Randomness (r_ness) wrote,

Nationalists at Westminster: Ireland and Scotland a century apart

This is a good paper. If you believe as I do that the lessons of Ireland can provide insight into the current politics about Scotland, give it a look. It gives a helpful overview of the history of both cases and an analysis of the situation in the run-up to the 2015 general election.* I read it as an attempt to slow the SNP's clear momentum in the polls, but written to provide information and history in its arguments. Even if you don't agree with the paper's contention that the SNP is only progressive inasmuch as it advances the nationalist cause, its suggested compromise of removing Scottish MPs from Westminster, and its conclusion that the SNP needs to keep its alliance options open in order to maximize its bargaining leverage, it's still worth a read, particularly for its capsule history of Irish nationalist representation at Westminster. ([profile] cerebralpaladin, I'm looking at you.)
One sure prediction about this election is that it will have a strong territorial dimension. Indeed, it is set to be the first UK election since 1910 in which territorial issues are crucial to the result. While MPs from Northern Ireland could come to play a key role in post-election negotiations, they are relatively few in number. This pamphlet therefore concentrates on the Scottish National Party (SNP), which looks likely to become the largest of the small parties after 7 May. Despite their rejection of independence in last year’s referendum, significantly more Scots are saying that they will vote nationalist in this general election than in the last one.


The UK has been here before: from 1874 until the two elections of 1910, the block of Irish nationalist MPs led first by Isaac Butt, next by Charles Stewart Parnell and then by John Redmond had, in the phrase attributed to Parnell, ‘a knife to the throat of Westminster’. It is perhaps no accident that Parnell is famously the hero of Alex Salmond, the former SNP leader who hopes to be returned to Westminster in the upcoming election. There are lessons to be drawn from, and contrasts to be made with, the approach of the UK’s two main parties then and now. The idea of a ‘progressive alliance’ between nationalists and Labour is touted today, just as it was between (Irish) nationalists and the Liberals 100 years ago. It wasn’t quite that simple then, and certainly isn’t now. In both cases the nationalists’ motivation was, and is, to gain greater autonomy by whatever the available means.


2015 looks a bit like 1910. One hundred years ago, Irish nationalists demanding home rule had been a powerful political force for more than 30 years, and were guaranteed to the hold the balance of power whenever the two main parties were evenly balanced. Ireland had joined the UK (‘the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland’) in 1800. The Irish parliament agreed to dissolve itself in return for various promises, one of which was greater civil rights for the Catholic majority of the population. However, that promise was broken as soon as the Irish parliament voted itself out of existence. King George III decided that Catholic emancipation, as it was called, was incompatible with his coronation oaths. His opposition cost him his best prime minister, William Pitt the younger, but he also lost, if he had ever had it, the loyalty of the majority in Ireland. From the day of the royal veto, the union was illegitimate among Irish Catholics.


The general election of 1874 introduced a changed world. A Protestant barrister named Isaac Butt got 59 Irish MPs elected under the banner of the Home Rule League. He was soon pushed aside by the far more ruthless Charles Stewart Parnell, who set the tactics that the Irish Party was to follow from 1880 to 1918. It quickly secured every seat in Catholic Ireland – never fewer than 80, with the bonus of the Liverpool Scotland constituency from 1885 onward. It had no interest in forming a coalition with either main UK party. The Irish Party’s sole legislative demand was for home rule (which as it was then conceived of would actually have involved much more modest powers than Scotland already has today), and it was willing to obstruct Commons business to get its way.


The Parliament Act provided that a bill, most importantly a home rule bill, would be enacted even if rejected by the Lords, on the condition that it was passed by the Commons in identical form in three successive sessions. This meant that everybody knew that the bill would be presented in 1912, 1913, and 1914, identically every time, and enacted in 1914. The bill as presented in 1912 contained no provision for a Protestant Ulster opt-out; with 20/20 hindsight, it should have done. However, Prime Minister Asquith did not anticipate the spiral of violence that was to follow. It peaked with the Curragh mutiny and Larne gun-running of spring 1914. In the first, army officers in Ireland announced that they would resign rather than obey any orders to protect munitions dumps in Ireland from Protestant paramilitary raids. In the second, the Protestant paramilitaries landed 30,000 German guns and five million ammunition rounds in the Protestant port of Larne. The leader of the Conservative party, Andrew Bonar Law, probably knew of the gun-running plan and may have contributed money towards it. Civil war in Ulster was averted only by the outbreak of World War I. Home rule was enacted, but immediately suspended for the duration of the war. In the post-war election in November 1918, the Irish Party was crushed by Sinn Féin, who refused to sit at Westminster (as their successors continue to do). They constituted themselves as the provisional government of Ireland. After a guerrilla war, the bulk of Ireland became independent in 1921, with the six counties of Northern Ireland remaining in the UK.


Some features of this dire history will not be repeated if the 2015 election leads to a Labour–SNP understanding. There is no equivalent now of the militant Protestantism of Ulster (although the mainly Protestant DUP will bitterly oppose any Labour–SNP understanding, so it is therefore unlikely that they and the SNP can both be brought into the same deal with Labour, or indeed with the Conservatives). The House of Lords does not now represent the landed class, and will be much more cautious with its veto, which now extends for only one session rather than two. However, the Lords will have an anti-government majority, so the possibility of trouble from that quarter remains. There is little risk that the army and the monarchy will behave as they did in 1914, or that David Cameron’s successor as Conservative leader will behave like Bonar Law.

However, in every left government between 1885 and 1918 except the one that served between 1906 and January 1910, unionists held the majority of seats in England. In 1907, when the poet G K Chesterton wrote,‘We are the people of England / That never have spoken yet’, he was describing the voicelessness of the poor rather than the voice of English nationalism, yet the lines are often used to express a unionist sentiment. On this issue, the self-appointed leaders of England were, however, anything but silent. The unionists held two contradictory views with equal passion. One was that they, and not the elected government, spoke for England. Any unelected body that could help them block the plans of the government was therefore a legitimate ally, and their means therefore legitimate means. These allies included the unelected Lords, two successive kings, and numerous army officers. The other of these views was that Ireland must forever remain an integral part of the UK. Yet as long as it remained so, it would continue to elect MPs who demanded home rule. The unionists never overcame that contradiction.


The SNP’s increasingly vehement ruling-out of any alliance with the Conservatives is electorally advantageous: the swing voters they hope to attract will envisage a Labour-led UK government as the outcome. However, it would leave the party with no negotiating leverage: why should Labour offer any concessions to a party that has nowhere else to go? Parnell did not make this mistake in 1885, and was able to extract serious concessions from Salisbury. It was only Salisbury’s double-dealing that subsequently made the Conservatives an implausible partner. It was this that left the Irish nationalists in the hands of the Liberals, who offered them concessions only when, and for as long as, they needed them.
Amusing pull quote: "The SNP is an insurgent party but, unlike the new Greek government, it is not guided by a game theorist."

Britain's voters go to the polls a week from Thursday.

*Here I'll borrow some disclaimers Neal Ascherson includes in his piece in the Guardian (also worth reading) comparing Irish and Scottish nationalism at Westminster: "Any comparison with Ireland rouses alarm in Scotland, so here come the disclaimers: Scotland was never a colony settled by foreign conquerors; England did not control Scotland by fire and slaughter; Scotland has no Fenian tradition of conspiracy in the cause of independence; and, best of all, Scotland has no political Ulster."

Edited to fix link to Ascherson piece.
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