Democrat in the House of Commons.â€™ (Letter by â€˜A Primitive Methodistâ€™, â€˜Driving it
home at last!â€™, WT&E, 15 July 1894, 6.)
L. McKinstry, Rosebery: statesman in turmoil (2005), 123â€“4, 140â€“2, 301.
290 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
splitting the â€˜progressiveâ€™ vote against â€˜aristocratic forces and plutocratic
fraud [which for centuries] have robbed you and your forefathers of the
two most elementary Rights of Man â€“ the Right to the Suffrage and the
Right to the Soilâ€™.
At most General Elections, of late years, there has been little or nothing to choose
between the two historical parties â€“ the Liberals and the Tories â€“ who have been
about equally your enemies when in office . . . But in the present instance the case is
different. The late Liberal Government may not have adopted . . . the best meth-
ods of affecting imperative reforms, but that it did achieve several of considerable
magnitude and seriously attempt others cannot in justice be gainsaid.
In particular, the 1894 budget â€˜affirmed the great principle that in tax-
ation the heaviest burden should be laid on the most burdensome (the
landlords and the capitalists) and not the most burdened members of the
communityâ€™. Moreover, â€˜to the villagers [the Liberal government] gave
their Magna Chartaâ€™ in the shape of parish councils and â€˜to Londoners the
Equalization of their Ratesâ€™.81 While â€˜Collectivism was the goalâ€™, the
Liberals could provide the means to reach it. They were a â€˜reclaimable,
and . . . at present a reclaimed partyâ€™. Morrison Davidson proposed a
programme of political, social and economic reforms which combined
radical liberalism with socialist and anarchist demands. They comprised
universal suffrage (women and â€˜paupers especially includedâ€™), church
disestablishment, Home Rule All Round, decentralization on the US,
â€˜or better the Swiss modelâ€™, and payment of MPs. He went beyond
parliamentary democracy with his insistence on â€˜the Initiative and
Referendumâ€™ and the reform or abolition of both the House of Lords
and the monarchy. He recommended economic and social reforms rang-
ing from old age and widowsâ€™ pensions, municipal control over the liquor
trade and free education (including university), to the Eight-Hour Bill,
parish ownership of land and mines, a â€˜Cooperative Commonwealthâ€™ to
J. Morrison Davidson, â€˜To the electors and non-electors of Great Britain and Irelandâ€™,
WT&E, 7 July 1895, 6. For another correspondent (W. Saunders, â€˜Toryism in Liberal
disguiseâ€™, WT&E, 1 July 1894, 6) the alliance was supposed to work along lines which
anticipated the 1903â€“6 Herbert Gladstoneâ€“MacDonald pact: â€˜A mere tactical but loyal
alliance, offensive and defensive, is all that is wanted. Let the Labourist candidate be
withdrawn in constituencies in which their chance is hopeless, and where they have
reasonable prospect of winning let the Liberals do so likewise, and thus make common
cause against the unprincipled alliance of King Salisbury and the shameless Brummagem
apostate.â€™ Other contributors were less favourably disposed towards the Liberal govern-
ment: â€˜The most important proposals of the Newcastle Programme, those upon which
the present Cabinet obtained office, have been left without any attempt at fulfilment . . .
The leaders of the Liberal Party have for eight years kept an impossible Home Rule Bill
across the path of progress; and as an additional obstruction they have now got up an
agitation against the House of Lords, which can have no practical effect.â€™
Social radicalism and the â€˜popular frontâ€™ 291
provide jobs or living wages for the unemployed at the expense of the
wealthy classes, land nationalization, and free transport by rail or tram. It
also demanded the repudiation of the National Debt â€“ a revolutionary
proposal if ever there was one in England. Of these proposals, he regarded
full parliamentary democracy as the most important.82
These articles marked a final shift in editorial policy, away from any
residual Unionism. As early as March 1895 the Weekly Times had strongly
supported Asquithâ€™s Welsh Disestablishment Bill83 and at the ensuing
general election it endorsed both Liberal and ILP/socialist candidates,
including Keir Hardie, Ben Tillet, Tom Mann, Pete Curran, James Sexton,
J. Ramsay MacDonald, George Lansbury and H. M. Hyndman.84
Morrison Davidsonâ€™s influence was also reflected in the fact that the news-
paperâ€™s official stance now included both â€˜Home Rule All Roundâ€™ and â€˜the
Democratic Federation of the Coloniesâ€™. Its social and economic agenda
ranged from â€˜the nationalization of the railways, mines, factories and the
landâ€™ to â€˜a minimum wage of thirty shillings in all State and Municipal
employment, and a maximum Eight Hour Day in all businessesâ€™.85 The
â€˜well-expressed essenceâ€™ of â€˜Social-Democracyâ€™ was the policy which â€˜a
revitalized and realâ€™ Liberal party should champion. This was of course an
idea which was also becoming popular in Liberal circles, with important
consequences over the next twenty years.86
Sectionalism or class struggle?
