Chapter 11

'Conclusion' asks some wider questions about political leadership and political biography.

11:    Conclusion




This study confirms that voting patterns in the Cambridge Union reflected a section of student opinion and were largely unaffected by the content of debates. The relationship of these opinions to wider public opinion is almost impossible to establish, and the evidence is not even strong enough to permit generalisations about the views of "junior Cambridge". In the one case that provided a statistical comparison, that of attitudes towards women's degrees in 1897, Union activists seem to have been more progressive than Cambridge undergraduates at large: 37 percent and 35 percent voted in favour in 1891 and 1896, but when the chamber was thrown open to non-members in 1897, support fell to 11 percent.  On the other hand, Tables Nine and Ten suggest that the Cambridge Union was more resistant to granting women the vote even than Conservative members of the House of Commons. In a wider sense, however, it seems reasonable to assume some wider relevance, even to the proceedings of a "spouting society". The social composition of Cambridge students corresponded closely to the profile of the political elite that governed Britain. Cambridge debates were generally reactive: Ireland was discussed most avidly at those times when it was perceived to be a "problem", and in this there was little difference between the Cambridge Union and the British cabinet. Moreover, the content of student oratory was almost invariably derivative. Occasionally, a standard package of arguments might be enlivened by an imaginative touch, as in the claim by a speaker in 1911 that Home Rule would undermine the power of the priests in Catholic Ireland, but such originality was evidently rare. In recycling stale ideas, young Cambridge orators were drawing upon a wider discourse even if, as in the case of the young man who spoke in 1914, this consisted of little more than the opinions, and probably the prejudices of Irish relatives.

The fact that issues were debated at the Cambridge Union provides at least rough-and-ready evidence of the nature and duration of British concern about Ireland. Even if the wider relevance of the balance of opinion recorded in the divisions must be treated with some reservation, the numbers voting at debates gives some clues to the relative intensity of interest. As Appendix One and Table Eight confirm, interest in Irish issues was usually at a peak when Ireland was newsworthy and hence, by definition, "a problem", and it was rarely sustained for long. Thus it is worth noting that in the eighteen-sixties, the fate of the Irish Church drew smaller attendances than did debates on the future of the Church of England. Considerably more excitement was experienced in 1880-82 over the empowerment of Irish tenants than was generated by land questions in subsequent decades. Home Rule was a central issue in 1886-87, although even then one that was surprisingly muted. The two subsequent Home Rule episodes drew very large attendances but there is a distinct sense that the bugbear had faded. However, the Cambridge Union cannot be a comprehensive source for topicality. For much of the year, debating fell silent. Only rarely did the Union turn back to discuss an event that had happened in the vacation, as in 1868 when it approved the execution of the Manchester martyrs weeks after they had been hanged, or in 1889 when it picked over the bones of the report of the Special Commission. The exclusion of theological questions did not totally rule out discussion of the political ramifications of religious issues but, combined with the demands of good taste, it was probably enough to blunt any tendency among prosperous young Protestants to condemn Ireland to its fate as a punishment for the faith of the majority of its people. It is important, too, to remember that a debating society thrives upon adversarial division. Where there is consensus, there is little to debate. The historian might wish to find evidence that the Famine triggered youthful outrage, and it may seem depressing to report that the only response to the great social crisis of the eighteen-forties was just one  debate, on State-funding of Irish railways. Yet this is not to say that Cambridge students were indifferent to the Famine, but rather that only on a single question of State investment in economic infrastructure did they find themselves divided.

The responses of posterity form a part of the equation of assessment that must be confronted. It is beyond the scope of this study to determine whether the Cambridge of the Victorian ancien régime was swept away by the 1914-18 war, but it is undoubtedly the case that, so far as the British political agenda was concerned, the Irish question had entirely changed by 1919. Yet this is not to say that historians can look back on the controversies of the earlier period in an entirely dispassionate manner. At the core of Catholic Emancipation in the early nineteenth century lay the same issue that bedevilled Northern Ireland in the late twentieth, the challenge of creating an equality of citizenship that transcends religious belief. The disestablishment of the Protestant Church in Ireland in 1869 embodied the same principle of State neutrality in matters of conscience that Irish voters endorsed 103 years later when they deleted the "special relationship" of the Catholic Church from their constitution. All too often, historians profess scholarly neutrality in their reconstructions of the past while quietly cheering for the progressive side; this study is no exception. Of course it was wrong to deny the right to vote by compelling people to swear an oath that abused their deepest beliefs. Of course it was right to put an end to the privileges of a Church that was spurned by the vast majority of its own people. It is better for historians to cheer openly than to pretend to a detachment that denies their involvement in the politics of their own times.

Facing up to our continuing involvement in some nineteenth-century issues is an important step towards disengaging ourselves from others. Merely because the progressives were "right", in our terms, about the inclusion of Catholics in parliament or the exclusion of bishops does not mean that historians must support them in every campaign that they fought. No doubt it is tempting to sympathise with the legislative cap on Irish rents effectively imposed by 1882. Faced with Irish turbulence, the Cambridge Union did not see the matter in that light, although a more sympathetic view was taken of the problems facing Highland crofters three years later. There could be no difficulty in discerning the side of the righteous in the question of protecting peasants from the rapacity of lazy and luxuriant landlords. But is this the whole story? In an era when even radical politicians espouse privatisation and laud the profit margin, should we at least consider the possibility that in limiting the income of the landlords, the British parliament destroyed the only element capable of generating the capital necessary for large-scale modernisation of Irish agriculture? The objection may be countered by citing the fact that the emasculation of landlords as a rentier class was promptly followed by State-assisted land purchase, a reform carried this time not by the progressive side in politics but by the Conservatives under Lord Salisbury. By any standard of historical and political ethics, the transfer of the land of Ireland to the people of Ireland must surely be a Good Thing. Yet the slightest acquaintance with the Irish countryside is enough to remind us that what happened was the transfer of land ownership not to the people of Ireland but to a minority among them. That minority was larger and no doubt – for what it matters - morally worthier than the landlord class that it ousted, but no less determined to protect its own interests. Even to laud the new peasant proprietors as more integrally Irish involves modern historians in elevating nativism into a positive virtue for Ireland at a time when it is regarded as a retrograde quality almost everywhere else in a globalised world. In the long run, land purchase failed even in its fundamental aim of saving the union. Rather, it turned the often distant British State into a mortgage-holder, a surrogate landlord, enabling de Valera in the nineteen-thirties to re-enact the Land War by refusing to continue payment on outstanding annuities.

