Naomi Lloyd-Jones of King’s College, London writes a guest post about her recent paper given to the ‘Parliaments, politics and people’ seminar.
I spoke at the opening seminar of the summer term on ‘Deconstructing Westminster: towards a four nations history of the Irish Home Rule crisis, c.1886-93’. My paper offered an overview of my PhD research at King’s College London, on the crisis as it happened in and impacted on Britain during the period bookended by two Gladstonian Home Rule bills. It focused on my development of a methodology that I hope will paint a comprehensive, whole-island, low-politics picture of responses to these divisive proposals for Irish self-government.
Home Rule’s cataclysmic effect on UK politics has ensured its enduring fascination among historians. As I argued in my paper, rich though the scholarship on Home Rule is, it remains overwhelmingly Anglo-centric in focus. Many existing conclusions cannot be applied outside England, or in some cases, beyond Westminster. And, in spite of recent advances in regional studies – particularly in the case of England – self-consciously ‘national’ histories of Scotland and Wales persist, into which the Irish crisis is woven, with varying degrees of emphasis and success. This is doubly problematic because much of the debate on Home Rule has centred on whether it was a policy capable of generating mass interest and, ultimately, popular support.
My paper’s core contention was that we need an alternative approach to the crisis. To be ‘British’, it must be British. It must recognise the separate histories of England, Scotland and Wales and acknowledge the complications arising from their forming a larger polity, which, together with Ireland, was represented as one and governed by a united parliament at Westminster. I considered the precedents set by the ‘New British Historians’ of the 1990s and the importance of their work on the complex interactions and interrelationships of England, Scotland and Ireland (but not, incidentally, Wales) in the early modern period. They emphasised the need to place given points in history into their ‘British’ context, and to establish a new, more complete narrative.
It was perhaps natural that those interested in constructing a ‘British’ history looked to the construction of Britain for their framework. Yet what of the history of state deconstruction – perceived or otherwise? A considerable proportion of the political elite and wider political nation believed that Prime Minister William Gladstone had threatened to shake the country’s very foundations. Contemporaries were also acutely aware of the ‘British’ dimensions of the Irish question. Concerns were raised that the Welsh and Scottish (but not the English) would be encouraged to seek self-government, and the notion that Ireland ‘blocked the way’ of matters of interest to England, Scotland and Wales featured heavily in rhetoric on both sides.
Structurally, a British history of the crisis needs to deconstruct the Westminster parliament as it would have stood in the event of the successful passage of a Home Rule bill. Breaking parliament down into the three nations of England, Scotland and Wales, it needs to establish what happened within each, considering separate and shared backgrounds, and determining how and why it happened. By using the same flashpoints, we are able to take the comparative approach recommended by many early modernists. We can then ask whether, by investigating similarities and disparities between reactions to and presentations of Home Rule, we can detect what we might call ‘English’, ‘Scottish’ and ‘Welsh’ narratives, unique to each. This further begs the question of the likelihood of reconstructing a ‘British’ narrative, common to England, Scotland and Wales.
As I explained, I am also keen to ascertain the extent that Home Rule, for better or worse, galvanised public opinion and the impact this had in establishing patterns of political fortunes. I have found that newspaper reports on political and public meetings offer the best possible, and most consistent, means for recovering a record of grass-roots behaviour and attitude. In order to collate and fully analyse my material, I am compiling a fully searchable database that will allow me to test relationships between data sets and explore a range of hypotheses about the crisis. This data is being mapped onto projections of the 1885 electoral boundaries, to gauge the scale and spread of reactions. I presented some examples of my work in this area.
I concluded by discussing the ways I could describe my research and by considering its potential influence on how we practise history. The Irish Home Rule crisis, impacting on Britain as a whole and on its constituent parts, serves as the ideal vehicle for launching an alternative methodology. I suggested that, at its root, a ‘British’ or ‘four nations’ history is about retrieving contemporary opinion and the best manner of doing this. This is one of the fundamental tasks asked of an historian.
Further details of Naomi’s research can be found in her article on ‘Liberalism, Scottish Nationalism and the Home Rule crisis, c.1886-93’ which will be appearing in the English Historical Review in August. A second article on ‘Liberal Unionism and Political Representation in Wales, c. 1886-1893’ is due to be published in Historical Research in 2015.