Nationalist parties

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6 MARCH 2018

Nationalist Parties


Ladies and gentlemen, this is the fourth lecture in a series on the British political parties. Previous lectures have been on the three major parties: The Conservative Party, The Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats, parties which seek to govern at Westminster. This lecture is on nationalist parties in Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, the non-English parts of the United Kingdom, or, as with Ireland, parts of what was once the United Kingdom, and at the end of the lecture, I shall discuss why there has not been an English nationalist party and whether UKIP is, or perhaps it might be better to say "was" in view of the tribulations of that party, whether UKIP was an English nationalist party.

But first, what is a nationalist party? Nationalist parties play a different role from the three major parties we have so far considered, in two particular respects. The first is that they do not seek and could not, in any case, achieve power on their own at Westminster, and they could not do that because, obviously, the majority of Westminster constituencies are English, so they cannot win an election as the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour hope to do. Indeed, apart from the Unionist parties of Northern Ireland, they do not really wish to play any part in the affairs of Westminster, except to secure the independence of their countries. They are, in a sense, being sent to Westminster to say that they do not want to be there. Once the independence of their country has been secured, they would of course no longer send MPs to Westminster.

In the case of the Sinn Fein Party in Ireland, which, in the 1918 General Election, won almost every seat in Ireland outside Ulster, they went even further. They refused to send any MPs to Westminster at all since they did not recognise its authority over Ireland. They proceeded to set up their own parliament, the D?il, in Dublin, and the British Government, in turn, refused to recognise that parliament, and fought a war to try to subdue it, but in the end, Ireland did achieve independence in 1922, and Irish Nationalists regard the parliament they set up in 1918, which from a British view was unlawful, as a legitimate Irish parliament. Today, the modern Sinn Fein Party in Northern Ireland also refuses to recognise Westminster and its MPs do not take up their seats there.

The second way in which the nationalist parties differ from the three major parties is that they are parties not of ideology but of identity. The Scottish Nationalists, for example, oppose the Conservatives and Labour not because they are too left-wing or too right-wing but because they are not Scottish enough, and they seek and win supporters from all sides of the political spectrum, from those in the North-East of Scotland who might otherwise vote Conservative, and from those in the Glasgow conurbation who might otherwise vote Labour. The Labour Party have attacked them as "tartan Tories", while the Conservatives have called them "socialists in disguise", but these attacks miss the point: they are both and neither, and perhaps if Scotland did become independent, the SNP might split into a left-wing Scottish party and a right-wing one.

In Ireland, once it obtained independence, the nationalist party split, not, admittedly, on economic issues but on a constitutional issue, the issue of whether Ireland should be a republic or continue to recognise George V as the King of Ireland. That was the basis of the conflict between the two main parties in Ireland, Fianna F?il and Fine Gaer, in the early years of Irish independence.

But until they have achieved independence, nationalist parties do not necessarily need to be united on the economic issues which form the staple diet of the political debate of the major parties. They need to be united only on the need for the independence of their countries.

The first nationalist parties which Britain knew were in Ireland, and the history of Ireland offers a graphic illustration of the problems and difficulties of a nationalist movement. Winston Churchill once asked: "How is it that she, Ireland, has forced generation after generation to stop the whole traffic of the British Empire to debate her domestic affairs?" - something which perhaps Theresa May would echo. But perhaps the answer to Churchill's question was given by Mr Gladstone in the 19th Century when he said: "The long, vexed and troubled relations between Great Britain and Ireland exhibit to us the one and only conspicuous failure of the political genius of our race to confront and master difficulty and to obtain, in a reasonable degree, the main ends of civilised life."

Ireland came to send MPs to Westminster as a result of the Act of Union of 1801, and that Act was secured by corrupt means and by a promise which was to be broken. The Irish were promised that if they abandoned their own parliament, Catholics in Ireland, who of course formed then, as they still do, the vast majority of the population, would be emancipated. But Catholic emancipation was vetoed by George III, since he believed it was contrary to his Coronation Oath which required him to maintain the Protestant religion. Emancipation was not secured until 1829, and as so often in Irish affairs, concessions came too late to achieve goodwill. Despite Catholic emancipation and despite the fact the majority in Ireland were Catholic, the Church of Ireland, the Church of the Protestant minority, remained the established church there until 1869, and between 1829 and 1869, there was of course the Great Famine in Ireland, in which one million people died and a further million emigrated, cutting the Irish population by between 20% and 25%. The Famine was blamed, understandably, but to some extent unfairly, upon British rule. But as the Queen said when she visited Ireland in 2011, with the benefit of historical hindsight, we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all.

