March 26, 2024

The Influence of Bourke Cockran

Finest Hour 197, Third Quarter 2022

Page 15

By Michael McMenamin

Michael McMenamin writes the “Action This Day” column in Finest Hour and is co-author with Curt Zoller of Becoming Winston Churchill, the Untold Story of Young Winston and His American Mentor, from which quotations in this article are drawn. A revised and expanded edition of this book becomes available this summer.

Having twice changed political parties, Winston Churchill was especially sensitive to the charge that this displayed political inconsistency if not opportunism on his part. Indeed, his 1932 collection of essays Thoughts and Adventures contains an entire chapter on “Consistency in Politics.” In it he suggests, “A change of Party is usually considered a much more serious breach of consistency than a change of view.” Churchill disagreed. Consistency should be to principle, not party. He had been taught that from an early age in 1895 by his American mentor Bourke Cockran, a hardmoney Democrat, who in 1896 opposed his party’s nominee for president, William Jennings Bryan, over the inflationary policy of free silver.

Churchill illustrated his point by comparing himself with Joseph Chamberlain, who had supported free trade in the late nineteenth century but switched to advocate protective tariffs in the early twentieth. As First Lord of the Admiralty before the Great War, Churchill supported increased expenditure for the Royal Navy, but as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1920s Churchill favored economy.

Whereas the Imperial German Navy posed an existential threat to Britain before 1914, Churchill contended that in the 1920s no comparable threat existed. In contrast, Churchill wrote that all the arguments Chamberlain advanced for protectionism in the early twentieth century had been rebutted by Chamberlain himself in the days when he had supported free trade. Churchill maintained that he himself had switched parties from the Conservatives to the Liberals in 1904 in order to stay true to his principles, while Chamberlain abandoned free trade and adopted protectionism solely to gain a perceived political advantage.

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Irish Home Rule

In 1896, at age twenty-one, Churchill wrote to Cockran criticizing one of his speeches on Home Rule for Ireland and observing, “you will understand that we approach the subject from different points of view and that your views on Ireland could never coincide with mine” (emphasis added). A year later, Churchill wrote a long letter to his mother on political issues where he observed, “There are no lengths to which I would not go in opposing [the Conservatives] were I in the House of Commons. I am a Liberal in all but name. My views excite the pious horror of the Mess. Were it not for Home Rule—to which I will never consent—I would enter Parliament as a Liberal” (emphasis added).

Yet, by 1910, as Home Secretary, Churchill had become the Liberal government’s chief spokesman on Home Rule for Ireland, a position he held even while First Lord of the Admiralty until the outbreak of war in August 1914, when the issue, with the consent of the Irish Nationalist Party, was postponed for the duration. The hostility of the Conservative party towards Churchill that resulted in his involuntary departure from the Admiralty in 1915 stemmed directly from his support for Home Rule during this period.

In the fall of 1912, the Conservative leader, Andrew Bonar Law, threatened that if Home Rule were “forced” upon Ulster and there were “bloodshed,” the guilt would fall upon the Liberal government. Equally combative, Churchill replied that Ministers who “talk of revolution ought to be prepared for the guillotine.” 

In considering Churchill and Home Rule, the questions must be asked: did he, like Chamberlain, change his position for purely political reasons? Or was he consistent with his principles? A superficial analysis would argue for the former, even though his private views when in his early twenties were expressed before he entered public life. In fact, from an early age, Churchill had always supported some form of self-government for Ireland in a way Ulster Unionists and their Conservative allies never did. His father, Lord Randolph, also had shown surprising sympathy toward Irish grievances during his career, but he always stopped short of supporting Home Rule. When he joined the Liberal party in 1904, Churchill did not object to its policy of Home Rule for Ireland so long as it was “subject to the supremacy of the Imperial Parliament.” To Churchill, that phrase meant the minority rights of Ulster would always be protected by the Imperial Parliament in Westminster.

Exchange of Views

To understand Churchill’s consistency to principle on this issue, we need to revisit his exchange of letters with Cockran in April 1896. Cockran set out his own views on Home Rule in a speech he had made and sent Churchill a copy. This suggests that the two men had previously discussed the topic when Churchill first visited America in 1895 and stayed in New York as a guest in Cockran’s large Fifth Avenue apartment.

