Does a Conservative Party bitterly opposed to devolution and reform of the House of Lords, and moving steadily to the right, sound familiar? Well, Edward Pearce's new book is not about the contemporary travails of Hague, Portillo and company. Instead, he looks back to the age of Gladstone, Asquith and Lloyd George, and to the hysterical opposition of the Tories to Irish Home Rule and the ending of the Lords' legislative veto.
Pearce tells with gusto the story of Gladstone's determination to reconcile the national aspirations of the Irish people with the interests of the British Empire through a measure of Home Rule - in effect, devolution. What remains incredible is the hysteria with which this moderate, limited reform was greeted by Irish unionists, north and south, and by the Tories. While Gladstone intended the measure to head off any revival of Irish republicanism, the Tories reacted as if it were the proclamation of an Irish republic and the end of Empire.
The first Home Rule Bill of 1886 was defeated in the Commons, after acrimonious debate, by the defection of Joseph Chamberlain (a grown-up version of David Owen) and the Liberal unionists. Convinced that Home Rule was an absolutely vital measure, necessary for good government and for reasons of justice, Gladstone persevered. As Pearce shows, he sacrificed party advantage for what he believed to be the national interest. In 1893, another Home Rule Bill was put forward. This time it secured a majority in the Commons, but was vetoed in the Lords, a state of affairs certain to continue for as long as the Lords were to retain their veto.
Only with the great reforming Liberal government that took office in 1906 was the question of the Lords veto - in effect, the Tory veto - to be confronted. Pearce shows quite conclusively how a peculiar mixture of arrogance and paranoia led the Tories to stage a conflict between Lords and Commons that they were never likely to win. The decision to veto Lloyd George's Budget was always a crazed one, suggesting not just bad judgement, but temporary insanity. Lord Rosebery actually warned at the time that, by fighting on the weak constitutional ground of the Budget, they might well end up losing the ability to veto Home Rule. But to no avail. Reason could not penetrate the red haze that seems to have clouded the Tories' collective vision.
With the Lords' veto gone and Home Rule imminent, the Tories proceeded to endorse and encourage the Ulster Unionists' preparations for civil war, pandering, in Pearce's phrase, to "Ulster's prejudice and self-love". The extent to which leading Conservative politicians were prepared to countenance Ulster Unionists plans for an armed coup d'etat, including the importation of large quantities of weapons from the Kaiser's Germany, still amazes.
Much of the book is given over to anthologising the malevolence of Tory utterances in the period leading up to the outbreak of war in 1914. While this does occasionally become somewhat tiresome, it is nevertheless absolutely necessary to illustrate the extent to which the Tories lapsed into extremity - from Lord Salisbury's vicious anti-Irish racism to Andrew Bonar Law's denunciation of the Liberal government's treason. Pearce has immersed himself in such reactionary journals as Blackwood's ("on hand to deplore all reform of anything since 1820") and the National Review, and has followed the interminable debates in Hansard, revealing a consistent pattern of violent overreaction. He does this, moreover, with an admirably sharp wit so that Sir James FitzJames Stephen becomes a "Goring with syntax", while Lord Londonderry was a man "for whom the word 'reactionary' hardly suffices". One complaint: Pearce lets off the appalling F E Smith too lightly. It still seems incredible that this particular individual, after his own flirtation with treason, should go on to prosecute Roger Casement, returning from Germany to try to stop the Easter Rising.
What were the consequences of this Tory ferocity? Well, in my opinion, it was the Ulster Unionists, together with their Tory accomplices, who created the conditions of violence in Ireland, such was the ferocity of their opposition to what were no more than schemes of devolution. Moreover, when partition was accomplished, the Tories ensured that it was done in such as way as to leave the Ulster Unionists with a large enough minority to misgovern. Future violence was thus guaranteed. This is a depressing story extremely well told.
John Newsinger is the author of "Orwell's Politics" (Macmillan)