These developments within the Radical Unionist camp were somehow
paralleled in Ireland by the growth of agrarian radicalism â€“ which caused
both the left-wing Unionists and the Nationalists to adopt similar
demands by the end of the century. In particular, in Ulster T. W.
Russell was persuaded that the Irish question mainly concerned class
conflict over land ownership: if the latter could be solved, â€˜the Irish
peasant would settle down like an ordinary citizenâ€™.87 Moreover, he
believed that the solution lay in compulsory purchase which, contrary
to what many of his contemporary critics argued, he started to demand as
J. Morrison Davidson, â€˜To the electors and non-electors of Great Britain and Irelandâ€™,
WT&E, 7 July 1895, 6.
L.a., â€˜Welsh disestablishmentâ€™, WT&E, 3 Mar. 1895, 8.
L.a., â€˜New lamps for old onesâ€™, WT&E, 30 June 1895, 8.
L.a., â€˜The dissolution, and afterâ€™, WT&E, 7 July 1895, 8.
P. F. Clarke, â€˜The progressive movement in Englandâ€™, Transactions of the Royal
Historical Society, 24 (1974), 159â€“81 and Liberals and social democrats (1978), 9â€“61;
A. F. Havinghurst, Radical journalist: H. W. Massingham (1860â€“1924) (1974), 45â€“53.
Rep., â€˜Mr T. W. Russell at Birminghamâ€™, The Northern Whig, 13 Apr. 1889, 6. For
Balfourâ€™s view see Shannon, Balfour, 48, 72â€“3.
292 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
early as 1887, largely in response to his constituentsâ€™ views, and in the
teeth of strong opposition from other Ulster Unionists.88 In fact, he later
wavered in his resolve,89 being frequently berated by other Liberal
Unionists for his opportunism and â€˜confiscatoryâ€™ proclivities. However,
they too were rather confused about the issue.
The problem was that the landlords were caught between falling rents
and a militant peasantry enjoying dual-ownership status under the
remarkably favourable conditions created by the Land Acts. Aware of
the value of Gladstoneâ€™s Act for appeasing the peasants, Balfour had
extended its benefits to the leaseholders in 1887. By 1888, as a conse-
quence of both judicial reductions and the Plan of Campaign, net rentals
had fallen considerably. Lord Lansdowne â€“ who saw his Irish rents drop
from Â£23,000 to Â£500 â€“ thought that compulsory purchase â€˜would be an
immense reliefâ€™ provided â€˜the terms would stop â€˜short of confiscationâ€™.90
Thus the divide between Russell and the other Liberal Unionists was
less pronounced than his fierce rhetoric and their indignant denuncia-
tions would suggest. Landowners feared â€˜compulsionâ€™ only in so far as it
might involve â€˜confiscationâ€™ or sale at a low price. This was widely
expected to be the outcome of such an operation unless it was under-
written by the Treasury. The short shrift given by Parliament to
Gladstoneâ€™s 1886 Bill suggested that there was little chance of any gov-
ernment committing large amounts of tax-payersâ€™ money to a policy
which would benefit one class, and especially the Irish landowners.
