There are fewer truly new things in politics than you think. The present constitutional uncertainty – which, it should be said, could scarcely have been avoided – is no exception. We have been here before, all of us, even if we choose to forget our previous gallops around this track.
A century ago – on September 18th, to be precise – a bill for Irish Home Rule was finally passed. It had taken three attempts and nearly 30 years but it was passed at last. There would, once again, be an Irish parliament.
Or there would have been had it not been for the Kaiser’s War. The guns of August delayed Home Rule; Easter 1916 (and, especially, the response to Padraig Pearse’s mad provocation) killed it. Nothing would recover; nothing would be quite the same again.
Nevertheless, it is useful to recall just how similar many of the arguments over Irish Home Rule are to those we hear now about the future governance of these islands.
Here, for instance, is Herbert Asquith addressing the future entitlement of Irish MPs to sit at Westminster:
[W]hatever other changes may be made, and however far the devolution of local affairs to local bodies may be carried, the House of Commons must continue to be the House of Commons of the United Kingdom, fairly representing all its constituent parts and inviting the cooperation of each of them in the supervision of their common interests, the transaction of their common business, and the discharge of their joint and corporate trust to the Empire as a whole. It is true that for a time, and until there are further applications of the principle of devolution, Irish Members will be here with an unfettered right to vote. For the reasons I have already given, a very substantial reduction in their number makes that a matter of much less practical importance than it was, and we think it may well be found to be the duty of the House of Commons—after this Bill has become the law of the land—the duty of the House of Commons, which is absolute master of its own procedure, to anticipate in some degree further developments of statutory devolution by so moulding its own Standing Orders as to secure the effective consideration and discussion of legislation affecting only one part of the United Kingdom, by those who, as representing that part, are alone directly interested.
As you can see, the West Lothian Question was preceded by what one might deem the West Meath Question. Perhaps, in time, something like an English Grand Committee would be needed. Note, too, however, that reducing Irish representation from more than 100 members to just 42 would necessarily make it vastly less probable that these MPs could make a decisive difference to the governance of the nation. In similar fashion, and subject to the new Scotland Bill transferring significant responsibilities to Holyrood, a reduction in the number of Scottish MPs sent south may not iron out the constitutional anomaly but it renders its impact less substantial. Besides, nothing straight was ever made from the crooked timber of the British constitution. English votes for English laws is, in any case, as the historian Tom Holland quipped, an issue of great importance for the kind of people outraged by the sorry lack of an International Men’s Day.
Other concerns seem just as fresh. The Barnett Formula – nearly 40 years old and plainly in need of recalibration – was itself an adjustment to the Goschen Formula introduced in the late 19th century. Never let it be said that we move too hastily on these matters. As Asquith, again, noted:
When a grant is made to England, Scotland and Ireland at once step in and claim an equivalent whether they need it or not. […] It is in no-one’s interests to be economical and, on the other hand, it is to everyone’s interest to make fresh and growing demands upon the Imperial Exchequer.
Well, indeed. But hark too at what Edward Carson, the great bulwark of Ulster Unionism, had to say:
What is the object of the United Kingdom? As I understand it, it is that all parts of that Kingdom should be worked together as one whole; under one system, and with the object that the poorer may be helped by the richer, and the richer may be the stronger by the co-operation of the poorer. If you were to take certain counties in England at the present moment—I shall not name any, as it might seem invidious—and work out what their contribution to the United Kingdom is, you will find that many of them do not pay for their upkeep. Is that a reason that they should be deprived of that upkeep? No; and I say this further, that a worse, a more foolish, and a more impossible policy it would be impossible to inaugurate than to suggest that either Ireland, or any other part of the United Kingdom, whether large or small, should be allowed to go back in the race of progress, and civilisation, and not to be kept up to the same standard as you yourselves, or as near thereto as possible. The whole of this argument is based upon a fallacy, because the moment you make a common Exchequer you have no right to segregate any unit paying into that Exchequer towards local or Imperial upkeep. As Ireland pays exactly the same taxes as Great Britain pays, you have no right whatsoever to segregate her.
