Monday, 23 February 2015

Victorian politics (2)

Gladstone in old age

The later Victorian period saw further parliamentary reform, the split of the Liberal party over Ireland, and the rise of the labour movement.

Parliamentary reform

The Corrupt Practices Act of 1883 restricted ‘treating’ at elections, and could be seen as the prelude to further reform.

The Third Reform Bill was introduced in February 1884.  It essentially created a uniform householder and lodger franchise based on that introduced for the English boroughs in 1867. 

This ended the distinction between urban and rural voters.

The Redistribution Act in the following year engineered the most extensive reform of the constituencies since 1832. The majority of seats were now single-member and of roughly equal size though the largest cities received between three and six new MPs apiece.  

Because this disaggregated city constituencies into smaller units, many of them suburban, the Conservatives were the main beneficiaries. 

Following these reforms the United Kingdom electorate increased from 2.53 million in 1871 to 5.68 million at the end of 1884. By 1891 61% of adult males had the vote. However by this time both France and Germany had manhood suffrage.

The Liberals and Home Rule

From the 1870s a growing number of Irish MPs came to support the concept of 'Home Rule', a demand for the repeal of the Act of Union of 1800. From 1878 their leader was an unlikely one -  the Protestant Irish landlord, Charles Stewart Parnell. His tactic of deliberately obstructing the business of the Commons led to the first impositions of the parliamentary 'guillotine'.

Charles Stewart Parnell (1841-91)
the 'uncrowned king of Ireland until
his fall in 1890 over a sex scandal

From 1879 the Irish Land League disrupted the life of the Irish countryside in a campaign of rural violence that lasted for three years
Land League poster
and was as near to a revolutionary movement as anything seen in the United Kingdom between 1800 and 1914.

Gladstone's second administration (1880-85) responded with a mixture of stick and carrot: a Coercion Act designed to restore order, and a land reform that provided tenants with the ‘3 Fs’: fair rents, fixity of tenure, and ‘free sale’ (of their holdings). This was the beginning of a movement that was to transform Ireland into a land of peasant proprietors.

One of the most notorious atrocities of this period was the 'Phoenix Park murders'. On Saturday 6 May 1882 the new Irish Secretary, Lord Frederick Cavendish was walking in Phoenix Park in Dublin with Thomas Henry  Burke, the under-secretary, when a band of men, part of a club called ‘The Invincibles’, surprised the pair and hacked them to death with surgical knives. 

My photograph of the grave of
Lord Frederick Cavendish,
Edensor, Derbyshire

In January 1886, Gladstone, who had briefly lost power to the Conservative leader, Lord Salisbury, returned to government and headed his third administration. In the preceding general election (November - December 1885) the Liberals had won 335 seats and the Conservatives only 249. But Parnell was the real winner as his party won 86 seats. The 'eighty-six of eighty-six' ensured that the Home Rulers could not be ignored as a parliamentary force.

In his period out of office Gladstone had come to the conclusion that the Irish, like the Italians, the Afghans, the Zulus and the Sudanese were a people rightly struggling to be free, and that Parnell’s demand for Home Rule ought to be conceded. This was a logical outcome of his Liberalism, with its stress on decentralisation and minimal central government.

His conversion was to convulse British politics.

The First Liberal Home Rule Bill: On 8 April 1886 he introduced his Home Rule Bill. It was based on the Canadian model and was designed to keep Ireland within the United Kingdom.
  1. There would be a single-chamber Irish legislative body.
  2. London would retain control over defence, foreign policy and international trade.
  3. Ireland would bear one-fifteenth of the costs of the Empire.
  4. There would be no Irish MPs at Westminster, though Gladstone had agonised over this question. To exclude them would encourage separatism, but their inclusion in the Westminster parliament would raise what was later called the ‘West Lothian question’.
Gladstone, who had never consulted the Liberals over the question, had presented his party with a ‘take it or leave it’ bill. In the early hours of 8 June the votes on the second reading were taken. Gladstone spoke of Ireland standing ‘at your bar, expectant, hopeful, almost suppliant’.

However, on  8 June 1886 members voted 341/311 against Home Rule; 94 Liberals, including the former party leader, the Marquis of Hartington (the brother of the unfortunate Lord Frederick Cavendish), had gone into the lobby against Gladstone and another half dozen had abstained. Gladstone wrote in his diary: 
‘The defeat is a smash’.
In the debates, Gladstone had argued: 
‘This, if I understand it, is one of those golden moments in our history; one of those opportunities which may come and may go, but which rarely return, or if the return, return at long intervals, and under circumstances which no man can forecast.’
In 1930 George V told Ramsay MacDonald: 
‘What fools we were not to have accepted Gladstone’s Home Rule Bill. The Empire would not have had the Irish Free State giving us to much trouble and pulling us to pieces.’
But the Conservative leader, Lord Salisbury, also had strong arguments against Home Rule: 

  1. It would spell the beginning of the end of the Empire.
  2. It would divide the United Kingdom by setting up a separate devolved administration at a time when other states (the US, Germany, Italy) were consolidating.
  3. It would leave the Ulster Unionists a beleaguered minority: ‘Home Rule is Rome Rule’.
  4. Self-government was impossible in a community as deeply divided as Ireland.

