Home Rule All Round – a hundred and twenty eight years on

Andy Bevan looks at the latest calls for Home Rule and their history.






carwyn-jones

Within days of Scotland’s referendum, Wales’ First Minister, Carwyn Jones, declared at Labour’s Conference in Manchester on 22 September, “The future we promised to Scotland must be delivered – an equal share of resources, a seat at the table, a powerful Parliament – that must be offered to Wales and Northern Ireland too. Not just home rule for Scotland, but home rule all round.”

Later, speaking to the Western Mail, Carwyn Jones added, “From my point of view, I’d like there to be an inter-governmental conference between the four governments to agree a way forward; that would involve setting up a standing executive, I suspect, that would look at how you get public views as well.  At the end of the process there would be an agreement between the four governments on the constitution of the UK…The problem has been that the conversations about devolution over the last 15 years have taken place in three different rooms; one a conversation with Scotland, one with Wales, one with Northern Ireland – we need to be in the same room now to get the right structure for a stable and strong UK for the 21st century and beyond.”

We’ve become accustomed to some jockeying for position between Cardiff Bay and the Labour team at Westminster.  Not wishing to be sidelined by a “four governments” negotiation, Owen Smith, Shadow Welsh Secretary commented, “People see Government as being the problem so people want to take greater control over their local circumstances, local priority-setting and spending and potentially tax-raising – even in England, in the English cities. And I don’t think you can devise a system that’s going to afford people those new freedoms without involving them right from the beginning in the design of those systems.”

Picking up those cues for democratic involvement in the redesign of the UK constitution, and to give further weight to Welsh claims, the IWA immediately stepped forward on 22 September by launching its plan for a crowd-sourced constitutional convention.

So, after fifteen years of “real existing Devolution”, not only has “Home Rule” re-entered  political discourse  (it sounds more solid than “Devolution”, doesn’t it?) but Carwyn Jones has even put his weight behind the old nineteenth century Liberal Unionist formula of “Home Rule All Round”.

As four governments in the UK (and plenty of backbenchers in all parties) start to get their oar in, following the rejection of the constitutional status quo by 45% of Scots voters, it might be worth reminding ourselves, at least in outline, of the origins of the slogans “Home Rule”, and “Home Rule All Round”. When and why did they came into common usage, why did they fade – for many, many years – from the scene and, most relevantly of all, why are they suddenly echoing among us again?

In recent months, we’ve read a lot about the Act of Union of 1707. We haven’t heard so much about the other Act of Union which came into effect on 1 January 1801. In 1800, within two years of the crushing of the United Irishmen’s rising of 1798 and in the midst of the war with revolutionary France, Pitt’s government in London very quickly made arrangements, acting in tandem through the unreformed, rotten borough Parliaments of both London and Dublin, to pass an Act of Union abolishing the Dublin parliament and bringing a large number (just over 100) Irish MPs to Westminster instead.  Along with his anti-trade union Combination Laws and repression of radical democrats in England, Scotland and Wales, Pitt wanted to have more direct strategic control over Ireland and its ports.

From that point onwards, there was a deepening sense of grievance in democratic Irish politics, among both Protestant and Catholic radicals (even after partial Catholic Emancipation in 1829) and calls for Repeal of the Act of Union. As early as 1803, Robert Emmett led an Irish revolt. By the 1830s, while English and Welsh radicals were campaigning for parliamentary reform and, later, the People’s Charter (including the Merthyr Rising of 1831 and the Newport Rising of 1839), in Ireland Daniel O’Connell  led the Tithe War, protesting against the injustice of an overwhelmingly Catholic population being forced to support an Anglican clergy.  By 1843, this agitation became more generalised into a campaign for Repeal of the Act of Union and for “Home Rule”.  Under O’Connell’s plan, Ireland would remain part of the United Kingdom and loyal to the Crown, but with the restoration of a Parliament in Dublin with a wide measure of control over the Irish economy and trade.

At Westminster, after the Repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, and a big political realignment of landowners and industrialists, it was an era dominated  by the rivalry between Tories and Liberals. Whenever there was a situation of deadlock in General Elections and the prospect of a hung parliament, the Irish Parliamentary Party – which more and more acted as a united group, under Parnell especially – was in a strong position to demand Home Rule, if the Liberals could form a Government, but  relying on the big bloc of Irish MPs for support.