The dangers of filtering opinion on Irish issues before 1914 through our retrospective ideas of righteous normality are particularly delusive when applied to Home Rule. There may be no such thing as lessons from history, but the experience of the twentieth century seems to suggest that there is no ideal political framework that can accommodate the necessary relationship between Britain and Ireland – or, as we have to accept as that century closes, between the different nations and regions of Britain and the two communities of Ireland. In superficial retrospect, Home Rule may appear an attractive answer to that conundrum.

            Arguments voiced in the Cambridge Union come through to us in doubly simplified form: they were probably crude in their original formulation and whatever subtlety they aspired to convey is lost in staccato reporting. None the less, there is enough to suggest that, whether they grasped it or not, undergraduate Home Rulers were often advancing arguments that logically pointed to total separation between the two islands. This was emphatically not how Home Rule was presented by its more sophisticated exponents, including the Nationalist politicians who visited the Cambridge Union. John Dillon in 1886 offered the reassurance that England was "strong enough" to intervene if Home Rule produced injustice. J.P. Boland in 1912 protested that the Irish were not "foolish enough" to believe they could repel an English invasion. On the face of it, Home Rule was simply a scheme for devolution within a continuing United Kingdom. Thus it was that John Redmond rallied to the Allied cause in 1914. Thus it was that the pre-War Nationalist party had virtually vanished from the Irish political scene altogether a decade later. Ireland was part of the British empire, a context that was overwhelmingly omnipresent a century ago but almost impossible empathetically to re-create now. John Ball, one of the first Irish Catholics to speak in the Union, held just one political appointment, as under-secretary at the Colonial Office from 1855 to 1858. Forty years later, it fell to Thomas McDonnell to propose the motion that conferred honorary membership of the Cambridge Union upon Kitchener after his triumphant massacre of the Madhi's army at Omdurman in 1898. "I only wish I had had some of you with me in the Sudan", the distinguished guest told cheering students.1 Michael McDonnell came close to fulfilling the Sirdar's wishes. After publishing his tract on Irish Home Rule, he embarked upon a colonial career as a judge in West Africa, Palestine and Egypt. The empire also formed part of the career of the fervent Ulster unionist, E.W. MacBride, who took his first academic post at a Canadian university, McGill, before returning to his native Belfast. Nor should these examples be seen as some undignified form of parasitism. "The truth is that Ireland has taken her full share in winning and populating the Empire," wrote Erskine Childers in 1911. "The result is hers as much as Britain's."2

On the face of it, Home Rule was very different from the national and republican independence of Ireland's twenty-six counties today. Even its chrysalis version, Dominion status, had seemed a huge step forward in 1921. "Was ever such lunacy proposed by anybody?", Lloyd George had scoffed as late as October of 1920.3 From this, it seems easy to conclude that the failure to concede Home Rule was not just Ireland's lost opportunity, but England's too. Michael McDonnell pointed to "an unjust dilemma" that had consistently faced Ireland's demands for its own parliament. In times of disturbance, "the reply has been that until quiet is restored nothing can be done"; when the country was peaceful, "the absence of agitation" had produced "the retort that the request is not widespread, and can, in consequence, be ignored".4 The Nationalist MP J.P. Boland had used precisely that argument at the Union debate of 1912, telling anti-Home Rulers that "[t]hey cannot have it both ways".5

Not surprisingly, some in Britain came to regret that they had missed the chance of a moderate Irish settlement within the United Kingdom. "What fools we were not to have accepted Gladstone's Home Rule Bill," George V remarked of a troublesome Free State in 1930.6  Unfortunately, the king's sentiment rested upon the related assumptions that Home Rule would have worked in practice and so solved the centuries-old Irish question once and for all. Neither assumption can be taken for granted. William Finlay was probably a trifle disingenuous when he praised the departing Gladstone as a political genius in a Union debate in 1898, but he was on firm ground in arguing that neither of the GOM's attempts to design a devolved constitution had been satisfactory. Overall, the three Home Rule bills were uninspiring concoctions of untested and probably unstable machinery. Even in 1912, when much of the passion had gone out of the issue, the Union could approve the principle in March but narrowly reject the actual Bill in May. At the heart of the problem lay the fundamental question of the relationship between Ireland and Britain. The solution of 1886, the removal of Irish members from Westminster altogether, had been grudgingly regarded by critics as one of the few benefits of the scheme, as Michael McDonnell shrewdly recognised when he stressed this aspect of Home Rule in a Union debate in 1904. However, in 1893 Gladstone performed one of his about-faces and proposed to retain an Irish delegation in the House of Commons with reduced voting powers. Sooner or later, this ramshackle arrangement would have resulted in a ministry equipped with a small majority to govern one island but outvoted when it tried to discharge the business of both. The insoluble problem lay not in the fact that Home Rule was a compromise, for compromise is the stuff of politics in a liberal society. Rather, the obstacle was that the  trumped-up compromises of successive Home Rule Bills were unlikely to succeed in permanently papering over the cracks between two very different countries. Parnell had said in 1885 that "no man has the right to fix the boundary to the march of a nation".7  Although no doubt useful as a coded reassurance to the wilder spirits on the violent margins of his coalition, these words represented neither threat nor bargaining position, but simple prediction. In 1893, a young unionist called Childers explained to his fellow Cambridge students  that "the Federal system is not applicable to Ireland". In 1911, Childers similarly dismissed "the 'Federal' solution as totally impracticable", but by now he came at the question from the opposite angle. "Compulsory Federation would not last a year."8 To Childers, once the impracticability of any continuing Irish representation at Westminster was accepted, the only answer was self-government on the Canadian model. "You are letting the cat out of the bag after all the mice have been killed," an opponent had complained of the re-opening of Home Rule in 1893.9  Each failure to grasp the central conundrum of Irish devolution ensured that, with cat-like tread, the Irish nation was on the march to an eventual rupture of the United Kingdom.

