Policy Papers

What Does It Mean To Be British? Belfast and Liverpool's Experiences of Adaptation and Reaction, 1880-1921

Gareth Jenkins |

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Executive Summary

  • In an era of large-scale immigration, multiculturalism and globalisation - as well as the challenges of devolution and debates over decentralisation - there has been a perceived decline in social cohesion and a renewed interest in what it means to be British.
  • The current debates over Britishness are not completely new: the construction and definition of a national identity has always been a complex process - never uniform and always disputed.
  • Belfast and Liverpool show how evolving conceptions of Britishness could inflame religious and ethnic enmities - or lead to their containment and control.
  • During 1880-1921 Protestantism's role in British identity declined for several reasons.
  • In Liverpool's case, this escalated an entrenched ethno-sectarian conflict; in Belfast, it sparked a process of adaptation to changing national norms and values. As a result, Belfast's endemic sectarian violence actually moderated as a part of the struggle against Irish Home Rule.
  • Both cities' histories show that when looking at areas of contested identity, and where there are problems of social cohesion, we need to look at both the internal dynamics (class, generational, employment levels) of these communities and the impact upon them of national imperatives and political interventions.
  • Belfast and Liverpool show how national policy and Westminster politics could profoundly influence the response of local elites to community conflict - and how that response could determine whether confrontation was largely expressed through formal political channels or more extreme forms of protest.
  • History suggests that moves to decentralise power to local institutions and associations may exacerbate confrontation on the ground. It also shows that Westminster parties have a long record of being able to appeal to - and make use of - communal divides in different parts of the UK.


Recently there has been renewed interest amongst political and religious leaders and cultural commentators in the idea of 'Britishness'. This revival initially arose in response to the 7 July 2005 London bombings and has intensified with fears that the global recession would exacerbate ethnic tensions in employment and access to social services. Such fears were epitomised by the use and abuse of Gordon Brown's clarion call of 'British jobs for British workers'. Underlying this preoccupation with rediscovering a sense of national identity are concerns over an erosion of social cohesion. In response, the previous Labour Government introduced citizenship ceremonies for new immigrants, published proposals on 'earned citizenship' and was working on a consultative process to write a British statement of Rights and Responsibilities. Additionally, a public holiday was proposed to celebrate 'our shared Britishness'.

These attempts at identifying a 'common purpose' or social 'glue' have corresponded with efforts to preserve democratic values threatened by the rise of the far-right BNP and to engage disaffected and potentially violent Muslim groups with the national political community.

Belfast and Liverpool's experiences of sustained religious and ethnic violence between 1880 and 1921 provide important lessons in approaching the problem of how to construct a common identity accommodating those from differing religious, ethnic and racial backgrounds within British society.

The two cities remind us of one of the enduring legacies of nineteenth-century mass Irish immigration to Britain: intense struggles over collective identity. Both cities experienced conflict over rival religious affiliations (Protestant/Catholic), national allegiances (British/Irish) alongside tensions within the 'host' communities over conflicting conceptions of 'Britishness'. Their experiences teach us that when analysing areas of contested identity and community breakdown we need to explore both the interaction between the internal dynamics of these communities and the role of wider national imperatives and political interventions.

It has been argued that the period 1880-1921 witnessed the emergence in Britain of a genuinely national political culture and identity. The interaction of this national political culture and identity with local and regional identities and values could produce an explosive cocktail. Consequently, the two cities' histories allow us to analyse the long-term impact of mass immigration, the resulting conflicts over identity, and the role of politics in both resolving and exacerbating divisions. They also highlight how changing conceptions of 'Britishness' were critical in either fuelling or containing religious and ethnic conflict.

