Brexit: A Repeat of the Turmoil of 1914-1922?

Yves here. This post recaps some critical elements of regularly-ugly British-Irish relationship and raises questions about Brexit. I suspect most US and even some UK readers will find it informative. If nothing else, it provides an alternative to Boris Johnson “We’re near a deal” posturing that EU officials have to rouse themselves to debunk.

By Richard Murphy, a chartered accountant and a political economist. He has been described by the Guardian newspaper as an “anti-poverty campaigner and tax expert”. He is Professor of Practice in International Political Economy at City University, London and Director of Tax Research UK. He is a non-executive director of Cambridge Econometrics. He is a member of the Progressive Economy Forum. Originally published at Tax Research UK

This pst is by Prof Sean Danaher and was on Progressive Pulse last week. It is far too good not to share a little more widely, with Sean’s permission:

History, as it is taught in British schools, remembers 1914 as a the year WWI started. WWI was of course a horrific event, but less is remembered of the political turmoil at the time. As Robert Saunders writes in “Breaking the parliamentary machine”: lessons of the 1914 crisis:

The crisis of 1914 far eclipsed Brexit, and brought Britain closer to revolution than at any time since the 17th century. The Times called it “one of the greatest crises in the history of the British race”, while Conservative election literature warned that Britain might soon be “stained with the blood of civil war”. Yet it offers some striking similarities with the present, and a warning of what could lie ahead.

The article is beautifully written and is well worth reading in full. Saunders goes on to explain:

The trigger was the election of December 1910. For the only time in British history, the result was a dead heat: the governing Liberal Party and its Conservative and Unionist opponents both won 272 seats. The Unionists won more votes, and a series of by-elections quickly made them the largest single grouping; but the outcome was a minority Liberal government, dependent chiefly on the Irish Nationalists. The price of Irish support was Home Rule, giving Ireland its own parliament with control over domestic legislation.

The Irish had being demanding Home Rule (very similar in the range of powers to the now Scottish Parliament) for decades,  attempts could and had been blocked by the Upper Chamber, but the Parliament Act of 1911 stripped the House of Lords of its veto. The third home rule bill after a glacial and bitterly fought, many stage, campaign in parliament, was due to become law in January 1915.

Ireland effectively had Home Rule up to 1800, when the Acts of Union (Ireland) were passed. Though not perfect, Ireland was a wealthy and populous country.

The Union was a disaster for Ireland. In 1800 Dublin was the 6th largest city in Europe (Table 1), sandwiched between Amsterdam and Lisbon, and one of the wealthiest. While obviously far behind London, it was more than twice the size of the next two largest cities in Britain: Manchester and Edinburgh. In 1800 Ireland has over twice the population of the Netherlands (5M as opposed to 2M) and over half the population of England (c 8M).

By 1914 Dublin was an impoverished slum and smaller in population than Belfast. Ireland had a lower population in 1914 than in 1800 (c 4.4M), whereas England’s population had grown by a factor of four to c 36M and  the Netherlands by over a factor of three to c 6.2M. Something clearly had gone disastrously wrong, this was the Great Famine from 1845-1848. This was by far the greatest peace time calamity in 19th century Europe, about 1M died and 2M emigrated. It was so badly mismanaged by the London government that it created resentment on a monumental scale, still present especially among the North American diaspora.

Home rule was backed by a super-majority in Ireland, but the one part of Ireland that had prospered through the Union, the NE corner surrounding Belfast, was implacably opposed. Approximately 80% of the industrial capacity of  Ireland was concentrated in this region in 1914.  It had for example the largest shipyard in the world, Harland and Wolff, most famous for building the Titanic.

The NE had a Protestant majority who hated Home Rule and started their own totally illegal private army, the Ulster Volunteers. Far from being condemned by the Tories they were backed to the hilt.  Andrew Bonar Law  leader of His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition was photographed inspecting the Volunteers, who pledged to bring down the third Home Rule Bill – an Act of Parliament.

Again quoting Saunders article:

Crucially, the Conservatives did not simply argue that Home Rule was wrong. They rejected the democratic legitimacy of parliament, which they accused of defying the will of the people. Party literature told voters that “the House of Commons does not truly represent the people, nor do its votes represent the opinions of the electorate”. Conservatives talked openly of “breaking the parliamentary machine”, pitting “the Supremacy of the People” against the “paid puppets” of the House of Commons. Parliament was urged to surrender its functions to a referendum, to ensure that MPs could not “cut ‘the people’ out of the constitution”.