Again, this is strikingly familiar is it not? So is this:
Does the right hon. Gentleman really tell this House that he is going to have Home Rule all round? Does he say that until the other Constitutions are completed the Irish Members are to be here dealing with the local affairs of England and Scotland, and England and Scotland are to have nothing to say about the local affairs of Ireland? No. If you were in earnest you would have these schemes, whether brought in in one Bill or three all operating together. I will put it to the test. I will ask the right hon. Gentleman a question which will test his sincerity upon the subject. Will he agree to hang up this Bill until he has framed the others? Of course he will not. Do hon. Members think he would be allowed? The truth of the matter is that all this is simple hypocrisy. When you are granting to Ireland this system, which is said to be part of the federal system, there is really behind it a much deeper matter than the right hon. Gentleman has dealt with. Before you can grant a federal system at all you must make up your mind as to what is the demand, the real demand, of Ireland.
[…] Just picture what you are setting up. Do picture it in relation to the complicated system of taxation you are setting up, and which I venture to think will not last six months, and try to realise what it is that will then happen. Just think of the Irish Chancellor of the Exchequer bringing in his Budget and explaining to an Irish House of Commons mainly composed of agricultural Members that it is necessary to raise more money, and that it must come from the land, or if he had the power, which he never will have, from the industries of Ulster. What will be his argument? He would tell the Irish House of Commons, “This is a very bad system; you have got your instalments to pay to that brutal English Government; they have reserved that to themselves. You have got a great many other taxes to pay, but the one thing we are not allowed to set up is a system of taxation which we know and believe would be best for our own country. We cannot help it. It is the brutal English Government that has done this.”
As I say, there are fewer truly new things than we think. And what of feeding the nationalist beast? Well, here’s John Redmond speaking in the same 1912 debate:
[In the] circumstances of this case, the onus undoubtedly lies upon those who argue that what has proved to be good and just everywhere else in the world is bad and unjust and mischievous in Ireland. What are the main arguments against the principle of self-government for Ireland? The first of them is the question of separation, and Unionist orators, especially in the country—I notice more in the country than in this House, where they are face to face with their opponents—have constantly been saying that the Irish people want separation, and that the Irish leaders are separatists. I will be perfectly frank on this matter. There always have been, and there is to-day, a certain section of Irishmen who would like to see separation from this country. They are a small, a very small section. They were once a large section. They are a very small section, but these men who hold these views at this moment only desire separation as an alternative to the present system, and if you change the present system and give into the hands of Irishmen the management of purely Irish affairs even that small feeling in favour of separation will disappear, and, if it survive at all, I would like to know how under those circumstances it would be stronger or more powerful for mischief than at the present moment.
That might, it is true, have proved wishful thinking. Nevertheless it is another example of how today’s Scottish debate is in many respects a refreshment of the Irish argument from a century ago.
We cannot, as I wrote in the Scottish edition of The Times this week, know if the Asquith-Redmond Home Rule bill would have lasted. There are grounds for thinking it would not, not least because of the Ulster complications. Nevertheless, it might have and, more importantly, the fact it was passed at all should remind us that our own constitutional affairs can be resolved.
Of course it is more complicated now. Government has grown since 1912 and its tentacles now extend to places unimaginable a century ago. Cleaving Scotland – and Scottish finances – from the rest of the UK is not so simple as liberating Ireland a century ago. And it was a complicated enough business back then. For instance pensions, reserved to Westminster then, are an even greater issue now. Ditto the wider provision of welfare. That’s one reason why the new Scotland bill will not, in some areas, go as far as the Asquith-Redmond Irish Home Rule bill. The unravelling is a more perilous business these days.
Still, Ireland offers an example and, perhaps, a warning. To members and supporters of all parties. We have, after all, been here before.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.