The first step, then, in any assessment of nineteenth-century Cambridge Union attitudes to Ireland is the disentangling of the involvement of posterity. There is no reason for historians to pretend to neutrality in reviewing issues relating to citizenship and conscience that remain central to a liberal society. There is every reason for caution in handling questions, such as land ownership, that are ethically neutral but still stimulate an emotional response. Most of all, we ought to be put on our guard by the simple recollection that aspects of the political relationship between the islands remain problematic a century later. The fact that many who took the "right" side on other issues also predominantly championed Home Rule is insufficient to prove that a parliament in Dublin would have been effective either in solving nineteenth-century friction or preventing twentieth-century confrontation.

Rather, we should seek to interpret Cambridge student opinion on its own terms. Which issues were discussed, and when? Instead of imposing retrospective moral judgement, we should ask whether the balance of opinion represented anything more than the expected outcome of economic interests and social conditioning. Above all, votes and for and against each motion reveal both the intensity of interest in Irish issues and the balance between viewpoints. It seems reasonable to assume that both reflected the wider attitudes of an informed minority of English opinion.

In the 98 years between March 1816 and April 1914, the Cambridge Union debated Irish issues on 124 occasions. Excluding the four years between 1817 and 1821 when discussion was driven underground, the average is 1.3 debates on Ireland for each calendar year. At face value, this statistic suggests a steady degree of interest in the affairs of the sister island. However, there are problems both of classification by topic and of clustering in time. An example of the problem of definition was the debate in 1903, at which the Union considered the fate of Colonel Lynch, who had been born in Australia and had fought for the Boers. In some senses an argument about this single individual was much less than a debate on Ireland, but in others it was very much more, a challenge to the morality of British conquest in South Africa. At the other extreme, an apparently esoteric debate on Coleridge's poetic contribution to animal welfare could prove to contain an Irish dimension in the minds of those who refused to bestow even the smallest praise upon Humanity Dick Martin. These are marginal examples  - the first has been included, the second  excluded - but they are reminders that the Irish question cannot be isolated in a self-contained box.

            Similarly, this study has treated Catholic Emancipation as an Irish issue, but of course the question had English dimensions. Cambridge students of the eighteen-twenties certainly regarded Catholicism as an alien religion, but many of them would have been aware of families of nobility and gentry, neighbours in the English shires, who were deprived of civil rights because of their adherence to the old faith. Indeed, the slight accounts that survive of the debates on Catholic Emancipation suggest that neither English recusants nor their Irish co-religionists were the central focus of a controversy that challenged the legitimacy of the entire unreformed constitution. Similarly, to regard Home Rule as a purely Irish issue would be to fall into the blinkered perspective that draws a box around everything perceived by the historian to be Irish and then proceeds to condemn posterity for failing to conform to the atavistic interpretation imposed. Irish Home Rule was a United Kingdom issue, and it is no surprise that debates on the subject were the best-attended in nine of the 28 academic years between 1886-87 and 1913-14. Nor was this attitude simply a charter to deny Irish participation in the determination of Irish destinies, as was shown by the 54 percent vote in 1884 refused to exclude Ireland from the extended franchise provided by the Third Reform Act.

At the most basic level, the debate records of the Cambridge Union indicate which Irish issues were discussed, and when. The evidence is less helpful during the first half century of the Society's existence since meetings were relatively infrequent and many debates were non-political in character. Even so, there was a striking lack of interest in Ireland between the Maynooth controversy in 1845-46 and the revival of the Church issue after 1864, with no motions on Irish affairs at all between November 1852 and February 1859. The early eighteen-seventies constitute another fallow period, with only one debate on Ireland in the seven years following February 1870. Home Rule aroused interest between 1880 and 1883, but had slipped away from the Cambridge Union order paper in the two years before Gladstone put it on the Westminster agenda. Within two years of its defeat in 1886, Home Rule had come to be regarded as a stale topic. Interest had waned altogether by 1891, a calendar year in which Ireland was not discussed at all, but was kick-started by the Second Home Rule Bill. However, the massive attendance to hear John Redmond in 1895 had something of the air of a requiem for the Home Rule cause, and it was not until 1902 that debates on Ireland were again well attended. Perhaps curiously, Irish issues were ignored throughout the academic years 1904-06, even though it was obvious that Balfour's Conservative government was tottering towards collapse and thus likely that a Liberal-Nationalist alliance would make a third attempt to create a parliament in Dublin. If the Cambridge Union was largely reactive in its consideration of Irish issues, it was even more the case that it failed to be predictive.

The numbers voting at debates offer an indication of the relative importance of Irish questions in the overall political spectrum. Appendix One identifies the issues that attracted the largest houses from by academic years from 1863-64 to 1913-14. Table Eight shows the numbers expressing an opinion each year through the same period on Ireland as a percentage of those voting at the most popular non-Irish debate. By the middle of the eighteen-sixties, the Cambridge Union had become primarily interested in a secular world of politics that was dominated by a two-party system. However, special circumstances could still distort turn-out, and general impressions of the comparative significance are more reliable than precise deductions. In October 1866, for instance, a "no-confidence" debate on the merits of the recently installed Conservative government registered an unusually large attendance because it coincided with the inauguration of the Union's permanent premises. In an average late-Victorian year, it would hardly have occurred to the Union to discuss whether Bacon wrote Shakespeare, but in June 1888 a large audience turned out to hear the American visitor, Ignatius Donnelly, argue his controversial thesis, and over two hundred of them stayed to vote. The most wayward statistic comes from the academic year 1896-97, where it appears that an Irish issue drew only an audience equal to just eight percent of the attendance at the most controversial meeting of the session. This was caused by the decision to throw open the debate on the admission of women to Cambridge degrees to all undergraduates, regardless of membership of the Society, resulting in an unprecedented vote of over twelve hundred. Matched against the small but earnest group that discussed the report of the Financial Commission, the comparison produces something of a distortion. As already noted, generally speaking, debates in the October term were better attended than those later in the year. The development from 1886 of the practice of inviting distinguished visitors to address the Union also introduced a random element. It is, of course, important to bear in mind that the Union was a debating society and not a deliberative body. Sometimes it responded to contemporary events but, on other occasions, an issue might draw a bumper crowd simply for its intellectual challenge. On the one hand, it is no surprise that South Africa was the subject of the best-attended debates during the Boer War, but it does not follow that socialism was the dominant question in British politics when it headed the list either in 1883-84 or again in 1888-89.