The constitutional crisis at the time was averted by WWI, which seemed almost a blessing initially. Indeed some historians argue that the “Irish Question”  played a far greater part in Britain’s willingness to go to war than is generally acknowledged. Sadly WWI, far from being over by Christmas, turned out to be a cataclysmic disaster.


Civil war was averted in Britain, but Ireland was not so lucky. Far from being deterred by the Ulster Volunteers, a host of pro Irish Independence paramilitary groups were formed, leading to the 1916 Rising,  a  war of independence and the peace Treaty of 1921. Ireland was partitioned between the 26 county Free State and the 6 county Northern Ireland. (A good podcast on the period by the Irish Passport team is available here).

The actual treaty granted nothing like the full independence of the entire island of Ireland, with the 26 counties granted Dominion Status within the British Empire and NI granted Home Rule (a protestant parliament for a protestant people). Irish pragmatists saw it as “the freedom to obtain freedom”. Lloyd George, the PM, is reported to have said “I may have just signed my political death warrant” to which Michael Collins (the lead figure on the Irish side) replied “I may have signed my actual death warrant”.

The Treaty was totally unacceptable to many in Ireland, in modern parlance far too many red lines had been crossed and the result was Civil War. Collins proved very prescient as he was killed during the Civil War  in August 1922 at Béal na Bláth.

The Free State could be fairly accurately described as an impoverished wreck by the end of the Civil War. Many in Northern Ireland and Britain saw it as too poor and too small to succeed on its own. Very similar to today’s arguments on Scottish Independence (but with considerably more justification). Northern Ireland, with as previously stated, 80% of the island’s industrial capacity and part of the greatest empire the world had ever seen, seemed destined for success.

It did not turn out that way. As Prof Brendan O’Leary discusses in his definitive three volume A Treatise on Northern Ireland, by 1940 Northern Ireland was essentially bankrupt, where the  Irish Free State was a much greater success. Whilst still not wealthy, very firm and robust democratic foundations had been laid for future prosperity. (For those with neither the time or money to read the Treatise there is an excellent Irish Times podcast available here).

Winding rapidly forward to the current day, the two economies are not really comparable,  with IE not only being way ahead of NI but also Britain on international metrics such as the Human Development Index IE 4th, UK 14th. GDP per capita is over twice as high in IE than NI and I would be surprised if even 8% of the island’s industrial capacity was based in NI.

“The freedom to obtain freedom” analysis has turned out to have been correct in retrospect. Ireland is a modern successful country with considerable state and diplomatic capacity, which has been used very successfully throughout the Brexit process, perhaps most clearly on display at PM Johnson’s visit to Dublin on Monday. Ian Dunt tweeted  regarding their post-meeting statements: “Quite painful to watch. Varadkar conducting himself as a leader and grounding his comments in reality. Johnson looks like a child who won a Willy Wonka ticket to appear alongside him”.

Are There Parallels to be Drawn to the Current Crisis?

The current crisis seems to be a pale shadow of 1914, there are no major private armies being raised. Again however there are bitter arguments about the supremacy of parliament vs. “the people”. The country seems, or at least its political class,  bitterly divided. It is possible however that Dmitry Grozoubinski has it correct in that the vast majority of the British Electorate just want Brexit to go away (Fig. 1).


Fig 1. Are the public fed up with Brexit?

There is an Irish dimension, with the Irish again holding, until the dramatic withdrawal of the whip from 21MPs, the balance of power, but this time the DUP rather than the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP). Will the DUP be eventually betrayed by Westminster just as the IPP was in 1915? There are rumours that something like the NI only version of the Backstop may be resurrected.

There are obvious parallels between the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) and the 1921 Treaty. For many the WA is nothing like the “cake and eat it” promises made during the Referendum Campaign. Signing up to the WA however is unlikely to unleash civil war in Britain, though not signing may through the introduction of a hard border in Ireland, triggering considerable violence.

