A Neglected Centenary – May 1915

The centenary of a most important event passed by unnoticed in Ireland last month. And yet it was an event that more than anything else went into another famous event which will be commemorated next year, Easter 1916.

An understanding of what happened in Ireland in Easter 1916 is impossible without an understanding of what happened in Britain in May 1915.

That, of course, is handy. Our current breed of Oxbridge trained historians see things from the British viewpoint and like to ignore those events in Britain that are unhelpful to the British narrative in Ireland. Or perhaps they are so far removed from the traditional study of history and implicated in sociological themes that they have forgotten causation entirely. Anyhow, they dearly wish that Easter 1916 be seen as an undemocratic event and are so willing to let important events in the chain of cause and effect pass by lest they spoil their story.

A.J.P. Taylor long ago noted that the emergence of the war coalition was “one of the few political episodes of the First World War on which solid evidence is lacking.” (English History, p.31) It is not difficult to understand why. It is an event on which the less said the better, due to the awkward questions it raises.

F.S.Oliver noted that by mid-1915 the Liberal Government was “supported by a House of Commons which is nervously self-conscious of having exceeded its statutory term of life” (Ordeal By Battle, p.li.) The mandate of the Liberal Government elected in December 1910 had begun to run out in 1915. But instead of seeking a fresh democratic mandate the “sovereign” Government extended its life by arbitrary parliamentary action. The Government, therefore, re-constituted itself, was unelected and governed without an electoral mandate until December 1918.

1915 was the first occasion since 1715 when Parliament had extended itself beyond its electoral mandate – despite all the wars that England had fought during the previous two hundred years. Because Parliament had become “nervously self-conscious of having exceeded its statutory term of life” it had therefore become a subservient institution. “The main power,” wrote Oliver “does not reside in the House of Commons.”

The operation of parties in the House of Commons had given way to the operation of coteries within the administration because Parliament had become quiescent in the face of matters which lay totally outside its experience, but which had to be dealt with. The Coalition was, in effect, a coalition of the front benches to keep the backbenches quiescent and govern the country through the stifling of Parliament.

The change of government in 1915 was a change not enacted through the democratic process. Party politics had been suspended even before the Coalition was formed and elections had been called off when the war had begun. John Redmond had chosen not to offer himself up for re-election with his colleagues when he had supported the British war in 1914. So his mandate for doing so was never tested democratically.

The Home Rule conflict, which reached near catastrophic proportions for the British State before it availed of the European war to escape it, had given a powerful stimulus to the new mode of governing. The Liberal Government that launched the war gave way in a political struggle conducted outside of the democratic process in a kind of internal coup d’etat.

H.C.O’Neill put it like this in his History Of The War:

“The formation of a Coalition, or ‘National’, Government came as a great surprise almost to everyone… A Coalition Government would command the loyalty of no one necessarily, and in its formation it was really an abandoning of democratic rule altogether. Mr Asquith’s coup d’etat was admitted by no Liberal as a necessity. A number of men who had done good service had to be jettisoned, and others, who had no mandate from the people, were to be included. With the party system the democratic system had fallen through, since so far as the country could speak it had spoken in favour of the Government which had passed. Yet the party system still existed for one thing, and that was to levy its share of public monies… the party system had never seemed so cynical a thing as in this sharing of offices… It was the first coalition in later British history. The positions seemed to have been portioned out on the rough ratio of parties…” (pp. 377-81.)

John Redmond’s miscalculation about the direction of things in England came about as a result of his alliance with the Liberal Party. The Redmondites believed that Liberalism had regained the ascendancy in British politics in 1906 after a temporary hiccup and the winning of the democratic battle against arbitrary Tory authority in England was mirrored in the triumph of constructive Liberal doctrine in the administration of the Empire.

The formation of the Coalition Government in 1915 which marked the effective ending of party-politics in England was only the culmination of a process that had been gaining momentum in British politics since the end of the Boer War. Tendencies towards all-party concentration of the forces of social Imperialism developed from around 1900 and The Coefficients, The Compatriots, the National Efficiency Movement, The Round Table, The National Defence and Maritime Leagues were all expressions of this trend.

There had been significant moves within British ruling circles, by prominent politicians and influential writers over the previous decade, to restrict the effects of the expansion of the franchise and concentrate power in the hands of those they felt could be trusted with governing the Empire properly. The anti-democratic notions of colonial government were increasingly imported by the Pro-consuls and the Imperial administrators into English domestic politics from 1902, until they achieved their objectives, partially in 1915, and more fully in 1916. Prominent Unionists like Milner and F.E.Smith and Liberals like Lloyd George and Churchill, saw the future in this way.