Hence the 51 academic years from 1863 show patterns of peaks and troughs in the consideration of Irish questions. In ten of those sessions, Ireland was not discussed at all; in a further nine, it provided the most controversial debate of the year. In 18 of the 51 years, party political debates drew the largest audiences. Many of these took the form of motions of no confidence in the government of the day, but some were spiced with specific condemnation of the opposition. The fact that these supplanted the Church as the most controversial subject of each year from about 1877 may be taken as a further measure of the secularisation of the Cambridge mind; Church issues, mainly disestablishment, had headed the list five times in the preceding decade. Two related issues, Tariff Reform in 1903-04 and the House of Lords in 1906-07, may be grouped under the party-political heading. The eight years in which Ireland triggered the largest debate constitute the second largest subject category. In some respects, it is surprising that Irish issues should outrank women's rights, which headed the list three times, since in years when both subjects were discussed, the feminist challenge generally drew larger houses. The explanation for the discrepancy probably lies in the development of visitor debates. The Union could just about overcome its social and national antipathies to invite those strange creatures called Irish nationalists. There was no way that young Cambridge males would overcome their gender prejudices and allow themselves to be harangued by suffragettes. As late as 1933, "it was something of a revolution" when Lady Cynthia Mosley was allowed to accompany her husband to drinks in the sacred male shrine of the Committee Room.10

Not surprisingly, general questions relating to Ireland aroused more interest than specific issues. Headline subjects such as Catholic Emancipation and Home Rule grabbed the imagination more effectively than plans for State-funded railway investment in 1848 or the role of Sir Anthony MacDonnell in planning a scheme for devolution in 1905. From this, it would be easy to conclude that opinion in Cambridge – and, by extension, in England at large – was both simplistic and reactive in its attitudes to Ireland. Such a conclusion, however, would not tell the whole story. It is certainly the case that the Cambridge Union debated Ireland most energetically when Irish discontent was at its most intrusive. Yet this is not to say that student opinion invariably reacted against an alien challenge from Catholic nationalism. O'Connell's election for County Clare in 1828 made no difference of any kind to the already firm divisions for and against Catholic Emancipation, although his Repeal campaign produced a confrontational response in 1843. At first, attitudes to the Fenians were remarkably relaxed, although outrage followed when Sergeant Brett was killed on the streets of Manchester. Although there was a general stance of resistance to Irish demands at the time of the Land War of the early eighteen-eighties, in March 1882 the Union only narrowly approved the reforms in parliamentary procedure designed to outwit obstruction, by 101 votes to 97.11 If we make the leap of faith and assume that the students who voted in that relatively large division represented the cross-section of opinion reflected in debates on Home Rule, we must conclude that up to half of those refusing to countenance the creation of a parliament for Ireland in Dublin were ready to allow the Irish free rein to advance their case at Westminster. Perhaps most notable of all is the fact that Union opinion swung towards Home Rule in 1886, in contrast to the mayhem that Gladstone's conversion caused to his own party at national level. The minority in favour of Irish devolution remained  remarkably firm throughout the discouraging decade that followed. Of all the agrarian agitations in Ireland, the Plan of Campaign probably carried the greatest threat of social revolution and was the least clearly thought through. The Plan drove one Cambridge Home Ruler, a Protestant from Tipperary, to abjure his Nationalist heresies, but it does not seem to have frightened anyone else into the unionist camp.

Four main themes can be discerned in the 124 Cambridge Union motions on Ireland. Devolution and separation accounted for 43 of them, under three distinct sub-headings spread through the century. The early decades saw five debates on Repeal and five more on motions condemning O'Connell himself. In the forty years between 1873 and 1913, the Union debated Home Rule on 33 occasions. The second largest grouping concerns sectarian issues, which accounted for 32 debates. Catholic Emancipation was debated eight times before it was conceded and, remarkably, on six further occasions retrospectively. The mid-century decades saw nine debates on the Irish Church and five on the related questions of the Maynooth grant and State payment of the Catholic priesthood. A fin-de-siècle tailpiece added four debates on sectarian education. Third came discussions of agrarian issues, coupled with the enforcement of law and order. Irish land was discussed on eight occasions, while Fenianism and Coercion each featured five times. The smallest cluster concerned Ulster, the subject of seven debates, although this classification elides the northern province with the controversial question of Orangeism.

As argued above, we should assess the significance of attitudes registered in these debates not by measuring them against our own notions of enlightenment, but rather by asking whether opinion was more or less progressive than we might expect. The overall conclusion is perhaps unexpected: voting in the Cambridge Union was often in advance of mainstream political opinion, although it should be noted that on most issues there remained  a substantial unpersuaded minority. The first clear evidence of consistent opinion can be seen in consideration of Catholic Emancipation in the eighteen-twenties, when votes of between 54 and 60 percent in favour of change were registered in eight debates. Since consideration of the Catholic question was spread across seven years, and the Cambridge student community virtually renewed itself in four-year cycles, it seems likely that these votes reflect something more than accidental popularity polls swayed by youthful harangues. Rather, a case can be made that they reflect the division of opinion among the social and political elite from whom Cambridge students were drawn.

Catholic Emancipation was unusual in generating no fewer than six retrospective debates on the wisdom of the measure. By comparison, there were only two later attempts to pick over the 1832 Reform Act, neither motion daring to call for a return to the discredited system of rotten boroughs. However, none of the attempts to re-open the concession of 1829 drew a large attendance. Three took place between 1840 and 1842 and were perhaps surrogates for criticism of the hated O'Connell, while the last, in November 1852, was probably sparked by the controversy over clerical intervention in the general election of that year. Lingering attachment to the ideal of Protestant ascendancy did not prevent the Union from supporting the increased Maynooth grant by more than two-to-one in 1845, although a brief expression of sympathy for the idea of State payment of Catholic priests quickly turned into an equally firm rejection.

On the two other sectarian questions, Cambridge Union opinion underwent dramatic and rapid change. As late as 1864, the Irish Church received a two-to-one endorsement. A year later, in a well-attended debate, it scraped home by a single vote. By February 1867, a narrow majority pronounced its existence as a State Church to be an injustice to the Irish people. As the Church faced its doom in 1869, its defenders could do no more than argue that the land question was more important. A similar shift in attitudes can be seen over the question of a Catholic university in Ireland between 1899 and 1903. In both cases, the shift can be traced through several debates, thus dismissing the possibility of an oratorical equivalent of the "rogue poll" in the measurement of public opinion. Since the content of Union debates was usually derivative, and often dismally so, it seems likely that in each case, the evidence reflects wider movement in English attitudes.