The Treaty was signed ultimately because of  power asymmetry. Ireland was under no illusion that it was far weaker than Britain. The  realisation of the power asymmetry between the EU and the UK seems not to dawned on many of the Brexiters, but will mean that any eventual treaty will be more weighted towards the EU than the UK.

The political situation in Britain was saved by WWI. There is nothing like a good war to unite the country as Margaret Thatcher found during the Falklands War. Hopefully starting a War is not part of Cumming’s master-plan.

The Irish dimension is likely to play an important part, not least because Phil Hogan of Fine Gael and a close allay of Varadkar has been nominated as EU trade commissioner and will be the EU representative at the WTO and in charge of a future EU trade deal with the UK. He is known as the “Bruiser” and a wily operator. The fact that he will be supported by Sabine Weyand, who was Barnier’s right hand “man” during the negotiating of the withdrawal agreement, may fill some on the UK side with dismay.

Hopefully Marx’s view that “history repeats the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce” will not come true, but it is inevitable that Britain will need  eventually to come to terms with the limitations of its power, as Ireland did in 1921, hopefully sooner rather than later.


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  1. Clive

    That something as profound as Brexit should turn on the torturous relationship between Britain and Ireland shouldn’t really be that surprising. In a nicely circular way, a lot of the current proceedings in the Supreme Court this week about the legality of proroguing Parliament will look at the relationship between the Executive, the Courts and the Legislature. This was first established in the Proclamation of 1611.

    Here, the judiciary first stepped in to declare what the King in Parliament had done was unlawful and that both the King and Parliament must respect the law like everyone else. But read paragraph 6 of the Proclamation. Look at what it was that the “the realm” (what we’d now refer to as mainland Great Britain) was trying to do.

    Four hundred years later, and the matter (of Ireland) is still not settled.

  2. PlutoniumKun

    Thats a pretty impressive historical overview, few could argue with it (and that’s a rare thing when it comes to discussing Irish history). It is hard to exaggerate just what an economic basket case Ireland was from around 1820 to the late 20th Century (it is something of a miracle that the early Irish State stayed democratic and remarkably well run all things considered during that period). Some of the problems arose from changes in world markets, but it was largely a London-made problem – Ireland was quite deliberately de-industrialised and de-populated. The population of Ireland has only just recovered to its level of around the immediate post-famine period of the 1850’s, and is nowhere near where it was in the 1830’s, despite very high immigration rates for the past couple of decades. The almost entire absence of Victorian architecture in city centres (apart from Belfast) is one obvious visible sign. One reason there is so much great 18th Century architecture in Ireland is not just the great wealth of the 18th Century, but the fact that the rich just couldn’t afford to ‘improve’ on it for the next 2 centuries.

    But yes, Brexit is increasingly focusing on the British-Irish angle, much to the horror of the Tories. For them it must be like one of those horror movies, where the monster they thought long dead suddenly starts stirring, somehow 27 times the size that they remembered it.

    It also raises a dynamic about the EU that most commentators, focused as always on the Franco-German axis forget – the majority of votes in the Council of Ministers, the real power within the EU, are held by small countries. They may have their differences, but it is rarely in the interest of a Portugal or Denmark or Netherlands or Malta to see another small country get bullied (Greece being something of an exception as its an outlier in so many ways). In other words, they stick together and it is this dynamic which makes it almost impossible for the UK to get its way against Ireland. This was made so visible yesterday when even little Luxembourg openly mocked Bojo.

    Its also worth winding the timescale forward from 1922 to see how things have reversed. Ireland tried to isolate itself from world trade in the 1930s in a disastrous attempt at developing economic independence. It took decades to recover from a noble but doomed experiment in nationalist economics. The roles may very well be reversed.

    1. Clive

      If I get a sense at all of anything correctly, it’s not so much a repeating of Ireland’s flirtation with autarky which is sought, more it’s belief in and adherence to neutrality. We’ve had way, way too much of getting involved in other nations’ internal affairs and fighting other people’s wars.

      The reaction to Luxembourg’s apparently rather contrived no-platforming (or Brexit-shaming, perhaps if that’s what it was) of Johnson is illustrative maybe. Even the most jingoistic and nationalist U.K. press hasn’t responded with a Scappy Doo-like “Le’ me at ‘em! Le’ me at ‘em!” spoiling for a fight and demanding honour be satisfied for the indignity of the slight. More a sense of “Well, if that’s your attitude, you can jolly well piss off”.

