This was a line which Mr. Balfour did not see his way to take, and probably here rather than elsewhere lay the reason for the choice of Mr. Bonar Law. The most active section of the Tory party—probably a minority, for in such cases minorities decide—regarded the passing of the Parliament Act as an outrage on the Constitution, which should be resisted by any means, constitutional or unconstitutional. But no possibility existed of mobilizing a force in Great Britain to fight for the veto of the House of Lords, nor again did the resistance to a new Franchise Act, or even to Welsh Disestablishment, promise to be desperate. In one part only of these islands was there material for a form of struggle in which the ballot-box and the division lobby might be supplemented, if not replaced, by quite other methods of political war. The Tory party saw in Ulster their best fighting chance. There was no use in telling them that they jeopardized the British Constitution; from their point of view the British Constitution—as they had known it—was already gone; it was destroyed in principle and must be either restored or refashioned according to their mind.
This temper, with the attitude towards parliamentary tradition which it produced, rendered the political history of the next two and a half years unlike any other in the history of these countries. The main purpose of this book is to record and illustrate Redmond’s action during the period which began with the opening of the Great War. But since that action was conditioned by the circumstances preceding the war—since in two notable ways it aimed at a solution of the fierce political struggle which the war interrupted—the political history connected with the passage of the Home Rule Bill through Parliament must be outlined in detail, with avoidance, so far as may be, of a controversial tone.
It is however necessary, before closing this preliminary review, to take some account of Redmond’s relation to his party, and, in general, of the working of the parliamentary machine. Difficulties were imposed on him and on the party from 1910 onwards by our very success.
Electoral chances had placed us apparently in the position of maximum power. From January 1910 onwards we had a Government committed to Home Rule, yet so far dependent on us that we could put it out at any moment. Yet this was by no means an ideal state of affairs. The Government’s weakness was our weakness, and they were liable to the reproach that they never proposed a Home Rule measure except when they could not dispense with the Irish vote. Still, from this embarrassing position we achieved an extraordinary result. Right across our path was the obstacle of the House of Lords. It was not an impassable barrier for measures in which the British working classes were keenly interested—for it let the Trades Disputes Bill go through; but it was wholly regardless of Irish and of Welsh popular opinion. Under Redmond’s leadership we smashed the House of Lords. The English middle class instinct for compromise was asserting itself, when he took hold and gave direction to the great mass of popular indignation which the hereditary chamber had roused against itself.