The challenge to the UK state and British Empire from 1879-95
Contents of forthcoming book
- The growing conflict between liberal and conservative unionism in the period of New Imperialism
- Michael Davitt and the launching of the Irish Revolution in 1879
- Davitt adopts an ‘internationalism from below’ strategy to spread the revolution
- The struggle against coercion and for land triggers off a new movement in England and Scotland
- Parnell’s ‘counter-revolution within the revolution’
- Shifting the main focus of the ‘internationalism from below’ alliance to Scotland
- The ending of the liberal consensus in the face of the rise of the New Imperialism
- Davitt widens his ‘internationalism from below’ alliance, and brings in Wales
- ‘Internationalism from below’ and the weaknesses of Irish nationalism and British Left radicalism
- From land and labour struggles to the beginning of independent labour political organisation in Scotland
- From land nationalisation to the eight hour day
- Broadening the ‘internationalism from below’ alliance around the political demand for Home Rule
- 1889-92 – the new industrial and political offensive
- The rise and wider effects of New Unionism in Ireland
- The limits of Davitt’s politics reached as the Irish Home Rule Movement splits
- The thwarted hopes of New Unionism and the Home Rule Movement after the 1892 General Election
- The employers’ offensive and the retreat of New Unionism
- The final break-up of the ‘internationalism from below’ alliance
- 1895 – High Imperialism triumphant and the emergence of Connolly’s Irish Socialist Republican Party
Why should we spend time examining a period of history from over a hundred years ago? Perhaps the best reason is that, between 1879 and 1895, there are striking parallels to the situation we find ourselves in today. This was also a period of increasing inter-imperialist competition, as the previously dominant world power began to lose its leading position. In the late nineteenth century it was the UK that found itself in this new position in the world; today it is the USA, with the UK continuing to fall well down the global pecking order.
Furthermore, when we compare the situation in the UK, over the two periods, we can see the continuing significance of national democratic challenges to the unionist state. The Irish Revolution(1), which began in 1879, led to a questioning of the very existence of the UK, and to profound divisions amongst the British ruling class over how best to maintain its rule over these islands and their wider empire. The demands for national self-determination in Ireland, Scotland and Wales were linked to major social and economic struggles. Clearly, there are significant echoes of this situation today.
From 1875, under the impact of the New Imperialism(2), Disraeli’s Conservative government had begun to pursue increasingly aggressive colonial policies. These reflected the concerns of a British ruling class, now facing global competition from a larger number of European states. From 1879, however, a challenge developed to this recharged British imperialism. The new opposition drew its politics largely from the social republican tradition found in Ireland, and the radical tradition found in England, Scotland and Wales. It formed largely as result of the failure of traditional Gladstonian Liberals to uphold their earlier support for civil rights and opposition to colonial expansion.
Michael Davitt, migrant, former textile worker, Fenian and Irish Land League organiser, was the central figure involved. He attempted to unite land and labour struggles, across the four nations constituting the United Kingdom, and beyond into the British colonies and the USA. Davitt developed an ‘internationalism from below’ alliance to win wider support for the Irish National Land League (INLL), one of the biggest ‘lower orders’ movements in the nineteenth century UK. However, he deepened this alliance in England, Scotland and Wales, by contributing to the development of independent land and labour organisations in each of these nations.
The leader of the INLL, Charles Parnell, though, had other ideas. In 1882, he closed down the INLL in order to form a purely constitutional nationalist party, the National League, with the aim of winning Irish Home Rule. However, the first Irish Home Rule Bill, adopted by Gladstone’s Liberal government, was defeated in 1886, and a new government, led by the Conservative Lord Salisbury, took office.
Davitt now had to confront the thoroughly jingoist, racist and sectarian Unionist alliance. It would countenance no concession over Irish Home Rule, and revelled enthusiastically over every latest imperial exploit. This was the conservative unionist approach to maintaining British ruling class domination at home and abroad. It vehemently opposed the liberal unionist approach(3) with its support for home rule (devolution) for the constituent nations of the UK.
As New Imperialism increased its stranglehold on British politics, the Liberal Party, including many on its Radical wing, were drawn into its slipstream. A section of advanced Radicals, however, reacted against this and made the first tentative steps towards Socialism. Robert Cunningham-Graham and Keir Hardie were just two examples. However, many former Radicals (and Liberal Party members), who became Socialists, retained much of their earlier politics.
