The Electorate and Home Rule

Ronald McNeill
Chapter II

We profess to be a democratic country in which the "will of the people" is the ultimate authority in determining questions of policy, and the Liberal Party has been accustomed to regard itself as the most zealous guardian of democratic principles. Yet there is this curious paradox in relation to the problem which more than any other taxed British statesmanship during the thirty-five years immediately following the enfranchisement of the rural democracy in 1884, that the solution propounded by the Liberal Party, and inscribed by that party on the Statute-book in 1914, was more than once emphatically rejected, and has never been explicitly accepted by the electorate.

No policy ever submitted to the country was more decisively condemned at the polls than Mr. Gladstone's Home Rule proposals in the General Election of 1886. The issue then for the first time submitted to the people was isolated from all others with a completeness scarcely ever practicable—a circumstance which rendered the "mandate" to Parliament to maintain the legislative union exceptionally free from ambiguity. The party which had brought forward the defeated proposal, although led by a statesman of unrivalled popularity, authority, and power, was shattered in the attempt to carry it, and lost the support of numbers of its most conspicuous adherents, including Chamberlain, Hartington, Goschen, and John Bright, besides a multitude of its rank and file, who entered into political partnership with their former opponents in order to withstand the new departure of their old Chief.

The years that followed were a period of preparation by both sides for the next battle. The improvement in the state of Ireland, largely the result of legislation carried by Lord Salisbury's Government, especially that which promoted land purchase, encouraged the confidence felt by Unionists that the British voter would remain staunch to the Union. The downfall of Parnell in 1890, followed by the break-up of his party, and by his death in the following year, seemed to make the danger of Home Rule still more remote. The only disquieting factor was the personality of Mr. Gladstone, which, the older he grew, exercised a more and more incalculable influence on the public mind. And there can be no doubt that it was this personal influence that made him, in spite of his policy, and not because of it, Prime Minister for the fourth time in 1892. In Great Britain the electors in that year pronounced against Home Rule again by a considerable majority, and it was only by coalition with the eighty-three Irish Nationalist Members that Gladstone and his party were able to scrape up a majority of forty in support of his second Home Rule Bill. Whether there was any ground for Gladstone's belief that but for the O'Shea divorce he would have had a three-figure majority in 1892 is of little consequence, but the fall of his own majority in Midlothian from 4,000 to below 700, which caused him "intense chagrin," [3] does not lend it support. Lord Morley says Gladstone was blamed by some of his friends for accepting office "depending on a majority not large enough to coerce the House of Lords" [4]; but a more valid ground of censure was that he was willing to break up the constitution of the United Kingdom, although a majority of British electors had just refused to sanction such a thing being done. That Gladstone's colleagues realised full well the true state of public opinion on the subject, if he himself did not, was shown by their conduct when the Home Rule Bill, after being carried through the House of Commons by diminutive majorities, was rejected on second reading by the Peers. Even their great leader's entreaty could not persuade them to consent to an appeal to the people [5]; and when they were tripped up over the cordite vote in 1895, after Gladstone had disappeared from public life, none of them probably were surprised at the overwhelming vote by which the constituencies endorsed the action of the House of Lords, and pronounced for the second time in ten years against granting Home Rule to Ireland.

If anything except the personal ascendancy of Gladstone contributed to his small coalition majority in 1892 it was no doubt the confidence of the electors that the House of Lords could be relied upon to prevent the passage of a Home Rule Bill. It is worth noting that nearly twenty years later Lord Crewe acknowledged that the Home Rule Bill of 1893 could not have stood the test of a General Election or of a Referendum.[6]

During the ten years of Unionist Government from 1895 to 1905 the question of Home Rule slipped into the background. Other issues, such as those raised by the South African War and Mr. Chamberlain's tariff policy, engrossed the public mind. English Home Rulers showed a disposition to hide away, if not to repudiate altogether, the legacy they had inherited from Gladstone. Lord Rosebery acknowledged the necessity to convert "the predominant partner," a mission which every passing year made appear a more hopeless undertaking. At by-elections Home Rule was scarcely mentioned. In the eyes of average Englishmen the question was dead and buried, and most people were heartily thankful to hear no more about it. Mr. T. M. Healy's caustic wit remarked that "Home Rule was put into cold storage." [7]