      1. John Jones

        Not clear to me that Luxembourg got anything out of Bettel’s disatribe yesterday – sure , he got a few cheap laughs, but does anyone feel that the status and value of Luxembourg has gone up as a result ? No, thought not.

        1. Mirdif

          Why not comment on the status of the United Kingdom? But then I guess it’s easier to point fingers elsewhere than face reality.

        2. Anonymous 2

          Why not consider the possibility that he was doing it for his own domestic political purposes?

          Not everything is about the English though I know they have difficulty at times realising this.

          1. ChrisPacific

            That was my read. It clearly played well to domestic audiences and I suspect he couldn’t resist, for all that he may yet come to regret it.

            It’s the kind of thing I would have done in his place, which is one reason why I wouldn’t make a good politician.

        3. Jabbawocky

          Except that the EU has reason to be miffed. Johnson is claiming to be negotiating while putting forward no proposals. At the same time he’s blaming the EU for the failure of the non existent talks. If Johnson was acting in good faith it’s inconceivable that he’d have received the same treatment.

          1. Clive

            Then he could have simply restated the lines that were already scripted months ago that the Withdrawal Agreement will not be reopened.

            Why all the pearl clutching? Even if you’re fed up with Johnson on his ad hoc European capital excursions road trip, and who wouldn’t be, simply remind him that the extension was intended to be used wisely, not for photo opportunities, or some diplomatic version of this.

    2. Seamus Padraig

      It also raises a dynamic about the EU that most commentators, focused as always on the Franco-German axis forget – the majority of votes in the Council of Ministers, the real power within the EU, are held by small countries.

      Try that one on the Greeks some time!

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        Right. The small countries generally follow what Germany and France agree on because Germany and France have very different interests. They figure that anything the two eventually settle on has to be a not-bad to pretty good compromise for the EU as a whole.

        1. vlade

          When the UK was still doing the EU, it often could get the small countries behind its argument, because most of them are not too interested in massive federalization (which has really France as the driver, hoping for the French Europe by negotiation if it could not be by wars long ago).

          The problem with the UK there was that it rarely looked at the small country interests – except if they matched. The UK would have been able to move the EU a lot if it had a better thought out long-term strategy (which would have involved alliances with smaller countries, and working as a counter to France mostly). Which implied it cared about Europe, which it didn’t in the last 20 years at least. Oh, and it would also involve politicians used to doing alliances and compromises, which the UK political system discourages.

          1. David

            In the early days at least, the UK was seen by some of the smaller nations (the Dutch and Portuguese for example) as a useful counterweight to Franco-German domination. But because the UK’s agenda in most areas was negative, and it was chiefly interested in stopping things, this situation could not last. The UK was capable of forming alliances on specific issues with various countries, but completely lacked any kind of overarching strategy, so it never really had permanent partners. In other international contexts (NATO, UN) the UK was very good at building and maintaining alliances: here, they never had the interest. It’s the great tragedy of modern British international politics that they didn’t get creatively engaged with Europe in the 1990s, largely out of fear of losing the US link.

            1. Clive

              I’d suggest that the rot set in earlier than that — with Thatcher’s rebate.

              In some ways, the EU is organised as a pay-to-play scheme, with the payers being the Member States with the significant net contributions. What the payers get for their money is to run the show. The payees — the smaller Member States which are net recipients — get to enjoy the show, but are passive participants. While this may seem superficially lop-sided, the payees nevertheless know a good scheme when they see it as the show is, for them, better than that which they could put on, just from their own resources. And not only do they get to see the show for free, they are even paid to watch it.

              Thatcher said, via the demand for a rebate, that the U.K. was not interested in running the show and nor was it especially interested in the show itself. Thusly, it broke the rules. The later refusal to join the euro merely cemented this disinterested approach to either performing in the production or being in the audience. Frankly, it thought the show stank, anyway.

              The U.K.’s departure will similarly upset the balance again. The EU will either have to do less (the show will be less fancy both for the producers to stage and the recipients enjoy) or the production values of the show will stay the same, but the owners (or net providers of resources) of the theatre will need to put in even more of their own cash to subsidise the performance. Another, much less likely, option is that the audience doesn’t get paid to watch the show anymore and might even have to start paying for its tickets. But given how many of the smaller, poorer, audience members are, there’s no way they can afford the true entry price of an unsubsidised show.

