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Title: The Life of William Ewart Gladstone (Vol 3 of 3)

Author: John Morley

Release Date: March 20, 2010 [Ebook #31711]

Language: English

Character set encoding: UTF-8


The Life Of

William Ewart Gladstone


John Morley

In Three Volumes—Vol. III.



George N. Morang & Company, Limited

Copyright, 1903

By The Macmillan Company


[pg 001]

Book VIII. 1880-1885

Chapter I. Opening Days Of The New Parliament. (1880)

Il y a bien du factice dans le classement politique des hommes.

There is plenty of what is purely artificial in the political classification of men.


On May 20, after eight-and-forty years of strenuous public life, Mr. Gladstone met his twelfth parliament, and the second in which he had been chief minister of the crown. “At 4.15,” he records, “I went down to the House with Herbert. There was a great and fervent crowd in Palace Yard, and much feeling in the House. It almost overpowered me, as I thought by what deep and hidden agencies I have been brought back into the midst of the vortex of political action and contention. It has not been in my power during these last six months to have made notes, as I would have wished, of my own thoughts and observations from time to time; of the new access of strength which in some important respects has been administered to me in my old age; and of the remarkable manner in which Holy Scripture has been applied to me for admonition and for comfort. Looking calmly on this course of experience, I do believe that the Almighty has employed me for His purposes in a manner larger or more special than before, and has strengthened me and led me on accordingly, though I must not forget the [pg 002] admirable saying of Hooker, that even ministers of good things are like torches, a light to others, waste and destruction to themselves.”

One who approached his task in such a spirit as this was at least impregnable to ordinary mortifications, and it was well; for before many days were over it became perceptible that the new parliament and the new majority would be no docile instrument of ministerial will. An acute chill followed the discovery that there was to be no recall of Frere or Layard. Very early in its history Speaker Brand, surveying his flock from the august altitude of the Chair with an acute, experienced, and friendly eye, made up his mind that the liberal party were “not only strong, but determined to have their own way in spite of Mr. Gladstone. He has a difficult team to drive.” Two men of striking character on the benches opposite quickly became formidable. Lord Randolph Churchill headed a little group of four tories, and Mr. Parnell a resolute band of five and thirty Irishmen, with momentous results both for ministers and for the House of Commons.

No more capable set of ruling men were ever got together than the cabinet of 1880; no men who better represented the leading elements in the country, in all their variety and strength. The great possessors of land were there, and the heirs of long governing tradition were there; the industrious and the sedate of the middle classes found their men seated at the council board, by the side of others whose keen-sighted ambition sought sources of power in the ranks of manual toil; the church saw one of the most ardent of her sons upon the woolsack, and the most illustrious of them in the highest place of all; the people of the chapel beheld with complacency the rising man of the future in one who publicly boasted an unbroken line of nonconformist descent. They were all men well trained in the habits of business, of large affairs, and in experience of English life; they were all in spite of difference of shade genuinely liberal; and they all professed a devoted loyalty to their chief. The incident of the resolutions on the eastern question1 was effaced from all [pg 003]

The Cabinet A Coalition

memories, and men who in those days had assured themselves that there was no return from Elba, became faithful marshals of the conquering hero. Mediocrity in a long-lived cabinet in the earlier part of the century was the object of Disraeli's keenest mockery. Still a slight ballast of mediocrity in a government steadies the ship and makes for unity—a truth, by the way, that Mr. Disraeli himself, in forming governments, sometimes conspicuously put in practice.

In fact Mr. Gladstone found that the ministry of which he stood at the head was a coalition, and what was more, a coalition of that vexatious kind, where those who happened not to agree sometimes seemed to be almost as well pleased with contention as with harmony. The two sections were not always divided by differences of class or station, for some of the peers in the cabinet often showed as bold a liberalism as any of the commoners. This notwithstanding, it happened on more than one critical occasion, that all the peers plus Lord Hartington were on one side, and all the commoners on the other. Lord Hartington was in many respects the lineal successor of Palmerston in his coolness on parliamentary reform, in his inclination to stand in the old ways, in his extreme suspicion of what savoured of sentiment or idealism or high-flown profession. But he was a Palmerston who respected Mr. Gladstone, and desired to work faithfully under him, instead of being a Palmerston who always intended to keep the upper hand of him. Confronting Lord Hartington was Mr. Chamberlain, eager, intrepid, self-reliant, alert, daring, with notions about property, taxation, land, schools, popular rights, that he expressed with a plainness and pungency of speech that had never been heard from a privy councillor and cabinet minister before, that exasperated opponents, startled the whigs, and brought him hosts of adherents among radicals out of doors. It was at a very early stage in the existence of the government, that this important man said to an ally in the cabinet, “I don't see how we are to get on, if Mr. Gladstone goes.” And here was the key to many leading incidents, both during the life of this administration and for the eventful year in Mr. Gladstone's career that followed its demise.

