Gladstone did no more than to undertake the obligation bequeathed to
him by his predecessorsâ€™.306 The Irish party as such adopted a similar line.
In the Commons, T. P. Oâ€™Connor argued that Egyptâ€™s financial problems
derived from the exorbitant interest rates charged by the European nego-
tiators of the loans,307 while J. Oâ€™Kelly (Roscommon) maintained that the
bombardment of Alexandria â€˜was not an act of warâ€™, but rather â€˜assassi-
nation upon a large scaleâ€™.308 The riots and â€˜massacresâ€™ â€“ whose suppres-
sion had been invoked as one of the reasons for the invasion â€“ were
grounds for Gladstone to protest to the Egyptian government, but
could not legitimate direct British military action.309
In their 1885 manifesto, the Nationalists claimed that their political
distinctiveness consisted in a principled and disinterested advocacy of
ideals and policies which the Liberals also proposed, but hypocritically
betrayed whenever they seemed incompatible with economic interests
and imperial aims.310 Nationalist â€˜honestyâ€™ was contrasted not only with
Liberal pusillanimity, but also with the reckless and shallow idealism of
the British radicals. For T. M. Healy the Irish party embodied national
common sense, in contrast to what he regarded as Saxon vacuous ideal-
ism. Moreover, the Nationalists were both more â€˜loyalâ€™ and more effective
in all spheres of public policy than the radicals. For example, in terms of
the running of the national finances, while the Irish party was second to
none in its zeal for retrenchment, it rejected as â€˜extravagant or alarmingâ€™
L.a., FJ, 10 Nov. 1882, 4. 305 L.a., FJ, 13 Jan. 1883, 4.
L.a., FJ, 14 Oct. 1882, 4.
T. P. Oâ€™Connor, HPD, 3rd series, 28 CCLXXXVIII (19 May 1884), 673.
HPD, 3rd series, 277 (12 July 1882), 182â€“3. 309 Ibid.
â€˜[T]he Liberal Party promised peace, and it afterwards made unjust war; economy, and
its Budget reached the highest point yet attained; justice to aspiring nationalities, and it
mercilessly crushed the National movement of Egypt under Arabi Pasha, and murdered
thousands of Arabs rightly struggling to be free. [In Ireland] Twelve hundred men were
imprisoned without trial. Ladies were convicted under an obsolete act, directed against
the degraded of their sex; and for a period every utterance of the popular Press and of
popular meeting was as completely suppressed as if Ireland were Poland and the
administration of England a Russian autocracy.â€™ (â€˜Manifesto to the Irish Electors in
Great Britainâ€™, signed by T. P. Oâ€™Connor, T. M. Healy, J. McCarthy and others, FJ, 23
Nov. 1885, 4.)
168 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
the radicalsâ€™ critique of the Civil List, and pointed out that those who
proposed â€˜to cut down these little pickingsâ€™ were prepared, â€˜at the same
time, [to] vote hundreds of thousands of pounds for Irish informers, and
millions for the prosecution of unjust wars against people â€˜â€˜rightly strug-
gling to be freeâ€™â€™ â€™.311 While making allowance for some Liberals whom
the Executive of the League thought deserving of support, the manifesto
asked Irish electors â€˜to vote against the men who coerced Ireland, deluged
Egypt with blood, menaced religious liberty in the school, [and] freedom
of speech in Parliamentâ€™.312
That such â€˜Gladstonianâ€™ features of Irish constitutional nationalism
were emphasized in the age of the â€˜Union of Heartsâ€™ is perhaps not
surprising. More remarkable is the fact that they became increasingly
pronounced after Gladstone retired and the Liberal party distanced itself
from Home Rule. Nevertheless, the nationalism professed by many of the
Irish leaders and MPs of both factions was â€˜Gladstonianâ€™ in its rejection of
jingoism not because it was â€˜Britishâ€™, but because it was morally deplor-
able in that it subordinated the claims of humanity to those of a misguided
T. M. Healy, MP, cited in â€˜The National Leagueâ€™, FJ, 8 Apr. 1885, 3. Healy stressed the
Nationalistsâ€™ loyalty to the Crown and their willingness to pay for the financial burdens it
involved â€“ a sort of â€˜fire riskâ€™ as the monarchy secured â€˜a stable, prosperous, and peaceful
L.a., FJ, 8 Nov. 1888, 4.
L.a., â€˜The civilisers in Burmahâ€™, United Ireland, 30 Jan. 1886, 1.
4 â€˜Giving stability to popular opinionâ€™?
Radicalism and the caucus in Britain
There is nothing incongruous in the union of [classical] democratic
doctrines with representative institutions. Ancient order and modern
progress are not incompatible.1
Those which are ineffective without each other must be united . . .2
[The caucus] appears to be a necessary outcome of democracy. In a
small community, such as the Canton of Uri, all the freemen may meet
in a meadow to pass laws. In larger societies direct government by the
people gives place to representative government; and when constituen-
cies consist of thousands, associations which aid the birth of popular
opinion and give it strength, stability and homogeneity seem
â€˜Athenian democracyâ€™ or â€˜American caucusâ€™?