Cockran’s letter enclosing his speech does not survive, so we do not know just which speech he sent. Judging from Churchill’s reply, however, the speech likely covered AngloIrish history from 1172 onwards in some detail, as did many of Cockran’s subsequent speeches on Ireland. Churchill replied on 12 April 1896. Here are the relevant excerpts of the surviving exchange, with italics added to indicate points of emphasis:

Cockran’s Fifth Avenue apartment building, where Churchill stayed in 1895

Now to turn to your speech. It is one of the finest I have ever read. You are indeed an orator. And of all the gifts there is none so rare or so precious as that. Of course—my dear Cockran—you will understand that we approach the subject from different points of view and that your views on Ireland could never coincide with mine. You invited me in your letter to comment on the opinions you then expressed. I do so without reserve. I consider it unjust to arraign the deeds of earlier times before modern tribunals & to judge by modern standards. No one denies—no one has ever attempted to deny—that England has treated Ireland disgracefully in the past. Those were hard times;—death was the punishment of every crime; & the treatment of the Irish by the stronger power was in harmony with the treatment of the French peasantry—the Russian serfs & the Hugenots. Mercy and economics were alike unknown. Wherefore I think it unfair to depict the English government of today as part and parcel of Mountjoy’s ravages and Cromwell’s massacres….

There is no tyranny in Ireland now. The Irish peasant is as free and as well represented as the English labourer. Everything that can be done to alleviate distress and heal the wounds of the past is done— and done in spite of rhetorical attempts to keep them open. Your contention that a government from a “foreign” city cannot produce prosperity—is not borne out by other instances. Take for example— Scotland, whose population and wealth have increased manifold since the Act of the Union.

Six years of firm, generous, government in Ireland will create a material prosperity which will counteract the efforts which able and brilliant men—like yourself— make to keep the country up to the proper standard of indignation. Not for twenty years could a Home Rule bill pass the English people—so sick and tired are they of the subject— and by that time the necessity for one will have passed away. Home Rule may not be dead but only sleeping—but it will wake like Rip Van Winkle to a world of new ideas. The problems & the burning questions of today will be solved and Home Rule for Ireland as likely as not will be merged in a wider measure of Imperial Federation….

You may approve of Home Rule on principle. But I defy you to produce a workable measure of it. He will be a bold man who will rush in where Mr. Gladstone failed.

Finally, let me say that when I read your speech I thought that Ireland had not suffered in vain—since her woes have provided a subject for your eloquence. Do write me again.

Cockran’s reply on 27 April was diplomatic and demonstrated his well-deserved reputation as one of the country’s finest trial lawyers. He took up Churchill’s challenge “to produce a workable measure” and suggested that the young man had already done so himself: “I do not think you and I are very far apart in our convictions. We differ more in phrases than in principle. If your idea of Imperial Federation be the solution of the Irish question, nobody will rejoice at it more than the men who have struggled for the same result under the name of Home Rule.”

Irish Nationalist Leader John Redmond by Spy

On his way to reaching this conclusion, however, Cockran was lavish in his praise of Churchill’s letter:

I was delighted to hear from you and especially gratified by your frank and sensible criticism of my speech….I write mainly to explain my purpose in devoting some part of my address to the oppressive legislation from which Irish industry has long suffered. I did not dwell on this subject merely to inflame passions or to awaken resentments as you suppose. I have long since concluded that revenge is the most expensive luxury known to man. Any one who pursues vengeance can generally attain it, but it is all that he is ever likely to accomplish….

Ireland is today without manufacturing industries simply because she has been prevented from accumulating capital by the operation of those laws which you condemn so freely and so generously. If we meet on the other side I will go into this subject more freely and I am sure I will be able to convince you that in recalling that melancholy history, I was actuated by a better purpose than a mere desire to inflame the anger of an audience.

