Parnell's lessons for Scottish nationalism in Westminster and beyond

Published: 25 June 2018

CCC Director Professor Michael Keating considers the career of iconic Irish nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell whose mastery of Parliamentary tactics and ability to build a broad national alliance for radical change may have important lessons for the modern SNP.  

As the SNP MPs staged their walk-out from Westminster last week, the name of Charles Stewart Parnell, the charismatic leader of Irish nationalism in the 1880s. was being evoked. This is not the first time that Parnell has featured in the Scottish debate. Former First Minister Alex Salmond is known to be an admirer and delivered the annual Parnell lecture in Dublin in 2016. So is Parnell’s legacy relevant to the current debates in Scotland?

Charles Stewart Parnell, a Protestant landowner from an Anglo-Irish family, was an unlikely Irish nationalist. First elected to Parliament in 1875, he rapidly pushed aside the old leadership of the Irish Home Rule Party and took it in a more militant direction. Determined to get a Home Rule Bill from Westminster, he organized a campaign of parliamentary obstruction to hold up British legislation in the House of Commons. Debates were prolonged by filibusters, endless amendments were tabled, the Speaker and committee chairs were challenged and nominations to committees were opposed name by name. In 1881, a sitting bill was spun out for 41 hours until the Speaker called a halt.

The result was the introduction of closure procedures and guillotines, allowing government to keep debates to a timetable and generally control parliamentary business. This has not entirely stopped obstruction. Filibuster tactics were used by anti-devolution MPs in the 1970s and opponents of the Treaty on European Union in the 1990s. The original Scotland and Wales Bill was lost in 1977 when Parliament refused to approve a timetable. Now it is the Eurosceptics and the unionists who are insisting that the Brexit legislation be pushed through and complaining about parliamentary delays.

Parnell’s legacy, however, was wider than this. He founded the first mass membership and disciplined political party in the United Kingdom. There was a thriving grass roots organization and MPs were required to toe the party line. This was allied to a massive popular campaign, the Land League, to demand fair rents, security of tenure and an end to landlordism. For a while, the militant Fenians of the Irish Republican Brotherhood were brought in, although Parnell’s relationship with them has never been entirely clear. Parnell’s aim was Home Rule, or ‘devolution’ but he never ruled out more radical measures, famously declaring that ‘No man has the right to fix the boundary to the march of a nation’.  Finally, the Catholic Church joined in, while remaining somewhat wary of Parnell.  It was this broad-based coalition that ensured that the momentum for Irish Home Rule was maintained. 

Within Parliament, the key to success was less about obstructionism and more about playing the two big parties off against each other. In 1885, Parnell told the Irish in Great Britain to vote for the Conservative Party, hoping to do a deal with them. The result was a hung parliament and, when the Conservatives refused any concession, Parnell swung behind Gladstone’s Liberals. Gladstone, who had already privately converted to Home Rule, was unable to deliver because of a revolt in his own ranks, but Parnell remained allied with the Liberals until 1890. In that year, Parnell featured in a spectacular divorce case, which cost him the support of half of his own party, the Catholic Church and English evangelical Liberals. The Home Rule coalition shattered. Another Home Rule Bill passed in the House of Commons in 1893 but was defeated in the Lords. Home Rule was off the agenda until 1912, when the Irish once again held the balance of power in the Commons and the House of Lords veto had been abolished.  

There are lessons here for Scottish nationalists. First, while parliamentary obstruction can serve to gain attention for a cause that might otherwise be sidelined, it does not achieve a lot in long term. Second, a broad social alliance in the country is essential, uniting supporters of change even if not all want full independence. Independence gained 45 per cent of the vote in the 2014 referendum because grassroots social movements beyond the SNP brought the message to working class electors, soft nationalists and supporters of devolution-max. Nationalism was linked to social and economic grievances. Third, in the Westminster system, holding the balance of power is the key to influence and forming alliances is crucial. In the 1970s, the SNP, with only 11 members, were able to bring Labour back to its old Home Rule policy. The Democratic Unionists, with ten MPs, have an effective veto on matters concerning Northern Ireland, which the 35 SNP members lack in relation to Scotland.

Michael Keating is Professor of Politics at the University of Aberdeen and Director of the Centre on Constitutional Change.


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