1877 and 1935. During 1877â€“1907 it was as much an internal battle-
ground between members championing contrasting visions of the party,
as a constitution, with major changes in 1880, 1885, 1886, 1887, 1890,
annually between 1895 and 1897, and more drastically at various stages
between 1903 and 1907. Whether or not comfortable with the principle of
a mass organization, Liberals were not sure of what role it ought to play.
Thus an analysis of the constitution is helpful to comprehend the mem-
bersâ€™ perception of the party identity and the way it changed over time, and
provides a template for understanding â€˜the distribution of power and
functionsâ€™17 within the party as a whole. The latter is significant not only
in itself, but also because a partyâ€™s internal authority structure â€“ such as the
relationship between â€˜mass organizationâ€™ and parliamentary party, rank-
and-file representation and central authority â€“ reflects its ideological
From the beginning, the NLF had generated misgivings among both
rank and file and national leaders, though for different reasons. Of the
ninety-five associations which had originally accepted Chamberlainâ€™s
invitation, only forty-six actually sent delegates to Birmingham.
Arguably, the actual formation of the Federation itself owed more to
the Bulgarian agitation,18 than to any grand plan of reform of popular
politics. The then party leader, Lord Hartington, far from welcoming the
new development, rightly saw it as a challenge from the periphery to the
power at the centre.19 Moreover, many MPs and candidates feared that
their â€˜independenceâ€™ was now being threatened in the constituencies,
having already been curtailed at Westminster.20 Critics of the NLF
included several working-class leaders, such as George Howell, who
complained that the â€˜caucusâ€™ was an exclusive, elitist device which
destroyed the â€˜openâ€™ system of the traditional â€˜constitutionâ€™ and the
â€˜independenceâ€™ of the electors.21 However, Howell had been one of the
Pombeni, Introduzione alla storia dei partiti politici, 23.
See The MP for Russia: reminiscences and correspondence of Madame O. Novikoff, vol. I, ed.
by W. T. Stead, 1909 vol. I, 275â€“8.
Garvin, Joseph Chamberlain, vol. I, 14; B. McGill, â€˜Schnadhorst and Liberal party
organizationâ€™, Journal of Modern History (1962), 19â€“39.
M. Ostrogorski, Democracy and the Organization of Political Parties (1902; reprinted
1964), 97â€“8; see also S. M. Lipsetâ€™s â€˜Introductionâ€™ to Ostrogorski, Democracy and
P. Pombeni, â€˜Ritorno a Birmingham. La â€˜â€˜nuova organizzazione politicaâ€™â€™ di Joseph
Chamberlain e lâ€™origine della forma partito contemporanea (1874â€“1880)â€™, Ricerche di
storia politica, 3 (1988), 52, 55, 57; D. E. D. Beales, â€˜Parliamentary parties and the
â€˜â€˜independentâ€™â€™ member, 1810â€“1860â€™, in R. Robson (ed.), Ideas and institutions of
Victorian Britain (1967).
G. Howell, â€˜The caucus system and the Liberal partyâ€™, The Quarterly Magazine, 10
(1878). Cf. W. T. Merriott, â€˜The Birmingham caucusâ€™, Nineteenth Century, 11 (1882),
174 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
first advocates of a democratic reorganization of the Liberal party to
provide working men with a forum to discuss their views22 â€“ which is
one of the aims the NLF tried to achieve.
â€˜Independenceâ€™ seemed to be what Liberals were most concerned about.
Not only were MPs jealous of their right to vote according to conviction,
sometimes against the wishes of their leaders and constituents, but also local
Liberal associations were keen to safeguard their own freedom from inter-
ference by the whips. Furthermore, Liberal activists and voters in general
were jealous of their own independence from local associations or anybody
else. Independence was indeed a key word in Victorian Liberalism.
J. S. Mill, as an MP for the borough of Westminster in 1865â€“8, insisted
on his own rights and prerogatives against all sorts of external interference.
The Liberal party which he joined in the House of Commons was structur-
ally similar to its Conservative counterpart: a coalition of MPs and peers,
held together by shared opinions and prejudices, patronage and tradition.
At the time there was no such a thing as an official â€˜mass organizationâ€™. Of
course, there were various local Liberal associations rooted in the realities
and culture of the town or county in which they operated, and electoral
committees with professional agents. Moreover, there were several popular
radical organizations, two of which â€“ the Reform League and the National
Reform Union â€“ had established a quasi-national reputation. However, so
far as there was any national co-ordination, it came from the whips and the
Liberal Central Association (LCA). Established in 1860 and controlled by
the whips,23 the LCA was the closest equivalent to a party bureaucracy.
Originally, its purpose was limited to the preparation of the electoral regis-
ters.24 Later it began to try to harmonize the work of local agents and Liberal
associations, but did not have any influence on MPs. The latter continued
to be co-ordinated by the whips in the House, and â€“ socially, outside the
House â€“ by various London clubs, including the Reform and eventually the
National Liberal Club.25
953, 954â€“7; and J. Davis, â€˜Radical clubs and London politics, 1870â€“1900â€™, in
D. Feldman and G. Stedman Jones (eds.), Between neighbourhood and nation: histories
and representations of London since 1800 (1989), 106.