[pg 004]

The Duke of Argyll, who resigned very early, wrote to Mr. Gladstone after the government was overthrown (Dec. 18, 1885), urging him in effect to side definitely with the whigs against the radicals:—

From the moment our government was fairly under way, I saw and felt that speeches outside were allowed to affect opinion, and politically to commit the cabinet in a direction which was not determined by you deliberately, or by the government as a whole, but by the audacity ... of our new associates. Month by month I became more and more uncomfortable, feeling that there was no paramount direction—nothing but slip and slide, what the Scotch call slithering. The outside world, knowing your great gifts and powers, assume that you are dictator in your own cabinet. And in one sense you are so, that is to say, that when you choose to put your foot down, others will give way. But your amiability to colleagues, your even extreme gentleness towards them, whilst it has always endeared you to them personally, has enabled men playing their own game ... to take out of your hands the formation of opinion.

On a connected aspect of the same thing, Mr. Gladstone wrote to Lord Rosebery (Sept. 16, 1880):—

... All this is too long to bore people with—and yet it is not so long, nor so interesting, as one at least of the subjects which we just touched in conversation at Mentmore; the future of politics, and the food they offer to the mind. What is outside parliament seems to me to be fast mounting, nay to have already mounted, to an importance much exceeding what is inside. Parliament deals with laws, and branches of the social tree, not with the root. I always admired Mrs. Grote's saying that politics and theology were the only two really great subjects; it was wonderful considering the atmosphere in which she had lived. I do not doubt which of the two she would have put in the first place; and to theology I have no doubt she would have given a wide sense, as including everything that touches the relation between the seen and the unseen.

What is curious to note is that, though Mr. Gladstone in making his cabinet had thrown the main weight against [pg 005]

Character As Head Of The Cabinet

the radicals, yet when they got to work, it was with them he found himself more often than not in energetic agreement. In common talk and in partisan speeches, the prime minister was regarded as dictatorial and imperious. The complaint of some at least among his colleagues in the cabinet of 1880 was rather that he was not imperious enough. Almost from the first he too frequently allowed himself to be over-ruled; often in secondary matters, it is true, but sometimes also in matters on the uncertain frontier between secondary and primary. Then he adopted a practice of taking votes and counting numbers, of which more than one old hand complained as an innovation. Lord Granville said to him in 1886, “I think you too often counted noses in your last cabinet.”

What Mr. Gladstone described as the severest fight that he had ever known in any cabinet occurred in 1883, upon the removal of the Duke of Wellington's statue from Hyde Park Corner. A vote took place, and three times over he took down the names. He was against removal, but was unable to have his own way over the majority. Members of the government thought themselves curiously free to walk out from divisions. On a Transvaal division two members of the cabinet abstained, and so did two other ministers out of the cabinet. In other cases, the same thing happened, not only breaking discipline, but breeding much trouble with the Queen. Then an unusual number of men of ability and of a degree of self-esteem not below their ability, had been left out of the inner circle; and they and their backers were sometimes apt to bring their pretensions rather fretfully forward. These were the things that to Mr. Gladstone's temperament proved more harassing than graver concerns.


All through the first two months of its business, the House showed signs of independence that almost broke the spirit of the ministerial whips. A bill about hares and rabbits produced lively excitement, ministerialists moved amendments upon the measure of their own leaders, and the minister in charge boldly taxed the mutineers with insincerity. [pg 006] A motion for local option was carried by 229 to 203, both Mr. Gladstone and Lord Hartington in the minority. On a motion about clerical restrictions, only a strong and conciliatory appeal from the prime minister averted defeat. A more remarkable demonstration soon followed. The Prince Imperial, unfortunate son of unfortunate sire, who had undergone his famous baptism of fire in the first reverses among the Vosges in the Franco-German war of 1870, was killed in our war in Zululand. Parliament was asked to sanction a vote of money for a memorial of him in the Abbey. A radical member brought forward a motion against it. Both Mr. Gladstone and Sir Stafford Northcote resisted him, yet by a considerable majority the radical carried his point. The feeling was so strong among the ministerialists, that notwithstanding Mr. Gladstone's earnest exhortation, they voted almost to a man against him, and he only carried into the lobby ten official votes on the treasury bench.

The great case in which the government were taken to have missed the import of the election was the failure to recall Sir Bartle Frere from South Africa. Of this I shall have enough to say by and by. Meanwhile it gave an undoubted shock to the confidence of the party, and their energetic remonstrance on this head strained Mr. Gladstone's authority to the uttermost. The Queen complained of the tendency of the House of Commons to trench upon the business of the executive. Mr. Gladstone said in reply generally, that no doubt within the half century “there had been considerable invasion by the House of Commons of the province assigned by the constitution to the executive,” but he perceived no increase in recent times or in the present House. Then he proceeded (June 8, 1880):—

... Your Majesty may possibly have in view the pressure which has been exercised on the present government in the case of Sir Bartle Frere. But apart from the fact that this pressure represents a feeling which extends far beyond the walls of parliament, your Majesty may probably remember that, in the early part of 1835, the House of Commons addressed the crown against the appointment of Lord Londonderry to be ambassador at St. Petersburg, on [pg 007]
An Independent House Of Commons
account, if Mr. Gladstone remembers rightly, of a general antecedent disapproval. This was an exercise of power going far beyond what has happened now; nor does it seem easy in principle to place the conduct of Sir B. Frere beyond that general right of challenge and censure which is unquestionably within the function of parliament and especially of the House of Commons.

