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points in the history of the British Isles cannot be easily rebutted.
Methodologically, he was able to combine a focus on ˜high™ politics
with attention to the popular dimension. Whether or not directly influ-
enced by Hammond, Heyck and Barker have continued along similar
lines in their important studies. Although they deal primarily with the
parliamentary dimension, Barker™s work on the National Liberal
Federation (NLF) has broken new ground. His suggestion ˜that the
presence of Gladstone at the head of the Liberal party constituted the

23
H. Pelling, Origins of the Labour party, 1880 “1900 (1983), 18“35.
24
It first appeared in October 1938. For the contemporary response see S. A. Weaver, The
Hammonds: a marriage in history (1998), 240“1.
25
Searle, Liberal party, 56; W. C. Lubenow, ˜Irish Home Rule and the social basis of the
great separation in the Liberal party in 1886™, Historical Journal, 28, 1 (1885), 125“42;
Lubenow, Parliamentary politics and the Home Rule crisis: the British House of Commons in
1886 (1988).
Home Rule as a ˜crisis of public conscience™ 13

principal obstacle to the emergence of a coherent and independent labour
movement™26 was one of the starting points for the research embodied in
British democracy and Irish nationalism. In fact, the extent to which I am
indebted to both Heyck and Barker is considerable, and although I
criticize their views on a number of specific issues, on the whole my aim
has been to integrate, rather than replace, their perceptive analyses.
Cooke and Vincent have often been cited as shorthand for a whole
historiographical tradition. They represent the ˜high politics™ school
which, allegedly, seeks to explain the whole political process in terms of
ruthless competition for power between a few individuals at Westminster.
This is not entirely fair to their Governing passion, let alone to Vincent™s
later brilliant reappraisal of Gladstone™s handling of the Home Rule
question. However, their suggestion that Ireland was little more than a
pawn in a purely English parliamentary game needs to be challenged,
especially because it reflects views widely held among scholars of the
period.27 In particular, Cooke and Vincent™s claim that neither the coun-
try nor the politicians wanted to know about Ireland in 188528 is hardly
reconcilable either with the mass of empirical evidence produced at the
time by and for Parliament, or with the attention devoted to the Irish
question by journalists, political economists and land reformers then, and
indeed throughout the period from 1868.
Not only did British politicians and opinion makers ˜know™ about
Ireland, but their awareness of the situation also resulted in radical
reforms unprecedented and unparalleled in nineteenth-century Europe.
These included the 1881 Land Act, which put an end to absolute prop-
erty rights in land, and the 1885 Ashbourne Act, which provided
Treasury loans for tenants to buy out Irish landlords (farmers would be
able to borrow the whole purchase price, to be repaid at 4 per cent
annuities over forty-nine years). It was a comparatively small-scale, but
highly successful experiment, which, as we have seen, in 1886 Gladstone
proposed to develop into a more comprehensive strategy. Although his
Bill was defeated, land purchase was gradually implemented by Balfour
and Wyndham between 1887 and 1903. By 1891 a British Unionist
government had created the Congested District Board “ an appointed

26
M. Barker, Gladstone and radicalism: the reconstruction of Liberal policy in Britain,
1885“1894 (1975), 96; T. W. Heyck, The dimensions of British radicalism: the case of
Ireland, 1874“1895 (1974), 26.
27
D. A. Hamer, Liberal politics in the age of Gladstone and Rosebery (1972); R. Shannon,
Gladstone: Heroic minister, 1865“1898 (1999); P. Stansky, Ambitions and strategies: the
struggle for the leadership of the Liberal party in the 1890s (1964).
28
A. B. Cooke and J. R. Vincent, The governing passion (1974), 17, 24“5, 163; J. Vincent,
˜Gladstone and Ireland™, Proceedings of the British Academy, (1977), 193“238.
14 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism

Irish authority, funded by the tax-payer, with wide-ranging powers for the
purpose of improving agriculture and developing the road and rail net-
work in the west of the country. By the end of the century its jurisdiction
encompassed many counties and included two-thirds of the island. It was
a breakthrough in social engineering, in some respects a precursor to
F. D. Roosevelt™s 1933 Tennessee Valley Authority, which created an
infrastructure and sustained employment in a large depressed area cut-
ting across state boundaries. Late Victorian radicals such as George
Lansbury and H. W. Massingham had reason to envy the bipartisan
consensus which allowed for the mobilization of large economic resources
to help the Irish farmer, at a stage when the British working man was
being told to look after himself as best as he could.29 In short, if we
considered the amount and extent of reforms carried out in Ireland in
1881“1903, we would be tempted to conclude that in British politics
Ireland ˜mattered™ more than, let us say, Lancashire or Yorkshire. Even
Scotland, which produced so many prime ministers during the period,
enjoyed no more than a watered-down version of Irish-style land legis-
lation. Moreover, in the specific sphere of self-government, Ireland ini-
tiated a debate which continued for generations, as Jackson and Peatling
have shown, and affected the subsequent, wider debate on devolution in
the United Kingdom.30
Irish affairs had been hotly debated at Westminster from 1881 and
especially in 1884, when the question was whether to extend the house-
hold franchise to Irish tenant farmers and whether proportional repre-
sentation should be introduced to mitigate the effects of majority rule.31
Although Home Rule did not feature prominently in the British election
in November 1885, behind the scenes not only Gladstone, but also
Chamberlain and others worked on various alternative plans for giving
Ireland local government and a degree of ˜devolution™. Within the
Conservative party, Churchill and Carnarvon were equally concerned
about the future of Ireland, although they disagreed about the prospects
and implications of a Home Rule scheme.32 As for Salisbury, Cooke and
Vincent have stressed that his dismissive, racist and arrogant remarks