The Third Home Rule Bill

Churchill wrote no more letters to Cockran on the subject of Ireland and did not comment publicly on Home Rule until 1904 after he had left the Conservative Party and joined the Liberals. While he opposed “a separate Parliament for Ireland,” he supported “an extension of local self-government” to “nationalities who wanted to mind their own business in their own way.”

A Churchill speech during the 1906 General Election reinforced Cockran’s earlier observation in 1896:

I shall support no Irish legislation which I regard as likely to injure the effective integrity of the United Kingdom….I am persuaded that considerable administrative reforms are required in the government of Ireland and I would gladly see the Irish people accorded the power to manage their own expenditure, their own education and their own public works according to Irish ideas.

In 1908, Churchill publicly supported Home Rule by name, “subject to the supremacy of the Imperial Parliament.” Home Rule for Ireland, however, did not become a serious political issue until 1910. After two general elections that year fought over budget and constitutional matters, the Irish Parliamentary Party held the balance of power and its support was necessary to keep the Liberal government in power. The Liberals therefore began working in earnest to pass a Home Rule bill that would not affect the supremacy of the Imperial Parliament.

This was the third such bill introduced in Parliament by the Liberals. The first two had been set forth in the late Victorian era by William Gladstone, and both had been defeated. The new bill was supported by Cockran’s friend John Redmond, the leader of the Irish Party. It allowed counties in Ulster to opt out of Home Rule temporarily until there had been two further general elections. This provided the British electorate two opportunities to reject Home Rule by voting the Liberals out of office. Even with this concession, however, Ulster leader Sir Edward Carson, supported by Bonar Law, remained opposed— violently opposed—to Home Rule.

Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty in October 1911. By August 1913, the Home Rule bill had nearly passed through Parliament, twice being approved by Commons and twice being rejected by the House of Lords, which could not prevent the bill from becoming law a third time. In the interim, Carson had threatened to set up a provisional government in Ulster, independent of the British Empire, much as Ian Smith was to do in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) later in the twentieth century.

Playing Up

As they did every year since their marriage in 1905, Cockran and his wife Anne travelled to Europe and were in London in October 1913. As he had done in the past, Churchill sought Cockran’s views on Ireland and encouraged him to elaborate upon them in a letter, which Cockran did on 4 October. It was the longest letter Cockran ever wrote to Churchill and contained his detailed advice on how to respond peacefully to any attempt by Carson to set up an independent provisional government in Ulster.

While Cockran professed that he had “no reason to doubt the perfect sincerity of Sir Edward Carson or those who follow him,” Churchill certainly did. Cockran was correct that, in the long run, Carson’s declaration of a Provisional government ultimately would fail, but Churchill believed the resulting civil strife and bloodshed might prove politically intolerable.

Churchill’s best friend, the conservative MP and barrister F. E. Smith, wrote to him in a similar vein a day later and urged him to “play up” and seek a compromise. Whether Carson was “perfectly sincere” or not, he was in fact proposing a violent insurrection in response to a democratic decision that provided for the protection of individual rights by the Imperial parliament.

By contrast, Churchill endeavored up until the outbreak of the First World War to produce a compromise solution in Ireland that would satisfy both the Ulster Loyalists and the Irish Nationalists and avoid any insurrection. Unfortunately, and due partly to a near mutiny of British Army officers in Ireland in early 1914, Churchill was unsuccessful. He was also much criticized as First Lord of the Admiralty for his actions in positioning the fleet in the waters surrounding Northern Ireland. Responding to attacks in the House of Commons, Churchill said:

[W]hen attempts are made to paralyze the Executive in dealing with rebellion by fomenting stimulating suggestions of mutiny in the Army and Fleet, when that has been actually reached in our sober, humdrum, prosaic British politics, it is about time for serious, responsible people in all parts of the House, and all parties, to see if they cannot do something to make the situation a little better.

A month later, in April 1914, Carson’s militancy culminated with the landing in Northern Ireland of 35,000 rifles and three million rounds of ammunition supplied from German sources. There was no opposition from, or subsequent prosecution by, the British government. While Churchill and the Irish Nationalists were “playing up” according to English rules of good sportsmanship, Carson and his Loyalists were committing treason by conspiring with Imperial Germany, a nation with which Britain would be at war only four months later.

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