Thursday Book: When the Tories were bitter, violent extremists

Lines of Most Resistance: the Lords, the Tories and Ireland 1886- 1914 by Edward Pearce (Little, Brown, pounds 18.99)

Stephen Howe
Sunday 23 October 2011 01:12
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WILLIAM HAGUE, in his Conservative conference speech, built much of his rhetoric around approving references to "Randolph Churchill's famous phrase: `We trust the people'". One of the incidental felicities of Edward Pearce's book is the ironic light it sheds on Hague invoking that bit of party history. For Randolph Churchill did not trust the people. He was a demagogue not a democrat, who combined cynical populism with an enraged contempt for the will of the people themselves, especially in his increasingly febrile opposition to Irish Home Rule. As the late-Victorian Home Rule crisis deepened, Randolph progressed from smearing his Liberal opponents as traitors and lunatics to predicting, even advocating, civil war.

Yet Churchill's language - that of a man dying from syphilis - did not make him a maverick among the Tories of 1886-1914. In opposition to Home Rule, to Lloyd George's 1909 budget and to reform of the House of Lords in 1911, the party "went slightly mad", says Pearce. Many of its leaders feared and despised the Irish, the Liberals, the working classes, income tax, any threat to hereditary privilege and democracy itself. Some tried - for the last time in English politics, though not in Ireland or, indeed, Scotland - to blow on the dying embers of Protestant sectarianism. A "climate of unreason" prevailed, with "overtones of illegality and possible violence".

It was all utterly unlike the usual, benign images of political change in Britain, and equally unlike the modern Conservative self-perception as the party of common sense and consensus. Britain was "saved" from the consequences only by the outbreak of the First World War.

British Conservatives, in opposition in 1906-14, adopted a stance of bitter, violent extremism to which they have never quite reverted, even under Thatcher - though one can catch echoes among diehard Europhobes. Edward Pearce, a distinguished political journalist and parliamentary sketch-writer, is constantly alert to the modern resonances of his story: not only battles over Europe, but over the current fate of the Lords and Northern Ireland. His summaries of bygone debates might risk dullness were it not for his sketch-writer's eye. One can easily imagine Pearce there in the press gallery, as Gladstone and Joe Chamberlain or Asquith and Balfour battled it out.

The book's greatest strength lies in the sheer verve and stylishness of its prose. Pearce cares deeply about the way he writes - which many political journalists, and most of the historians who have covered this ground, seemingly do not. He tells afresh one of the most dramatic and important stories in modern British history while pointing out sharp lessons for today, and he is always enjoyable to read.

There are flaws. The vivid portraits of key individuals are not always matched by explanation of their social networks and intellectual influences. The book is weakened by its predominant focus on London politics, with developments in Ireland featuring mainly as noises off. This gives rise to a few minor but disconcerting errors, such as apparently thinking that Robert Emmet (whose name is misspelt) was a martyred rebel of 1798. It also produces some over-sweeping judgements. The first leader of Ulster Unionism, Colonel Edward Saunderson, is depicted as a bigot and buffoon. Yet Saunderson's modern biographer, Alvin Jackson, shows us a far more substantial and sympathetic figure. More generally, Pearce's descriptions of Ulster's "resentful, bad-tempered" political culture sometimes shade uncomfortably close to the stereotypes of the Irish that he rightly deplores when coming from Victorian Tories.

Pearce's view is that, had it not been for the Tories' mindless, destructive opposition to the mildest devolutionary proposals, Home Rule would have settled the Irish Question. Neither the violent nationalism of Sinn Fein, nor Protestant Ulster's equally violent resistance to it, would have won popular support. The bloodshed of 1916-23, and from 1970 on, would not have been possible. All this may well be true, and is a welcome corrective to glib assumptions that violence was inevitable. But it needs more evidence and argument than Pearce has provided.

Stephen Howe

The reviewer's book `Ireland and Empire' is published by Oxford in February

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