Pottinger Saab, Reluctant icon, 51.
D. Kavanagh, â€˜Organization and power in the Liberal partyâ€™, in V. Bogdanor (ed.),
Liberal party politics, (1988), 124, 130, 133; C. Cook, A short history of the Liberal party,
1900â€“2001 (2002), 12.
J. Scott Rasmussen, The Liberal party: a study of retrenchment and revival (1965), 51 n. 68.
National Liberal Club. Objects and Rules, London, n.d., 1, National Liberal Club
Collection in Bristol University Library. In the â€˜provincesâ€™ local Liberal clubs organized
dinners, demonstrations and public meetings, lectures, concerts, luncheons in the town
hall, and picnics for the rank and file. See the papers of the Newcastle-upon-Tyne Liberal
Club, in Tyne and Wear Archives, 200/104.
Radicalism and the caucus in Britain and Ireland 175
Yet, as the electorate expanded after the 1867 Reform Act, the move
towards greater organization â€“ which implied some degree of discipline at
all levels â€“ was inevitable. It was propelled by the various pressure groups
of popular liberalism â€“ including the labour movement â€“ and spurred on
by electoral struggles for the control of local government.26 Particularly
interesting in this respect is the evolution of the Birmingham Liberal
Association. Building on a long tradition of political unions,27 this asso-
ciation was established in 1867. It resulted from the merger of two pre-
existing organizations, one of which was the local working-class reform
league.28 Boosted by the challenges posed by the â€˜minority clauseâ€™ of the
1867 Reform Act and, even more, by the â€˜cumulative voteâ€™ introduced by
the 1870 Education Act, it gave rise to a new model of party politics,
which contemporary critics dubbed â€˜the caucusâ€™.
Generations of scholars â€“ from Moisei Ostrogorski to Jon Lawrence and
James Vernon â€“ have been worried about the â€˜coercionâ€™ allegedly exercised
by the caucus and its large-scale version, the NLF. These organizations
sapped â€˜libertyâ€™ â€“ according to some â€“ by exchanging blind partisanship for
educated public opinion;29 or â€“ according to others â€“ by undermining the
viability of traditional working-class politics by bourgeois professional-
ism;30 or â€“ finally â€“ by caging customary and spontaneous expressions of
community politics in a Foucaultian panopticon.31 Interestingly enough,
arguments similar to these were used at the time by disgruntled Liberals
and Radicals, including town notables and old-fashioned artisan
On one issue there seemed to be agreement: the caucus and the NLF
tried to stand on its head the understanding of â€˜partyâ€™ which had been
shared by liberal political thinkers from Edmund Burke to Benjamin
F. H. Herrick, â€˜The origins of the National Liberal Federationâ€™, Journal of Modern History,
17 (1945), 116â€“29.
Garvin, Joseph Chamberlain, vol. I, 253.
Cf. Birmingham Liberal Association, Objects, Constitution and Laws, Birmingham,
1878, in Birmingham Liberal Association Collection, Birmingham City Libraries.
For example, Ostrogorski: Pombeni, Partiti e sistemi politici, 163.
Lawrence, â€˜Popular politicsâ€™. 31 Vernon, Politics and the people, 182, 192, 337.
Cf. Sir Wemyss Reidâ€™s comments on the rejection of Sir Edward Baines by the Leeds
caucus in 1874: in H. J. Hanham, Elections and party management: politics in the age of
Disraeli and Gladstone (1978), 126. In 1874 Baines was defeated despite the fact that he
had some trade union support (see letter by â€˜A Unionistâ€™, The Leeds Mercury, 2 Feb. 1874,
3). It is noteworthy that J. S. Mill had criticized the party system of his time on similar
grounds: see above, note 7. By contrast, NLF activists and leaders, including major trade
union bosses, emphasized its democratic impact and potential: they maintained that,
thanks to the Liberal associations, candidatures were now decided by the party rank and
file, rather than by a clique of self-selecting worthies: Frank Schnadhorst in a letter to The
Times in 1878: cited in Hanham, Elections and party management, 133; cf. Biagini, Liberty,
176 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
Constant and J. S. Mill,33 for it seemed that while â€˜[f]ormerly the issues
made the parties; now the parties [made] the issuesâ€™.34 The traditional
Liberal emphasis on â€˜ideas opened to enlightened spiritsâ€™35 and the
spiritual character of their movement was hardly conducive to enthusi-
asm for the practical implications of political organization. Thus â€˜[t]he
term party . . . took on a negative connotation when it was used to refer to
something other than an ideological community.â€™36 Not surprisingly, in
Britain as in the rest of Europe there were Liberals who were unable to
accept this development of the concept of party.37 There is no doubt that,
with the establishment of the NLF in 1877, â€˜Chamberlain was opening
many questions for contemporary liberalism.â€™38
What is remarkable is that both critics and supporters tended to exag-
gerate the effectiveness of the new organization. For, as Colin Matthew
has shown, the caucus was â€˜chaotic and incapable of prolonged organiza-
tional effort, since it was devoid of the bureaucratic structures typical of
the twentieth centuryâ€™.39 Thus, despite the fact that it has often been
suggested that the caucus â€˜was determinant in the general elections of the
1880s, fifty per cent of these caucuses had disappeared after two or three
yearsâ€™.40 As late as 1880 Joseph Cowen could confidently write to one of
his American correspondents:
The process of popular agitation is very simple. A number of men satisfy them-
selves that a certain Legislative or social change is required. They form themselves
into a society, collect as much money as they are capable, and try to influence
public opinion by means of lectures, tracts, public meetings, conferences, and
other political mechanisms. There is not much mystery about the business, and
there is no settled plan of proceeding . . . There has been an attempt recently to
establish what are called Liberal associations . . . but . . . the movement has been a
failure . . . Mr Linton has [sic] considerable experience in the Chartist agitation in
England . . . Matters have not much altered since he was engaged in public
Pombeni, â€˜Trasformismo e questione del partitoâ€™, 233â€“4; Sheehan, German liberalism,
Lowell to Bryce in 1905, complaining about one of the effects of the NLF: cited in
Pombeni, â€˜Starting in reason, ending in passionâ€™, 323.