Britain and Britishness

Biagini argues that during this period Britain was not a nation, but a 'rather archaic multinational state' held together by three principal institutions, parliament, the monarchy and the Protestant religion. Catherine Hall has identified 'Britishness' as an Imperial identity, describing the British Empire as a 'racial organism' differentiating between the coloniser and the colonised, whilst David Cannadine has referred to it as a 'social organism' based upon 'deep-rooted principles, practises and perceptions of social hierarchy'. Hall argues that British citizenship was defined along gender, racial, ethnic and class lines. Linda Colley, like Biagini, highlights a Protestant tradition dating back to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 as a fundamental ingredient underpinning 'Britishness' during its 'formative' period (1707-1837). This Protestant 'world-view' informed attitudes towards Catholic Europe, principally France, and, particularly from 1800 (the Act of Union with Ireland), towards the substantial Irish minority of her citizens in the United Kingdom.

For these historians, 'Britishness' could be determined by political allegiances, regional or religious affiliations, occupational or class position and ethnic and racial ties and prejudices. Nationalism became an integral part of British political culture, accompanying the growth of mass participatory democracy, with heated debates over the character of national identity.

Biagini argues that the most 'formidable challenges' facing British liberal democracy during this period came from pan-nationalism and national separatism, with the Conservative and Liberal parties having to come to terms with both militant imperialism and Celtic nationalism. The struggle over Irish Home Rule was a case in point. Boyce has emphasised the pivotal importance of 1886, when Irish nationality 'became the major political issue of the age' with this controversy 'inextricably bound up with the future of the British constitution and more importantly the British nation. Home Rule provoked the slumbering genie of British nationalism'. This titanic political struggle involved two conflicting conceptions of Britishness, which the rival political parties sought to impose upon the United Kingdom. There was a Conservative-Unionist 'organic' model which was Protestant and imperialistic and a federalised Liberal 'pluralist' view.

The two cities

Belfast and Liverpool both experienced intense immigration with a substantial proportion of this influx being Irish-Catholic. These Irish-Catholic 'incomers' had a profound demographic impact and shaped the socio-economic, cultural and political development of each city. Liverpool's population explosion went from 77,600 in 1801 to 805,100 by 1911, with the Irish-born peaking at 22.3% in 1851 (83,813). Belfast's population rose from 19,000 in 1800 to 378,000 by 1911. While Catholics had formed less than 10% of the population in 1800, owing to the impact of the Irish Potato Famine (1845-49) and the attraction of primarily unskilled industrial work, the Catholics peaked at 33.9% by 1861 (41,000). In each city, the Catholic population was disadvantaged in relation to the Protestant majority. Both witnessed sectarian discrimination in the labour market, dominated by commerce and conveyance in Liverpool and by linen and textiles and shipbuilding and engineering in Belfast. Both saw the evolution of distinct Protestant and Catholic territorial 'enclaves' identified as a key factor in 'endemic' sectarian rioting. There also emerged extensive associational networks organised along religious and ethnic lines. With the emancipation of Catholics after 1829, sectarianism entered the political arena during the 1830s with the Tory-Anglican establishment in Liverpool and their Episcopalian-Conservative counterparts in Belfast forging alliances with the sectarian Orange Order. Despite the Conservative establishments in both cities being 'heartily ashamed' by aspects of Orange populism they continued to exploit Protestantism as a vital component in building their power base. Their opponents were the proponents of Irish Nationalism.

Belfast: a case of adaptation to national norms and values

Late eighteenth-century Belfast was noted for its non-sectarian, liberal sentiments. However, a century later it had become the 'cockpit of community conflict' in Ulster. Crucial to this transformation was mass immigration from rural areas with a long history of sectarianism and the entrenchment of sectarian discrimination in the labour market. Other significant factors included mini-revivals in evangelical Protestant sentiment and a devotional revolution in Catholicism. Consequently the Episcopalian-Conservative establishment and its Orange allies had constructed a sectarian 'local state' in Belfast. However, this situation was to be shattered by the 1886 Irish Home Rule struggle, which witnessed the emergence of Ulster Unionism as a political force.

What is Ulster Unionism?