Furthermore, the Conservative Party, hitherto seen as a major impediment to any democratic advance, began to develop a Tory Democrat wing. Its supporters made appeals to the newly enfranchised workers. They were offered limited economic reforms in return for giving their support to British ruling class attempts to expand the Empire. Disraeli was one of the first to see the possibilities of harnessing the link between reform and Empire; but it was Randolph Churchill, who attempted to develop this further, by appealing directly to the working class. He also strongly linked expansion of the British Empire with the defence of the existing British Union. He looked to the local dignitary-led, Orange Order in Ulster, for inspiration in forming his pro-imperial, cross class alliance.
Many workers were drawn into Conservative Unionist and further Right populist organisations. They did hope to gain economically from the Empire, or to draw some psychological comfort by celebrating their racial or religious ‘superiority’. The growing number of wars directed against the peoples of the colonies took only a small number of British lives. The real cost was to come later, when the inevitable consequence of growing inter-imperialist competition led to the mass slaughter of the First World War. The leaders of the Conservative Unionists though, were then able to look with smug satisfaction as their Liberal, Irish constitutional nationalist, and some Labour and Socialist ‘opponents’, threw themselves into the promotion of the carnage.
However, back in the 1880’s, a few Tory Democrats, such as Henry Hyndman and Henry Champion, broke with the Conservative Party and became leading figures in the new Socialist movement. Like the former Radical Liberals, these individuals also retained aspects of their old politics, especially their lingering support for English/Anglo-Saxon/British supremacy and racism. Some of the clashes, which took place in the early Socialist movement, reflected this earlier division between Radical Liberals and Tory Democrats.
The infant Social Democratic Federation (SDF), formed in 1885, showed many of the characteristics which have plagued later attempts at Socialist agitation – whether to concentrate on direct action and socialist propaganda or to seek political office; and whether to seek constitutional change or economic reform. Failure to develop a coherent programme and an integrated strategy contributed to many of the setbacks and consequent splits amongst Socialists at the time, just as they continue to do today.
One of these breakaway organisations was the small but quite influential Socialist League (SL). It soon became divided between those who wanted to make propaganda for Socialism, and those, mainly in its affiliated Scottish Land and Labour League (SLLL), who wanted to orientate upon trade union, crofter and cottar struggles.
However, it was the launching of the Irish Land War, in 1879, and the formation of the INLL, which had largely inspired the formation of the SDF, as former advanced Radicals turned to Socialism. They joined the wider struggle against those forces, both Conservative and Liberal, either aggressively advancing the Empire and defending the Union, or meekly bowing before this new onslaught.
The social struggle was closely linked to the political battle for greater Irish self-determination. Furthermore, as new Land Leagues were formed in Scotland and Wales, the demand for Home Rule was taken up in these nations too. The majority of the independent Crofter candidates of 1885, and the new Scottish Labour Party, formed in 1888, supported both Irish and Scottish Home Rule.
Many key individuals, from the land and labour struggles of the 1880’s, contributed to the massive wave of ‘New (Trade) Unionism’, which burst out in 1889. They faced a similar situation to that faced by socialists and trade unionists today. Only then, socialists were up against the politics of Lib-Labism. Trade union leaders were still tied to an earlier Radical Liberal vision of a Free Trade Empire and a ‘fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work.
Today we are up against the politics of New Labour, with trade union leaders locked into ‘Social Partnership’. Sometimes these misleaders may still hanker back to the disappearing vision of the post-war, Welfare State Empire, when workers in the UK were looked after ‘from the cradle to the grave’.
Furthermore, prior to 1889, the vast majority of unskilled and casual workers lay outside the Old Unions. Today, union membership has shrunk back to a minority, mostly concentrated in the public sector. This has left vast numbers of private sector workers, particularly women, migrant and part-time workers unorganised.
Today, the majority of the British Left is tied to a Broad Left strategy of recapturing the ‘old’ unions by replacing their existing leaders with new Left leaders (many of whom are earlier Broad Left leaders!) In contrast, any contemporary ‘New Unionism’ would aim to thoroughly democratise existing unions and bring them under rank and file workers’ control; or, where necessary, build completely new unions to organise those workers now completely unorganised.
Nor is the Left nationalist notion of breakaway unions much use against the global corporations, which workers confront today. Yes, national (and sectoral) union sections need more autonomy, but unions should be as extensive as possible. The key issue is not the existence of union HQ flying a national flag (e.g. the tricolour or saltire), but the necessity for union sovereignty to reside with workers at the workplace level, not in the union HQs. The independent Scottish teachers’ union, the EIS, is one of the most fervent upholders of the embrace of government and employers, not so much in social partnership, more a morganatic marriage(4).