Pombeni, â€˜Starting in reason, ending in passionâ€™, 326.
Sheehan, German liberalism, 17.
Pombeni, â€˜Trasformismo e questione del partitoâ€™, 246â€“7.
Pombeni, â€˜Starting in reason, ending in passionâ€™, 326.
H. C. G. Matthew, â€˜Moisei Ostrogorski e la tradizione inglese di studi politiciâ€™, in
G. Orsina (a cura di), Contro i partiti. Saggi sul pensiero di Moisei Ostrogroski (1993), 53.
J. Cowen to Revd J. Harwood Pattison, New Haven, Connecticut, n.d. , in Cowen
Papers, B414, Letter Book, 7â€“9.
Radicalism and the caucus in Britain and Ireland 177
The weakness of the â€˜machineâ€™ was compounded by the fact that the
NLF as a whole was financially independent of the LCA.42 This arrange-
ment had two consequences: on the one hand, it meant that the whips had
little institutional influence on the mass party, a restriction which was
indeed a matter of pride for the NLF.43 On the other hand, it implied that
the financial resources of the NLF were severely limited, and this affected
its performance as an electoral organization. In the long run, real prob-
lems were to arise not from the efficiency of the mass party and its
allegedly coercive powers, but from its endemic anarchy and
While critics described the NLF and its branches as the last stage in the
â€˜Americanizationâ€™ of Liberal politics, in reality there was neither the
desire nor the opportunity to turn it into a British Tammany Hall.44 Far
from creating a national machine, the long-lasting effect of the NLF was
to perpetuate Liberal localism â€“ that is, what Spence Watson proudly
described as â€˜the independenceâ€™ of the local associations.45 This aspect of
the NLF was strengthened by the Nonconformist culture of so many of its
members, with its typical emphasis on local government and congrega-
tional autonomy. Liberal localism, despite Watsonâ€™s pride, was a ques-
tionable asset for the partyâ€™s electoral performance and prospects. It
meant, for instance, that the NLF was unable to control candidatures,46
a fact that frustrated attempts to accommodate trade union demands for
political recognition, and arguably contributed to hastening the rise of
independent Labour politics. Gladstone himself was so frustrated about
the NLFâ€™s inability to select working-class candidates that he â€˜astonish-
ingly shared the opinion that labour was perfectly justified in organizing
on an independent basis in order to compel Liberals to translate official
sympathy into positive actionâ€™.47
Yet, from the beginning the NLF did have a working-class component,
both in terms of individual membership and in terms of corporate
Watson, The National Liberal Federation, 195.
First Session of the Council, Thursday, 18 March 18 1897, in, National Liberal
Federation, Annual Reports and Council Proceeedings, 1877â€“1936, Microfilm edition
(Harvester Press) in Cambridge University Library (henceforward cited as NLFAR), 37.
Watson, The National Liberal Federation, 16. Cf. National Liberal Federation. Constitution
Submitted to the Conference of 1877, V, â€˜Special General Meetings of Councilâ€™, in NLFAR.
Cf. J. Bryceâ€™s preface to Ostrogorski, Democracy.
Watson, The National Liberal Federation, 16. Watson was the president of the NLF from
1890 to 1902. Besides being one of the most influential Liberal â€˜wirepullersâ€™, he enjoyed a
measure of personal support, and was described by the Co-operative News (5 June 1880,
381) as â€˜one of the most popular men on Tynesideâ€™.
Watson, The National Liberal Federation, 195.
Barker, Gladstone and Radicalism, 134. Cf. H. Pelling, Popular politics and society in late
Victorian Britain (1979), 101â€“20.
178 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
representation on the executives of federated caucuses.48 Later it pursued
a strategy of incorporation from the top, co-opting successful labour
leaders. Newcastle upon Tyne was always in the forefront of