When I go home to the Ayrshire town where I grew up, I’ve noticed in recent years that even the dowdiest and most traditional hotels, where the outer limits of exoticism used to be a round of tinned pineapple on top of a gammon steak, have embraced fusion cuisine. Multicultural eclecticism, from food to fashion, is the norm in today’s Britain, and not just in the big cities. Among the few groups perceived as uncool are Ulster’s Protestant Unionists. It’s not only that bowler hats epitomise 1950s squareness, or that the symbolic meaning of orange sashes rather undermines their potential to offer a swish of colourful ethnic pluralism; there is also something in Ulster straightness – a dour literalism – which repels groups more accustomed to the sunny give and take of everyday evasion and hypocrisy.
During the Troubles the outside world found it easier to romanticise the Provisional IRA than to sympathise with the resilient negativity of Ulster Unionism. Unsurprisingly, Unionists had few friends in the newspapers. A bizarre exception was Michael Wharton, a satirical and outrageously reactionary fantasist at the Daily Telegraph, who wrote under the pseudonym Peter Simple. Yet Wharton’s attempts to ridicule the enemies of Unionism were funny precisely because they drew on received assumptions about both Unionists and liberals. Among the most memorable creations in his gallery of bien-pensant absurdity was the trendy filmmaker and self-publicist Neville Dreadberg, whose documentary Blood Orange was imagined as depicting the cannibalistic practices of rank and file Ulster Unionists. In a variant on the traditional Ulster fry-up – and Swift’s Modest Proposal – Wharton described Dreadberg’s cameras secretly filming the sautéeing of children, their screams muffled by the sinister beat of Lambeg drums.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland continues to promote the flat-earth doctrines of its founder, the Free Presbyterian minister Ian Paisley, as well as to provide ample opportunity for satire. The DUP’s Nelson McCausland, Northern Ireland’s culture minister, who believes that Ulster Protestants are descended from the lost ten tribes of Israel, has campaigned against the geological exhibits in the Ulster Museum in Belfast, whose labels seem to suggest – in a way contrived to gull the good people of Ulster into heresy – that the world was in existence long before the accepted date of its creation, 4004 BC. His colleague Mervyn Storey complained that the signs at the most popular tourist attraction in his North Antrim constituency, the Giant’s Causeway, misinformed the public by telling them that the rock formation was 550 million years old.
Despite such stories it would be a great mistake to pigeonhole Unionists as parochial know-nothings. Revisionist historians, most prominently Ian McBride and David Livingstone, have demonstrated that the history of Ulster Presbyterianism from the 18th century is characterised by intellectual richness, an openness to science, a commitment to progress and a taste for theological heterodoxy, notwithstanding backwoods opposition to all of these trends. There is more to Ulster Unionism than the necessarily constrained worldview of besieged settlers, and its culture can’t be reduced to the authoritarian anti-intellectualism of the DUP.
Similarly, it would be wrong to assume that the DUP’s thrawn defensiveness adequately reflects the outlook of Ulster Unionism. The political scientist Jennifer Todd has distinguished two traditions within it. The first is loyalism, whose primary concern has been the maintenance of a militantly Protestant – and largely Presbyterian – Northern Ireland. Confusingly, these loyalists are suspicious of Great Britain itself, which is the object of a highly conditional allegiance. The second kind of Unionism, according to Todd, is a sense of umbilical belonging to liberal Britain, an attachment based precisely – at least until recent decades – on the perceived contrast between British modernity and the agrarian, priest-ridden republic to the south. Needless to say, the London media tend to focus on the outlandish elements in the loyalist worldview.