Today, some may take comfort from the fact that the majority of the British ruling class has opted for the liberal, and not the conservative unionist option, in order to maintain its rule over the UK, and its continued, albeit now indirect, influence over Ireland. New Labour promotes ‘Devolution-all-round’ (i.e. for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales) and the ‘Peace Process’ in Ireland, backed by the social partnerships of compliant trade union and demanding governments and employers.
Yet, the aims of today’s liberal unionists are the same as those of the conservative unionists of the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries. They both want to create the best political environment for their principal class backers. Today this means allowing corporate capitalists to lower wages, attack working conditions and undermine pensions, through deregulation and privatisation. It means fawning before the requirements of finance capital.
The British ruling class may indeed have learned some political lessons from their one-time support for intransigent conservative unionism. When Conservative and Liberal Unionists tried to face down the rising demand for Irish Home Rule, in the 1880’s, ‘90s and first two decades of the twentieth century, this eventually proved to be a disastrous strategy for them. By 1922, direct rule over ‘the Twenty Six Counties’ had been ended, and the UK state had begun to break-up.
However, the post-1922 UK-Irish ‘settlement’, imposed after the threat of a renewed war on the Irish people, seemed so permanent, that this lesson appeared to be forgotten by the late 1960’s. This was when new national democratic movements confronted the British ruling class. Initially this ruling class did flirt with both liberal centralist(5) and devolution(6) measures to deal with these challenges, which coincided with major working class struggles. However, once the ruling class had reasserted its control, under the two post-1974 Labour governments, it returned to the old failed conservative unionist strategy of defence of the constitutional status quo, backed by threats and coercion. Meanwhile, anti-trade union laws soon tamed most union leaderships. The TUC and the Labour Party leaders left the miners isolated, when they defied these new laws. The NUM faced the full panoply of state power between 1984-5. The Labour/TUC’s acceptance of ‘New Realism’ was but the beginnings of the road back to the Lib-Lab ‘Old Unionism’ of the nineteenth century, and its complete acceptance of capitalist rule.
Thatcher’s British Unionist ‘No, No, No’ intransigence first began under Labour, in the late 70’s in Northern Ireland. The attempt by Labour Irish Secretary, Roy Mason, to criminalise any effective opposition had its parallels in Forster, Gladstone’s Liberal Irish Secretary, and his introduction of coercion to Ireland in 1881, long before Lord Salisbury’s Conservative Irish Secretary, ‘Bloody Balfour’ was given free rein in 1887.
The failure of the UK state to meet the constitutional and economic reform demands raised by the Civil Rights Movement in ‘the Six Counties’, produced another period of constitutional instability, lasting over a quarter of a century. An overt and determined republican challenge emerged within the UK’s frontiers. Thatcher’s later attempt to deny any political self-determination, for either Scotland or Wales, made the ‘National Question’ an even wider and more volatile political issue.
This is one reason why the majority of the British ruling class unceremoniously dumped Thatcher in 1990 and, under John Major’s government adopted The Downing Street Agreement. The Conservatives were now committed to a liberal unionist strategy to defend the Union. When this proved too limited to contain the wider challenge, the ruling class turned instead to New Labour’s policy of ‘Devolution-all-round’. This is, in effect, a return to the old nineteenth century Liberal Home Rule strategy.
However, as with the nineteenth century division between Conservatives and Liberals, there is little difference today in the real aims of the Tories and New Labour. Both are committed to maintaining a British imperial presence in the wider world. Both accept that the British ruling class can now only achieve this as a junior partner to US imperialism. This leads to continuous wars, attacks on civil rights, austerity welfare provision, and the scape-goating of migrant workers. There is now a tension between New Labour and the Tories’ liberal unionism and their increasingly conservative militaristic imperialism. And, under today’s prevailing political conditions it is the liberal unionism which is more likely to give.
New Labour soon falls back on the nastier traits, usually associated with conservative unionism and imperialism. Indeed, as international competition becomes more pronounced, in the wake of the current Credit Crunch and the deepening worldwide recession, New Labour is preparing the ground for even more jingoistic, racist and sectarian forces.
The Immigration Minister, Philip Woolas, has shown that it is not only conservatives, who will stoop to the gutter, when it comes to racist attacks to divert attention from the real causes of the economic crisis. Meanwhile, the rise of the BNP, and the continued presence of malevolent loyalist forces in ‘the Six Counties’, show that even more sinister forces are lurking not far below the surface in the UK. Events in Berlusconi’s Italy demonstrate that it is but a short step to government encouraged racist assaults and murders of migrants and ethnic minorities.
