which immediately deprived the party of important assets, including
many of its wealthy supporters, much of the front bench and most of
the newspaper press. Yet, despite the electoral defeat in 1886 and
repeated frustrations, leading to the debacles of 1895 and 1900, the
NLF remained loyal to Home Rule with an almost religious zeal. The
second problem with Jenkinsâ€™ explanation is that, far from being a step
inspired by cynical electoral calculations, the decision to support Home
Rule was largely influenced by emotional responses to perceived injustices
and to the GOMâ€™s appeal, as well as by entrenched support for Home
Rule in some radical circles, particularly influential at a regional level.77
Cf.â€˜Presentation by the Artisans of Birminghamâ€™, in Proceedings of the Annual Meeting
of the Council, Birmingham, 6 Nov. 1888, 164, in NLFAR.
National Liberal Federation, Constitution Submitted to the Conference of 1877, I, in
Lubenow, Parliamentary politics and the Home Rule crisis, 246.
T. A. Jenkins, The Liberal ascendancy, 1830â€“1886 (London, 1994), 216.
Goodlad, â€˜Gladstone and his rivalsâ€™; J. Shepherd, â€˜Labour and Parliament: the Lib-labs
as the first working-class MPs, 1885â€“1906â€™, Biagini and Reid, Currents of radicalism, 198.
See chapter 2, above, pp. 50â€“75.
184 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
Jenkinsâ€™ interpretation is reminiscent of Max Weberâ€™s classical
thesis, namely, that the NLFâ€™s decision was of â€˜crucial importanceâ€™78 in
re-establishing Gladstoneâ€™s control over the party. However, there is
evidence to suggest that it would be more accurate to say that it was
crucial in establishing the authority of the NLF itself within the party as a
whole. For it was only then that the NLF became a focal point for
Gladstonian loyalism, growing in size with the accession of fifty addi-
tional Liberal associations and seventy MPs.79 Part of this growth was
due to the multiplication of the number of parliamentary constituencies
after the adoption of the single-member system in 1885. However, the
redistribution of seats is not of itself sufficient to account for the growth in
federated associations: for, even after the loss of the Unionist vote and
membership, the proliferation of federated Liberal associations con-
tinued after 1886, reaching 850 in 1890.80 In 1897, in spite of the disarray
caused by the 1895 electoral disaster, the number of federated associa-
tions was still above the 1888 level.81 Furthermore, the secession of most
of the Whigs cleared the way for the Federationâ€™s burgeoning as a power
within the party as a whole. For, on the one hand, it forced the party
further to develop its electoral machine in order to compensate for the
loss of wealth,82 patronage and influence. On the other, it purged the
party of most of its non-radical components, thus increasing the scope for
the adoption of those policies with which the NLF was identified. These
developments reached their climax during the years 1888â€“95.
The 1888 report of the General Committee left unchanged the ambigu-
ous relationship between the NLF and the party leaders. It claimed
loyalty to the party leaders, but at the same time reasserted the independ-
ence of the mass organization.83 The latterâ€™s general assembly was sup-
posed to be, or to become, the truly sovereign body within the party, thus
implicitly challenging the authority of those leaders to whom loyalty had
been pledged. Throughout its many versions, the NLF constitution
Cook, A short history of the Liberal party, 23; cf. M. Weber, â€˜Politics as a vocationâ€™, in
H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, From Max Weber: essays in sociology (1948), 77â€“128.
Cook, A short history of the Liberal party, 23.
Barker, Gladstone and radicalism, 114.
Proceedings of the 1897 Meeting, Norwich, 18 Mar. 1897, 5, in NLFAR.
Barker, Gladstone and radicalism, 113â€“14.
Report of the Committee, 11th Annual Meeting, Birmingham, 6â€“7 Nov. 1888, 26â€“7, in
NLFAR: â€˜The Federation embodies and expresses the profound and unshaken loyalty of
the Liberal party to its great chief, and the confidence felt in his colleagues. At the same
time, the Federation has never been . . . a merely official organization. It receives its
inspiration from the people; one of its chief functions is to ascertain the will of the party,
to give expression to that will, and to unite all leaders as well as followers, in serving the
objects which the party desires.â€™
Radicalism and the caucus in Britain and Ireland 185
invariably proclaimed that â€˜the essential natureâ€™ of the Federation was
â€˜the direct participation of all members of the party in the direction of its
policyâ€™ and â€˜in the selection of those particular measures of reform and of
progress to which priority shall be givenâ€™.84 These two points deserve
further discussion. Though historians entertain legitimate misgivings
about how â€˜essentialâ€™ this alleged â€˜natureâ€™ really was,85 it must at least
be recognized that the most prominent feature in the self-perception of
NLFâ€™s activists was the emphasis on the Federationâ€™s â€˜popular basisâ€™.
