If there has been a staple of modern British history, one would surely be the Irish Question, which has recently returned to bite the Westminster backside once more.
It is tempting to rehearse a list of the manifold occasions that Irish politics has served to destabilise Westminster. For now, though, I want to focus on what was, potentially, the most serious one of lot, which convulsed British politics in the years before the Great War: what is usually referred to as the home rule crisis. It was a crisis that threatened the peace, the United Kingdom, and constitutional politics itself.
Back then, Ireland was part of the United Kingdom. It had been since 1800. In reaction to the rebellion of 1798, Pitt the Younger forced through the Act of Union. Ireland’s parliament was abolished, and Ireland sent MPs to Westminster. In some ways, Pitt was emulating the 1707 Act of Union between England and Scotland. That act had, in the long run, worked to take nationalism out of Scottish politics to a large extent, though to argue that happened smoothly would be to ignore the Jacobites and, of course, the ’45.
For the 19th century, though, there was no ‘Scottish Question’; that certainly cannot be said about Ireland. That is not to say that the history of the union with Ireland was one of unceasing conflict. Modern historiography has emphasised that there was much held in common in culture, even in politics. That is not the same as saying that Ireland was, somehow, the same. Even if it can be overplayed, a central fact was that Ireland was overwhelmingly Catholic. No less important was the existence of a political nationalism different from any other part of the United Kingdom. In the middle of the 19th century, having achieved Catholic emancipation, the great Daniel O’Connell led the Repeal movement, looking to repeal the Act of Union and make Ireland a separate state under the crown.
In the later part of the century, the demand was for home rule, a form of devolution. Meanwhile, the ‘hillside men’ were republicans which, in the Irish sense, means separatism, wanting a complete break from the crown, and from Britain (and a bit of violence, for preference). In 1886, the game was changed when the great Liberal prime minister Gladstone opted for home rule.
It was not to be. It was a golden opportunity for the Tories. Gladstone was siding himself with wild Irish, those who wanted to break the union (as the cartoon above shows). In the political crisis that ensued, the old Whig peers who had supported Gladstone jumped ship to the Tories (who now called themselves unionists). For all the fact that Gladstone would return to power in 1892, or that the Liberals won a landslide in 1906, the fact remained: home rule would never get through the Lords. Lord Salisbury, the Tory leader, had slain the home rule dragon (as the cartoon below has it).
There have been a few times in its history where the Conservative Party has lost the plot. It has usually been over Ireland, or tariffs. In 1846, the Conservative prime minister Robert Peel was facing the onset of famine in Ireland. His response was to repeal the Corn Laws that put tariffs on imported grain. He succeeded, with the support of the Whigs, but it split his party. The Tories all but split over tariffs in again 1903. By 1905, Balfour had in effect gave up the good fight, and resigned. A minority Liberal government called a general election and won a landslide.
Balfour had an ace up his sleeve: the Lords veto. The Tories had done this before: Gladstone’s second Home Rule Bill was defeated in the Lords in 1893, and the Lords had vetoed much of Roseberry’s proposed legislation in 1894-95. Now, Balfour allowed a series of social reforms to be passed. However, if a bill was too ‘narrowly Liberal’, it was vetoed: Campbell Bannerman’s attempt to end plural voting, and his Education Bill were vetoed, as was a Licensing Bill in 1908. In the same year, they were also minded to veto old age pensions. However, by constitutional precedent, the Lords did not veto finance bills: Asquith designated the Pensions Bill as such, and it had passed.
Then, their lordships overstepped the mark. And this time the plot was lost over Lloyd George’s People’s Budget, in 1909. Against all constitutional norms, they vetoed it. A genuine constitutional crisis ensued.
That crisis was only ended by two general elections and the extraction of a promise from the new king, Edward VII, that in the event of the Liberals winning the second election then he would threaten to create enough Liberal peers to force the budget through, if the Tories did not give way. In the end, both elections were a draw between the Liberals and Conservatives (both had 272 seats in December 1910). However, the Liberals had the support of 42 Labour MPs, and 84 from the nationalist Irish Parliamentary Party.