Few books have done as much to reveal the latent liberalism of the Unionist tradition as John Bew’s The Glory of Being Britons: Civic Unionism in 19th-Century Belfast (2009). Bew challenged the prevalent notion that Unionism was at best a reflex response to Irish nationalism and at worst mere anti-Catholic prejudice. Rather, Bew showed that one of the strains of Irish Unionism in the long 19th century was an expansive and self-confident ‘civic unionism’, which had at its core ‘an emotional attachment to the role of the British nation as an enlightened and progressive force on the world stage’. Although now it is all too easily depicted as illiberal and retrogressive, the earlier lineage of Unionism was, according to Bew, marked by a generosity of spirit. In sharp contrast with the grudging laager mentality of the Troubles era, 19th-century Belfast Unionism was cosmopolitan in outlook and brimming with optimism.
Bew’s new book takes his rehabilitation of the early Unionist tradition a – very difficult – stage further, for his subject, Lord Castlereagh (1769-1822), constitutes a major obstacle to his brand of revisionism. Was black reaction in the marrow of Unionism from the very start? After all, Castlereagh, one of the architects of the British-Irish Union of 1800, later played a directing part in the Tory regime which, in the years immediately following the defeat of Napoleon, countenanced repression at home and accepted with apparent equanimity the resurgence of despotism abroad. Indeed, few politicians from these islands have attracted the same degree of obloquy:
I met murder on the way –
He had a face like Castlereagh
Very smooth he look’d, yet grim;
Seven bloodhounds followed him.
Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy (1819) goes on to describe how this diabolic Castlereagh figure ‘tossed’ the dogs ‘human hearts to chew’. In the same year, Byron set out Castlereagh’s misanthropic and authoritarian vision of the world in Don Juan:
States to be curb’d, and thoughts to be confined,
Conspiracy or Congress to be made –
Cobbling at manacles for all mankind –
A tinkering slave-maker, who mends old chains,
With God and man’s abhorrence for its gains.
These unsparing verses – and other vicious attacks, including Shelley’s depiction of him as Purganax, the chief of King Swellfoot’s council of wizards in Oedipus Tyrannus or Swellfoot the Tyrant – have condemned Castlereagh in the eyes of posterity. Castlereagh’s suicide in 1822 – he cut the carotid artery in his neck with a small penknife – reinforced the association between his name and the darker side of human nature. And it certainly doesn’t help that his principal modern apologist is Henry Kissinger, another supposed friend of tyrants, who built his later career as an exponent of realpolitik on the intellectual foundations of his Harvard doctorate, published as A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace 1812-22. Bew’s achievement is to portray Castlereagh, convincingly and without any historical or biographical contortion, as an inquisitive and open-minded son of the Ulster Presbyterian Enlightenment. Notwithstanding the disorientation of his final days, he emerges from Bew’s study as quietly conscientious, moderate and level-headed. The poets’ version of Castlereagh did scant justice to the man or the politician.
Eighteenth-century Presbyterians – in Scotland and Ireland especially – were ambivalent about the Civil Wars of the mid-17th century. On the one hand, they needed to rebut the Anglican smear that they were king killers, that Presbyterian disloyalty had brought Charles I to the block. On the other, Presbyterians – being solidly Whig – dissociated themselves from the divine right principles of non-resistance and passive obedience inculcated by High Church Anglican Tories. Some Presbyterians, including Castlereagh’s grandfather Alexander Stewart, went further, immersing themselves in the ‘commonwealth’ legacy of 17th-century radicalism. By the 18th century, the Good Old Cause of the Civil War had been revised to meet contemporary tastes and susceptibilities, with Puritanism given a classical, if only partly Augustan veneer. Ironically, in 18th-century Ireland it was Presbyterians of this classical republican stamp – not Catholics – who tended to espouse ‘republicanism’. Bew notes that the Stewarts’ house in Dublin, where Castlereagh was born, contained the classics of the commonwealth canon, including James Harrington’s Commonwealth of Oceana and the Memoirs of the regicide Edmund Ludlow. It wasn’t that Whig Presbyterians were against monarchy; rather, they argued that popular consent was the only acceptable basis for kingly government.
