Why should socialists spend time examining a period of history from over a hundred years ago? Perhaps the best reason is that between 1879 and 1895 there are striking parallels to the situation we find ourselves in today. This was also a period of increasing inter-imperialist competition as the previously dominant world power began to lose its leading position. In the late nineteenth century it was the UK that found itself in this new situation; today it is the USA, with the UK continuing to fall well down the global pecking order.
Furthermore, when we compare the UK over the two periods, we can see the continuing significance of national democratic challenges to the unionist state. ‘The Irish Revolution’1 (1), which began in 1879, triggered a series of economic, social and political movements, which led to a questioning of the very existence of the UK. As a result, profound divisions emerged amongst the British ruling class over how best to maintain its rule over these islands and their wider empire. Major economic and social struggles became linked to demands for national self-determination in Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Clearly there are important echoes of this situation today.
From 1875, with the beginnings of the ‘New Imperialism’2 (2), Disraeli’s Conservative government had begun to pursue increasingly aggressive colonial policies. These reflected the growing concerns of a British ruling class, now facing global competition from a larger number of European states. These states had followed the British road to economic development through industrialisation, with its need for overseas raw materials and markets.
Prior to this, in the middle of the nineteenth century British capitalism had enjoyed such a dominant economic position that its leading spokesmen declared their support for a non-colonial, ‘free trade’ world order3 (3). By the last quarter of the century, however, the leaders of the UK state increasingly abandoned this model, joining others in the scramble for colonies.
From 1879, a new challenge developed to this recharged British imperialism. It drew its politics largely from the social republican tradition found in Ireland, and from the Radical tradition found in England, Scotland and Wales. This opposition was formed in response to the failure of traditional Liberals, led by William Gladstone, to uphold their earlier support for civil rights and opposition to colonial expansion.
The most significant figure in this opposition was Michael Davitt. He had been an infant Irish immigrant and child textile worker, losing his arm in an industrial accident. He joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood (the Fenians) as a teenager in 1865 and was imprisoned in 1870.
After his release, in 1877, Davitt initiated the ‘New Departure’, with the support of American social republicans in the Fenian movement. This led to the setting up of the Irish National Land League (INLL), in 1879, to challenge the Ascendancy landlords and to win ‘land for the people’. It was one of the biggest ‘lower orders’ movements in the nineteenth century UK. As well as enjoying a truly mass basis, the INLL was a revolutionary movement involved in legal and extra-legal struggle, as well as political campaigning. It had major economic, social, cultural and political effects, not only in Ireland, but also upon the wider UK.
Davitt attempted to unite land and labour struggles across the four nations constituting the United Kingdom – Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales – and beyond into the British Empire and the USA. He developed an internationalism from below approach to win wider support for the INLL. Furthermore, he deepened this alliance by contributing to the development of land and labour organisations in Scotland, England and Wales.
The Land Leagues, whether in Ireland, the Highlands and Islands of Scotland or Wales, all organised in areas where there was still considerable support for religion and a strong identification with particular denominations. Davitt and his allies were able to unite Catholic and Protestant tenant farmers, and sometimes, landless labourers and cottars. The Irish Land League even made some inroads amongst tenant farmers in the Orange Order, despite the extreme hostility of the Order’s leadership.
The Catholic Davitt was well received by the largely Free Church crofters and cottars in the Highlands and Islands. The first Catholic MP to be elected from a Scottish constituency to Westminster was the Land League candidate for overwhelmingly Protestant Argyll in 1885.
Davitt was prepared to take on the Catholic hierarchy whenever it opposed the Irish Land League. The radical wing of the Highland Land League, in its fight against landlordism, also took on the Free Church leadership. Social republican and Radical leaders in the Land Leagues were trying to develop a secular approach, which set aside religious differences, the better to unite people behind their economic, social and political struggles.
However, the President of the INLL, Charles Parnell, an atypical Irish Protestant landlord, decided to follow a different course. The full potential of the INLL had to be curtailed in a ‘counter-revolution within the revolution’. Parnell looked to a growing Irish bourgeoisie and the better-off tenant farmers to support Irish capitalist interests. He came to depend more and more upon the Catholic hierarchy to contain the ‘lower orders’ component of the INLL.
