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  • "No Imperial Privilege":Justin McCarthy, Home Rule, and Empire
  • Paul Townend (bio)

Late in 1879, W.E. Gladstone, the leader of the opposition Liberal party, then engaged in the last of his titanic struggles against Lord Beaconsfield, sent word to the well-known littérateur and recently elected Irish home rule member Justin McCarthy through a mutual friend, James Knowles, the editor of Nineteenth Century.1 Would McCarthy, Gladstone urged, undertake to explain home rule to an English audience in the pages of that prestigious publication, paying particular attention to the widespread concern that the measure would damage the British Empire?

Gladstone's request, made in part to build bridges with a potential parliamentary star as well as to explore the contours of Irish sentiment, was consistent with subsequent public remarks in which he indicated a willingness to consider home rule only if the empire could be preserved and the cause disentangled from "separation, treason, and violence."2 Gladstone was aware that, in 1879, home rule had next to no traction in English politics beyond certain Radical circles. English voters and MPs, furthermore, even Liberal ones, were suspicious of any prospective Liberal-Irish alliance, and were [End Page 201] especially concerned about the likely constitutional and imperial consequences of any as-yet-unarticulated home rule measure.3 Gladstone's previous dalliances with Irish members on questions of Church disestablishment and land reform had not only embittered Tories in and out of Ireland, but had also earned him enemies within his own party, many of whom considered his relationship with the Irish to be emblematic of erratic and at times irresponsible leadership.4

Such anxieties sharpened as Disraeli's government weakened over the course of 1879. If the prospect of an end to Beaconsfieldism pleased many British Whigs, Liberals, and Radicals, the political situation in Ireland was very disturbing indeed. With the death of Isaac Butt in May, power within the Irish party passed from the moderate and reassuringly ineffectual Butt to belligerent Irish obstructionists and Land League radicals, increasingly led by the provocatively confrontational F.H. O'Donnell and the bitterly determined Charles Stewart Parnell. The much-discussed "New Departure" of the Irish party suggested an emergent tacit understanding between a variety of distastefully extreme nationalist positions, whose popular appeal was rooted in pro-Fenian, anti-landlord, anti-Parliamentary, and anti-imperial sensibilities.5 Could such men be trusted? And where would respectable and respected Irish home rulers such as McCarthy position themselves in relation to the new party and any new Liberal government? [End Page 202]

These concerns were compounded by the particular challenges facing the empire in the late 1870s. In the minds of many Liberals, Disraelian hubris had inspired ill-advised and unsustainable imperial expansion. Famine and broken budgets disturbed British rule in India, while a muddled campaign in Afghanistan lurched from failure to failure. In South Africa, ambitious Crown commissioner Bartle-Frere's effort to compel consolidation by promoting war with King Ceteweyo's Zulu nation had proved a humiliating disaster, with the destruction of a 1,300-strong invading column by the disciplined Zulu impis at Isandhlwana on 22 January 1879.

Many Liberals, most notably Gladstone's himself during his famous Midlothian campaign, criticized all of this from many different angles.6 For example, at West Calder on 27 November 1879, he called for a foreign policy that began with "good government at home," "preserved the blessings of peace," expended "the strength of the Empire" only on "great and worthy occasions," "acknowledged the equal rights of all nations" and was at all times "inspired by a love of freedom."7 But Gladstone was no anti-imperialist, and no Liberal voices matched the intensity of the bitter Irish critiques of British imperial policy at gatherings of Irish Americans across the Atlantic and at Land League meetings across Britain. Most disturbingly, over the course of 1878–79, leading Irish home rule members joined the attack.8 Irish MPs urged organized parliamentary [End Page 203] opposition to estimates for the Afghan and Zulu military campaigns, staged walkouts during foreign policy debates, and in general roundly condemned the Afghan and South African wars in and out of Parliament as...


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