As already noted, the Cambridge Union seemed remarkably unconcerned by Fenianism, except when it manifested itself on the streets of Manchester. Perhaps the American origins of the Fenians meant that they were too easily seen as an external nuisance, making it possible for English opinion to see Ireland as Punch's "fair Hibernia", a maiden in distress who merited chivalrous support. Perhaps, too, the availability of the Irish Church as an easy sacrifice made concession attractive, the more so as the Protestant Establishment on the sister island seemed to have lost crucial English support before it became necessary to respond to the threat of armed uprising.

            If so, the concession probably reflected an English assumption of a trade-off, a closing of accounts, that was not shared in Ireland. In this, the disestablishment of the Church resembled the aftermath of Catholic Emancipation. "Does England really owe a great debt of justice to Ireland?", the Union had asked itself in 1839. When the question was posed in that form, a majority felt obliged to conclude that grievances persisted, but the impatient tone of the motion is revealing. The abandonment of the Church in 1869 was followed by an eight-year period in which Irish issues were hardly discussed at all. When the next campaign for redress targeted the landlords, young Cambridge was notably resistant to concession. Pacifying the Irish as Catholics was one thing; surrendering to them as tenants was another. Motions in 1881 and 1888 made subsidiary reference to land purchase and peasant proprietary, but to the Cambridge Union, the central question was the relationship between landlord and tenant. There could be only one alternative to concession. Coercion was upheld by a massive ten-to-one majority at the height of the Land War in February 1881, and was endorsed again by two-to-one votes on three occasions between 1883 and 1887. It was not until 1902 that the Union recorded narrow majorities against both landlordism and Coercion, a measure of change both in English attitudes and Irish circumstances.

The 43 debates on the constitutional relationship between Britain and Ireland can be simply summarised. There were large majorities against outright Repeal in 1828 and 1833, followed by an almost compulsive demonisation of Daniel O'Connell. An unsuccessful amendment to a motion on conciliation in 1868 argued that the only effective answer was the establishment of Ireland as "an independent country", but otherwise the central question dropped from sight. Isaac Butt formed his Home Government Association in May 1870. It was three-and-a-half years before Swift MacNeill prodded the Cambridge Union into discussing its aim, with much less success than he believed. Majorities against Home Rule between 1877 and 1883 ran at levels reminiscent of opposition to Repeal half a century earlier, suggesting an inability to grasp, or perhaps to accept, the subtlety of Butt's quasi-federalist and devolutionist notions. Gladstone's decision to re-open the larger question of Reform in 1884 may have been partly intended as a step towards confronting the intensity of separatist feeling among the Irish masses.12 In practice, it helped to take Irish devolution off the Cambridge Union agenda, with the probable result that  the re-appearance of Home Rule in January 1886 took student opinion by surprise.

None the less, the most striking aspect of the division of opinion in the Union was the swing towards the Home Rule cause. Perhaps this was because young men in their late teens and early twenties were approaching the issue de novo. While those who had observed Gladstone's political career over many years might regard his conversion to the dangerous idea of Home Rule as confirmation of long-suspected insanity, younger minds might reverse the equation. Those who started from the assumption that Mr Gladstone was a great statesman were more likely to assume that any plan that he endorsed must fall within the bounds of good sense. It is possible, too, that that the crisis of 1886 had the educational effect of distinguishing for the first time between devolution and separation. Perhaps the confrontational party-political atmosphere of the Cambridge Union simply ensured that the doubting Liberals who had presumably contributed to the hostile majorities of the early eighteen-eighties preferred to fall into line rather than cross the floor and join their Conservative opponents. All that we can say is that for the next decade, Home Rule was rejected by a consistent three-to-two majority – almost a mirror image of the division of opinion sixty years earlier over Catholic Emancipation.

Opposition to Home Rule declined after 1900 in parallel with changing attitudes to agrarian and sectarian questions in Ireland, and probably for the same fundamental reason: Ireland was ceasing to seem a threat. There were some minor zigzags in the march of opinion. In 1903, a small majority agreed with Keynes in hoping that Home Rule was out of the question, but in 1904 the Union endorsed Belloc's claim that it was the only possible solution. The early years of the Liberal government saw three further close rejections of Home Rule, but opinion switched in 1909-10 as was shown by the artistic coincidence of two deadheats in Union votes. Even so, 33 debates on Home Rule between 1873 and 1913 produced only four majorities in its favour. Three of these occurred between 1911 and 1913, the last of them by just three votes in a division of 389 students. Even these muted triumphs were interspersed in May 1912 by a small majority in the other direction, significantly directed not against the principle of Home Rule but in condemnation of the terms of Asquith's Bill.


The debate records of the Cambridge Union prompt three more general reflections, about political leadership, political biography and the nature of Ireland itself.

For a historian who is the product of a more modern and social democratic Britain, the debate records of the nineteenth-century Cambridge Union often project an irritating mixture of overweening self-confidence and obtuse short-sightedness. The irritation may be forgiven, but the target is misplaced. If Union debates were usually derivative and sometimes immature, then the ultimate responsibility for their shortcomings must lie elsewhere, with political leadership or in the nature of public discourse. If, as the Vice-President's report cheerfully remarked in 1908, the Cambridge Union had solved the problems that perplexed the country's rulers, why was it that governments themselves left so many nettles ungrasped? The question takes us deep into the inter-relationship of political initiative, opinion formation and majority rule.

