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liberty personified by Gladstone as a charismatic leader, but because then
I was already planning a continuation, a ˜volume II™ dealing with the
question of Home Rule and exploring whether popular liberalism had
any counterpart in Ireland. The answer to such questions has now taken
the shape of British democracy and Irish nationalism. The latter is anything
but whiggish in its appraisal of late Victorian radicalism. It ends with
radicals demanding a further extension of democracy and formulating a
neo-Chartist programme under the banner of the National Democratic
League. By 1906 the NDL was bringing together people belonging to
various currents of radicalism, including members of socialist societies,
who, in context, come across as surprisingly similar to their political
forebears of the 1840s. Not much ˜progress™ here, one might be tempted
to conclude. Moreover, the present book starts with a crisis “ Home Rule “
which proved politically insoluble and dominated the whole period under
review. However, British democracy and Irish nationalism is not about the
failure of a policy, but concerns the popular agitation for its adoption.
The book ends in 1906, because I could not discuss the 1910s without
Home Rule as a ˜crisis of public conscience™ 7

opening up a whole series of new problems “ including the rise of Labour
in Britain and revolutionary nationalism in Ireland “ which would require
a further book and which, in any case, have already inspired a substantial
literature.18
As I have already indicated above, this book is mainly an intellectual
history not of the Home Rule crisis as such, but of its consequence and
impact on the development of popular ideas of liberty and democracy.
However, before proceeding, we need briefly to recall the political
and electoral events which form the backdrop of our story. The general
election of November 1885 was the first to be contested under the
new system of uniform household franchise and more equal electoral
districts, created throughout the UK by the Reform and Redistribution
of Seats Acts of 1884“5. During the electoral campaign the Liberals
had appeared to be divided between the moderate wing, headed by
the Whig Lord Hartington, heir to the Duke of Devonshire, and the
Radicals, led by Joseph Chamberlain. The former stood for continuity
with the Palmerstonian tradition; the latter courted the working-class
vote and prioritized social reform and church disestablishment. Both
were anxious about Gladstone™s supposedly imminent retirement and
the future leadership of the party. But the Grand Old Man (the GOM,
as he was affectionately or derisively called) was not eager to step down.
In the past he had used ˜big Bills™ to renew the unity and purpose of the
party at critical junctures, but it was not clear whether he would be able to
do so again.
The Liberal party approached the contest with a programme which
focused on local government, taxation and the reform of the land laws.
Home Rule was not on their agenda but it was clear that something had to
be done about Ireland. The latter had been a constant and pressing
concern for the Gladstone government in 1880“5, when it had struggled
to contain rural unrest, fight terrorism and reform the land laws, which
were supposed to be the root cause of all the trouble. Home Rule was
the central demand of the powerful National party, led by Charles
Stewart Parnell. For months before the election Chamberlain and other
radical leaders had been considering various plans to appease Parnell
without destroying the parliamentary bond between Britain and
Ireland, established by the 1800 Act of Union. On 16 June 1885 Dilke
wrote to Grant Duff that although ˜[t]here is no liking for Ireland or the

18
On these questions see P. F. Clarke, Lancashire and the New Liberalism (1971);
D. Tanner, Political change and the Labour party, 1900“1918 (1990); P. Maume, The
long gestation: Irish Nationalist life, 1891“1918 (1999); and P. Bew, Ideology and the
Irish question: Ulster Unionism and Irish Nationalism, 1912“1916 (1994).
8 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism

Irish™, there was ˜an almost universal feeling that some form of Home
Rule must be tried. My own feeling is that it will be tried too late, as all our
remedies are.™19 Moreover, the issue acquired a new urgency because
there was a widespread expectation that “ under the new electoral law “
the Nationalists would secure a much larger share of the Irish constitu-
encies at the next election. The implications were clear: as Lord Rosebery
put it during a speech he delivered (in Gladstone™s presence) at a banquet
in Edinburgh on 13 November 1885, ˜if things turned out in Ireland as
they were told they would, that question would absorb the minds of the
men of the time and the energy of Parliament to the exclusion of every
other™. He continued:
He did not pretend to say how that question would be settled, but he believed it
could be settled in only one direction. If they could obtain from the representa-
tives of Ireland a clear and constitutional demand, which would represent the
wishes of the people of Ireland, which would not conflict with the union of the two
countries, he believed that by satisfying that demand in such a way as not to
require readjustment, they would cut off forever the poisonous spring of
discontent.20
In the speech there was no explicit indication that Home Rule would be
considered by the Liberals, although on that very day Gladstone “ who
was staying at Rosebery™s country residence, Dalmeny House “ shared
with him both ˜the idea of constituting a Legislature for Ireland™ and a
strategy for overcoming the opposition that such a plan was likely to
generate within both Parliament and the Liberal party.21 On the follow-
ing day, the 14th, Gladstone actually drafted a Home Rule Bill based on
the blueprint of a ˜Proposed Constitution for Ireland™, which Parnell had
provided, at his request, on 1 November. Parnell™s proposal, which was
based on colonial precedents, was indeed ˜a clear and constitutional
demand™ such as the one to which Rosebery had alluded. Moreover, it
is important to bear in mind that Gladstone™s draft was produced before
the election itself, when he still hoped that the Liberals would win a
majority over the other two parties combined, so that they could deal
with Ireland without having to seek the support of the Nationalists.
Even if that had happened, it is highly unlikely that Gladstone would
have been able to persuade Hartington to support a Bill such as the one
which he had already framed. However, the situation was further com-
plicated by the actual results of the election (the polls were declared from
1 December). Although the Liberals did emerge as the largest party, with