After Gladstoneâ€™s retirement, the last bastion of the alliance between the
Nationalists and the Liberals was the National Liberal Federation (NLF).
The Irish perceived the NLF as embodying the solidarity between â€˜the
peoplesâ€™ of Britain and Ireland, allegedly united in their support for â€˜the
cause of democratic reformâ€™.4 Yet, as both contemporaries and modern
historians have always pointed out, the democratic legitimacy and the
popularity of the â€˜caucusâ€™ were questionable. While in popular circles
â€˜suspicion of party ran deepâ€™,5 politicians earnestly debated whether the
â€˜Political address by Mr Cowen, MPâ€™, NC, 18 Feb. 1885, 2â€“3.
Aristotle, The Politics, Book 1, chapter 2.
J. Macdonnell, â€˜Is the caucus a necessity?â€™, Fortnightly Review, 44 o.s., 38 n.s. (Dec.
L.a., Cork Examiner, 18 Jan. 1895, 4.
Lawrence, Speaking for the People, 91, and â€˜Popular politics and the limitations of party:
Wolverhampton, 1867â€“1900â€™, in Biagini and Reid, Currents of radicalism, 65â€“85.
170 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
â€˜machinesâ€™ were at all compatible with either liberalism or parliamentary
By contrast with the intellectual debate generated by the NLF from the
1880s, there was little theoretical preparation for its establishment in
1877: no blueprint had been drawn up by â€˜the lights of liberalismâ€™.
Even John Stuart Mill â€“ whose writings and personal involvement in
various radical agitations set standards for generations of liberals â€“ had
been comparatively silent on the question of mass party politics.7 This
omission is somewhat surprising when we consider that during his life-
time there flourished well-organized pressure groups, including the
National Education League, with which he was well acquainted, and
the Land Tenure Reform Association, of which he was a member. The
NLF, launched only four years after Millâ€™s death, drew heavily on the
experience of such leagues and associations, some of which it tried to
co-ordinate.8 It has sometimes been suggested that, for all his intellectual
prestige, Mill was actually unable to understand either the reality or the
needs of party politics in his day. This impression is strengthened by the
fact that, even in his last major works on representative government, he
gave no account of the role of parties.9 Yet, he was not in principle hostile
to them, and in 1865â€“8, as a parliamentarian, he generally behaved like a
disciplined and loyal â€˜party manâ€™,10 without showing anything like the
restless individualism which Joseph Cowen and James Keir Hardie â€“ the
P. Pombeni, â€˜Starting in reason, ending in passion: Bryce, Lowell, Ostrogorski and the
problem of democracyâ€™, Historical Journal, 37, 2 (1994), 319â€“41; for Minghettiâ€™s hostility
to the caucus see Pombeni, â€˜Trasformismo e questione del partitoâ€™, in Pombeni (ed.), La
trasformazione politica nellâ€™Europa liberale, 1870â€“1890 (Bologna, 1986), 247; for
Bluntschliâ€™s attitude see J. Sheehan, German liberalism in the nineteenth century (1982),
With the exception of a few remarks, in connection with his discussion of Thomas Hareâ€™s
proportional representation scheme. Most of his criticism focused on the â€˜first-past-the-
postâ€™ system. The American Caucus did not attract his attention, but he wrote that â€˜in
America electors vote for the party ticket because the election goes by a simple majorityâ€™
(CW, XIX, 464): again, the problem was with the first-past-the-post system, not with
parties. However, in Considerations on representative government he indicted the British
party system of the time on the ground that candidatures were selected by small cliques â€“
â€˜the attorney, the parliamentary agent, or the half-dozen party leadersâ€™, or even worse,
â€˜three or four tradesmen or attorneysâ€™. (CW, XIX, 362 and 456 respectively; see also CW,
XXVIII, 12.) Of course, this was precisely one of the problems which Chamberlain
boasted to have solved with his broadly representative Liberal association: see pp. 181â€“3.
R. Spence Watson, The National Liberal Federation: from its commencement to the general
election of 1906 (1907), 6.
P. Pombeni, Introduzione alla storia dei partiti politici (1990), 136.
J. Vincent, Formation of the British Liberal party (1972), 183â€“95; B. L. Kinzer, A. Robson
and J. M. Robson, A moralist In and out of Parliament: John Stuart Mill at Westminster,
1865â€“1868, Toronto and London, 1992, 92â€“4.
Radicalism and the caucus in Britain and Ireland 171
populist champions of â€˜political opinionâ€™ against the caucusâ€™s â€˜undue
supremacyâ€™11 â€“ were to display in the 1880s and 1890s respectively.
