Historical precedents for current events are usually neither particularly relevant, nor helpful. Certainly there is very little in our (British) past to give much guidance on what has been widely described as the ‘national crisis’ we are in now. But there are some partial precedents.

One is the ‘Home Rule crisis’ of 1886, which could be seen as presaging some of the Labour Party splits of modern times; including the breakaway SDP in the 1970s, and then the ‘Independent Group’ (or ‘TIG’) of seven MPs who have renounced their Labour allegiance in the last couple of weeks. The ostensible issue in 1886 was Ireland, for which Gladstone was trying to legislate a (moderate) form of ‘Home Rule’. The equivalent today, I suppose, although the similarity is not that close, is the European issue, which TIG doesn’t believe the Labour leadership is firm enough on. In the ‘Home Rule’ case, however, most historians now believe that Ireland wasn’t the only or even the main issue for those who became known as the ‘Liberal Unionists’, and that Gladstone’s assaults on private property, and the spectre of ‘socialism’, were rather more powerful. (I see I’ve summarised this rather well in Britannia’s Burden, pp. 98-102.) Clearly there are other issues behind today’s defections too; of which Corbyn’s ‘socialism’ could be one.

In 1886 the Liberal defectors – or those who were left – were eventually subsumed by the Conservative Party, which changed its name to ‘Conservative and Unionist’ to take account of them. In the 1970s the SDP joined the Liberal Party, to become the ‘Liberal Democrats’. In the current case the Labour defectors have been joined in TIG by a handful of Tories. It’s impossible to say yet where they’ll all end up; but these two historical precedents can’t be encouraging for them.

But we shouldn’t make too much of this. History doesn’t repeat itself. The present crisis has much deeper roots; which I hope to explore later, when we can see where it has led.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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