Ireland can no longer be governed by the suspension of the safeguards of
popular liberty, unless we are prepared to make their suspension the rule
rather than the exception.1
During the past five years . . . [he] has been regarded as the loyal Liberal,
and he alone, who followed Mr Gladstone w[h]ithersoever he went . . .
The great Liberal Party has no creed but Gladstoneism [sic]. This is at
once its strength and its weakness.2
Crisis? What crisis?
â€˜I need scarcely mention that the ministers and religious bodies of all
denominations were against us . . . Perhaps, after all, the strongest force
against me in the fight was that . . . it was decided that the Irish vote should
go Liberal.â€™3 The frustration expressed in these words by a disgruntled
candidate reflected a common experience among Independent Labour
Party (ILP) parliamentary candidates during the thirty years following
the 1886 Home Rule crisis.4 Yet most historians have argued that the
Gladstonian campaign to secure Irish self-government failed to move
working-class electors.5 Indeed, Gladstoneâ€™s adoption of this cause is
L.a., â€˜The battle of to-dayâ€™, NC, 17 Nov. 1868, 4.
G. Brooks, Gladstonian liberalism (1885), ix.
â€˜Special article by Mr John Robertson on the North East Lanark Electionâ€™, Lanarkshire
Minersâ€™ County Union, Reports and Balance Sheets, 1904, 10 (NLS). On the situation in
other parts of Scotland see W. M. Walker, â€˜Irish immigrants in Scotland: their priests,
politics and parochial lifeâ€™, Historical Journal, 15, 4 (1972), 663â€“4; I. G. C. Hutchison,
â€˜Glasgow working-class politicsâ€™, in R. A. Cage (ed.), The working class in Glasgow,
1750â€“1914 (1987), 132â€“3.
For other examples see Ben Tillett, â€˜The lesson of Attercliffeâ€™, WT&E, 15 July 1894, 6,
and Lawgor, â€˜South-West Hamâ€™, ibid., the latter about Keir Hardieâ€™s problems with
Michael Davitt and the Irish vote.
G. R. Searle, The Liberal party: triumph and disintegration, 1886â€“1929 (1992) discusses the
period 1886â€“1905 under the heading â€˜The â€˜â€˜Problem of Labourâ€™â€™ â€™, but does not include a
chapter on â€˜The problem of Irelandâ€™, although the latter was much more of a problem for
the Liberals at the time.
2 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
generally regarded as one of his worst mistakes, brought about by his wish
to retain the party leadership and resist the rising tide of social reform6 â€“
which Joseph Chamberlain and other â€˜advanced Liberalsâ€™ felt to be
absolutely necessary if the party was to retain its popular following.
Consequently, Home Rule has been regarded not as a political strategy
which the party adopted rationally, having considered possible alterna-
tives, but as an ageing leaderâ€™s personal obsession. Allegedly, by imposing
Home Rule on his followers, Gladstone first split the party, then lost his
working-class supporters â€“ thus indirectly â€˜causingâ€™ the foundation of the
Independent Labour Party7 â€“ and eventually led British Liberalism
towards its terminal decline.8 The Liberalsâ€™ defeat in the 1886 election
and their political impotence over the next twenty years have seemed to
bear out this conclusion.
However, there are three main problems with this interpretation, which
effectively sidelines the role of the Irish question in British politics. The
first is that it takes little note of the fact that until 1921 the United
Kingdom included the whole of Ireland and that the total number of
Irish MPs accounted for about one-sixth of the House of Commons.
Even within England, Scotland and Wales, the Irish, as a result of mass
immigration, comprised a sizeable proportion of the working-class voters
in many constituencies and knew how to make best use of their electoral
muscle.9 Thus, politically as well as morally, in the 1880s and 1890s the
Irish question could not be ignored: indeed, more than social reform or
anything else debated in Parliament, Ireland was the pressing question of
the day and was treated as such by both Liberals and Unionists.
The second problem is that Liberal England did not â€˜dieâ€™ in 1886: of
course, it was alive and kicking both in 1906, when Gladstoneâ€™s heirs
achieved a memorable election victory, and indeed throughout the 1910s
and early 1920s. Moreover, even after its eventual â€˜decline and fallâ€™,
liberalism continued to inspire and shape the political outlook of the
main parties, and especially Labour, which from 1918 vied with the
Liberals for Gladstoneâ€™s heritage. Thus the question to be answered
is not about the demise of liberalism, but about its resilience and
J. Oâ€™Farrell, England and Ireland since 1800 (1975), 94; D. A. Hamer, â€˜The Irish Question
and Liberal Politics, 1886â€“1894â€™, in Reactions to Irish Nationalism, intro. by A. Oâ€™Day
T. W. Heyck, â€˜Home Rule, Radicalism and the Liberal partyâ€™, in Reactions to Irish
Nationalism, introd. A. Oâ€™Day (1987), 259; G. D. H. Cole, British working class politics
J. Parry, The rise and fall of Liberal government in Victorian Britain (1993), 306â€“9.
D. A. Hamer, The politics of electoral pressure: a study in the history of Victorian reform
agitations (1977), 315â€“17; Oâ€™Farrell, England and Ireland, 79â€“80, 91.