              Like the early days of the internet, everyone thoroughly enjoyed getting everything for nothing, or even less than nothing. When people had to pay for what they were getting, an inescapable trend of either getting less, getting nothing, or having to pay the going rate emerged. When consumers were used to getting a free ride, having to accept a poorer product, or having to cough up for the premium quality they’d previously enjoyed, or getting even no product at all, was doubly tough.

              For the audience member which was paid the most to attend the show, per capita, Luxembourg, it’s perhaps little wonder they’re more than a bit sore over a possible future paywall being erected over their presently free content.

              1. Tony Wright

                Good explanation Clive. However the EU is now looking economically like a 1000cc car trying to pull a huge trailer full of ever increasing amounts of debt, and the road is heading for a mountain. And most of the debt is via bonds yielding negative interest rates. Alice in Wonderland economics and unprecedented in financial history.
                Even that highly successful manufacturing exporter Germany is entering recession, not helped by trade frictions with the Trump Administration.
                The next global economic downturn, both on Financial markets and so called Main St. is variously predicted by many financial pundits to be:
                Overdue in many cyclical analyses,
                Pretty much indefensible by Central Banks because of low and negative interest rates and high levels of debt.
                Involving the popping of many asset bubbles created by the low interest rates,
                Made worse by record levels of corporate and consumer debt,
                A real doosey, possibly as bad as 1929.
                Add to that a baby boomer retirement bulge and a whole herd of US retirement funds like Calpers which will not be even close to meeting their financial liabilities.
                This is not looking good, and with Brexit as the cherry on the cake, it is hard to see how the EU will survive the coming economic storms.

                1. Clive

                  In terms of funding for the EU itself, the amounts involved, certainly for the major contributors (France, Germany) are pretty trivial — loose change which has fallen down the back of the couch level, in the big scheme of things. It was crazy thinking from the ERG Brexit Ultra types this was ever going to become a factor. So the increase in financial outlays was never a UK bargaining chip — and anyway, governments can always find the money to pay for things, certainly on the levels we’re talking about here.

                  But still, there’s going to have to be a fairly major budgetary adjustment. What are the options on the table for the EU27?

                  There’s not a snowball’s chance in Hell of getting any more money out of Italy right now. For the remaining EU27 economies, to attempt to cover in any material way the (currently) €14 UK net contribution, it would mean that the ex France/Germany “contributor” countries (the Netherlands, Sweden, Austria, Denmark) would need to put in €3-5bn each — and raise their EU contributions to GDP ratio higher than France’s and probably higher than Germany’s but still lower in absolute “cash” terms — so it would be hard to work out in that scenario how the balance of power might change. Alternatively, countries which are currently net recipients of EU funds could be forced to become not contributors — but the level of contributions needed will be disproportional to the size of their economies, so it’s not really feasible they could do this, even if prepared to.

                  So what most likely will shift is — assuming that the EU remains pretty much unchanged in terms of its day-to-day activities — that as an institution it will become even more “top heavy” (the amounts paid, net, as a quantitative monetary amount, by France and Germany will look even more skewed than they do already, as a proportion of total EU funding) as France and Germany have to pick up yet more of the cost base..

                  To reduce how the EU works to a crude “follow the money” reasoning is too simplistic, but without the presence of France and Germany, there could simply be no EU, not as we’d recognise it today. But that is simply not going to be a happening event. Instead, unless something unexpected happens, France and Germany will extend their domination of the EU’s budgetary makeup yet further (after some grumbling). So the notion that the smaller countries will be allowed to indulge in any serious backchat contrary to the direction set by France and Germany seems very implausible. The EU has not, then, rewritten the rules for the small country / big country inter-relationships.

                2. fajensen

                  This is not looking good, and with Brexit as the cherry on the cake, it is hard to see how the EU will survive the coming economic storms.

                  I think the EU will not only survive, it will become much stronger. For the better or for the worse remains to be seen. I think for the better.

                  Because, the crisis will be the motivation (or excuse) to set up a full redistribution mechanism between the EUR-Zone countries, making the EU a proper federalised state. “They” for sure have been drafting several versions of the necessary legislation already.