29
Barker, Gladstone and radicalism, 90.
30
A. Jackson, Home Rule: an Irish History, 1820“2000 (2003); G. K. Peatling, British opinion
and Irish self-government, 1865“1925 (2001), J. Kendle, Ireland and the federal solution: the
debate over the United Kingdom constitution, 1870“1921 (1989); G. Boyce, ˜Federalism and
the Irish question™, in A. Bosco (ed.), The federal idea, vol. I: The history of federalism from
the Enlightenment to 1945 (1991).
31
J. Lubbock and H. O. Arnold-Forster, Proportional representation: a dialogue (1884); see
J. Hart, Proportional representation: critics of the British electoral system, 1820“1945 (1992).
32
P. J. O™Farrell, Ireland™s English question: Anglo-Irish relations, 1534“1970 (1971), 182.
Home Rule as a ˜crisis of public conscience™ 15

about the Irish being no better than ˜the Hottentots™ were actually care-
fully worded provocations to polarize the debate and prevent the forma-
tion of a centrist coalition government under Lord Hartington.33
In 1977 Vincent published a partial revision of his own analysis, one
which has influenced the scholarly debate more than The governing pas-
sion. In particular, it is now generally accepted that Gladstone™s primary
aim was to preserve the Union and that he was prepared to introduce all
sorts of reforms to secure such an end “ including Home Rule.34
Moreover, Colin Matthew has established that Gladstone was not sud-
denly ˜converted™ to Home Rule at the end of 1885, but had privately
been considering it from the mid-1870s, while Parry has shown how this
was indeed suspected by contemporaries in the parliamentary Liberal
party.35 In fact, from 1881 Gladstone™s second government began to
experiment with elective self-government also in parts of the empire
which had hitherto been run on paternalist and autocratic principles,
including India under Lord Ripon and Cyprus under Lord Kimberley.36
As a result of Parry™s work, the study of high politics has acquired a
deeper and richer dimension. His emphasis on the role of ideas, and
religion in particular, has transformed the meaning of the ˜passion of
politics™ which his predecessors in this school had too readily interpreted
as hunger for power. Moreover, he has corrected Cooke and Vincent™s
view about the marginality of Ireland in the Liberal party split.37 He sees
Home Rule as a cataclysm which ˜turned the Liberal party from a great
party of government into a gaggle of outsiders™, by giving free rein to
sectionalism and populism. However, he also admits that ˜Liberal popu-
lism neutralised danger from the left by [consigning] Labour to a slow
advance through local politics.™38 In other words, he accepts that, by
championing Home Rule, Gladstone tapped into a source of potential
support for any independent labour party in Britain, and contributed to
marginalizing the socialists “ who often sounded like a Gladstonian
pressure group, rather than an alternative to liberalism.
From 1886 to 1895 both Liberalism and democracy in the British Isles
were dominated by the debate on Home Rule, which involved fundamental


33
Cooke and Vincent, Governing passion, 81“2.
34
Vincent, ˜Gladstone and Ireland™; A. Warren, ˜Gladstone, land and social reconstruction
in Ireland, 1881“1887, Parliamentary History, 2 (1983), 153“73.
35
J. P. Parry, Democracy and religion: Gladstone and the Liberal party, 1867“1875 (1986),
412“13. Cf. H. C. G. Matthew, Gladstone, 1875“1898 (1995), 234“8.
36
H. Tinker, The foundations of local self-government in India, Pakistan and Burma (1965);
G. S. Georghallides, A political and administrative history of Cyprus, 1918“1926, with a
survey of the foundations of British rule (1979), 41.
37
Parry, The rise and fall of Liberal government, 302. 38 Ibid., 306“11.
16 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism

