There is therefore evidence to argue that the â€˜Hawarden kiteâ€™ (17 December
1885) did not create popular support for Irish self-government, but
rather unexpectedly elevated the issue to the top of the Liberal partyâ€™s
agenda. As already indicated above, at the time it was not even clear
that Home Rule would be more controversial than other radical causes.
Reynoldsâ€™s, for example, took it for granted that it would go ahead as a
bipartisan proposal,80 but urged its readers to â€˜rally around Mr Gladstone
who is always ahead of his partyâ€™. In view of the fact that for months it had
harassed Gladstone over the shortcomings of his land reform policy and
the wanton bloodshed in the Sudan, this was a remarkable and indicative
shift. Pointing out that the Irish â€˜voted for self-government in the pro-
portion of eight to one so far as the electorate is concernedâ€™, it insisted that
â€˜[t]he solemn vote of a people, constitutionally taken, is not to be
explained away like agrarian outrage or boycottingâ€™.81 Typically, it argued
that the democratic awakening of the Irish was a good thing for the British
Empire because â€˜the will of the people is the only legitimate source of
powerâ€™. Home Rule would strengthen the real bonds holding it together,
as it had â€˜for the Dominions, and for Australasiaâ€™, countries which
Reynoldsâ€™s regarded as providing the blueprint for Irish liberty.82
On the day Gladstone was asked to form his third government the
veteran Chartist journalist Lloyd Jones tackled Home Rule, which he now
identified as the most urgent issue before the country. That the Act of
Union was a sacred â€˜fundamental lawâ€™ he dismissed as mere â€˜supersti-
tionâ€™. To him
Home Rule [was] as legitimate a subject for legislative action as Local Option or
Sunday Closing . . . The authority of Parliament is not self-derived; it exists and
acts only by the will of the nation, as that may be more or less legitimately
expressed; and should the nation to-morrow [sic] recognise the necessity of setting
up a Parliament in each of the British islands, as well as in Ireland and Scotland,
there is no constitutional authority by which such determination could be
It also meant that, though Ireland was â€˜a nationâ€™, it was not more distinc-
tive than any of the other three nations comprising the Kingdom.
â€˜The prospects of political partiesâ€™, RN, 3 Jan. 1886, 1.
L.a., â€˜The legislative Unionâ€™, RN, 10 Jan. 1886, 1.
L.a., â€˜The dead-lock in Irelandâ€™, RN, 24 Jan. 1886, 1.
Lloyd Jones, â€˜The Queenâ€™s Speech and Irelandâ€™, NW, 30 Jan. 1886, 4. Cf. l.a., â€˜The new
governmentâ€™, RN, 7 Feb. 1886, 1: â€˜A political expedient eighty-five years old could only
be called â€˜â€˜a fundamental lawâ€™â€™ by a perversion of languageâ€™; see also l.a., â€˜The Church in
Walesâ€™, RN, 14 Mar. 1886, 1.
68 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
Moreover, Lloyd Jones insisted that Ireland was not two nations, denying
that Ulster had any special rights. This is quite interesting in view of
Gladstoneâ€™s similar inability to appreciate the strength of Unionism in the
North-East. According to Lloyd Jones the latter was to be dismissed as a
conspiracy and its English advocates as seditious: â€˜The policy of Lord
Randolph is very simple, because it is a policy of rebellion of the North
against the South. The Irish people are wrong in going to rebellion to
obtain a parliament, but according to Lord Randoph Churchill a portion
of the Irish people will be justified in rebellion because they have got a
By the same token and with few exceptions,85 most radicals and Lib-
labs did not appreciate the importance of Gladstoneâ€™s proposal of land
purchase as part of a policy of national reconciliation. On the contrary,
they regarded it as an attempt to make the tax-payer bail out Irish â€˜land-
robbersâ€™.86 In this respect it is interesting to follow the reactions of
Reynoldsâ€™s to the various stages of the crisis. The editors denounced the
Land Bill and compared it to the 1833â€“8 compensation to slave owners
for the emancipation of their bondservants, an outrageous ransom for a
class of â€˜obnoxious rentiersâ€™.87 Gladstone was no longer the hero he
had been in January, but a villain plotting to establish â€˜caucus dictator-
shipâ€™ in Britain, a man as dangerous as Charles I had been in the seven-
teenth century. Gladstoneâ€™s credibility was further undermined by
Chamberlainâ€™s resignation from the government: if â€˜the rising hope of
the Democratic partyâ€™88 felt bound to leave the government there must
be something sinister going on behind the scenes. However, all such
doubts were dispelled once the Home Rule Bill was actually published
and widely circulated both in the press and as a penny pamphlet.89 Now
Gladstone was (once again) â€˜the old man eloquentâ€™ who â€˜at seventy-seven
L.a., â€˜The Irish parliament and Ulsterâ€™, RN, 28 Feb. 1886, 1.