                  Brussels started in 2015 or so but they will come down on tax evasion, non-disclosure of wealth and money laundering in earnest after 2020 when the “Fiscalis 2020” programme really kicks in (and the measures cannot be vetoed by a single state). This will be popular.

                  This redistribution will quench malcontent spendthrifts like Italy, although possibly balanced by the howling by those who gets nailed for tax evasion and money laundering, a rich vein in Greece and Spain!

                  Those other minor malcontents like Denmark, who also likes to be special and deliberately sabotaged the tax system to enable massive frauds, can do nothing except pull into their designated lane.

                  We will probably get to keep the DKK but other things like the “Danish Model”, where unions and employers organisations set local wages and working conditions will be replaced by EU rules (which, frankly should have happened two decades ago).

                  The loudest trouble will come from Hungary and Rumania when they are forced to provide some kind of basic welfare also for their Roman populations as part of the conditions for getting the “redistribution funding”. They will eat it because nobody will care if they leave.

                  1. lou strong

                    Spendthrift ? AFAIK, since 1992 until now, Italy missed the goal of budget primary surplus only in 2009

      2. MisterMr

        You are assuming that Greece, out of the EU, would have received a better treatment.

        It is possible, but it’s not sure.

        There is a problem, in my view, that is this:

        The EU should have helped Greece more (and should have implemented/facilitated more spending policies in general).
        This however is generally treated as “the EU has caused Greece’s problem”.
        But the two aren’t the same: for example if Greece needed an higer level of consumption in Germany, being out of the EU would not have helped Greece.

        1. fajensen

          The EU should have helped Greece more (and should have implemented/facilitated more spending policies in general).

          Yes. They should have. But, it is not so easy.

          The EU as currently configured cannot overrule individual member states, meaning that someone would have vetoed this or Greece itself would have interfered and made sure that the nice new money would end up in the same numbered accounts as all those other missing taxes that ‘everyone of importance’ in Greece didn’t care to pay.

          Greece has a serious corruption problem with resources disappearing in a Bermuda Triangle formed between the Orthodox Church, The Military and The Wealthy Elites (Every Greek will rant for hours about this – except if it is one of “the triad” members. I know a few of both kinds).

          During the Greek crisis, it could not have missed anyones attention that money transfers kept working a long time after they introduced withdrawal limits, allowing even the thickest of the frauds to get their money out to Zurich. Stunts like that likely has pissed off the EU-side and hardened the attitudes as it were.

    3. Ignacio

      I enjoyed the historical vision too and realise it is pertinent. Needless to say, the position of Spain has its own particularities because of Gibraltar. I would say that with the PSOE in charge the position of Spain is more likely to side with Ireland compared with conservatives that regret parts of the WA and would like to add hard specifications on Gibraltar. Catalonian and vasque nationalists add more complexity but the comparison today is with Scotland, not Ireland.

  3. David

    The issue, I think is more to do with The UK than Ireland, at least in the short term. You can divide crises into two types : those that can be solved by reshuffling the existing system, and those that force a state change and the replacement of one political system by another. It’s interesting that a number of the second type have their origins abroad rather than at home. In France in 1958 it was Algeria, in Portugal in 1974 it was the wars in Angola and Mozambique, in South Africa in 1990 it was the border wars as much as the internal strife. In each case, the system was presented with a crisis that it could not cope with in its existing form. It’s interesting to speculate if something similar could happen here. Could Ireland bring about the fall not just of a British government but of the whole system ? Could tensions over Ireland explode the EU? One would like to hope not, but then I doubt if Europe has ever had a less capable political class to confront the problems that are surely coming.

    1. Clive

      Yes, this is one of those state-change problems, or potentially so. For all parties.

      When this all began, I could not for the life of me work out why the EU was letting itself get inserted into the problems of NI and the Republic. The only solutions, or facsimiles of solutions, which were ever devised for the island of Ireland were those based on can kicking, fudge and cakeism. So to foist an entity which doesn’t do can kicking, fudge or cakeism — except on the basis of “can kicking, fudge and cakism for me, but not for thee” — into the imponderable dynamic which has eluded a solution for getting on for half a millennia was just asking for trouble.

      Even political giants like Roosevelt or Attlee would struggle. The pygmies we have are completely adrift.