Parnell represented an ‘internationalism from above’ alliance, seeking supporters amongst the liberal wing of the British ruling class, particularly Gladstone’s Liberal Party. In 1882, Parnell and his allies closed down the INLL in order to form a purely constitutional nationalist party, the National League. It had the aim of winning Irish Home Rule, promoting peasant proprietorship and Irish industry.
The First Irish Home Rule Bill, adopted by Gladstone’s Liberal government, was defeated in 1886. A new government led by the Conservative Lord Salisbury took office. Parnell’s attempts at political wheeler-dealing with top British politicians had come unstuck.
Davitt and his allies now had to further develop an ‘internationalism from below’ strategy to confront a thoroughly jingoist, racist and sectarian Unionist alliance. The Unionists would countenance no concession over Irish Home Rule, and revelled enthusiastically over every latest imperial exploit. This was the conservative unionist approach to maintaining British ruling class domination at home and abroad. It vehemently opposed the liberal unionist approach4 and its support for Home Rule (Devolution) for the constituent nations of the UK.
As ‘New Imperialism’ increased its stranglehold over British politics, the Liberal Party, including many on its Radical wing, were drawn into its slipstream, just as today New Labour, including many once on the Left, has become the servant of a new corporate imperial order. In the late nineteenth century, however, a section of advanced Radicals reacted against these political retreats and made the first tentative steps towards socialism. Robert Cunninghame-Graham and Keir Hardie were just two such examples in Scotland. Nevertheless, many former Radicals, who went on to become Socialists, still retained much of their earlier politics.
One contrast, though, compared with today, was that the Conservative Party, hitherto seen as a major impediment to any democratic advance, began to develop a Tory Democrat wing. Its adherents made appeals to the newly enfranchised workers. They were offered limited reforms in return for giving their support to British ruling class attempts to expand the Empire. The Conservative leader, Benjamin Disraeli, was one of the first to see the possibilities of harnessing the link between reform and Empire; but it was Randolph Churchill, who attempted to push this further, by appealing directly to the working class, as a Tory Democrat. He strongly linked expansion of the British Empire with the defence of the existing British unionist state. He looked to the local dignitary-led and plebian-supported Orange Order in Ulster for inspiration in forming his pro-imperial, cross class, Unionist alliance.
Many workers were drawn into Conservative Unionist and further Right populist organisations. They hoped to gain economically from the Empire, or to draw some psychological comfort by celebrating their ‘racial’ or religious ‘superiority’, in the confusing, rapidly changing world they lived in. The growing number of wars, directed against the peoples of the colonies, took only a small number of British lives. The real cost was to come later, when the inevitable consequence of growing inter-imperialist competition led to the mass slaughter of the First World War. By then, though, the leaders of the Conservative Unionists could look with smug satisfaction as their Liberal, Irish Home-Rule, and some Labour and Socialist ‘opponents’ all threw themselves into the promotion of the carnage.
However, back in the 1880’s, a few Tory Democrats, such as Henry Hyndman and Henry Champion, broke with the Conservative Party and became leading figures in the new Socialist movement. Like many former Radical Liberals, who joined them, first in the Democratic Federation (DF), and then the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), these individuals retained aspects of their old politics, especially their lingering support for English/Anglo-Saxon/British supremacy and racism. Some of the clashes, which took place in the early Socialist movement, reflected this prior division between Radical Liberals and Tory Democrats.
The launching of the Irish Land War, in 1879, and the formation of the INLL, had been the main inspiration behind the formation of the DF in 1881. Its members began by opposing Gladstone’s Liberal government’s newfound support for state coercion. By 1884, the majority of DF members had come to the conclusion that Radicalism was inadequate, and they changed the organisation’s name to the SDF, reflecting their conversion to Socialism.
