Irish Home Rule and votes for women. In itself even their public advocacy
of Home Rule was intended as a statement of their political rights:
â€˜But what tom-foolery is this!â€™ some will say, as they hear or read of our meeting.
What do we want with women coming with their sickly sentimentality, mixing
themselves up in politics, talking about matters they cannot understand, when
they rely only on their own feelings to guide them? And yet we here presume
to think that it is just because we can assert the fact that this resolution represents
the feeling of many thousands of thinking, high-minded women, that it possesses
a significance of its own. We believe that when we ask our president
[Mrs Gladstone] to convey the expression of this meeting to her husband that
he will attach a special value to it because it comes from women.226
North of the border, from the start the Federation of Scottish Womenâ€™s
Liberal Associations combined social activism with political radicalism,
demanding (in this order) independence from the WLF, Home Rule and
no coercion for Ireland, the rejection of Irish land purchase, the partyâ€™s
adoption of both womenâ€™s suffrage and right to be elected as county
councillors, municipal control of liquor traffic and international arbitra-
tion. They gave special emphasis to the call for trade union organization
For an example of how women were supposed to influence their partners see A labourerâ€™s
views on Home Rule (1886), a penny pamphlet in the Bishopsgate Institute Library.
Walker, â€˜Party political womenâ€™, 168; Pugh, March of the women, 133.
Pugh, March of the women, 133. 224 Walker, â€˜Party political womenâ€™, 169.
Pugh, March of the women, 133.
The Countess of Aberdeen moving the Home Rule Resolution at the 1888 meeting of
the Womenâ€™s Liberal Federation, 6 Nov. 1888, in The Womenâ€™s Liberal Federation
Annual Reports, 1888, 123.
94 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
among working-class women, a demand whose urgency depended on the
whole question of female oppression within the labour market. In partic-
ular, while â€˜a large number of women must maintain themselves . . . these,
as a rule, are compelled to work very long hours for most inadequate payâ€™,
and this induced some of them to seek relief through the pursuit of â€˜viceâ€™ â€“
â€˜[prostitution] among women [being] caused by poverty due to the diffi-
culty of earning a livelihoodâ€™.227 Thus there emerged a feeling that Home
Rule and womenâ€™s political rights were the twin pillars of a new and
inclusively democratic liberalism,228 as humanitarianism was applied to
social reform and the campaign against sweated labour.
The power of this mixture of moralism and politics was illustrated by
the partyâ€™s response to the sexual scandals involving Sir Charles Dilke and
C. S. Parnell. When each was convicted of adultery â€“ the former in 1886,
the latter in 1890 â€“ Liberal women felt they had a special responsibility to
purify the party and â€˜[uplift] the standards of morality in a way that never
has been done beforeâ€™.229 Rejecting Parnellâ€™s leadership became tanta-
mount to asserting a universal moral principle, namely that â€˜[a] man with
stained character . . . can never hold high public office in this country
againâ€™.230 Women stood to gain from a campaign which took sexual
purity as the standard, and the scandals both highlighted the extent to
which the core values of feminine liberalism had wide currency within the
party, especially its Nonconformist wing,231 and fuelled Liberal womenâ€™s
self-confidence and assertiveness.
Over the following three years a new radicalism swept the WLF and
transformed its leadership. Catherine Gladstone resigned from the office
of president in 1893, as she felt unable to reconcile herself with the rising
tide of suffragism. She was replaced, in turn, by two pro-suffragists: Lady
Aberdeen and Lady Carlisle. Eventually the WLF split over the issue of
womenâ€™s political rights, with a minority anti-suffrage Womenâ€™s National
Liberal Association breaking away with 10,000 members and 5,060
branches, but leaving behind an even more militant WLF. The latterâ€™s
Womenâ€™s Liberal Association for Glasgow and The West of Scotland Conference
of Delegates from Womenâ€™s Liberal Associations, 20 Oct. 1890, SLA Papers, NLS,
The Aberdare Womenâ€™s Liberal Association to Mrs T. E. Ellis, 14 Apr. 1899, NLW,
T. E. Ellis MSS, A. C. 3182; J. D. T., â€˜Women and politicsâ€™, Primitive Methodist
Quarterly Review, July 1886, 532â€“46; l.a., â€˜Women to the front!â€™, RN, 22 Apr. 1888, 4.