E.g. the Durham minersâ€™ leader W. Crawford, who was also prepared to support the
Land Purchase Bill, though the latter â€˜may need modification in committeeâ€™: letter read
at a meeting at the Colliery Institute, Brandeis Colliery, in rep., The Durham Chronicle,
7 May 1886, 8.
G. O. Trevelyan to A. J. Mundella, 30 Sep. 1882, in Mundella Papers, Sheffield
University Library, GP/15/241/iâ€“ii/iii. Cf. the editorials in WT, 2 May 1886, 8â€“9; â€˜Irish
land purchaseâ€™, RN, 25 Nov. 1888, 1, and â€˜Buy or go: the new Tory policyâ€™, RN, 2 Dec.
1888, 1. On the wider debate within the party see G. D. Goodlad, â€˜The Liberal party and
Gladstoneâ€™s Land Purchase Bill of 1886â€™, Historical Journal, 32, 3 (1989), 627â€“41.
L.a., â€˜Breakers aheadâ€™, RN, 21 Mar. 1886, 1.
L.a., â€˜The situationâ€™, RN, 4 Apr. 1886, 1.
W. E. Gladstone, The Government of Ireland Bill (1886), Gladstone Library, Bristol Univ.
Library 9579. GLA. By contrast, his pamphlet on The Irish Land Bill (1881) had been
published at the comparatively high price of sixpence (ibid., DA 957.9).
Home Rule in context 69
set an example of lion-like courage to us allâ€™.90 He made â€˜the cause of the
British and Irish Democracy his own, and challenge[d] the oligarchy to
Yet, even at this stage Chamberlain continued to attract radical sym-
pathy on account of the flaws in the Bill, which proposed the withdrawal
of Irish MPs from Westminster. This was unacceptable to radicals
because it would have exposed Ireland to taxation without representa-
tion, and, as the Lib-lab MP Thomas Burt reminded his constituents,â€˜tax-
ation without representation is tyrannyâ€™.92 In order to defend the Home
Rule principle, rather than the Bill itself, Burt downplayed the details of
Gladstoneâ€™s proposal. He said that he â€˜trustedâ€™ that the GOM would find
a solution to the problem of imperial representation as he had already
promised â€˜to call back the Irish members whenever there [was] to be any
alteration in the taxation relating to Ireland, and also to adopt some
means of giving them a voice in the discussion of Imperial affairsâ€™. On
the other hand, Burt criticized Chamberlainâ€™s â€˜preposterousâ€™ counter-
proposal that Irish representation at Westminster should remain
unchanged. Thus, while the Bill as it stood was â€˜unacceptableâ€™, it did
provide the necessary starting point for a wider discussion about the
future of both the Union and the empire as a whole. The latter could be
turned into â€˜a confederated Empire with delegates from the Colonies to
form an Imperial assembly in place of the House of Lordsâ€™.93
Imperial federationism helped to sideline the question of Irish repre-
sentation at Westminster: Home Rule became a matter of principle and a
vision for the future of the whole United Kingdom.94 As Dilke wrote to
Chamberlain on 7 April,
I believe from what I see of my caucus, and from the two large public meetings we
have had for discussion, that the great mass of the party will go for Repeal [of the
Union], though fiercely against the land [Bill]. Enough will go the other way to
risk all the seats, but the party will go for Repeal, and sooner or later now Repeal
will come, whether or not we have a dreary period of coercion first.95
When it became clear that the Premier was prepared to drop the Land
Bill, the emotional tension surrounding Home Rule spiralled out of
L.a., â€˜The Home Rule schemeâ€™, RN, 18 Apr. 1886, 1.
