D. Lloyd George to T. Gee, 9 Oct. 1895, in NLW, T. Gee MSS, 8310D, 501a.
C. J. Wrigley, David Lloyd George and the British Labour movement (1976), 8.
Stuart Rendel to T. Gee, 26 Dec. 1890, in NLW, T. Gee MSS, 8308D, 265a.
J. Herbet Lewis, MP, at the 1893 Liverpool meeting of the NLF, NLFAR, 73.
See J. H. Lewisâ€™ election addresses for 1891 and 1895, NLW, Flintshire parliamentary
Elections, MS 9494E.
D. Lloyd George to Miss Gee, 29 Jan. 1895, in NLW, T. Gee MSS, 8310D, 500a.
M. F. Roberts to T. E. Ellis, 9 Mar. 1894, in NLW, T. E. Ellis MSS, 1855.
306 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
This closing of ranks around the post-Gladstonian Liberal party was a
more general phenomenon, although some historians have argued that the
reluctance on the part of many Liberal MPs to embrace collectivism was
both a weakness and a cause of the â€˜socialist revivalâ€™. The Liberals believed
that â€˜ideas could win votesâ€™,166 and after the election engaged in a consid-
erable amount of soul searching about ideas. Their concern has been
mirrored by the historiography, which has created a circular effect (with
scholars often reproducing, rather than critically analysing, the post-
Gladstonian diagnosis about what was â€˜wrongâ€™ with the Liberal party).167
But was the Liberal problem really about ideological arteriosclerosis? Let
us take the case of George Howell, a veteran Lib-lab and one of a number
of â€˜typical Gladstoniansâ€™ whose electoral defeat in 1895 was, as Maccoby
argued, a sign of the times.168 He lost his seat never to return to Parliament.
In his last electoral address to his constituents in Bethnal Green, he restated
all the radical causes which he had been advocating since 1886 â€“ including
Irish self-govenrment â€“ but emphasized a number of domestic issues
selected from recent Liberal reform proposals. They ranged from the
equalization of the rates and the reduction of government expenditure, to
land reform. He further proposed to bring the Poor Laws â€˜into conformity
with the age in which we live, and render them more humaneâ€™ in their
provision of relief for the deserving poor, yet â€˜mindful at all times that any
increase in the rates must fall upon the ratepayersâ€™. For Howell and many
other radicals the fiscal touchstone was the taxation of land values, which
would relieve industry from the burden which was allegedly the main cause
of unemployment.169 Obviously this was neither a socialist nor a â€˜New
Liberalâ€™ programme. Indeed for the rest of his life Howell professed himself
a â€˜Radical of the old schoolâ€™, a â€˜proud . . . disciple of Jeremy Bentham . . .
John Stuart Mill, Henry Fawcett, [and] P. A. Taylorâ€™, as well as an admirer
of Charles Bradlaugh.170 Ostensibly, then, his defeat marked the end of a
generation who had outlived the political relevance of their ideas.
H. C. G. Matthew, The Liberal imperialists: the ideas and politics of a post-Gladstonian elite
M. Freeden, The New Liberalism: an ideology of social reform (1978); Emy, Liberals,
radicals and social politics; J. Lawrence, â€˜Popular radicalism and the socialist revival in
Britainâ€™, Journal of British Studies, 31 (1992), 163â€“86; G. Johnson, â€˜â€˜â€˜Making reform the
instrument of revolutionâ€™â€™: British social democracy, 1881â€“1911â€™, Historical Journal, 43,
4 (2000), 977â€“1002.
