Why the Union mattered in 1914

Why the Union mattered in 1914

In this week’s blog, Dr Dan Jackson takes us back to 1914 and the all-absorbing Ulster question, and illustrates the immense public interest in the Home Rule crisis. 

Until the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 the Union hadn’t really mattered in British politics for exactly one hundred years.  For despite the thirty years of terrible violence in Northern Ireland, ‘the troubles’ were only ever an irritation to the British polity, and one that, arguably, never made any difference to how people voted in the United Kingdom.  

Yet this was by no means the case in 1914, when the future of Ulster was, in the words of the Times, ‘not only the subject, but the scenes of all political interest’.

Most historians have ignored the extraordinary interest that the anti-Irish home rule campaign generated in Britain before 1914, when enormous crowds of supporters turned out to hear Sir Edward Carson – the archetypal ‘charismatic leader’, and a man who was marketed carefully as the embodiment of the Union – thump the tub for ‘Loyal Ulster’ remaining in that Union and outside the jurisdiction of a Dublin parliament.

Irish Home Rule mattered to the British public in the late Edwardian period for three main reasons:

  • The centrality of the Union, the Empire and the protestant Christianity in the matrix of Edwardian British national identity, alongside the still widespread condescension and hostility towards Catholicism in general and Irish Catholics in particular
  • The sheer scale of Irish migration to Britain(both Catholic and Protestant) and the presence of politically active Irish Nationalists and Unionists – particularly in Scotland and Northern England – which made the Irish question such a live political issue on the ‘Edwardian street’.
  • The leadership of the Unionist party in this period,firstly through Andrew Bonar Law, an unscrupulous Scots-Canadian of Ulster Presbyterian stock, who having been an MP in Glasgow and Liverpool well understood the emotions that the Irish question generated, and how playing the ‘Orange card’ could be the trick to rescue the Unionist party from the doldrums.

In Popular Opposition to Irish Home Rule in Edwardian Britain I argued that the ‘Strange Death of Liberal England’ thesis has overplayed the growth of militant Labour and the challenge of the suffragettes.  Indeed it’s not the decline, but the resilience of a particular type of Conservative politics in the face of competing political distractions that is most striking about this period. 

The campaign against Home Rule showed that Britain was still to emerge from the ‘long nineteenth century’, in terms of what motivated people to vote and demonstrate.   For no other contemporary political campaign could match that led by Carson for the breadth and intensity of its appeal.  Although Gladstone is remembered for addressing over 83,000 in the course of his famous Midlothian Campaign in the 1880s, Edward Carson probably addressed ten times that number in the years before 1914. But why is he forgotten?


One reason is that for any student of popular politics, the source material is very thin so most studies of the period are ‘high political’ and miss the popular dimension of Ulster’s support. The views of the common man are certainly hard to unearth, so it is useful to employ the work of Mark Harrison and others on crowds – who saw them ‘as vehicles for the expression of cohesion’. The Ulster Unionists understood this, and ensured that their demonstrations needed to be replicated on the streets of Britain to make a real impact on Westminster.

So after signing the covenant in Belfast, Carson sailed straight to Liverpool where he was welcomed by even bigger crowds: an enormous demonstration of over 150,000 people with a torchlight procession through the city centre complete with dozens of Orange flute bands.  This was more like Palm Sunday than an ordinary political gathering, and this repeated through 12-14 wherever he goes from Plymouth to Inverness, and Wallsend to the Rhondda Valley. 

As the Mitchell and Kenyon archive showed this was golden age of ‘processional’ activity in Britain, and the Unionist campaign was perhaps the last to exemplify an older political culture, of torchlight processions and horseless carriages, that we only tend to see in gatherings like the Durham Miners’ Gala, or, of course, Orange Marches.

No popery

Indeed, the religious overtones in the anti-Home Rule campaign are obvious, and the Home rule crisis of 1911 to 1914 was also the last time religion seriously mattered in British politics – because it was a very religious period.  As Linda Colley argued in Britons: Forging the Nation Catholics had become the archetypal ‘other’ that helped to unite the new kingdom, and the endurance of the British ‘no-popery’ tradition in this period is very striking. 

It is useful to see the events of 1912 to 1914 as the culmination of a sequence of flash points: Catholic emancipation in 1829, the so called ‘Papal aggression’ in 1850, the Garibaldi riots in 1862 and 1866, the Fenian scares in the 1860s, the declaration of Papal infallibility in 1870, the debates around Irish church disestablishment in 1869, the Home Rule Bills of 1886 and 1892, the ongoing Ritualism disputes of 1900s, and the changes to the British coronation oath in 1910 which removed those passages judged offensive to Catholics.

All of these episodes were given added piquancy in Britain by the arrival of the Catholic Irish in mid century in massive numbers.  We owe a debt to Don MacRaild for helping us to understand this multi-faceted phenomena and its impact on British society.  For it is important to remember that Irish migration included Protestants too (which accounts for the massive growth of the Orange Order in Britain in the nineteenth century), and events like the huge sectarian riots that rocked Liverpool in 1909.

What is more, the English, Scots, Irish, and Welsh, were no longer neatly confined within their own national territory, and this internal migration within the UK strengthened familial and fraternal bonds, and by extension, the emotional appeal of the Union.  (Indeed, the nexus between the Lagan, Mersey, Clyde and Tyne formed a kind of northern industrial zone that featured prominently on the itineraries of Carson and others.) The pull of sectarian politics explains why Bonar Law focused his campaign on opposing Irish Home Rule, not for sentimental reasons, but for reasons of cold political calculation.  Bonar Law even admitted as much privately to Asquith that ‘Protestantism, or at least dislike of Catholicism’ motivated his core vote.

And it was effective.  By 1914 the Unionists were clearly winning the numbers game in term of mass demonstrations, they had the government on the back foot in parliament and the Liberal Party’s worst by-election performances coincided with the most frenetic period of anti-Home Rule activity.   My view is that the Unionists had mobilized enough of their ‘core’ vote over Home Rule to have been favourites to win the next election planned for 1914/15.   Furthermore, by 1914, the British Covenant had gained hundreds of thousands of signatories, and volunteers were preparing to leave Britain to fight in Ulster. Indeed, the Liverpool Courier observed that

“The first blood spilled in Ulster would raise a storm in the large towns of England and Scotland … the problem of the working classes of Liverpool, Glasgow, Barrow, Manchester and Newcastle would be difficult to handle and would be even worse than in Belfast.”

In our haste to see the First World War as a watershed in British history, or the Edwardians as the parents of modern British society, we have overlooked what was the most important issue in Britain on the eve of war: that of the future of the Union itself and the very real risk of civil war.

Dr Dan Jackson works in local government and his book ‘Popular Opposition to Irish Home Rule in Edwardian Britain’ was published by Liverpool University Press in 2009.  He tweets as @northumbriana and blogs at https://northumberlandia.wordpress.com


3 thoughts on “Why the Union mattered in 1914

  1. Very interesting; I’ve noticed at least one big meeting for Carson in south Wales in 1913. There were many demonstrations and meetings for and against disestablishment in Wales in the period too, one of which in particular I’ve written about and others will feature in a book which Paul O’ Leary and I are planning on processions and urban culture in south Wales c. 1870-1914. Mike Benbough-Jackson’s earlier blog gives an account of our work on the 1887 Gladstone demonstration in Swansea. We need a lot more work on public meetings and demonstrations after the Chartists!

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