As we try to build a new socialist movement, an appreciation of the Left’s politics, between 1879 and 1895, provides us with useful insights. The Radicals were then the dominant force on the Left, from whom the infant socialist and labour movements inherited much of their politics. The Radicals wanted to return to the mid-century ‘glory days’ of free trade and international peace.
Today’s Left includes those ‘Marxist’ Radicals – the entrants and outriders of the British Labour Party – who hope to re-establish the welfare state and to prolong the long period since 1945 without a world war. This is often tied to their Broad Left strategy for reclaiming the trade unions for ‘real Labour’. However, just as the rise New Imperialism, at the end of the nineteenth century, spelled the end of the old international ‘free trade’ capitalist order, so the development of corporate capitalist imperialism today means that the post-1945 social democratic world has changed irrevocably. New answers and approaches are required.
‘Marxist’ Radicals in the SWP and Socialist Party(7), often defend the formation and continued existence of the UK as a ‘progressive’ achievement. They claim this historical gain needs to be defended against the attacks of the nationalists in Scotland and Wales, completely failing to see the wider democratic issues at stake. They take some consolation in the ‘Peace Process’ in ‘the Six Counties’, which appears, for the time being, to have reopened the road for ‘bread and butter’ issues, i.e. traditional labourist politics.
When ‘Marxist’ Radicals are forced to address the major democratic and constitutional issues, they tend to follow their nineteenth century Radical predecessors. They either see the ‘National Question’ as a diversion form the ‘real struggle’, or give support to liberal unionist options to defend the UK.
Some ‘Marxist’ Radicals go further, but still only end up tailing the more thoughtful sections of the British ruling class, when they call for more powers for the existing devolved assemblies. A few would go so far as to advocate a new federal arrangement between the constituent parts of the UK. This last ditch liberal option has a long pedigree, whenever the British union state is under threat from national democratic movements. Others, however, hide behind the formulation of support for the ‘right of national self-determination’. The political effect of this is to leave it to the various nationalist parties to take the lead formulating the politics of the national democratic movements.
By examining past history, we can see that the politics of those advocating various ‘British roads to socialism’ are but continuations of an older British Radical tradition, which dominated the Left in the UK, in the late nineteenth century. Radicals tended to leave the political initiative to the Liberal Party and their Irish nationalist allies. Today’s ‘Marxist’ Radicals also take their political lead over the UK constitution from the liberal wing of the British ruling class, or sometimes, if unwittingly, from the nationalist parties – Sinn Fein, SNP and Plaid Cymru.
Yet, between 1888 and 1894, an alternative tradition developed, which recognised some of the weaknesses of the ‘Marxist’ Radicals. The Scottish Socialist Federation (SSF) was formed, which brought together SDF and SL/SLLL members, as well as other socialists, to try and go beyond the politics of Radicalism and the subservience of Lib-Labism. In some respects the SSF anticipated the Scottish Socialist Alliance, (SSA) formed in 1996, in the aftermath of the Anti-Poll Tax Struggle, along with the continued failure of the Labour Party to meet workers’ needs.
In the end, just as Davitt’s social republicanism collapsed into populist nationalism in Ireland, so the SSF, along with the Scottish Labour Party, it had backed, collapsed into the hybrid Radical/Tory Democrat tradition of ‘the British road to socialism’ found in the Independent Labour Party or the SDF. Today, after a major internal crisis, the SSA’s successor organisation, the Scottish Socialist Party, faces powerful pulls, in the form of Left nationalism and Left unionism.
By 1895, the limitations of Davitt’s politics had become quite apparent, as the British ruling class regained the political initiative and derailed the Home Rule challenge. Furthermore, Socialists, at the time, were unable to take the vigorous post-1889 New (Trade) Unionism challenge forward. It also went into retreat, taking on some of the characteristics of ‘Old Unionism’ once more. A new politics was needed to unite the political and economic wings of a wider working class movement.
However, it was within the SSF milieu that a real alternative began to emerge, in the figure of James Connolly. Like Davitt, he was a member of an Irish migrant family. Connolly’s family had settled in Edinburgh. He received his initial political training within the Scottish Socialist Federation and the Scottish Labour Party. He was to make a quantum leap in his political approach, though, when he moved to Dublin and founded the Irish Socialist Republican Party in 1896.
Connolly developed the socialist republican politics needed to take Davitt’s social republican and radical ‘internationalism from below’ alliance on to a higher level, during the heyday of High Imperialism from 1895. Connolly’s consistent anti-unionism and anti-imperialism offered a clear strategy, which opposed both the Irish constitutional nationalism and the ‘British road to socialism’, which was supported by most of the British Left of his day. Instead, Connolly promoted a ‘break-up of the UK and British Empire road to socialism’.