Then came the great overthrow of the Unionists in 1906. Home Rule, except by its absence from Liberal election addresses, contributed nothing at all to that resounding Liberal victory. The battle of "terminological inexactitudes" rang with cries of Chinese "slavery," Tariff Reform, Church Schools, Labour Dispute Bills, and so forth; but on Ireland silence reigned on the platforms of the victors. The event was to give the successors of Mr. Gladstone a House of Commons in complete subjection to them. For the first time since 1885 they had a majority independent of the Nationalists, a majority, if ever there was one, "large enough to coerce the House of Lords," as they would have done in 1893, according to Lord Morley, if they had had the power. But to do that would involve the danger of having again to appeal to the country, which even at this high tide of Liberal triumph they could not face with Home Rule as an election cry. So, with the tame acquiescence of Mr. Redmond and his followers, they spent four years of unparalleled power without laying a finger on Irish Government, a course which was rendered easy for them by the fact that, on their own admission, they had found Ireland in a more peaceful, prosperous, and contented condition than it had enjoyed for several generations. Occasionally, indeed, as was necessary to prevent a rupture with the Nationalists, some perfunctory mention of Home Rule as a desideratum of the future was made on Ministerial platforms—by Mr. Churchill, for example, at Manchester in May 1909. But by that date even the contest over Tariff Reform—which had raged without intermission for six years, and by rending the Unionist Party had grievously damaged it as an effective instrument of opposition—had become merged in the more immediately exciting battle of the Budget, provoked by Mr. Lloyd George's financial proposals for the current year, and by the possibility that they might be rejected by the House of Lords. This the House of Lords did, on the 30th of November, 1909, and the Prime Minister at once announced that he would appeal to the country without delay.

Such a turn of events was a wonderful windfall for the Irish Nationalists, beyond what the most sanguine of them can ever have hoped for. The rejection of a money Bill by the House of Lords raised a democratic blizzard, the full force of which was directed against the constitutional power of veto possessed by the hereditary Chamber in relation not merely to money Bills, but to general legislation. For a long time the Liberal Party had been threatening that part of the Constitution without much effect. Sixteen years had passed since Mr. Gladstone in his last speech in the House of Commons declared that issue must be joined with the Peers; but the emphatic endorsement by the constituencies in 1895 of the Lords' action which he had denounced, followed by ten years of Unionist Government, damped down the ardour of attack so effectually that, during the four years in which the Liberals enjoyed unchallengeable power, from 1906 to 1910, they did nothing to carry out Gladstone's parting injunction. Had they done so at any time when Home Rule was a living issue in the country an attack on the Lords would in all probability have proved disastrous to themselves. For there was not a particle of evidence that the electors of Great Britain had changed their minds on this subject, and there were great numbers of voters in the country—those voters, unattached to party, who constitute "the swing of the pendulum," and decide the issue at General Elections—who felt free to vote Liberal in 1906 because they believed Home Rule was practically dead, and if revived would be again given its quietus, as in 1893, by the House of Lords. But the defeat of the Budget in November 1909 immediately opened a line of attack wholly unconnected with Ireland, and over the most favourable ground that could have been selected for the assault.

Nothing could have been more skilful than the tactics employed by the Liberal leaders. Concentrating on the constitutional question raised by the alleged encroachment of the Lords on the exclusive privilege of the Commons to grant supply, they tried to excite a hurricane of popular fury by calling on the electorate to decide between "Peers and People." The rejected Finance Bill was dubbed "The People's Budget." A "Budget League" was formed to expatiate through the constituencies on the democratic character of its provisions, and on the personal and class selfishness of the Peers in throwing it out. As little as possible was said about Ireland, and probably not one voter in ten thousand who went to the poll in January 1910 ever gave a thought to the subject, or dreamed that he was taking part in reversing the popular verdict of 1886 and 1895. Afterwards, when it was complained that an election so conducted had provided no "mandate" for Home Rule, it was found that in the course of a long speech delivered by Mr. Asquith at the Albert Hall on the 10th of December there was a sentence in which the Prime Minister had declared that "the Irish problem could only be solved by a policy which, while explicitly safeguarding the supreme authority of the Imperial Parliament, would set up self-government in Ireland in regard to Irish affairs." The rest of the speech dealt with Tariff Reform and with the constitutional question of the House of Lords, on which the public mind was focused throughout the election.

In the unprecedented deluge of oratory that flooded the country in the month preceding the elections the Prime Minister's sentence on Ireland at the Albert Hall passed almost unnoticed in English and Scottish constituencies, or was quickly lost sight of, like a coin in a cornstack, under sheaves of rhetoric about the dear loaf and the intolerable arrogance of hereditary legislators. Here and there a Unionist candidate did his best to warn a constituency that every Liberal vote was a vote for Home Rule. He was invariably met with an impatient retort that he was attempting to raise a bogey to divert attention from the iniquity of the Lords and the Tariff Reformers. Home Rule, he was told, was dead and buried.

