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Ireland and British democracy in the 1910s and 1920s December 28, 2012

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.
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I’ve just finished reading an interesting book by a British historian Martin Pugh entitled ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts!’ – Fascists and Fascism in Britain Between the Wars. There’s a lot in it, and he does an excellent job in demonstrating that far from the rather comfortable narrative that fascism faded away in the mid 1930s and was largely uninfluential there was instead a reprise in the late 1930s of the BUF (amongst others) in relation to appeasement, and that it was to find support in all classes and parts of Britain. Indeed he explicitly notes that the far right of the Tories and fascist organisations saw a crossover between them of members, no small number who were or went on to be Tory MPs.

But all that aside Pugh makes a point when writing about the origins of fascism in Britain that has been raised here before. He says:

British confidence in parliamentary democracy has been greatly exaggerated. In the pre-1914 period Britain still fell a considerable way short of being a democracy, and in some respects lagged behind the United States and France, for example. Before 1918 four out of every ten men, and all women, still failed to qualify as voters. Historically, voting in Britain was largely linked to property rights as manifested in land ownership and payment of rates and taxes; from this it followed that all those who depended on the Poor Law were automatically barred from voting. The notion of people as citizens who possessed individual rights was regarded as abstract and alien; rather the vote was extended to people who had a stake in the country, and did their duty to the state.

He continues:

Moreover, in the absence of a formal constitution British people enjoyed few of the rights and liberties of citizens… in effect whatever rights people enjoyed had to be specifically conferred upon them by parliament. But by the same token they could be withdrawn or curtailed. After the 1914-18 war, for example, parliament deprived conscientious objectors of their vote for a five year period and it suspended general elections from 1915 until the end of 1918.

And:

Just how ruthless the British government could be in responding to its critics had been demonstrated by the largely successful suppression of the Women’s Social and Political Union from 1912 to 1914.

Indeed the history of the suppression of the suffragettes is a remarkable and disturbing one. So bad was the level of repression that Christabel Pankhurst had to find refuge in Paris

And pointing directly to this island Pugh writes:

Thus despite its reputation for liberalism, Britsih politics was also notably authoritarian in some respects. Many politicians were less impressed by the parliamentary tradition and more attracted by the alternative autocratic mode of government adopted in the empire.

That latter is a fascinating point and one that in the discussions over alternatives to Home Rule in the 1912 period onwards is often ignored by those who argue that without 1916 there was a clear path forward beyond the use of physical force. And Pugh notes too:

Ireland enjoyed a hybrid form of government involving an essentially imperial rule mitigated by Irish representation in both houses of parliament.

And Pugh points to how deeply embedded within the British apparatus these repressive and authoritarian modes were, notably in relation to issues in Britain itself – for example, the Home Secretary of the time (1912 and after) allowed numerous repressive measures to be imposed on the suffragettes despite the antagonism of his own Attorney-General.

It is this dispassionate overview by Pugh that lends support to the idea that Home Rule was ill-equipped to wrest concessions, let alone make significant progress, from a British state that was far from reformed – even by the standards of the time.

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Comments»

1. Jim Monaghan - December 28, 2012

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Strange_Death_of_Liberal_England

I found this book paralleled to a degree the themes mentioned above.

2. Cass Flower (@cassflower) - December 29, 2012

Very interesting, particularly in the context of the repeated assaults on democratic and civil rights in Britain since the 1960s.

3. ejh - December 29, 2012

Moreover, in the absence of a formal constitution British people enjoyed few of the rights and liberties of citizens… in effect whatever rights people enjoyed had to be specifically conferred upon them by parliament.

I’d want to see that argument developed, as I’m not at all sure that’s right.

4. British suffragettes and ceramic art | Dear Kitty. Some blog - February 4, 2013

[...] Ireland and British democracy in the 1910s and 1920s (cedarlounge.wordpress.com) [...]


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