There is considerable debate amongst historians as to what Ulster Unionism was and is. Alvin Jackson has identified a separate 'Ulster nation', a 'cohesive, Protestant and particularist' community in the North-East of Ireland, whilst James Loughlin describes Ulster Unionism as an ethnic group lacking a 'subjective consciousness of itself as a separate nation'. David W. Miller agrees that the Ulster Unionist community has no nationality, but was instead bound by a civil 'contract' to Britain in return for 'colonising and civilising Ulster'. His phrase 'Queen's Rebels' encapsulates Ulster Unionism's contingent, frequently fractious relationship to the British Government.

Others have dismissed Ulster Unionism as a reactionary 'counter-movement' , a 'negative appendage' of Irish Nationalism caricatured by its more extreme manifestations. It has also been re-evaluated as a 'sub- species of European ethno-regional nationalism' or a rational expression of 'regional interests'. However, John Bew highlights the impact of British 'nation-building' processes upon Ulster as opposed to purely 'local historical enmities'. Crucially, the Home Rule struggle embodied conflicting national loyalties (British/Irish), with both Ulster Unionism and the Irish Nationalist party becoming integral features of British political culture. They were intimately linked with the Liberals and Conservatives, as successful multinational 'coalition' parties which attempted to manage and absorb them.

I would argue that, as part of a 'multinational' Conservative-Unionist coalition, the Unionist leadership were acutely conscious of the negative reaction on the mainland to the disunity and violence that had characterised popular Unionist mobilisation in 1886. In light of these events, the Belfast Episcopalian-Conservative establishment set about constructing a representative and respectable 'umbrella' movement. The previously marginal Liberal Non-Conformists were to play a crucial role injecting the 'liberal humanitarian' (or 'cosmopolitan internationalist') strand into Ulster Unionist ideology. John Bew has identified a strand of 'civic unionism', predating Home Rule, which was shared by both the Liberals and a significant portion of the Conservative hierarchy in Ulster and which was predicated upon a 'positive identification and engagement' with the British mainland as opposed to primarily economic or Orange objections to Home Rule.

Consequently, I believe that Ulster Unionism's ultimate success in the battle of Westminster politics critical to Home Rule was its adaptation to changing conceptions of Britishness. The movement sought not only to preserve the fragile Ulster Protestant coalition, including influential elements hostile to Orange bigotry and violence, but simultaneously to counter national perceptions of 'Ulster bigotry'.

The Unionists sought to convert a sceptical British public opinion to their cause by channelling Protestant agitation away from the streets of Belfast. They exerted increasingly centralised control over the anti-Home Rule forces through the creation of elaborate, seemingly democratic, political and organisational structures. These initiatives culminated in the formation of the representative Ulster Unionist Council and the Ulster Unionist Party in 1905. Consequently, by the Third Home Rule crisis (1912-1914), Ulster Unionism was a highly centralised political movement. Its ultimate success in the Home Rule struggle was its ability to integrate and 'police' its fundamentally sectarian support whilst simultaneously projecting itself on the British mainland as a democratic movement predicated upon ideals of unity, discipline and respectability.

However, this situation was dramatically transformed upon Belfast becoming the capital of a six-county Northern Ireland in May 1921. This Province constituted a 'Protestant State for a Protestant People'. Now that the Home Rule struggle was over, the imperative for Ulster Unionism to project a respectable façade was reduced and the 'tight discipline' characteristic of the preceding era was relaxed. This transition was accompanied by an upsurge in violence costing some 498, mainly Catholic, lives between 1920-1922.

Critical to this violent upsurge was disengagement by British political parties with the Irish question during the First World War. By 1918, no major British party 'existed for reasons to do with Ireland', with Loughlin stating that the war 'destroyed the deep divisions between the major British parties on the question of national identity and the national interest'. For Boyce, this 'placed Ireland firmly outside the realm of British party politics', whilst for Loughlin it rendered Northern Ireland 'an expendable part of the United Kingdom'.