On the 19th of January, 1910, when the elections were over in the boroughs, Mr. Asquith claimed that "the great industrial centres had mainly declared for Free Trade," and the impartial chronicler of the Annual Register stated that "the Liberals had fought on Free Trade and the constitutional issue." The twice-repeated decision of the country against Home Rule for Ireland was therefore in no sense reversed by the General Election of January 1910.

But from the very beginning of the agitation over the Budget and the action of the House of Lords in relation to it, in the summer of 1909, the gravity of the situation so created was fully appreciated by both political parties in Ireland itself. Only the most languid interest was there taken in the questions which stirred the constituencies across the Channel. Neither Nationalist nor Unionist cared anything whatever for Free Trade; neither of them shed a tear over the rejected Budget. Indeed, Mr. Lloyd George's new taxes were so unpopular in Ireland that Mr. Redmond was violently attacked by Mr. William O'Brien and Mr. Healy for his neglect of obvious Irish interests in supporting the Government. Mr. Redmond, for his part, made no pretence that his support was given because he approved of the proposals for which he and his followers gave their votes in every division. The clauses of the Finance Bill were trifles in his eyes that did not matter. His gaze was steadily fixed on the House of Peers, which he saw before him as a huntsman views a fox with bedraggled brush, reduced to a trot a field or two ahead of the hounds. That House was, as he described it, "the last obstacle to Home Rule," and he was determined to do all he could to remove the obstacle. Lord Rosebery said at Glasgow in September 1909 that he believed Ministers wanted the House of Lords to reject the Budget. Whether they did or not, there can be no doubt that Mr. Redmond did, for he knew that, in that event, the whole strength of the Liberal Party would be directed to the task of beating down the "last obstacle," and that then it would be possible to carry Home Rule without the British constituencies being consulted. It was with this end in view that he took his party into the lobby in support of a Budget that was detested in Ireland, and threw the whole weight of his influence in British constituencies on to the Liberal side in the elections of January 1910.

But, notwithstanding the torrent of class prejudice and democratic passion that was stirred up by six weeks of Liberal oratory, the result of the elections was a serious loss of strength to the Government. The commanding Liberal majority of 1906 over all parties in the House of Commons disappeared, and Mr. Asquith and his Cabinet were once more dependent on a coalition of Labour Members and Nationalists. The Liberals by themselves had a majority of two only over the Unionists, who had won over one hundred seats, so that the Nationalists were easily in a position to enforce their leader's threat to make Mr. Asquith "toe the line."

When the Parliament elected in January 1910 assembled disputes arose between the Government and the Nationalists as to whether priority was to be given to passing the Budget rejected in the previous session, or to the Parliament Bill which was to deprive the House of Lords of its constitutional power to reject legislation passed by the Commons; and Mr. Redmond expressed his displeasure that "guarantees" had not yet been obtained from the King, or, in plain language, that a promise had not been extorted from the Sovereign that he would be prepared to create a sufficient number of Peers to secure the acceptance of the Parliament Bill by the Upper House.

The whole situation was suddenly changed by the death of King Edward in May 1910. Consideration for the new and inexperienced Sovereign led to the temporary abandonment of coercion of the Crown, and resort was had to a Conference of party leaders, with a view to settlement of the dispute by agreement. But no agreement was arrived at, and the Conference broke up on the 10th of November. Parliament was again dissolved in December, "on the assumption," as Lord Crewe stated, "that the House of Lords would reject the Parliament Bill."

During the agitation of this troubled autumn preceding the General Election, the question of Home Rule was not quite so successfully concealed from view as in the previous year. The Liberals, indeed, maintained the same tactical reserve on the subject, alike in their writings and their speeches. The Liberal Press of the period may be searched in vain for any clear indication that the electors were about to be asked to decide once more this momentous constitutional question. Such mention of it as was occasionally to be found in ministerial speeches seemed designed to convey the idea that, while the door leading to Home Rule was still formally open, there was no immediate prospect of its being brought into use. The Prime Minister in particular did everything in his power to direct the attention of the country to the same issues as in the preceding January, among which Ireland had had no place. In presenting the Government's case at Hull on the 25th of November, he reminded the country that in the January elections the veto of the Peers was "the dominant issue"; in the intervening months the Government, he said, had brought forward proposals for dealing with the veto, and had given the Lords an opportunity to make proposals of their own; a defeat of the Liberals in the coming elections would bring in "Protection disguised as Tariff Reform"; but he (Mr. Asquith) preferred to concentrate his criticism on Lord Lansdowne's "crude and complex scheme" for Second Chamber reform; he made a passing mention of "self-government for Ireland" as a policy that would have the sympathy of the Dominions, but added that "the immediate task was to secure fair play for Liberal legislation and popular government." And in his election address Mr. Asquith declared that "the appeal to the country was almost narrowed to a single issue, and on its determination hung the whole future of democratic Government."