J. E. Ellis to T. E. Ellis, 22 Jan. 1891, in Ellis MSS. 5141. Similar feelings were expressed
publicly in â€˜The Right Hon. W. E. Gladstone, MPâ€™, printed leaflet dated 6 Dec. 1890,
from the Liberal Association of the Constituency of Midlothian, SLA Papers, NLS,
J. E. Ellis to T. E. Ellis, 22 Jan. 1891, in Ellis MSS, 5141.
Glaser, â€˜Parnellâ€™s fall and the Nonconformist conscienceâ€™, 138.
Home Rule in context 95
commitment to the womenâ€™s cause was apparently restrained only by
their even more complete dedication to Home Rule. As Aberdeen wrote
to Edward Blake, â€˜We represent some 80,000 women, the majority of
whom are terribly in earnest.â€™232
Meanwhile feminine liberalism also tackled the sphere of social reform,
showing an interest in the Poor Law system, with the demand for equal
pay for officers, irrespective of sex differences.233 Concern about equality
in the workplace inspired the Scottish Womenâ€™s Liberal Federation
(SWLF) to campaign for causes ranging from equal access to university
education to the reduction of shop assistantsâ€™ working hours and the
formation of trade unions for working women, which they advocated
under the heading â€˜Home Rule apart from Politicsâ€™.234 The SWLF was
bound by its constitution not only â€˜[t]o secure just and equal legislation and
representation for women, especially with reference to the Parliamentary
Franchise, and the removal of all legal disabilities on account of sexâ€™, but
also â€˜to protect the interest of childrenâ€™.235 In England, the WLF supported
such aims and also developed a new interest in collectivism and state
intervention. Though their reformist attitude was shaped more by their
practical experience in local government than collectivist theory, as Pugh
has pointed out, â€˜[t]hey were one of several movements leading the party
towards the â€˜â€˜New Liberalismâ€™â€™ around the turn of the centuryâ€™.236 For the
politics of humanitarianism was as applicable to social reform as it was to
either the Irish question or international relations.
The Celtic fringe
In 1886 the Liberals in Scotland achieved their worst result since 1832,
with the Tories securing ten seats and the Liberal Unionists seventeen.
If these figures indicate the strength of Unionism north of the border â€“ a
subject which has attracted much scholarly attention in recent years237 â€“ we
Ishbel Aberdeen to Edward Blake, 27 Mar. 1893, in Blake Papers, NLI, 4685; see also
Rosalind Carlisle, President of he Womenâ€™s Liberal Federation, to E. Blake, 31 Jan. 1897,
in ibid.,  4687. For the context see Pugh, March of the women, 135; C. Roberts, The
radical countess: the history of the life of Rosalind Countess of Carlisle (1962), 117.
Rep., â€˜Pontypridd Womenâ€™s Liberal Associationâ€™, 17 Feb. 1893, 6.
Exec. C.ttee, 26 Jan. 1892, SWLF, Minute Book No. 1, 30â€“3, NLS, Acc. 11765/20;
Literature Committee, 13 May 1891, 41, SWLF, Minute Book No. 1, ibid.
Constitution and Rules of the Scottish Womenâ€™s Liberal Federation, SLA Papers, 21,
SWLF, Minute Book No. 1, 1891â€“5, 1â€“2, ibid.
Pugh, March of the Women, 136.
Hutchison, A political history of Scotland, 162ff. Cf. C. MacDonald (ed.), Unionist
Scotland, 1800â€“1997 (Edinburgh,1998) and C. Burness, Strange associations: the Irish
question and the making of Scottish Unionism, 1886â€“1918 (2003).
