Michael Davitt

The Latest Midlothian Campaign

(November 1890)

From Nineteenth Century, November 1890, p.854-860.
Transcribed by Tex Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Mr. Gladstone’s speeches, both on the Irish and the labour questions, are, in some respects, disappointing. Possibly this may arise from an over-sanguine expectation that a clearer exposition of the one and a more definite attitude towards the other, could be looked for from the latest Midlothian Campaign. On the Irish question there has been no satisfactory response to the growing anxiety of the rank and file of the Home Rule movement, as to what the next scheme of Home Rule will be. Friends and foes alike are still in the dark as to whether the next general election is to be fought upon a definite and democratic Home Rule proposal, or upon the name and fame of Mr. Gladstone alone.

Mr. Gladstone’s reticence upon this vital point will be defended by the politicians who think that the political duties of the people, besides voting at elections, are, to be thankful for whatever the leaders propose for their acceptance, and not that the main outlines of a plan of reform should be submitted to them for pre-consideration. It will also be upheld that it is a tactical blunder to put your programme before the public for the information and criticism of your opponents, as well as for the satisfaction of your friends. This would be all very well if the masses, from whom Liberal statesmen and politicians now derive the only influence they possess, were as ignorant or as indifferent in the study of popular questions to-day as they were twenty years ago.

Such is no longer the case. Working men are no longer content to abide by the ‘open-your-mouth-and-shut-your-eyes-and-see-what-you-will-get’ attitude, which it was their wont to assume before the extension of the franchise made them the ‘masters’ of the political situation. They are intelligent as well as interested factors in the consideration of all questions which affect them socially or politically, and if their support is to be counted upon for a certainty by political leaders, they must be told, in plain language and without equivocation, what it is they are to be asked to vote for.

This applies especially to the question of Home Rule. Mr. Gladstone has spoken clearly and unmistakably upon the subject of the retention of the Irish members in Westminster. There can be no longer any doubt of which so-called ‘Unionists’ can make a peg upon which to hang objections, so far as this part of the next Home Rule Bill is concerned. Speaking at West Calder, on the Act of Union, Mr. Gladstone said:

Now, gentlemen, it is very well known that although we saw great difficulties attaching practically to any plan for the purpose, and although we knew very well that no vital one had occurred before the Act of Union, in consequence of the fact that there were no representatives of Ireland at Westminster, yet, respecting the public opinion of the country, and believing the public opinion of the country to be to this effect, that there ought to be a representation of Ireland at Westminster, we agreed to give effect to that public wish. There is no question at all before us of removing from Westminster that representation. I do not now speak of its particular forms or conditions. That is for discussion at another time.

In these words Mr. Gladstone has taken the ground completely from under the feet of those whose chief objection to the Home Rule Bill of 1886 was the 24th clause of that measure, which proposed to exclude from Westminster the Irish Members. The old Parliamentary hand will, by this definite pronouncement, win back to the Liberal fold many of his previous followers. To this extent the latest Midlothian campaign may be counted a success.

But there is a far more important element in the political community of Great Britain and Ireland, than the dissenting Liberals who look for light and leading at the present juncture. This element is friendly to both Home Rule and Mr. Gladstone. It is composed of the Radical working-men of Great Britain and Ireland, who are anxious to know whether the next scheme of Home Rule will be in line with democratic principles, or whether it will contain the reactionary proposals which made the acceptance of the Bill of 1886 a half-hearted performance.

The difficulties and dangers which surrounded the introduction of the first Home Rule scheme, and which made it incumbent upon all friends of national self-government in Ireland, to take the Bill as a measure of what it was possible for Mr. Gladstone to do, rather than of what would be required to work out the political and social salvation of Ireland – will not have to be reckoned with, when the next Bill is introduced. The peoples of the three countries have been drawn closer together since 1886. The separation bogey has all but died out in Great Britain, and the distrust of English statesmen and pledges, which was felt by Radical Irishmen in the transition period of four years ago, have all but vanished. Those who are in touch with the British masses, know that they are now far ahead of their leaders on the Home Rule question. They are anxious to more than spoon-feed the people of Ireland with self-government. English, Scottish, and Welsh working-men are not only profoundly convinced of the right and justice of conceding Home Rule to Ireland, in order to put an end to the anarchical system, of government carried on by Dublin Castle; they are directly interested in the course which a statutory parliament in Dublin will steer on those social problems common to the three countries, which Ireland has done so much to ripen for legislative action. In other words, the working classes of Great Britain want to see, as a result of their labours in the Home Rule movement, a national assembly in Dublin so constituted as to give to the labouring masses of Ireland the fullest voice possible in the domestic government of their own country. They are naturally anxious there should be no anti-climax to the movement which has brought about the practical fusion of Irish and British democratic thought and action, represented in the agitation for Home Rule. A parliament in Dublin made up of lawyers, landlords, and representatives of the middle classes, would mean two things to the British democracy. It would mean a general reactionary policy for Ireland, in the matter of local Irish legislation and domestic self-government, while it would be a menace to progressist ideas and legislation in the Imperial Parliament. For it is now clearly to be seen that the giving to Ireland of a statutory parliament, with powers limited and defined, and restrictions emphasised and detailed, would mean that the Irish delegation to the Imperial Parliament could exercise a powerful influence, through an alliance with British parties, upon the course of British imperial legislation.

