On ‘Newsnight’ last night (Monday 30 March 2015), Evan Davies drew parallels between the probable hung result of the current election and 1922-3. At the tactical level of immediate electoral mathematics and the formation of minority governments, of course, there are some interesting similarities. Inevitably, there are differences, too: not least that the uncertainties of 1922-23 arose from a major strategic political realignment as the Labour party rose and the Liberals were eclipsed. This doesn’t seem to be underway just now.
It could happen though. There’s a possible scenario which, at a very deep level, might echo the events of 1885-6 when Gladstone, to the surprise of most and despair of many, embraced the cause of Irish Home Rule. Ireland, the scene of growing anti-English unrest for decades, in the election of November-December 1885, saw, Irish nationalist candidates sweep the board in the south and win 86 seats, while unionists took the 17 on offer in the north. The Liberal party lost 15 seats and won none. Gladstone interpreted this – correctly – as an overwhelming vote for some form of Home Rule, which he now regarded as the inevitable end-state of the process. To his mind, coercion to maintain the Union was a viable option in neither the short nor medium term. If Home Rule was where things were heading anyway, best they headed there now.
When Parliament met after the election, no single party held an outright majority. In a 670-member House of Commons, the Liberals had 319 MPs, the Conservatives 247. But the Liberals, supported by Charles Parnell’s Irish nationalists, were strong enough to form a government and make Gladstone Prime Minister for the third time. The price of Parnell’s support, inevitably, was a bill giving an Irish assembly control over all but foreign and defence policy: the Government of Ireland Bill 1886 (often known as the First Home Rule Bill).
Large numbers of Liberals could not countenance a break-up of the Union and the party split. Eventually, 93 Liberal unionists voted against the bill in June 1886, helping to defeat both it, and Gladstone’s government, by 30 votes. Lord Salisbury’s Conservatives swept to power in the general election which followed. The Liberal party was so badly divided that, where it had dominated government for a generation, it won only one election in the next twenty years, until, in 1906, splits in the Tory party over protectionism themselves gifted power to the Liberal party for its last decade-long hurrah.
Personalities and events contributed to the depth and violence of the split but the central knot of the Home Rule problem, from a purely British political perspective, was that the Liberal party simultaneously wanted Home Rule and could not afford the loss of Irish nationalist support which would follow if a Bill passed and Irish members were excluded from Westminster.
This is precisely the position in which a Labour minority government might find itself after May. Imagine a world where the SNP did so well in the upcoming election that it further increases the legitimacy of the pro-independence movement. How long could the avowed unionism of both major parties be maintained in the face of growing ‘Yes’ momentum? For Ed Miliband – or one of his potential internal challengers – the point might come where another referendum on Scots independence, or greatly increased devolution, or even just full independence, becomes a price worth paying to win SNP support and keep the Conservatives out of government. The loss of Scots MPS from Westminster might be easier for Labour to bear if they have fewer of them. Once Scotland is lost to them anyway, the thinking might run, why not let it go altogether? The Labour split which would follow, one suspects, would be long and deep. Whatever the long-term political and economic effects on the United Kingdom, and whatever one’s views, the medium-term impact on the Labour party of such a move could vastly outweigh the short-run political gains and condemn Labour to opposition for a generation, as Gladstone found. One hopes that Mr Miliband, who has a PPE degree, knows his history well enough to avoid this trap. Do all his colleagues, though?
*** Apologies to any regulars: this post is indeed not about the First World War. I promise I won’t go off-piste like this very often. I just thought the comparison was striking. Also, I’m not trying to make a party-political point, here. (If I wanted to change the world, I’d be a politician, not a historian. In fact, I’d probably be Prime Minister!) The same thought process potentially applies to the Conservatives: but the ideological gap between them and the SNP is so immense that it’s much harder to see it working. Even if, had the SNP any sense, they’d see the quickest way to get a majority for independence in Scotland would be another Tory government in Westminster.