Thursday Book: When the Tories Were Bitter, Violent Extremists ; Lines of Most Resistance: The Lords, the Tories and Ireland 1886- 1914 by Edward Pearce (Little, Brown, Pounds 18.99)

Article excerpt

WILLIAM HAGUE, in his Conservative conference speech, built much of his rhetoric around approving references to "Randolph Churchill's famous phrase: `We trust the people'". One of the incidental felicities of Edward Pearce's book is the ironic light it sheds on Hague invoking that bit of party history. For Randolph Churchill did not trust the people. He was a demagogue not a democrat, who combined cynical populism with an enraged contempt for the will of the people themselves, especially in his increasingly febrile opposition to Irish Home Rule. As the late-Victorian Home Rule crisis deepened, Randolph progressed from smearing his Liberal opponents as traitors and lunatics to predicting, even advocating, civil war.

Yet Churchill's language - that of a man dying from syphilis - did not make him a maverick among the Tories of 1886-1914. In opposition to Home Rule, to Lloyd George's 1909 budget and to reform of the House of Lords in 1911, the party "went slightly mad", says Pearce. Many of its leaders feared and despised the Irish, the Liberals, the working classes, income tax, any threat to hereditary privilege and democracy itself. Some tried - for the last time in English politics, though not in Ireland or, indeed, Scotland - to blow on the dying embers of Protestant sectarianism. A "climate of unreason" prevailed, with "overtones of illegality and possible violence".

It was all utterly unlike the usual, benign images of political change in Britain, and equally unlike the modern Conservative self- perception as the party of common sense and consensus. Britain was "saved" from the consequences only by the outbreak of the First World War.

British Conservatives, in opposition in 1906-14, adopted a stance of bitter, violent extremism to which they have never quite reverted, even under Thatcher - though one can catch echoes among diehard Europhobes. Edward Pearce, a distinguished political journalist and parliamentary sketch-writer, is constantly alert to the modern resonances of his story: not only battles over Europe, but over the current fate of the Lords and Northern Ireland. His summaries of bygone debates might risk dullness were it not for his sketch-writer's eye. …