The SDF showed many of the characteristics which have plagued later attempts at Socialist organisation – whether to concentrate on militant actions coupled with Socialist propaganda, or to seek political office by advocating limited reforms; or whether to seek constitutional or economic changes. Failure to develop a coherent programme, along with the lack of an integrated strategy, contributed to many of the setbacks and consequent splits amongst Socialists at the time, just as they continue to do today.
One early breakaway from the SDF was the small, but quite influential, Socialist League (SL), formed in 1885. It soon became divided between those who wanted to make propaganda for Socialism, and those, mainly in its affiliated Scottish Land and Labour League (SLLL), who wanted to orientate upon trade union, crofter and cottar struggles.
These early Socialists joined the wider struggle against those forces, both Conservative and Liberal, which were either aggressively advancing the Empire and defending the existing Union, or meekly bowing before the new onslaught. Due to the massive impact of the Irish Land League struggle on British politics, economic and social struggles became closely linked to the political battle for greater Irish self-determination. Furthermore, as new Land Leagues were formed in Scotland and Wales, the demand for Home Rule was taken up in these nations too. The majority of the independent Crofter candidates of 1885, and those in the new Scottish Labour Party formed in 1888, supported both Irish and Scottish Home Rule.
Many key individuals, from the land and labour struggles of the 1880’s, contributed to the massive wave of ‘New (Trade) Unionism’ which burst out in 1889. They faced a similar situation to that faced by Socialists and trade unionists today. Only then, Socialists were up against the politics of Lib-Labism5. Trade union leaders were still tied to an earlier Radical Liberal vision of a ‘British Free Trade Empire’ and a ‘fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work’.
Today we are up against the politics of New Labour, with trade union leaders locked into the politics of ‘social partnership’. Some of these misleaders still hanker back to the disappearing vision of the post-war, ‘British Welfare State Empire’, when workers in the UK were looked after ‘from the cradle to the grave’.
Furthermore, prior to 1889, the vast majority of unskilled and casual workers lay outside the New Model unions6, which had developed since the 1850’s. Today, union membership has shrunk back to a minority of workers, mostly concentrated in the public sector. This has left vast numbers in the private sector unorganised, particularly women, migrant, part-time and casual workers.
The majority of the British Left today is tied to a Broad Left strategy of recapturing the ‘old’ unions by replacing their existing leaders (many of whom are earlier Broad Left leaders) with new Left leaders. In contrast, any contemporary ‘New Unionism’ would aim to thoroughly democratise existing unions and bring them under rank and file workers’ control; or, where necessary, build completely new unions to bring together those workers who are now completely unorganised.
Nor is the left nationalist notion of breakaway national unions much use against the global corporations that workers confront today. Yes, national (and sectoral) union sections need much more autonomy, but unions should encompass as many workers as possible. The key issue is not the existence of a union HQ flying a national flag (e.g. the tricolour or saltire), but the need for union sovereignty to reside with workers at the workplace level, not in union national HQs. The nationally based Scottish teachers’ union, the Educational Institute of Scotland, is one of the most fervent upholders of the embrace of government and employers, not so much in social partnership, more a morganatic marriage7.
Today, some may take comfort from the fact that the majority of the British ruling class has opted for the liberal devolutionary unionist, and not the conservative direct rule unionist option, in order to maintain its rule over the UK. New Labour promotes (and the Conservatives have reluctantly accepted) ‘Devolution-all-round’ (i.e. for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales). This goes along with the all-party joint UK/Irish government promotion of the ‘Peace Process’, by which British influence is also maintained, albeit indirectly, over ‘Twenty-Six Counties’ Ireland.
Increasingly the Nationalist parties are being drawn into the running of the British state’s devolved administrations. This includes the one time revolutionary nationalist Sinn Fein, now in partnership with the UK’s most reactionary governing party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). These British and Irish ruling class political initiatives have been backed by the social partnerships of compliant trade union leaders and aggressive governments and employers.
Yet, the aims of today’s liberal unionists and constitutional nationalists are the same as those of the conservative unionists of the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries. They want to create the best political environment for their principal class backers. Today this means allowing corporate capitalists to lower wages, attack working conditions and undermine pensions, and supporting deregulation and privatisation. It means fawning before the requirements of finance capital.
