If the SNP sweep to victory in the general election, crushing Scottish Labour, their dream of independence could be realisedby Peter Kellner / March 5, 2015 / Leave a comment
With the benefit of hindsight, we now know the 2015 general election was a watershed that set Scotland on the road to independence. Both the Labour and Conservative parties underestimated the hostility of Scottish voters to London’s politicians. The SNP won three in five seats in Scotland. Overnight, Labour went from being the dominant party to also-rans. It never recovered. For some years after 2015, the SNP used its strength to demand more powers for Holyrood, but eventually the demand for full independence could not be contained.
A wild prediction? Perhaps. But it’s also precisely what happened before. For Scotland, read Ireland. For Labour and SNP, read the Liberals and Home Rule League. For 2015, read 1874.
Before 1922, Ireland was part of the United Kingdom. Until 1868, its politics were dominated by the Liberals and Conservatives, with the Liberals usually having more MPs. William Gladstone, Prime Minister of the reforming 1868 Liberal government, responding to pressure from Ireland, passed the Irish Land Act. This gave tenant farmers more security. He also disestablished the Irish church.
These measures pleased nobody. Landowners felt let down, while many tenant farmers and other less well-off voters felt the reforms did not go nearly far enough.
The first move came from the Protestant landowners. In 1870, together with Dublin’s growing middle classes, they formed the Home Government Association (HGA). Rather than accept reforms imposed by London, they preferred to go for self-government. In 1873 the HGA became the Home Rule League (HRL). This wider body, now backed by tenants farmers as well as landowners, proposed that Ireland should decide all domestic matters for itself, leaving London, with deciding foreign policy, running the British Empire and organising the UK’s defence.
Then came the 1874 election. Gladstone tried to stem the rising anti-London mood by offering judicial reform, but not home rule. His Tory opponent, Benjamin Disraeli, offered nothing. The HRL fielded 80 candidates (for Ireland’s 101 seats). In practical terms, the biggest domestic issues were the Irish Land Act, hated by the landowners, and the country’s expensive railways, hated by almost everyone else. The HRL offered the same remedy to both ills: home rule.