In the field where mastery had never failed him, Mr. Gladstone achieved an early success, and he lost no time in justifying his assumption of the exchequer. The budget (June 10) was marked by the boldness of former days, and was explained and defended in one of those statements of which he alone possessed the secret. Even unfriendly witnesses agreed that it was many years since the House of Commons had the opportunity of enjoying so extraordinary an intellectual treat, where “novelties assumed the air of indisputable truths, and complicated figures were woven into the thread of intelligible and animated narrative.” He converted the malt tax into a beer duty, reduced the duties on light foreign wines, added a penny to the income tax, and adjusted the licence duties for the sale of alcoholic liquors. Everybody said that “none but a cordon bleu could have made such a sauce with so few materials.” The dish was excellently received, and the ministerial party were in high spirits. The conservatives stood angry and amazed that their own leaders had found no device for the repeal of the malt duty. The farmer's friends, they cried, had been in office for six years and had done nothing; no sooner is Gladstone at the exchequer than with magic wand he effects a transformation, and the long-suffering agriculturist has justice and relief.

In the course of an effort that seemed to show full vigour of body and mind, Mr. Gladstone incidentally mentioned that when a new member he recollected hearing a speech upon the malt tax in the old House of Commons in the year 1833. Yet the lapse of nearly half a century of life in that great arena had not relaxed his stringent sense of parliamentary duty. During most of the course of this first session, he was always early in his place and always left late. In every discussion [pg 008] he came to the front, and though an under-secretary made the official reply, it was the prime minister who wound up. One night he made no fewer than six speeches, touching all the questions raised in a miscellaneous night's sitting.

In the middle of the summer Mr. Gladstone fell ill. Consternation reigned in London. It even exceeded the dismay caused by the defeat at Maiwand. A friend went to see him as he lay in bed. “He talked most of the time, not on politics, but on Shakespeare's Henry viii., and the decay of theological study at Oxford. He never intended his reform measure to produce this result.” After his recovery, he went for a cruise in the Grantully Castle, not returning to parliament until September 4, three days before the session ended, when he spoke with all his force on the eastern question.


In the electoral campaign Mr. Gladstone had used expressions about Austria that gave some offence at Vienna. On coming into power he volunteered an assurance to the Austrian ambassador that he would willingly withdraw his language if he understood that he had misapprehended the circumstances. The ambassador said that Austria meant strictly to observe the treaty of Berlin. Mr. Gladstone then expressed his regret for the words “of a painful and wounding character” that had fallen from him. At the time, he explained, he was “in a position of greater freedom and less responsibility.”

At the close of the session of 1880, ministers went to work upon the unfulfilled portions of the Berlin treaty relating to Greece and Montenegro. Those stipulations were positive in the case of Montenegro; as to Greece they were less definite, but they absolutely implied a cession of more or less territory by Turkey. They formed the basis of Lord Salisbury's correspondence, but his arguments and representations were without effect.

Mr. Gladstone and his colleagues went further. They proposed and obtained a demonstration off the Albanian coast on behalf of Montenegro. Each great Power sent a man-of-war, but the concert of Europe instantly became what [pg 009]

Naval Demonstration

Mr. Gladstone called a farce, for Austria and Germany made known that under no circumstances would they fire a shot. France rather less prominently took the same course. This defection, which was almost boastful on the part of Austria and Germany, convinced the British cabinet that Turkish obduracy would only be overcome by force, and the question was how to apply force effectually with the least risk to peace. As it happened, the port of Smyrna received an amount of customs' duties too considerable for the Porte to spare it. The idea was that the united fleet at Cattaro should straightway sail to Smyrna and lay hold upon it. The cabinet, with experts from the two fighting departments, weighed carefully all the military responsibilities, and considered the sequestration of the customs' dues at Smyrna to be practicable. Russia and Italy were friendly. France had in a certain way assumed special cognisance of the Greek case, but did nothing particular. From Austria and Germany nothing was to be hoped. On October 4, the Sultan refused the joint European request for the fulfilment of the engagements entered into at Berlin. This refusal was despatched in ignorance of the intention to coerce. The British government had only resolved upon coercion in concert with Europe. Full concert was now out of the question. But on the morning of Sunday, the 10th, Mr. Gladstone and Lord Granville learned with as much surprise as delight from Mr. Goschen, then ambassador extraordinary at Constantinople, that the Sultan had heard of the British proposal of force, and apparently had not heard of the two refusals. On learning how far England had gone, he determined to give way on both the territorial questions. As Mr. Gladstone enters in his diary, “a faint tinge of doubt remained.” That is to say, the Sultan might find out the rift in the concert and retract. Russia, however, had actually agreed to force. On Tuesday, the 12th, Mr. Gladstone, meeting Lord Granville and another colleague, was “under the circumstances prepared to proceed en trois.” The other two “rather differed.” Of course it would have been for the whole cabinet to decide. But between eleven and twelve Lord Granville came in with the news that the note had arrived and all was well. “The whole of this extraordinary [pg 010] volte-face,” as Mr. Gladstone said with some complacency, “had been effected within six days; and it was entirely due not to a threat of coercion from Europe, but to the knowledge that Great Britain had asked Europe to coerce.” Dulcigno was ceded by the Porte to Montenegro. On the Greek side of the case, the minister for once was less ardent than for the complete triumph of his heroic Montenegrins, but after tedious negotiations Mr. Gladstone had the satisfaction of seeing an important rectification of the Greek frontier, almost restoring his Homeric Greece. The eastern question looked as if it might fall into one of its fitful slumbers once more, but we shall soon see that this was illusory. Mr. Goschen left Constantinople in May, and the prime minister said to him (June 3, 1881):—

I write principally for the purpose of offering you my hearty congratulations on the place you have taken in diplomacy by force of mind and character, and on the services which, in thus far serving the most honourable aims a man can have, you have rendered to liberty and humanity.

