Government will act free and boldly in support of the law as it is now doing, and with any
additional improvement of means which experience may suggestâ€™.
Hall, Civilising subjects, 428â€“30.
Mundella to Leader, 12 Mar. 1881, in Leader papers, Sheffield Univ. Library (emphasis
in the original).
Cited in Robbins, John Bright, 242. This view was shared by Mundella and other radicals:
Mundella to Leader, 15 Jan. 1881, in Leader Papers, Sheffield Univ. Library.
Chamberlain, Home Rule and the Irish question, 27.
232 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
The twin pillars of Chamberlainâ€™s alternative strategy for the pacification
of Ireland were further land reform and local government. Radical
land reform was a policy with impeccable liberal credentials, going back
to J. S. Millâ€™s 1868 pamphlet England and Ireland, in which the philoso-
pher had indicated that nothing else could avert the spread of nationalism
among the peasants. Likewise, in 1880â€“1 Chamberlain demanded drastic
reform both as a means to an end â€“ in his case, Parnellâ€™s defeat â€“ and as
an end in itself. Eventually he was persuaded to accept further coercion,
but only in response to Parnellâ€™s open defiance of the law and challenge
to the unity of the kingdom. As he wrote to Dilke, he had reached the
conclusion â€˜that Parnell has now gone beyond us. He acts for No Rent
and Separation, and I am not prepared to say that the refusal of such
terms as these constitutes an Irish grievance.â€™68 The passing of the 1881
Land Act had removed â€˜[t]he chief grievanceâ€™ â€“ now the agitatorsâ€™
object was to create â€˜sentimentalâ€™ ones for subversive purposes, pursued
through terrorism and intimidation. â€˜It is, therefore, war to the knife
between a despotism created to re-establish constitutional law, and a
despotism not less complete elaborated to subvert law and produce
anarchy as a precedent to revolutionary changes.â€™69 However, he felt
that the Liberal government was in a quandary. On the one hand, it
could get away with further coercion in the short term for â€˜[t]he parties
aimed at are not very popular anywhere, and infernal machines, [US
President] Garfieldâ€™s assassination, Fenianism, etc., will all be so mixed
up in peopleâ€™s minds with what is proposed, that I think it would pass
without objectionâ€™. On the other, he saw little prospect of coercion
succeeding in the medium term, because putting down the League
â€˜would involve so many questions affecting public agitation in this coun-
try that the radicals would surely be up in armsâ€™. Significantly he con-
cluded: â€˜the Tories might do it, if they were in office, which I wish to God
Over the next few years Chamberlainâ€™s outlook continued to be domi-
nated by the tension between his determination to preserve the unity of
the kingdom, and his genuine wish to reform and democratize Ireland.
For example, in 1882 he suggested to Gladstone that he appoint an
Irishman, W. Shaw, to the position of Chief Secretary, and added:
â€˜I know it may be objected that he was the former leader of the Home
Rule Party but I do not attach much weight to this. Home Rule may mean
J. Chamberlain to C. Dilke, 4 Oct. 1881, in JC 5/24/304.
J. Chamberlain to J. Morley, 18 Oct. 1881, in Chamberlain, Political memoir, 18.
J. Chamberlain to C. Dilke, 4 Oct. 1881, in JC 5/24/304.
The rise and fall of Radical Unionism 233
anything â€“ including local government.â€™71 And as late as 1885 he
denounced Dublin Castle rule as a system â€˜founded on the bayonets of
30,000 soldiers encamped permanently as in a hostile countryâ€™ and com-
parable to Russian government over Poland. He demanded â€˜the conces-
sion to Ireland of the right to govern itself in matters of its purely domestic
businessâ€™.72 Moreover, despite his later, and largely correct, claim that the
Home Rule question played no role in the general election, in February
1885 he had actually stressed that the reform of the Irish system of
government was part of â€˜the work to which the new Parliament will be
calledâ€™.73 As we have seen (chapter 1, pp. 7â€“8), this was a widely held
view within the Liberal leadership in 1885.
