Slugger O'Toole

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“a party that does not understand for what it is fighting has no right to win…”

Thu 19 December 2013, 4:09pm

Ever since spending nine hours in the basement of Belfast central Library scouring the pages of the News Letter over the Famine periood, I’ve been a big fan of the direct style of Victorian journalism. This extract is from page 9 of The Spectator magazine in August 1891:

We suppose it is not, on the whole, disadvantageous for each party to have its turn in Opposition and in Office, in the responsibilities of criticism and in the responsibilities of administration.

Responsibility renders the Radicals less disposed to destruction, and renders the Tories more willing for Reform. But in the present case a great deal more is at stake than any issue of that limited kind.

Unless the Unionists can realise that all the political traditions and constitutional forms under which our democratic institutions- have been developed are at stake, they do not understand, for what they are fighting; and a party that does not understand for what it is fighting has no right to win.[emphasis added]

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Comments (15)

  1. Anaximander (profile) says:

    …but a party that wins can very well fight itself into destruction.

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  2. sherdy (profile) says:

    Mick, – I hope you’re not advocating the use of logic in political campaigns.
    That might lead to daft ideas like candidates telling the truth or saying what they actually think or believe.
    Heaven forfend, it would be the end of democracy, which has managed for two millennia without it, and could lead to the destruction of society as we know it.

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  3. Seamuscamp (profile) says:

    victorian England wasn’t a democracy – perhaps an oligarchy.

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  4. BarneyT (profile) says:

    Yes, but to sustain is a different matter….but more importantly, look at my avatar. No rules no moves just get involved. Flag problem solved. Now to find a fleg blog. Think I’m on to something here…not just for NI….naïve positivity there :-)

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  5. Nevin (profile) says:

    The conservative Spectator appears to have been concerned about apathy on the part of the Conservative and Liberal Unionist parties, that a poor result in the Lewisham by-election could produce a domino effect:

    Whatever may be the merits of Mr. Gladstone’s [Home Rule] proposal, it was the rashest of all courses to launch it, as he did, on the people of these islands at a time when half of the constituencies were only just entering for the first time on the exercise of political responsibilities, and had not even realised for themselves the sort of institutions under which they live.

    In more recent times, rights and responsibilities have seldom been paired.

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  6. What a remarkable reminder!

    The old Lewisham Constituency only existed between 1885 and the Liberal sweep of 1906, and was regarded as a Tory “safe seat”. Its first MP was the eponymous Lord Lewisham (heir to the Earl of Dartmouth — gosh, it helps to have powerful connections. down to the present day, not excluding dear, dead, Lady Di).

    Now the Borough straddles three Labour-held seats, all with considerable majorities. Town-planning achieved by the Luftwaffe and the old LCC.

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  7. Anaximander (profile) says:

    The article contains much that would be seen as intellectually and morally contemptible today. It does, however, encapsulate neatly the static aristocraticism that permeates much of conservatism.

    “…but the reconstruction of the political institutions of these islands for all the centuries in which they can be said to have had any sort of popular life, it is not only one of the most difficult and responsible of tasks, but one which it is sheer madness for a raw and quite untrained democracy to undertake at all.”

    The argument advanced, essentially, is that the democratic dispositif is a new one and we must not touch it, however contrary it may run to Irish governmental aspirations, for, and this is important, the people alone are much too dangerous to be allowed decide things for themselves. HMS Britannia demands calm, tidy waters, not choppy democratic seas. Curiously, this attitude ignored the fact that much wider ranging self-governmental powers had already been accorded to dominions like Canada (including “papist” French Canada), New Zealand and Australia. Even more curiously, if true, it serves to near obviate the previous two hundred years of English political philosophy, the principles of Locke, Montesquieu through to Hamilton, Jefferson and Mill, and places the United Kingdom on a par with the most backward of democratizing nations.