96 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
should not lose sight of the fact that they also show that two-thirds of the
Scottish constituencies remained in Gladstonian hands. Cooke and
Vincent have argued that this was achieved only because of the GOMâ€™s
personal popularity and charisma,238 while Hutchison has surmised that
Unionism acquired considerable following even within radical Liberalism.
On the other hand, Scottish Liberal Unionists were themselves in some
ways â€˜nationalistâ€™. Many of them opposed Home Rule partly because it was
limited to Ireland, but would have been ready to contemplate devolution as
part of a federal or â€˜Home Rule all roundâ€™ programme.239
In any case, it is remarkable that right from the start the Scottish
â€˜caucusâ€™ was ready to endorse Gladstoneâ€™s proposal: in fact, the
Scottish Liberal Association (SLA) took the lead, adopting Home Rule
at the end of April, a week before the NLF took a similar decision.240
Home Rule had its attractions for the SLA. In particular, it was perceived
as implying a broad set of policies and principles affecting the rights
and prospects of the rural poor (of which northern Scotland had its
share). Coercion was â€˜revolutionary in character . . . and . . . subversive
of any real union between Great Britain and Irelandâ€™, because it manipu-
lated the law and was â€˜directed against political opinion in the interests of
a dominant minorityâ€™.241 In this respect it was â€˜a menace to the rights and
liberties of a free peopleâ€™ and â€˜destructive of any real union between Great
Britain and Irelandâ€™: â€˜it declares to be criminal what has hitherto been
regarded as a lawful and fundamental civil right; and . . . it deprives the
Irish people of vital constitutional safeguards against the despotic abuse
of criminal lawâ€™.242
These views were further strengthened by the report of the SLA com-
mittee which visited Ireland in 1887 â€“ one of the many Liberal â€˜fact-
finding missionsâ€™ on the effects of coercion.243 En route to Dublin from
Belfast, the Scottish delegates were met at the main stations by â€˜crowdsâ€™
and presented with welcome addresses. In Dublin they â€˜were received by
Cooke and Vincent, Governing passion, 435â€“6.
E. A. Cameron, The life and times of Fraser Mackintosh Crofter MP (2000), 165â€“7.
Barker, Gladstone and radicalism, 107.
Meeting of General Council, SLA, 20 Apr. 1887, 30, NLS, Acc. 11765/4.
The Scottish Liberal Association, National Conference of Liberal Associations in the
Waterloo Room, Glasgow, 3 June 1887, resolution proposed by T. C. Hedderwick, South
Lanarkshire, seconded by R. Cunninghame-Graham, MP, West Perthshire (vol. XL,
SLA Meeting and Conference Agendas 1885â€“91), NLS, Acc. 11765/35. Cunninghame-
Graham was involved in the Trafalgar Square riots of November 1887, when he was
arrested by the police (Rep., â€˜Serious riots in Londonâ€™, RN, 20 Nov. 1887, 6).
Heyck, Dimensions, 191â€“5; cf. G. Shaw Lefevre, Incidents of coercion: a journal of visits to
Ireland in 1882 and 1888 (1889); Shaw Lefevre, Mr John Morley, MP, in Tipperary. Why
he went and what he saw (1890).
Home Rule in context 97
the lord Mayor, the leaders of the Nationalist party, and a prodigious
concourse of people, who conveyed them, with bands of music and much
cheering, to the Imperial Hotel, Sackville Streetâ€™.244 Over the following
days the delegation met with similarly enthusiastic receptions and large
meetings in Mitchelstown, Cork and Limerick.245 They were impressed.