In retrospect, it may appear that one of the great missed opportunities in the politics of the island group was the failure of Westminster to confront the question of elected local government in the decade and a half after 1870. It is possible to imagine a root-and-branch restructuring on both sides of the Irish Sea that would have created a network of county councils grouped into provincial or central boards capable of harnessing all national and regional pressures within a reinvigorated United Kingdom structure: Canada's prime minister recommended such a structure in 1871, but no British government had the energy or the will to tackle the issue. Gladstone's first ministry self-immolated in its own hyperactivity before the voters dismissed it in 1874. Disraeli's government that followed would not contemplate an open challenge to landlord influence in the localities, even if it simultaneously followed a centralising policy of social reform. Returning to office in 1880, Gladstone inherited a confrontation with Irish nationalism that had overtones of social revolution that are too easily filtered out of historical narratives. It may be tempting to regret the fact that for fifteen years after 1870, the Cambridge Union first ignored and then denied Irish grievances, and we may blame its myopia on the failure of political leadership to confront the underlying issues. Even so, it does not necessarily follow that either Gladstone or Disraeli should be condemned for dereliction of ministerial duty merely because they did not see the need at the time for radical surgery that might have bequeathed a more harmoniously organised island group to posterity.

            In the Cambridge Union, Gladstone's leadership seems to have been responsible for a swing towards Home Rule in and after 1886. Even so, it took a further twenty-five years before the Union began to register cautious majorities in its favour. Nineteenth-century statesmen did not believe that duty required them to act in advance of obvious necessity, and even then they preferred to proceed only with clear evidence of public consensus. Charles Merivale thought Lord Liverpool was "the last minister who really governed us …. Since his time all ministers, Wellington and Grey, Peel and Russell, have simply made it their business to ascertain what was the popular will, and to follow it". Peel's downfall in 1846 remained a stark warning against responding to a public opinion that was still divided, while Randolph Churchill's most wounding jibe against Gladstone was that he was "an old man in a hurry".13

Even where the existence of majorities could be demonstrated, what was their true significance? Cambridge Union evidence points to a steady majority in favour of Catholic Emancipation for seven years before 1829. Nor was junior Cambridge necessarily in advance of the march of opinion in the wider community. The evangelical George Stephen later concluded  that as early as 1820, the Catholic cause was "more advanced than even the most sanguine could have expected, and it was no longer a question of concession, but of extent".14 Does this mean that Peel and Wellington were dilatory in their handling of the issue? The charge is hardly fair, for the Cambridge evidence equally points to an irreconcilable minority of between 40 and 46 percent who no doubt consoled themselves, as did Thackeray, with the thought that they had only just been beaten. There are both practical and theoretical objections to the assumption that any majority constitutes a valid mandate for change. At a practical level, small majorities may be insufficiently stable to carry through major legislation. In 1831, the passage of the second reading of the Reform Bill by 302 votes to 301 was a major moral triumph, but it was an equally clear indication of the need for concessions, simply because the coalition in its favour could not conceivably remain united through a lengthy parliamentary contest. Nor, arguably, would it have been right for so small a majority (especially produced by an electoral system that it proposed to purge) to force through such fundamental change. Countries as theoretically democratic as the United States and Australia have written constitutions which take for granted that amendments to the system of government require endorsement by something more than a simple majority. There is, after all, something to be said for the argument advanced by Erskine Childers in 1893, that the "weight of responsibility" lies with those proposing change, not with those who resist. We need not grudge Swift MacNeill his pleasure at winning a three-vote majority for Home Rule in 1913 forty years after he had introduced the issue to the Cambridge Union. However, we may doubt whether such a vote would have been enough to constitute a mandate for fundamental change, even if it had been won in a more responsible forum.

Cambridge Union debates are valuable in demonstrating the division of opinion, especially if they remind us that minorities may have rights. Yet they do not help us much in tackling the far more impenetrable question of the source of  changing ideas. Until the disaster of 1886, Gladstone was superbly effective at detecting the movement of public opinion, as it swung towards Reform after 1864, or away from the Irish Church in 1868-69, just as he sensed the political potential of the Bulgarian horrors a decade later. But what caused these sudden and sometimes seismic shifts in opinion? Historians may offer bread-and-butter explanations, narratives implying that articles in this newspaper or speeches from that politician somehow touched off a brushfire in public attitudes. In much the same way, correspondents of the Granta and the Cambridge Review often assured their readers of a cause-and-effect relationship between a spectacular speech and the outcome of a debate, even when comparative evidence shows that the division of opinion on the general issue remained stable from year to year. The truth is that we simply cannot identify the influences that powered changes in attitudes. Victorian Britain was deluged with newspapers and reviews, harangued by political leaders and preached at by clerics. There seems neither rhyme nor reason to explain why a rare essay or editorial, an occasional speech or sermon, managed to strike home when so many hundreds of others bounced harmlessly off the public mind.

Sometimes, the origin of interest in an issue can be identified with some precision and confidence. In November 1866, the Cambridge Union held the first of what would be 31 debates by 1914 on the question of admitting women to the franchise. The debate was probably triggered by the launching of a national women's franchise campaign that same month.15 If so, it represented a rapid response to a new idea, for the Union was debating votes for women six months before John Stuart Mill invited the House of Commons to substitute the word "person" for "man" in the Second Reform Bill. It is tempting to associate the appearance of female suffrage on the Cambridge Union agenda with the apparently sudden shift in attitudes towards the Irish Church as two aspects of the modernising mentality of the eighteen-sixties. Unfortunately, the two issues did not march in step. Except in 1873 and 1885, when motions specified single women of independent means, suffragists rarely managed to poll even a quarter of the vote. However, as with Home Rule, attitudes moved from overall opposition to indecisive approval after 1905. It is possible to describe these shifts of opinion, but impossible to identify the mechanisms of change, let alone point to any plausible inter-relationship that may link them.

The enigma of opinion-formation may be linked to the art form of biography. As a genre, political biography is uneasy in its handling of early life. Such evidence as survives for childhood consists mainly of the embarrassing reminiscences of nursemaids and proud parents. If the subject is worthy of biographical study, there is usually more than enough material for the reconstruction of a public career. Hence the inclination of most biographers is to put aside the childish things of formative years and hurry the subject into parliament. One biographer of Lord Salisbury has him elected on page 4, although the record was probably achieved by G.M. Young's biography of Baldwin, in which the subject passes his fiftieth birthday after just eight pages.16

Of course, it does not follow that the causes espoused in a student debating society necessarily determine any subsequent political career. Hugh Childers changed his mind about the Church of Ireland. More spectacularly, Erskine Childers changed his opinions about Ireland's union with Britain, although it is possible to detect a unifying thread in his consistent rejection of the half-way house of federalism. At the very least, political biography could be more rigorous in fitting products of Oxbridge into one of three categories. Some later politicians cut their teeth in the two Unions. A second group had their interest in public events aroused while at university – Parnell is a case in point – but steered clear of formal debating. A third appear to have caught the bug subsequent to graduation – including, as it happens, the three Cambridge prime ministers, Balfour, Campbell-Bannerman and Baldwin. "Undergraduates should eschew Politics" – but many refused to do so, and the Union threw out that particular motion in 1887. It may help to understand the subsequent role of those "Unionic" undergraduates by appreciating that their political starting point may lie much earlier than standard biographical narratives usually accommodate.