The real question, however, concerned the extent and purpose of
reform. In December 1884 Chamberlain outlined an Irish Board with
wide-ranging powers and allowed W. H. Duignan to circulate its details
informally. In January 1885, through Oâ€™Shea, he discussed Parnellâ€™s
proposal for county councils and a Central Board.74 In March of that
year he produced a memorandum envisaging a different scheme, with the
creation of two â€˜Provincial Legislative Assembliesâ€™ for Ireland, â€˜[o]ne to
represent the three Southern Provinces of Munster, Connaught, &
Leinster, and to sit in Dublinâ€™ and the other â€˜such part of Ulster as may
choose to be so represented, & to sit in Belfastâ€™. Fully aware of the
complexities of Ulsterâ€™s religious and political geography, he suggested
that â€˜[t]he Counties of Ulster might be allowed to vote whether they
would be represented in the Belfast or the Dublin Assemblyâ€™, and
reflected on the question as to whether â€˜any of the Counties in
Connaught or Leinster have a right to be represented at Belfast if they
It was a detailed and carefully thought-out proposal, which specified
the functions of the assemblies and imposed rigid limits to their powers
chiefly with regard to the preservation of religious equality and civil rights.
In some respects, Chamberlain relied for a model on the 1867 British
North America Act, but made it clear beyond any doubt that the imperial
Parliament would remain sovereign: for example, it could make â€˜remedial
legislation for the due execution of this Actâ€™ if â€˜any Provincial law is
J. Chamberlain to Gladstone, 2 May 1882, in Gladstone Papers, Add. MSS. 44125,
MS report of a speech delivered on 17 June 1886, in Gladstone Papers, Add. MSS
44126, ff. 91â€“2 and Birmingham Daily Post, 22 May 1885.
Gladstone Papers, Add. MSS 44126, ff. 91â€“92 (underlined in the original).
Hammond, Gladstone and the Irish nation, 366.
â€˜Secret. Extension of local government in Irelandâ€™, n.d. [probably March 1885],
234 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
declared to be illegal or ultra vires, and in case Provincial Legislatures fail
to take the necessary steps to give effects to the decisions, or to carry out
this Actâ€™. Although he relinquished this plan in April in favour of the
better-known Central Board scheme â€“ which Chamberlain was misled to
believe would be more acceptable to Parnell â€“ the March proposal was
remarkable for its clarity and internal consistency, as well as for its
compatibility with the preservation of imperial sovereignty, and indeed
for the extent to which it anticipated partition as the logical consequence
of self-government. In both cases it was evident that Chamberlain
regarded Irish self-government as â€˜the only hope of ultimately securing
better relations between the two countriesâ€™.76 It was also clear that his
proposed Irish authorities would only â€˜deal with what may be called local
national questions; as, for instance, Education in all its forms including
endowed schools; -public works; -lunatic asylums &c &câ€™.77
Hence the yawning chasm between his and Gladstoneâ€™s approach to
the question. For Gladstone Irish self-government was about undoing the
wrong caused by Pittâ€™s Union which had â€˜[destroyed] the national life of
Irelandâ€™; he thought of the future of Britain and Ireland in terms of a dual
monarchy â€“ linking different nations, like Austria and Hungary.78 While
it is not accurate to say that Chamberlain had always been against Home
Rule, the latter had long been an ambiguous concept and, at least from
1880, for him it was a useful one only in so far as it could help in
consolidating the national life and purpose of the United Kingdom as a
whole by means of adequate devolution to provincial authorities.79
Yet, when the two leaders met at Hawarden on 7â€“8 October 1885,
Gladstone was vague and â€˜very sweet on National Councilsâ€™.80 Here was a
grey area in their policy plans, but it was one which allowed for misun-
derstanding rather than compromise and conciliation. This was indicated
by the fact that while the GOM found Parnellâ€™s last speech â€˜satisfactoryâ€™,
or at least â€˜more moderateâ€™, Chamberlain thought that the Irish leader
â€˜was not to be depended upon. He will not stick to any minimum . . . he
must go for a separate independent Parliament.â€™81 Temperamentally, the
two men could hardly have been more different, with Gladstone looking
Memo dated 11 Apr. 1885, JC 8/5/1/11. For the Irish MPsâ€™ response see T. P. Oâ€™Connor,
Memoirs of an old parliamentarian (1929), vol. I, 350â€“1.
