provided the leader with a reliable â€˜block voteâ€™, which dominated INL
conventions. Now the leaders of the parliamentary party could no longer
take clerical support for granted, and in fact it was the UIL that welcomed
priests at its conventions, and indeed made â€˜the clergy of all denomina-
tionsâ€™188 ex officio members.
The national convention which met at the end of June 1900 seemed to
fulfil the aspirations of those who wanted political power vested in the
UIL. The latter replaced both the Healyite and the anti-Parnellite
Lyons, Irish parliamentary party, 67â€“109, and Bull, â€˜The United Irish League and the
reunion of the Irish parliamentary party, 1898â€“1900â€™, Irish Historical Studies, 26, 101
(1988), 51â€“78. See also below, 301â€“4.
Bull, â€˜The United Irish Leagueâ€™, 62; W. B. Wells, John Redmond. A biography, (1919) 62.
Lyons, Irish parliamentary party, 109. 188 Ibid., 151 (my italics).
Radicalism and the caucus in Britain and Ireland 205
organizations as â€˜the sole official organisation of the nationalist partyâ€™,189
while the UIL was in a position to claim control over electoral strategy.190
However, as a matter of fact, the composition of the parliamentary party
was not drastically affected: the old guard remained firmly entrenched
and new voices from the rank and file were limited to six new MPs.191
The end result was thus a compromise: on the one hand, the party was
formally more democratic than ever before. On the other, the readiness
with which the old elite adopted the demands of the popular organization
meant that the Nationalist leaders were able to retain effective power by
â€˜riding the tigerâ€™ of internal democracy. The UILâ€™s very insistence on
party discipline, which led to the expulsion of Healy and J. L. Carew at
another convention later in 1900, meant that the â€˜supremacyâ€™ of the mass
organization would strengthen, rather than challenge, Redmond and the
other party leaders. The main political change was a shift away from
Parliament as the effective seat of power, towards party structures. For
now the leadersâ€™ influence depended no longer on the fact that they were
MPs, but sprang â€˜from the fact that some of them were also members of
the National Directory â€“ the supreme executive authority of the
â€˜Direct democracyâ€™ and the representative principle
in the NLF political theory
The period 1886â€“91 was one of the most exciting in the history of the
NLF, when the latter, rather than the liberal leadership, had claimed the
right to shape party policy.193 Yet, in electoral terms the outcome of
the changes which took place in those years was a mixed blessing for the
Liberals. Despite victory at the 1892 election, the Newcastle Programme
as such was too ambitious to be implemented by any one government. At
any rate, most of the reforms it proposed could not be implemented by
Gladstoneâ€™s fourth administration (1892â€“4), with its slim majority in the
Commons and hopeless minority in the Lords. Later, the crushing elec-
toral defeat of 1895 was regarded by some as an indication of the short-
comings of party democracy, and led to a new constitutional debate in
1895â€“7. In 1895, in his addresses to the council, the new party leader,
Lord Rosebery, argued that the NLF should limit itself to thrashing out
Bull, â€˜The United Irish Leagueâ€™, 75.
Lyons, Irish parliamentary party, 153â€“4. See also contemporary comments in The Irish
People, 23â€“30 Apr. 1900 and in Lyons, John Dillon, 207â€“14.
Bull, â€˜The United Irish Leagueâ€™, 76â€“7.
Lyons, â€˜The machinery of the Irish parliamentary partyâ€™, 138.
H. V. Emy, Liberals, radicals and social politics, 1892â€“1914 (1973), 40, 42.
206 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
â€˜the various issues that lie before the Liberal Partyâ€™,194 and thus leave to
the parliamentary front bench and the Cabinet the actual decisions about
which policies to implement and in what order. This was the model of the
mass party as â€˜a great educational assemblyâ€™,195 which Roseberyâ€™s col-
league and rival, Vernon Harcourt, had already aired at the Council of
1889. However, the reactions of the Council and the ensuing debate
showed no sign of the rank and file having become more amenable to
the leadershipâ€™s wishes.
Although Barker has suggested that by 1895 the NLF was humiliated
and ready to defer to leaders,196 the draft of the new constitution which
the General Purpose Committee submitted to the council was â€“ rather
than a surrender â€“ a compromise between rank-and-file democracy and
parliamentary centralism. It proposed the reshaping of the three govern-
ing bodies of the Federation, namely the committee itself, the General
Committee and the council.
