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British Democracy and Irish Nationalism, 1876-1906.

British Democracy and Irish Nationalism, 1876-1906, by Eugenio F. Biagini. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2007. xi, 421 pp. $105.00 US (cloth).

Irish Home Rule and British politics in the late nineteenth century are not new subjects for historical inquiry, but in this book Eugenio Biagini succeeds in providing a valuable new interpretation. This is not another history of the events surrounding Home Rule; rather, Biagini examines the ideas behind Home Rule and how they were expressed, focusing on liberal and radical organizations in Ireland and Britain, especially the latter. In short, he contends that the debate over Home Rule, expressed in moral and emotional terms, refashioned popular liberalism. "Humanitarianism" moved to the forefront of liberal politics and provided the means to heal some of the divisions within the Liberal Party. This book is not the first to place Home Rule at the centre of Liberal fortunes in the late nineteenth century, but here, Home Rule occupies the role of hero rather than villain.

Biagini's earlier work includes a book on Gladstone and an analysis of British liberalism and radicals between 1860 and 1880, and this book builds on that foundation, situating Gladstone and British radicals in the larger landscape of liberalism and questioning the dominant narrative of Home Rule politics. Gladstone has often been viewed as bestowing both a blessing and a curse on the Liberal Party with his conversion to Home Rule. Home Rule brought the Liberals into power, with the support of Irish nationalist MPs, but Home Rule also divided the party, with the rising radical Joseph Chamberlain splitting to form the Liberal Unionists. In this view, Home Rule has often been seen as Gladstone's pet project, foisted on an unprepared and unwilling Liberal Party, with disastrous results (after the failure of the First Home Rule Bill in 1886, the Liberals held power for only three years of the next twenty).

Biagini challenges this narrative, arguing that Home Rule enjoyed substantial support among British Liberals before the so-called "Hawarden Kite" of 1885 and that this widespread support would make moral conviction a key characteristic of political discourse. Home Rule acted as "the single most important catalyst in the remaking of popular radicalism after 1885" (p. 4). Biagini does point to earlier instances of emotional reaction--the "Bulgarian Horrors" in 1876 and the British campaign in Egypt in the early 1880s--but the question of Home Rule consumed British politics. The portrayal of the Irish as a people struggling for independence and freedom dovetailed with traditional radical concerns going back to Chartism, and aspects of the Irish struggle--for example, destitute families turned out by eviction--naturally cast the issue of Home Rule in moral terms. In this climate, key liberal groups, such as Dissenters, working-class radicals, Liberal women (emotional and humanitarian concerns provided an opportunity for women to increase their political participation), and Scottish and Welsh revivalists aligned themselves with Home Rule, seeking to advance their own agendas. This atmosphere of shared emotionalism helped to shape liberal and radical reactions to incidents such as the Armenian atrocities of 1896 and British military actions against the South African Boers, energizing the Liberal Party.

In arguing for the important positive impact of Home Rule in the liberal politics of this era, Biagini also emphasizes the common foundation for British and Irish liberal movements, most importantly the National Liberal Federation (NLF) and the Irish National League (INL). Liberals in Britain and Ireland shared constitutional and democratic ideals that drew them together, in addition to shared concerns in areas such as land reform. Biagini also makes the point that "caucus" groups such as the NLF were not undemocratic; he is at pains to stress the participation of local councils and representatives (and notes that the NLF was similar in nature to other left-wing movements in continental Europe). In making this point, Biagini presses further against the idea of Home Rule as a negative force in Liberal fortunes after 1886. Support for Home Rule from groups such as the NLF reflected grass-roots support and echoes of earlier radical movements rather than manipulation by party leaders.

The strength of support for Home Rule from constituent groups within liberal and radical circles in the 1890s allowed for the emergence of what Biagini terms a Gladstonian "popular front" that helped revive the fortunes of the Liberal Party in the early twentieth century. Thus, the Liberals' glum decade after 1894, when Gladstone relinquished the leadership of the party, is recast, not as the whirlwind sown by Gladstone's obsession with Home Rule at the expense of pursuing Chamberlain's social radicalism, but rather as a period when poor organization and leadership weakened the party. It was the power of the politics of moral and humanitarian feeling, for example the reactions to the Boer War, together with traditional radical concerns, such as free trade, that brought about the Liberal revival under Campbell-Bannerman.

British Democracy and Irish Nationalism presents a compelling case. Biagini is sure-footed in his analysis, and his arguments benefit from impressive research in manuscript, newspaper, and secondary sources (both British and Irish). The sheer amount of material marshaled in support of his ideas can distract from the argument in places, but for a specialist, the reward is worth the effort. Biagini succeeds in demonstrating the enduring importance of Home Rule in Liberal fortunes and transforms our understanding of Home Rule's influence on liberal and radical politics in this era.

Anthony R. Daly

Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts
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Author:Daly, Anthony R.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2009
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