JC 8/5/1/11 (emphasis in the original). On the making of the scheme cf. C. H. D.
Howard, â€˜Joseph Chamberlain, Parnell and the Irish â€˜â€˜central boardâ€™â€™ scheme, 1884â€“5â€™,
Irish Historical Studies, 8 (1953), 324â€“63.
In conversation with Lord Derby, cited in Garvin, Chamberlain, vol. II, 111 (emphasis in
J. Loughlin, â€˜Joseph Chamberlainâ€™, 211.
Chamberlain to Dilke, 7 Oct. 1885, Garvin, Chamberlain, vol. II, 107.
Ibid., 107â€“8, and Chamberlain to Gladstone, 26 Oct. 1885, ibid., 114.
The rise and fall of Radical Unionism 235
(in Garvinâ€™s words) â€˜propheticâ€™ and â€˜blazingâ€™, while his junior colleague
was â€˜hardy and coolâ€™. Where the former saw a historic opportunity, the
latter saw a major threat.
It was not simply, as Garvin wrote, that â€˜[o]ne was full of the Irish
Question and hardly considered the social questionâ€™, while the other was
â€˜full of the social questionâ€™, regarding Ireland as secondary. It was also
that for Chamberlainâ€™s strategy to solve both the Irish and the social
question demanded the preservation of the Union, which Gladstone
now regarded as a constitutional quagmire. As Chamberlain wrote to
John Morley, â€˜I do not believe that there is anything between National
Councils and absolute Separation . . . it seems to be most mischievous and
inexpedient to raise false hopes by vague generalities and to talk of
maintaining the Unity of the Empire while granting Home Rule.â€™82 And
to Labouchere he expressed his conviction that â€˜[t]here is only one way of
giving bona fide Home Rule, which is the adoption of the American
Constitutionâ€™, with â€˜[s]eparate legislatures for England, Scotland, Wales
and possibly Ulster. The other three Irish provinces might combineâ€™, as
he had already suggested in his memorandum about Provincial
Legislatures. Westminster would continue to control â€˜Foreign and
Colonial affairs, Army, Navy, Post Office and Customsâ€™. Finally, he
envisaged â€˜[a] Supreme Court to arbitrate on respective limits of author-
ityâ€™.83 It was the clearest and boldest plan of constitutional reform to be
conceived by a British statesman in the nineteenth or, for that matter, the
twentieth century. Britain adopting â€˜the American Constitutionâ€™ could be
a drastic and revolutionary step quite uncalled for except to appease the
Irish Nationalists.84 Yet the notion that Home Rule implied the creation
of a â€˜Supreme Court . . . master of both Parliaments . . . humiliating our
Imperial Parliament . . . and depriving it of the power it exercises for the
general good of the Stateâ€™, remained part of the Liberal Unionist case.85
Of particular importance, again, was Chamberlainâ€™s concern for
Ulster, one which he shared with both John Bright and Lord Spencer.86
In particular, Chamberlain reckoned that without the Union there was no
future for either civil and religious liberty or economic progress in Ireland,
and indeed for the United Kingdom if it allowed a vocal but insignifi-
cant minority of short-sighted farmers and self-interested politicians
on the periphery to break away. Other leading Liberals â€“ including the
On 24 Dec. 1885, ibid., 147. 83 On 26 Dec. 1885, ibid., 145.
Chamberlain to C. Dilke, 28 Dec. 1885, JC 5/24/446.
