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     Liberal reforms
     Ulster volunteers and Irish volunte....

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Liberal reforms: 1906-1911

The first five years of Liberal government, from 1906, represent the greatest single period of reform in the popular interest in British history. In the very first year the Trades Disputes Act greatly strengthens union rights by protecting their funds from employers' claims for damages. In 1908 a measure is passed for a non-contributory old age pension (albeit only five shillings a week at this stage). In 1909 bills are introduced to improve housing standards and to provide labour exchanges.

These bills eventually win the approval of the house of lords, but others fail to do so - in particular a licensing act (an attempt to curb drunkenness) and an education bill, both important to the Liberals' nonconformist supporters.


The tension between the Liberal administration and the house of lords reaches crisis point in response to David Lloyd George's budget of 1909. A previous budget in 1907 (presented by the then chancellor, Herbert Asquith, who is now prime minister) has already introduced a controversial distinction between earned and unearned income for tax purposes. Lloyd George goes much further, with a surtax on higher incomes, an increase in death duties, and a capital gains tax on the sale of land.

Seen as an assault on property, these measures outrage the Conservatives. But there is a well-established convention that the lords do not interfere with financial bills. Lloyd George almost certainly assumes that his budget will pass.


Instead, to everyone's astonishment, the lords reject the budget in November 1909. In doing so, they play into the Liberals' hands. The increase in taxes is earmarked for two main areas of expenditure: social reforms to benefit the poor, old and unemployed; and rearmament to meet the threat from the fleet of dreadnoughts being built by the Germans. Both are popular causes and this becomes known as 'the people's budget'. Conservative opposition can be presented as greedy self-interest. Moreover if the lords can throttle the nation's finances, then hereditary aristocrats have the power to bring down an elected government.

Asquith, seeing his chance, calls an election.


As it turns out there are two elections in 1910. The first, in January, is held on the question of the budget; the second, in December, on the issue of the house of lords itself.

The first election reduces the number of Liberal seats (from the peak achieved in 1906), but still leaves Asquith with a working majority over the Conservatives. The lords now allow the budget through, but are then immediately confronted by Asquith's Parliament Bill to curb their powers. He proposes that the lords shall in future only be able to delay bills (financial bills by one month, others by two years). It is inconceivable that the existing house of lords will accept this measure, so Asquith resorts to the tactics used by Grey to pass the Reform Bill.


The king, Edward VII, is willing only to say that he might consider creating enough Liberal peers to swamp the house of lords (as many as 300 would be needed) if Asquith wins an election on the issue. But Edward dies during the crisis, in the summer of 1910. In the autumn his son, George V, gives with some reluctance a more positive assurance on the same terms.

Asquith wins the December election, and in the final confrontation the lords back down. Saving themselves from dilution by a horde of outsiders, they pass the Parliament Bill in August 1911 by a majority of just seventeen votes. (The preamble to the bill threatens worse to come, proposing soon to replace the hereditary second chamber with one selected on a 'popular' basis.)


The humbling of the house of lords is one of the most significant reforms of Asquith's Liberal government, but it is not the last. Other measures of 1911 include the Shops Act, which introduces a weekly half holiday for staff (or what becomes known throughout Britain as 'early closing day'), the National Insurance Act providing unemployment and sickness benefits for workers (pioneered in Germany by Bismarck), and one of the long-standing demands of the Chartists - payment for members of parliament.

In the following year, 1912, the government's agenda includes Home Rule for Ireland - a thorny issue which this time must surely pass, since the lords can now only delay it. But, as soon becomes evident, there are other obstacles.


Ulster volunteers and Irish volunteers: 1911-1914

Ulster, the most Protestant region of Ireland since the 17th century, is where the union with Britain has its most passionate supporters. And from 1910 the Unionist members of parliament have a brilliant and ruthless leader in the person of Edward Carson.

In September 1911, when it is known that a Home Rule bill is in the pipeline (but six months before it is placed before parliament), Carson gives warning of what is to come when he addresses a crowd of 50,000 Orangemen and Unionists outside Belfast. He tells them that the morning after Home Rule is granted to Ireland, they must be ready to administer and defend their own 'Protestant Province of Ulster'.


That winter Ulster is full of Protestants drilling (a licence to drill can be acquired from any Justice of the Peace, as long as the intention is to defend the United Kingdom's constitution). In the following spring Carson, with at his side the new leader of the Conservative party, Andrew Bonar Law, reviews another gathering of Ulster volunteers outside Belfast. It shows every sign of being a military parade.

100,000 men march in columns past a saluting base above which flies a gigantic union jack. This event is held on 9 April 1912, two days before Asquith's Home Rule bill is presented to the house of commons.


The final gesture of unionist solidarity during 1912 is the Solemn League and Covenant, a document in the militant Scottish tradition which is signed from September 28 in the Belfast town hall. Hundreds of yards of desks enable more than 500 people to sign simultaneously. Eventually almost half a million men and women do so, committing themselves to disobey any future Home Rule government.

Finally, in January 1913, with the Home Rule bill now making its way through the house of commons, the unionists take an openly military stance. They decide to raise an Ulster Volunteer Force of 100,000 men aged between seventeen and sixty-five. Dummy wooden rifles now appear in the drill parades held in Orange halls.


These developments prompt a similar response on the nationalist side. In November 1913 a body calling itself the Irish National Volunteers is formed in Dublin and begins its own programme of recruitment and drilling. Six months later it too claims 100,000 members.

By now the wooden rifles are giving way to real ones. In April 1914 Carson's organization succeeds in landing at Larne more than 24,000 rifles and three million rounds of ammunition purchased in Germany. In July a much smaller shipment of arms, also from Germany, comes ashore in Howth for the Irish volunteers (resulting on this occasion in a clash with the military, on the Dublin quays, and several civilian casualties).


The prospect of civil disorder is made worse by evidence that the British government will be powerless to cope with it. There is much discussion whether the British army should be ordered to quell Protestant resistance in Ulster, and if so whether the order would be obeyed. In 1914 a commanding officer foolishly asks the cavalry regiment stationed on the Curragh in Dublin whether they would accept such an order or prefer to be dismissed from the army. The officers reply they would choose dismissal.

The so-called Curragh mutiny suggests that little can prevent the Orangemen from wrecking Home Rule. But greater issues postpone the crisis. Two days after the contraband weapons are landed in Dublin for the Irish volunteers, Austria declares war on Serbia.


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