Liverpool: a case of reaction to national norms and values

In contrast to Belfast, Liverpool was an exception in its marginality to mainstream British political culture and identity during this period. Liverpool has been described as the 'least "English" of the great Victorian provincial cities', illustrating that nationalising trends did not advance at an even pace or have a uniform impact from one locality to the next. As a direct consequence of the erosion of Protestantism as a central component of British identity, Liverpool experienced conflict between two evolving local conceptions of Britishness. Liverpool Tory Democracy emerged out of a movement to revive Conservative fortunes at Westminster in the early 1880s and was a modern Conservative nationalism. It had a pronounced regional character, particularly a strong Protestant dimension conceived to win over the city's majority working class and was a potent amalgam of fundamentalist Protestantism intertwined with local class, ethnic, and national allegiances. The relationship between the Protestant working class and the Tories was initially an expedient, often uneasy, alliance. Moreover, both secularisation and democratisation were to play crucial roles in fuelling Protestant-Catholic violence by exposing fault-lines in the relationship between the Protestant working class and local and national Conservatism.

Liverpool's Protestants had traditionally looked to the Conservative party to 'conserve' and 'defend' their Protestantism. However, the relationship between Conservatism and Protestantism was to come under increasing strain, particularly during the period of Conservative Government between 1895-1906, which was seen as neither Protestant enough nor democratic enough for Liverpool Tory Democracy. Lord Salisbury's Conservative administration was attacked for having made too many concessions to Roman Catholicism whilst giving too little to the Protestant working class. This 'grassroots' disenchantment fed into a growing belief amongst Liverpool's Protestants that they could no longer rely upon the Conservative party to maintain their Protestantism.

After the 1884 Reform Act in Liverpool, there had been an alliance between the so-called 'democratic' Conservative forces (personified by Archibald Salvidge, Chairman of the Liverpool Working Men's Conservative Association) and militant Protestantism, who joined in an 'anti-Ritualist crusade'. This burgeoning 'crusade' saw a convergence between 'grassroots' agitation against Ritualists (the rich, or 'aristocrats') within the Anglican Church and working-class demands for political representation within the local Conservative caucus. These demands were directed at the 'patrician' Liverpool Constitutional Association comprising ship-owners, brokers and merchants with wider horizons than mere 'Church issues'. This 'grassroots' Protestant indignation culminated in the triumph of Salvidge (dubbed the 'Lord High Dictator') and his distinctive brand of Protestant Tory Democracy and also empowered an aggressive strand of working-class Protestantism, which the Conservative political 'machine' proved unable to control.

This power struggle within the Protestant community centred upon who truly represented the 'bulwark' of the Protestant Reformation (1688), which was the bedrock of local communal, ethnic, and national identity, thus showing that, especially in Liverpool 'citizenship in the United Kingdom was informally, as well as constitutionally, defined by religion. Church and state were part of the one constitutional settlement of 1688' (Boyce).

During the Independent Protestant political revolt (1903-1905) 'grassroots' political aspirations in Liverpool were frustrated, resulting in the acrimonious unravelling of the democratic and militant Protestant strands within Tory Democracy. This loss of control was accompanied by escalating Protestant-Catholic violence as the Protestant Democracy resorted to the politics of the street in order to defend its interests. The period 1905-1911 saw continued interaction within the Protestant community between conventional political action and street mobilisation epitomised by the serious and bloody anti-Catholic riots of 1909. However both local and national developments were to erode aspects of Liverpool's 'exceptionalism'. Sustained violence during the city's 1911 Transport Strike aroused fears of 'social revolution', drawing the attention of Herbert Asquith's Liberal Government to street mobilisation seen as a contributory factor in the unrest. A subsequent peace conference resulted in a special Act of Parliament providing 'limited' police powers to regulate outdoor religious meetings and processions. The First World War continued to undermine parochialism and accelerated secularisation whilst local developments like mass interwar slum clearances resulted in the dismantling of the 'cultural and community infrastructure' of sectarianism. Additionally, the resolution of the Irish Question in 1921 witnessed the gradual decline of Irish Nationalism and the slow growth of the Labour Party.

