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Reference group
Persia Committee (act. 1908–1914) was a political pressure group that mounted a prominent campaign against the Liberal government's foreign policy toward Persia in the six years preceding the First World War.

The committee's origins can be traced to the Anglo-Russian convention of 31 August 1907, in which the contracting powers agreed to divide the kingdom of the shah into respective spheres of influence. The architects of the entente were the Liberal Imperialist foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, along with his key subordinates at the Foreign Office, most prominently Sir Charles Hardinge and Sir Arthur Nicolson. Although scholars remain divided as to whether Britain's growing concern for the German menace or its perennial fear of Russia served as the primary inspiration, there is consensus that the convention exerted a pernicious influence upon the future course of Anglo-Iranian relations.

In late 1905, just as Grey became foreign secretary, protests erupted in Tehran. This set the stage for the constitutional revolution of the following year in which various Persian interests coalesced with the aim of curtailing the powers of the despotic Qajar dynasty. The uprising culminated in July and August 1906 when approximately 14,000 protesters took sanctuary in the grounds of the British legation. Unable to suppress the revolutionaries' demands, the ailing shah eventually capitulated and on 31 December 1906 signed a constitution providing for an elected majles or parliament. Although many Persian revolutionaries expected Britain, as the progenitor of modern constitutionalism, to extend its support to the new regime, such hopes proved misplaced. Rather than rallying to their cause the Foreign Office chose to make a deal with autocratic Russia. At a single stroke the future of the nascent constitutional order was placed in jeopardy.

Persians were not the only ones deeply disillusioned by Grey's Machiavellian diplomacy. It has been said of many on the political left in Britain that ‘Persia caught their imagination as a land where the principles of constitutional government were emerging; they conceived it to be Britain's duty to render every assistance to the process’ (McLean, ‘English radicals’, 339). Before long ‘the Iranian question became a rallying point both for those who were concerned with the fate of the weaker nations … and for veteran critics of Grey's policy of friendship with the Russian autocracy’ (Bonakdarian, ‘Persia Committee’, 189). The ranks of these foreign policy dissenters swelled further when Russia increased its interventions in Persian affairs and especially after the new Russophile shah staged a successful coup d'état against the majles on 23 June 1908.

This triumph of reactionary forces sparked a year-long civil war and compelled some prominent Persian deputies to seek refuge abroad. After a meeting with a number of these exiles at the House of Commons on 29 October 1908, the Liberal MP for Ripon, Henry Finnis Blosse Lynch, proposed that the multipartisan opposition to the government's handling of Persian affairs unite under a single banner. The Persia Committee was established the following day with Lynch as chairman and the leading academic authority on Iran, Edward Granville Browne, as vice-chairman. Both men were well suited to such leadership. As the head of Lynch Brothers (a commercial firm with wide-ranging interests throughout the Middle East) Lynch had travelled extensively in Persia. And while Browne had not returned since twelve months' residence in 1887–8, his knowledge of the country remained unrivalled in Britain. Most crucially, however, both men—and especially Browne—possessed privileged access to a network of well-placed Persian informants. While some of these ‘men on the spot’ belonged to the diplomatic and consular services—some of whom had been students of Browne's at Cambridge—they also included key indigenous figures in the constitutionalist movement. Perhaps not surprisingly these two former contemporaries at Eton and Cambridge emerged as the twin forces behind the pressure group. Much of its success can be attributed to their tireless efforts.

Inspired in part by earlier similar-minded lobbies like the Balkan Committee, the Persia Committee included an executive membership of both parliamentary and extra-parliamentary members. In general its agenda and policy decisions were formulated by Lynch and Browne in consultation with the group's most active members. As drafted in December 1908 the committee's stated objectives were to stimulate public interest in the Persian people and their efforts to reform their country and to influence British public opinion to support the restoration of the 1906 constitution. To further this programme the Liberal MP and the Cambridge don launched a high-profile campaign of parliamentary speeches, public meetings and lectures, and, most significantly, a steady stream of publications, all extolling the Persian constitutionalists and denouncing Grey's diplomacy as the betrayal of a people on the verge of democracy.

Not surprisingly, the committee attracted its initial membership predominantly among Grey's leftist critics. Although not all founding members can be identified, the more notable ones included the Liberal radical politicians Noel Buxton and Philip Morrell (1870–1943), and the journalists and social activists H. N. Brailsford and H. W. Nevinson. A selection of other prominent progressive internationalists who, at one time or other, joined their ranks included the Liberal radical MPs Percy Alden, G. P. Gooch, Granville Greenwood, Arthur Ponsonby, J. H. Whitehouse, and H. J. Wilson; the Labour MPs Charles Duncan, Keir Hardie, F. W. Jowett, Ramsay MacDonald, James O'Grady, and Philip Snowden; the Irish nationalist MPs John Dillon and Stephen Gwynn; and, crucially, the opinion-makers of print Henry Dalziel, A. G. Gardiner, C. P. Scott, and Thomas Fisher Unwin.