    Some things, though, seem immune to the ravages of time:

    “The state of the case appears to be this. Neither town nor country cares very much about the Irish Question. The constituencies are weary of it, and seem unable to realise how very great and far-reaching a constitutional question it involves.”

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  8. aquifer (profile) says:

    So are Alliance labour lite or closet tories?

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  9. Nevin (profile) says:

    Anaximander, you may not have spotted the relevance of this quote:

    Nothing can be clearer than that a democracy which has not lasted for more than six years, and has not even gauged its own power, will be gravely imperilling its future by destroying and recasting the traditional habits and principles of its political life before it has even accustomed itself to the discharge of the most elementary duties

    If I understand the article correctly, the Spectator isn’t opposing change but rather pleading for more time for the 1884 Representation of the People Act changes to bed down.

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  10. Greenflag (profile) says:

    Anaximander ,

    ‘Curiously, this attitude ignored the fact that much wider ranging self-governmental powers had already been accorded to dominions like Canada (including “papist” French Canada), New Zealand and Australia.’

    They were far enough away in time and distance to have little impact on domestic British politics at the time . Ireland was next door .There were large numbers of Irish or of Irish descent already active in British radical movements going back to Fergus O’Connor & the Chartists etc .

    Karl Marx did not predict that Britain would be the first country to undergo a Communist revolution . There had been radical movements throughout Britain from as far back as the 1790′s . This was followed through by the Chartists and others for greater democracy . The Irish ‘question ‘ was just a subset of that broader movement . We forget that even as late as the 1930′s there were important elements within the Conservatives and the aristocracy and the upper echelons of the Army who were as keen on democracy as they were on communism . Some went far as supporting fascist parties in Britain and elsewhere as the only way to fend off rising demands for democracy /economic equality and social reforms .

    Just the same old story of the haves trying to maintain the status quo to prevent the have nots from getting their hands on the lucre or the power .

    World War 1 may have prevented Britain from being engulfed in an uncivil class war of it’s own with the Irish Home Rule divide providing a causus belli for the Army/Aristocrats/Tories v Parliament /people/Liberals and working classes .

    Fortunately WWI came in the nick of time -not of course for the millions of combatants who lost their lives in that great carnage of waste and destruction.

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  11. Greenflag (profile) says:

    error above-omission -should read

    Karl Marx did not predict that Britain would be the first country to undergo a Communist revolution without reason.

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  12. Anaximander (profile) says:

    Hi Nevin,

    “Anaximander, you may not have spotted the relevance of this quote:

    Nothing can be clearer than that a democracy which has not lasted for more than six years, and has not even gauged its own power, will be gravely imperilling its future by destroying and recasting the traditional habits and principles of its political life before it has even accustomed itself to the discharge of the most elementary duties

    If I understand the article correctly, the Spectator isn’t opposing change but rather pleading for more time for the 1884 Representation of the People Act changes to bed down.”

    I think I covered that portion in saying, “the argument advanced, essentially, is that the democratic dispositif is a new one….”

    The Representation of the People Act certainly enfranchised more of the population (though the 1867 Act is generally contended to be more historically important) but changed nothing of the fundamentals of British democracy or parliamentarianism. The proposition that a people should have the right to responsible self-government of, by and for the people is a key constituent in English political thought, back to Junius and beyond. The Spectator’s attentisme, therefore, seems to me to have the unsurprisingly agreeable effect of corresponding exactly to their desires (refuse self-government to the Irish).

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  13. Nevin (profile) says:

    “The Representation of the People Act certainly enfranchised more of the population”

    Hence the Spectator concern about Conservative and Liberal Unionist apathy, Anaximander. The detail is spelt out in the article.

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  14. Anaximander (profile) says:

    That is all well and good, however, I made no comment in regard to “Unionist apathy”.

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  15. Nevin (profile) says:

    But, Anaximander, that was the thrust of the conservative Spectator article as highlighted in the opening thread.

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