This interaction between local factors and the direct encroachment of national political culture and identity witnessed the diminution in sectarian street mobilisation as a 'distinctive feature' of Liverpool's cultural and political identity. Consequently, by the interwar period sectarianism remained an important but no longer pivotal determinant of political allegiance within what remained a highly distinctive local context.


Competing and conflicting conceptions of 'Britishness' emerged during 1880-1921. These were the product of both evolution and attempts at imposition by the main Westminster political parties. As Boyce highlights the question of Irish Home Rule was 'the political issue of the age'. Consequently the Irish Question became an integral part of British political culture with Ulster Unionism and the Irish Nationalist Party inextricably tied to the two major British political parties, which endeavoured to absorb and contain the volatile forces they represented. John Bew has correctly acknowledged that the 'interaction between British and Irish politics and ideas' was crucial to the shaping of nineteenth-century Unionism. However, he describes the formation of the Unionist Party as 'necessarily reactive', as lacking in 'diversity of opinion' and increasingly dominated by the Orange Order. In contrast I would argue that from 1886 in Belfast Ulster Unionism explicitly recognised the liability posed by perceptions of 'Ulster bigotry' on the British mainland and embarked upon a strategy of containment and control of popular Protestant sectarianism as part of a process of adaptation to changing national norms and values.

In contrast, Liverpool remained in many respects an 'exception' within the increasingly secular British body politic with its 'peculiar' political culture continuing to be dominated by religion and ethnicity. Crucially, the decline in the Protestant dimension to Britishness was to generate intense sectarian conflict in that city, which was sustained by its marginality to mainstream political culture and identity. The gradual subsiding in sectarianism during the inter-war period was due to a combination of both national processes of secularisation and democratisation and to forms of direct Government intervention. In light of Prime Minister David Cameron's 'Big Society' agenda with its emphasis upon 'localism' and the shrinking of the role of central Government and the State, there is a real danger that this devolution of power to local institutions and associations may result in the entrenchment and political exploitation of long-standing local tensions and divisions (whether religious, ethnic or racial).

Consequently, the question today is whether the Westminster political establishment should directly intervene in local conflicts of identity and problems of social cohesion thereby drawing local community elites into mainstream British political culture and norms of behaviour or adopt a more neutral stance in the hope that entrenched community conflict can be resolved at the local level.

Liverpool and Belfast's experiences reveal that any Westminster initiative aimed at constructing an overarching and inclusive idea of 'Britishness' must take account of the internal dynamics of local community conflict. The extent to which the interaction between local community elites and national trends and political interventions is based upon a process of negotiation and accommodation as opposed to perceived imposition and alienation can ultimately determine whether community tensions can be effectively managed and contained or escalate into sustained conflict and violence.

Further Reading

Celia Applegate, 'Europe of Regions: reflections on the historiography of sub-national places in modern times,' American Historical Review 104, (1999)

John Belchem, Mersey Pride: essays in Liverpool exceptionalism (Liverpool, 2000)

Eugenio Biagini, British Democracy and Irish Nationalism 1876-1906 (Cambridge, 2007)

D. G. Boyce, The Irish Question and British Politics, 1868-1996 (second edition) (Basingstoke, 1996)

David Cannadine, Ornamentalism: How the British Saw Their Empire (London, New York, Victoria, Toronto, New Delhi, Auckland, Rosebank, 2001)

Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837 (New Haven and London, 2nd edn 2005)

Catherine Hall, Civilising Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination, 1830-1867 (Cambridge, Oxford, 2002)

Mary Hickman, The History of the Irish in Britain: A Bibliography (Irish in Britain History Centre, 1988)

James Loughlin, Ulster Unionism and British National Identity since 1885 (London and New York, 1995)

Alan O'Day, The Edwardian Age: Conflict and Stability 1900-14 (London and Basingstoke, 1979)


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