The British ruling class may indeed have learned some political lessons from the failures of their earlier support for intransigent conservative unionism. When Conservative and Liberal Unionists tried to face down the rising demand for Irish Home Rule, in the 1880’s, ‘90s and the first two decades of the twentieth century, this eventually proved to be a disastrous strategy for them. By 1922, direct rule over twenty-six counties of Ireland had been ended, and the UK state had begun to break-up.
The British government then turned for help to the very Irish Nationalists they had been attempting to crush. Shared class interests proved stronger than national differences. The British promoted the 1922-23 Irish Civil War to ensure that their favoured conservative, Empire-accepting Nationalists triumphed over their Republican opponents in the ‘Twenty Six Counties’. The Republican institutions set up in the War of Independence were systematically dismantled, paving the way for many of the British-inspired institutions in the new Irish Free State. Thus the British ruling class added a new weapon to its wide armoury of mechanisms for exercising their political and social control – the neo-colonial manipulation of Nationalist parties.
Within a decade of the establishment of the Irish Free State the position of the conservative Catholic Church was enshrined in the constitution, in an analogous way to the conservative Crown Powers in the UK. Meanwhile the British state’s Unionist allies in ‘the Six Counties’ resorted to the Belfast pogroms from 1920-22, with their use of sectarian police and paramilitary forces, followed by the electoral gerrymandering of the new Northern Ireland constituencies to establish and consolidate a ‘Protestant Parliament for a Protestant People’8.
After these particular traumas, this British imposed settlement seemed so permanent that the dramatic failings of pre-1922 conservative unionism were largely forgotten for almost half a century. However, in the late 1960’s, new national democratic movements began to challenge British rule in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. These movements also coincided with major working class struggles in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.
The British ruling class experimented with both liberal devolutionary9 and liberal centralist10 measures to deal with the new national democratic challenges. To deal with the simultaneous working class challenge, the Labour government produced the liberal Bullock Report in 1975, which advocated forms of worker participation in industry. However, following Labour’s capitulation to International Monetary Fund dictates in 1976, they increasingly resorted to more draconian measures to suppress working class discontent, including the use of troops to break the strikes of the Glasgow binmen in 1977 and the firefighters in 1977-8.
To cope with the national democratic challenges they faced, both the Conservatives (in the late 1960’s) and the Labour Party (in the later 1970’s) made half-hearted liberal unionist devolutionary moves11. However, once the British ruling class had reasserted its control over events between 1977-79, it returned to the old failed conservative unionist strategy of Direct Rule, defence of the constitutional status quo, backed by threats and coercion.
Meanwhile, under Thatcher’s post-1979 Conservative government, anti-trade union laws soon tamed most union leaderships. The TUC and the Labour Party leaders left the National Union of Miners (NUM) isolated, when it defied these new laws. Between 1984-5, the NUM faced a wide range of the coercive powers available to the UK state, some developed in ‘the Six Counties’. The Labour Party and TUC leadership’s adoption of ‘New Realism’ was but the beginnings of the road back to the Lib-Lab ‘Old Unionism’ of the nineteenth century, and its complete and unquestioning acceptance of capitalist rule. Neo-liberal New Labour became the end product.
Thatcher’s British Unionist, “Out, out, out” 12 intransigence towards any democratic change in Ireland first began under Labour, in the late 70’s. The attempt by then Labour Northern Irish Secretary, Roy Mason, to criminalise any effective opposition had its parallels in the introduction of coercion to Ireland in 1881 by the Gladstone Liberal government’s Irish Secretary, William ‘Buckshot’ Forster’. This occurred long before Lord Salisbury’s Conservative Irish Secretary, ‘Bloody Balfour’, was given free rein in 1887.
The failure of the UK state to meet the constitutional and economic reform demands, initially raised by the Civil Rights Movement in the ‘Six Counties’, in the late 1960’s, produced another period of political and constitutional instability, lasting over a quarter of a century. An overt and determined Republican challenge emerged within the UK’s frontiers. Thatcher’s later attempt to deny even limited political self-determination, for either Scotland or Wales, made the ‘National Question’ an even wider and more volatile political issue. Her attempt to use Scotland as a testing ground for the poll tax just highlighted the unionist state’s democratic deficit.