Only in Afghanistan was there a direct reversal of the policy of the fallen government. The new cabinet were not long in deciding on a return to the older policy in respect of the north-west frontier of India. All that had happened since it had been abandoned, strengthened the case against the new departure. The policy that had been pursued amid so many lamentable and untoward circumstances, including the destruction of a very gallant agent of England at Cabul, had involved the incorporation of Candahar within the sphere of the Indian system. Mr. Gladstone and his cabinet determined on the evacuation of Candahar. The decision was made public in the royal speech of the following January (1881). Lord Hartington stated the case of the government with masterly and crushing force, in a speech,2 which is no less than a strong text-book of the whole argument, if any reader should now desire to comprehend it. The evacuation was censured in the Lords by 165 against 79; in the Commons ministers carried the day by a majority of 120.

[pg 011]

Chapter II. An Episode In Toleration. (1880-1883)

The state, in choosing men to serve it, takes no notice of their opinions; if they be willing faithfully to serve it, that satisfies. ... Take heed of being sharp, or too easily sharpened by others, against those to whom you can object little but that they square not with you in every opinion concerning matters of religion.

Oliver Cromwell.


One discordant refrain rang hoarsely throughout the five years of this administration, and its first notes were heard even before Mr. Gladstone had taken his seat. It drew him into a controversy that was probably more distasteful to him than any other of the myriad contentions, small and great, with which his life was encumbered. Whether or not he threaded his way with his usual skill through a labyrinth of parliamentary tactics incomparably intricate, experts may dispute, but in an ordeal beyond the region of tactics he never swerved from the path alike of liberty and common-sense. It was a question of exacting the oath of allegiance before a member could take his seat.

Mr. Bradlaugh, the new member for Northampton, who now forced the question forward, as O'Connell had forced forward the civil equality of catholics, and Rothschild and others the civil equality of Jews, was a free-thinker of a daring and defiant type. Blank negation could go no further. He had abundant and genuine public spirit, and a strong love of truth according to his own lights, and he was both a brave and a disinterested man. This hard-grit secularism of his was not the worst of his offences in the view of the new majority and their constituents. He had published an impeachment of the House of Brunswick, [pg 012] which few members of parliament had ever heard of or looked at. But even abstract republicanism was not the worst. What placed him at extreme disadvantage in fighting the battle in which he was now engaged, was his republication of a pamphlet by an American doctor on that impracticable question of population, which though too rigorously excluded from public discussion, confessedly lies among the roots of most other social questions. For this he had some years before been indicted in the courts, and had only escaped conviction and punishment by a technicality. It was Mr. Bradlaugh's refusal to take the oath in a court of justice that led to the law of 1869, enabling a witness to affirm instead of swearing. He now carried the principle a step further.

When the time came, the Speaker (April 29) received a letter from the iconoclast, claiming to make an affirmation, instead of taking the oath of allegiance.3 He consulted his legal advisers, and they gave an opinion strongly adverse to the claim. On this the Speaker wrote to Mr. Gladstone and to Sir Stafford Northcote, stating his concurrence in the opinion of the lawyers, and telling them that he should leave the question to the House. His practical suggestion was that on his statement being made, a motion should be proposed for a select committee. The committee was duly appointed, and it reported by a majority of one, against a minority that contained names so weighty as Sir Henry James, Herschell, Whitbread, and Bright, that the claim to affirm was not a good claim. So opened a series of incidents that went on as long as the parliament, clouded the radiance of the party triumph, threw the new government at once into a minority, dimmed the ascendency of the great minister, and what was more, showed human nature at its worst. The incidents themselves are in detail not worth recalling here, but they are a striking episode in the history of toleration, as well as a landmark in Mr. Gladstone's journey from the day five-and-forty years before when, in [pg 013]

The Bradlaugh Case

reference to Molesworth as candidate for Leeds, he had told his friends at Newark that men who had no belief in divine revelation were not the men to govern this nation whether they be whigs or radicals.4

