‘Home Rule and the Land Laws’ by A Christian Democrat (31 January, 1880)

The following is an editorial that appeared in the ‘People’s Journal’ under the name ‘A Christian Democrat’. The issue of Home Rule for Ireland was key ahead of the 1880 general election. Charles Stewart Parnell had just assumed leadership of the Home Rule League which would consolidate its dominant position in Ireland that year at the polls. I believe this editorial demonstrates that the issue was a confusing one for Scottish Liberals at this relatively early stage in the movement. A tentative support for the Irish right to self-governance was tempered by an axiomatic belief that a united ‘British’ state was a force for good domestically and internationally. This can be clearly seen in the overt ‘British’ exceptionalism of the final paragraph.

To the Editor of the People’s Journal.

Sir,—In this letter I propose to discuss what we ought to do for Ireland, and what we ought not to do. First of all, we ought not to do anything to raise false hopes nor awaken false fears. The integrity of Britain must remain, property in Ireland must be protected, and order must be preserved. We must do nothing to cause capital to leave Ireland nor to awaken hopes doomed to bitter disappointment. All this being clearly understood, I do think we should hear what Irishmen really wish to be done. Mr Gladstone, it is true, has done more for Ireland than all the statesmen who ever loved her. I am constantly feeling anger rising in my heart towards Irishmen when I see their want of gratitude to the truest, greatest friend they ever had. But sir, when I remember the cruel wrongs of Ireland, the generations who have suffered grossest injustice, I check this rising anger and feel that if I were an Irishman as I am a Scotchman I should probably retain too keen a sense of the past to be as grateful as I ought to e to even Mr Gladstone. It is because we forget the past, which is more than most Irishmen can do, that we are so impatient of Irish unrest and dissatisfaction. Sir, let us try to shut our ears to all foolish clamour. Neither intimidated by threats, nor careful to gain temporary popularity, let us look at the Irish questions fairly in the face, and while clearly stating what cannot be conceded to any clamour, let us see what can be fairly and justly done. Sir, I appeal to Scotchmen. We know what English oppression means. Scotland felt it over and again, and we can sympathise with Irishmen. I rejoice to know that a noble and gallant young Scotchman is likely to represent Liverpool [Referring to John Ramsay, the future 13th Earl of Dalhousie, then styled Lord Ramsay]. Irishmen, if they were wise, would vote for him to a man, and ask no questions.

The first thing I would give to Irishmen is a fair hearing. Even Mr Bright, generous as he is, and just as he ever wishes to be, is not an Irishman. I wish to hear Irishmen state their own case. What do they mean by “Home Rule?” Do not let us be frightened by a bogey. I wish to approach this fearful thing, to hear it speak, and to know what it has to say for itself.

We in Scotland are about to raise a loud clamour for “Home Rule.” We wish the counties put under “Home Rule;” we wish the liquor traffic put under “Home Rule;” we wish more “Home Rule” at our Parochial Boards, and less dictation by a central government. Our educational and borough affairs are already under “Home Rule.” Let us quietly hear what Ireland really does mean by “Home Rule” before we refuse it.

Students of history know that when Ireland had a Parliament of her own it was neither a blessing nor an honour to her. But, sir, we are not all students of history. The people who are about to elect a new Parliament need to be informed. The knowledge may exist in the brains of students or in dusty blue-books. I wish living Irishmen to state what they know, and what they propose, for the information of the present electors. If the Parliament of Ireland was a curse and not a blessing, this is a most important fact, which an honest inquiry would make plain to Irishmen themselves, and is a strong argument in favour of inquiry. Let us hear Irishmen state their own case in their own way. What are the real wishes, their genuine aspirations? What do they, “in the heart of them,” as Carlyle would say, mean by “Home Rule?” Then, sir, I do earnestly wish to know what Mr Parnell wants. Is there a real injustice yet left in the Land Laws in Ireland? I fear there must be, else he would be powerless. What is wrong? What is wanting? In what is Mr Gladstone’s great measure defective?

