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A Full View of Britain and Ireland a Century Ago

Vernon Bogdanor has written a history of Britain before World War I that is pertinent not only to England, Scotland and Wales but also Ireland. Many of the problems we sense as being unique to our era were around more than a century ago. We need to understand the past to make sense of the present and work for a better future.
UK and Ireland

UK and Ireland flag on a blue sky background, banner 3D Illustration © Nabil Kamara /

March 03, 2023 12:44 EDT

A century ago, events in Britain influenced Ireland far more than they do today. The destinies of the two countries were intertwined. Unlike today, understanding British politics was fundamental to making sense of Irish politics. Therefore, Vernon Bogdanor’s The Strange Survival of Liberal Britain is most interesting, especially from an Irish point of view.

The subtitle of Bodganor’s book is  “Politics and Power Before the First World War,” and it is an account of the politics of the British Isles between 1890 and 1914. The book is essential reading for any student of Irish history. Bogdanor is comprehensive, gives a good account of the 1899-1902 Boer War, recounts women’s struggle to gain the right to vote, covers the rise of the Labour Party, and examines the introduction of unemployment and sickness insurance. Bogdanor also outlines 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 World War I. In a nutshell, Bogdadanor has written a big book in every sense.

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 1890s, 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, much like the EU today.

The British Empire as One Big Free Trade Union

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

In the 1890s, note that 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 US, were also seeking to build their own empires. Empires were seen as efficient. They enjoyed economies of scale that smaller powers could not match. “The Empire” was also important domestically for the United Kingdom: it helped keep England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland united in a shared endeavor.

Hence, 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.

However, this policy proved to be a vote loser. 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 politicians.  Chamberlain’s protectionist ideas also ran against the free trade, laissez-faire ideology that had dominated economic thinking in Britain for much of the 19th century.

Many British thinkers and politicians had a deep belief in free trade. One of them was Winston Churchill. In 1904, he was a young Conservative MP who left the party and joined the Liberal Party 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.

Now largely forgotten, Joseph Chamberlain was a dynamic force. He was a successful businessman who became the mayor of Birmingham. He was Nonconformist—in those days, a term used for Protestant Christians who did not “conform” to the governance and usages of the Church of England, the established church of England—and was an early advocate of old age pensions and anti-poverty programs. Chamberlain was originally a member of parliament (MP) for the Liberal Party but became a Conservative when Liberals supported Home Rule for Ireland. Truth to be told, Chamberlain was never really a Conservative.

Through sheer force of personality, Chamberlain imported protectionism into the Conservative Party. Tariff reform is just one of the many themes explored in Venon Bogdanor’s comprehensive history of the 30 years preceding World War I. It is a history of policymaking, not just of politics. Bogdanor’s book not only has all the drama of these tumultuous years, but also solid content. 

The Story of Ireland in the British Empire

As stated earlier, the book is comprehensive. It covers developments in England, Wales, Scotland and, of course, Ireland. At the time, Ireland was run by 29 different government departments, each with its own board. They were 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 the British central exchequer spent in Ireland increased more rapidly than the amount of taxes it collected. In 1893, the Irish Administration (run by the British) ran a surplus on its budget and Ireland was making a net contribution to the overall British budget. In contrast, by 1912, this surplus was turned into a deficit of £1.5 million.

This increase in British expenditure on Ireland was for two reasons. First, old age pensions were introduced in 1909 and a number of Irish people qualified for them. Second, the British exchequer compensated landlords for transferring their land to tenants as per legislation passed in 1903. These two measures made Ireland a loss-making entity for the United Kingdom. Before World War I, the UK was actually losing money to keep Ireland in the union.

At the time, Ireland was seemingly doing well politically as well. It was actually overrepresented in the House of Commons, with one MP for every 44,000 voters in contrast to one MP for every 66,000 voters in England. Yet this Irish representation was not worth that much. Ireland was run entirely out of London by the chief secretary through the 29 departments. Irish MPs could only give inputs through the House of Commons and had little say in running their country. Very few MPs rose to become ministers.

Such a situation was increasingly unsatisfactory for most Irish people. It led to a growing demand for “Home Rule,” a movement to secure internal autonomy for Ireland within the British Empire. The Irish wanted their own parliament and government in Dublin. They wanted their ministers to be responsible to their own parliament, not the overstretched chief secretary for Ireland in London. 

The idea of Home Rule was resisted in Britain. It was seen as heralding the beginning of the disintegration of the British Empire. As Lord Salisbury, the prime minister at the beginning of the period, put it: ”If Ireland goes, India will go 50 years later.” He was not far off the mark. Ironically, the 1916-18 Indian Home Rule movement was inspired by Ireland. One of its two main leaders was Annie Besant who had an Irish connection. Her father was an Englishman who got his medical degree at Trinity College, Dublin and her mother was an Irish Catholic. 

As Bogdonar describes, 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 Irish government at the beginning of the “Decade of Centenaries.” This commemoration “of the centenaries of a number of seminal events in modern Irish history” ignored this peaceful achievement and favored the nationalism of physical force.

In 1909, the Liberal government led by Herbert Henry Asquith depended on the Irish Party and the Labour Party to stay in office. Lloyd George, the charismatic chancellor of the exchequer, introduced a radical budget that set out deliberately to raise money to “wage implacable warfare against poverty and squalidness.” The House of Lords rejected this famous “People’s Budget,” creating a constitutional crisis. In response the Liberal government introduced a parliamentary bill to curb the power of the House of Lords to veto legislation passed in the House of Commons. It was brinkmanship, but it worked. 

If the House of Lords had not rejected the budget in the first place, Irish Home Rule might have been postponed. The Liberal government had only a half-hearted commitment to Irish Home Rule but events forced its hand. In April 1912, the Liberal government introduced the third Home Rule bill in Westminster, which was passed as the Government of Ireland Act 1914 and history was made.

Run up to World War I

Bogdanor’s book also deals with the events leading to World War I. In the 1890s, Chamberlain had favored a Teutonic (Protestant) alliance between the UK, the US and Germany. However, the majority opinion in Britain preferred closer relations with France and Russia.

The British cabinet seems to have had little discussion of foreign and defense policy in the years before the war. It placed an exaggerated reliance on the Royal Navy and neglected the British Army. In general, the cabinet had no agenda, no regular meetings and no minutes in this period. Only Germany’s August 1914 invasion of Belgium enabled Britain to enter the war as a united country on the allied side. If Germany had avoided Belgium, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, as it was known then, would have been deeply split on whether to support France militarily, or stay out of the war.

When it comes to the tricky question of war guilt, it was the belligerent and irresponsible demands of Austria on Serbia that dragged Russia and Germany into war with one another. In retrospect, the war seems unnecessary and avoidable. At the time, a chain of events kicked off a tragic four years of bloodshed.

I strongly recommend this book. The reader will find that many of the problems we sense as being unique to our era were around at the time of my grandparents as well.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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