Lloyd George had made a coalition proposal in October 1910 and Churchill had made one in July 1914 to overcome the sharpening Irish Home Rule crisis. In some ways these were pre-fascism – meaning that the system would reconstitute itself as a monolith to ward of elemental democratic forces that were threatening to undermine the State.

They both failed and despite all the efforts prior to the war, coalition of “the men with push and go” could not be put together before the national emergency of May, 1915 – because of the fundamental issues which divided and antagonised the rank and file of both parties. The men pushing for coalition/proto-fascism, however, actively welcomed the war as a kind of revolutionary situation in which they could impose their agenda on the country in the moment of national crisis – over the persistence of party conflict. And there is evidence in their personal correspondence that they actually hoped the war would keep going so that they could bring down Party government altogether and achieve their wider objectives of oligarchic administration within a democratic façade, since England was the Mother of Parliaments, after all.

There were those in England who had warned, years earlier, that the course of English political development was not the way the Redmondites understood it, but the other way about. J.A.Hobson, who resigned from the Fabians, published his famous book, Imperialism, in 1902. In it he warned that the domestic political impact of the new Imperialism would be inevitably “a series of processes of concentration of power”:

“Representative institutions are ill adapted for Empire, either as regards men or methods. The government of the great heterogeneous medley of lower races by departmental officials in London and their nominated emissaries lies outside the scope of popular knowledge and popular control. The Foreign, Colonial, and Indian Secretaries in Parliament, the permanent officials of the departments, the governors and staff who represent the Imperial Government in our dependencies, are not, and cannot be, controlled directly or effectively by the will of the people. This subordination of the legislative to the executive, and the concentration of executive power in autocracy, are necessary consequences of the predominance of foreign over domestic policies. The process is attended by a decay of party spirit and party action, and an insistence on the part of the autocracy… that all effective party criticism is unpatriotic and verges on treason.” (Imperialism, pp. 145-6.)

Hobson saw that the effect of the new Imperialism would be the defection of Liberals – and socialists – from the democratic tradition to the new development of Liberal Imperialism. The majority of influential Liberals had “fled from the fight which was the truest test of Liberalism.” by presiding over the extension of democratic institutions and the enfranchisement of the masses only to then frustrate the democratic process and prevent those same masses from gaining the substance of political and economic power.

Hobson was proved right in his interpretation of the anti-democratic effects of Imperialism on democratic politics in England. And the English Radicals, and their Irish Party allies, were proved wrong in their estimation of the beneficent effects of the Liberal electoral triumphs in 1906 and 1910.

F.S.Oliver summed up the significance of the formation of coalition government in England in his Ordeal By Battle, published in 1915:

“What has happened… is a revolution upon an unprecedented scale – one which is likely to have vast consequences in the future. The country realises this fact, and accepts it as a matter of course – accepts it indeed with a sigh of relief. But in other quarters, what has just happened is hardly realised at all – still less what it is likely to lead to in the future… An idea seems still to be prevalent in certain quarters, that what has just occurred is nothing more important than an awkward and temporary disarrangement of the party game; and that this game will be resumed, with all the old patriotism and good feeling, so soon as war has ended.

“But this appears to be a mistaken view. You cannot make a great mix up of this sort without calling new parties into existence. When men are thrown into the crucible of war such as this, the true ore will tend to run together, the dross cake upon the surface. No matter to what parties they may have originally owed allegiance, the men who are in earnest, and who see realities, cannot help but come together… Liberal and Conservative, Radical and Tory have ceased for the present to be real divisions. They have recently become highly artificial and confusing; now they are gone – it is to be hoped for ever.” (pp. xiv-xvi.)

Oliver was correct. The Coalition precedent was one that continued after the war – when the Home Rule Bill was supposed to come into operation through the Liberal Government – which had been elected to enact it prior to the war.

In late 1918 the British ruling class constituted itself into a giant monolithic coalition in order to rule the world it had conquered and sort out the Irish problem, free from party conflict. Liberals who refused to play ball were sidelined and the Liberal Party smashed to achieve this. We have Ataturk to thank for smashing he proto-fascismt apart in 1922 when he broke Lloyd George’s Coalition at Chanak and party conflict was restored in Britain as a result. However, most of the period between England’s first and second wars with Germany was taken up with coalition government as the precedent rapidly became the normal mode.