Moreover, they feared that compulsion would create a dangerous prece-
dent: for â€˜the principle once admitted â€“ there is nothing to prevent a
radical government applying it to any body of Protestant occupiers that a
Popish or Fenian majority wish removed from any part of Ireland to make
room for â€˜â€˜men of their ownâ€™â€™â€™.91 For all these reasons the moderate or
Whig section of the Ulster Liberal Unionists favoured gradual, voluntary
sale under some extended version of the Ashbourne Act.92
The problem with this strategy was that, as the tenant agitation spread
to Protestant districts, time was running out for the landowners. They
thought that the National League was deliberately causing a further
depreciation of land, in the hope that tenants would be able to buy
T. W. Russell, â€˜The government land proposalsâ€™, The Liberal Unionist, 6 Apr. 1887,
18â€“19 and â€˜The Irish land settlementâ€™, ibid., Apr. 1890, 161â€“2.
See the introduction to â€˜Compulsory Purchaseâ€™ in Ireland: five speeches made by
Mr T. W. Russell MP (1901), PRONI, D/1507/A/2/3.
Cited in Geary, Plan of Campaign, 49; Shannon, Balfour, 48; Solow, The land question,
J. Porter Porter to H. de F. Montgomery, 27 June 1892, PRONI, D/627/428/205.
J. Britton to E. N. Herdman, 16 Apr. 1889, PRONI, D/627/428/95.
Social radicalism and the â€˜popular frontâ€™ 293
cheaper when the time came for wholesale purchase. Thus, â€˜the sooner a
final settlement can be arranged, the better for the landlords, as in the
present temper of times, and with the loose views that are being propa-
gated . . . as to the rights of all kind of property, delay in finding out some
satisfactory solution of the present difficulty is likely to be more detri-
mental to the interests of the few, than of the manyâ€™.93 As a leading Liberal
Unionist privately observed in 1889, â€˜[i]f in some counties or districts
farmers are not agitating or anxious for this issue [compulsory sale], it
may be that they are not fully conversant with all the advantages to
themselves, or possibly that they are biding their time, waiting for a
drop in rents to a lower levelâ€™.94 In a similarly despondent mood another
Liberal Unionist reported in 1892:
A candidate will not get in unless he supports Com.[pulsory] Sale. I went over to
see my brother yesterday purposely to ask how Dâ€™[erry]gonnelly our hottest
Orange quarter took [the Radical candidate Mr] Dane & if mention of
Com.[pulsory] Sale. Edward replied â€˜not a man would have listened one minute
to him if he had not said he was for it[â€™] . . . I personally feel very strongly against
Comp.[ulsory] Sale but Iâ€™m not a narrow minded woman that canâ€™t drink tea out
of a different cup & I see country clamour must be given in to & our own views laid
aside, & I must support the Unionist candidate, even though he is a Dane, & that
pretty heartily or the country men see throâ€™ you & know you are very luke warm
Indeed, tenant opinion soon forced even the ULUA to endorse compul-
sion â€˜upon equitable termsâ€™.96 By then Russell had made himself indis-
pensable to his party. Both Hartington (by then Devonshire) and
Chamberlain feared that â€˜if he were to leave us in dudgeon the greatest
possible injury would be done to the Unionist cause, and therefore it is
necessary to bear with him even when his actions are unwise or ill-
In this context, Russellâ€™s opportunism reflected widely acknowledged
electoral constraints, compounded, in his specific case, by his compara-
tively vulnerable position as a Scottish radical of working-class back-
ground trying to retain the support of his Ulster constituents. In 1895
many Unionists were exasperated by his support for Morleyâ€™s Land Bill,
which made stringent provision for the imposition of judicial rents and
R. MacGeagh to H. de F. Montgomery, 21 Apr. 1889, PRONI, D/627/428/98; emphasis
in the original.
J. Porter Porter, Jamestown, Ballinamallard, Co Fermanagh, to H. de F. Montgomery,
27 June 1892, D/627/428/205 (emphasis in the original).
In 1894: Ulster Liberal Unionist Association, 60â€“3.
J. Chamberlain to H. de F. Montgomery, 9 Oct. 1894, PRONI, T/1089/261. Cf. the
Duke of Devonshire to H. de F. Montgomery, 21 Mar. 1894, PRONI, T/1089/259.