Mr Baxter is about to denounce the Land Laws of Scotland. He will tell the world that the cost of selling a bit of land in Scotland is a fearful tax, and is a gross injustice alike to the seller and the buyer.. He is about to speak in Parliament of the cruel injustice of the law which disinherits the family of an intestate landowner, and flings them in poverty and dependence upon the tender mercies of an eldest son. Mr Baxter will proclaim the gross injustice of taking all the improvements of a tenant, and with them increasing the rents to the next tenant. All this Mr Baxter will eloquently and clearly state immediately in his place in Parliament. Sir, I do not expect anyone will denounce the right hon. Member for Montrose as a firebrand. He will be heard, he will have the respectful attention of the nation. I cannot see why Irishmen should not have the same respectful treatment. Most reluctantly, and with all deference I venture to differ from Mr Bright. While I do not think laws should be allowed to remain upon the statue-book which artificially create great estates, I do not think we should make laws to create small estates either. I am for free trade in land. I would not lend public money by way of bond to a tenant. I should rather try to give absolute security to the landlord that his rent should be paid. Ireland is a beautiful country; it is full of interest; and, were a small rate of interest secured, Irish land would instantly attract the capital of England, which is the first need of Ireland. Besides, I think a Scotch farmer with a thousand pounds or two would laugh at the idea of becoming a laird. He would rather make as good a bargain as he could, and invest his money, not in land, which would only give him 2 or 3 per cent., but in an Angus bull, or shorthorn stock, or in the very best agricultural implements. Mr Bright’s plan would encourage the small farmer to devote his capital to buy land when he should rather be encouraged to spend it on improving his farming. In my opinion, what Ireland, and Scotland too, require is tenant right to tenant’s improvements. That once secured, improvements would be so valuable that the original rent, like a Scotch fen, would be certainly paid. Land in Ireland would become a favourite investment, and fresh capital would flow into it. But, sir, this is just the kind of question a skilled and impartial Commission could deal with. If a few Scottish farmers—men like Mr Barclay, for example—and other men of skill and good sense were appointed to hear what Irish farmers really wished and what Irish landowners wished, the new electorate would gain a vast access of information. I do think we should try to amend the Land Laws of Ireland, and we should try to do justice between man and man, if we only knew how. In any case Irishmen would be heard, they would not have the burning sense of wrong which we all have when we believe a gross injustice is done us, and when no tribunal will so much as hear us state our own case.

Last year Ireland got a measure of Home Rule. She was permitted to have her own way in dealing with the question of Sunday closing. If there are other questions of a like nature on which Irish opinion is different from English, why should Irishmen not be allowed to settle them in their own way? Left to regulate their own home affairs, they will learn the difficulty of acting. They will be taught moderation, and the need of making rules which will work. They will find responsible authority quite a different thing from irresponsible speech-making. Apart altogether from the need of relieving Parliament of the mass of business which overwhelms numbers, “Home Rule” in such affairs will be to Ireland herself a most excellent discipline. Fiery and foolish speechifying will give place to solid work, the occupation of the professional agitator will be gone, and that of the practical and prudent “Home Ruler” will begin. What there is in all this to frighten us out of our wits I confess I fail to see. Gone about in this spirit, good only could result from a full, fair, and open inquiry.

Sir, my hope may be but a dream, but it is a glorious dream. Permit me to indulge it. I hope then for the day when the wealth and greatness of England, the commonsense and dour energy of Scotland, and the sparkling and generous enthusiasm of Ireland shall be united as they have never yet been, and welded into one grand power. I hope for the day when this united Britain shall go hand in hand with America in every good work; America, purified by suffering, and strong with the strength of freedom, of wealth, and youth; Britain, with her glorious throne, and her enlightened and educated people. These united might conquer the world, not with the brutal force of the sword, but by the omnipotence of justice, by the example of freedom, order, and peace.

A Christian Democrat.

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