July 28, 2009

British Party Politics beforeWorld War 1 division and polarization, religion and empire

This week I am going to be examining some UK party history before World War I.
The franchise was ofcourse not as wide as it is now in the UK-Women and many men were excluded ( the latter were mainly those who lived with other families for example servants). However the evidence this had much effect on election outcomes is rather weak ( I may return to this in another post) . In any case there was a large electorate of many millions which had swings etc in a way rather similar to today- Britian ins one of the few countries one can make such clear comparison with an earlier political system-indeed even including some of the same parties. It is no coincidence that the few other countries where this was also true (mostly English speaking or Scandinavian) have also shown great comparative political stability in this period.

That did not of course mean that the electorates views, the major issues or even the parties own basis of support or polices were the same. There were a number of major political cleavages that divided parliament and people in this era. Some still matter-others much less so. There were two major parties in this era the Conservatives/ Unionists and the liberals- and two more minor but very important ones the Home Rulers and the Labour party (which came into existence at the beginning of the twentieth century). There were huge issues in UK politics that had little connection to class or income (at least directly) and are much more minor today church establishment , "home rule" (probably the least dead issue though in a very different form) and the empire.

Perhaps the most important was one that might surprise many modern readers- church establishment (that is whether one church should be given a special status by the state such as state revenues). The issues of Church establishment dominated politics in this era. in 1868 the (Anglican) Church of Ireland was disestablished and in this era the liberal party increasingly came round to disestablishing the (Anglican) Church of Wales. IN both cases only a small minority of the churchgoers of the land in question belonged to that church. More formidable politically were the church of England and the church of Scotland (t he only established church to be Presbyterian rather than Anglican in nature). These churches survived-indeed survive to this day. So did the commitment to the monarch to being a Protestant- though the form of oath in the coronation was toned down in this period (though not in 1901 when the Prime Minister Lord Salisbury insisted on Edward VIII at his coronation giving the traditional extremely anti Catholic oath of monarchs). This in many ways lay behind differences that went beyond Church Establishment for example religious schools were overwhelmingly Anglican and Catholic and were strongly opposed by dissenters in large measure for that reason . More or less everywhere in Britain Anglicans and church of Scotland men voted conservative- dissenters voted massively for the liberals. Conservatives were much more pro church establishment and liberals much more hostile-though as with every other issue there were exceptions to such rule (particularly in this case among the liberals).

In Ireland whereafter the mid 1880's another issue dominated- Home Rule that is the creation of a more or less self governing parliament for Ireland (which would be dominated by Ireland’s Catholic majority) . This also was n issue for Wales and Scotland in this period-but much less so. In Ireland it dominated politics from the mid 1880's onwards consistently about 3/4 of Irelands seats went to the Home Rule party-a party closely linked to the Catholic Church (when it split over the divorce of Charles Parnell their Protestant leader the anti Parnell faction was the much stronger thaks to the clergy’s support) and committed to Home Rule. The liberals after the mid 18880's were vastly more sympathetic- and could gain enormous support when they lacked a majority as in 1886,92 and the two 1910 elections). For this the Home Rulers were willing to sacrifice issues such as a labour relations and land taxation were they were far from natural allies of the liberals. It is perhaps no coincidence that 1906 the only clear majority for the liberals by themselves in this period was also the only election after which the liberals made no move to push Home Rule. At the same time the same issue (and linked sectarianism) ensured the Protestant vote went for the "unionists" as that party was appropriately called in Ireland- the quarter of Irish seats dominated by Protestants were as a “unionist” as the Catholic seats were Home Ruler. Nationally in mainland Britian it was a powerful issue- and save in Catholic Irish areas one that worked powerfully for the Conservative "Unionists". Thus if one powerful cleavage was Anglicans (and church of Scotland) vs dissenter another was protestant vs Catholic- and on this cleavage Catholics might be more committed but Protestants were vastly more numerous in the British isles.

If Home Rule was linked to religion it was also linked to conceptions of the empire. The Tories were the imperialist party -very clearly by the 20th century. The Boer war against Afrikaner settlers in southern Africa split the liberals-but there was barely any doubt among Tories and home rulers- theorem for the latter against in monoliths. Thus imperialism was a difficult issue in itself for the liberal party. The party of pluralism, peace and free trade simply had difficulties with the conception of empire the Conservatives lacked. They were badly split in the 1900 "khaki" election fought on the Boer war and went down to overwhelmingly defeat. Nonconformists and Irish Catholics were the bastions of anti imperialist sentiment and wielded huge power among the liberals. -but at least when it came to the Boer war they were clearly outnumbered. Thus the size and tightness of the empire ( liberals being sympathetic to Home Rule were also sympathetic to a more "decentralized" empire) were another major cleavage in liberal politics.

Thus whole elections were run on constitutional and imperial issues in a way that has certainly not happened in recent decades in the UK. Undoubtedly millions of voters voted almost exclusively on these issues. The Conservatives gained millions of votes from those who identified with Church Establishment the Protestant nature of the UK state and had a unitary notion of the Kingdom and the empire ( all these differencs of course mutually reinforced each other). Those who feared or disliked the institution generally away from the periphery geographically and/or were dissenters religiously in turn voted in the million for the liberals and their allies.

It is important to realize that all these issues grew more salient in this period-not less, they were not same strange legacy of the past- the decades after 1886 saw sectarian ethnic and regional voting reach new levels in the history of the UK-in some ways it came to a height indeed in the elections just before the First World War! Geography made a big differences as to which cleavage mattered the worst areas for the Conservatives tended to be areas where there was a huge catholic majority such as Ireland or areas where there was a big dissenting majority and very few Catholics to polarize against such as a rural Wales.

This does not mean issues did not exist which are closer to our own defence and certain economic issues also mattered-and it is to this we turn.

The picture above is of the man who created more than any other the cleavages o these issues-by disestablishing the church of Ireland ,embracing disestablishment as a principle (though a devout Anglican himself) , embracing Home Rule and taking a cool line to the empire-that titian of mid Victorian Politics William Gladstone who as late as 1894 dominated British politics like the colossus he was.


James Higham said...

The issues of Church establishment dominated politics in this era.

And from where we derived that very long word.

Sulla said...

antidisestablishmentarianism indeed a core principle of the tory party of that era!

Vino S said...

A thought-provoking article, thanks, Sulla. I would argue that the restrictions on the franchise did still have an effect on the behaviour of the electorate. I think that only about 60% of men had the vote in the 1884-1918 period. The 40% who didn't may well have been more likely to vote Labour. Perhaps the rise of the Labour Party would have occurred earlier if all men had been allowed to vote rather than it just being householder franchise.

I also wonder whether there was something unusual about the big swings of the era. In 1895, there was a huge swing to the Tories and in 1906 a huge one to the Liberals. The electorate seemed a lot more volatile than they were in the 1945-97 period. Perhaps a political environment where the salient issues changed from election to election led to such large swings. Am not sure.

The whole religion and Home Rule issue does seem to be somewhat linked together - at least in the minds of many voters. Ireland was Catholic. Ireland wanted Home Rule. This did tend to mean that Protestant voters would vote against the pro-home rule party [despite the fact that it really should matter very little to a Protestant in England whether Ireland has devolution or not since this would not have an effect on their day-to-day life]. It does seem that linking religion and the national question was very helpful for the Tories since they were able to get an 'orange' vote out - and so persuade people who might otherwise vote Liberal to vote for them based on religious identity.