It is a matter, therefore, of direct as well as of indirect importance to the British democracy what the next plan of Home Rule will be, and the extent to which it will he an improvement upon the anti-democratic and reactionary scheme of 1886. Will the dual order plan of the defeated Bill be retained in the next measure? will the franchise governing admission to the privileged order be based upon a monetary qualification? Or, is the voice of Radical opinion, which has been given strongly against this part of the Bill, to be listened to and obeyed, as the pronouncement against the exclusion of the Irish representation from Westminster was hearkened to and accepted? These are fair questions for British working-men to ask Mr. Gladstone, before they are called upon to give him the power and privilege of framing the next Home Rule constitution for Ireland.

Radical Irish working-men have also a right to be listened to in this matter. The majority of them, in at least three out of the four provinces of Ireland, have indulged in the aspiration of complete national independence for their country. The hostile and anti-Irish character of English rule in Ireland could not, naturally, have had any other effect than to antagonise the feelings of the masses of Ireland towards the Government of Dublin Castle, carried on in the name of England.

A system of rule, brutal, shortsighted, and repressive, could have had no other effect on the mind of Irish working-men than to intensify their Nationalist convictions and cause them to long and labour for liberation from such rule. Mr. Gladstone’s policy in 1886 profoundly impressed the minds of the Irish people throughout the world, and caused even the extremest of Irish Nationalists to modify their feeling towards the English connection, and to calmly consider the compromise which that policy involved. Since then the growing friendliness of the masses in Great Britain towards the Home Rule movement, and the many other signs that plainly say the old feeling of race hatred is rapidly dying out of the British mind, together with the concerted action that is taking place between Irish working-men and British working-men in the Labour movement, convince Irish Radical Nationalists that such a union between Ireland and England is possible, as will secure to Ireland a measure of national liberty within the Empire, which will satisfy the reasonable wants and hopes of the Irish people. Viewed in the light of the struggles of the last seven centuries, this is an extraordinary, or rather a marvellous, change as a result of the policy which began in the introduction of the Home Rule Bill of 1886. Is it not, then, reasonable for Irish Radical Nationalists to demand that the statutory parliament shall have no artificial restrictions with reference to legislation upon purely domestic concerns; that the limitation of its powers, in those matters which define a nation’s independence, shall be compensated for by the freest constitutional liberty in the subordinate instance of local administration? It is surely but reasonable to expect that after the expulsion of the twenty-fourth clause of the Bill of 1886 there will be no talk of including in the Bill of, say, 1892, provisions making the judiciary and the police independent of the Irish people; and it ought to go without saying that the franchise of the next Home Rule constitution should be thoroughly democratic in character.

A pronouncement upon these questions will be eagerly looked for before the next general election.

Then there is the problem of the Irish Land Question. Does the opposition now given by the Liberal party to the Land Purchase scheme of the Government, mean a repudiation of all land purchase policies, which seek to saddle the Imperial Parliament with the settlement of a purely Irish question, and the British taxpayer with the risk involved in a plan of settlement which has not the assent of the Irish people? Or, is effect to be given to the emphatically expressed conviction of British Radicals that the settlement of the Irish Land Question belongs by right, and should be conceded in expediency, to a Home Rule legislature in Dublin? If the working. men of the three countries could be satisfied on these vital issues, the triumph of Mr. Gladstone at the General Election will be the greatest ever achieved by the Liberal party – with this important proviso, that the labour interests in Great Britain should be linked with the cause of Home Rule, as they were in the contest at Eccles a few days ago.

That part of Mr. Gladstone’s speech at West Calder, which dealt with the labour question, has given more satisfaction to the classes than to the masses, if we are to judge by the language of the Times and the Standard.