Home Rule as a â€˜crisis of public conscienceâ€™ 3
pervasiveness, which, rather than undermining, the 1886â€“94 Home Rule
agitation strengthened and further expanded, as Liberal politics went
through a period of rapid transformation and redefinition of the very
meaning of the â€˜libertyâ€™ to which the party was committed.10 Indeed, as
the Liberal Unionists were electorally squeezed out of the political arena,
the Conservative party took on board the rhetoric and some of the policies
of old liberalism. The result was that, as John Dunbabin once put it, while
before 1914 Britain seemed to have two liberal parties, one of which chose
to call itself Unionist, after 1918 it had three, one of which chose to call
itself Labour (significantly, a similar point has been made about politics
The third problem is that historians have tended to consider the Home
Rule crisis in isolation, when arguably it was part of the broader debate on
imperialism, liberty and democracy, which was so important in the
United Kingdom during the late Victorian and Edwardian period.
Therefore, whether one was in favour of or against Home Rule, the
Irish question could not be ignored. Moreover, for those who supported
Irish self-government, the latter became a test case of what the French
democrats called fraternite, which in English could be translated as the
politics of humanitarianism. This influenced a range of issues throughout
the nineteenth century. It was central to Ernest Jonesâ€™ Chartist notion of
â€˜the peopleâ€™, those governed by â€˜their hearts and not their headsâ€™: he
thought that â€˜God had created in mankind a natural love for humanity.â€™12
It was very influential in the development of late Chartism into popular
liberalism and, through pressure groups such as those associated with
Exeter Hall, in the mobilization of anti-imperialism against the early
manifestations of jingoism.13 It was often religious in inspiration â€“ as in
the anti-slavery campaigns â€“ but always non-sectarian. In fact, as
Georgios Varouxakis has argued, a commitment to humanity as a form of
enlightened patriotism brought together Positivists like Frederic Harrison,
Utilitarians like J. S. Mill, Christian socialists like F. D. Maurice and
Idealists like T. H. Green14 â€“ and we could add, Nonconformists such as
the Quaker John Bright and the Baptist John Clifford, campaigners for
J. R. Moore, The transformation of urban liberalism: party politics and urban governance in late
nineteenth-century England (2006), 20, 263.
M. Wolf, â€˜ â€˜â€˜Cameronismâ€™â€™ is empty at the centreâ€™, Financial Times, 20 Jan. 2006, 19.
Dunbabinâ€™s comment was made during the conference â€˜Popular radicalism and party
politics in Britain, 1848â€“1914â€™, Cambridge, 4â€“6 April 1989.
M. Taylor, Ernest Jones, Chartism and the romance of politics, 1819â€“1869 (2003), 255.
M. Finn, After Chartism: class and nation in English radical politics, 1848â€“1874 (1993),
9â€“11, 177â€“9, 203â€“25.
G. Varouxakis, â€˜ â€˜â€˜Patriotismâ€™â€™, â€˜â€˜cosmopolitanismâ€™â€™ and â€˜â€˜humanityâ€™â€™ in Victorian political
thoughtâ€™, European Journal of Political Theory, 5, 1 (2006), 100â€“18.
4 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
womenâ€™s rights and moral reform such as Josephine Butler, or indeed
leaders of the labour movement including Henry Broadhurst and Robert
Knight. In some cases it brought together Evangelicals and Secularists in
campaigns against cruel practices.15 It concerned itself with domestic
affairs as much as international crises and, as Gill has argued in one of
the most important works on the topic, it targeted the new â€˜democraticâ€™
electorate in an attempt to politicize compassion for electoral gain.16 As
we shall see, it often created a solidarity between Nonconformists and
some Irish Nationalists â€“ such as Michael Davitt â€“ and provided much of
the energy behind the coalition which supported and inspired the Home
Rule â€˜crusadeâ€™ from 1886.
Thus the main thrust of the present book is that Irish Home Rule, far
from being an ephemeral Liberal aberration and the product of
Gladstoneâ€™s â€˜obsessionâ€™, fired the public imagination of the peoples of
the United Kingdom and came to dominate their understanding of liberty
and citizenship. As politics was transformed both by the rise of the â€˜caucusâ€™
and by an aggressively populist and emotional leadership style, the
Gladstonian insistence that policy should reflect moral imperatives made
some contemporaries speak of the â€˜feminization of liberalismâ€™. While this
reflected contemporary gender stereotypes rather than any cultural
or political reality, the present book argues that the synergy created by
the â€˜Union of Heartsâ€™ reshaped popular expectations of liberty and citizen-
ship in both Britain and Ireland, and acted as the single most important
catalyst in the remaking of popular radicalism after 1885. Of such a
remaking, the present book tries to provide an intellectual history â€“ in
other words, it is concerned with popular political ideas and programmes
rather than parliamentary manoeuvring and legislative achievements.