An editorial in the Freeman’s Journal (paper of the Irish Party) of 26th May 1915 entitled, ‘The War Cabinet’ noted that the two major issues that were used against the Liberals by the Unionist Press to encourage coalition/proto-fascism were not actually addressed by the actual Cabinet changes made. Kitchener remained at the War Office, despite all the criticism of munitions shortages. And although Churchill was turned out of the Admiralty in favour of Balfour, to facilitate Admiral Fisher, the First Sea Lord still ended up resigning:

“‘Efficiency’ was… not the object of those who forced the change, but party advantage. The whole business is a scandal of the first magnitude at the present moment, and most discreditable to the patriotism of those who forced it on. The crown of the scandal is the appointment of Sir Edward Carson. Here is a gentleman who a few months ago was threatening to break every law upon the Statute Book, who was challenging the guardians of the law in Ireland to put him in the dock, who assailed the present Lord Chief Justice of Ireland because from his place on the bench as one of his Majesty’s judges he attempted to see justice done on the Belfast rioters, and he is selected as the chief administrator of the criminal law of England. The appointment is a party outrage by gentlemen who are clamoring to all and sundry to sink party… The whole transaction from beginning to end is unsavory. Upon what moral pedestals can the authors of it land a footing to lecture the strikers on the Clyde, the loungers in the arsenals, or the shirkers in the streets?”

The Freeman saw the Coalition as a Unionist coup over the Liberal Government. But it was actually a much more substantial change that was far worse than the Redmondites imagined. It was the end of party politics through an alliance of the front benches for the purposes of inaugurating a different mode of future government in Britain. And that had fatal implications for the so-called “Home Rule Act” that was passed but lay suspended on the Statute Book to do with what a future government in Britain desired.

The Coalition Government was not only undemocratic, it also included as a major component the Unionist Party, which between 1912 and 1914, had denied the constitutional legitimacy of the policy of the elected Government, and had carried the State to the brink of civil war by supporting the use of violence to prevent the implementation of an Act of Parliament. It included in senior Cabinet positions people who defied the law with impunity because of their ability to bring substantial force into the equation to overrule the verdict of the electorate.

The same men who raised and armed an illegal private army in Ulster to defy the law and overrule the democratic process by the threat of force in 1914, were Cabinet Ministers a year later. People who might have been put on trial for treason or sedition in 1914, as far as the law was concerned, but were able to defy the law with impunity because of their capacity to unleash violence, were now members of the Government and represented law and legality at the highest level of State.

How could Ireland’s confidence in the “great English democracy” be sustained in the force of such outrageous double standards as these? While Home Rule was on the Statute Book those who had sworn a Covenant against it, to destroy it by force if necessary, and who kept saying they would consign the “scrap of paper” to the dustbin of history when the war was over, were now in power. And those who had been elected to put it on the Statute Book and bring it into operation after the war were being pushed out.

The first Unionist coup d’etat, of 1915 – and the second, more thorough one in 1916 – had enormous ramifications for Ireland. The formation of the Coalition might have been seen in England as a reluctant necessity of wartime or indeed a progressive development, as F.S.Oliver viewed it. But the casting aside of the democratic process in Britain as a wartime expedient had serious implications for Ireland and Home Rule. Redmond’s mandate was effectively shattered.

The formation of the Coalition was the effective end of the Home Rule alliance on which the Redmondite project depended and on which the Irish Party claimed its effectiveness in getting self-government for Ireland. The effectiveness of that alliance had been illusory since August 1914 but now that fact became wholly apparent in Ireland.

The most immediate effect of the demise of the “great English democracy” was the effect on the Irish willingness to participate in the war on “Prussianism”. Up until April 1915, 1500 Irishmen on average were enlisting in the British army per week. In the months following the formation of the Coalition this reduced to 750. It only picked up again at the end of the year to 1100 a week when Redmond began a vigorous new recruiting campaign – in defence of the Coalition.

Warre Wells summed up the consequences of these events for Redmondism:

“From May 1915, Mr Redmond began to fight a losing battle in Ireland. He laboured manfully throughout the following year to keep Ireland behind him in his war policy; but the circumstances in which, to use the words that he employed afterwards himself, he had been ‘let down and betrayed’ by the Government, were too much for him. In the second half of 1915 the number of recruits fell away in an astonishing degree, and simultaneously the Irish Volunteers gained a great assertion of strength. The National Volunteers, under Mr Redmond’s control, at the same time were allowed – largely by force of circumstances, and not without his own tacit approval – to fall into decay.” (John Redmond – A Biography, p.172.)

What happened in May 1915, therefore, had a great bearing on what happened in Ireland in Easter 1916. Easter 1916 was hardly undemocratic when it was conducted against a proto-fascist regime ruling Ireland, supported by a party in Ireland whose democratic mandate had expired but which clung to power in the hope that the throwing of Irish cannon-fodder around the world to kill and die for the Empire might yet result in Home Rule.

(The material for this article first appeared in The Rise and Fall of Imperial Ireland, by Pat Walsh, available from Athol Books)

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