A century ago, events in Britain influenced Ireland far more than they do today. 

 So understanding British politics of that era, was more important  than now to understanding Irish politics.

 That is what makes“ The strange survival of Liberal Britain….. Politics and Power Before the First World War” by Vernon Bogdanor so interesting.

The book  is published by Biteback Publishing .

It is an account of the politics of the British Isles between 1890 and 1914, and is essential reading for a student of Irish history.

 It is comprehensive. It gives a good account of the Boer War, of the struggle for votes for women, the rise of the Labour Party, and of the introduction of unemployment and sickness insurance.  It deals with the evolution of British  Foreign policy, including the alliance with Japan and, the increasing, though not inevitable, rivalry with Germany. It covers the tragic events that led to the First World War.

 It is, in every sense, a big book.  

The title of the book is misleading, in the sense that  the book is about far more than the survival of Liberalism.

It explores the issue of tariff reform, forgotten today, but politically convulsive for the first  20 years of the  20th Century,

 In the 1890’s, a leading figure in the Conservative and Unionist Party, Joseph Chamberlain, committed his party to what he called “tariff reform”. 

 By this he meant something was quite radical, turning the British Empire, which spanned every continent on the globe, into an economic union, like the EU is today. 

 As with the founders of the EU in the 1950’s, Chamberlain envisaged giving trade preference to goods produced within the British Empire, over imports from elsewhere (like continental Europe and the US), and thereby strengthening the political unity of the Empire. 

In the 1890s , Empires were regarded as progressive concepts. They were seen as vehicles for the promulgation of civilized ideas, such as the rule of law. 

 Other powers, like France, the Netherlands and the United States, were also seeking to build their own Empires. Empires were seen as efficient, enjoying economies of scale that smaller powers could not match. “The Empire” was something that helped keep England, Scotland and Wales united in a shared endeavour.

 So Chamberlain’s proposal for Imperial trade preference was seen, at least superficially, to be going with, rather than against, the grain of history. 

As a result of Chamberlain’s advocacy, the Conservatives were to promote tariff reform, on an on and off basis, for almost 30 years.

  But it proved to be a vote loser.

 This was because the British Empire could not produce all the food that Britons wanted to eat, and tariff reform would have required a tax on food coming from outside the Empire.

 High food prices, then as now, were politically lethal for the Conservatives.  Chamberlain’s protectionist ideas also ran against the free trade, laissez faire, ideology that had dominated economic thinking in Britain for much of the nineteenth century. 

Winston Churchill, a young Conservative MP, left the party and became a Liberal in 1904, because he believed in free trade. Joseph Chamberlain’s son, Neville, would put some of his father’s protectionist ideas into practice, as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1930s.

Joseph Chamberlain was a dynamic force. A successful businessman, and Mayor of Birmingham, he was non conformist by religion, and was an early advocate of old age pensions and anti poverty programmes.  He was originally a Liberal MP, but left the Party because of its support for Home Rule for Ireland. He was never really a Conservative.

Tariff Reform is just one of the many themes explored in Vernon Bogdanor’s comprehensive history of the 30 years preceding the First World War. It is a history of policy making, rather than just of politics. 

The drama is there, but so also is the solid content.

The book covers developments affecting Ireland, just as it covers England, Wales and Scotland. 

Ireland was run by 29 different government Departments, each with its own board, and all supervised by a single non resident Chief Secretary for Ireland, usually an English or Scottish MP from the governing party in Westminster. 

By some measures, Ireland did well during this final period of British rule.

The amount spent by the UK central Exchequer in Ireland increased more quickly than the amount of tax raised here.

 In 1893, there was a surplus on the budget of the Irish Administration of £2million and Ireland was making  net contribution to the overall UK budget.

 In contrast, by 1912, the surplus was turned into a deficit of £1.5million. This was for two reasons……

  • the cost of old age pensions (introduced in 1909) for which a lot of Irish people qualified, and
  • the UK Exchequers subsidies to the transfer of Irish land from landlords to tenants under legislation passed in 1903.

Ireland was actually over represented in the House of Commons, with one MP for every 44,000 voters as one for every 66,000 in England

But that was not worth much.  The only input anyone, elected in Ireland, had to the process by which Ireland was actually governed was through the Irish MPs in the House of Commons .  But Irish MPs, other than a few Unionists, rarely became Ministers.

 This was totally insufficient,  and  it explained the growing demand  here for a Home Rule Parliament in Dublin , with its own elected Ministers, to take over the powers of the over stretched Chief Secretary for Ireland. 

The idea of Home Rule was resisted in Britain. It was seen as heralding the beginning of the disintegration of the Empire. As Lord Salisbury, Prime Minister at the beginning of the period, put it.   

”If Ireland goes, India will go 50 years later” 

The forces in Britain ranged against Home Rule were substantial and serious. 

This is why it is truly remarkable that Home Rule for Ireland passed into law, without a shot being fired, in September 1914.

 This peaceful achievement by Irish politicians in Westminster, like John Redmond, John Dillon and Joe Devlin, was largely ignored by the Government at the beginning of our recent decade of  Centenary Commemorations. It was ignored in favour of physical force nationalism.

Bogdanor deals with how Home Rule became law, peacefully, in 1914. 

The Liberal government of the day depended on the Irish Party and the Labour Party to stay in office.

 The Liberal Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George introduced a radical budget. This budget was rejected in the House of Lords, creating a constitutional crisis. In response the Liberal government introduced a Parliament Bill to curb the power of the Lords to veto legislation passed in the Commons. 

The Irish Party then told the government that they in turn would oppose the budget, unless the Parliament Bill removed the Lords’ indefinite veto on Home Rule. 

It was brinkmanship, but it worked. 

If the Lords had not rejected the budget in the first place, Home Rule might have been postponed by a Liberal Government, who had only a half hearted commitment to it.

The book also deals with the lead up to the First World War.

Joe Chamberlain in the 1890s had favoured a Teutonic (Protestant) alliance between the UK, the US and Germany. But majority opinion in Britain preferred closeness with France and Russia.

 The British Cabinet seems to have had little discussion of foreign and defence policy in the years before the War. Exaggerated reliance was placed on the Royal Navy, and the Army was neglected.  In general, the Cabinet had no agenda, no regular meetings, and no minutes in this period!

  It was the German invasion of Belgium, in August 1914, that enabled the UK to enter the War, as a united country on the allied side.

 If Germany had avoided Belgium, the UK would have been deeply split on whether to support France militarily, or stay out.

 As far as war guilt is concerned, it was the belligerent and irresponsible demands of Austria on Serbia, that dragged Russia and Germany into war with one another.

I strongly recommend this book. The reader will find that many of the problems we sense as being unique to our era were around in our grand parents time too.

Print Entry