The Presbyterianism of the upwardly mobile Stewarts was considerably diluted over the course of the 18th century. The ‘New Licht’ which radiated out from the University of Glasgow as far as its hinterland in Ulster brought about a relaxation – in some quarters at least – of an older strain of Calvinist pessimism. New Light Presbyterians began to assert a Protestant right of rational dissent from the rigidity of the Westminster Confession of Faith. Social pressures also encouraged moderation. When Alexander Stewart, a Belfast merchant, married an East India Company heiress in 1737, he acquired an estate in County Down, and his son Robert, Castlereagh’s father, married into the Anglican aristocracy. Castlereagh – also Robert Stewart – was largely raised by his Presbyterian grandparents, but educated ecumenically: first at the Anglican grammar school in Armagh; then by a local Presbyterian minister in County Down, the Reverend John Cleland; and, finally, by an Anglican tutor, the Reverend William Sturrock, who ran a school in Portaferry. Thereafter, Castlereagh spent a year at Cambridge. Like his father, he married an Anglican, Lady Amelia Hobart, the daughter of the Earl of Buckinghamshire, and worshipped in the Anglican Church. Despite this, Bew shows, he was influenced by the Presbyterian Enlightenment of 18th-century Scotland and its Ulster outposts. The young politician was happily amphibious in a habitat which encompassed both the terra firma of the Established Church and the lukewarm waters of Enlightened Presbyterianism.
In the political turmoil of the late century the Whig tradition of the Enlightenment fractured. While some Presbyterians, under the inspiration of the French Revolution, moved towards full-blown republicanism of the Jacobin variety, others – including Castlereagh – became conservatives. Or rather they discovered that their Whiggish moderation was more easily aligned with the stolid values of William Pitt the Younger than with the more francophile idealism of Charles James Fox. Interestingly, although under the stock conventions of two-party historiography the Foxites are called Whigs and the Pittites Tories, both Fox and Pitt consistently described themselves as Whigs. Notwithstanding the Pittite repression of the late 18th century, the government was as Whig in its principles as the Whig opposition was. Nevertheless, Whigs who moved from radical idealism to counter-revolutionary authoritarianism were denounced as turncoats, and this charge would bedevil Castlereagh for the rest of his career. Critics marked out the young apostate as ‘the shadow of Burke against France’.
Unlike Burke, however, Castlereagh welcomed the fall of the Bastille, and Bew contends that it would be ‘misleading to present Castlereagh as a cheerleader for the Ancien Régime’. On visits to the Continent in 1791 and 1792 he saw at first hand the effects of the Revolution: ‘I discover in what they have done much to approve, and much to condemn.’ The young man’s reading exhibited a wide range of ideological sympathies: he turns out to have been an unlikely devotee of Rousseau’s Julie, ou La Nouvelle Héloïse, and a fan – even more remarkably – of William Godwin’s English Jacobin thriller, Caleb Williams. It was quite possible to combine Enlightened criticism of the Ancien Régime with a counter-revolutionary hostility to the politics of perfectibility. The quest for a political utopia provided scope not only for the amelioration of human distress, but also for new forms of tyranny unimaginable under the old order: ‘The only system that is safe or suited to such wretchedly absurd animals as men is the mixed one such as ours, which goes on a sort of Jogg Trott with little éclat, with many abuses, as many faults, with a considerable share of tranquillity, and no horrors.’