 It is hardly controversial to claim that in British social and political life, the eighteen-sixties was a very different decade from the eighteen-twenties. Looking at the eighteen-sixties as a historical "period" to be "explained", it becomes easy to forget that the principal participants did not fully "belong" to the moment under examination, but owed their own formation to an earlier time. In 1866, Russell's Liberal ministry faltered in the face of opposition to the extension of the right to vote. One of the most effective House of Commons skirmishers was Spencer Walpole, who had entered parliament in 1846. Thus Walpole served his apprenticeship during the years in which even his fellow-Conservatives came to doubt the "finality" of 1832. Somehow his own failure to deduce this obvious truth from the world around him renders him inexplicable, a historical dinosaur who even resigned from the cabinet in 1859 rather than back his colleagues in an attempt to settle the Reform issue on moderate terms. But Walpole becomes more intelligible when we trace him in the Cambridge Union, opposing manhood suffrage and the ballot as far back as 1826. Spencer Walpole's political starting point was not his election to parliament at a time when the settlement of 1832 was starting to crack. Rather, his ideas had formed when even the Reform Act itself was still unthinkable. Charles Merivale, who recalled Walpole presiding over the Union "with imposing dignity", added: "Reform was still in the background. I don't think our liberal debaters ever once mentioned it."17

Dating Walpole's first engagement with politics is not to insist that he was thereafter programmed to resist all innovation. His near-contemporary at Oxford, W.E. Gladstone, started with very similar beliefs but steadily shed them in the process of responding to modernity. However, there may be one overall benefit in extending the dimension of individual political engagement back into late adolescence and early manhood. The passage of time may have eroded the certainties of youth, but it did little to dissolve the intractability of Britain's relationship with Ireland. There was an urgency in the motion of 1887 that "the condition of Ireland demands the concession of Home Rule". Reginald McKenna, who spoke in its favour, would no doubt have been surprised could he have known that twenty-five years later he would be a member of a government still trying to push the measure through. Equally, by the time they reached middle age, even those worthy young men who had argued that firm government would drill the wayward Irish into cheerful obedience may have questioned their own solution. Austen Chamberlain had doubted the panacea when as a young man he attacked Coercion in the Union debates of the early eighteen-eighties. Forty years later, he reverted to the gamble of trust by signing the Treaty, and probably thereby sacrificed his chance to become prime minister. F.H. Maugham crossed swords with McKenna in that debate of 1887. Half a century later, he joined a Conservative cabinet that withdrew the British navy from the south and west coasts of Ireland. At 20, he was violently distrustful of Parnell; at 70 he found himself gambling on the goodwill of de Valera. The earlier we realise that English politicians formed their views on Ireland, the more easily we can appreciate that some of them came to recognise that there was no simple answer to the Irish question.

"Ireland was only demanding to be itself," J.F. Roxburgh assured the Union in 1911.18 But what was Ireland "itself"? The country contained rival identities, each of them claiming to speak for the whole. On the rare occasions when those disparate Irish voices shared a single sense of grievance, as happened in the aftermath of the Financial Commission report of 1897, they did not necessarily agree on the answer.  In any case, solutions preferred in Ireland did not always square with English notions of the fundamental nature of the United Kingdom. Even if we adopt a simplistic and retrospective series of value judgements, we ought to marvel that the Cambridge Union so often got its answers "right".

For most of the century between 1815 and 1914, the Cambridge Union regarded  landlord, professional and above all Protestant Ireland as possessing at least an equal legitimacy in its claims to speak for the sister island. It is doubly difficult for us to get hold of this fundamental point, partly because we see the Ascendancy as a colonial-style minority, but even more because they seemed to vanish altogether from independent Ireland and so challenge our powers of imaginative reconstruction. Our tendency to discount them as a minority should not discredit their claims to be taken seriously in their own time. Britain and Ireland did not arrive at the stage of mass (but still not universal) male franchise until 1884. Property and education carried proportionately greater weight in the nineteenth century. Nor did assumptions change overnight: throughout the first half of the twentieth century, the white minority was overwhelmingly accepted as the legitimate voice of South Africa, despite a recent history of spoliation and political exclusion that far exceeded the inherited sins of Protestant Ireland.

None the less, the Cambridge Union did recognise the existence of another Ireland whose grievances were to be met and whose rights acknowledged. Majorities favoured the removal of the disabilities that prevented Catholics from entering parliament, accepted that Maynooth should receive public funding and that the Protestant Church should lose its privileges. If there is a single common thread throughout a century of discussing Irish issues, it is a desire that they should be resolved within the framework of the United Kingdom. Hindsight may regard that strategy as doomed, but it can hardly be condemned as selfish or even necessarily mistaken.

There are signs that, gradually, Catholic and nationalist Ireland was perceived to have ousted the Protestant and unionist identity as the country's legitimate voice. In 1841, a Fellow of Trinity had described a visiting Anglican preacher as "an Irishman of a vehement order; a more violent cushion-thumper I never heard". In this comment, Irish identity was certainly not equated with Catholicism; rather, the preacher's Irishness implicitly explained the ferocity of his Protestantism. Yet in a Union debate in 1902, a critic of Coercion sought to deny his opponents' Irish credentials by pointing to their Ulster origins: Protestantism was coming to be seen as something that undermined the right to speak as an Irishman. In 1835, the Union had upheld the Orange Order's right to exist,  although even Lord Roden was too great an absurdity for them to swallow in 1850. By 1905, an undergraduate who acknowledged that he was an Orangeman thought it useful to laugh off his confession by denying that he was a convict or a lunatic. Ulster drew only small houses and less sympathy in 1892-93 and again in 1912-14.