Once household suffrage was secured in Ireland in 1885, it became clear that almost the whole of Catholic Ireland favoured if not independence at least home rule. Almost every constituency outside Ulster returned Irish Nationalist MPs belonging to the Irish Parliamentary Party, and this party held at least 80 seats out of the 103 in Ireland at every general election between 1885 and 1914, and for much of that period, it exerted a virtual stranglehold on Westminster politics.

Ireland was of course governed during this period by Conservative or Liberal administrations, but whichever it was, the key Irish officials were bound to be in the hands of a party which had only minority support in Ireland. This meant that Irish representatives could play no part in the government of their country. The constitutional implication of the Anglo-Irish Union of 1800 had been the legal equality of Ireland with Great Britain, but to most Irish people, the relation seemed one of subordination.

When, in 1884, Gladstone was preparing to expand the franchise, his Home Secretary, Sir William Harcourt, feared that there would be: "...declared to the world, in larger print, what we all know to be the case, that we hold Ireland by force, and by force alone, as in the days of Cromwell, only that we are obliged to hold it by a force 10 times larger than he found necessary. We have never governed, and we never shall govern, Ireland by the good of its people."

In 1908, at a time when the Liberals were reforming the Government of Ireland, an American commentator said: "While Scotland is governed by Scotchmen in accordance with Scottish ideas, Ireland has been governed by Englishmen, and until recently, in accordance with English ideas." A leading Liberal, John Morley, told an audience in Manchester in 1902 that the government of Ireland was, and I quote, "the best machine that has ever been invented for governing a country against its will". The administration of Ireland was primarily by Protestants and men committed to the Union.

An Irish magistrate, reminiscing in 1951, gave a not unfair verdict when he declared that: "We are governed from London by people who know little about our country but who ruled it fairly, though in the English


interests, through an oligarchy in Dublin". Ireland was an exception in the developed Empire in being ruled not with the consent of the governed but paternalistically, and to paternalism was added a mixture of coercion.

In 1885, which was the first election in Ireland after household suffrage, the leader of the Irish Party, Charles Parnell, declared there was just one plank in his party's programme and that was home rule. That was a clear policy. But the party faced a tactical problem: should it cooperate with the Liberals or retain complete independence from both British parties? Cooperating with the Liberals offered the hope of securing home rule through parliamentary methods, but at the cost of compromises which might make the party more remote from the people it represented, and indeed, the more the Irish Party got bogged down at Westminster, the greater the gap between its MPs and the public in Ireland. Some in the Irish Party repudiated alliance with the Liberals, which they regarded as a sacrifice of independence, and they said the Irish Party should act as an independent opposition, putting pressure on both parties. The argument between these two schools was never really resolved, but in 1885, the Irish Party held the balance in a Hung Parliament and sought to discover which of the two British parties would concede the most, and the consequence was Gladstone committing Liberals to home rule. As a result, in two later Hung Parliaments, in 1892 and from 1910, the Irish Party was in alliance with the Liberals, sustaining Liberal Governments in power in the hope of getting home rule.

The influence of the Irish Party was seen most graphically after 1910, when the Liberals depended on them for their majority, because the Irish refused to support the Liberal budget, Lloyd George's famous People's Budget of 1909, which was full of radical proposals that had been turned down by the House of Lords. The Irish said they wouldn't support the budget unless the Liberals agreed to curtail the absolute veto of the House of Lords, and the outcome was the 1911 Parliament Act, which substituted for the absolute veto a mere suspensory veto, that is a time-limited veto, and that still exists, but it was reduced from two sessions to one session in the Parliament Act in 1949. So, the Irish Party has left a permanent mark upon British politics, and upon the British constitution, by limiting the power of the House of Lords, a limitation which of course still remains.

The Irish Party left a further mark on British politics: it was the first party which introduced stringent party discipline into our politics. It enforced a kind of democratic centralism on its MPs of a kind which I suspect Mr Corbyn would envy.

