Charles Trevelyan, the son of George Trevelyan, the Liberal MP, was born in Park Lane, London, on 28th October 1870. Charles and his brother, George Macaulay Trevelyan, were educated at Harrow and Trinity College, Cambridge. Charles graduated in 1892 with a history degree.
A member of the Liberal Party, he helped John Morley in his successful campaign to become MP for Newcastle. Trevelyan was rewarded by Morley when he arranged for him to become Lord Houghton's private secretary. Houghton was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and the job involved Trevelyan working in Dublin.
Trevelyan returned to England for the 1895 General Election but failed to win the North Lambeth seat for the Liberals. Instead he became a co-opted member of the London School Board. He worked closely with Sidney Webb, Beatrice Webb, George Bernard Shaw and Graham Wallas on the board. Trevelyan became a member of the Fabian Society and began to develop socialistic views on social reform.
His biographer, A. J. Anthony Morris, commented: "Membership of the Fabian Society afforded some degree of precision to his political ideas. He never lacked for resolution but, as he disarmingly admitted, he did not possess quickness of mind." H. G. Wells was less impressed and argued that "undoubtedly high-minded, Trevelyan had little sense of humour or irony, and was only marginally less self-satisfied and unendurably boring than his youngest brother, George."
In a by-election in 1899 Trevelyan became Liberal MP for Elland in Leeds. Following the 1906 General Election, Trevelyan was disappointed not to be offered a post in the Liberal Government headed by Henry Campbell-Bannerman. Trevelyan married Mary Katharine Bell, the daughter of Sir Hugh Bell, a wealthy businessman, on 6th January 1904. Over the next few years they had three sons and four daughters.
In the House of Commons Trevelyan advocated taxation of land values, Liberal–Labour co-operation on social legislation, and the ending of the House of Lords. In October 1908, the new Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, appointed Trevelyan as his Secretary to the Board of Education. In this post he argued strongly for the establishment of a completely secular system of national education.
In the 1910 General Election Trevelyan argued: "I wish to make it clear from the onset that at the coming election I want support on no other understanding that the new Parliament is to destroy once and for ever, the power of the hereditary chamber to reverse the decisions of the representatives of the people. The power to delay or reject supplies must be abolished, and they must never again enjoy an absolute veto over ordinary legislation. They have rendered fruitless the most serious work of the present House of Commons."
At the end of July, 1914, it became clear to the British government that the country was on the verge of war with Germany. Four senior members of the government, Trevelyan, David Lloyd George, John Burns, and John Morley, were opposed to the country becoming involved in a European war. They informed the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, that they intended to resign over the issue. When war was declared on 4th August, three of the men, Trevelyan, Burns and Morley, resigned, but Asquith managed to persuade Lloyd George, his Chancellor of the Exchequer, to change his mind. A. J. Anthony Morris has argued: "Trevelyan resigned from the government in protest. By this action he found himself estranged from most of his family, condemned and vilified by a hysterical press, and rejected by his constituency association."
The day after war was declared, Trevelyan began contacting friends about a new political organisation he intended to form to oppose the war. This included two pacifist members of the Liberal Party, Norman Angell and E. D. Morel, and Ramsay MacDonald, the leader of the Labour Party. A meeting was held and after considering names such as the Peoples' Emancipation Committee and the Peoples' Freedom League, they selected the Union of Democratic Control.
The four men agreed that one of the main reasons for the conflict was the secret diplomacy of people like Britain's foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey. They decided that the Union of Democratic Control should have three main objectives: (1) that in future to prevent secret diplomacy there should be parliamentary control over foreign policy; (2) there should be negotiations after the war with other democratic European countries in an attempt to form an organisation to help prevent future conflicts; (3) that at the end of the war the peace terms should neither humiliate the defeated nation nor artificially rearrange frontiers as this might provide a cause for future wars.
Over the next couple of years the UDC became the leading anti-war organisation in Britain. Trevelyan wrote articles for newspapers and gave a series of lectures on the need to negotiate a peace with Germany. As a result of this Trevelyan was attacked in the popular press as being a "pro-German, unpatriotic, scoundrel".
Like other anti-war MPs, Trevelyan was defeated in the 1918 General Election. Trevelyan joined the Independent Labour Party and over the next couple of years he became a controversial figure with his attacks on the Versailles Treaty. Trevelyan explained his political views in his book, From Labour to Liberalism (1921).