S. Maccoby, English radicalism, 1886â€“1914 (1953), 199.
G. Howell, â€˜To the electors and other residents in the North East Division of Bethnal
Greenâ€™, July 1895, in Howell Collection, microfilm edition, I/5. Cf. William Saunders to
T. E. Ellis, 23 Mar.1894, in Ellis Papers, 1925.
G. Howell, â€˜Labour politics, policies and parties: a striking indictmentâ€™, RN, 4 June
Social radicalism and the â€˜popular frontâ€™ 307
The main problem with this interpretation is that all the socialist can-
didates, including the sitting ILP MPs, were also defeated, together with
many Liberals, irrespective of their views on â€˜collectivismâ€™. Many social-
ists stood on platforms which included Irish Home Rule â€˜on the ground
that the government of the people should be by the people for the peo-
pleâ€™.171 In other words, there is little evidence that in 1895 social radicals
were in greater demand than the Cobdenite variety. Partly because of the
rising tide of military expenditure â€˜oldâ€™ liberalism was still credible and
relevant.172 Indeed, despite his staunchly â€˜oldâ€™ Liberal and anti-socialist
ideology Charles Bradlaugh had been by far the most popular radical
leader for as long as he lived, and his memory continued to be honoured
well after his death in 1891.173
In particular, many felt that the credibility of the radicals â€“ whether
Gladstonian or socialist â€“ had been undermined by Home Rule. However,
as Readman has shown, in 1895 it was canvassing and party organization,
not ideas, that determined the result of the election. The defeat of the
candidates listed above had little to do with Home Rule or anything else in
their programme, and everything to do with inadequate organization. The
ILP and the NLF, for all their democratic aspirations and effectiveness as a
forum for thrashing out ideas, were no match for the more numerous
members of the less demanding and ambitious Primrose League.174
Like his colleague Randal Cremer, Howell stood as a Radical rather
than a trade-union representative not because his ideology was â€˜old
fashionedâ€™, but because of the weakness and disorganization of the labour
movement in his London constituency, especially during the slump of
1895, when â€˜unions were fighting to survive, and had little surplus energy
to put into politicsâ€™.175 Interestingly enough, Keir Hardie, the man who
more than anybody else personified ILP politics, was in a comparable
position in his West Ham constituency, where he relied on the temper-
ance lobby more than on the trade unions, and claimed to stand as the
â€˜United Liberal, Radical and Labour partyâ€™ candidate.176 Moreover,
although his programme was different from Howellâ€™s, it was not
Frank Smith, â€˜Address for the Tradeston Division of Glasgow, general election of 1895â€™,
in Glasgow parliamentary literature, Mitchel Library, G.394.2 (emphasis in the
Howe, Free trade and Liberal England, 223â€“4.
For Bradlaughâ€™s popularity see Royle, Radicals, secularists and republicans, 233â€“5. For his
rejection of socialism see the pamphlets Debate between H. M. Hyndman and Charles
Bradlaugh. Will socialism benefit the English people? (1884), C. Bradlaugh, Socialism: its
fallacies and dangers (1887) and Bradlaugh, The radical programme (1889).
Readman, â€˜The 1895 general electionâ€™, 482â€“7.
