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United Kingdoms: Multinational Union States in Europe and Beyond, 1800-1925 - Home rule revisited

Author’s careful, precise narrative describes collapse of Austro-Hungarian empire and others

United Kingdoms: Multinational Union States in Europe and Beyond, 1800-1925
United Kingdoms: Multinational Union States in Europe and Beyond, 1800-1925
Author: Alvin Jackson
ISBN-13: 978-0192883742
Publisher: OUP Oxford
Guideline Price: £35

In 1887, James Bryce, Ulster man and distinguished academic and author, published his Handbook of Home Rule: Being Articles on the Irish Question. It was a serious statement of support for Gladstone’s newly established policy of home rule for Ireland. It contains some fine essays on Irish realities. There was a notable analysis by Earl Spencer, an exceptionally experienced and intelligent occupant of Dublin Castle and essential to the respectability of Gladstone’s new strategy:

“The Irish peasantry still live in poor hovels, often in the same room with animals; they have few modern comforts; and yet they are in close communication with those who live at ease in the cities and farms of the United States. They are also imbued with the advanced political notions of the American republic and are sufficiently educated to read the latest political doctrines in the press which circulates them. Their social condition at home is a hundred years behind their state of mental and political culture.”

But these articles were not entirely discussions of Ireland as such. Rather Bryce’s pro-Home Rule message included substantial chunks of discussion of “dual” monarchies (as opposed to the British unitary state model) such as Sweden-Norway and the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg Empire. The message was constitutional flexibility in Europe worked and should provide in home rule a good future for Anglo-Irish relations.

In 2023, another Ulster man and distinguished historian and author, Alvin Jackson, published a scholarly and lucid volume revisiting this terrain. As Jackson, the Richard Lodge Professor of History at the University of Edinburgh, points out, WE Gladstone, the great Liberal premier, was a firm believer in the message of the Bryce volume: it was proof of the irrefutable, benign logic of the historic compromise known as Home Rule.


In 1892, Gladstone wrote, as Jackson points out at the start of this book:

“Holland was asked for Home Rule by Belgium and refused it. Belgium is now independent of Holland ... But Home Rule has often been conceded; and, as the denial has in no case been attended with success, so the concession has in no case been attended with a failure. Through the establishment of Home Rule in Norway at a time when she was on the verge of an armed conflict with Sweden, they have been enabled to work peacefully together; and not only the sentiment of friendship, but even the sense of unity, has made extraordinary progress.”

Gladstone went further and added another striking example: “The relations of Austria and Hungary forty years ago were not only difficult but sanguinary, and they constituted not simply a local but an European danger. Since Home Rule was granted, profound peace and union have prevailed.”

There it is — a sure-fire formula for political success for a community faced with intractable problems of ethnicity, national identity and sometimes language. Jackson is far too serious a historian to fall for this sunburstery and his careful, precise narrative describes, for example, the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There are many subtle observations along the way: “Supranational aristocracies were not the sole, or even the principal bolster of complex union polities”. He adds: “It was not central to the story of Sweden-Norway”. But it is still striking, as Jackson points out, that the demise of both Austria-Hungary and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was “immediately preceded” by the retreat of those powerful aristocratic interests which “in association with monarchy, had over served to bind their respective states”.

Why did Gladstone get it quite so wrong? Part of the answer lies in his impatient way with inconvenient historical facts. But above all, there is a refusal to come to terms with hatred. He explicitly regarded the famine as an act of providence and this excused the UK government, and indeed his own subsequent role as chancellor in the early 1850s. But the best-read nationalist of the 19th century, John Mitchel, insisted otherwise — that the Famine was indeed a conscious act of British genocide. Mitchel’s influence penetrated many Irish households and fuelled militant separatism — a phenomenon which Gladstone never understood.

The author argues convincingly that fluidity and malleability are essential qualities for union states — certainly not rigid straight lines demarcating power flows. Living in Edinburgh, home of the Scottish parliament, for some years now, Jackson has had plenty of time to contemplate actually “existing” devolution — with its striking failures, as in Wales, in the fields of education and health. Although the end date for the book is 1925, Dr Jackson is a concerned citizen, the last remaining item of his “select union chronology” is tellingly the Windsor Framework of February 2023.

When devolution in Scotland and Wales was introduced by Tony Blair in 1997, there was an overwhelming “Gladstonian” consensus in British politics. Speech after speech in the UK parliament declared that the Scottish movement for national independence was now marginalised or dead. The correct “Gladstonian” policy had now at least been taken. In fact, of course, though the historic roots of Scottish nationalism are, to say the least, far weaker and less substantial than that of Irish nationalism, the movement for Scottish independence has grown substantially under devolution.

At this moment, Scottish nationalist politics is going through a leadership crisis and much embarrassment. But Jackson likely is much too experienced a scholar of the “long run” to be overly impressed by this. He has written well of Irish nationalism’s agonies in 1890/1 at the time of the Parnell split — in the short-term debilitating, in the long run still retaining mass popular support. To go to the heart of the matter, he knows that the fascinating observation by Gladstone which he employs to open this book is at best only partially true, even if it is also true that the UK has no alternative to devolution for its survival, as Jeffrey Donaldson recently noted at the DUP conference before he resigned after being charged with sexual offences.

There is perhaps one slip when the author refers to former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s tendency “to lecture the Scots in Smilesian cliches”. This is a little unfair to Samuel Smiles (1812-1904), apostle of self-help and opponent of Gladstonian Home Rule he undoubtedly was. He was capable of sympathising with Irish poverty and capable of praising as serious and “eloquent” a Cork speech by Parnell which called for the “quick-witted genius of the Irish race” to be mobilised in support of economic and political progress. Was there any such act of imaginative intuition on the subject of Scottish nationalism from Mrs Thatcher?