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British Democracy and Irish Nationalism

Review by: Ewen A. Cameron, University of Edinburgh

Eugenio F. Biagini, British Democracy and Irish Nationalism, 1876 – 1906, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp xi + 421

This lengthy, complex and closely argued book is a sequel to Dr Biagini’s important 1992 volume on mid-Victorian liberalism, Liberty, Retrenchment and Reform. It achieves the signal feat of making an original contribution to two of the most crowded fields in modern British history: late Victorian politics and the impact of the Irish problem on British life. The questions of Irish land and constitutional relationships with the United Kingdom are not presented, as Sellar and Yeatman would have us see them, as a constantly mutating problem with the capacity only to enrage and defeat the Victorian political class. Rather, the Irish problem is considered as the catalyst that changed the nature of political debate in Victorian and Edwardian Britain. There are many things here with which readers of Biagini’s earlier work will be familiar, especially the important, but controversial, point that the development of the Labour Party should be seen as part of a continuum with, and an extension of, radical liberalism rather than as a challenge or alternative to it. As early as page two he reminds us that ‘liberalism continued to inspire and shape the political outlook of the main parties, and especially Labour, which from 1918 vied with the Liberals for Gladstone’s heritage.’

Biagini explores the intellectual responses to the political debate over Irish home rule. This is not another book about the high politics of the crisis of 1886, but one about the effect of that crisis on the ideas of politicians on all sides of the debate about Ireland’s position in the United Kingdom. Although the book is grounded in the traditional source material of the manuscripts of high politicians, its real strength lies in Biagini’s use of journalism and biographical writings, which afford considerable insight into the way in which the Irish question affected those involved at all levels of politics. A further strength of the book is that a genuinely British approach to the question is adopted throughout. Biagini has much to say about the Scottish highlands, Wales and the north east of England as well as the metropolitan core of the United Kingdom. A final strength is the fact that Biagini successfully relates the Irish question to wider debates in British politics – discussions not only about the land question, which has traditionally been rooted in Ireland, but also parliamentary reform, imperial issues and, crucially, the great humanitarian crusades of the late Victorian periods. The fate of the Bulgarian Christians and the Armenians loom large in Biagini’s discussion of the implications of the Irish question on British politics. Ireland is not seen as a curious and exotic “Other” contaminating British politics and corrupting its parliamentary procedures with its strange concerns and violent politics, but as a central part of the United Kingdom. Indeed, Biagini goes so far as to argue that Ireland was the main factor in producing a new politics which had a profound humanitarian and moral concern, helping to reshape popular radicalism in Britain and Ireland and establish ‘a popular culture of human rights based on the conviction that, ultimately, politics should be guided by non-negotiable moral imperatives.’ (377)

These are the principal characteristics of the book. Its main strengths are in the way in which the argument, simple in its essence but developed in a complex and detailed way, is unfolded steadily before the reader. The prodigious research and complete command of a wide range of historiography are further virtues of this important book. The argument can, however, be challenged. To take an example within my own area of interest, while it is important and valuable that Dr Biagini has attempted to relate the politics of the Irish question to the Scottish land question, he perhaps exaggerates the impact of, and the parallels with, Irish politics. It is true that the crofters in the highlands were assertive in their agitation over grievances connected with their immediate circumstances in the 1880s, but this reviewer is not quite convinced that their objective was the subversion of an alien landlord class, as may have been the case in Ireland. Indeed, one might argue that the crofters’ objectives were pragmatic rather than fundamental. Their impact on Gladstone, who legislated on their behalf in 1886 (practically the only substantive achievement of his short third administration), and wider public opinion arose from a long tradition of romanticisation of the highland people, which had more to do with Walter Scott than with Parnell or Davitt. Another example of an area where Biagini might be challenged, indeed has been challenged, is in his suggestion that the Labour movement emerged from a Gladstonian tradition and retained many of its concerns. Some labour historians have taken issue with this and, while it is important not to be credulous about the statements of early practitioners of Labour politics, it is interesting to note that such a figure as John Wheatley, who did so much to cement the relationship between the Irish working class in the west of Scotland and the labour movement, was contemptuous of home rule Liberals like John Ferguson (about whom slightly more might have been written by Dr Biagini). Nevertheless, it would be unfair to characterise this book as simplistic in any way, and these points are introduced to indicate the multifarious ways in which it is stimulating.

Dr Biagini has provided us with another important study of late nineteenth-century liberalism which will occasion debate and challenge in this rich area of historiography. Though not all will agree with its thesis, no scholar of this period can afford to ignore the contributions made by this work. Scottish History: School of History, Classics and Archaeology

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