His claim to affirm having been rejected, Bradlaugh next desired to swear. The ministerial whip reported that the feeling against him in the House was uncontrollable. The Speaker held a council in his library with Mr. Gladstone, the law officers, the whip, and two or three other persons of authority and sense. He told them that if Bradlaugh had in the first instance come to take the oath, he should have allowed no intervention, but that the case was altered by the claimant's open declaration that an oath was not binding on his conscience. A hostile motion was expected when Bradlaugh came to the table to be sworn, and the Speaker suggested that it should be met by the previous question, to be moved by Mr. Gladstone. Then the whip broke in with the assurance that the usual supporters of the government could not be relied upon. The Speaker went upstairs to dress, and on his return found that they had agreed on moving another select committee. He told them that he thought this a weak course, but if the previous question would be defeated, perhaps a committee could not be helped. Bradlaugh came to the table, and the hostile motion was made. Mr. Gladstone proposed his committee, and carried it by a good majority against the motion that Bradlaugh, being without religious belief, could not take an oath. The debate was warm, and the attacks on Bradlaugh were often gross. The Speaker honourably pointed out that such attacks on an elected member whose absence was enforced by their own order, were unfair and unbecoming, but the feelings of the House were too strong for him and too strong for chivalry. The opposition turned affairs to ignoble party account, and were not ashamed in their prints and elsewhere to level the charge of “open patronage of unbelief and Malthusianism, Bradlaugh and Blasphemy,” against a government that contained Gladstone, Bright, and Selborne, three of the most conspicuously devout men to be found in all England. One [pg 014] expression of faith used by a leader in the attack on Bradlaugh lived in Mr. Gladstone's memory to the end of his days. “You know, Mr. Speaker,” cried the champion of orthodox creeds, “we all of us believe in a God of some sort or another.” That a man should consent to clothe the naked human soul in this truly singular and scanty remnant of spiritual apparel, was held to be the unalterable condition of fitness for a seat in parliament and the company of decent people. Well might Mr. Gladstone point out how vast a disparagement of Christianity, and of orthodox theism also, was here involved:—

They say this, that you may go any length you please in the denial of religion, provided only you do not reject the name of the Deity. They tear religion into shreds, so to speak, and say that there is one particular shred with which nothing will ever induce them to part. They divide religion into the dispensable and the indispensable, and among that kind which can be dispensed with—I am not now speaking of those who declare, or are admitted, under a special law, I am not speaking of Jews or those who make a declaration, I am speaking solely of those for whom no provision is made except the provision of oath—they divide, I say, religion into what can and what cannot be dispensed with. There is something, however, that cannot be dispensed with. I am not willing, Sir, that Christianity, if the appeal is made to us as a Christian legislature, shall stand in any rank lower than that which is indispensable. I may illustrate what I mean. Suppose a commander has to despatch a small body of men on an expedition on which it is necessary for them to carry on their backs all that they can take with them; the men will part with everything that is unnecessary, and take only that which is essential. That is the course you ask us to take in drawing us upon theological ground; you require us to distinguish between superfluities and necessaries, and you tell us that Christianity is one of the superfluities, one of the excrescences, and has nothing to do with the vital substance, the name of the Deity, which is indispensable. I say that the adoption of such a proposition as that, which is in reality at the very root of your contention, is disparaging in the very highest degree to the Christian faith....5
[pg 015]

On Theistic Tests

Even viewed as a theistic test, he contended, this oath embraced no acknowledgment of Providence, of divine government, of responsibility, or retribution; it involved nothing but a bare and abstract admission, a form void of all practical meaning and concern.

The House, however, speedily showed how inaccessible were most of its members to reason and argument of this kind or any kind. On June 21, Mr. Gladstone thus described the proceedings to the Queen. “With the renewal of the discussion,” he wrote, “the temper of the House does not improve, both excitement and suspicion appearing to prevail in different quarters.” A motion made by Mr. Bradlaugh's colleague that he should be permitted to affirm, was met by a motion that he should not be allowed either to affirm or to swear.

To the Queen.

Many warm speeches were made by the opposition in the name of religion; to those Mr. Bright has warmly replied in the name of religious liberty. The contention on the other side really is that as to a certain ill-defined fragment of truth the House is still, under the Oaths Act, the guardian of religion. The primary question, whether the House has jurisdiction under the statute, is almost hopelessly mixed with the question whether an atheist, who has declared himself an atheist, ought to sit in parliament. Mr. Gladstone's own view is that the House has no jurisdiction for the purpose of excluding any one willing to qualify when he has been duly elected; but he is very uncertain how the House will vote or what will be the end of the business, if the House undertakes the business of exclusion.

June 22.—The House of Commons has been occupied from the commencement of the evening until a late hour with the adjourned debate on the case of Mr. Bradlaugh. The divided state of opinion in the House made itself manifest throughout the evening. Mr. Newdegate made a speech which turned almost wholly upon the respective merits of theism and atheism. Mr. Gladstone thought it his duty to advise the House to beware of entangling itself in difficulties possibly of a serious character, by assuming a jurisdiction in cases of this class.

[pg 016]

At one o'clock in the morning, the first great division was taken, and the House resolved by 275 votes against 230 that Mr. Bradlaugh should neither affirm nor swear. The excitement at this result was tremendous. Some minutes elapsed before the Speaker could declare the numbers. Indeed, wrote Mr. Gladstone to the Queen, it was an ecstatic transport, and exceeded anything which Mr. Gladstone remembers to have witnessed. He read in it only a witness to the dangers of the course on which the House has entered, and to its unfitness for the office which it has rashly chosen to assume. He might also have read in it, if he had liked, the exquisite delight of the first stroke of revenge for Midlothian.

The next day (June 23) the matter entered on a more violent phase.

To the Queen.