A diffuse Scottish social republicanism emerged in Scotland. However, the largest Socialist organisations (Militant and the Socialist Workers Party) remained committed to a ‘British road to socialism’ and still supported, albeit critically, the British Labour Party. Therefore, socialist republicanism, with its advocacy of ‘internationalism from below’, was only able to establish a toehold on the Socialist spectrum.
Nevertheless, the massive opposition to the poll tax, across the whole of Britain, and the inability of the British state to break the Irish Republican challenge by brute force alone, led to Thatcher’s downfall, and the ending of the British ruling class commitment to intransigent unionism. In their majority, they now unceremoniously dumped Thatcher in 1990 and, under John Major’s government, adopted the Downing Street Agreement, in 1993, to bring Irish Republicans on board.
Conservatives were now committed to a liberal unionist strategy to defend the Union. When this proved too limited to contain the wider national challenges, the ruling class turned instead to New Labour’s policy of ‘Devolution-all-round’ for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. This represents, in effect, a return to the old nineteenth century Liberal ‘Home Rule-all-round’ strategy.
However, as in the case of the nineteenth century divide between Conservatives and Liberals, there is little difference behind the strategic aims of today’s Conservatives and New Labour. Both are committed to maintaining a British imperial presence in the wider world. Both accept that the British ruling class can now only achieve this as a junior partner to US imperialism. This political path leads to continuous wars, attacks on civil rights, austerity welfare provision, and the scape-goating of migrant workers. There is indeed now a tension between New Labour’s and the Tories’ shared liberal unionism at home and their conservative militaristic imperialism abroad. But, under today’s prevailing political conditions, it is the liberal unionism that is more likely to give.
Each retreat from the initially more liberal unionist, Good Friday Agreement (1998) – first the St Andrews Agreement (2006) and now the Hillsborough Agreement (2010) – has further entrenched conservative unionism. The emergence of the True Unionist Voice, to the right of the DUP, and the latest electoral alliance between Cameron’s Conservatives and the Ulster Unionist Party (an alliance broken in 1974 and 1985) demonstrates the continued growth of reaction in ‘the Six Counties’.
New Labour has also fallen back on the nastier traits, usually associated with conservative unionism and imperialism. Indeed, as international competition becomes more pronounced, in the wake of the current ‘Credit Crunch’ and the deepening worldwide recession, New Labour, in defending the interests of finance and other corporate capital, and attacking workers’ livelihoods, is preparing the ground for even more jingoistic, racist and sectarian forces.
Former New Labour Immigration Minister, Philip Woolas, has shown that it is not only Conservatives, who will stoop to the gutter, when it comes to racist attacks to divert attention from the real causes of the economic crisis. Meanwhile, the rise of the BNP, and the continued presence of malevolent Loyalist forces in ‘the Six Counties’, shows that even more sinister forces are lurking not far below the surface in the UK. Events in Berlusconi’s Italy demonstrate that it is but a short step from government promoted racist policies to assaults upon and murders of migrants and members of ethnic minorities.
As we try to build a new Socialist movement, an appreciation of the Left’s politics, between 1879 and 1895, provides us with useful insights. The Radicals were then the dominant force on the Left, from whom the infant Socialist and Labour movements inherited much of their politics. The Radicals wanted to return to the mid-century ‘glory days’ of free trade and international peace.
Today’s Left includes those ‘Marxist Radicals’ – the entrants and outriders of the British Labour Party – who hope to re-establish the welfare state and to prolong the long period since 1945 without a world war. This is often tied to their Broad Left strategy for reclaiming the trade unions for ‘real Labour’. They mimic the attempts by ‘real Radicals’ in the 1880’s to reclaim the Liberal Party from the ‘sham Radicals’.
However, just as the rise of ‘New Imperialism’, at the end of the nineteenth century, spelled out the end of the old international ‘free trade’ capitalist order, so the development of corporate capitalist imperialism today means that the post-1945 social democratic world has changed irrevocably. New answers and approaches are required.