Bew makes no attempt to rebut the contemporary charge of the Ulster radical William Steel Dickson that Castlereagh was ‘the unblushing betrayer of his country to a foreign sanhedrin’, but shows how difficult it is to render the making of the British-Irish Union of 1800 a straightforward morality tale. The primary motive for union was counter-revolutionary. Castlereagh himself had played a prominent role in the suppression of the Irish rebellion of 1798, whose ideological origins lay in the radicalism of Presbyterian Belfast, but which developed a curious sectarian momentum, becoming in many respects a Roman Catholic revolt. The rebellion raised union to the top of the political agenda, though Castlereagh had already begun to contemplate it as a solution to Ireland’s anomalous status within the British Empire. As Ireland’s chief secretary he had the dirty job of seeing union through the Irish Parliament. The votes for union were obtained by means of pensions, places and patronage; but there was plenty of corruption on the other side too. While the anti-Unionist coalition contained radical Whigs, who defended Irish parliamentary independence for the highest of motives, it also included ultra-reactionary Protestant gentry, who perceived very clearly that the proponents of union – Castlereagh especially – saw it as a liberal measure which would integrate Irish Catholics as full citizens of a United Kingdom. At least that was the plan of its architects – Pitt, Castlereagh and the Scottish politician Henry Dundas. They envisaged that union would be accompanied by Catholic emancipation: that is, the admission of Roman Catholics to the full range of public office.
There was a compelling logic to the link between the two causes. So long as Ireland remained a separate polity under the crown, then the substantial Catholic majority on the island presented an understandable threat to the beleaguered Protestant elite of the Irish parliament. But, were Ireland to be united with Britain, the Catholics would become a small unthreatening minority within a new United Kingdom. Might the security conferred by union bring out a tolerant generosity in Irish Protestantism? ‘Linked with England, the Protestants, feeling less exposed, would become more confident and liberal,’ Castlereagh predicted, ‘and the Catholics would have less inducement to look beyond that indulgence, which is consistent with the security of our establishment.’
Castlereagh himself was a tireless lobbyist for emancipation, which he saw as vital to the reconfiguration of the complex – and oppressively perverse – ecclesiastical arrangements in 18th-century Ireland between the Established Anglican Church of Ireland and other bodies, including the Catholic Church of the majority population and the dissident Presbyterianism of his ancestors. As Bew points out, religious reconstruction provided ‘a radical subtext to the pro-union cause’, something intransigent anti-Catholic Unionists, just as much as Catholic nationalists, find it convenient to overlook.
The primary immovable obstacle to emancipation was George III. The king blamed Castlereagh in particular for bringing up this odious subject: ‘What is this Catholic Emancipation which this young Lord, this Irish Secretary, has brought over, that you are going to throw at my head?’ He regarded emancipation as contrary to the sacred and inviolable terms of his coronation oath, and that was that. Union would not, after all, find necessary reinforcement from the implementation of emancipation. In 1801, Pitt tendered his resignation as prime minister and Castlereagh followed him from office. From the outset, as Castlereagh regretted, the union was a flawed structure which, without emancipation, lacked its intended keystone.
Catholic emancipation would remain a lodestar for Castlereagh throughout his career. He tried to introduce it in 1813, under the Regency, but it was narrowly defeated in the Commons. He was, however, willing to take office in ministries which preferred to let the matter drop. His main concern was the unobtrusive conduct of government business, at whatever cost to his own health or mental wellbeing. During his long periods in office he dutifully oversaw long periods of warfare against France, in which he provided steadfast support for the gruelling campaign in the Iberian peninsula of his fellow Irishman Arthur Wellesley, later the First Duke of Wellington; created the grand alliance which defeated Napoleon; superintended the restoration of the old order; and initiated the postwar congress system in international relations.
Europe had been devastated by two decades of ideological warfare, and the congress system was an attempt to restore peace and stability by introducing regular conferences at which the victorious powers – Britain, Russia, Austria and Prussia – could tackle problems as they arose. Castlereagh was cautiously magnanimous in victory: ‘It is not our business to collect trophies, but to try … [to] bring back the world to peaceful habits.’ French territorial integrity was to be respected, and France itself – a fellow great power – was to be admitted under its restored Bourbon monarchy to the concert of Europe. It could be argued that Europe has never been as peaceful as under the auspices of the congress system, notwithstanding the illiberal exercise of what political scientists have called ‘co-operative great power hegemony’.
It was this achievement which won Castlereagh the approval of Kissinger a century and a half later. Castlereagh – like Nixon-era Kissinger – wasn’t an ideological warrior. The old order was not to be restored simply because it was the old order. As Castlereagh wrote in the anxious interlude between Napoleon’s return from exile on Elba and the Battle of Waterloo, the ‘great question’ was ‘can the Bourbons get Frenchmen to fight for them against Frenchmen?’ The great powers could only do so much if the restored Bourbons could not rely on the loyalty of their subjects. The world was not endlessly malleable, and could not be remade to conform to the mould of reactionary fantasists. Castlereagh grumbled privately about the ‘sublime mysticism and nonsense’ of the reactionary Holy Alliance launched by Tsar Alexander I, though he still felt duty-bound by diplomatic etiquette to defend it in parliament. Despite his background as a Protestant Irish Unionist, Castlereagh’s commitment to the established order did not have at its core the defence of church or clerisy, but was, Bew argues, grounded in a ‘subtle, secular and civic conservative creed’.
Yet, as both Castlereagh and Kissinger found to their cost, running the world from the Olympian heights of great power summits has drawbacks. Human rights tend to suffer, as do the interests of minorities. During the Napoleonic War Castlereagh had opposed the unilateral abolition of the slave trade for fear it would undermine the struggle against Napoleon. A century and a half later, the leading opponent of Kissinger’s Castlereagh-inspired policy of détente with the Soviet Union was a Democrat, Senator Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson, who favoured a high-minded foreign policy centred on human rights, in particular the cause of Jewish dissidents in the Soviet Union. In 2005, a group of Cambridge academics set up the Henry Jackson Society, which is dedicated to the promotion of ‘democratic geopolitics’ in a world of despotisms. This was widely seen as an attempt to enlist support in the UK for the American neoconservative project of bringing Western values to the Middle East. Among the society’s most prominent supporters was Bew, who became its vice-president.
Castlereagh seems as unsympathetic a choice of subject as Bew might hope to find for a biography. Yet he maintains his scholarly integrity and makes no attempt to reinterpret Castlereagh as a Paul Wolfowitz-style neocon. In particular, though he notes that his subject was not – any more than Kissinger was – an absolutely consistent proponent of ‘non-intervention’ in foreign affairs, this ideal remained one of his guiding principles. Bew argues, though, that non-intervention was taken for granted in British foreign policy at the time, so it would be a mistake to single out Castlereagh as an outspoken non-interventionist.
Until the very end – and Castlereagh’s descent into madness – there were no histrionics. Throughout his life, whether in Ireland or on the Continent, Castlereagh maintained a benign indifference to the fraught demarcations between religious denominations. Bew’s Castlereagh seems almost a martyr to the quiet and efficient prosecution of stable governance, whether in Europe or at home. But a puzzle remains: why did he become such an ogre in the eyes of poets and pamphleteers? Bew advances a surprising answer. Although Castlereagh was intelligent and widely read, he spent such long, gruelling hours at the dispatch box, especially as leader of the Commons, that he lapsed from time to time into non sequiturs, mixed metaphors and syntactical tangles. The Irish poet Thomas Moore described his countryman as ‘the Malaprop Cicero’. The wits of Holland House declared that ‘Lord Castlereagh likes all taxes, but syntax.’ The satirical cruelty probably affected Castlereagh’s spirits, though not enough to drive him to suicide. The phenomenon bears some resemblance to the way in which the verbal blunders of George W. Bush became part of the currency of leftist satire during his presidency. It is precisely such tiny matters of nuance and temperament – what one era finds irritating or funny or both simultaneously – that are hard for the historian to recover and evaluate. When I read that the Whig MP Thomas Creevey was driven to distraction by the ‘real vulgarity, bombast and folly’ of Castlereagh’s attempts at rhetoric, my mind drifted to Mrs Thatcher’s hats, her suburban aesthetics and, above all, her voice, which irritated so many different sorts of people, from the philosopher Mary Warnock to a million or so working-class Scottish males. What was so grating about Castlereagh in the flesh – or on the ear – escapes later generations.