Some Scenes from the Battle of Liverpool

A.J.P. Taylor

  • Democracy and Sectarianism: A Political and Social History of Liverpool 1868-1939 by P.J. Waller
    Liverpool, 556 pp, £24.50, May 1981, ISBN 0 85223 074 5

Liverpool has always been a special case in British politics. At first glance the pattern may appear much the same as anywhere else: Whig and Tory, Liberal and Conservative, with Labour intruding towards the end. The names may be the same: their significance was widely different. For instance, Unitarians provided early 19th-century Liverpool with its intellectual aristocracy. Somewhat later, Liverpool more than anywhere else produced that strange anomaly, the Conservative working man, who kept Liverpool Toryism afloat. Liverpool was also distinguished by the rule of the party boss. The Conservatives had a whole dynasty of them: Sir Arthur Forwood, Sir Archibald Salvidge and Sir Thomas White. Even Labour followed the example thus set, in the person of John Braddock, a founder member of the Communist Party who lapsed into respectability. Perhaps one should include his wife Bessie in the list.

Equally special was the composition of the Liverpool electorate in its changing form. Religion, or, as Waller’s title has it, sectarianism, was a more influential factor than in any other great city of the 19th century. Liverpool had long been distinguished by its Protestantism, partly maybe in reaction to the Roman Catholicism which was still strong in the Lancashire countryside. This factor was dwarfed by the flood of Irish immigrants that followed the Great Hunger of 1846. The Irish intrusion was not all of one kind. Liverpool had long possessed a native Orange movement. This now found Papist targets in politics as well as in creed. There were further twists. Liverpool’s Anglican churches were peculiarly inclined towards Ritualism, or so it seems. This was answered by demonstrations of extreme Protestantism that outdid any seen at St George’s in the East, Stepney. As a result, political life in Liverpool developed a unique complexity: the rival parties not only playing, as it were, up and down the field but across it.

Philip Waller has set out to disentangle the confusions of Liverpool politics and has done so with intense detail. Social history is treated as background to the political narrative, which in its turn becomes an analysis of each succeeding general election with a by-election intruding here and there. Liverpool entered the age of parliamentary democracy with nine constituencies in 1868 and has occasionally had more. Philip Waller has clearly had plenty of material to work on. The task of reducing it to order has taken him ten years. Now we have a monument of research and learning.

1868 is the right place to start. With the Second Reform Act there was something like a genuine electorate to be managed – not very substantial by our standards, but greater than what had gone before. Education brought in a fresh complication. Sometimes it stimulated an alliance between Roman Catholics and Liberal Nonconformists, sometimes between Catholics and Anglicans. Whichever alliance was attempted broke down because of fundamental differences, another example of playing across the field. Joseph Chamberlain’s success in managing Birmingham aroused the jealousy of Liverpool Conservatives, who determined to achieve the same management in their own city. The outcome was Tory Democracy, an attempt to capture the working-class vote. By the early 1880s, Forwood, the Conservative manager, was seeking to enlist Lord Randolph Churchill as a possible leader. Waller remarks of Tory Democracy: ‘The skilled seducers of “the uneducated” were not Radicals or politically-conscious working men ... but the traditional governing class.’ Lord Randolph said light-heartedly that Tory Democracy was ‘principally opportunism’. Churchill could not be expected to take as much trouble over Liverpool as Chamberlain did over Birmingham. In any case, he soon lost interest in the game. Forwood moved tactfully away and explained that he himself was not a Tory Democrat but merely a democratic Tory, a revealingly subtle difference.

The greatest transformation in Liverpool politics came in 1885-86 with the Third Reform Act and Gladstone’s attempt at Irish Home Rule. The Reform Act created a democratic electorate, even though only slightly more than half the adult male population had the franchise. Home Rule made Ireland the central issue in British politics, and in Liverpool made the Roman Catholics an independent force. Parnell thought he could push the Irish Roman Catholics any way he liked, and late in 1885 was on the point of running for a Liverpool constituency on a Home Rule/Conservative ticket. The manoeuvre did not work even when Parnell stood down in favour of O’Shea. The Conservatives would not vote for a Home Rule candidate: the Irish would not make an alliance with Orangemen.

Although Gladstone’s Home Rule Bill was defeated early in 1886, Home Rule became a permanent issue in Liverpool politics. The Scotland division of Liverpool was the only English constituency ever to return a Home Rule candidate, T.P. O’Connor, whose hold was so strong that he went on to become Father of the British House of Commons. There were also Home Rule members of Liverpool City Council, though it is difficult to grasp what relevance their political outlook had to municipal affairs. At first glance religion brought electoral victories to the Unionists. But the gain was not all one way. Many Roman Catholics were not Home Rulers and the Unionists wished to conciliate them. This evoked indignant protests from the Orange lodges, which were more concerned to fight Catholicism than to resist Home Rule.

Ritualism provided another complication. The reason why it flourished at this time within Liverpool’s Anglican churches is not clear. Maybe the missionary spirit which brought young clergymen to the impoverished districts of Liverpool tended to go with High Church practices. The violence of the extreme Protestant response increased with the years. Its leader was George Wise, a worthy successor to John Kensit and the most accomplished brawler in Liverpool’s history. The Kensitites, rather than the early Socialists, were the first to transform processions into occasions for street warfare. Wise specialised in the tactics that we know so well: Protestant processions through Roman Catholic quarters, disruption of Roman Catholic processions and, above all, accusations that the Police and the City Council were in a conspiracy together to destroy the free-born Protestant Englishman’s right to march through the streets. In the last decade of the 19th century, Wise and his followers caused more trouble in the streets than Home Rulers and Orangemen put together. The oddest feature of the movement is that Wise and a few of his associates became city councillors, though they seemed as much out of place in that role as the Home Rule councillors.