Robert Cecil, 3rd marquess
of Salisbury (1830-1903)
In the general election that followed the Liberal Unionists allied with the Conservatives, and in many seats Conservatives stood down to give them a clear run. 

The Conservatives won 316 seats, the Liberals 191, the Liberal Unionists 78, the Irish Nationalists 85.  Scotland, Wales and Ireland all produced Home Rule majorities by almost three to one. Only England voted the other way. 

With Liberal Unionist support, the Conservatives under Salisbury, formed a government that began twenty years of Unionist domination, with only a brief Liberal interruption.

The Second Liberal Home Rule Bill: The 1892 election gave Gladstone a majority of 40  because of Irish Nationalist support. On 15 August, now semi-blind and semi-deaf, he became Prime Minister for the fourth time.

In February 1893 Gladstone introduced a second Home Rule Bill with a two and a half hour oration.  It differed from the bill of 1886 in that there were to be 81 Irish members at Westminster. The proposal that they should be allowed to vote only on Irish affairs (the ‘West Lothian question’ again!) was defeated in committee on the grounds of its impracticality). The bill therefore gave the Irish MPs the full right to vote on all UK affairs. 

Like the 1886 bill, the bill of 1893 ignored the potential problem of Ulster. 

On 1 September the bill passed its third reading by the narrow majority of 34 votes, after 85 Commons sittings.  On 8 September it was rejected by the Lords by 419/41. Every bishop voted against it.

On 23 February 1894 Gladstone resigned as Prime Minister. The Liberals were again out of power and Home Rule seemed further away than ever.

The beginnings of the Labour Party

In the last three decades of the nineteenth century Socialist parties were founded in Europe. The German Social Democrats, founded in 1875, were an especially influential party. In Britain, however, most Socialists tended to be middle- rather than working-class, and the trade union movement was less ideological than its continental counterparts.

For a while it looked as if working-class voters and activists would support the Liberals. However, Liberal constituencies were slow to adopt working-class candidates. The London Dock Strike of 1889 showed a new union militancy that wrong-footed the Liberals. 
Keir Hardie (1865-1915)

The new activism was represented politically by James Keir Hardie, the illegitimate son of a servant from Lanarkshire. 

In the general election of 1892 Hardie abandoned the Liberal party and stood as independent candidate for the constituency of West Ham. Because the Liberal candidate withdrew, the election was a straight fight with the Unionist (Conservative) and he won 57% of the vote. 

The Independent Labour Party: In January 1893, 120 delegates from various local socialist societies came together in Bradford to form the Independent Labour Party. Though the word ‘socialism’ was not in the programme, the party committed itself 
‘to secure the collective ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange’. 
This was a much more socialist programme than the one put before the West Ham electors. 

The ILP performed poorly in the 1895 election, with Hardie losing his seat.  ILP strategists determined that future success depended on drawing more substantial support from the trade unions. 

Many trade unionists were worried about the long-term prospects of the movement in the wake of more aggressive attitudes on the part of employers. Some unions, notably the miners, already had their sponsored Lib-Lab MPs, but others needed little persuading to vote for the resolution at the TUC Congress of 1899 that 
‘a better representation of the interests of Labour in the House of Commons’ was desirable. 
The resolution went on to call for a special congress of unions and socialist societies to secure that objective. 

The Labour Representation Committee: The congress convened on 27 February 1900 at the Farringdon Street Memorial Hall, and established the Labour Representation Committee (LRC). 
The key resolution stated that 
‘a distinct Labour Group’ should be established in Parliament, ‘who should have their own Whips and agree upon their policy’. 
There was no mention of socialism, and nothing  about nationalization of the means of production, distribution and exchange. 

The LRC was a compromise between trade unions, mostly suspicious of socialism, and the socialist societies that operated outside the union movement.  It was not clear that it would replace the Liberals as the preferred working-class party.
James Ramsay MacDonald (1866-1937)
the first Labour Prime Minister

Ramsay MacDonald, the illegitimate son of a farm servant and a housemaid, became the General Secretary of the LRC.


  1. By the end of the nineteenth century the two great parties, the Conservatives and the Liberals, had both split and re-formed on major ideological issues.
  2. The status of Ireland remained a hotly disputed constitutional issue.
  3. The rise of mass politics and the growth of working-class activism led to the formation of a new political party.

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