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“THE GRAVEST SITUATION OF OUR LIVES”: CONSERVATIVES, ULSTER, AND THE HOME RULE CRISIS, 1911–14 THOMAS C. KENNEDY on the second page of his pithy survey of twentieth-century Britain, Peter Clarke sets out a proposition which might well serve as the theme for this essay. “British history,” he says, “has generally dealt with nationalism by ignoring it.”1 In this regard it may be argued that one of the keys to understanding the Edwardian Conservative party’s response to the Irish question was its effective denial of the existence of authentic nationalism among Ireland’s Catholic population. At the same time most English Tories conveniently imagined that the nationalist sentiments of Protestant Ulstermen, manifested in their grim readiness to resist the implementation of home rule by any means, violent or otherwise, were merely a demonstration of what Leo Amery called “a pride in the greatness of British imperial citizenship.”2 Paul Bew has asserted that by thus treating Ulster unionism “as merely a negative appendage to nationalism,” its real dimensions have been obscured.3 This blinkered and self-serving Tory vision of the nature of the Irish struggle, and of its chief Irish combatants, seems an appropriate starting place for an effort to understand why many English Conservatives behaved as they did during the prewar home-rule crisis. When Lord Milner told Frederick Scott Oliver in late November 1913 that “we are up against the gravest situation of our lives,” he was, no doubt unconsciously, echoing an assessment of the Irish imbroglio made by his Conservative colleague Walter Long a few months earlier.4 The CONSERVATIVES, ULSTER, AND THE HOME RULE CRISIS 67 1 Peter Clarke, Hope and Glory: Britain, 1900–1990 (London, 1996), 2. 2 Leopold S. Amery, The Case against Home Rule (London, 1912), 119. 3 Paul Bew, Ideology and the Irish Question: Ulster Unionism and Irish Nationalism, 1912–1916 (Oxford, 1994), x. 4 Milner to Oliver, 25 November 1913, Milner Papers/13 (MP), Bodleian Library, Oxford; Long’s Memorandum, 22 July 1913, Add. MS 62416, Walter Long Papers (WLP), British Library (BL), London. Irish situation was so grave because, as both the coldly calculating Milner and easily agitated Long had concluded, H. H. Asquith’s Liberal government , in collusion with the Irish Nationalist party, seemed genuinely determined to enact some form of Gladstonian/Parnellian home rule while Ulster unionists were vowing to resist the implementation of such legislation by any means, including armed force. For English Tories there seemed no easy way out of this worrisome impasse. Earlier some hope had momentarily been held out for F. S. Oliver’s own federalist plan for “home rule all round.” But Oliver, who rightly continues to fascinate historians ,5 blamed the failure of his scheme to make headway at the interparty conference in 1910 on the “north of Ireland people,” who were, he believed, “exceedingly foolish [and] . . . strangely blind to signs of the times.”6 In fact, while Oliver’s federalist solution briefly had the backing of The Times as well as Austen Chamberlain and even Milner, Tories in general were frightened by his activist, Americanized approach. For while most, though not all, Conservatives recoiled from the idea of their party being dragged into the position of supporting violent resistance to a legally constituted government, they hoped that, when it came to Ireland, they could have it every possible way so long as that way was negative. No compromise, no home rule, no Ulster resistance, nothing but the status quo. This would be best, they believed, because if negativism did prevail, the Liberals would eventually be turned out of office, the Irish nationalist cause would be laid bare as mere quackery spouted by corrupt, stockjobbing politicians and morally bankrupt priests, and finally, once the Liberals were removed from power and the fraudulent nature of Irish nationalism had been exposed, Ulster Protestants, as sincere British patriots, would be satisfied and cease threatening to do rash things. But what if, before negativism could triumph, the Liberals, the Irish Nationalists, the Ulster Unionists, or even the British electorate, each in their own way, demanded some tangible resolution to the Irish situation? Could such far-ranging, often bitterly competing, constituencies be sepaCONSERVATIVES...


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