This confused situation weakened Unionist control over local politics. Liverpool never had the outstanding reputation of Birmingham in municipal affairs. Housing improvements dragged on slowly. Electric trams came towards the end of the century. The beginning of an independent Labour movement was an additional worry for the Unionists, which culminated in the dock strike of 1890. Tom Mann took over Liverpool as his special sphere of activity. Liverpool Labour, though not yet formidable, contributed further confusion to Roman Catholic and Orangeman, Unionist and Liberal. The Unionist boss, Forwood, was growing old and had been dazzled by the political lights of London, which brought him a baronetcy and membership of the Privy Council. His predestined successor, Salvidge, was already advancing his position. Until he took the lead, ‘the Liverpool democracy had votes, but no leader and no cause.’

The General Election of 1892 gave the Unionists a fright. The Liberals, an almost forgotten party, won a slender majority in the House of Commons and, what was more alarming, a majority on Liverpool City Council: the first Liberal administration for fifty years. But Liberal achievement was not significant – for instance, little was done to get rid of the slums – and Labour found more to criticise in the Liberal than they had done in the Unionist record. By 1895, the Liberal majority had faded, though Labour rivalry still counted for little. Robert Holt, the Liberal leader, withdrew from active politics. He was the only man to refuse a baronetcy after his appointment had been already gazetted and thus ensured that his refusal, too, had to be publicly announced. Holt also deserves a mention as the financial patron of E.D. Morel.

The Unionists won back Liverpool in the General Election of 1895. More important was the fact that when Forwood died in 1898, Salvidge succeeded him as party manager. Salvidge had a sharper vision of Unionist strategy. He made the Working Men’s Conservative Association the keystone of his position and Protestantism the dominant note in his recruiting appeal. This made the politics of Liverpool unique. In no other English city was Protestantism strong enough to provide the stable centre of a political party. Here was Salvidge’s strength, but it did not always work to his advantage. Roman Catholics, too, had votes and many of them would support the Unionists if only denunciation of Papistry did not go along with it. What was worse, the anti-Ritualists trespassed onto Salvidge’s territory. They alone, they claimed, were the true defenders of Protestantism and the Reformation. Wise opposed the building of a cathedral, ‘the Bishops’s church – the church of the rich’. Wise asked: ‘Did ever the drones of a cathedral hive assist in ... slum work?’ – the very appeal to working-class sectarianism that Salvidge was making in more moderate form. John Kensit himself appeared and led the Orangemen literally into battle. In Birkenhead, he denounced ‘besotted Romanists’. On the way back he was felled at the Ferry by an iron file and died a few days later. The file became a sacred piece of Protestant martyrology.

Salvidge seemed to have lost control of Liverpool Unionism. He climbed back by running the Protestant cause himself. In the Tariff Reform controversy he took Joseph Chamberlain’s side at first and then decided that it was a dangerous card to play in Liverpool. By falling back on Protestantism Salvidge preserved Conservative dominance almost undented in the General Election of 1906. This was the line he continued to follow during the years of Liberal government. As he explained to Walter Long, ‘things do not run on the same lines in all parts of the country. A thing I have to remember is that though Liverpool politics are more complicated, they are always more alive because of religious feelings and the Nationalist and Orange factions.’ This tactic, though it preserved the Tory majority, made Liverpool a city of violence quite without parallel at that time elsewhere in England or even in Ireland. Processions were broken up. Catholic families fled from ‘Protestant’ streets. Priests were threatened with violence. Now and then some man was beaten to death.

Labour had been a minor element of disorder compared to the Protestants. This situation changed with the railway and dock strikes of 1911. Liverpool was put under military occupation. A battleship and a cruiser arrived in the Mersey. Two civilians were shot dead by the troops: whether they were strikers, Protestant rioters or innocent passers-by is not recorded. Whoever they were, they established Liverpool’s claim to be the last English city where citizens were killed during a trade dispute. Tom Mann was again active, seconded this time by James Larkin, in whom he saw a rival rather than an ally. Ironically, Liverpool was also the centre of a police strike immediately after the war.

The electoral situation was changed again by the extension of the franchise in 1918. As elsewhere, this meant the virtual extinction of the Liberal Party. It meant also a stronger threat from Labour. Salvidge in alarm became the champion of the Lloyd George Coalition – hence his advocacy of the treaty with Ireland, which he helped to carry through the Conservative Annual Conference. Bonar Law proved a more welcome ally, unfortunately short-lived. Sectarianism was still Salvidge’s main resort, with the result that Labour had to make allowances for Catholic grievances if it was going to extend its vote. The project to build a Roman Catholic cathedral revived sectarian jealousy. When Salvidge died in December 1928, Sir Thomas White took up the old weapons and used them as persistently as ever. Apart from unemployment, the political sensation of the Thirties was an incursion by Randolph Churchill, a curious echo of his grandfather’s similar incursion that had started Tory Democracy all those years ago.

In a post-war epilogue, Philip Waller presents a changed city. Sectarianism has lost much of its force, though the Catholic Archbishop was stoned in Rossart Street in 1958. Churchmen and Nonconformists have co-operated over educational issues. In 1975, only 2½ per cent of Liverpudlians attended Anglican services. The docks have vanished. Liverpool’s staple industries have mostly perished. Liverpool itself has disappeared, merged into that bureaucratic monstrosity, Merseyside. Waller concludes: ‘Where once it was hard to define Merseyside, now it was hard to distinguish Liverpool.’ His book, though heavy going, is enlivened by many penetrating strokes of wit and is a worthy tribute to the once-great city.