In this respect, as well as in its subject matter, British democracy and Irish
nationalism is the sequel of my Liberty, retrenchment and reform.17 The
latter is a study of the post-Chartist generation and their political culture,
which I describe as â€˜popular liberalismâ€™. Like Chartism, the latter was
primarily about â€˜democracyâ€™ (as the Victorians understood it). In partic-
ular, during the twenty years between the beginning of the agitation for
A. J. Reid, â€˜Old unionism reconsidered: the radicalism of Robert Knight, 1870â€“1900â€™, in
E. F. Biagini and A. J. Reid (eds.), Currents of Radicalism: liberals, radicals and collective
identities in the British Isles, 1865â€“1931 (1996), 214â€“43; Chien-Hui Li, â€˜Mobilizing
traditions in the animal defence movement in Britain, 1820â€“1920â€™, Ph.D. Thesis,
University of Cambridge, 2002; M. J. D. Roberts, Making English morals: voluntary
association and moral reform in England, 1787â€“1886 (2004).
R. Gill, â€˜Calculating compassion in war: the â€˜â€˜New Humanitarianâ€™â€™ ethos in Britain
1870â€“1918â€™, Ph.D. thesis, University of Manchester, 2005, 11.
E. F. Biagini, Liberty, retrenchment and reform: popular liberalism in the age of Gladstone,
Home Rule as a â€˜crisis of public conscienceâ€™ 5
the Second Reform Bill in 1864 and the passing of the Third Reform Act
in 1884, the extension of the suffrage was regarded as a goal of supreme
importance by working-class pressure groups and reform associations,
including some large trade unions, such as the coal miners of the North-
East of England. These groups were able to establish an alliance with the
Liberal party partly because they were prepared to consider compromises
(for example, the acceptance of â€˜householdâ€™ instead of â€˜manhoodâ€™ suf-
frage), and partly because they were now perceived to be pursuing non-
revolutionary social and economic aims, fully compatible with the
Gladstonian priorities of â€˜peace, retrenchment and reformâ€™.
This in turn reflected the emergence of cultural and ideological affin-
ities between middle-class and artisan radicals in the two or three decades
after the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. The removal of the â€˜bread taxâ€™
and the adoption of free trade were followed by a long period of economic
growth, which in due course improved standards of living. The old class-
based enmity between Chartists and Liberals â€“ based on the former
believing that politics was an aristocratic conspiracy in which the middle
classes were willing accomplices â€“ was gradually replaced by a sense of
national purpose and the conviction that free-trade economics was in the
â€˜common interestâ€™ (and certainly in that of the working-class consumer).
Self-help â€“ both individual and collective, through friendly societies, for
example â€“ was not a mid-Victorian invention, but acquired a new
viability in the climate of optimism and expansion after the 1851
Crystal Palace International Exhibition. â€˜Freedomâ€™ seemed to be all
that people were asking for: friendly societies wanted to be â€˜let aloneâ€™,
trade unions knew the advantages of securing the labour market from the
danger of repressive state intervention, while co-operatives and consumer
pressure groups expected free trade to give them access to an unprece-
dented variety of cheap imports from all over the world. Moreover, free
trade went together with the demand that all taxes on items of mass
consumption be reduced or altogether repealed â€“ in other words, that
the working-class family be relieved of most of the fiscal burdens under
which they had long been labouring. In turn, this was consistent with the
Cobdenite and Gladstonian demand for â€˜retrenchmentâ€™, or strict econo-
mies, at the Treasury. Slashing state expenditure â€“ which was dominated
by the military establishment, the cost of wars and the repayment of the
National Debt (itself mainly incurred to pay for past wars) â€“ made sense
to working-class radicals. As for social services, such as existed, they were
primarily provided by local authorities and funded through the rates,
rather than by central government taxation.
A further, important component of the cultural context which made
popular liberalism possible was Nonconformity, which had grown rapidly
6 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
during the first half of the nineteenth century (by 1851 about one-half of
churchgoers belonged to one or another of the many Dissenting denomi-
nations). Baptists, Congregationalists, Methodists, Free Presbyterians
and other groups â€“ including Quakers and Unitarians â€“ were character-
ized by a non-hierarchical, â€˜democraticâ€™ church polity and by proud self-
reliance which made them sympathize with both political radicalism and
economic liberalism. They stood for self-help in religion as much as in
economics. Their commitment to popular education, temperance, social
reform and humanitarian causes overseas was consistent with the tradi-
tions of English radicalism. Indeed, the latter had largely been shaped by
Dissent especially in the seventeenth century, in the days of Cromwellâ€™s
republican experiment, the memory of which was rediscovered and cele-
brated by mid-Victorian radicals from all social backgrounds.
While Dissent, democracy and free trade provided the bulk of
the culture, hopes, and ideas behind popular liberalism, the latter was
also espoused by a large number of people who were neither religiously nor
politically active, but who could, from time to time, be galvanized into
activity by the inspiring populism of leaders like Bright and especially
Gladstone. Their charismatic leadership helped late nineteenth-century
Liberalism to become and remain as much of a mass movement as repub-
licanism in contemporary France or social democracy in Bismarckâ€™s
Liberty had no proper â€˜Conclusionâ€™ and ended, instead, with an analysis
of how Gladstone was perceived â€˜from belowâ€™. This was not because of
some personal whiggish historical optimism about the rise and progress of