19
Cited in R. Jenkins, Dilke: a Victorian tragedy (1996), 210.
20
˜Banquet to Lord Rosebery™, Ti, 14 Nov. 1885, 5.
21
Gladstone to Lord Rosebery, 13 Nov. 1885, in GD, vol. XI, 428.
Home Rule as a ˜crisis of public conscience™ 9

333 seats to the Conservatives™ 251, Parnell secured 86 MPs “ more than
expected “ and the Irish party was now in a position to hold the balance in
the new Parliament. Tactical manoeuvring and political bargaining then
began. Initially, Parnell decided to keep the Tories in office (Salisbury
had formed a caretaker government in April 1885, following Gladstone™s
defeat over the budget and subsequent resignation). The GOM was
obviously in a dilemma, but not over Home Rule “ because, as we have
seen, he had already drafted a Bill before the general election. It was over
the feasibility of proceeding with such Bill without an overall Liberal
majority and in a situation in which he would be dependent on
Nationalist support.
However, on 17 December 1885 Herbert Gladstone leaked to the press
the news that his father was planning to adopt Home Rule: this was the
so-called ˜Hawarden kite™, which changed the political landscape com-
pletely. As a result the Nationalists were now prepared to oust the
Conservative administration, which was defeated on 26 January 1886.
On the 30th Gladstone received the Queen™s commission to form a
government. He intended to explore the viability of Home Rule, but
was not, as yet, pledged to any specific proposal. Over the next few
months he worked on what he perceived as a comprehensive solution to
the Irish problem, consisting of land purchase and devolved government
with a Parliament in Dublin.
The reputedly rapacious landowners were perceived as the source of all
of Ireland™s social problems, but could not be altogether abandoned to
the mercy of a Nationalist government. Therefore, in order to restore
social stability in rural Ireland, he asked the Treasury to sponsor the
purchase and transfer of land from the gentry to the tenant farmers.
The farmers would then repay the loan by means of terminable annuities,
and the operation would be guaranteed by the newly constituted Irish
Parliament. The latter was the subject of the second of Gladstone™s 1886
˜big Bills™. The Irish assembly would consist of two ˜orders™: the first
would include elected MPs who would be returned “ under the UK
system of household suffrage “ for the existing constituencies. The sec-
ond would comprise both the Irish hereditary peers and a number of
elected senators “ men of property and standing who would be returned
by a restricted electorate on a £25 franchise. The two orders would sit and
deliberate together; however, each would have the power of veto, which
could be exercised by voting separately whenever either so desired. The
Dublin Parliament would legislate on domestic Irish matters, although
the police force remained under imperial control. Moreover, London
would retain full control of military defence, foreign affairs and com-
merce. Trade policy was a sensitive question, because of widespread
10 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism

concern “ especially among Ulster industrialists “ that a Home Rule
Ireland would abandon free trade and introduce tariffs, which Parnell
thought necessary to encourage the development of industry in the south.
There would be no Irish representation at Westminster.
Unfortunately Gladstone had not prepared the party for such a dra-
matic development of his Irish policy and the shock was considerable. It
soon emerged that the Land Bill had little chance of survival, both
because its cost was regarded as prohibitive (amounting, as it did, to
some £120 million, which was more than the entire UK budget for
1885), and because it proposed the spending of such a significant amount
of money in order to ˜bail out™ the Irish landowners, a class regarded as
particularly undeserving. Gladstone was also in trouble over the Home
Rule Bill, particularly because the proposed exclusion of the Irish MPs
from the London Parliament was perceived as a step which would inevi-
tably lead both to constitutional clashes and, eventually, to Dublin™s full
independence. In the end, a majority of the Liberal MPs supported the
Prime Minister after he indicated his willingness to reconsider Irish
representation at Westminster. However, from the start Hartington
refused to join the government, while Chamberlain, having at first accep-
ted, resigned from the Cabinet on 26th March, after realizing the full
extent of the Premier™s proposals. No doubt, the fact that Gladstone
mishandled him so badly contributed to the break between the two
statesmen, but, as I shall argue in chapter 5, Chamberlain™s opposition
to Home Rule sprang from fundamental attitudes, which had been taking
shape in 1882“5.
In April the government was defeated by 341 votes to 311. Gladstone
immediately decided to take the issue to the country and started a vigo-
rous electoral campaign, which further deepened the party split between
the Home Rule majority and the Unionist minority (including both
Hartington and Chamberlain).22 The general election took place on 13
and 14 July 1886. When the results were announced, it emerged that the
Home Rule Liberals had secured only 191 seats and the Nationalists 85.
The Unionists could count on 316 Conservatives and 78 Liberal dissent-
ers. It was a decisive defeat for Home Rule, but the latter remained a live
issue in UK politics: Ireland itself had again overwhelmingly voted for
self-government, and Gladstone™s proposal had also been endorsed by a
majority of Scottish and Welsh electors. The continuing relevance of
Home Rule was further highlighted by the Unionist government™s