That support came at a price: home rule.
The other part of the deal struck with the king was that a new Liberal government would change the constitution. The Tories were now faced with a choice: fight in the last ditch, or Hedge, and salvage what they could. The Hedgers won.
The Parliament Act of 1911 stripped the Lords of their right of absolute veto. Instead, it was now suspensory: they could reject any bill (except a finance one) twice. The third time, they would have to pass it. And that meant that the Lords could no longer stop home rule.
At least, stop it constitutionally.
Back in 1886, there had been riots in both Britain and Belfast against the idea of home rule. However, given the overwhelming majority against it in the Lords, there was something of the air of political ritual to it, as there was to the Tories’ playing of what Lord Randolph Churchill (yes, Winston’s father) called ‘the Orange card’, by supporting what he privately called ‘those foul Ulster Tories’. It made for good politics, though. In 1886, it led to Joseph Chamberlain’s departure from the Liberal Party: he and his Liberal Unionists became, in effect, Tories. The Whig peers, as noted above, also boarded the Tory ship.
Thing were different now. In the first place, the Irish unionists were ready for battle. Sir Edward Carson was a Dublin unionist, determined to stop home rule coming to Dublin. The problem was that in most of Ireland there was an overwhelming majority for it. The exception was the northeast corner of Ulster, including Belfast, in which the majority were Protestant. Carson looked to use that fact to stop Home Rule. Even before the bill was put to parliament, Carson began to campaign (below).
Aside from marches across all the UK, the real heart of resistance was in Ulster. At the time of the Scottish rebellion against Charles I, the rebels had signed a covenant: they would fight to defend their Protestantism. The Unionists now did the same.
The presiding genius of unionist resistance was, in fact, James Craig (above). It was Craig who knew how best to harness the fact that the politics and the identity politics of the northeast had a very particular nature, and vehemence. Ulster would be right, and it would certainly be up for a fight. Up for a fight it was: the Ulster Volunteer Force was formed, and armed. Some 30,000 rifles were illegally imported via the port of Larne, and ammunition. The Unionists were threatening to stop home rule by force. Ireland was on the brink of civil conflict.
Worse than that, the UVF had the support of the Tories. After Balfour had been forced out, the Tories were now led by Andrew Bonar Law (you can read about him here). In 1912, Law had told his conference:
I can imagine no length of resistance to which Ulster will go, which I will not be ready to support.
In part, this was good politics. The House of Lords crisis had been a shattering blow to the Tories. Unionism, and opposition to home rule, was an issue Tories could unite around. It also gave them a means to undermine, and quite possibly bring down, the government. By the time things were building to a head in 1914, the government was in crisis, quite possibly on the verge of collapse. The likes of Churchill and Lloyd George (no great friends of home rule) were making noises about a national government. The Liberals had lost by-elections; the Tories could smell the possibility of a return to power.
The smell was one of playing with fire to do so, however. In the first place, the official opposition were openly supporting a group that were threatening to use armed force against the legitimately established government, and the law. It was worse than that. Sixty army officers, based at the Curragh in Co Kildare, had told the war office that they would resign their commission rather than take on the UVF in Ulster. Or, to put it more simply: the army would not obey the orders of their government.
Britain was on the brink of the most serious constitutional crisis in its modern history.
It also aroused fierce passions, and not just in Ireland. As Dan Jackson has pointed out, in Britain itself Carson drew massive crowds, totalling hundreds of thousands, in opposition to home rule; many of them signed a British covenant, promising to fight.
It wasn’t just Ireland that was on the verge of civil conflict. Unionism, anti-Catholicism and the reaction to large-scale Irish immigration were all potent forces in Edwardian Britain: Carson and Bonar Law played upon them. Reckless populism is hardly a new phenomenon.
In the end, the crisis was averted, or at least put off, when war came. By the time the Irish issue returned (with the Easter Rising in 1916, the conscription crisis of 1918, the rise of Sinn Fein and the war of independence), the political landscape had been transformed on both sides of the Irish Sea.