This day, when the Speaker took the chair at a quarter past twelve, Mr. Bradlaugh came to the table and claimed to take the oath. The Speaker read to him the resolution of the House which forbids it. Mr. Bradlaugh asked to be heard, and no objection was taken. He then addressed the House from the bar. His address was that of a consummate speaker. But it was an address which could not have any effect unless the House had undergone a complete revolution of mind. He challenged the legality of the act of the House, expressing hereby an opinion in which Mr. Gladstone himself, going beyond some other members of the minority, has the misfortune to lean towards agreeing with him.... The Speaker now again announced to Mr. Bradlaugh the resolution of the House. Only a small minority voted against enforcing it. Mr. Bradlaugh declining to withdraw, was removed by the serjeant-at-arms. Having suffered this removal, he again came beyond the bar, and entered into what was almost a corporal struggle with the serjeant. Hereupon Sir S. Northcote moved that Mr. Bradlaugh be committed for his offence. Mr. Gladstone said that while he thought it did not belong to him, under the circumstances of the case, to advise the House, he could take no objection to the advice thus given.

The Speaker, it may be said, thought this view of [pg 017]

The Bradlaugh Case

Mr. Gladstone's a mistake, and that when Bradlaugh refused to withdraw, the leader of the House ought, as a matter of policy, to have been the person to move first the order to withdraw, next the committal to the custody of the serjeant-at-arms. “I was placed in a false position,” says the Speaker, “and so was the House, in having to follow the lead of the leader of the opposition, while the leader of the House and the great majority were passive spectators.”6 As Mr. Gladstone and other members of the government voted for Bradlaugh's committal, on the ground that his resistance to the serjeant had nothing to do with the establishment of his rights before either a court or his constituency, it would seem that the Speaker's complaint is not unjust. To this position, however, Mr. Gladstone adhered, in entire conformity apparently to the wishes of the keenest members of his cabinet and the leading men of his party.

The Speaker wrote to Sir Stafford Northcote urging on him the propriety of allowing Bradlaugh to take the oath without question. But Northcote was forced on against his better judgment by his more ardent supporters. It was a strange and painful situation, and the party system assuredly did not work at its best—one leading man forced on to mischief by the least responsible of his sections, the other held back from providing a cure by the narrowest of the other sections. In the April of 1881 Mr. Gladstone gave notice of a bill providing for affirmation, but it was immediately apparent that the opposition would make the most of every obstacle to a settlement, and the proposal fell through. In August of this year the Speaker notes, “The difficulties in the way of settling this question satisfactorily are great, and in the present temper of the House almost insuperable.”


It is not necessary to recount all the stages of this protracted struggle: what devices and expedients and motions, how many odious scenes of physical violence, how many hard-fought actions in the lawcourts, how many conflicts [pg 018] between the House of Commons and the constituency, what glee and rubbing of hands in the camp of the opposition at having thrust their rivals deep into a quagmire so unpleasant. The scandal was intolerable, but ministers were helpless, as a marked incident now demonstrated. It was not until 1883 that a serious attempt was made to change the law. The Affirmation bill of that year has a biographic place, because it marks in a definite way how far Mr. Gladstone's mind—perhaps not, as I have said before, by nature or by instinct peculiarly tolerant—had travelled along one of the grand highroads of human progress. The occasion was for many reasons one of great anxiety. Here are one or two short entries, the reader remembering that by this time the question was two years old:—

April 24, Tuesday.—On Sunday night a gap of three hours in my sleep was rather ominous; but it was not repeated.... Saw the Archbishop of Canterbury, with whom I had a very long conversation on the Affirmation bill and on Church and State. Policy generally as well as on special subjects.... Globe Theatre in the evening; excellent acting.... 25.... Worked on Oaths question.... 26.... Made a long and begeistert7 speech on the Affirmation bill, taking the bull by the horns.

His speech upon this measure was a noble effort. It was delivered under circumstances of unsurpassed difficulty, for there was revolt in the party, the client was repugnant, the opinions brought into issue were to Mr. Gladstone hateful. Yet the speech proved one of his greatest. Imposing, lofty, persuasive, sage it would have been, from whatever lips it might have fallen; it was signal indeed as coming from one so fervid, so definite, so unfaltering in a faith of his own, one who had started from the opposite pole to that great civil principle of which he now displayed a grasp invincible. If it be true of a writer that the best style is that which most directly flows from living qualities in the writer's own mind and is a pattern of their actual working, so is the same thing to be said of oratory. These high themes of Faith, on the one hand, and Freedom on the [pg 019]

Speech On Affirmation Bill

other, exactly fitted the range of the thoughts in which Mr. Gladstone habitually lived. “I have no fear of Atheism in this House,” he said; “Truth is the expression of the Divine mind, and however little our feeble vision may be able to discern the means by which God may provide for its preservation, we may leave the matter in His hands, and we may be sure that a firm and courageous application of every principle of equity and of justice is the best method we can adopt for the preservation and influence of Truth.” This was Mr. Gladstone at his sincerest and his highest. I wonder, too, if there has been a leader in parliament since the seventeenth century, who could venture to address it in the strain of the memorable passage now to be transcribed:—

You draw your line at the point where the abstract denial of God is severed from the abstract admission of the Deity. My proposition is that the line thus drawn is worthless, and that much on your side of the line is as objectionable as the atheism on the other. If you call upon us to make distinctions, let them at least be rational; I do not say let them be Christian distinctions, but let them be rational. I can understand one rational distinction, that you should frame the oath in such a way as to recognise not only the existence of the Deity, but the providence of the Deity, and man's responsibility to the Deity; and in such a way as to indicate the knowledge in a man's own mind that he must answer to the Deity for what he does, and is able to do. But is that your present rule? No, Sir, you know very well that from ancient times there have been sects and schools that have admitted in the abstract as freely as Christians the existence of a Deity, but have held that of practical relations between Him and man there can be none. Many of the members of this House will recollect the majestic and noble lines—