22
G. D. Goodlad, ˜Gladstone and his rivals: popular Liberal perceptions of the party
leadership in the political crisis of 1885“1886™, in Biagini and Reid, Currents of
Radicalism, 163“84.
Home Rule as a ˜crisis of public conscience™ 11

inability to contain unrest among the Irish farmers without introducing
new and more stringently repressive measures, which created concern
about civil liberty in Britain and outrage and defiance in Ireland. This
strengthened the resolve of the Home Rulers, whose campaign resulted in
a number of by-election victories for the Liberals. By 1890 the latter had
considerably eroded the Unionist majority in the House of Commons.
However, the unity and credibility of the Home Rule coalition was
shattered by Parnell™s involvement in one of the most celebrated sex
scandals of the century. The revelation that he had spent years in an
adulterous relationship with Kitty O™Shea, the wife of another Nationalist
MP, destroyed his moral prestige. Nevertheless, he refused to step down
from the party leadership until forced to do so by a majority of his
colleagues after Gladstone indicated that his continuation in power
would jeopardize the Liberal alliance. As a consequence, the Irish party
split and in 1892 the Home Rulers went to the next general election
divided. They managed to win, but secured a majority of only forty,
which was too small to force Home Rule “ a major constitutional change “
on the overwhelmingly Unionist House of Lords. Undeterred, in 1893
Gladstone proceeded to produce a new Home Rule Bill, which tried to
address the concerns expressed by his critics in 1886. The new plan
retained an Irish representation at Westminster and proposed the crea-
tion of a Dublin Parliament consisting of two houses “ with 103 MPs
elected from the existing constituencies on the system of household
franchise, and 48 Council (upper-house) members elected by voters
who owned or occupied land with an annual valuation of £200. This
Bill was duly passed by the Commons, but rejected by the House of Lords
by 419 votes to 41.
Not only did the Lords stop Home Rule, but they also turned down
most other Liberal Bills, frustrating the high expectations generated
among party supporters by the 1891 Newcastle Programme. The latter
included a number of advanced democratic and social reforms to be
funded through higher death duties and taxation of land values.
Although it was an ambitious programme, Gladstone himself hinted that
this was not enough and suggested that the introduction of old age pen-
sions be considered (see below, chapter 4, p. 188). This new radical activ-
ism reflected the contemporary shift in British Liberalism towards social
concerns and was part of a broader phenomenon within British and
European radical culture at the time. By then independent working-
class or socialist parties had already been established in most other
countries, including Germany, France and Italy. In England a
Democratic Federation had been set up in 1881, developing into the
Social Democratic Federation (SDF) by 1884. While the SDF adopted
12 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism

a quasi-Marxist revolutionary programme, the Fabian Society, another
socialist group also established in 1884, proposed a gradualist approach
and the ˜permeation™ of existing parties.23 Then in 1893, two years after
the Newcastle Programme, a group of democrats and trade unionists
established the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in Bradford. All these
groups went beyond Liberal radicalism, advocating communal owner-
ship of the means of production, especially the land and the mines. Yet,
the socialists failed either to break the mould of British politics or to erode
significantly the cultural and political hegemony of the Liberal party on
the British left. Their failure was not unrelated to Gladstone™s decision to
adopt the cause of Irish Home Rule, as it will be further argued below.

The historiography
The two most significant monographs on the Home Rule crisis remain
those produced by Hammond in 1938 and Cooke and Vincent in 1974.
Each embodies a strong ˜thesis™ and deserves to be treated with respect
even decades after its first appearance. Hammond™s Gladstone and the
Irish nation is a monumental work which failed to attract significant
attention when it was first published, in the days of Chamberlain™s
Munich agreement with Hitler,24 but has since inspired and provoked
generations of scholars. His Gladstonian inclination to interpret the
Liberal party schism in terms of the clash of the political forces embody-
ing wealth, social influence and the professions arrayed against ˜the
Masses™ has lost its credibility, although it is quite clear that Liberalism
was indeed radicalized by the Irish issue.25 However, his insistence that
the claims of the Irish nation and the Home Rule crisis were turning

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