‘The Liverpool Election’ by A Christian Democrat (14 February, 1880)

The following is an editorial that appeared in the ‘People’s Journal’ under the name ‘A Christian Democrat’. The discussion here is a reaction to John (Lord) Ramsay, 13th Earl of Dalhousie’s loss in the Liverpool by-election. An important marker in the lead up to the 1880 general election, this loss to the Conservatives was a time to reflect on how the Liberal message and election strategy should be refined. Ramsay would become the third MP for Liverpool in the general election. As an aside, reading this it is worth considering just how far Scottish liberals were enthralled by aristocracy. Lord Ramsay seems to represent a convergence of this deference to nobility and patriotic desire for Scots to thrive in England.

Sir,—We must learn wisdom from the loss of this test election. I wish our leaders not to underrate the nature of our defeat; it is serious, and likely to do much harm to the Liberal cause. For one thing, it fixes this Government in office for a whole long year. Had Lord Ramsay won, the Liberals might justly have forced the Government to appeal to the county. No better candidate could have been chosen. Lord Ramsay is a sailor, a man of real capacity, understands politics from person study, is a keen Liberal from genuine conviction, and speaks with the eloquence in which sincere, clear, and earnest principle ever finds expression. If with such a candidate we have lost this great battle, with whom shall we ever gain? I trace our defeat to three causes, and if I am right the sooner all Liberals attend to the them the better.

First, Lord Ramsay seemed to concede to the Irishmen something which he at first refused. It was one thing to take up a clear, just, firm position from the first, quite another thing to seem to give way to catch the Home Rule vote. I think every Liberal candidate should insist on a full inquiry into the whole subject of government in Ireland. Statesmen may be well informed, but the new electorate is very ill informed in reference to Ireland. What were the Brehon Laws? What was the state of Ireland beyond the Pale? How did Irishmen govern themselves? Was Spencer right in his policy and in his reasons for refusing leases? Do our present electors know the exhaustive and invaluable report of Sir William Petty, the first real disclosure of the true condition of the land question? Have the men who must decide upon a policy which will affect the happiness of millions ever studied the careful and statesmanlike account of land tenure by Arthur Young? I am quite sure that even many candidates for Parliament have not read the report of the Devon Commission, nor the sagacious letters of our own James Caird. I fear, sir, we forget that in Ireland the great majority of the people depend entirely on farming; that the vast majority of farms are under fifty acres; that almost all the buildings, all the drains, and indeed everything has been done by the tenants, and that these tenants are all liable to removal at one year’s notice. The money now lent by Sir Stafford Northcote will, I fear, create great heart-burnings. The farmers will wish to have the spending of this money. They will think it should be lent to them, so as to increase their hold on the land. The proprietors may spend it, and raise the rents, and give no more security to the tenant. I have only named these authorities on the land question. As a Liberal desiring to be just I could not give an intelligent vote on Irish questions till we have a new inquiry. I do not believe in doles of charity. Let us reach the causes of the poverty and cure the disease. The Irish education question, too, and indeed a whole hose of Irish questions, press for solution. Do Scotchmen know what the penal laws in Ireland were? Sir, when I see the people of Ireland in their ignorance and poverty my heart burns with indignation at the wicked laws we made to prevent them from being educated. Do Scotchmen know that we deliberately killed the Irish woollen trade, and forced the Irish people to abandon commerce and trust to the potato? I wish to know what Irishmen who understand their own county want. I wish to know what they mean by Home Rule, and I would have every Liberal to announce his desire—nay, his determination—to have a full, exhaustive inquiry, not to gain the few votes of the Irish, but because intelligent legislation is impossible till we are full informed as to what we are legislating about. I do not believe what the Irish vote is of the least value to any candidate. There are even in Liverpool more English dock labourers and voters of the residuum than there are Irish voters. To a man these will vote against any one who speaks a kind word for the Irish. These men hate the Irish, who come over in thousands and compete with them in the labour market. Lord Ramsay’s apparent concession was ill-timed and cost him dear. Let future Liberal candidates he warned, let them go for a full inquiry into the whole question of Irish Government at the very first, because this is just a wise course in itself, and let Irishmen appeal to our sense of justice, and, if they are wise, never threaten a candidate; for the moment a concession seems to be made to gain their votes, far more is lost than their numbers can make up.

The second great lesson of the Liverpool election is that the sellers of liquor must cease to dictate in Parliamentary elections. The full value of a license must be exacted, and as soon as this is done the vested interest of the traffic will cease. With unerring, instinct the publicans know that their craft is safe only under a Tory Government. Liberals have nothing to fear. Publicans have done and will do their worst. Almost to a man in Perthshire they vote Tory. Let no passionate nor unjust measure be proposed; but let a great statesmanlike measure dealing with the drink traffic be proposed. Like gravitation, the whole drink monopoly presses with a steady unchanging power. Temperance sentiment is a fluctuating, inconstant, fitful force on which no wise politicians can safely county. The Liverpool election tells us that to have thousands of publicans steadily canvassing among the very lowest of the voters is a danger to the whole representation, and vitiates the real franchise of the people. Let Liberals unite in a determined policy towards this traffic. It will never vote for a Liberal. The traffic knows that John Bright and Mr Gladstone will do all that they can do to abolish all monopolies. Let Liberals go for a policy which will avoid the absurd extremes of fanatics, but which shall be so strong and wise and well considered that it will evoke the enthusiasm of all good men who desire to see a real temperance reformation.

Thirdly, I think the foreign policy of the Liberal party had much to do with Lord Ramsay’s defeat, but I must reserve this subject for another letter. The Liberal party gained their former triumphs because they had noble principles, and measures just and beneficial they desired to carry. Let the Liberal programme be again fairly stated and made clear to our electors, and, whatever England may do, Scotland will, I feel assured, continue to support the Liberal cause with unflinching determination.—I am, &c.,

A Christian Democrat.

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