Gladstone’s Liberals introduced Irish Home Rule bills in 1886 and again in 1893. On each occasion they failed.  In 1886 a split in the Liberal camp between Gladstone and Joseph Chamberlain’s followers meant a failed Second Reading of the Home Rule Bill and the resignation of Gladstone’s Government.  During the crisis around the first Irish Home Rule bill, Chamberlain abandoned his radical reputation and emerged as the leader of the industrialist, unionist and most explicitly Imperialist wing of the Liberals.  To cover his opposition to Home Rule for Ireland and the loss of Irish MPs from the Imperial Parliament, he coined the phrase “Home Rule All Round” instead.  His new idea purported to devolve wide areas of government to Parliaments in Ireland, Scotland and Wales, effectively reducing governmental dependence on the Irish Parliamentary Party. With the defeat of Home Rule in 1886, Gladstone resigned and was out of office (until 1892). Meanwhile, Chamberlain emerged as leader of the “Liberal Unionists”, who eventually became a wing of the Tory Party.

From 1885 to 1914, the Irish question remained a problem for London government, especially when the Liberals were in power.  The Liberals again formed a government in 1892. In the 1892 General Election, a combined total of 315 Conservatives and Liberal Unionists were elected, set against 273 of Gladstone’s Liberals and 81 Irish Nationalists.

In 1893, under Gladstone’s second Home Rule Bill, Irish MPs would have retained 80 votes at Westminster on “Imperial issues only”. This time, Home Rule was blocked by the Tory-dominated House of Lords. James Connolly, Ireland’s foremost socialist, had an interesting take on this. In “Erin’s Hope”, first published in 1897, he wrote, “The second Home Rule Bill was slightly more democratic than the first, therefore the Government made no effort to force it on the Upper House.”

Throughout this period, Wales (unlike Scotland) voted overwhelmingly Liberal. The main issues for Welsh Liberalism were Land Reform and Disestablishment, rather than Home Rule for Wales. In any case, the Welsh Liberals were too deeply tied into the Liberal Party machine at Westminster to use the strength of their mandate to formulate, let alone advance, clear claims for Welsh Home Rule with any effectiveness.  In 1892, all but three parliamentary seats in Wales, 31 in all, went to the Liberals. Unexpectedly, the leader of Welsh Liberalism,  T E Ellis, accepted a Government appointment as Deputy Chief Whip.  Even taking into account Tom Ellis’ predicament with the lure of ‘working within the machine’, in Gwynfor Evans’ view, “This was the one act which did most to impede the movement for self-government… Wales paid heavily for Tom Ellis’ fateful decision. He opened the path that Lloyd George made into a main highway for the Welsh to advance in the English political world.” One of Ellis’ colleagues, Arthur Price (a “High Church nationalist” in John Davies’ phrase) went further: “He himself did not see that if a genuine Welsh Home Rule Party was to be constituted, it must be as independent of English Liberalism as of English Toryism.”

At Westminster, the Tories returned to office from 1895-1906. A landslide victory for the Liberals in 1906 on a programme of radical welfare reform, led by Campbell-Bannerman and, later, Asquith, ushered in a decade of social tumult. These were the years of Lloyd George’s “People’s Budget” of 1909 and impasse with the House of Lords, two General Elections in 1910 – to strengthen the Liberal mandate – and, in 1911, the Parliament Act to curb the Lords.  Mass strikes swept Britain in 1911, including a police strike.  Against this backdrop, in April 1912 Asquith introduced the Third Irish Home Rule Bill and persevered with it in the face of paramilitary opposition, encouraged by Tory Grandees, from Carson’s Ulster Volunteers.  Asquith looked for a way to exempt the 6 counties of the north-east from Home Rule for a period of five years and a Conference took place, convened at Buckingham Palace, to examine this.  The outbreak of War in August 1914 meant that, although the Irish Home Rule Act (and the Welsh Church Act) nominally became law in September 1914, they did so alongside a special Act suspending their operation, for a minimum of 12 months and, in effect, “for the duration”.

Not everyone was prepared to wait. At Easter 1916 armed republicans, supported by Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army, barricaded themselves into the GPO in Dublin and declared the Irish Republic.  Irish sympathy for the rebels actually grew after their defeat by British troops and the execution of their leaders. In those new circumstances, many republicans would no longer settle for Home Rule within the Empire.

