Sir Randal Cremer


Sir Randal Cremer
(1838-1908)



British trade unionist and pacifist who won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1903 for his advocacy of international arbitration.

The life of Sir William Randal Cremer is something of a rags-to-riches story. Born in 1828, in abject poverty, and with only a scanty education which ended at age twelve when he went to work in the shipyards, Cremer made his way upward with his exceptional skills as an organizer, becoming one of the first representatives of the working class in Parliament, a leader of the emerging international peace movement in the late nineteenth century and the winner of one of the very first Nobel Peace Prizes.

Randal Cremer (he preferred to drop the William) was born to poor working-class parents in a small town in Hampshire, England. Not long after his birth, his father deserted the family, leaving his mother to raise three young children in poverty. At fifteen Cremer was apprenticed to a carpenter, and it was as a journeyman carpenter that at the age of twenty-four he came to London to seek his fortune. This he found in the trade-union movement, where his leadership qualities were soon recognized. At the age of thirty he was helping organize the campaign for a nine-hour day, and he went on to become a national leader of the carpenters' union and a member of the London Trades Council.

With other working-class leaders Cremer was drawn into campaigns on international questions of the day: support of the North in the American civil war, of the Poles in their revolt against Russia, and the welcoming to England of Giuseppe Garibaldi, the hero of the Italian Risorgimento. These activities led to the establishment in 1864 of the International Working Men's Association, in which Karl Marx and other socialists from the continent took part. Cremer was elected general secretary in 1865, but resigned after two years, later maintaining that the organization had come under the direction of "men who cared more for their isms than for the cause of real progress."

He even stood for Parliament, unsuccessfully, in 1868. His election manifesto included a phrase familiar to peace activists of the time: the demand for "the establishment of an International Board of Arbitration to settle disputes among nations, so as to lead to a general disarmament of standing forces, and the establishment of an era of peace."

It was the Franco-Prussian War which led to Cremer's involvement with the peace movement. On July 21, 1870, two days after the outbreak of the war, a public meeting of working men was held in London to oppose any intervention by Britain in the conflict. A "peace committee" was appointed of which Cremer was general secretary. In December this became the Workmen's Peace Association (WPA), with the declared aim of "advocating the settlement of all international disputes by arbitration, and the establishment of a High Court of Nations for that purpose." As secretary of the WPA Cremer became a full-time peace activist for the rest of his life. He always insisted that his own peace activities were "in the domain of practical politics."

In such pursuit, he tried again in 1874 to win a seat in Parliament, but failed. After the reform bill of 1885 broadened the franchise, however, he won the election to represent Haggerston in London's East End and entered Parliament at the age of fifty-seven as a Liberal along with ten other working-class representatives.

Cremer was now in position to push the arbitration cause in "practical politics" in Parliament, where he came to be called the "member for arbitration." In 1888 the WPA was retitled the International Arbitration League (IAL) and its base of supporters was broadened with representatives from other levels of society. Already Cremer had started working in Parliament to revive the old idea of a treaty of arbitration with the United States. In 1887 Cremer secured the signatures of 232 MPs, one third of the total membership of the House of Commons, to memorials to the President and Congress of the United States in support of such a treaty, and then he led to Washington a deputation to present the memorial to President Grover Cleveland. No treaty resulted, but the United States Congress adopted similar resolutions in the next few years.

These developments encouraged French parliamentarians, led by the veteran peace activist, Frederic Passy, to initiate similar action in the Chamber of Deputies for a French-American treaty of arbitration. Cremer noted the effort and wrote to Passy, suggesting a meeting of French and English legislators. Cremer said that if Passy could get an invitation issued, he would bring to Paris 200 MPs. Passy approved the idea and wrote Cremer that it would be a great event if only half a dozen MPs turned up. At a preliminary meeting with Cremer in attendance, Passy's colleagues decided to invite all the MPs who had signed the address to Cleveland to a conference in Paris to discuss Anglo-French and Anglo-American treaties of arbitration.

The meeting took place in October 1888. Cremer brought along eight colleagues, not 200, but it was enough. Passy provided 25 deputies and one senator, and presided. The group decided to plan a similar meeting for the following year, this time inviting legislators from other parliaments, hoping that the World Exposition would be an attraction and setting the date so that those who would attend the scheduled Universal Peace Congress of peace societies might remain a few days longer for the conference.

Although this preliminary meeting in 1888 could be considered the beginning of the IPU, it was this subsequent conference, held on June 29-30, 1889, which really brought the organization into being. A total of 96 parliamentarians from nine countries were present, the great majority from France (55) and Britain (28). Passy had presided over the Peace Congress, and he was the organizing spirit in Paris behind the parliamentary conference and chaired its meetings. Cremer saw to it that the meeting was held in what he felt would be the most appropriate place. When he came to Paris a few days early to check on the arrangements, Cremer was dismayed to find how modest was the hall booked for the meetings. He immediately hurried off to the more pretentious Hotel Continental and, with IAL funds, engaged the Salle des Fetes, said to be one of the handsomest auditoriums in Paris. With no time to notify anyone of the change, Cremer stationed men at the original meeting place, with placards telling everybody where to go.

If the opening of this historic meeting might have been attended by some confusion as to where it was being held, at least the new organization could be born with a touch of grandeur. The name chosen at the christening was the Inter-Parliamentary Conference for Arbitration, which was apt, for arbitration was the main topic of discussion and the subject of most resolutions adopted.

Along with the audacity of holding such a meeting at all, the participants displayed a certain sense of caution. The most important resolution asked governments to conclude treaties agreeing to submit all differences to arbitration, without, however, "impairing their independence and without admitting any interference in anything concerning their internal constitution." Only in later years were other subjects than arbitration placed on the agenda, and the original name remained until 1899, when the Conference became officially the IPU. In 1892 the Inter-Parliamentary Bureau was established at Berne, with a voluntary general secretary. It was Cremer, who before he died in 1908, initiated the process by which Christian Lange became the first paid general secretary and the organization placed on a firmer footing financially by Andrew Carnegie.

The documents show that Passy and Cremer were the two co-founders of the IPU. An odd couple they were, the French member of the landed gentry with aristocratic antecedents and the English carpenter raised in poverty, but the dire need they felt to bring peace to the world bonded them together.

Cremer dearly wanted the Nobel prize, not for the money, but for the recognition. In April 1903 Hodgson Pratt wrote Passy that Cremer was feeling an injustice had been done him when he was passed over for the peace prize in 1901 and 1902, so to soothe Cremer's feelings, Pratt had been pushing Cremer's candidacy.

In December 1903 it was announced Cremer had won the prize, which he well deserved. He had to postpone the required lecture until January 1905. Then 76, but ever conscientious, he made the long winter trip to Norway and spoke on "The Progress and Advantages of Arbitration."

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