Omnis enim per se divom natura necesse est
Immortali ævo summa cum pace fruatur,
Semota a nostris rebus sejunctaque longe.
Nam privata dolore omni, privata periclis,
Ipsa suis pollens opibus, nihil indiga nostri,
Nec bene promeritis capitur, nec tangitur ira.8
[pg 020]

Divinity exists—according to these, I must say, magnificent lines—in remote and inaccessible recesses; but with, us it has no dealing, of us it has no need, with us it has no relation. I do not hesitate to say that the specific evil, the specific form of irreligion, with which in the educated society of this country you have to contend, and with respect to which you ought to be on your guard, is not blank atheism. That is a rare opinion very seldom met with; but what is frequently met with is that form of opinion which would teach us that, whatever may be beyond the visible things of this world, whatever there may be beyond this short span of life, you know and you can know nothing of it, and that it is a bootless undertaking to attempt to establish relations with it. That is the mischief of the age, and that mischief you do not attempt to touch.

The House, though but few perhaps recollected their Lucretius or had ever even read him, sat, as I well remember, with reverential stillness, hearkening from this born master of moving cadence and high sustained modulation to “the rise and long roll of the hexameter,”—to the plangent lines that have come down across the night of time to us from great Rome. But all these impressions of sublime feeling and strong reasoning were soon effaced by honest bigotry, by narrow and selfish calculation, by flat cowardice. The relieving bill was cast out by a majority of three. The catholics in the main voted against it, and many nonconformists, hereditary champions of all the rights of private judgment, either voted against it or did not vote at all. So soon in these affairs, as the world has long ago found out, do bodies of men forget in a day of power the maxims that they held sacred and inviolable in days when they were weak.

The drama did not end here. In that parliament Bradlaugh was never allowed to discharge his duty as a member, but when after the general election of 1885, being once more chosen by Northampton, he went to the table to take the oath, as in former days Mill and others of like non-theologic complexion had taken it, the Speaker would suffer no intervention against him. Then in 1888, though the majority was conservative, Bradlaugh himself secured the passing of an affirmation [pg 021]

End Of The Struggle

law. Finally, in the beginning of 1891, upon the motion of a Scotch member, supported by Mr. Gladstone, the House formally struck out from its records the resolution of June 22, 1881, that had been passed, as we have seen, amid “ecstatic transports.” Bradlaugh then lay upon his deathbed, and was unconscious of what had been done. Mr. Gladstone a few days later, in moving a bill of his own to discard a lingering case of civil disability attached to religious profession, made a last reference to Mr. Bradlaugh:—

A distinguished man, he said, and admirable member of this House, was laid yesterday in his mother-earth. He was the subject of a long controversy in this House—a controversy the beginning of which we recollect, and the ending of which we recollect. We remember with what zeal it was prosecuted; we remember how summarily it was dropped; we remember also what reparation has been done within the last few days to the distinguished man who was the immediate object of that controversy. But does anybody who hears me believe that that controversy, so prosecuted and so abandoned, was beneficial to the Christian religion?9
[pg 022]

Chapter III. Majuba. (1880-1881)

εἰς ἀπέραντον δίκτυον ἄτης
ἐμπλεχθήσεσθ᾽ ὑπ᾽ ἀνοίας.

—Æsch. Prom. 1078.

In a boundless coil of mischief pure senselessness will entangle you.


It would almost need the pen of Tacitus or Dante to tell the story of European power in South Africa. For forty years, said Mr. Gladstone in 1881, “I have always regarded the South African question as the one great unsolved and perhaps insoluble problem of our colonial system.” Among the other legacies of the forward policy that the constituencies had decisively condemned in 1880, this insoluble problem rapidly became acute and formidable.

One of the great heads of impeachment in Midlothian had been a war undertaken in 1878-9 against a fierce tribe on the borders of the colony of Natal. The author and instrument of the Zulu war was Sir Bartle Frere, a man of tenacious character and grave and lofty if ill-calculated aims. The conservative government, as I have already said,10 without enthusiasm assented, and at one stage they even formally censured him. When Mr. Gladstone acceded to office, the expectation was universal that Sir Bartle would be at once recalled. At the first meeting of the new cabinet (May 3) it was decided to retain him. The prime minister at first was his marked protector. The substantial reason against recall was that his presence was needed to carry out the policy of confederation, and towards confederation it was hoped that the Cape parliament was immediately about to take [pg 023]

Recall Of Sir Bartle Frere

a long preliminary step. “Confederation,” Mr. Gladstone said, “is the pole-star of the present action of our government.” In a few weeks, for a reason that will be mentioned in treating the second episode of this chapter, confederation broke down. A less substantial but still not wholly inoperative reason was the strong feeling of the Queen for the high commissioner. The royal prepossessions notwithstanding, and in spite of the former leanings of Mr. Gladstone, the cabinet determined, at the end of July, that Sir Bartle should be recalled. The whole state of the case is made sufficiently clear in the two following communications from the prime minister to the Queen:—

To the Queen.