This zeal for "popular," or "democratic" government was, however, not inconsistent apparently with a determination to avoid at all hazards consulting the will of the people, before doing what the people had hitherto always refused to sanction. The suggestion had been made earlier in the autumn that a Referendum, or "Poll of the People" might be taken on the question of Home Rule. The very idea filled the Liberals with dismay. Speaking at Edinburgh on the 2nd of December, Mr. Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, made the curiously naive admission, for a "democratic" politician, that the Referendum would amount to "a prohibitive tariff against Liberalism." A few days earlier at Reading (November 29th) his Chief sought to turn the edge of this disconcerting proposal by asking whether the Unionists, if returned to power, would allow Tariff Reform to be settled by the same mode of appeal to the country; and when Mr. Balfour promptly accepted the challenge by promising that he would do so Mr. Asquith retreated under cover of the excuse that no bargain had been intended.

While the Liberal leaders were thus doing all they could to hold down the lid of the Home Rule Jack-in-the-box, the Unionists were warning the country that as soon as Mr. Asquith secured a majority his thumb would release the spring. Speakers from Ulster carried the warning into many constituencies, but it was noticed that they were constantly met with the same retort as in January—that Home Rule was a "bogey," or a "red herring" dragged across the trail of Tariff Reform and the Peers' veto; and it is a significant indication of the straits to which the Government afterwards felt themselves driven to find justification for dealing with so fundamental a question as the repeal of the Union without the explicit approval of the electorate, that they devised the strange doctrine that speeches by their opponents provided them with a mandate for a policy about which they had themselves kept silence, even although those speeches had been disbelieved and derided on the very ground that it would be impossible for Ministers to bring forward a policy they had not laid before the country during the election.

The extent to which this ministerial reserve was carried was shown by a question put to Mr. Asquith in his own constituency in East Fife on the 6th of December. Scottish "hecklers" are intelligent and well informed on current politics, and no one who knows them can imagine one of them asking the Prime Minister whether he intended to introduce a Home Rule Bill if Home Rule had been proclaimed as one of the chief items in the policy of the Government. Mr. Asquith gave an affirmative reply; but the elections were by this time half over, and in the following week Mr. Balfour laid stress on the fact that five hundred contests had been decided before any Minister had mentioned Home Rule. Even after giving this memorable answer in East Fife Mr. Asquith, speaking at Bury St. Edmunds on the 12th of December, declared that "the sole issue at that moment was the supremacy of the people," and he added, in deprecation of all the talk about Ireland, that "it was sought to confuse this issue by catechising Ministers on the details of the next Home Rule Bill."

Even if this had been, as it was not, a true description of the attempts that had been made to extract a frank declaration from the Government as to their intentions in regard to this vitally important matter—far more important to hundreds of thousands of people than any question of Tariff, or of limiting the functions of the Second Chamber—it was surely a curious doctrine to be propounded by a statesman zealous to preserve "popular government"! There had been two Home Rule Bills in the past, differing one from the other in not a few important respects; discussion had shown that many even of those who supported the principle of Home Rule objected strongly to this or that proposal for embodying it in legislation. Language had been used by Mr. Asquith himself, as well as by some of his principal colleagues, which implied that any future Home Rule Bill would be part of a general scheme of "devolution," or federation, or "Home Rule All Round"—a solution of the question favoured by many who hotly opposed separate treatment for Ireland. Yet here was the responsible Minister, in the middle of a General Election, complaining that the issue was being "confused" by presumptuous persons who wanted to know what sort of Home Rule, if any, he had in contemplation in the event of obtaining a majority sufficient to keep him in power.