The burden of the great Liberal leader’s advice to working-men was, ‘Trust to combination for the promotion of labour interests, and the defence of labour rights. Do not look to Parliament for an Eight Hours Bill, which would mean an interference with liberty.’ It is significant that those who are now so earnest in their cautions to working-men not to appeal to Parliament for the enactment of labour laws, are chiefly belonging to those classes in the community who owe their wealth and their preponderating political influence to the use which they and their predecessors have made of Parliament for the promotion and protection of their peculiar interests. Take the landlord class; by their manipulation of Parliament they have monopolised the land of the country, which was once the nation’s property, and which yielded the revenues needed for carrying on the nation’s government.

It is due to Acts of Parliament, specially passed by the landed influence, that extraordinary privileges are attached to the territorial aristocracy; that their sports and pastimes have the protection of the law, and that they are enabled to levy an annual tax, in the shape of rent, of £200,000,000 upon the industrial community of the realm. Then we see the effect of Parliamentary interference in the matter of safeguarding vested interests generally. Acts by the thousand have been passed for the protection of banking, railway, mercantile, and other capitalistic interests to the fullest possible extent; while even a premium has been put upon commercial dishonesty in the various Bankruptcy Acts which Parliament has placed upon the Statute Book. Is it not therefore a trifle inconsistent, to speak it mildly, for the representatives of the landlord and the vested interest classes to sermonise working-men against appealing to Parliament for the protection of labour interests? The capital of the working-man is his health, his skill, and his industry. Six hundred thousand miners jeopardise these, and life itself, every day in the year for a few shillings. Are they not entitled to that measure of protection which they believe Parliament, as representing the State, should give them in return for the risks they run in the service of society? And cannot the same be said, with more or less truth, of every other class of labour in the land? The belief is firmly fixed in the minds of the vast majority of educated working-men that the shortening of the hours of labour by means of combination alone is practically impossible; while they are not so unreasonable as to expect that a legal eight hours’ limit could be put to every industry without distinction. But they do hold that it is the duty of the State and municipalities to lead the way, in government and corporation workshops, to the adoption of the eight hours’ principle; while industries like mining, chemical works, and other occupations where health and life are more exposed, should be rigorously subjected to a legal limit of eight hours’ daily toil. This much – which is not only possible but practicable – accomplished, the task of reducing excessive hours of labour in other employments would be left for gradual fulfilment to the evolutionary influences which would be quickened in their action by the joint operation of partial Parliament restriction and combination.

If we are to believe the statesmen and politicians of all parties, it appears to be their desire that the working classes should take a fuller share in the government of the country. Their moral and intellectual development is also a subject of anxiety to public men. Self-culture, temperance, thrift, and all the other virtues which are so desired in behalf of the working classes, by those who pay them the mocking compliment of designating them the ‘masters’ of the government of the country, can only be cultivated by lessening the length of daily toil, so that there may be a fair opportunity given to the workers to qualify themselves for the new position they are expected to assume in the State.

Whether immediately practicable or otherwise, the vast majority of the working-men of Great Britain and Ireland believe in the principle of a legal limit of eight hours. It has become the first article of their profession of political faith. It is a question that will have to be faced and answered in almost every political contest, as in Eccles. The difficulties which surround the framing of an Eight Hours Bill for general application are not easily overcome, and Mr. Gladstone may be fairly excused for his refusal to discuss the merits of such a measure until he sees it in black and white. But statesmanship is not worth its salt if it cannot face difficulties in order to avert dangers to the State. Mr. Gladstone has surmounted many great difficulties in his time. This one should not be above the capacity of the Liberal Party and its leader to overcome. Discuss the eight hours’ question they must, whether they like it or not. It has come within the domain of actual politics. It must be dealt with by one of the two great parties, one way or the other. The extent of the sympathetic attention that will be given to the solution of this problem by Mr. Gladstone and his party, will to a large extent be the measure of the support which they will receive from the working-men advocates of the eight hours’ question, at the next general election.

There is one word more to be said with respect to the advice now given by Liberal and Tory politicians alike to working-men, not to look to Parliament for a solution of this eight hours problem. This is precisely what the Anarchists say. They are emphatically opposed to the policy of appealing to Parliament for any, the least, redress for the wrongs of labour. Statesmen and politicians who are, unconsciously, rowing in the same boat with the Anarchists on this question, had better be careful of the probable consequences.

If the masses are discouraged from placing their hope of winning more humane regulations of the hours of daily toil through the legal action of the Legislature, they may learn in desperation to look for relief in the direction of revolution.


Last updated on 28 May 2009