      1. Oregoncharles

        That’s because the only real solution (aside from fudge and jury-rigs) is to re-unify the island, which was divided by imperial colonization, always an evil. Unfortunately, at present there is not a majority in NI for that – though there might be after Brexit. And someone noted that the Republic isn’ thrilled with the idea, either, because it’s going to be expensive, like the reunification of Germany.

        Of course, Brexit will peel off Scotland, too; at root, the UK is a remnant of Empire, and it’s doomed. Few of its citizens will be thrilled about that, but from here, it’s clearly baked in the cake.

        At least the conniptions would be over.

        1. Monty

          “Few of its citizens will be thrilled about that”

          I grew up there, and I honestly don’t think many under 60 would really be that bothered if the UK split up.

    2. Ignacio

      I think that the lack of capability of the political class, let’s say in the “western hemisphere” has to do with the complete absence of objectives, roadmaps or plans, being “bussiness friendly” the only political motivation of traditional parties. Whith such a miopic perspective we cannot expect any decent leadership.

  4. Pavel

    I am not a fan of Nigel Farage but because I am obsessed with Brexit I listen to his LBC radio show on Youtube (in short bursts, I couldn’t sit through the whole hour!) from time to time. This morning he was absolutely outraged by the Luxembourg PM’s “empty chairing” of Johnson and stated several times that it was “the ritual humiliation of the UK” by the EU. (He also pointed out, perhaps with good cause, how Luxembourg has gamed the various tax laws to its great profit.)

    I am even less a fan of Johnson than of Farage — I detest BJ — but the EU would do better to let him be hoist on his own petard. This “humiliation” is just the sort of thing that fires up Farage’s and Johnson’s hard-core Brexit base. Perhaps it was just an accident with the protesters but the PM should have simply invited Johnson inside for the presser.

    On a happier note, that was a fantastic table of historical European urban populations. I noted with interest the rise and fall of Palermo and Ghent, two cities I visited recently, each with incredible displays of wealth from past eras. A salutary reminder (as if one were needed!) that great cities and empires come and go.

    1. Ignacio

      Yes, the table was great. I guess that if there were data before 1050 we would see that Syracussa was initially more important than Palermo, particularly during the greek domination. Both Palermo and Syracusa show beautiful and interesting buildings and ruines although very different in their cultural origins. More classical in Syracusa and more bizantine-arab-norman in Palermo.

    2. Anon

      A salutary reminder (as if one were needed!) that great cities and empires come and go.

      Those “city” population numbers span from the 11th century: Dark Ages through the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. During this span the climate was changing (warming, actually). It seems technology (Gutenberg) and climate change affected human dispersion. Not unlike today?

    3. fajensen

      This “humiliation” is just the sort of thing that fires up Farage’s and Johnson’s hard-core Brexit base.

      Indeed it does, and maybe someone in Brussels has figured out that for the EU, the very worst outcome is in fact not Brexit (whether it be hard, soft or indifferent).

      Instead, the worst outcome for the EU now, is to have Remain somehow pull off a “Win”, thereby leaving a fractioning, failing, demonstrably ungovernable state, with the size and resources that the UK possess, to be flailing around and creating mischief while inside of EU’s decision making processes!

  5. EoH

    “The NE had a Protestant majority who hated Home Rule.”

    The NE of Ireland became a Protestant enclave starting in the 17th century, especially during the Commonwealth (Cromwell is among the most hated of Englishman), and has remained one. Scottish and English Protestants were long encouraged to relocate to what was once home to the fiercest Irish resistance to English rule. The national and religious differences set up a generations long conflict.

    In addition to the Famine, economies in 1800 were still largely agricultural. By 1914, manufacturing dominated. The English had invested in manufacturing in Protestant Ulster, shipbuilding especially, but not elsewhere.

    As with today’s Republican Party, especially in North Carolina, Conservative Unionists began to reject democracy because it did not ensure a win. Were it applied in all of Ireland, for example, the Protestant NE would have been subsumed into an Irish state and the Protestants would have become a permanent powerless minority.

    I would extend the period of the tensions to include all of the 1920s (and intermittently since then). Andrew Bonar Law, an Ulster Scot born in New Brunswick, was for decades among the fiercest and sometimes violent Tory opponents of Home Rule. He was briefly UK prime minister from 1922 until his death in 1923.