P. Thompson, Socialists, liberals and labour: the struggle for London, 1885â€“1914 (1967),
F. Reid, Keir Hardie: the making of a socialist (1978), 130.
308 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
distinctively â€˜socialistâ€™: its seven points consisted of three traditional
Radical demands (free non-sectarian education, taxation of unearned
increments and international arbitration), the Eight-Hour Bill, the abo-
lition of overtime for children under fourteen, work for the unemployed,
and â€˜provision for the sick, disabled, aged, widows, and orphans, the
necessary funds to be obtained by a tax upon unearned incomesâ€™. He
used the rhetoric of both humanity and class struggle. While what he said
was sufficiently vague to fit any political complexion on the left, his
insistence that the ILP was â€˜[f]or the present, strongly anti-Liberal in
feelingâ€™177 did not help. His dismissal of radical causes â€“ including church
disestablishment and Home Rule â€“ ensured that he would at once
unnecessarily antagonize both the Nonconformist and the Irish vote.178
In the end, if the socialists could claim a â€˜successâ€™, it was in splitting the
anti-Unionist vote in several parts of the country. This resulted in a series
of three-cornered contests in which the Liberals lost constituencies such
as Newcastle upon Tyne, Halifax and North-East Manchester. While the
wisdom of this course of action was open to debate (as even Hardie came
to admit by 1900), David Howell has pointed out that for the ILP â€˜[t]he
1895 election was . . . the death of easy optimismâ€™.179
The election was a turning point also for the Liberals. On the one hand,
it showed that there was nothing to gain from pursuing a â€˜progressiveâ€™
alliance with the ILP.180 On the other, it felt like the end of the
Gladstonian era â€“ and ostensibly it was. Defeat and repeated leadership
changes in 1895â€“1900 generated confusion, but also helped to reopen the
debate about the future. Irish Home Rule was indeed taking â€˜a back seatâ€™,
but the NLF and the SLA would not have allowed it to be thrown out
altogether. Nor was the old enthusiasm for Ireland completely quenched
among the Nonconformists and rank-and-file radicals in general.181 Let
us take London, where the swing against Liberalism was more pro-
nounced than anywhere else in the country. Although a majority of the
London Congregational deacons interviewed in an 1894 survey of
Metropolitan Dissent indicated that they wished Irish self-government
could be forgotten and Liberal party unity re-established, 54 per cent of
For three examples of his rhetoric see â€˜Mr Keir Hardie at Newcastleâ€™, WT&E, 21 July
1895, 5 and â€˜Mr Hardie on his defeatâ€™, ibid.; and J. Keir Hardie, â€˜The Independent
Labour Partyâ€™, The Nineteenth Century, 215, Jan. 1895, 9, 12.
Emy, Liberals, 53; Thompson, Socialists, 27, 131; Morgan, Keir Hardie, 80.
D. Howell, British Workers and the Independent Labour Party, 1888â€“1906 (1983), 309;
Thompson, Socialists, 164; Heyck, Dimensions, 203.
J. R. Moore, â€˜Progressive pioneers: Manchester liberalism, the Independent Labour
Party, and local politics in the 1890sâ€™, Historical Journal, 44, 4 (2001), 989â€“1013.
Searle, The Liberal party, 34.
Social radicalism and the â€˜popular frontâ€™ 309
them supported the second Home Rule Bill, 35 per cent opposed it and
11 per cent were undecided.182 Some of the Gladstonians held very
strong views: as one Dissenter publicist wrote in 1895, â€˜[i]t would be
better that Liberals should remain out of office for fifty years, than they
should . . . abandon the policy of Irish Home Ruleâ€™.183
The complex and ambitious 1891 Newcastle Programme had failed to
deliver an effective and sustainable electoral revival, but, as we have seen
(pp. 187â€“8), it did lead to a serious debate within the NLF and the
parliamentary party about the role of the mass organization. It also led
to a rejection of the notion of â€˜programmeâ€™ politics, which many felt had
been â€˜imposedâ€™ on the party by the Federation. In particular, the
Newcastle Programme now appeared to have been too wide-ranging to
be feasible and so ambitious that it had raised expectations only to
disappoint them â€“ although arguably in 1891â€“2 it had done its job by
helping to bring about a Liberal recovery, despite the demoralization and
loss of support caused by the Parnell split.184
This dismissal of â€˜programme politicsâ€™ was therefore partly irrational
and partly a feature of the parliamentary partyâ€™s attempt to deprive the
NLF of its policy-making powers; but it also revealed exasperation with
faddism and the younger Liberalsâ€™ impatience with the non-social side of
the old programme. In turn, such intolerance was evidence of the wide-
spread acceptance of the primacy of social reform â€“ a back-handed tribute
to Chamberlainâ€™s â€˜materialist approachâ€™ to Liberalism. In particular,
many Radicals feared that the GOMâ€™s snubbing of what they supposed
to be the working-class demand for social reform would weaken the
partyâ€™s electoral prospects.185 In their view the NLF had missed a historic
opportunity when it failed to redress the balance at its 1893 (Liverpool)
meeting: as Tuckwell noted, â€˜I had hoped for clear-eyed and exultant
handling of the great social problem, whose solution was now once more
attainable; I heard only the old, tame, passive, abject reliance on
Gladstone.â€™186 Instead of the usual enthusiasm, â€˜misgivings were
expressed, in veiled language on the platform, frankly and angrily in the
private talk of delegatesâ€™. â€˜[A]nd the Independent Labour Party was the
consequenceâ€™,187 with â€˜the ominous defection of the Labour voteâ€™ posing
a threat to the future of the Liberal party, one which the latter could face
D. W. Bebbington, â€˜Nonconformity and electoral sociology, 1867â€“1918â€™, Historical
Journal, 27, 3 (1984), 644.