294 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
stipulated that the latter should not be assessed on any increased value of
the land due to the tenantâ€™s own improvements. Both provisos elicited
considerable cross-community support from the tenants, with William
Oâ€™Brien describing it as â€˜the best Land Bill ever introduced by an English
Governmentâ€™,98 Russell â€˜[aligning] an impressive section of northern
farming opinion behind Morleyâ€™99 and the Nationalists enthusiastically
supporting the Ulster Protestant land reformers.100 For some time it
seemed as though Radical Unionism would break away from the
Unionist alliance: while a few Radical Unionist MPs supported the
Liberal Welsh Disestablishment Bill,101 the party bosses were most
alarmed by the Antrim tenantsâ€™ cry that â€˜they had no representativesâ€™ in
the House of Commons to â€˜make their voices heardâ€™.102 Such claims
suggested that even in Ulster the anti-Home Rule alliance could not be
taken for granted and certainly had not overcome old class tensions.
Moreover, between Catholic and Protestant tenants there was a basic
convergence of economic interests, which was occasionally reflected in
practical co-operation between them.103 After all, agrarian radicalism
had long been one of the Liberal strategies for attracting cross-community
support in Ulster.104 Although in 1885â€“92 it had been pushed to the back
of the stage by the more pressing patriotic issues of the Union and Home
Rule, T. W. Russell was aware that it was still viable.
Rep., â€˜Mr Wm Oâ€™Brien, MP, in Corkâ€™, FJ, 9 Mar. 1895, 5 and l.a., FJ, 5 Mar. 1895, 4;
T. W. Russell, â€˜Mr Morley and the Irish Land Billâ€™, Fortnightly Review, 339 (1895),
Jackson, Saunderson, 122. See rep., â€˜Ulster and the Land Bill: important meeting of
Unionist farmers in Derry: unanimous support for Mr Morleyâ€™s proposals: â€˜â€˜The most
important parliamentary step since the Act of â€™81â€™â€™â€™, FJ, 7 Mar. 1895, 6.
â€˜[T]he people of the south and east and west of Ireland were standing shoulder to
shoulder with the Presbyterians and Protestants of the northâ€™ in their demand for
Morleyâ€™s Land Bill: speech by T. J. Healy, cited in rep., â€˜Reorganisation in North
Wexfordâ€™, FJ, 8 Jan. 1895, 6. T. J. Healy (not to be confused with T. M. Healy) was
MP for North Wexford. See also the welcome reserved to J. M. Armour in rep., â€˜Land
meeting in Co. Derryâ€™, FJ, 11 Jan. 1895, 6, as well as J. R. B. McMinn, Against the tide:
a calendar of the papers of the Reverend J. M. Armour, Irish Presbyterian minister and
Home Ruler, 1869â€“1914 (1985).
Barker, Gladstone and radicalism, 97.
J. W. Currie, cited in rep., â€˜The land question in Ulster: Antrim farmers and the Land
Billâ€™, FJ, 26 Feb. 1895, 5.
Rep., â€˜The land agitation in Ulster: meeting of farmers in County Antrimâ€™, FJ, 9 Jan.
1895, 5; rep., â€˜Ulster farmers and the Land Billâ€™, FJ, 9 Mar. 1895, 5. For the context see
Jackson, â€˜Irish Unionismâ€™, 381â€“3.
For evidence of inter-confessional co-operation against coercion in 1887 see rep.,
â€˜Gladstonian demonstration at Ballymoney,â€™ FJ, 4 Nov. 1887, 7. On Liberal strategies
in the North see Bew and Wright, â€˜The agrarian opposition in Ulster politicsâ€™, 213â€“27;
B. M. Walker, â€˜The land question and elections in Ulster, 1868â€“86â€™, ibid., 230â€“69; and
Greenlee, â€˜Land, religion and communityâ€™.
Social radicalism and the â€˜popular frontâ€™ 295
Morleyâ€™s 1895 Bill died with the Liberal government, but from the new
Unionist administration Russell demanded a further measure of land
reform as the condition for his acceptance of office. They needed him
and a Bill was duly introduced. Russell then further demonstrated his
bargaining skills by forcing the government to withdraw a number of
undesired pro-landowner amendments. This resulted in the 1896
Act.105 However, by 1900 Russellâ€™s relentless support for tenant rights