WAS RESISTANCE JUSTIFIABLE?
A story is told of Queen Victoria that in her youthful days, when studying constitutional history, she once asked Lord Melbourne whether under any circumstances citizens were justified in resisting legal authority; to which the old courtier replied: “When asked that question by a Sovereign of the House of Hanover I feel bound to answer in the affirmative.” If one can imagine a similar question being asked of an Ulsterman by Mr. Asquith, Mr. Lloyd George, or Sir Edward Grey, in 1912, the reply would surely have been that such a question asked by a statesman claiming to be a guardian of Liberal principles and of the Whig tradition could only be answered in the affirmative. This, at all events, was the view of the late Duke of Devonshire, who more than any other statesman of our time could claim to be a representative in his own person of the Whig tradition handed down from 1688. Passive obedience has, indeed, been preached as a political dogma in the course of English history, but never by apostles of Liberalism. Forcible resistance to legally constituted authority, even when it involved repudiation of existing allegiance, has often, both in our own and in foreign countries, won the approval and sympathy of English Liberals. A long line of illustrious names, from Cromwell and Lord Halifax in England to Kossuth and Mazzini on the Continent, might be quoted in support of such a proposition if anyone were likely to challenge it.
When, then, Liberals professed to be unutterably shocked by Ulster’s declared intention to resist Home Rule both actively and passively, they could not have based their attitude on the principle that under no circumstances could such resistance be morally justified. Indeed, in the case in question, there were circumstances that would have made the condemnation of Ulster by the English Liberal Party not a little hypocritical if referred to any general ethical principle. For that party had itself been for a generation in the closest political alliance with Irishmen whose leader had boasted that they were as much rebels as their fathers were in 1798, and whose power in Ireland had been built up by long-sustained and systematic defiance of the law. Yet the same politicians who had excused, if they had not applauded, the “Plan of Campaign,” and the organised boycotting and cattle-driving which had for years characterised the agitation for Home Rule, were unspeakably shocked when Ulster formed a disciplined Volunteer force which never committed an outrage, and prepared to set up a Provisional Government rather than be ruled by an assembly of cattle-drivers in Dublin. Moreover, many of Mr. Asquith’s supporters, and one at least of his most distinguished colleagues in the Cabinet of 1912, had themselves organised resistance to an Education Act which they disliked but had been unable to defeat in Parliament.