In the 1922 General Election Trevelyan was elected to represent Newcastle Upon Tyne Central. When Ramsay MacDonald became Prime Minister in 1924 he appointed Trevelyan as his President of the Board of Education. In the short-lived Labour Government Trevelyan argued for a reduction in educational inequalities. According to A. J. Anthony Morris Trevelyan was "a sound administrator, he was not overawed, as were many of his colleagues, by his civil servants... his performances at the dispatch box won back his father's approval." H. G. Wells added: "I think your work for education has been of outstanding value and that everyone who hopes for a happier, more civilised England should vote for all, irrespective of party association. I have watched your proceedings with close interest and I am convinced that there has never been a better, more far sighted, harder working, and more unselfishly devoted Minister of Education than yourself."
After the Labour Party lost power, Trevelyan was the opposition spokesman on education. He also began to develop plans for a educational policy that could be implemented by the next Labour government. Trevelyan's plans included raising the school-leaving age to fifteen and increased public expenditure on education. Trevelyan also wanted a reduction in church control over education. He suggested that the government should provide finance to Anglican and Catholic schools in return for local managers giving control over their teachers to the local authorities.
Following the 1929 General Election he was once again appointed as President of the Board of Education. However, Trevelyan's Education Bill, that included the measure of raising the school-leaving age to fifteen, was rejected by the House of Lords. Disillusioned with the leadership of Ramsay MacDonald, Trevelyan resigned from office in March 1931. Trevelyan opposed MacDonald's National Government and like most Labour MPs was defeated in the 1931 General Election.
In 1931 G.D.H. Cole created the Society for Socialist Inquiry and Propaganda (SSIP). This was later renamed the Socialist League. Other members included William Mellor, Stafford Cripps, H. N. Brailsford, D. N. Pritt, R. H. Tawney, Frank Wise, David Kirkwood, Clement Attlee, Neil Maclean, Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, Alfred Salter, Jennie Lee, Gilbert Mitchison, Harold Laski, Frank Horrabin, Ellen Wilkinson, Aneurin Bevan, Ernest Bevin, Arthur Pugh, Michael Foot and Barbara Betts. Margaret Cole admitted that they got some of the members from the Guild Socialism movement: "Douglas and I recruited personally its first list drawing upon comrades from all stages of our political lives." The first pamphlet published by the SSIP was The Crisis (1931) was written by Cole and Bevin.
According to Ben Pimlott, the author of Labour and the Left (1977): "The Socialist League... set up branches, undertook to promote and carry out research, propaganda and discussion, issue pamphlets, reports and books, and organise conferences, meetings, lectures and schools. To this extent it was strongly in the Fabian tradition, and it worked in close conjunction with Cole's other group, the New Fabian Research Bureau." The main objective was to persuade a future Labour government to implement socialist policies.
Trevelyan's biographer, A. J. Anthony Morris, pointed out: "Trevelyan encouraged the Socialist League, gave help both political and material to a number of aspiring and established left-wingers, and seemed quite convinced that the Labour Party was at last committed to socialism. There was a brief moment of personal triumph at the annual party conference in 1933. He successfully introduced a resolution that, if there were even a threat of war, the Labour Party would call a general strike."
The United Front agreement won only narrow majority at a Socialist League delegate conference in January, 1937 - 56 in favour, 38 against, with 23 abstentions. The United Front campaign opened officially with a large meeting at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester on 24th January. Three days later the Executive of the Labour Party decided to disaffiliated the Socialist League. They also began considering expelling members of the League. G.D.H. Cole and George Lansbury responded by urging the party not to start a "heresy hunt".
Arthur Greenwood was one of those who argued that the rebel leader, Stafford Cripps, should be immediately expelled. Ernest Bevin agreed: "I saw Mosley come into the Labour Movement and I see no difference in the tactics of Mosley and Cripps." On 24th March, 1937, the National Executive Committee declared that members of the Socialist League would be ineligible for Labour Party membership from 1st June. Over the next few weeks membership fell from 3,000 to 1,600. In May, G.D.H. Cole and other leading members decided to dissolve the Socialist League. Trevelyan now decided to retire from politics.
Charles Trevelyan died at Wallington Hall on 24th January 1958.