Q. How to get away with inciting violence? A. Have plenty of flags and friends in high places

We’re exactly two weeks away from the United States’ latest presidential elections. It has become a quadrennial tradition in and of itself to call the elections The Most Important in America’s History, but for once the hyperbole really is justified. The 2016 presidential poll will surely go down in history as America’s most rancorous and divisive – certainly the most violent, if the scenes at some of Donald Trump’s bigotry-flecked rallies have been anything to go by. Trump himself has been pretty blatant at his (at best) ambivalence, and (at worst) condoning, of the violence. Indeed, it is quite a charge sheet that The Donald is building up. Since he imposed himself on as a candidate for the presidency, Trump has managed to (take a deep breath, this may take some time…):

* Incite violence at his rallies, and offer legal support to supporters who are arrested
* Brag about having dodged taxes
* Racially abuse a Supreme Court judge from a Mexican background
* Advocate the execution of the families of Da’esh members (which is a war crime)
* Suggest that gun-ownership activists could assassinate his main presidential rival
* Call for the Russian government to hack the computer account of his political opponent
* Threaten to refuse to recognise the result of the Nov 8th poll, unless he and his party win

In short, Trump has, during his extremely ignoble campaign, proved himself worthy not just of summons and arrest, but immediate CNN-filmed forced frog-marching to the nearest magistrates’ court, several times over. The only question is, why has he not been arrested? The short answer is, because he is rich and powerful enough, because he has an enormous political party behind him (regardless of how uneasy many of the Republican Party’s top brass may be about having him as their presidential nominee), and because his campaign has built up an army of stars-and-stripes-waving supporters who are absolutely crazy about him, and who so love their country that they never tire of chanting “U-S-A, U-S-A” – as if they are in danger of forgetting the name of the country they live in. He is, essentially, untouchable. Untouchable people do tend to be immune from arrest.

It has happened before, of course, and not a million miles away from us, too. The Great Untouchable in UK politics went on, incredibly, to become Prime Minister, albeit for just seven months. What’s more, he was the only British Prime Minister to come from an Ulster background. Yep, you know who I’m talking about…it’s him…he of such charming speeches as…

I can imagine no length of resistance to which Ulster will go, in which I shall not be ready to support them, and in which they will not be supported by the overwhelming majority of the British people… There are things stronger than parliamentary majorities.

In a snide remark to John Redmond’s moderate Irish Parliamentary Party, he stated:

These people in the North-east of Ireland, from old prejudices perhaps more from anything else, from the whole of their past history, would prefer, I believe, to accept the government of a foreign country rather than submit to be governed by honourable gentlemen below the gangway.

…and there was this message to the Ulster Unionist Council on the Glorious Twelfth in 1913…

Whatever steps you may feel compelled to take, whether they are constitutional, or whether in the long run they are unconstitutional, you have the whole Unionist Party, under my leadership, behind you

This man got away with inciting violence...
This man got away with inciting violence…

It has, for over a century, been a contentious point (to say the least) why Andrew Bonar Law, the then Conservative Party leader and Leader of His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition (discuss), was not arrested for inciting armed rebellion against the Liberal government of the day. He even went so far as to compromise the monarchy by urging King George V to withhold his royal assent for any Home Rule bill – a tack that had clearly had some effect, since the King did actually urge the prime minister, H H Asquith, to think again about his Home Rule policy. For all Bonar Law’s bleating about how the Liberals were a “Revolutionary Committee” (although the Liberals had nonetheless meticulously followed all the parliamentary rules and conventions at Westminster) that had ‘seized despotic power by fraud‘ (although the Liberals had, in fact, won three straight general elections, fair and square, while their allies in the IPP had topped the poll in Ireland in every election since 1885), for a despotic and revolutionary government the Liberals behaved shockingly meekly when faced with a clear and present threat to their authority. There was, after all, plenty of evidence to back up any hypothetical prosecution of the Tory leader (as well as of UUC leaders Edward Carson and James Craig), and while it is debatable whether there would anyway have been a rebellion in Ulster against a Home-Ruled Dublin government even without his intervention, Bonar Law’s words must surely have emboldened many in the UUC who would otherwise have shied away from the prospect of actually taking pot-shots at His Majesty’s armed forces. Like a certain tanned and toupeed American businessman a century later, Bonar Law was also cynically using bigotry to further his political aims. His fans have claimed that he hated religious sectarianism (citing the fact that he had Catholic friends, like, for example, Lady Ninian Crichton-Stuart…), but nobody who uses such an inflammatory term as “Lundies” in his speeches can honestly be said to be entirely free of bigotry (just as those who claim that Enoch Powell was not racist need to read the Rivers of Blood speech carefully, and take time to look up the word “piccaninnies” in the dictionary). And to those who have argued that the Tories and Unionists were merely bluffing with all the inflammatory speeches, drilling and gun-running (and that it was their way of “persuading” the Liberals to call an early general election), that hardly makes it any more justifiable – not when most would accept that threatening violence is just as reprehensible as committing it.