Realizing from the outset that a lobby group composed almost entirely of Liberal radical members risked creating the impression that the ‘Persian question’ was somehow purely partisan, Lynch (a self-described Liberal Imperialist) worked doggedly to ensure political ecumenicalism. Thus by 1909 Browne could reflect that the Persia Committee included ‘not only Liberal Imperialists, Liberal Unionists, Radicals, and Labour members, but also at least one eminent Conservative’ (The Times, 20 Sept 1909). The eminent tory in question was Lord Lamington [see Baillie, Charles Wallace Alexander Napier Ross Cochrane], a former governor of Bombay who in late 1908 accepted Lynch's invitation to become president. Although Lamington and later Conservatives joined mostly out of their concern for the security of the raj (and their consequent nightmare of a Persia ruled by a Russian-backed shah), their membership succeeded both in enhancing the group's visibility and serving ‘as a shield against blanket characterization of committee members as extremist radicals’ (Bonakdarian, Britain and the Iranian Constitutional Revolution, 203). A handful of the more notable rogue Unionists included the earl of Ronaldshay [see Dundas, Lawrence John Lumley], Arthur Griffith-Boscawen, E. Marshall Hall, and Harry Lawson.

Over the years the Persia Committee's membership fluctuated considerably, linked as it was to the changing fortunes of the constitutionalist cause. It had little trouble recruiting members during its first year when the Persian civil war captured the headlines. After the constitutionalists' victory over the royalists in July 1909 and the subsequent restoration of the majles, however, numbers rapidly declined, the pressure group seemingly having lost its very raison d'être. After the 1910 election, in which a number of its parliamentary members (including Lynch) lost their seats, the Persia Committee suffered internal turmoil marked by increasing differences between its two leaders. It was effectively saved from extinction, however, by the outbreak of the so-called Persian crisis of late 1911, when Russia attempted to impose its will on the majles and threatened to occupy Tehran. While tsarist policy ultimately triumphed (by inducing the Persian cabinet to dissolve the majles and bow to its demands), the episode saw the Persia Committee reach the high-water mark of its influence. In addition to putting unprecedented pressure on Grey the lobby group engendered an extraordinary outpouring of sympathy from the British public. Its London Opera House meeting in support of Persian independence, held on 15 January 1912, attracted an overflow crowd of some 6000. Nevertheless, although the committee persisted until the summer of 1914, its profile gradually diminished, particularly following Lynch's death in November 1913.

It is unfair to dismiss the Persia Committee as having ‘singularly little to show for its sound and fury’ (Robbins, 85). By 1914 it had achieved a large part of its original objectives of 1908, namely the stimulation of public interest and support for the constitutionalist cause. Somewhat paradoxically, by holding the Liberal government to account for Russian misdeeds in Iran, the Persia Committee also ‘offered Grey some degree of bargaining power in his negotiations with the Russians’ (Bonakdarian, ‘Persia Committee’, 206). On several occasions Grey used the pressure from the likes of Lynch and Browne to encourage a moderation of Russian policy. Perhaps the committee's most significant achievement, however, was its influence within Persia itself. While it may have failed to alter the course of British diplomacy, it ‘was of immense service and value to Iranian nationalists and played a considerable role in sustaining the Iranian constitutional revolution during its brief existence’ (Bonakdarian, Britain and the Iranian Constitutional Revolution, 393).

Christopher N. B. Ross

Sources  

M. Bonakdarian, ‘The Persia Committee and the constitutional revolution in Iran’, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 18/2 (1991), 186–207 · M. Bonakdarian, ‘Iranian constitutional exiles and British foreign-policy dissenters, 1908–9’, International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 27/2 (1995), 175–91 · D. McLean, ‘English radicals, Russia, and the fate of Persia, 1907–1913’, EngHR, 93/367 (April 1978), 338–52 · D. McLean, ‘A professor extraordinary: E. G. Browne and his Persian campaign’, HJ, 21/2 (June 1978), 399–408 · C. N. B. Ross, ‘Lord Curzon and E. G. Browne confront the “Persian question”’, HJ, 52/2 (2009), 385–411 · K. Robbins, ‘Public opinion, the press and pressure groups’, British foreign policy under Sir Edward Grey, ed. F. H. Hinsley (1977), 70–88 · M. Bonakdarian, Britain and the Iranian constitutional revolution of 1906–1911: foreign policy, imperialism, and dissent (2006) · A. J. A. Morris, Radicalism against war, 1906–14 (1972) · A. J. P. Taylor, The trouble makers: dissent over foreign policy, 1792–1939 (1957) · The Times (20 Sept 1909)