Firstly, the General Purpose Committee was to be renamed the
Executive Committee. It would consist of twenty elected members and
the three Federation officers (president, chairman of committee and
treasurer). It was elected by the General Committee, upon nominations
by local Liberal associations. The election was to be guided by â€˜two
special considerationsâ€™: â€˜namely, that the different districts of the country
should all be represented, and next, that a very considerable proportion of
the Committee should be Presidents, or other Officers, of the affiliated
associations, of which the Federation is merely a united embodimentâ€™.197
Second, this principle of regional representation was further strength-
ened in the General Committee. The latter was to be elected by the
local associations, each of which would have the same number of dele-
gates (three), rather than, as hitherto, a variable number proportional
to the population of each parliamentary constituency.198 The General
Committee was thus to represent not members, but associations and
constituencies, irrespective of demographic considerations (a principle
reminiscent of the system for the election of the federal Senate in
Proceedings of the Annual Meeting, Portsmouth, 13â€“14 Feb. 1895, 111, in NLFAR.
Cf. also Roseberyâ€™s speech in Proceedings of the Annual Meeting, Huddersfield,
26 Mar. 1896, 109â€“10, in NLFAR.
V. Harcourt, in Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Council, Manchester, 3 Dec.
1889, 120, in NLFAR.
Barker, Gladstone and radicalism, 164.
â€˜The Constitution and functions of the federationâ€™, NLFAR, 1896, 34.
See 1880 Report, â€˜Constitutionâ€™, clause IV, 28, in NLFAR.
Radicalism and the caucus in Britain and Ireland 207
Third, the council was to retain the old representative principle of one
delegate per one thousand electors. It was still supposed to be â€˜the meet-
ing of the whole Federationâ€™; however, the idea that it was just a â€˜sounding
boardâ€™ for the leadersâ€™ rhetoric and for decisions taken elsewhere was
institutionalized. Members were to be mere delegates, rather than
This in itself was a double-edged move. Through the emphasis on the
principle of delegation, rather than representation, the NLF apparently
drew closer to the continental democratic tradition, particularly to
French radical democracy and socialism. However, without the glue of
either the social homogeneity or of Marxist ideology which held together
continental socialist parties, and without corporate trade-union represen-
tation, the outcome of the change to delegation was an additional increase
of the power of the party notables. Such an outcome was further favoured
by the fact that Liberal MPs were now ex officio members of both the
council and the General Committee. Since only a minority of the elected
representatives and delegates either cared, or were able, to attend meet-
ings,199 MPs would represent a sizeable proportion especially of the
General Committee. In conclusion, these reforms implied a dramatic
shift of the partyâ€™s internal balance of power towards both the parliamen-
tary party and the local notables. In fact, the General Committee was to
become the forum for any discussion. As the report explained:
It must be obvious that, in the future as in the past, adequate discussion of
debating points can only take place at the meetings of the General Committee.
To seek to turn an assembly, like the Federation Council, of perhaps 2,000
people, sitting at most for 10 or 12 hours, into an open conference for the debate
of multitudinous questions about which the party has come to no agreement, is
impossible. The less unwieldy General Committee, equally representative of the
Affiliated Associations, is the body at which discussion should take place. The
Council must remain largely an assembly of a declaratory character; a great
Annual Demonstration of the rank and file of the Party to ratify, emphasise and
give forcible public expression to the ascertained wishes of the Party on matters of
agreed and settled policy.200
The apologists of such constitutional change presented it as a step
towards greater democracy, particularly through the extension of the
powers of the NLFâ€™s â€˜federal senateâ€™, the General Committee, which
would meet more often and control the party more effectively.
Moreover, â€˜as circumstances arose they might have open conferences
and free discussion upon the questions before the countryâ€™.201
For concerns about attendance see ibid., 35â€“6. 200 Ibid.
Edward Evans, chairman of the General Purpose Committee, ibid., 71.
208 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
However, on the whole the new constitution meant a major departure
from the 1877 rhetoric of participatory citizenship and a â€˜parliament
outside the Imperial Parliamentâ€™.202 It seemed that the old dream of a
free assembly ruling the Liberal party â€“ almost reminiscent of Millâ€™s
dream of the ekklesia of a Victorian Athens â€“ was abandoned.
Yet there is evidence to show that the situation was rather more com-
plex than this summary would suggest. First, the outcome of the constitu-
tional changes of 1895â€“7 may have been at variance more with the
Victorian ideal of direct democracy than with its actual practice. Direct
democracy was, and still is, less radical than commonly supposed. For, as
Mogens Herman Hansen has demonstrated, even the ancient Athenian
ekklesia â€“ which did in fact consist, like the NLF council, of more than
2,000 people203 â€“ could deliberate effectively only because most ordinary
citizens limited themselves to ratifying or rejecting proposals, which were
usually passed by a unanimous vote.204 A similar procedure is still nowa-
days common in the Swiss cantons which have retained their ancient
system of direct democracy.205 As for the real discussion, both in the
Athenian ekklesia and in the Swiss Landsgemeinde, it involved only a
minority of rhetores and their retinue.206 They dominated the debate not
as modern parties dominate parliamentary debates, but rather in a way
reminiscent of regional bosses and national charismatic leaders at the
councils of the NLF.