Roy Jenkins, in his magisterial 1964 biography of Asquith, offered his own assessment of the increasingly dangerous situation in 1912-14:

To lock up the leaders of the opposition would have been a bold stroke for any government. For Asquith it would have been a fatal one. It would have undermined the whole position he was trying to maintain. The House of Commons was the one battleground on which the Liberals always won. It was therefore in their interests to pretend that it was the only one which counted… But the Unionists were tired of an arena in which they always lost. They were only too anxious to appeal to some other authority – to the Lords, to the King, to the streets of Belfast. During 1913 Bonar Law played with alternative ideas of a mass Unionist withdrawal from Parliament and of provoking such constant disorder as to bring its proceedings to a standstill. The arrest of himself or any other Unionist leaders would have given him the perfect excuse for one or other of these courses. Furthermore the effect upon the King and the army, both a little wobbly in any event, would have been catastrophic. Asquith’s stand was on the inviolability of the parliamentary system. To maintain this stand he had to pretend that the system was working normally, even if it was not – and this meant that, whatever they did, he could not lock up his principal opponents.

There is an alternative way of looking at this situation. Whether or not Asquith was properly concentrating on his job, given his publicly known drink problem (it was the stuff of popular songs of the day, and explains where the term “squiffy” comes from) and his unrequited passion for the fiancee of one of his ministers, his failure to lay down the law (which the Tories and Unionists were supposed to respect at all times) served only to appease the bullies who had taken over the Opposition in Westminster, and thus encourage them to take increasingly radical steps in their campaign, further discrediting the parliamentary process in the eyes of growing numbers of nationalists. It was as much the Liberal government’s weakness as Bonar Law’s boldness that was emboldening the Orangemen in Belfast, just as it was enraging the Home Rulers in Dublin. And as I argued in my very first article for Slugger, the authorities’ blatant double standards in dealing with gun-running at Larne and Howth, and the tragic outcome to the latter operation in July 1914, surely set Ireland on the slippery slope to armed conflict, a process that was halted only by the outbreak of an even bloodier war in Europe. Maybe Paul Johnson had a point when he once wrote that ‘Parliamentary democracy itself was, perhaps, saved in the mud of Flanders‘ – although it would have been tactful of Johnson to admit that Britain’s experience of parliamentary democracy has historically been very different from that of Ireland.

Jenkins was right, though, to raise fears about the reliability of the army in the event of an anti-Home Rule insurrection – fears on which a great deal of fuel was piled with the Curragh Mutiny of March 1914. It is yet another reason why Bonar Law appeared to be untouchable. Furthermore, many towns in Ulster, and even parts cities in Britain, such as Glasgow, Liverpool, and Manchester, were bedecked with Union flags as the campaign wore on from Covenant Day (28 September 1912) onwards. Symbols, as any student of politics knows, matter enormously in any issue, and few symbols carry more potency than a flag. Whatever their views on the lawfulness or otherwise of the Unionists’ 1912-14 campaign, plenty of army officers would have felt more than a little queasy about the prospect of raising their rifles at people who considered themselves similarly proud British citizens. It was a theme to which Bonar Law returned in parliament, asking rhetorically whether ‘any prime minister could give orders to shoot down men whose only crime is that they refuse to be driven out of our community and deprived of the privilege of British citizenship.‘ (I’ve often wondered whether the striking miners in England and Wales in 1984-5 might have had a more successful stoppage if they had waved more Union flags around when manning the picket lines…) Such emotional hair-splitting nonetheless emboldened Unionists even further as they continued with a campaign that smacked of sedition and treason – the same kind of sedition and treason on which the Unionist authorities would later have no problem in cracking down when it came from republicans from 1916 onwards.

...while this man still might...
…while this man still might…(Picture: Gage Skidmore)

Fast forward a century, and the flags and violence (or threats thereof) can mainly be seen and heard in the States. The powers that be in both the US and UK take pride in polities in which the rule of law supposedly applies to everyone, but this has not always proved to be the case, and the higher up and more spectacular the threats come from the likelier it is that nobody is held to account. It is not impossible, of course, that papers could be served on Trump for any one of the above offences as soon as the election is over – the swifter the better, before he dusts off his groundless claim about ballot-rigging – but the damage, surely, is already done. Since the Trump juggernaut got underway the Republican Party has had, and squandered, plenty of opportunities to pull the plug on the aspirations of a man and a movement who between them have severely (some would argue fatally) damaged their party’s public image. It has certainly harmed the worldwide public image of America itself – a matter of concern, you would have thought, to everyone in the States, whatever their party colours.

In a public statement to the nation after Canada’s 1970 October Crisis, in which terrorists abducted and then murdered a provincial public official, prime minister Pierre Trudeau justified his government’s controversial use of the War Measures Act (whereby the army was dispatched on the streets of Montreal) thus:

Democracy first must preserve itself…there is ample room for opposition and dissent, but none for intimidation and terror.

It has not always worked out that way. Whether in America, Britain or Northern Ireland, when the rules of the game are so blatantly breached by the high and mighty who are supposed to know better, and are not properly enforced by those who are meant to do the enforcing, is it any wonder why more and more of us are not bothering to turn out to vote – our own way, perhaps, of wondering out loud whether democracy really is worth preserving?