There were two general elections in 1910, both of which delivered almost identical results, and an outcome that might raise a few contemporary eyebrows. In what were very different circumstances, the two main parties fought out what were in effect draws in both. In the December election the Liberals and the Conservatives both won 272 seats, well short of the 336 needed for a majority in those days.
That was enough, however, to sustain a Liberal government. In the first place, there were 42 Labour MPs, elected thanks to an arrangement between the Liberals and Labour, often known as the MacDonald-Gladstone pact, which gave Labour a free run against the Conservatives in constituencies where Labour were strong; as a result, the Liberals had a free run elsewhere. The so-called Progressive Alliance did see Labour broadly offer support to the Liberals in the Commons, but a quick bit of arithmetic tells us that the combined 312 seats still left Asquith 24 short of a majority (and Labour’s voting record was very patchy and unreliable in any case).
Who were the others? They were, of course, the Irish. In particular, 74 of them were from the Irish Parliamentary Party. The sums added up to this: to survive, Asquith needed the Irish.
The Irish Parliamentary Party was a product of the political bastard children of Charles Stewart Parnell. Even when it split in two over Parnell’s relationship with Kitty O’Shea, it still dominated Irish politics. When it was reunited under the leadership of John Redmond, that domination of the Irish nationalist vote (outside of some parts of Munster) was absolute: 64 of Ireland’s 103 seats were uncontested in December 1910.
What did it stand for? In short, the answer was simple: Home Rule. Short of complete separation form Britain, Home Rule envisaged a federal UK in which an Irish parliament was responsible for domestic Irish issues. Now, we might call it devo-maxish.
In 1886, Gladstone decided to support Home Rule. The problem was, the parliamentary arithmetic didn’t add up. In the first place, some Liberals, led by Joseph Chamberlain jumped ship, becoming Liberal Unionists (in effect, Tories). Thus the Commons represented a hurdle in itself. Just as the Liberals lost MPs over Home Rule, they also lost many Whigs in the Lords. And the Lords became an insurmountable hurdle. With the Unionist domination of the Lords, Home Rule was nothing more than an aspiration, or political calling card.
The People’s Budget changed that. In 1909, Lloyd George put forward a budget which aroused Tory fury, and led the Tory dominated Lords to break constitutional convention and reject that budget. The result was a constitutional crisis: the two elections of 1910 led to the Parliament Act of 1911, which meant that the Lords could only retard legislation, not veto it. Now, Home Rule’s day had come, and the Irish knew it. The price of survival for Asquith’s government was Home Rule. The Irish nationalists held the whip hand.
It was that simple. Yet, it was not. The Irish held a whip hand they could not use. The alternative was the Conservatives. The Home Rule crisis was never resolved, the outbreak of war in 1914 cut it short. One cannot help but suspect that the Parliamentary Party would, in the end, have settled for less than Home Rule for all of Ireland. Reality, in the form of the strength of Ulster Unionism, and the prize that awaited them (Home Rule for most of Ireland) might have prevailed. In truth, the Irish were tied to the Liberals: they had nowhere else to go.