More generally, it is significant that, as we look back on the continental
scene â€“ to which Victorian politicians referred to contextualize and
understand their own experiences207 â€“ we find parallels between the
Report of the Conference, 31 May 1877, 16, in NLFAR: â€˜We 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, elected by universal suffrage.â€™
M. H. Hansen, The Athenian Ecclesia (1983), 212â€“13. 204 Ibid., 215â€“16.
Namely Glarus, Obwalden, Nidwalden and the two Appenzell half-cantons: while the
Landsgemeinde is the sovereign body, deliberations are prepared in advance by the
Landamann (the president) and the Regierungsrat (the government), and then discussed
in all their details by the Kantonsrat or parliament (ibid., 209â€“10, 212). Only then are
proposals submitted to the Landsgemeinde. Furthermore, â€˜[n]o law or decree can be
moved directly in the Landsgemeinde. All proposals must be sent to the parliament
several months in advance.â€™ (210) A further similarity with what happened at NLF
Councils in the 1890s is that â€˜[m]ost items on the agenda attract no debate whatsoever
and the vote can be taken immediately (Obwalden) or the bill is declared accepted
without any show of hands (Glarus)â€™ (211).
Where â€˜only a negligible minority of the citizens make use of their right to address the
people. The speakers are mostly officials or politicians, but not alwaysâ€™ (Hansen, The
Athenian Ecclesia, 210â€“11, 216â€“17, 222): the practice at NLF Councils in the 1890s was
E.g. J. Macdonnell, â€˜Is the caucus a necessity?â€™ Fortnightly Review, 44 (1885), 780â€“90,
Radicalism and the caucus in Britain and Ireland 209
vicissitudes of the NLF and, not so much those of continental liberalism,
but of the tradition associated with radical democracy. For example, in
Germany the SPD was the only party which ascribed to rank-and-file
congresses a constitutional role comparable to that of the council in the
NLF, namely that of a legislative assembly for the parliamentary front
bench.208 Like the NLF, the SPD took pride in representing a democratic
Parliament â€˜outside the Imperial parliamentâ€™, indeed â€˜a political society in
its own rightâ€™.209
Though the NLF was not homogenized by a class-separatist ideology,
it too espoused something similar to their notion of the party as â€˜a parallel
state within a stateâ€™, a vision they shared, in various degrees, with both
continental socialists and the old INL.210 In fact they claimed to be the
parliament of the â€˜Liberal nationâ€™ in Britain. Inherited from the tradition
of popular â€˜anti-Parliamentâ€™ politics, stretching back beyond Chartism to
early nineteenth-century radicalism, this notion was reinforced by the
NLFâ€™s commitment to Home Rule, which created a sort of surrogate of
the socialist ideology of â€˜separatismâ€™, and may have been cherished for
similar reasons. For, as German and Swedish social democrat bosses had
discovered, a â€˜separatistâ€™ ideology was â€˜an instrument to mould partici-
pants and members into greater loyaltyâ€™.211 Further parallels between the
NLF and the SPD emerged at the beginning of the new century, when the
German socialists experienced a power struggle between the parliamen-
tary delegation and the rank-and-file assembly similar to the one which
affected the British Liberals, with similar outcomes. After 1905, SPD
â€˜party congresses ceased to be the supreme legislative assembly and
became a symbol of ritual celebration of political ideology . . . from
which participants would disperse refreshed and capable of disseminating
ideological refreshmentâ€™.212 Dillon, Redmond, Rosebery and Harcourt
would surely have approved of such an arrangement.
France too offers interesting parallels. There the ideal of ancient direct
democracy had been extolled and popularized during the Great
Revolution, but French liberals rejected it for the reasons put forward
by Benjamin Constant in his famous 1819 lecture on the â€˜Liberty of the
Modernsâ€™. While the liberals became converts to Napoleonic centralism,
J. P. Nettl, â€˜The German Social Democratic party 1890â€“1914 as a political modelâ€™,
Past & Present, no. 30 (1965), 72; cf. D. Groh, Negative Integration und revolutionarer
Attentismus. Die deutsche Sozialdemokratie am Vorabend des Ersten Weltkrieges (Frankfurt/
an Main, Berlin and Vienna), 1973.
Nettl, â€˜The German Social Democratic partyâ€™, 71, 78.
Pombeni, Partiti e sistemi politici, 249; Jordan, â€˜The Irish National League and the
â€˜â€˜unwritten lawâ€™â€™â€™, 171.
Nettl, â€˜The German Social Democratic partyâ€™, 80. 212 Ibid.
210 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism