The Home Rule Crisis & the Conservative Party

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Following Dan Jackson’s excellent blog on the Home Rule Crisis (read it here) in which he re-emphasises the serious threat it posed to both Britain and Ireland, I want to re-examine the Home Rule Crisis from another perspective: the history of the Conservative Party.

It is perhaps an offshoot of the Whig history we are still prone to, but the history of the British Conservative Party and more widely conservative politics in Britain has been somewhat prone to seeing its conversion to parliamentary democracy as inevitable. Peel invents Conservatism, Disraeli invents parliamentary democracy and the rest is (Whig) history.

Mainstream nineteenth century Conservatism remained parliamentary, but it was certainly not wedded to the idea of democracy. That should not surprise us, neither was much of Victorian Liberalism. For all his Tory Democracy, Disraeli feared mass politics as much as he embraced it. His successor, Salisbury was by dint of instinct and his very considerable intellect vehement in his opposition to the idea of democracy. Mass politics meant demagoguery, whether the dangerous Irish (Parnell), socialism or even Gladstone himself. That fear of democracy reared its head spectacularly in the turbulent beginning of the twentieth century. In the House of Lords crisis of 1909-11 and the Home Rule crisis itself, it came to the very centre of conservative politics, and the Conservative Party itself. By throwing out Lloyd George’s People’s Budget in 1909, the Tories were, by the lights of our unwritten constitution, acting unconstitutionally. Some wanted to be more unconstitutional than others: the Ditchers, who wanted to push the crisis to its logical conclusion, might be seen as wanting to bring the constitutional house down.

That was small beer compared to Home Rule. When Bonar Law played the Orange card, he led the Conservatives down a dangerous path. By 1914, the Tories were on the verge of supporting an illegal and unconstitutional (and armed) rebellion against his majesty’s government, and supporting the use of force to overturn the sovereignty of parliament. In part, as Dan Jackson argues, that was an act of unscrupulous political cynicism: if there was one issue that roused passions in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Britain, it was the Irish one, and Bonar Law was undoubtedly seeking to exploit that. The original player of the Orange card was Lord Randolph Churchill. Roy Foster’s sparkling biography makes a very convincing case for Churchill doing so out of plain cynicism (indeed, Churchill privately referred to his beloved Ulster Unionists as ‘those foul Ulster Tories’). Indeed, both Churchill and Salisbury had flirted with the Irish nationalist leader Parnell before Gladstone had backed Home Rule in 1886.

Whether political cyniscism or not, it was a dangerous game. The emotions aroused by playing the Orange card were very real. As Dan Jackson has shown, the politics of Unionism, often a cipher for anti-Irish feeling or a very deep-rooted anti-Catholicism, were violent in every possible sense. No other issue could arouse such passions. Already, in 1903, Chamberlain’s Tariff Reform campaign had split the party and led them down the road to a landslide defeat in 1906. Then came the House of Lords crisis. Home Rule was in a sense the third Tory crisis in a row. It was much more than that though. The likes of Salisbury had feared the demagoguery that mass politics brought with it. Lord Randolph Churchill, in a famous interview, had embraced the idea, flirting with idea of a British Bismarck (with him, presumably, in the leading role). It must be said, though, that Andrew Bonar Law was just about the least likely demagogue in British history (Carson was far better suited to that role). However, Bonar Law’s attachment to Ulster was real, and that gave a dangerous edge what we might otherwise view as another cynical exercise in Orange card politics. If we accept that he was at least in a part genuine, and so many of those whose passions were so violently aroused certainly were, the dangers of the Home Rule crisis seem much greater.

What would have happened had the Kaiser not decided to pop into Belgium we cannot know. It is certainly possible that Asquith’s government might have fallen and it is also possible that the Conservatives might have won the subsequent election. It is also possible they may not have. It seems to me that either way the impact upon British conservatism might well have been profound, and with that a subsequent impact on British political history. In the teeth of the Home Rule crisis, in the so-called Curragh Mutiny, a group of army officers (including Sir Hubert Gough) wrote threatening to resign their commissions rather than use force to maintain the rule of law in Ulster in the face of Ulster Unionism. Between the wars, there was a strain of British conservatism that was attracted to the new demagoguery of Mussolini and even Hitler. In Europe, the political right looked to what was often a politics that went against democracy. British Conservatism could, conceivably, have at least flirted with the same. It had in 1914. Had that flirtation have yielded politically successful results or not, a pattern for Conservative politics might have been set. The lure of extra-parliamentary politics may have proved too much to resist.

That it did not probably owes most to three men. The first is Kaiser Wilhelm: the war put a halt to the Ulster crisis. It also, at length, offered a different route into government for the second of those men, Bonar Law. The partnership of the dour Ulster Scot and the politician Britain had that was closest to a great demagogue, Lloyd George, saw the Conservatives support the 1918 Representation of the People Act, embrace moderate social reform and even the creation of an Irish Free State; Bonar Law was even willing to contemplate the merger of the party with Lloyd George’s supporters into a new Centre Party. It was Bonar Law’s decision to turn against Lloyd George in 1922 that was most important of all. In doing so, Bonar Law was in effect lending his support to the real father of modern Conservatism: Stanley Baldwin. In rejecting the ‘dynamic force’, Baldwin set Conservatism on a different course. It was Baldwin who has true claim to be the father of Tory Democracy. His Conservatism was very much of the ‘one nation’ variety. Bar a brief re-embrace of tariff reform in 1923, and some red meat thrown to the backbenches in the aftermath of the General Strike, Baldwin resisted the siren calls of inter-war Conservatism’s wilder shores. The malcontents were left to fume on the sidelines along with the likes of Beaverbrook or Churchill, or worse still, those who would become the fellow travellers of the far right. Instead, British Conservatism was wedded to parliamentary politics and democracy, and shorn of demagoguery (once more, a least likely demagogue than Baldwin would be hard to find). The recipe worked well in the mid-twentieth century: the Conservatives were in power more often than not and Baldwin won three landslides. And British democracy both survived and thrived. The Home Rule Crisis of 1912-14 should remind us that there was nothing inevitable about that.

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