    The UK’s constitutional crisis of 1910-11 involved many more issues than Ireland. It was the culmination of an across-the-board contest of progressives vs. conservatives and reactionaries. It resulted in considerable cutting back of the power of the Lords (who agreed to it in the face of the monarch’s commitment to pack the Lords if necessary) over the House, especially over budget matters. One outcome was some of the first and most important social safety net programs in the West.

    1. Clive

      And let’s not forget two other factors. One is the increasing size of the franchise (as the hold of the rotten boroughs and also the registration of voters outside of the landed gentry and the “good men of standing” like clergy, solicitors, doctors, aldermen and the like gave way to the burgeoning middle classes). The other is the transformation from an agrarian and craft-industry economy to an industrialised one — bringing about a massive concentration of working class voters in the urban sprawl which grew up to accommodate them.

      It wasn’t so much that “Britain changed” through some mysterious and unfathomable force, but more that Britain’s voters changed through exposure to both industrialisation — and also the first stirrings of what was to become globalisation. I could add more, such as the huge political schism which existed between not only the Liberals and the Conservatives but within these parties about tariffs and Empire Preference. If I’ve one criticism of Murphy’s piece, its that it fails to set its chosen topics in the correct context of social, economic, political and international change that was — for once, justifying the phrase — proceeding at an unprecedented pace. But as an introduction to readers wishing to study the subject further, it is at least an entry point. I’d recommend British Politics in the Collectivist Age by Samuel H. Beer, if one can get hold of a copy.

      1. EoH

        Excellent comment. The social, political, and economic changes that culminated in the 1910-11 constitutional crisis were earth shattering. The constituent members of the House of Lords lost out – aided by the king, who sided with the Commons and against his own nobility – to the burgeoning power of the Commons. In itself, that was momentous. Adding to the chaos, Edward VII died and George V became king in May 1910. He followed his father’s lead in backing the Commons over the Lords.

        The empire and trade were growing and becoming more complicated to govern; the franchise expanded; the economy industrialized; mass readership of newspapers gave rise to the press lords, their millions and their power; middle class professional ranks were burgeoning. Cities, suburbs, railroads, commuter lines were exploding. Sea transport was expanding and shifting from expensive relatively short-range coal fuel to bunker oil.

        Norther Ireland itself was a foreign, low-cost location just across the Irish Sea. Scottish peasants were driven there, for example, as a consequence of the last round of enclosures, creating a large, newly urbanized, low-cost, but reliably Protestant labor force. An early example of globalization.

        Danaher’s essay needed somehow to make that larger context clearer. It would have made the changes wrought by the guns of August even more dramatic.

  6. JBird4049

    (This wonders a bit. Sorry.)

    The very little I know of the reasons for destruction of Ireland seems to have the same as Enclosures, the Age of Industrialization, the destruction of the cloth industry especially of high quality fabrics and clothing, both in the Ottoman Empire and India, the destruction of the previously equal if not slightly superior manufacturing in India and on and on. All during the 18th, 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries.

    The various “poorly” managed famine relief and control efforts in India during the same period parallels that of Ireland.

    The creation of modern capitalism in the Dutch Republic and its wholesale adoption by the British leading to the Industrial Revolution, the destruction of small farming communities under Enclosure as well as the gradual erosion of the ghost wealth and power of the land owning elites also parallels the destruction of manufacturing in other countries and empires, the destruction of the previously affluent small farmers, as well as the destruction of any economic activity that interfered with the acquisition of wealth by the few. This includes the prevention of the distribution of free or cheap grain in both India and Ireland that had been standard practice before roughly 1800.

    The modern capitalism, Penal Laws, the Enclosures, the end of the Speenhamland system, Industrialization, the destruction of the apprenticeship system, the workhouse predominance, the several famines that broke a couple of troublesome societies especially Ireland, heck, the modern precursors of libertarianism and the idea of the deserving and undeserving poor all happen in a sequence from 1600 to the late 1800s

    Which leads to situation in 1914. Part of the reason that the guns of August happened was because all the competent people, or at least those who could make serious decisions, were on vacation. I guess the British being somewhat distracted from helping calm things in Europe can be added. Plus joining the fighting as a distraction. Like some seem to want to do with Iran.

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