Perhaps it was for the best that so few Ulster voices were heard in the Cambridge Union. E.W. MacBride's description of the Parnellites in 1890 as "eighty-six bog-trotting ruffians" was not especially illuminating. Worse still, it probably tended to convert the Home Rule debate in English eyes from a contest of civilisation against barbarism to a quarrel between two equally incomprehensible and irresponsible factions. If Ireland was really "demanding to be itself", the logical conclusion in the English mind might well be to let the Irish get on with the task. "Aren't they a remarkable people?" wrote Asquith in 1914 after an emotional exchange between the Nationalist John Dillon and his Ulster counterpart James Craig in 1914. "And the folly of thinking that we can ever understand them, let alone govern them!" 19

By the early twentieth century, the overall tone of the Cambridge debates suggests that the Ascendancy were on their way to becoming the long-term losers. Just as land purchase was removing them from the social scene, so the increasing definition of Home Rule as a confrontation between two Irish tribes marginalised the old elite out of the political equation. Edmund Burke had used the term "Anglo-Irish", but the term was rarely employed in the nineteenth century, and then mainly to describe the political relationship of the two islands rather than any section of its people. T.P. O'Connell and F.H. O'Donnell agreed that Parnell was in many respects more English than Irish, but neither branded him as "Anglo-Irish" and it is easy to imagine their leader's scorn had anyone sought so to qualify his national identity. Modern historians sometimes apply the label retrospectively,20 but the origins of the process of denial can be seen in the gradual acceptance of the prospect of Home Rule prior to 1914.

            Chapter Four argues that neither the Irish identity nor the Catholic faith were prominent in nineteenth-century Cambridge. No doubt it is striking that a major British university should have attracted so few Irish Catholic students. At just the point in the eighteen-sixties when Cambridge began to retreat from its oppressive Protestantism, the Catholic Church placed its own obstructions on access. By the time the ban was removed in 1895, the range of choice (and price) in higher education was becoming wider, making Cambridge correspondingly less attractive. But did all of this matter? Appendix One provides a glimpse of the very broad selection of subjects that the Union discussed through the half century prior to 1914 when its agenda had become primarily political. We simply have to accept the historical fact of life that the participants in those debates were principally members of an English social elite. They discussed the North-West Frontier of India without the participation of speakers from Afghanistan just as they held forth about trades unions without seeking the opinions of manual workers. Every Irish issue but one could be solved within the existing framework of the United Kingdom by dispassionate debate that required no special pleading. The exception, Home Rule as the derived form of Repeal, was probably more effectively argued in the Cambridge Union by English well-wishers than demanded by Irish advocates. True, the Union voted its largest-ever majority in favour of Home Rule at the debate of 1912 on the sole occasion when it listened to the views of an Ulster Catholic, but Jeremiah MacVeagh was clearly uneasy in an alien environment and we may doubt any close relationship of cause and effect.

And so we return to the conundrum of Ireland "itself". As the votes were counted at the debate on Catholic Emancipation in 1829, enthusiasts gave three cheers "for Ireland". In later decades, the Union asked whether this or that reform was in the interests of Ireland or of the "Irish people", even if we may suspect that the strangely worded motion of 1877 was not the sole occasion on which they also had an eye to the claims of the "English" empire. They did at least discuss Ireland. More often than we might have expected, they showed themselves flexible in the face of changes that were shocking to inherited mindsets. If they failed to answer the Irish question and did not always focus clearly on Irish reality, they were not alone. "Nobody knows what Ireland really is, and of what she is capable," wrote Erskine Childers in 1911. "Nobody can know until she has responsibility for her own fate."21 The Cambridge Union cannot be blamed for failing to solving the enigma, nor should it be condemned if it was sometimes reluctant to gamble on the answer.




Abbreviations are listed at the close of the Preface.


1. CR, 9 June 1886, p. 393; CR, 14 March 1912, p. 358; Cradock, p. 80.

2. Childers, Framework of Home Rule, p. 148.

3. F. Pakenham, Peace by Ordeal (1951 ed.), p. 33.

4. McDonnell, Ireland and the Home Rule Movement, pp. x-xi.

5. CR, 14 March 1912, p. 358.

6. K. Rose, King George V (1983), p. 242. As Duke of York, George V had been present in the gallery of the House of Commons to hear Gladstone introduce the Second Home Rule Bill in 1893 in "a beautiful speech". However, in 1913, he was "assured by resident landowners in the South and West of Ireland that their tenants, while ostensibly favourable to Home Rule, are no longer enthusiastic about it". H. Nicolson, King George V: His Life and Reign (1952), pp. 48, 227.

7. Lyons, Parnell, p. 260.

8. Gr, 23 Feb. 1893, p. 219; Childers, Framework of Home Rule, pp. 203, 201.

9. CR, 23 Feb. 1893, p. 235.

10. Cradock, p. 143.                           

11. 14/3/82.

12. A. Jones, Politics of Reform 1884 (1972), pp. 18-20; Matthew, Gladstone, pp. 206-7.

13. J. Pope, Memoirs of the Right Honourable Sir John Alexander Macdonald (2 vols, 1894), ii, pp. 222-7; Merivale, p. 66; W.S. Churchill, Lord Randolph Churchill (1951 ed.), p. 488.

14. Stephen, The Jesuit at Cambridge, i, p. 251.

15. 13/11/66. A. Rosen, Rise Up Women! (1974), p. 6.

16. R. Taylor, Lord Salisbury (1975), p. 4 (and only just: young Cecil is elected on line 4!); G.M. Young, Stanley Baldwin (1952), p. 25 (text begins on p. 17).

17. Merivale, p. 66. This recollection seems unreliable. Reform may have been "in the background" at Westminster, but surviving accounts of debates from the eighteen-twenties suggest that it was a staple of Cambridge oratory.

18. Gownsman, p. 6.

19. Rom1, pp. 226-7; M. & E. Brock, eds, H.H. Asquith's Letters to Venetia Stanley (1982), p. 122 (24 July 1914). "Cushion-thumper" was contemporary slang for a clergyman, usually of a fashionable kind, who preached violent sermons.

20. E.g. J.J. Lee, Ireland 1912-1985: Politics and Society (1989), pp. 1,4; P. Travers, Settlements and Divisions: Ireland 1870-1922 (1988), pp. 69-71.

21. Childers, Framework of Home Rule, p. 172.