questions about sovereignty, citizenship and community, and forced
people to redefine what they meant by ˜liberty™. In Ireland, constitutional
Nationalism became the dominant political discourse outside North-East
Ulster. With British Liberalism it shared “ among other things “ a degree
of ambiguity which allowed different social groups, ranging from the rural
middle class to poorer peasants and farm workers, to appropriate and use
it in defence of their own specific interests. While in Britain the complex-
ity of Gladstonian Liberalism encouraged its adoption by the left, among
Ulster Liberal Unionists it caused tension between Whigs and radicals
such as T. W. Russell, who believed that, in order to survive in a political
climate dominated by sectarian issues, the party must adopt radical land
reform.39
Yet all these groups claimed to stand for ˜national™ causes independent of
social and economic sectionalism, although the ˜nation™ they claimed to
represent became increasingly indefinite, as the empire, England,
Scotland, Wales, Southern Ireland and North-East Ulster each produced
distinctive and sometimes antagonistic understandings of what the ˜com-
mon good™ required. Crucial in this respect was the fact that Gladstone and
his followers developed a pluralistic understanding of the nation, one
which was fully compatible with what he called ˜local™ patriotisms:
I hold that there is such a thing as local patriotism, which, in itself, is not bad,
but good. The Welshman is full of local patriotism “ the Scotchman is full of
local patriotism; the Scotch nationality is as strong as it ever was, and should the
occasion arise . . . it will be as ready to assert itself as in the days of Bannockburn.
I do not believe that local patriotism is an evil. I believe it is stronger in Ireland
even than in Scotland. Englishmen are eminently English, Scotchmen are
profoundly Scotch . . . [t]he Irishman is more profoundly Irish; but it does not
follow that, because his local patriotism is keen, he is incapable of Imperial
patriotism.40
There were important areas in which the Conservatives were more
responsive to Irish Nationalist demands than the Liberals: these included
active support for peasant proprietorship from 1885 and, more import-
antly, a commitment to denominationalism in education. Moreover, the
clash between Radicals and some of the Nationalists over the Bradlaugh

39
G. Greenlee, ˜Land, religion and community: the Liberal party in Ulster, 1868“1885™, in
E. F. Biagini (ed.), Citizenship and community: liberals, radicals and collective identities in the
British Isles, 1865“1931 (1996), 253“75; R. McMinn, ˜The myth of ˜˜Route™™ liberalism in
´
County Antrim, 1869“1900™, Eire“Ireland, 17 (1982), 137“49.
40
Gladstone™s speeches, ed. by A. Tinley Basset (1916), 641“2. This pluralistic notion of the
Britannic identity has been studied by J. S. Ellis, ˜Reconciling the Celt: British national
identity, empire and the 1911 investiture of the Prince of Wales™, Journal of British Studies,
37, 4 (1998), 391“418.
Home Rule as a ˜crisis of public conscience™ 17

case in the early 1880s “ when the professing atheist MP for Northampton
refused to take the biblical oath and was consequently ejected from
Parliament “ highlighted the extent to which Roman Catholics and
Anglicans shared a vision of a Christian polity to be defended against
militant secularism.41 But these affinities amounted to little more than
occasional encounters between strangers: they were not sufficient for
building lasting political alliances, especially in view of the fact that
Conservatives and Nationalists disagreed so radically in their under-
standing of social order and national loyalty. About the Christianity of
the British Parliament, for example, the Nationalists seemed to have
changed their minds by 1892, when they supported the Zoroastrian
Parsi Dadabhai Naoroji in winning Finsbury Central for the Liberals.
Moreover, Parnell himself entertained towards confessional politics a
repugnance which distinguished him both from most of his own party
and from the Liberal rank and file in Britain.42
The most serious flaw in Gladstone™s Home Rule strategy was that it
neglected the reality of Ulster.43 The Northern Irish commitment to the
Union proved a major stumbling block for the Liberals and further
strengthened pro-Unionist feelings in Scotland and England. For the
purposes of the present study, which is concerned more with the develop-
ment of popular political ideas than with legislative schemes, it is import-
ant to bear in mind Loughlin™s observation about Gladstone being
guided by ˜a preoccupation with the probity of social and political
actions™, more than with the human and material effects of such actions.44
While this exasperated Irish Unionists, it was consistent with the climate
of opinion created by the 1886 crisis in both Nationalist and Gladstonian
circles “ an ethos in which Home Rule was a statement of faith and the
supreme assertion of political emancipation. ˜It is really amazing what
mad construction the peasantry and uneducated among the working class
have put upon what is known as ˜˜Home Rule™™,™ an Irish Unionist news-
paper commented in 1886.45 Home Rule was to the Irish working and
lower middle classes what ˜Reform™ and free trade had been to their
counterparts in Britain in 1864“85: it represented an atoning gesture
which reassured them as to the acceptability and, in principle, legitimacy
of the ˜constitution™. Ultimately the latter was symbolized by Gladstone™s

41
A. O™Day, Parnell and the First Home Rule Episode, 1884“87 (1986), 46; W. J. Arnstein,
˜Parnell and the Bradlaugh case™, Irish Historical Studies, 13, 51 (1963), 212“35.
42
Jackson, Home Rule, 78. However, we should not forget that many Liberal intellectuals
and parliamentarians were as horrified as he was by religious bigotry in politics.
43
J. Loughlin, Gladstone, Home Rule and the Ulster question, 1882“93 (1986); F. Thompson,
The end of Liberal Ulster: land agitation and land reform (2001).
44
Loughlin, Ulster question, 288. 45 Cited in ibid., 112.
18 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism

celebration of the Irish parliamentary tradition established by Henry
Grattan in 1782. It is remarkable how far such Grattanian ideology
became a source of political identity and focus of popular attention in

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