L.a., â€˜Mr Gladstoneâ€™s manifestoâ€™, RN, 9 May 1886, 1.
Rep., The Northern Echo, 31 May 1886, 4, speech by T. Burt, MP.
W. J. Rowlands to T. E. Ellis, 28 July 1888, in T. E. Ellis MSS, 1903; see also
E. Richardson, â€˜The Federation of the British Empireâ€™, Primitive Methodist Quarterly
Review, Oct. 1886, 672â€“83.
See l.a., â€˜Federationâ€™, RN, 30 May 1886, 1.
Cited in Jenkins, Dilke, 254. For similar reports about rank-and-file enthusiasm for Home
Rule in 1886 see P. Lynch, The Liberal party in rural England, 1885â€“1910 (2003), 48â€“50, 120.
70 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
control. While many Radicals and caucus members started to denounce
the Birmingham leader as a â€˜Judasâ€™,96 Reynoldsâ€™s persisted in treating him
with respect,97 hoping that a reconciliation between the peopleâ€™s cham-
pions â€“ the GOM and the â€˜Rising Hope of Democracyâ€™ â€“ would still be
possible. Indeed its editors decried the personal and emotional nature of
the debate, which, besides causing unnecessary offence, pre-empted any
rational discussion of Home Rule.98
There is evidence to suggest that it was not so much Chamberlainâ€™s
â€˜betrayalâ€™ that incensed popular radicals, as his readiness to play the
â€˜Orange cardâ€™. Thus in a scathing attack on his Ulster policy, Burt said
that he was â€˜sorry that in connection with this question there should have
been any attempt, direct or indirect, to foment religious bigotry . . . I still
more regret that any man who calls himself a Radical should have uttered
a single word tending to increase religious animosity.â€™ Pointing out that in
Parliament there were five Protestant Nationalists who represented Irish
Catholic constituencies, he concluded:
I have no special sympathy with the Roman Catholic hierarchy; but I will say
this, because truth demands it, that the Irish people in the South of Ireland
have shown less narrow-mindedness and bigotry than those in the Northern
parts of Ireland, and I will add, much less than we in England, and Scotland,
and Wales . . . I would ask you to look at the fact that all the great popular leaders
of the Irish party, from Grattan to Parnell . . . with the exception of Daniel
Oâ€™Connell, have been Protestants.99
Another miner â€˜ridiculed the fears of reprisals on the part of the Catholics
towards their Protestant neighboursâ€™ and argued that the Irish question
was social, not religious: â€˜[t]he condition of Ireland in some parts was
deplorable. The pigsties in this country were often superior to the dwell-
ings of the Irish peasantry, and under Home Rule there would be some
hope of improvement.â€™100
There was no question: the activists were on the war path. What
remained unclear was the extent to which the intensity of the feelings they
expressed affected the mass of the electors. Henry Labouchere thought
that â€˜the masses care very little about Ireland . . . [and] would be glad to
have the question settled . . . But justice to Ireland does not arouse their
enthusiasm, unless it be wrapped up in what they regard as justice to
Goodlad, â€˜Gladstone and his rivalsâ€™, 163â€“83; Lynch, Liberal party, 122.
L.a., â€˜Nearing the endâ€™, RN, 6 June 1886, 1.
L.a., â€˜Solution or dissolution?â€™, RN, 25 Apr. 1886, 1.
Rep., The Northern Echo, 31 May 1886, 4, speech by T. Burt, MP.
Rep., â€˜Sir Henry Havelock-Allan and his Constituentsâ€™, The Northern Echo, 31 May
1886, 4, speech by trade union delegate Logan.