‘Marxist Radicals’ in the SWP and Socialist Party (former Militant)13 often defend the formation and continued existence of the UK as a ‘progressive’ achievement. They claim this historical gain, bringing working class unity, needs to be defended against the attacks of the Nationalists in Scotland and Wales. They completely fail to see the wider democratic issues at stake, or to understand the real nature of the UK’s unionist and imperialist state, with its anti-democratic Crown Powers. ‘Marxist Radicals’ take some consolation in the ‘Peace Process’ in ‘the Six Counties’. They believe this has reopened the possibility for raising ‘bread and butter’ issues, i.e. traditional labourist politics.
When ‘Marxist Radicals’ are forced to address major democratic and constitutional issues, they tend to follow their nineteenth century Radical predecessors. They either see the ‘National Question’ as a diversion from the ‘real struggle’, or begin by giving their support to liberal unionist options to defend the UK. When the ‘National Question’ refuses to go away, some ‘Marxist Radicals’ may go further, but still only end up tailing the more liberal sections of the British ruling class, when as they call for more powers for the existing devolved assemblies. A few go so far as to advocate a new federal arrangement between the constituent parts of the UK. This last ditch liberal option has a long pedigree, whenever the British union state is under real threat from national democratic movements.
When even these tactics become untenable, ‘Marxist Radicals’ may then transfer their support to the schemes offered by the Nationalists. They hide behind the formulation of support for the ‘right of national self-determination’. The political effect of this is to leave it to the various Nationalist parties to take the lead in formulating the politics of the national democratic movements. The only consistent aspect of all these ‘Marxist Radical’ approaches is their tailending of the constitutional ‘solutions’ offered by others.
Thus, by examining past history, we can see that the politics of those advocating various ‘British roads to socialism’ are but continuations of an older British Radical tradition, the ‘British road to progress’, which dominated the Left in Britain, in the late nineteenth century. Radicals tended to leave the political initiative to the Liberal Party and their Irish Home Rule allies. Following these traditions, today’s ‘Marxist Radicals’ usually take their political lead over the constitutional reform from the liberal wing of the British ruling class, or sometimes from the Nationalist parties – Sinn Fein or the SNP.
Yet, during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, an alternative tradition developed, which recognised some of the weaknesses of the Radicals of the day. In 1888, the Scottish Socialist Federation (SSF) was formed. It brought together SDF and SL/SLLL members, as well as other Socialists, to try and go beyond the politics of Radicalism and the subservience of Lib-Labism to the Liberal Party.
In some respects the SSF was a forerunner of the Scottish Socialist Alliance (SSA), formed in 1996, in the aftermath of the Anti-Poll Tax Struggle, and the continued failure of the Labour Party to meet workers’ needs. The SSA recognised the need for Socialists to take new look at the National Question. Left nationalist and left unionist tendencies united and clashed in the SSA and its successor organisation, the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP).
The left nationalist tradition14 came with the Scottish Republican Socialist Movement, and was taken up by sections of the former Militant/CWI, International Socialist Movement.
The left unionist tradition15 been passed on through the British Labour, Communist parties and various Trotskyist organisations. In particular, the SWP, Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and the CPGB-Weekly Worker brought this tradition into the SSP. Those remaining in the CWI, forming the International Socialists, adopted a paper left nationalist approach towards Scotland, but remained essentially left unionists in practice.
The originally small socialist republican tendency16, which emerged from the Anti-Poll Tax Struggle in Scotland, and from solidarity work with the ongoing social republican struggle in Ireland, went on to form part of the Republican Communist Network (RCN). The RCN became a growing influence in the SSA, then the SSP (4).
However, the historical fates of Davitt’s social republicanism, the Scottish Labour Party’s social radicalism and the SSF’s hybrid socialism offer a warning to Socialists in Scotland, Ireland, Wales and England today. Davitt’s social republicanism collapsed into populist nationalism in Ireland, in the 1890’s. After 1894, the SLP and the SSF, collapsed into the old Radical and social radical traditions of the ‘British road to progress’ inherited by the Independent Labour Party, or its ‘Marxist’ Radical variant – ‘the British road to socialism’ – found in the SDF.