According to the 1877 constitution:
1. The whole body of Liberals in the borough is recognized as the con-
stituency of the Association; and every Liberal has a vote in the
election of its committees.
2. Political responsibility, and the ultimate power of control, belong to
the largest representative body, and the policy of the Association is
loyally guided by its decision.
3. The decision of the majority, in the selection of candidates and other
matters of practical business, is regarded as binding upon those who
consent to be nominated, as well as upon the general body of
While critics charged the caucus with usurping the electorsâ€™ rights, the
caucusâ€™ advocates retorted that the NLF and its branches were expres-
sions of the citizensâ€™ right of self-government,87 and reflected their public
spirit, rather than their will to electoral power.88 The partyâ€™s general
assembly, the council, was primarily presented and described not as a
component of the electoral â€˜machineâ€™, but as the â€˜parliamentâ€™ of rank-
and-file opinion. As such it was supposed to be instrumental in bringing
the peopleâ€™s views to bear on the parliamentary party: â€˜[w]e hope that the
time is not distant when we may see a meeting of what will be a really
Liberal Parliament outside the Imperial Legislature, and, unlike it, elec-
ted by universal suffrage.â€™89 Similar feelings about the purpose of the
National Liberal Federation, Constitution Submitted to the Conference of 1877, V,
â€˜Special General Meetings of Councilâ€™, in NLFAR.
Hanham, Elections and party management, 141.
National Liberal Federation, Constitution Submitted to the Conference of 1877, V,
â€˜Special General Meetings of Councilâ€™, paragraphs (1), (2), (3) and (4), 30, in NLFAR.
H. W. Crosskey, â€˜The Liberal association â€“ the â€˜â€˜600â€™â€™ â€“ of Birminghamâ€™, Macmillanâ€™s
Magazine, 35 (1876â€“7), 307; J. Chamberlain, â€˜The caucusâ€™, Fortnightly Review, 24 n.s.
(1878), 724, 734.
Chamberlain, â€˜The caucusâ€™, 740; cf. H. J. Hanham, â€˜Tra lâ€™individuo e lo statoâ€™, in
P. Pombeni (ed.), La trasformazione politica nellâ€™Europa liberale 1870â€“1890 (1986), 93â€“102.
Report of the Conference, 31 May 1877, 16, in NLFAR. See also National Liberal
Federation, Constitution Submitted to the Conference of 1877, III, â€˜Councilâ€™, and IV,
â€˜General Committeeâ€™, in NLFAR, in a sort of â€˜TUCâ€™ of rank-and-file Liberalism, J. L.
Garvinâ€™s words. Garvin, Joseph Chamberlain, vol. I, 236.
186 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
mass organization were expressed at the 1885 conference of Scottish
Liberal associations (to which more than 160 associations sent
This resulted in the foundation of the Scottish Liberal Association
(SLA), which, like the NLF, opted for â€˜a purely Representativeâ€™ struc-
ture.91 In the early 1880s, even among Scottish Liberals â€˜[t]he key ques-
tion was whether or not the SLA could make policyâ€™ â€“ a question so
divisive that eventually the radicals â€“ who supported policy-making
powers â€“ broke away in 1885 to form the Scottish Liberal Federation
(SLF).92 In England the NLF amended its constitution and increased the
representative nature of the council by introducing a stricter form of
proportionality in the allocation of delegates.93 This produced a rather
large representative assembly. In practice, however, councils were
attended by only a minority of delegates, except when Gladstone was
speaking, as at the 1888 council. The latter was attended by 3,300
delegates,94 numbers being boosted by the attraction of personal contact
with the leader, a further reminder of the importance of the charismatic
The federated associations were similarly built on representative prin-
ciples, so that at both the national and the local level the structure of
the NLF tried to parallel the British system of representative government.
In the 1880s and 1890s this representative edifice was strengthened
by the introduction of the NLF equivalent of â€˜Home Rule All Roundâ€™.
This involved the establishment of regional associations for the Home
Counties, the Midlands and the West Country (1890), the North
and East of Scotland Association and the Scottish Liberal Federation
(1880; the latter two merged in 1887). In 1887 regional branches active in
a campaign of radical agitations included divisions for the Midland
Counties, Cheshire, Cornwall, Staffordshire, Huntingdonshire,
Norfolk, Suffolk, the Home Counties and London, besides the London
Liberal and Radical Union, the North Wales Federation and the South
Wales Federation.95 Part of the aim of the new regional organizations was
to bring the Federation â€˜closer to the peopleâ€™, but there was also the more
Cited in rep., â€˜Conference of Scotch Liberalsâ€™, FJ, 16 Sep. 1885, 6.
Appeal for funds, a circular dated October 1887 and signed â€˜Alex. MacDougall,
Secretaryâ€™, SLA Papers, NLS, Acc.11765/35. However, the list of â€˜Donations and
Subscriptions, 1888â€™ comes to only about Â£ 1,300: see printed list, ibid., unnumbered page.