C. J. Shebbear, The Greek theory of the state and the Nonconformist conscience (1895), v.
Hamer, Liberal politics, 213â€“14.
Ben Tillett, â€˜Thirty minutes with Gladstoneâ€™, WT&E, 12 Mar. 1893, 9.
Tuckwell, Reminiscences, 207. 187 ibid., 223.
310 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
down only by choosing new leaders and adopting â€˜the new and living
principles which the necessity of the hour demandâ€™.188
Quite apart from exaggerating the electoral significance of the ILP,
this criticism was not entirely fair on the NLF. Labour questions had
been vigorously discussed at Liberal meetings for years. Meanwhile, as
Peter Clarke has pointed out, even if the Home Rule campaigns had
failed to achieve their principal aim, they â€˜[had] precipitated a move to
the leftâ€™ among Liberal and Radical activists,189 in particular creating
new expectations of state intervention in social reform in mainland
Britain. In this sense at least, social engineering in Ireland was also
affecting British politics: observers as diverse as George Lansbury and
H. W. Massingham contrasted the eagerness with which both parties
had offered state assistance to Irish farmers with the still prevalent
laissez-faire orthodoxy in domestic affairs. It was to these activists and
opinion makers â€“ more than to the ordinary working-class elector steeped
in the ways of self-help and dogmas of free trade â€“ that â€˜the New
Liberalismâ€™ offered hope.
In 1888â€“90 Massingham was assistant editor, and then editor, of
The Star â€“ the halfpenny evening newspaper established in London
in 1887 by T. P. Oâ€™Connor, the Irish Nationalist and Radical leader.
With a circulation which rose from 140,000 to 279,000 (by 1889),
The Star was a resounding success. It articulated the new â€˜progressiveâ€™
concerns â€“ emphasizing working-class housing, land reform and free
education â€“ but took a Gladstonian line on imperial affairs and the
Liberalâ€“Nationalist alliance (Oâ€™Connorâ€™s top priority). With social ana-
lysts and reformers of the calibre of Sidney Webb and George Bernard
Shaw, its staff was arguably one of the most talented ever assembled for a
popular newspaper.190 Soon, however, Oâ€™Connorâ€™s Irish priorities exas-
perated Massingham, who, although a keen Home Ruler himself, was
becoming increasingly excited about the wider social agenda of what was
beginning to be called the â€˜New Liberalismâ€™.191 As L. Atherley Jones, the
son of the last Chartist leader Ernest Jones, put it in his famous 1889
article, this was to be a Liberalism for the working classes â€“ targeting their
needs, â€˜as yet inarticulateâ€™ but identified for them by the partyâ€™s intellec-
tual elite of journalists, academics and civil servants. It was this elite who
L.a., â€˜The Liberal collapseâ€™, WT&E, 21 July, 1895, 8.
Clarke, Lancashire and the New Liberalism, 154.
Oâ€™Connor, Memoirs of an old parliamentarian, vol. II, 256, 265â€“6; Thompson, Socialists,
97â€“9; Brady, T. P. Oâ€™Connor, 103â€“9.
Brady, T. P. Oâ€™Connor, 114â€“17; Havinghurst, H. W. Massingham, 18â€“40.