The Irish Party was also the first to organise the payment of MPs. It paid a salary to its MPs, and that was necessary to enable the small traders and farmers on whom it depended to sit in Parliament in the days before state payment of MPs. It used this payment of members to enforce discipline because, in return for the payment, candidates had to sign an undated letter pledging themselves not publicly to oppose, either inside or outside parliament, any decision reached by that party, even if the decision went against the MP's constituency interest, and the MP would be required to resign if a majority of the party thought the pledge had been broken. The pledge was in the following form: "I pledge myself that, in the event of my election to parliament, I will sit, act and vote with the Irish Parliamentary Party, and if, at a meeting of the party, convened upon due notice specially to consider the question, it be determined by resolution, supported by a majority of the Irish Party, that I have not fulfilled the above pledges, I hereby undertake to resign my seat." So, you see that Momentum is not a recent invention.

The problem with such a disciplined party was that, because it muffled genuine differences, it tended to stifle debate, and in its later years, the party seemed to lack vitality. Nevertheless, it remained, on the whole, a parliamentary party, adhering to constitutional methods. It accepted that Parliament was the institution through which redress of Irish grievances was to be obtained, and that influence has remained, even after the collapse of the Irish Party, and can be seen in the liberal and parliamentary character of the independent Irish state.

But perhaps the party was only conditionally constitutional. Its great leader, Charles Parnell, declared, in 1889, that: "If our constitutional movement were to fail, if it became evident that we could not, by parliamentary action and continued representation at Westminster, restore to Ireland the high privilege of self-government, I, for one, would not continue to remain for 24 hours longer in the House of Commons at Westminster. The most advanced section of Irishmen, as well as the least advanced, have always understood that the Parliamentary Party


was to be a trial and that we did not ourselves believe in the possibility of maintaining, for all time, an incorruptible and independent Irish representation at Westminster."

After the death of Parnell in 1891, there was disassociation in Irish nationalism between the constitutional element and the popular element. Parnell alone had been able to reconcile the two. The Irish Party got bogged down at Westminster. The Liberals seemed to have absorbed them, and they were seen no longer an independent source in Ireland. They came to be outflanked by a more radical party, the Sinn Fein Party.

The Sinn Fein Party was formed in 1905. The words "Sinn Fein" mean "Ourselves alone" and the aim of Sinn Fein, by contrast with the Irish Party, came to be complete independence and a republic, and Sinn Fein was to replace the Irish Party after the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916, even though it was a rising which few in Ireland supported. But Irish opinion was revolted by what it saw as the brutal British method of suppressing it by executing its ringleaders, and in the next general election, in 1918, Sinn Fein won 73 of the 101 Irish constituencies and the Irish Party just seven. The rest of the seats, primarily in Ulster, were won by Unionists. In 1921, Ireland won her independence and the 26 counties which formed the Irish Free State, now the Irish Republic, ceased to send MPs to Westminster.

Winston Churchill declared, mischievously, that the two supreme services had rendered to the Empire were her accession to the Allied cause at the beginning of the War and her withdrawal from the Imperial Parliament at its end. Ireland's withdrawal from Westminster was a benefit to Britain since it made a Hung Parliament much less likely. Between 1885 and 1914, four out of the eight general elections resulted in a Hung Parliament in which the Irish held the balance of power.

The Settlement of Ireland provided for the partition of Ireland. Six counties in Ulster remained part of the United Kingdom, as Northern Ireland, but some in Ireland refused to accept partition and they formed the core of a new Sinn Fein party, which still exists, demands a united Ireland and fights elections in both parts of Ireland. Now, the independence of Ireland did not resolve the Irish question, which now shifted to Northern Ireland, where it's remained, and the conflict there between the majority Unionists, predominantly Protestant, and the minority Nationalists, predominantly Catholic. Again, this conflict was graphically described by Winston Churchill in a book he wrote shortly after the First World War. He said: "Then came the Great War. Every institution almost in the world was strained. Great empires had been overturned. The whole map of Europe has been changed. The mode of thought of men, the whole outlook on affairs, the grouping of parties, all have encountered violent and tremendous changes in the deluge of the world. But as the deluge subsides and the waters fall, we see again the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once against - the integrity of their quarrel is one of the few institutions that have been unaltered in the cataclysm which has swept the world." Perhaps Theresa May thinks the same.

The conflict in Northern Ireland is an existential one, in that it's a conflict as to whether it should exist at all. There is not the basic consensus which is needed for a democratic state to be effective. To the question, "Do you want to remain in the United Kingdom?" the two communities give different answers: the Nationalists say no ? they say the belong to the Irish nation and that being Irish is incompatible with being British; but the Unionist say yes ? they say that they too are Irish but being Irish is perfectly compatible with being British, just as Scottish Unionists say that being Scottish is perfectly compatible with also being British. So, the Unionists say they belong to the British state and the British nation, so there's a conflict, a fundamental one, over national identity.