Today, after a major internal crisis, both the SSP and the breakaway Solidarity face strong pulls in the form of left nationalism accompanied by tendencies to populism. Socialist republicanism remains a significant force only in the SSP16.
Meanwhile, ‘over the water’, the near total eclipse of the social and political republicanism, once associated with the Irish Republican Movement, has contributed to a political vacuum amongst the working class, particularly in ‘the Six Counties’. Pure physical force republicanism, which originally developed amongst a section of the nineteenth century Fenians, has tried to fill this political vacuum.
It was the curtailment of the INLL’s social republican offensive in 1881, and the defeat of the First Home Rule Bill in 1886, which allowed the physical force (as opposed to the social) Fenians, the Invincibles, and then the Dynamiters, to make their presence felt; just as today, the continued economic deprivation and social isolation experienced by sections of the Nationalist working class in ‘the Six Counties’, in the aftermath of the Good Friday, St. Andrews and Hillsborough Agreements, has led to the re-emergence of the physical force republicanism of the Real and Continuity IRAs.
Dissident Republicans believe that nothing has changed since the 1960’s and early ‘70’s, when ‘the Six Counties’ were ruled over by Ulster Unionists and their Orange statelet. Today, however, continued British rule does not depend on unconditional support for a local Unionist-led Stormont regime, but on its ability to broker and manipulate constitutionally recognised Unionism and Nationalism in the reformed Stormont. Therefore, the military actions of the dissident Republicans’, divorced from wider social aims, and from any significant political support in the Nationalist community, tend to lead to further political fragmentation and demoralisation.
Over a century ago, by 1895, the limitations of Davitt’s social republican and Radical politics had also become quite apparent. He had been unable to develop a new socialist republican politics, which could have united the economic, social and political movements in the face of ‘New Imperialism’ and conservative unionist triumphalism. The British ruling class was able to regain the political initiative and derailed the Home Rule challenge. At the same time, the Socialists of the day were unable to take the vigorous post-1889 ‘New (Trade) Unionism’ challenge forward. This militant workers’ opposition went into retreat, as the New Unions took on some of the characteristics of ‘Old Unionism’.
However, it was within the SSF milieu that the needed socialist republican alternative began to emerge, in the figure of James Connolly. Like Davitt, Connolly, born in 1868, was a member of an Irish migrant family. His family had settled in Edinburgh’s ‘Little Ireland’ in the Cowgate. Initially he worked as a child labourer in the Edinburgh Evening News print shop, but enlisted in the British Army, between 1882-9, and was sent to Ireland.
Upon returning to Scotland, Connolly joined the SL/SLLL in Dundee in 1889. He also became a member of the SSF. He moved back to Edinburgh, taking on the job of manure carter with the City Corporation, just at the time the New (Trade) Unions were being introduced to the city, particularly amongst Leith dockers and Edinburgh carters.
Through Connolly’s friendship with SSF Secretary, the Irish-Scot, John Leslie, he probably became more fully acquainted with the tradition of alliance in Scotland between the United Irishmen and Scottish Radicals in the 1798 period, between Young Irelanders and the Scottish Chartists in the 1840’s, and between Fenians, Irish Land Leaguers and Scottish Land Nationalisers, social republicans and Socialists in the 1870’s and ‘80’s.
Connolly became active in Scottish Socialist circles just as the Irish Home Rule movement was splitting, and Davitt’s own Irish Nationalist politics were found wanting. Nevertheless, Connolly drew considerable inspiration from Davitt’s contribution to the struggle for the land. Connolly further developed Davitt’s earlier secular approach to win over religiously influenced workers.
Connolly also became a member of the Scottish Labour Party (which was supported by the SSF). He joined the ILP after the Scottish party dissolved itself in 1894. The next year Connolly, at more or less the same time as Edward Aveling, Eleanor Marx and William Morris, joined the SDF. With the demise of the SL/SLLL, and its collapse into anarchism, the SSF had decided to merge into the SDF. However, Connolly did not follow the SDF’s ‘British road to socialism’ but made a quantum leap in his approach, when he moved to Dublin and founded the Irish Socialist Republican Party in 1896.