Home Rule in context 71
themselves.â€™101 Linking Home Rule to justice for the English workers
soon became one of the strategies adopted by Liberal spin doctors. As we
have seen, Parnell had been the first to play the card as early as 1881, and
later Michael Davitt refined this rhetorical device. Now Lib-lab leaders
and Home Rule agitators appealed to the solidarity which British workers
should feel with reportedly persecuted fellow-labourers in Ireland and
claimed that Home Rule would improve their lot so much that they would
no longer feel the need to emigrate â€“ thus easing the pressure on the
British labour market.102 In any case, what A. J. Reid has defined as the
central feature of the labour political tradition â€“ namely, â€˜considerations
of humanity and social justiceâ€™ â€“ came to dominate the Gladstonian
gospel which was being preached to the poor.103 Home Rule was a policy
â€˜of justice, humanity and expediencyâ€™. It would â€˜restore law and orderâ€™
and fulfil â€˜[t]he principles of religious and civil liberty; of political morality
and sound policyâ€™.104 Speaking at a meeting in Tysoe, South
Warwickshire, Joseph Ashby highlighted the similarities between the
plight of the Irish and that of English farm workers, including â€˜land
hungerâ€™, resentment against squirearchy and the peopleâ€™s aspiration â€˜to
manage their own affairsâ€™. Home Rule was about â€˜[letting] the Irish
improve their own country, take their own problems in handâ€™. Who
wanted to stop it? The same class that opposed land reform in the village
As Patricia Lynch has written, â€˜in the months preceding the 1886
election, it seemed as if the Liberal party might be able to survive the
Home Rule crisis with its rural support intactâ€™. Party officials observed
considerable enthusiasm for the measure among the newly enfranchised
electors: it was only in July that it emerged that such fervour was limited to
â€˜a core of active Liberal supportersâ€™, with â€˜rural voters in general [being]
sceptical of the ideaâ€™.106 Whether the farm workers were sceptical or
H. Labouchere to H. Gladstone, 9 July 1886, cited in M. Hurst, Joseph Chamberlain and
Liberal reunion: the round table conference of 1887 (1967), 378.
Rep., â€˜Mr Davitt on Home Ruleâ€™, a meeting in the Town Hall, Barrow-in-Furness, FJ,
31 May 1886, 5. The meeting demanded that the sitting MP for the borough vote for the
second reading of the Home Rule Bill; Mr Woolanan cited in report, â€˜Mr Dillon in
Cardiffâ€™, Cardiff Times and South Wales Weekly News, 10 July 1886, 2. Cf. J. Graham
Jones, â€˜Michael Davitt, David Lloyd George and T. E. Ellis: the Welsh experience,
1886â€™, Welsh History Review, 18 (1996â€“7), 450â€“82.
A. J. Reid, â€˜Old Unionism reconsideredâ€™, in Biagini and Reid (eds.), Currents of
Radicalism, 223. For a specific example see W. Crawford, letter read at a meeting at
the Colliery Institute, Brandeis Colliery, in rep., The Durham Chronicle, 7 May 1886, 8.
G. Howell, â€˜To the electors of the North-East division of Bethnal Greenâ€™, 21 June 1886,
in Howell Collection, microfilm edition, I/5, P6.
M. K. Ashby, Joseph Ashby of Tysoe, 1859â€“1899 (1974), 120â€“1. Cf. Lynch, Liberal party, 120.
Lynch, Liberal party.
72 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
merely confused and intimidated, Ashby and his friends were unable
to mobilize them. By contrast, the efforts of the minersâ€™ leaders in
the north-east of England and in Wales were largely successful. They
relied on the discipline and loyalty of the largely unionized and predomi-
nantly Nonconformist pitmen. In Northumberland this was aided by pre-
existing feelings â€˜thoroughly and heartily in favour of the principle of
Home Ruleâ€™, as Tom Burt put it.107 On the other hand, in Yorkshire
observers commented that â€˜the boundless enthusiasm . . . everywhere . . .
displayedâ€™ for Home Rule constituted a new departure:
Had anyone a few months ago prophesied that now the English democracy would
be as enthusiastic in the cause of Home Rule for Ireland as the most devoted
Nationalists themselves, he would . . . have been scouted as a lunatic. But it is the
case. The masses are everywhere aroused . . . The popular success now means
much more than even the grant of justice to Ireland: it means nothing less than the
complete vindication of the popular cause, the splendid triumph of the popular