion or were even aware of its existence? At least in Britain, I suspect that the answer was not many.

It has not always been thus. UNA, which organised the majority of UN Day activities in Britain, was a far more successful organisation than the scholarly record (or lack of it) implies. It had tens of thousands of members and hundreds of branches dotted around the UK.

For the first UN Day in 1946 (at least the first one that was on the 24th October, rather than the 14 June – it’s a long story), over 1,500 events were organised all around the country. UNA were assisted by the three main political parties, trade unions, the BBC, over 20 women’s organisations and many other national and local societies.

600,000 colour leaflets featuring a cartoon specially drawn by David Low emblazoned with the words ‘Keep the War Won’ were distributed. 40,000 orders of service prepared by the British Council of Churches were circulated and a five minute trailer produced by Britain’s leading film magnate Arthur Rank was shown in 540 cinemas. Special displays adorned shops, UN flags were raised ceremonially above town halls, and there were many, many rallies including one in Leicester where 3,000 women, representing 46 women’s organisations, pledged themselves to support the UN Charter.

1946 UNA leaflet with David Low cartoon. Trades Union Congress Archive at the Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick, MSS.292/921.9/1.

1946 UNA leaflet with David Low cartoon. Trades Union Congress Archive at the Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick, MSS.292/921.9/1.

These efforts and many others during the decade (such as this and this and indeed the founding of the United Nations Student Association at a conference hosted by the University of Birmingham) made a significant contribution to the UNA’s membership that stood at over 80,000 in the 1940s.

However, this proved to be the UNA’s honeymoon period. UNA activists soon complained of encountering on British doorsteps cynicism, materialistic fatalism and an apathy born of frustration.

Amid Cold War power politics, decolonisation and declining deference to elites (whether domestic or international), typical postwar criticisms of the UN related to the failure of the League of Nations; that it was dominated by (depending on political persuasion) the USA or USSR; that it threatened British sovereignty – ‘look what it has done to break up the British Empire!’; that universal values did not equate with British values; that nuclear weaponry had made a mockery of it; that the individual citizen could not make any difference. Mass Observation research pointed to similar findings.

 UNA newspaper New World. Refers to Khrushchev’s alleged shoe-banging at the UN. UNA Archives at LSE Special Collections, UNA 25/2/2. Copyright United Nations Association – UK.

UNA newspaper New World. Refers to Khrushchev’s alleged shoe-banging at the UN. UNA Archives at LSE Special Collections, UNA 25/2/2. Copyright United Nations Association – UK.

By 1970, the 25th anniversary of the UN, the BBC was pleased to drop what little remained of its traditional UN Day coverage. The BBC and other media outlets believed that there was simply too little demand for information on the UN and international politics, unless it immediately affected Britain. If UNA membership was anything to go by, perhaps they were right. Membership gradually declined over the postwar period, especially during the 1970s and 1980s. In 1989 it amounted to about 11,000.

Was this the end of British internationalism? In 1931, the LNU had 406,868 members. In 1934/5 it organised 11 million people to take part in the Peace Ballot. In postwar Britain, were people less interested in what was going on beyond their borders?

Of course not. At least not necessarily any less than they had been in the past. Just look to new social movements (such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) or the Anti-Apartheid Movement) and the popularity of humanitarian causes. However, what is apparent is that political internationalism (that which advocated international organisation) became a more recessive theme in British internationalism.

UNA looked on with envy at the ability of new social movements to attract attention, particularly CND. Yet they worried that CND’s advocacy of unilateral (as opposed to multilateral) disarmament effectively bypassed the UN and had little grounding in the realities of international politics.

They believed that CND had inflated British influence and its ability to take moral leadership among non-aligned nations, many of which had just struggled for independence from Britain. Worse, bringing imbalance to the nuclear stalemate was understood to make nuclear war more likely, the devastation of which had no respect for artificial borders however neutral those behind them professed to be.

Similarly, UNA was fully aware of the popularity of humanitarianism in Britain. Indeed it was/is very active in this arena itself. UNA helped coordinate the response of British state and non-state actors to UN initiatives, such as the Freedom from Hunger Campaign and the UN Development Decade.

Nevertheless, there were concerns within UNA that such work distracted from the Association’s true purpose to promote international cooperation and organisation. The suffragette and former Chair of UNA, Kathleen Courtney worried in the 1960s that too often donations to humanitarian causes represented an escapism of an affluent society. Britons were giving money but were they giving thought to the causes of the ills they wished to alleviate?

Courtney believed that treating the disease of international inequality, and not just the symptoms, required political internationalism. If the UN project was to be ‘the greatest cause of all’, then it needed ‘we the peoples’ to push our governments to make more active use of it and encourage them to deal with these issues, rather than leaving it to the UN infrastructure and NGOs alone.

On the 70th anniversary, while UNA-UK still champions the work and aims of the UN, we should remember that the UN has achieved much and yet is too easily taken for granted. Perhaps we in Britain should also remember the concerns and experiences of UNA, especially as we shall soon face a referendum on Britain’s membership of another political internationalist project, European integration.

In our still globalising world, the big problems (that Britons are by no means sheltered from) are often international and they require international – likely at times supranational – solutions. That is not to say that such bodies require or deserve our unquestioning loyalty. But where there are flaws, reform (big and small) is highly unlikely to be achieved through neglect or withdrawal. And it behoves those who advocate withdrawal or ignore such projects, both on the left and the right, to formulate practical and sustainable alternatives as to how their vision of a Great Britain can still play an effective role in great causes.

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