What the outcome of the home rule crisis would been had war not broken out we shall never know. It’s probably fair to say that there were no straightforward ones. The worst of all outcomes would surely have been an outright rebellion by Craig and the UVF. The government might have then decided to try and finesse a political solution. In that case, constitutional politics would have lost out to paramilitary politics, the threat of violence and even actual violence itself. Had the government resisted, civil conflict would probably have ensued. We can test case that in part: civil conflict did ensue in Ireland after the war, and it did not go well.
In the short term, the UVF were much better organised than their nationalist equivalent, the Irish Volunteers (though how effective the UVF would have been as a military force is open to dispute). Nonetheless, some kind of sectarian violence was at least possible, as the troubles of the later part of the century show.
The home rule issue had another danger. Civil conflict could, conceivably, spilled over into Great Britain; it was even more likely to spill over from Great Britain into Ireland, as volunteers headed across the Irish Sea to Ulster.
The greatest danger of all, though, was to British politics. A quick glance at inter-war Europe shows that democratic constitutional politics was a vulnerable entity. In the first place, democracy and constitutionality are compatible, but not always. 19th century opponents of democracy feared that it would give power to the demagogue, to the rabid populists. A quick glance at the modern world shows the possibility of that. What defends democracy from demagoguery is, in part, constitutionality. When politics hits the streets and (and especially if it dons a uniform), constitutional politics is in trouble.
In the inter-war years, some young democracies feel prey to the demagogues like Mussolini and Hitler. Others were subverted by what we might call the old authoritarian right: the likes of Horthy in Hungary, or Salazar in Portugal. The previous articles in this series have argued that the Conservative Party of Baldwin was central to the stability and viability of constitutional democracy in inter-war Britain. Constitutional conservative parties that could win in a democracy were in short supply in those years.
In the home rule crisis, the Conservative Party of Bonar Law did more than just dally with unconstitutional politics. It threatened to support an armed rebellion against a legitimate government and an Act of Parliament. Bonar Law (above), who was more judicious in private than he was in public, was playing a dangerous game: ‘There are things stronger than parliamentary majorities’, he famously said in 1912.
The danger is evident in the possible outcomes. In one scenario, the crisis would bring the government down. Thus, the Tories would have played the unconstitutional card and won: it would surely have proved tempting thereafter. Or, the government could have successfully got home rule through somehow, perhaps with the cooperation of Bonar Law after a deal had been struck. Then, embittered unionists would associate constitutional party politics with defeat, even betrayal: this would have been unionism’s Dolchstoßlegende, the stab in the back. At the very least, the attachment to constitutional politics within unionism, and some unionists especially, would have been loosened; other things mighty have gone on to loosen that attachment still further. In short, the Conservative Party of Baldwin was not a given. Like conservative forces in much of Europe, British Conservatism could have gone down a much more dangerous path.
It is always interesting to speculate about general elections that never were (1978, 1939). One is 1915. Some see it as almost a given that it would have seen the Tories return to power; others, such as Martin Pugh, believe that the Liberals would have been returned (especially given the support for the Irish and Labour). One possible outcome of an election, or of the conference on home rule headed by George V in 1914, perhaps doesn’t perhaps get the attention it deserves. For all his rhetoric, Bonar Law would go on to prove to be very much a statesman (you can read about him here). He, like Austen Chamberlain, would go on to forge a close political relationship with Lloyd George. Even as the campaigns over the House of Lords and home rule raged, both Churchill and Lloyd George had made noises about a national government. The national government of 1916 would, ultimately, help set in train the process that would redraw the party lines of British politics (see the earlier post in this series: Political Crises We have Known (1): 1931 and all That, parts one, two and three)
In all sorts of ways, the home rule crisis might well have meant the end of the Edwardian way of doing politics in Britain that was ended by the Great War anyway (it just would have ended differently, and quite possibly with very different consequences). We’ll look at Ireland next time. For now though, not so much the Irish backstop, as the Irish full stop.
I wonder what, in years to come, the younger readers of this blog might be one day writing about the Irish Question of 2019.