It would be tempting to explain away these problems as illustrations of
Millâ€™s inconsistency, or maybe of the fact that his works described an
ideal, while his deeds reflected the needs of real politics, identified expe-
rientially, though not elaborated theoretically. Nevertheless, there is evi-
dence to suggest that the problem is broader and more complex. The
already mentioned hostility to the very idea of a â€˜caucusâ€™ was shared by
both the popular and intellectual representatives of liberalism. Bearing
this in mind, we may wonder whether Millâ€™s silence on the party issue was
really a consequence of his defective understanding of contemporary
political realities, or whether it reflected well-established features in
Liberal culture, amounting to a rejection of the very idea of party
Despite his familiarity with Tocquevilleâ€™s analysis of American trends,
Millâ€™s ideal of democracy and mass politics was inspired more by classical
models then by modern models, with a typical emphasis on both partici-
patory citizenship and charismatic leadership. Throughout his career,
he repeatedly expressed his preference for the ancient polis, based on
face-to-face relationships and virtually co-extensive with a local com-
munity. In it, participation and debate would spontaneously arise from
the awareness of common interests, and from the feeling of belonging to a
socio-cultural entity to which one felt a positive emotional commitment.
He waxed lyrical about Athens in the days of Pericles, which he regarded
almost as a liberal paradise, where each citizen was continually invested
with some public magistracy: the polis had not only universal suffrage, but
also â€˜the liberty of the bema, of the dicastery, the portico, the palestra, and
the stageâ€™.12 The perpetually deliberating Demos allowed intellectual
minorities â€“ â€˜public moralistsâ€™ such as Themistocles, Aristides, Pericles
and Demosthenes â€“ to emerge as the guides of public opinion. That
depended on the fact that â€˜[t]he multitude have often a true instinct for
distinguishing an able man, when he has the means for displaying his
ability in a fair field before themâ€™.13 In the context of the polis, elitism and
participatory democracy coincided; and what linked them together was
The present chapter does not address Millâ€™s lack of theoretical concern
for party organization. Rather, by standing such a question on its head, it
From the minutes of the Hatton Henry Colliery, an appeal to J. Cowen not to withdraw
from politics, signed by W. J. Bird, T. Willis, C. Bowhill, M. Cook, W. Fleetham and
J. Turnbill, 27 Jan. 1886, in Cowen Papers, B 357.
Mill, Considerations, 324. 13 Ibid., 458.
172 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
tests the hypothesis that the NLF â€“ in its activistsâ€™ perception â€“ reflected
Millâ€™s position in at least two respects. First, the NLF shared Millâ€™s
reluctance to accept the implications of mass party politics, while actually
making use of mass organization. Second, it proclaimed ideals similar to
those of Millâ€™s utopia, with its dream of participatory citizenship, and of
infusing the spirit of classical democracy â€“ the ancient Athenian ekklesia â€“
into modern parliamentary government.14 Being steeped in this classical
tradition of â€˜republican virtueâ€™, British Liberals manifested symptoms of a
curious kind of schizophrenia. On the one hand, like their continental
namesakes, they showed distrust for the â€˜caucusâ€™ and other features of
â€˜Yankeeâ€™ politics. On the other, the NLF derived both its ideological
justification and its practical weaknesses, not from the model of the
American party machine,15 but from classical notions of direct democ-
racy akin to the ones which, on the continent, inspired left-wing oppo-
nents of Liberalism and, in particular, hindered the organization of
modern party politics among French radical democrats.
In this context, it is interesting to compare the British Liberal experi-
ence with that of Irish Nationalism. The Irish National League (INL) was
much more than a party â€˜machineâ€™: it had close, organic links with the
land reform agitation and was deeply rooted in the reality of local life.
Moreover, as Jordan has shown, its functions and ambitions were com-
plex, in fact far more complex than those of the NLF or any other British
radical organization.16 Yet, in so far as it provided, among other things,
the â€˜mass partyâ€™ organization of parliamentary Nationalism, the debates
surrounding its operation and development offer interesting parallels
with the contemporary arguments about the NLF. In both countries
such discussions reflected concerns about accountability, policy making
and participation. In Ireland it all came to a head in the 1890s, with the
partyâ€™s rejection of Parnellâ€™s leadership, followed by the formation of the
Irish National Federation (INF) as a rival to the INL and, eventually,
after further splits, the rise of the United Irish League (UIL). The latter
aimed at recreating party unity from the bottom up, an operation which the
parliamentary leaders of all factions did not welcome, but had to accept in
1900. In Britain accountability, policy making and participation were
what the NLF constitution was all about. This constitution was fre-
quently amended, often with important consequences for the partyâ€™s
Cf. Biagini, â€˜Liberalism and direct democracyâ€™; Biagini, Liberty, 313â€“15; Harris, Private
lives, public spirit, 248; and M. Daunton, Trusting Leviathan: the politics of taxation in
Britain, 1799â€“1914 (2001), 256â€“301.
Pombeni, â€˜Starting in reason, ending in passionâ€™, 322.
Jordan, â€˜Irish National League and the â€˜â€˜unwritten lawâ€™â€™â€™, 146â€“71.
Radicalism and the caucus in Britain and Ireland 173