In today’s world, imperialism still calls the shots. The continued existence of the UK provides the British ruling class with a powerful bastion of support. This unionist and monarchist state is fundamentally undemocratic. It gives the British ruling class a whole host of draconian Crown Powers to maintain its rule. Even the formally independent Irish Republic has to bow to British ruling class needs. This was highlighted by Irish leaders’ recent reluctant acceptance of the liabilities of UK-owned banks in Ireland. Nor did the Irish government get many thanks for their pioneering bank rescue plan to save domestic capitalism, much of which Brown and Darling so quickly copied and took credit for.
However, the current financial crisis has also highlighted the close links between leading Scottish nationalists and the British banks. In panic, they have quietly rushed into the arms of the UK government to develop a common approach to address shared capitalist concerns. Meanwhile, in public, the SNP and New Labour continue their political squabbles, jockeying for position to gain relative advantages for their particular capitalist backers.
British politicians, whether they are Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat, continue to argue with SNP politicians over the extent of power to be awarded to the devolved Scottish Parliament at Holyrood. However, they all agree that the monarchy and the ruling class’s Crown Powers have to remain in place, that the Bank of England will control the economy through the continued use of sterling, and that suitable arrangements have to be made to accommodate NATO and to protect US imperial interests. All these parties are wedded to neo-liberalism and are in hock to corporate capital.
The nationalist parties represented in the various devolved assemblies, in Holyrood, Cardiff Bay or Stormont, make no attempt to mount a joint challenge to continued British rule, or to the all pervading corporate capitalist power over these islands. Whilst Plaid Cymru leaders may be envious of the powers already devolved to the Scottish Parliament, it is pretty clear that, if parity were to be achieved, this would merely signal their intention to compete more effectively for inward corporate investment. When Donald Trump threatened to abandon his golfing complex project in Aberdeenshire, in stepped the then DUP Minister, Ian Paisley Junior, to offer an alternative site on the Antrim Coast of Northern Ireland.
Just as Davitt and Connolly realised, in their day, that they faced the combined forces of British imperialism (whether it be Conservative or Liberal) and Irish nationalism (whether it be Parnell or his successors), so socialists face a similar combined opposition of Labour, Conservative and Lib-Dem unionists and nationalists today. By studying our class’s history, we gain the advantages of hindsight. This is why we need to look once more to rebuild an ‘internationalism from below’ alliance of republican socialists in Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales.
- (1) ‘The Irish Revolution’ is the term given by Theodore Moody to describe the major period of social and political upheaval between 1879-82, initiated by the Irish National Land League and the ‘Land War’.
- (2) New Imperialism developed in Europe, the USA (and later Japan) in the 1870’s. This followed the defeats of the Paris Commune in 1871, and the overthrow of the Radical Reconstruction (the concerted state-backed attempt to bring about black emancipation in the USA, after the Civil War) by 1877.
- (3) Here, liberal unionism refers to one of the two overall approaches taken by the British ruling class to defend the Union. It is not to be confused with the Liberal Unionists, who were adherents of a conservative unionist strategy.
- (4) A morganatic marriage was an arrangement by which a king had a queen who was entitled to none of his property and whose children had no inheritance rights. In other words she only had the right to be screwed!
- (5) It was one of the ironies of history that Northern Ireland, ended up, in 1922, with the sole devolved parliament in the UK, in the form of Stormont, despite the Ulster Unionists’ earlier vehement opposition to Home Rule. This ‘Protestant Parliament for a Protestant People’, far from being liberal in inspiration, more resembled the old reactionary, pre-1801, Irish Parliament, in its attempt to exclude Catholics (or Irish nationalists) from any share of power. Thus, the Conservatives’ closure of Stormont in 1972 and resort to Direct Rule was initially a very weak liberal centralising political measure. However, responsibility for much of this ‘direct rule’ was undertaken by the British armed and security forces, negating any liberal intentions.
- (6) The proposals for Scottish and Welsh devolution enjoyed wider support, both from liberal unionists and constitutional nationalists. However, political support for a liberalised and reformed Stormont was much more narrowly based, and found primarily amongst constitutionalist nationalists.
- (7) Whilst the tradition of the Tory Democrats has virtually no remaining political purchase upon Socialists today in the UK today, it still perhaps enjoys a kind of afterlife in the Labour Unionism still found in the Socialist Party in ‘the Six Counties’. Here the SP has been known to flirt with plebian loyalism, particularly the Progressive Unionist Party, which is linked to the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force.