January 18, 2015

Bernard Crickly on the Irish question and liberal prudery and squeamishness

Bernard Crick, biographer of Orwell and political advisor in the Northern Ireland Constitutional convention 1974.
Bernard Crick wrote 'In Defence of Politics', published in 1962, and in the chapter 'A Defence of Politics Against Nationalism', he wrote about Ireland:
"British imperialism only once seriously endangered the established domestic political institutions in the way that German imperialism strangled and frustrated the growth of German liberalism."
"Nationalism in Great Britain was only a summary of an existing experience, it was not a revolutionary force. The nation was defined by the unit of rule, since it included Welsh, Scots and some Irish; the state was not defined by a nation. Ireland, of course, was the great and terrible exception. It was, in fact, a conquered territory held down by force, in which political methods had first been abandoned, with the abolition of the Irish Parliament in 1800, and then made derisory by the exclusion of Catholics from public life. Ireland, in many ways, was the laboratory of modern nationalism : the inheritor of the old nationalist theories of pre-1848 ; the anticipator of the new nationalist practices of the era of the ending of colonies. Simply, it fell between the case of a conquered — and thus unified — colony, and the case of the suppressed national minority in the territory of another nation state. The one great threat to politics in Britain arose on the Irish question when, in 1913 and 1914, the Conservative Opposition not merely connived at sedition in Ireland, but helped suborn the army from its duty in the Curragh Mutiny when officers announced that they would refuse to enforce ‘Home Rule’ on Protestant Ulster. Britain at that moment was close to civil war, when the nationalism of Catholic Ireland was suddenly met by an equally intransigent, if temporary, English Conservative nationalism (a nationalism, at that moment, literally and clearly, unpatriotic)."
Considering the stand-off between Carson's Ulster Volunteers and the Liberal Party, Bernard Crick condemned the failure of English liberals to stand up to the sedition:
"The varieties of political experience are too great for such prudery. Politics involves genuine relationships with people who are genuinely other people, not tasks set for our redemption or objects for our philanthropy. They may be genuinely repulsive to us, but if we have to depend upon them, then we have to learn to live with them. The liberal tries to ignore these un- pleasantnesses — at the cost, so often, of failing to govern at all. The liberal is a man who would govern, or would be a member of a responsible political party, if only every issue did not float up into his mind as an issue of first principle. This can lead to a dangerous incapacity for action — a refusal to use force, even in the defence of political values. The tragic fumbling of the French Assembly in face of Louis Napoleon and, a century later, in face of De Gaulle; the incapacity for action of Asquith’s Liberal Government faced by Conservative sedition in Ireland; the fear and legal formalism of the Weimar Republic faced by the Nazis ; and the terrible slowness, in terms of world politics, of the American executive to ensure the legal rights of coloured citizens, these are all classic examples of liberal squeamishness and prudery. The great liberal Manchester Guardian in 1931 solemnly counselled Hindenburg that it would be undemocratic to exclude the Nazis from the government since they were the largest single party. 
The prudery of liberals about politics can also lead to failure to understand the needs of the less respectable elements of society. There were some things they simply did not like to look at: trade unions in Great Britain; the new immigrants in the United States. In 1897 the English liberal editor and reformer, W. T. Stead, happened to take a deckchair during an Atlantic crossing next to Boss ‘Tiger Dick’ Croker of New York City. Stead expounded, no doubt, the usual views of honest men on Tammany, but was honest indeed to record Mayor Croker’s reply (* Quoted in M. T. Werner, Tammany Hall (New York 1928), p. 449): 
'What is the one fact which all you English notice first of anything in our country? Why, it is that that very crowd of which we are speaking, the minority of cultured leisured citizens, will not touch political work — no, not with their little finger. All your high principles will not induce a mugwump to take more than a fitful interest in an occasional election. The silk stockings cannot be got to take a serious hand continuously in political work. They admit it themselves. Everyone knows it is so. Why, then, when mugwump principles won't even make mugwumps work, do you expect the same lofty motives to be sufficient to interest the masses in politics?' 
'And so,' I said, 'you need to bribe them with spoils?' 'And so', he replied, 'we need to bribe them with spoils. Call it so if you like. Spoils vary in different countries, here they take the shape of offices. But you must have an incentive to interest men in the hard daily work of politics, and when you have our crowd you have got to do it in one way, the only way that appeals to them… .'* 
This is a remarkable passage. For it reminds us that politics has to be taken as it comes, or else abandoned. But even when it comes like Croker’s, it is serving some good purpose. Here was a way of bringing the Irish immigrant poor into the national life, a way of giving them some power so that they could shape as well as be shaped by those already long arrived in America." 
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