It's sometimes wrongly said that Britain is composed of four nations. Indeed, those who believed that devolution would lead to the break-up of Britain said that, with devolution, Britain was fast becoming "four nations and a funeral". But neither of the two traditions represented in Northern Ireland believe that Northern Ireland is a nation. They differ on which nation Northern Ireland is a part of. A Unionist, by definition, cannot favour an independent Northern Ireland, but says that she belongs to the British nation. The Ulster Covenant of 1912, which insisted upon the separateness of Ulster from the rest of Ireland, sought not independence but the need to preserve for Ulster their equal citizenship in the United Kingdom. The claim of unionism in Northern Ireland is not for independence but for equal citizenship. So, Britain is not four nations but three nations


together with a contested province, which is, according to your viewpoint, either part of the British nation or part of the Irish nation, and that makes the conflict in Northern Ireland particularly intractable. It is not a conflict over economics, but over nationality and religion, or perhaps, in Ireland, nationality and religion are merely different names for the same thing. This means that the conflict, unlike an economic conflict, is not bargainable. An economic conflict can be settled by a fairer division of the spoils. That is not possible with a conflict over nationality or religion.

The Unionists seem to be in a permanent majority in Northern Ireland, and this means that, by contrast with Westminster, there's no possibility of an alternative government, and alternation of power is not possible. In the old Northern Ireland Parliament, governed by majority rule, often known as Stormont, which sat from 1921 to 1972, until 1969, Unionists never won fewer than 32 of the 52 seats. Now, democracy in the rest of Britain is fuelled by alternation of power, or the possible alternation of power, and governments are, to some extent, deterred from implementing extreme methods for fear that they will be setting precedents which their opponents would be able to use. There was no such fear in Northern Ireland, and when the Northern Ireland Parliament, from 1921 to 1972, was based on majority rule, the Unionists tolerated a policy of discrimination in housing and employment.

With the province divided between two seemingly intractable communities, there seems no middle ground, no floating vote in the centre for which the parties can compete. There's no incentive for the Unionist Party to seek Nationalist votes ? they won't win them; and similarly, Nationalist parties won't win Unionist votes. The only competition is within rather than between the two communities and the competition is, as it were, to outflank another party within the community by saying that it's not tough enough in representing the community, so this means a competition towards the extremes, centrifugal rather than centripetal. So, in the Unionist camp, the more moderate Ulster Unionist Party, often called the Official Unionists, have been pushed aside by the more militant Democratic Unionist Party founded by the Reverend Ian Paisley; while, on the Nationalist side, the more moderate Social Democratic & Labour Party has been pushed aside by the more militant Sinn Fein Party.

There is a competitive party system, but only within the two communities, not between them, and because the main issue in Northern Ireland has been the border, the British parties cannot compete successfully for votes there. Since 1974, when the Ulster Unionists broke with the Conservatives, the two major parties, Labour and the Conservatives, have not been able to win seats in Northern Ireland. For the most part, they have not tried.

When the alliance between the Ulster Unionists and Conservatives broke, since then, there have been one or two Conservative candidates in Northern Ireland, but they've been very unsuccessful, and the Conservatives have not been able to establish a permanent organisation in the province. There was, in the past, a Northern Ireland Labour Party, which, remarkably, until 1949, had no policy on the constitutional issue of the border, but pressed by the voters, the Northern Ireland Labour Party declared in 1949 that it was a unionist party, and this lost it the chance of securing the votes of the Catholic working class. In 1974, the Northern Ireland Labour Party supported a strike by Protestant workers which brought down the power-sharing executive set up by Conservative and Labour Governments, and the Labour Party then ceased to give it a financial subvention.

The Liberal Democrats do have a sister party in Northern Ireland, the Alliance Party, which is a bi-confessional party and seeks to win support from both communities, though its support comes mainly from middle class and professional people. The British Government introduced proportional representation for most elections in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, in the hope that this would strengthen the Alliance Party which occupied the centre ground, but there isn't actually much of a centre ground in Northern Ireland. One leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, Sammy Wilson, gave to the new leader of the Alliance Party in 2001 the most damning insult he could think of: he called him "you Guardian reader, you!" The Alliance, you won't be surprised to hear, has never gained more than 12% of the vote in Northern Ireland, and currently has no seats in Westminster at all.

