Liberal Unionists and Labour Imperialists

Joseph Hilary Benn Chamberlain, the Liberal Unionist within Imperial Labour


History never repeats itself but from time to time there are uncanny similarities. The current schism within the British Labour Party has echoes of a split in parliament that occurred in 1886. On that occasion the Liberal party under William Gladstone was attempting to introduce a home rule bill for Ireland. Breaking ranks with his leader and splitting the party, the imperialist Joseph Chamberlain decided to join with the Conservatives and voted down the Bill.

Chamberlain and a group of his supporters then formed their own party known as the Liberal Unionists. Although progressive on some social issues, the breakaway group was more committed to the promotion of imperialism than advancing democracy or the well-being of the ordinary people. Consequently, the allied themselves in coalition with the Conservative party until eventually they both merged.

As a result of losing the Chamberlain wing of his party, Gladstone and his successors were thereafter forced to rely for support in the House of Commons on the Irish Nationalists. Although the Nationalists were not the most reactionary element in the parliament, they were unable to meet the needs of Britain’s working class and thus gave rise to powerful arguments in favour of working people founding – yes, you’ve got it; the British Labour Party.  

One of the major problems for the Labour Party is that like the old Liberals, it has always contained so many imperialists; Hilary Benn being only the latest. Thanks to the emergence of this neo-Chamberlain, it now seems possible that the Labour Party will split. If this happens it would be useful to bear the lessons of the past in mind and for Britain’s working people to build on socialist principles and dispense once and for all with imperialism’s apologists.

Tommy McKearney … 3rd December 2015

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