Burgess, â€˜Strange Associationsâ€™, 35.
Council Proceedings of 1887, III. â€˜Councilâ€™, 36, in NLFAR. For the previous system of
representation see Council Proceedings of 1886, â€˜Councilâ€™, 29, ibid.
Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Council, 6â€“7 Nov. 1888, 87 in NLFAR.
Radicalism and the caucus in Britain and Ireland 187
practical and modern concern to reach out to those who were politically
indifferent or uncertain.96 Such a concern could well be seen as contri-
buting towards the subsequent formation of the Womenâ€™s Liberal
Federation (WLF, in 1887, with 20,000 members by 1888),97 though
the end result was in this case the empowering of women and the gradual
winning over to suffragism of rank-and-file female Liberals.98
At the 1890 meeting the constitution was amended again, this time
with a view to allowing a more frequent and timely convocation of the
council.99 In addition, the General Committee was deprived of its power
to co-opt members, and this meant that the executive would then be
completely controlled by the elected representatives of the local associa-
tions. To some extent the 1891 â€˜Newcastle Programmeâ€™ was a product of
this approach to the running of the party. For the first time a programme
was imposed on the parliamentary party by the mass organization.100 The
programme insisted on Irish Home Rule, but also included a number of
democratic and social reforms such as the disestablishment of the church
in both Scotland and Wales, arbitration in international disputes,
increased death duties and taxation of land values, and the â€˜mending or
endingâ€™ of the House of Lords.101
Though Barker has suggested that the caucus was run by â€˜wirepullersâ€™
such as Schnadhorst and his authoritarian successor, James Kitson,102
even he has found it difficult to propose an unequivocal answer to the
question of who â€˜controlledâ€™ the NLF. There are several reasons for this
difficulty. First, some of these wirepullers â€“ including Spence Watson â€“
had a genuine democratic following, and, at least at a regional level, were
popular irrespective of their role in the party machine.103 Second, there is
evidence that at least a few of the â€˜wirepullersâ€™ actually believed in party
democracy (perhaps more than their bosses, the elected representatives of
the people). Thus, while Chamberlainâ€™s own papers and correspondence
â€˜A recent article in the Times newspaper says that â€˜â€˜the people whose votes really turn
elections, and ultimately govern the destinies of the country, are not the people who go to
the great meetingsâ€™â€™, and it should be one of the great works of a Liberal organization to
reach this class.â€™ (Meeting of the Council, Nottingham, 18â€“19 Oct. 1887, 27â€“8, in
The Womenâ€™s Liberal Federation, in Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Council,
Birmingham, 6 Nov. 1888, 126, in NLFAR and the Womenâ€™s Liberal Association
Pugh, The march of the women, 131â€“5.
NLF, Proceedings in Connection with the Annual Meeting of 1890, 7.
Cook, A short history of the Liberal party, 26.
â€˜The programme of the Gladstonian partyâ€™, Ti, 2 Oct. 1891, 9.
Barker, Gladstone and radicalism, 138ff., 158.
According to the Co-operative News (5 June 1880, 6) â€˜Mr Robert Spence Watson . . . is
one of the most popular men on Tyneside.â€™
188 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
contain substantial evidence of effective â€˜wirepullingâ€™, the correspond-
ence of the chief party manager, F. W. Schnadhorst, indicates an obses-
sion with policy making and accountability, and a concern to establish the
â€˜constitutionalâ€™ rights of the NLF to shape the agenda of Liberalism (to
Chamberlainâ€™s annoyance). Furthermore, the situation and the balance
of power within the NLF evolved with political vicissitudes and the
election of new presidents. Finally, the interventions of defiant delegates
at the annual councils and ongoing constitutional instability suggest a
picture more complicated than a wirepullerâ€™s paradise. This is confirmed
also by Gladstoneâ€™s prudent handling of the â€˜Newcastle Programmeâ€™
when addressing the 1891 council. Then, as Barker has pointed out, far
from assuming that the â€˜wirepullersâ€™ would sort things out for him,
Gladstone spoke to the general assembly of the NLF with great caution,
fully aware of the importance of the council: â€˜he . . . realized that the
democratic forces which had recently transformed the party made it
impossible for the parliamentary leaders to ignore the wishes of the
popular organizationâ€™.104 Instead, he preferred to give a lead to it, by
establishing an order of priority among the various points of the pro-
gramme and by encouraging further debate on issues in which he was
personally interested, including old age pensions as a part of a plan to
reform and replace the Poor Law system.105
However, at a local level limited popular participation and aggressive
lobbying by a few highly committed activists could often stifle internal
debate and present assemblies with a fait accompli. As one A. Hulan
complained, â€˜A practically self-constituted executive (for they spring
their names suddenly by resolution on the assembly and allow no speak-
ing on it except by their own nominees, and no amendments to the