Newcastle Upon Tyne, Uk
Newcastle programme leave Scotland and head south, pausing in the city of Newcastle upon Tyne in the northeast corner of England.
As far as the dictionary is concerned, arguably Newcastle is most familiar thanks to the expression to take coals to Newcastle. Dating back to the early 1600s at least (although an alternative expression, as common as coals in Newcastle, is apparently even older), the phrase is one of a number of similar expressions alluding to a pointless folly or entirely superfluous activity. Newcastle is naturally so coal-rich, the expression advises, that taking any more there would be utterly and foolishly unnecessary.
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At the less familiar end of the scale, Newcastle hospitality is a nineteenth-century expression for what one 1893 dictionary of Northumberland Words defined as ‘roasting a friend to death’ – or what we might now call (in somewhat less dramatic words) ‘killing with kindness’.
And then, of course, there’s this:
Newcastle programme. (1894 on). Extreme promises, difficult of execution.
So how did the city of Newcastle come to be associated with promises that are impossible to keep?
In 1891, an annual conference of all Liberal Party associations in England and Wales was held in Newcastle upon Tyne, fronted by Liberal leader (and three-time former prime minister) William Gladstone. The centrepiece of the conference was an outlining, step by step, of all the Liberal Party’s political policies that they should look to implement should they win the following year’s general election. Among the raft of radical reforms included on the Liberal agenda were such forward-thinking policies as employers’ liability for workplace accidents; a reduction of factory working hours; free education; a reform of the House of Lords; the abolition of so-called ‘plural voting’ (which had hitherto allowed certain individuals to cast more than one electoral vote) and numerous changes to local district and parish councils. But of all the Liberal Party’s aims, of greatest significance was a resolution to establish Home Rule in Ireland.
The Newcastle Programme, as it became known, was ultimately akin to a modern party manifesto: the aims of the party were plainly itemised, giving the electorate a clear breakdown of all that they would seek to achieve, should the party win their vote. As an electioneering tactic, it was groundbreaking. In practice, it proved disastrous.
The 1892 general election ended with no party winning a clear majority, but Gladstone’s Liberals hugely increased their standing in the House of Commons by securing a total of eighty-one new seats. So with no outright winner, and with the incumbent Conservative prime minister, the Marquess of Salisbury, facing a vote of no confidence, Gladstone stepped up and engineered a minority parliament. His Liberal Party would rule with him installed as prime minister for a record fourth time – but the entire arrangement relied on the Irish
National Federation propping his government up, and affording him the seventy-two seats they themselves had secured.
Gladstone’s collaboration with the INF thrust his party’s promise to further home rule in Ireland into the political spotlight. But he had a problem: the House of Lords, the UK’s higher parliamentary chamber, still had a clear Conservative majority.
Gladstone’s party passed a Home Rule Bill for Ireland the following year, but when the bill was handed to the Lords for ratification, it was rejected. His government was quickly placed in stalemate.
With home rule for Ireland now its chief concern, many in Gladstone’s party – and many of those who supported it – now found their domestic concerns increasingly disregarded, at the expense of achieving the chief promise of the Newcastle Programme and thereby maintaining the support of the INF. The Conservative hold on the Lords, meanwhile, made the passing of any new Liberal policies all but impossible. Splits and factions began to emerge in the party, and as the entire situation calcified, Gladstone was compelled to resign in March 1894, less than two years after taking office. The following year, after an overwhelming defeat in the 1895 election, the Liberals’ Newcastle Programme of promises was abandoned.
Having proved all but impossible to keep, the name of the programme fell into use for a short time in turn-of-the-century slang, to refer to any promise or agreement that in practice proves unimplementable.
Newcastle has one more linguistic claim to fame on offer – for that story, we first need to travel a hundred and fifty miles south
This is just the latest in a long line of expressions along these lines, many of which date back into antiquity. Even the Ancient Greeks got in on the act: owls once roosted in such numbers in the Athenian Parthenon – and, as a symbol of Athena, were stamped on all the city’s coinage – that taking owls to Athens was a proverbial expression of superfluousness. Whether it was intended to refer to the coins or the actual birds themselves (or, for that matter, both) is impossible to say.
The Liberals secured a total of 272 parliamentary seats in 1892 election, compared to the 313 won by Salisbury’s Conservatives. At the time there were 670 seats available in the House of Commons, meaning a total of 336 was required to secure a parliamentary majority. By joining forces with the Irish National Federation and securing the support of its 72 seats, Gladstone both claimed his majority and his record fourth term as prime minister. Then aged eighty-two, he also became the oldest person in history to hold the office.
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