Some lessons for Rees-Mogg and Johnson from Charles Stewart Parnell
The British prime minister might already have overplayed his hand, just as Parnell did
Ironically, given the wailing of Jacob Rees-Mogg, it will be Boris Johnson who will now imitate Charles Stewart Parnell and launch his people versus parliament crusade to win a majority
The ghost of Charles Stewart Parnell is tormenting poor Jacob Rees-Mogg as Anglo-Irish ironies continue to swirl around Westminster. As leader of the House of Commons, Rees-Mogg railed against his fellow MPs seeking to take control of parliament on Tuesday: “The approach taken today is the most unconstitutional use of this House since the days of Charles Stewart Parnell when he tried to bung up parliament.”
Rees-Mogg should take a closer look at Parnell. Irish nationalists trying to “bung up” parliament in that era were attempting to prevent an imperial entity dictate the fate of Ireland. Surely Rees-Mogg and his Brexiteers are trying, as they see it, to “wrestle back control” from the imperial EU seeking to fix a boundary on the march of Britain out of the EU, to borrow from the words of Parnell’s speech in 1885 when he insisted “no man has the right to fix the boundary of the march of a nation”?
Parnell won a parliamentary seat to represent Meath in April 1875. The day he entered parliament Belfast’s Joseph Biggar, MP for Cavan – an aggressive, charming though blunt man and terrible orator – arrived in the chamber with a pile of blue books from the Commons library. He was embarking on a process that led to him being dubbed the “Father of Obstruction” as he read official documents in a barely audible voice to try and delay and prevent coercive legislation. Parnell was soon to join him in his tactic.
Parnell's efforts transformed the relationship between Ireland and Britain
The idea of delaying parliamentary business was not new, but it was taken to new heights and Biggar and Parnell did not confine themselves to Irish matters but various other imperial concerns and conflicts. In July 1877 there was a 26-hour sitting on the South Africa Bill. As observed by historian Paul Bew, senior Tory Gathorne Hardy was compelled to stay in the House for 20 hours and noted in his diary that the troublemakers were “made of impenetrable stuff”.
Hardy was still lamenting their carry-on the following year: “Mutiny Bill, on till after one o’clock, so that but to snatch a mouthful, I never left my seat.” It was, suggests Bew, a potent tactic as “thanks to such work it was clear by mid-1877 that Parnell was the effective leader of the Irish in England and Scotland”. The only way British politicians could take the sting out of obstruction was to promise legislation favoured by Irish MPs, making it imperative that the Irish scoundrels did not run down the parliamentary clock and therefore lose potentially valuable reforms for Ireland.
But obstruction had demonstrated two things: that defiance of the government could generate profile and pride, and that parliament was the fulcrum on which reputations turned. As far as Parnell was concerned the drama, intrigue and intensity of the House of Commons was central to his mission to force the introduction of land reform and Irish home rule, not just through the use of parliamentary obstruction but also iron discipline in leading a centralised, modern party political machine – the Irish Parliamentary Party – and forcing concessions from the British political establishment by holding the balance of power in the mid-1880s. His efforts transformed the relationship between Ireland and Britain.
In 1890 Parnell issued a manifesto to the Irish people that sought to jolt them in its starkness
But Parnell also recognised the fragility of his balancing act. As his authority and mission crumbled in 1890 he issued a manifesto to the Irish people that sought to jolt them in its starkness: because of British political intrigue, “the integrity and independence of the Irish parliamentary party” had been “sapped and destroyed”. It thus “has become necessary for me, as the leader of the Irish nation, to take counsel with you”.
Ironically, given the wailing of Rees-Mogg, it will be Boris Johnson who will now take a leaf from that chapter of the Parnell book and launch his people versus parliament crusade to win a majority. But Johnson might have overplayed his hand, just as Parnell did. Part of the Parnell appeal lay in the idea that he could win home rule through the use of a disciplined party and a pledge of loyalty. The House of Lords vetoing home rule legislation, his increasing autocratic tendencies, complex private life and the implosion of his own party scuppered his plans.
At his best, he was determined not to let sentiment dictate his course of action; in parliament, he was measured and almost cold rather than emotive and, in the words of historian Frank Callanan, “insisted that the choice of parliamentary methods was dictated by practical considerations and the prospect of success. This was a fundamental axiom of his political career.” When knocked off that course, his party turned on itself and remained ripped apart for more than a decade. A lesson there, perhaps, for Rees-Mogg and Johnson, alongside another, ongoing lesson: dismissing the Irish question does not make it go away.