Scottish nationalism is and always has been quite different from the Irish variety. Admittedly, the union with Scotland in 1707 was secured, as that in Ireland, in part by corrupt means, but the two unions had a very different psychological impact. Gladstone believed that, by contrast with Ireland, English policy had achieved no


triumph so great as the union between England and Scotland. There was a difference between Scotland and Ireland in their emotional response to union with England.

The union with Scotland, by contrast to that in Ireland, came about with broad consent, as a bargain between two autonomous teams of representatives, freely negotiating, and the union sought to preserve what were then the main and central institutions of Scottish civil society, the kirk and the legal system. Indeed, the Church of Scotland remains the established church in Scotland, and the monarch takes an oath to preserve it upon her accession. The union with Ireland, by contrast, was not a treaty or contract freely made between two independent states, but was imposed on the Irish, who initially resisted it. Religion, which united Scotland, divided Ireland, and the British party system, as we have seen, could not secure a foothold in a country dominated by sectarian divisions. The union with Scotland secured the rights of Presbyterians, whereas the union with Ireland had failed to secure the rights of Catholics, so the outcome was that, while the Scottish union proved compatible with the sense of nationality in Scotland, the Irish union seemed in conflict with it.

Of course, in the 21st Century, the kirk is no longer as important a symbol as it was in the 18th, and in the 20th Century, governments gradually assumed responsibility for economic and social policy, and some Scots came to feel that, in consequence, their country was being neglected by administrations centred in distant London. In 1934, the Scottish National Party, the SNP, was formed. At its foundation, it was a home rule party, but shortly afterwards, it became an explicitly separatist party, committed to independence. It succeeded in winning odd seats in by-elections, but it did not win a seat in a general election until 1970.

But shortly after that, the Scottish political landscape was totally transformed by the coming online of North Sea oil, which had been discovered in the 1960s. The slogan, "It's Scotland's oil", was to prove a very powerful one for the SNP, and in retrospect, the period of the mid-1970s would have been the most propitious time for an independent Scotland, based on oil, because as a result of the discovery of oil in the North Sea, it seemed no longer the case that the union with England was a precondition of Scotland's economic health. The discovery of oil altered the whole framework within which the economic implications of independence had been discussed. In the weeks following the February 1974 Election, a report prepared by an economic advisor at the Scottish Office, released under Freedom of Information provisions in 2005, suggested that an independent Scotland would enjoy a large budgetary surplus and that its currency, I quote, "...would become the hardest in Europe, with the exception perhaps of the Norwegian Krona" In consequence, and I quote, "Scottish banks could expect to find themselves inundated with a speculative inflow of foreign funds. Moreover, Scottish incomes per head would increase substantially." An independent Scotland could use the oil revenues towards a development fund, as the Norwegians were to do. The British Government, by contrast, used it for current spending, partly to pay for increased unemployment benefits in the 1980s. North Sea oil provided a cushion for Margaret Thatcher's economic policies, but the SNP argued this was a wasteful use of a valuable resource, and the Governments of Margaret Thatcher served to reinforce nationalist feelings.

There was a further factor which helped the SNP: Britain's entry into the European Economic Community, as the EU then was, in 1973, because that would guarantee to an independent Scotland access to English and Continental markets, since other member states of the EU could not impose tariffs against her. In addition, as the major producer of oil in Western Europe, Scotland could expect to have political influence in Europe, out of all proportion to her modest size, and she would benefit from having her own European Commissioner, rather than having to rely on the indirect representation secured by a British Commissioner. But without independence, Scotland could appear even more remote and peripheral in Europe. Today, however, it would seem that much of the oil has already been exploited, so an independent Scotland would have much greater difficulty in securing budgetary equilibrium.

It is not surprising that, because of the oil, in the General Election of February 1974, the SNP won seven of Scotland's 70 seats, in the second election of that year, in October, it won 11 of 71 seats, gaining 30% of the vote, by far the highest vote up to that point of any nationalist party in Western Europe. In October 1974, it was also second in a further 42 seats, including 35 of the Labour Party's 41 seats. If the SNP could manage a further swing of 5%, it would win another 16 seats. So, the SNP was threatening Labour's Scottish heartlands, and without support in Scotland, it would be very difficult for Labour to win an overall majority in Britain as a


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