On returning to Scotland, they produced a report which described the
National League as â€˜a lawful and orderly combination of the people
for mutual defenceâ€™, one which â€˜invariably exercises its powerful
influence for the maintenance of social order and the suppression
of violence and crimeâ€™. The League was a truly â€˜nationalâ€™ organization,
with â€˜branches everywhere, [and] includ[ed] in its membership the best
men of each district, and usually the Priest of the Parishâ€™. Even more
important was what the report said about the politics of the National
League: â€˜[this] great national organisation . . . virtually [carries]
into practice the great Liberal principle of â€˜â€˜Government by the people
for the peopleâ€™â€™â€™. Both its methods and its programme were deemed to
be consistent with Gladstonian Liberalism: â€˜It has taught the people
that moral influences, directed within constitutional limits, are the
most powerful instruments of defence against agrarian injustice and
oppression â€“ the root cause, as everyone knows, of Irelandâ€™s miseries.â€™246
â€˜The deputies had opportunities of examining the operation of the
Plan of Campaignâ€™ which was â€˜another organisation for mutual defence,
but not associated with the National Leagueâ€™. They were impressed
with â€˜the absolute necessity of some such method of defence, if the
tenantry on rackrented estates were to be saved from ruin and dispersion
at the hands of semi-bankrupt landlordsâ€™. The aim of government coer-
cion was â€˜the suppression of all such combinations in the interest of the
landowning class and of the holders of land bonds . . . the position
amounts to nothing short of civil war in Irelandâ€™. Yet, â€˜[t]he National
League opposes a fierce defiance to the Coercion raids of Dublin Castle,
and counsels the people to maintain stolid resistance and patient endur-
ance of consequences, be these what they mayâ€™.247 As for the Catholic
clergy, the Presbyterian Scots took a remarkably generous view of their
social and political role:
Being constitutionally Conservative, they [the priests] refrained, as a body, from
helping actively the development of the National League, until the progress of
events made it expedient and necessary in the interest of their country that they
Report of deputies commissioned to visit Ireland by the Executive of the Scottish Liberal
Association, 16 Nov. 1887 (these were G. Beith, C. J. Kerr, JP, J. MacPherson,
H. Smith and Angus Sutherland, the craftersâ€™ MP), 1, in NLS, Acc. 11765/35.
Ibid., 3. 246 Ibid., 3â€“4. 247 Ibid.
98 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
should do so. Their great influence is invariably exercised in the interest of social
order, and the suppression of crime. They manifest a marked anxiety as to the
pernicious effect of Government by coercion, and maintain that Mr Gladstoneâ€™s
Home Rule policy can alone bring peace and prosperity. The deputies were much
impressed with the culture and superiority of the Clergymen with whom they
came in contact, and they cannot speak too highly of the hospitality and kindness
which they experienced at their hands.248
Moreover, the deputies were sanguine about Irelandâ€™s material pros-
pects under Home Rule. The latter would also lead to economic
and demographic growth, with ever closer links with Britain and the
rest of the empire, because, in contrast to Unionist talk about the com-
mercial rivalry which might plague the relationship between Dublin and
London, quite accurately they pointed out that â€˜England would be the
nearest and almost the only outlet for her [Irelandâ€™s] produce, and the
British Empire the great field for her enterprising sons.â€™ They considered
it â€˜a moral certaintyâ€™ that under Home Rule the Union â€˜would rest on the
sure basis of mutual interest . . . and would be clung to by the Irish people
as an element vital to their prosperity and their very existence as a
MacKnight, the great Ulster chronicler, commented that â€˜those polit-
ical tourists . . . [saw] what they wish[ed] to see, and they endeavour[ed]
to see nothing elseâ€™.250 However, it is also true both that they managed to
look at the situation from the Nationalist point of view and that their
enthusiasm for Home Rule was genuine. Indeed, so persuaded were they
about its potential beneficial effect, that they advocated its extension to
both Scotland and Wales. Their report further strengthened the pre-
existing devolutionist tendency among Scottish Liberals. For, although
Hutchison has argued that the party adopted devolution only in 1888, the
SLA passed resolutions demanding Home Rule for both Ireland and
Scotland as early as June 1887.251 In October, they argued that the
urgency of applying Home Rule to all component parts of the United
Kingdom, â€˜and especially to Scotlandâ€™, derived from the fact that â€˜ques-
tions closely touching the welfare of the people, and long ripe for settle-