â€˜A working manâ€™s appeal to his fellow-workmenâ€™, The Liberal Unionist, Aug. 1888, 4â€“5.
On the debate see Collini, Public moralists, 287â€“301.
Lord Spencer to C. Boyle, 20 Sep. 1885, in Gordon, The Red Earl, vol. II, 75.
236 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
anti-imperialist Leonard Courtney and John Bright â€“ fully agreed:
national interest, individual liberty, the cause of progress in Ireland and
the greatness of Britain in the world, all depended on the preservation of
Chamberlainâ€™s doctrine amounted to something like secularized
Erastianism, the traditional Whig approach to ecclesiastical matters,
which insisted on parliamentary control as the only guarantee against
the rise of religious fanaticism. For Chamberlain Parliament was to be the
adjudicator between rival sectarian and sectionalist claims in the social
and economic conflict between classes. The weakness of his approach
was that, although he identified correctly the direction in which British
politics was moving, his intuition was relevant only in the long run. In
general, at the time â€˜[t]he urban working classes were apparently less
socialistic in their appetites than he had assumedâ€™.88 Even in the case of
â€˜freeâ€™ education â€“ an old radical mantra â€“ rate-payers were afraid that it
would actually result in a major increase in the burden of local taxation.
On the whole, however, Chamberlain turned out to be â€˜aheadâ€™ of popular
radicalism not only in 1885, but also during the following years, when he
outlined his old age pensions proposal.89 Although the latter might be
expected to have been a vote winner, popular responses highlighted the
extent to which self-help â€“ and in particular the friendly societies as
providers of relief â€“ continued to define public expectations in matters
of social reform.90 To some extent Gladstoneâ€™s 1886 Irish Land Purchase
Bill suffered from a similar problem, namely persistent popular horror at
state expenditure, compounded, in his case, by the impression that the
proposed Bill would involve â€˜a gigantic piece of class legislationâ€™, whose
primary aim was to rescue the Irish landowners from the revengeful
â€˜I am against anything in the shape or taking the name of a Parlt. in Dublin, & will not go
to the Colonies for an example for us. The Canadian Confederation is even now showing
symptoms of breaking down â€“ and I wish to maintain the unity of the Govt.â€™ (J. Bright to
J. Chamberlain, 9 June 1886, in JC 5/7/30.) Cf. L. Courtney to John Scott in 1887, cited
in E. Stokes, â€˜Milnerismâ€™, Historical Journal, 5, 1 (1962), 47â€“8: â€˜I see the contagion of
Home Rule is extending to India as we know it must. How you on the spot must groan
over such premature encouragement to foolhardiness. I donâ€™t fancy this trouble will
become serious in our time; but the working man voter would think no more of giving
up India than of giving up Ireland, not caring to inquire seriously what would be the fate
of either when abandoned.â€™
Marsh, Chamberlain, 209, 213.
From April 1891, and developed in a series of publications including his â€˜Favourable
aspects of state socialismâ€™, North American Review, May 1891; â€˜Old age pensionsâ€™, The
Liberal Unionist, July 1891, 228; â€˜Old age pensionsâ€™, National Review, 18 February 1892,
721â€“39; â€˜The labour questionâ€™, Nineteenth Century, 32, November 1892, 677â€“710; and
â€˜Old age pensions and friendly societiesâ€™, National Review, 24 January 1895, 592â€“615.
Rep., â€˜Mr Chamberlain and the pension systemâ€™, WT&E, 17 May 1891, 9; â€˜Social
reformsâ€™, LW, 14 Oct. 1894, 8.
The rise and fall of Radical Unionism 237
legislation likely to be enacted by a Nationalist Parliament in case Home
Rule was passed.91 Eventually the 1903 Wyndham Act together with
the previous land purchase measures passed between 1885 and 1896
proved even more expensive. Nevertheless, in the short run at least,
Salisbury offered the old, reassuring Gladstonian mixture of constitu-