While Ireland was always to the fore, Home Rule continued to be an issue in Scotland and Wales during the last 15 years of the nineteenth century, unfolding differently in each.  As early as 1886 a Scottish Home Rule Association was founded, but Wales had to wait until 1894-5 for the formation of Cymru Fydd (usually translated as Young Wales).  Initially, Lloyd George invested time and enthusiasm in Cymru Fydd and called for Welsh Home Rule, but a series of very rocky mass meetings in South Wales made it clear that many influential Liberals, including the industrialist D A Thomas, Liberal MP for Merthyr, had their eye on global markets and wanted the strongest possible commercial and political ties with the Imperial capital.  After the debacle of one such meeting in Newport in January 1896, where he was howled down,  Lloyd George turned away from the Home Rule formula altogether and clearly decided to take the highway described by Gwynfor Evans. Indeed, according to the Lloyd George papers, lodged at the National Library in Aberystwyth,  the Welsh Wizard told J H Lewis at Thomas Gee’s funeral in 1898 that “it would have been better, back in 1886, if the Welsh had declined to support Gladstone but followed Chamberlain into Home Rule All Round.”

With relegation of the cause of Home Rule for Wales from its main priorities by the Welsh Liberals in 1896, the torch was taken up by the socialists of the ILP, most notably by Keir Hardie, MP for Merthyr and Aberdare from 1900-1915, and subsequently by the newly-formed Labour Party. In May 1918, the Labour Party General Secretary, Arthur Henderson, a Scot,  wrote an article entitled “Home Rule All Round” in the journal, “Welsh Outloook”. He argued, “The development of capitalism and of modern trade unionism in Wales proceed side by side, and it is impossible to name a community where the conditions are more ripe than they are in Wales for a bold experiment in the direction of complete political and industrial democracy. Given self-government Wales might establish itself as a modern Utopia, and to develop its own institutions, its own arts, its own national culture, its own ideal of democracy in politics, industry and social life, as an example and an inspiration to the rest of the world.” Henderson’s optimism reflected the general view in the Labour movement in Wales that a combination of Welsh coal, strong trade unions and a radical countryside (unlike England and Scotland where the Toryism and landlordism held sway in rural areas) gave Labour special opportunities for advance. Not surprisingly, in June 1918, Home Rule All Round was adopted as part of the Labour Party manifesto. A unanimous vote for a federal Britain was passed by the South Wales Labour Federation and the North Wales Quarrymens’ Union passed a resolution calling for a Welsh Assembly.

In his “History of Wales”, John Davies explains the situation immediately following the Armistice of November 1918 and points to widespread support, from left and right, for a federal solution at that time: “There were constitutional aspects to reconstruction, for there was a widespread feeling that the British constitutional system would be inadequate to deal with the problems which would arise after the war…Indeed, the readiness of the Tories to consider Home Rule for Wales and Scotland sprang partly from their desire to avoid making a special case for Ireland.”

In reality, of course, events followed a very different path. The painful experience of Ireland – through armed struggle, the bitter division in the Dail following the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 (negotiated face-to-face by Lloyd George and Michael Collins) and the consequent Civil War – understandably took centre stage.  Calls for Home Rule for Wales and Scotland began to fade as Labour leaders realised what a powerful component the votes of the coalfield electors were becoming for Labour’s cause generally.  Indeed, in the General Election of 1931, after the defection of Ramsay MacDonald to form the “National Government”, Labour was reduced to  a rump of 41 MPs in the whole of Britain. Wales provided 16 of those (39% of the total). In those circumstances, Labour naturally came to rely heavily on Welsh and Scottish constituencies to rebuild its electoral support.

Throughout the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, there remained a “Home Rule” strand in the Welsh and Scottish Labour movements, characterised  above all in Wales by Merthyr’s longstanding rebel left-wing MP, S O Davies. He was supported by a handful of others. (One of these, representing a Scottish coalfield constituency, was Keir Hardie’s son-in-law,  Emrys Hughes.) The Welsh Communist Party and the South Wales Miners, led by Dai Francis, took up the call for a Welsh Assembly during the 1960s. Welsh Liberals also continued to argue for Home Rule too, but increasingly the campaign for self-government became associated with Plaid Cymru.  As early as 1949, Plaid had launched a campaign for “A Parliament for Wales within Five Years”, supported by S O Davies, of course!