Here Connolly developed the socialist republican politics that took Davitt’s social republican and radical ‘internationalism from below’ alliance on to a higher level, during the heyday of ‘High Imperialism’ from 1895. Connolly’s early involvement in the ‘New (Trade) Unionism’ in Edinburgh also ensured that his socialist republicanism remained grounded in the working class. Connolly’s consistent anti-unionism and anti-imperialism offered a clear strategy, which opposed both the ‘British road to socialism’ and the Irish constitutional nationalism supported by most of the British and Irish Left of his day. Instead, Connolly promoted a ‘break-up of the UK and British Empire road to socialism’.
In today’s world, Imperialism still calls the shots. The continued existence of the UK state provides the British ruling class with a powerful bastion of support. This unionist and monarchist state gives the British ruling class a whole host of draconian Crown Powers to maintain its rule. Even the formally independent Irish Republic has to bow to British ruling class needs. This was highlighted by Irish politicians’ recent acceptance of the liabilities of UK-owned banks in Ireland. Nor did the Irish government get thanks for their pioneering bank rescue plan to save domestic capitalism, much of which Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling so quickly copied and took credit for.
However, the current financial crisis has also highlighted the close links between leading Scottish Nationalists and the British banks. In panic, they have quietly rushed into the arms of the UK government to develop a common approach to address shared capitalist concerns. New Labour and the SNP both push for public sector cuts at workers’ expense. Meanwhile, in public, the SNP and New Labour continue their political squabbles over the constitution, jockeying for position to gain relative advantages for their particular capitalist backers.
British politicians, whether they are Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat, continue to argue with SNP politicians over the extent of power to be awarded to the devolved Scottish Parliament at Holyrood. However, they all agree that the monarchy and the ruling class’s Crown Powers have to remain in place; that the Bank of England will control the economy through the continued use of sterling; and that suitable arrangements have to be made to accommodate NATO and to protect US imperial interests. All these parties are wedded to neo-liberalism and are in hock to corporate capital.
The Nationalist parties represented in the various devolved assemblies, in Holyrood, Cardiff Bay, or Stormont, make no attempt to mount a joint challenge to continued British rule, or to the all pervading corporate capitalist power over these islands. Whilst Plaid Cymru leaders may be envious of the powers already devolved to the Scottish Parliament, it is pretty clear that, if parity were to be achieved, this would merely signal their intention to compete more effectively for inward corporate investment. When Donald Trump threatened to abandon his exclusive golfing complex project in Aberdeenshire, in the face of local opposition, in stepped the then DUP Northern Ireland Minister, Ian Paisley Junior, to offer an alternative site on the Antrim Coast. However, the SNP-led Scottish Executive moved quickly to give Trump the green light.
Just as Davitt and Connolly realised, in their day, that they faced the combined forces of British imperialism (whether it be Conservative or Liberal) and Irish nationalism (whether it be Parnell or his successors), so Socialists face the similar combined opposition of Labour, Conservative and Lib-Dem unionists and the Nationalists today. By studying our class’s history, we gain the advantages of hindsight. This is why we need to look once more to rebuild an ‘internationalism from below’ alliance, but now of republican socialists in Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales. The Republican Socialist Convention, held in Edinburgh on November 29th, 2008, represented the SSP’s first attempt to develop such an alliance (5).
(1) see T. W. Moody, Davitt and Irish Revolution, 1846-82, (Oxford University Press, 1990, Oxford)
(2) see New Imperialism
(3) see Bernard Semmel, The Rise of Free Trade Imperialism – Classical Political Economy and the Empire of Free Trade and Imperialism, 1750-1850 (Cambridge University Press, 1970, London)
(4) see RCN blog, Declaration of Calton Hill, SSP Site
(5) see Republican Socialist Convention Conference Report, 29th November, 2008 (International Committee, Scottish Socialist Party, 2009, Dundee)