Under such circumstances it would have been a straining of constitutional principles, and a flagrant violation of the canons of that "democratic government" of which Mr. Asquith had constituted himself the champion, to pass a Home Rule Bill by means of a majority so obtained, even if the majority had been one that pointed to a sweeping turnover of public opinion to the side of the Government. The elections of December 1910, in point of fact, gave no such indication. The Government gained nothing whatever by the appeal to the country. Liberals and Unionists came back in almost precisely the same strength as in the previous Parliament. They balanced each other within a couple of votes in the new House of Commons, and the Ministry could not have remained twenty-four hours in office except in coalition with Labour and the Irish Nationalists.

The Parliament so elected and so constituted was destined not merely to destroy the effective power of the House of Lords, and to place on the Statute-book a measure setting up an Irish Parliament in Dublin, but to be an assembly longer in duration and more memorable in achievement than any in English history since the Long Parliament. During the eight years of its reign the Great War was fought and won; the "rebel party" in Ireland once more, as in the Napoleonic Wars, broke into armed insurrection in league with the enemies of England; and before it was dissolved the political parties in Great Britain, heartily supported by the Loyalists of Ulster, composed the party differences which had raged with such passion over Home Rule and other domestic issues, and joined forces in patriotic resistance to the foreign enemy.

But before this transformation took place nearly four years of agitation and contest had to run their course. In the first session of the Parliament, by a violent use of the Royal Prerogative, the Parliament Bill became law, the Peers accepting the measure under duress of the threat that some four or five hundred peerages would, if necessary, be created to form a majority to carry it. It was then no longer possible for the Upper House to force an appeal to the country on Home Rule, as it had done in 1893. All that was necessary was for a Bill to be carried in three successive sessions through the House of Commons, to become law. "The last obstacle to Home Rule," as Mr. Redmond called it, had been removed. The Liberal Government had taken a hint from the procedure of the careful burglar, who poisons the dog before breaking into the house.

The significance of the manner in which the Irish question had been kept out of view of the electorate by the Government and their supporters was not lost upon the people of Ulster. In January 1911, within a month of the elections, a meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council was held at which a comprehensive resolution dealing with the situation that had arisen was adopted, and published as a manifesto. One of its clauses was:

"The Council has observed with much surprise the singular reticence as regards Home Rule maintained by a large number of Radical candidates in England and Scotland during the recent elections, and especially by the Prime Minister himself, who barely referred to the subject till almost the close of his own contest. In view of the consequent fact that Home Rule was not at the late appeal to the country placed as a clear issue before the electors, it is the judgment of the Council that the country has given no mandate for Home Rule, and that any attempt in such circumstances to force through Parliament a measure enacting it would be for His Majesty's Ministers a grave, if not criminal, breach of constitutional duty."

The great importance, in relation to the policy subsequently pursued by Ulster, of the historical fact here made clear—namely, that the "will of the people" constitutionally expressed in parliamentary elections has never declared itself in favour of granting Home Rule to Ireland, lies, first, in the justification it afforded to the preparations for active resistance to a measure so enacted; and, secondly, in the influence it had in procuring for Ulster not merely the sympathy but the open support of the whole Unionist Party in Great Britain. Lord Londonderry, one of Ulster's most trusted leaders, who afterwards gave the whole weight of his support to the policy of forcible resistance, admitted in the House of Lords in 1911, in the debates on the Parliament Bill, that the verdict of the country, if appealed to, would have to be accepted. The leader of the Unionist Party, Mr. Bonar Law, made it clear in February 1914, as he had more than once stated before, that the support he and his party were pledging themselves to give to Ulster in the struggle then approaching a climax, was entirely due to the fact that the electorate had never sanctioned the policy of the Government against which Ulster's resistance was threatened. The chance of success in that resistance "depended," he said, "upon the sympathy of the British people, and an election would undoubtedly make a great difference in that respect"; he denied that Mr. Asquith had a "right to pass any form of Home Rule without a mandate from the people of this country, which he has never received"; and he categorically announced that "if you get the decision of the people we shall obey it." And if, as then appeared likely, the unconstitutional conduct of the Government should lead to bloodshed in Ireland, the responsibility, said Mr. Bonar Law, would be theirs, "because you preferred to face civil war rather than face the people."[8]

Read "Ulster's Stand for Union" at your leisure

Ulster's Stand for Union

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Ronald McNeill provides a truly fascinating account of the Home Rule Crisis of 1912 from a Unionist perspective. The book covers, inter alia, the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), the drafting and signing of the Solemn League and Covenant, gun-running to Larne and Donaghadee, Ulster in the Great War, and the establishment of the Ulster Parliament in 1921.

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