But, for many years, these were voices in the wilderness and the eyes of the overwhelming majority in the Welsh Labour movement  looked to London for answers to the big social questions. What changed all this? What reintroduced devolution and Home Rule into the vocabulary of everyday politics?

In many ways, 1966 is a turning point. On 31 March 1966, Harold Wilson won a majority of over 100 in the General Election. Labour’s tally included 32 out of 36 Welsh seats, including Cardigan, Merioneth and Anglesey. But 1966 also saw two straws in the wind which pointed to big future changes.  From 16 May- 1 July the first national seamen’s strike since 1911 took place, a sign of many workers’  bitterness and frustration at Wilson’s identification with an agenda of modern ‘managerialism’ and productivity – and presaging the disillusionment with Wilson and Callaghan’s governments which ultimately led to Thatcher’s victory in October 1979.

The other remarkable event  of that year took place in Wales on 14 July 1966; the by-election in Carmarthen led to Gwynfor Evans being elected as Plaid’s first MP, overturning the 9,233 majority which Megan Lloyd George had won for Labour barely 3 months previously.

By common consent, the Thatcher-Major years from 1979-1997 had a disproportionate impact on Wales and Scotland. With economies heavily reliant on state-owned, heavy industry – notably coal, steel and rail – Wales and Scotland were hit hard by the Chicago School programme of privatisation and deindustrialisation. The restructuring which hit eastern Europe after 1989 can fairly be said to have been trialled in Wales and Scotland.  Alienation and strong feelings of disengagement and disenfranchisement were the result. Large swathes of northern England were affected similarly, but in Wales and Scotland there was an added, national, dimension to anti-Thatcherism. Undeniably, this national dimension – already demonstrated by the very different Referendum results in Wales and Scotland in 1979, was significantly stronger in Scotland (where Thatcher first trialled the Poll Tax too!)

The anti-Thatcher commitment  to devolution of Scottish Labour and the Scottish TUC had a big impact in the Labour Party generally – especially when Neil Kinnock stepped down from the Labour  leadership after his second General Election defeat in 1992, giving way to the pro-devolutionist, John Smith.  Wales benefitted from this aspect of the legacy of John Smith, who led the Labour Party from 1992 until his death in 1994. That legacy was maintained, into the Blair years, by a strong group of Scottish Labour leaders, including Gordon Brown, Donald Dewar and Robin Cook, who directly felt the social and electoral pressure of the SNP.

Tony Blair came to power on 1 May 1997. In the referendums of 1998, Scotland voted 2-1 for devolution whereas Wales, still largely reassured by and loyal to a Labour Government in London, voted Yes with the barest of majorities.

So, Joseph Chamberlain’s somewhat demagogic slogan of Home Rule All Round in 1886 has come a long way and played several  rather different roles in the last 128 years. In 1918, it formed a genuine part of the hopes and beliefs of the nascent Labour Party – and particularly of its most radical elements in Wales. Ironically, though, the very strength of Labour as it grew into a major political force at Westminster and the crucial importance of the large Welsh contingent to Labour’s chances of electoral success meant the eclipse of Home Rule – for several generations.

In effect, Labour’s growing strength, peaking electorally in 1945, 1966 and backed by real trade union power, marginalised the appeal of Home Rule. Labour achieved a big electoral victory in 1997 too but in very different circumstances. This followed the defeats of the steelworkers in 1980 and the NUM in 1985. The power of the unions was diminished.  In that sense, the rise of national consciousness in Wales and Scotland since the 1960s eventually coincided with the weakening of the organised labour movement during the Thatcher years.

It can fairly be argued that a strong Labour movement relegated Home Rule to a secondary and tertiary position for 70 years from 1924, when Labour formed its first government. In that sense, Labour was of key importance in binding “The Union”  together. That was shown to be the case again during the crucial last 10 days of the Scottish referendum campaign.

Even so, after the shock to the system of 45% of Scots voting to leave the UK on 18 September 2014, Home Rule All Round is definitely back on the agenda.

Andy Bevan spent nine years with VSO between 1988-1997 supporting development projects in Africa. From 1997 to 2013 he worked on the EU’s Voluntary Service programme and in 2000 co-founded ICP Partneriaeth. He is the author of the IWA's Senedd Paper 'A real citizen's service for Wales'.