May 28, 1880.—Mr. Gladstone presents his humble duty, and has had the honour to receive your Majesty's telegram respecting Sir B. Frere. Mr. Gladstone used on Saturday his best efforts to avert a movement for his dismissal, which it was intended by a powerful body of members on the liberal side to promote by a memorial to Mr. Gladstone, and by a motion in the House. He hopes that he has in some degree succeeded, and he understands that it is to be decided on Monday whether they will at present desist or persevere. Of course no sign will be given by your Majesty's advisers which could tend to promote perseverance, at the same time Mr. Gladstone does not conceal from himself two things: the first, that the only chance of Sir B. Frere's remaining seems to depend upon his ability to make progress in the matter of confederation; the second, that if the agitation respecting him in the House, the press, and the country should continue, confidence in him may be so paralysed as to render his situation intolerable to a high-minded man and to weaken his hands fatally for any purpose of good.

July 29, 1880.—It was not without some differences of opinion among themselves that, upon their accession to office, the cabinet arrived at the conclusion that, if there was a prospect of progress in the great matter of confederation, this might afford a ground of co-operation between them and Sir B. Frere, notwithstanding the strong censures which many of them in opposition had pronounced [pg 024] upon his policy. This conclusion gave the liveliest satisfaction to a large portion, perhaps to the majority, of the House of Commons; but they embraced it with the more satisfaction because of your Majesty's warm regard for Sir B. Frere, a sentiment which some among them personally share.

It was evident, however, and it was perhaps in the nature of the case, that a confidence thus restricted was far from agreeable to Sir B. Frere, who, in the opinion of Mr. Gladstone, has only been held back by a commendable self-restraint and sense of duty, from declaring himself aggrieved. Thus, though the cabinet have done the best they could, his standing ground was not firm, nor could they make it so. But the total failure of the effort made to induce the Cape parliament to move, has put confederation wholly out of view, for a time quite indefinite, and almost certainly considerable. Mr. Gladstone has therefore the painful duty of submitting to your Majesty, on behalf of the Cabinet, the enclosed copy of a ciphered telegram of recall.


The breaking of the military power of the Zulus was destined to prove much less important than another proceeding closely related to it, though not drawing the same attention at the moment. I advise the reader not to grudge a rather strict regard to the main details of transactions that, owing to unhappy events of later date, have to this day held a conspicuous place in the general controversy as to the great minister's statesmanship.

For some time past, powerful native tribes had been slowly but steadily pushing the Boers of the Transvaal back, and the inability to resist was now dangerously plain. In 1876 the Boers had been worsted in one of their incessant struggles with the native races, and this time they had barely been able to hold their own against an insignificant tribe of one of the least warlike branches. It was thought certain by English officials on the ground, that the example would not be lost on fiercer warriors, and that a native conflagration might any day burst into blaze in other regions of the immense territory. The British government despatched an agent of great local experience; he found the Boer [pg 025]

Annexation Of The Transvaal

government, which was loosely organised even at its best, now completely paralysed, without money, without internal authority, without defensive power against external foes. In alarm at the possible result of such a situation on the peace of the European domain in South Africa, he proclaimed the sovereignty of the Queen, and set up an administration. This he was empowered by secret instructions to do, if he should think fit. Here was the initial error. The secretary of state in Downing Street approved (June 21, 1877), on the express assumption that a sufficient number of the inhabitants desired to become the Queen's subjects. Some have thought that if he had waited the Boers would have sought annexation, but this seems to be highly improbable. In the annexation proclamation promises were made to the Boers of 'the fullest legislative privileges compatible with the circumstances of the country and the intelligence of the people.' An assembly was also promised.

The soundness of the assumption was immediately disputed. The Boer government protested against annexation. Two delegates—one of them Mr. Kruger—repaired to England, assured Lord Carnarvon that their fellow-Boers were vehemently opposed to annexation, and earnestly besought its reversal. The minister insisted that he was right and they were wrong. They went back, and in order to convince the government of the true strength of feeling for independence, petitions were prepared seeking the restoration of independence. The signatures were those of qualified electors of the old republic. The government were informed by Sir Garnet Wolseley that there were about 8000 persons of the age to be electors, of whom rather fewer than 7000 were Boers. To the petitions were appended almost exactly 7000 names. The colonial office recognised that the opposition of the Boers to annexation was practically unanimous. The comparatively insignificant addresses on the other side came from the town and digging population, which was as strong in favour of the suppression of the old republic, as the rural population was strong against it.

For many months the Boers persevered. They again sent Kruger and Joubert to England; they held huge mass meetings; [pg 026] they poured out prayers to the high commissioner to give back their independence; they sent memorial after memorial to the secretary of state. In the autumn of 1879 Sir Garnet Wolseley assumed the administration of the Transvaal, and issued a proclamation setting forth the will and determination of the government of the Queen that this Transvaal territory should be, and should continue to be for ever, an integral part of her dominions in South Africa. In the closing days of 1879 the secretary of state, Sir Michael Hicks Beach, who had succeeded Carnarvon (Jan. 1878), received from the same eminent soldier a comprehensive despatch, warning him that the meetings of protest against annexation, attended by thousands of armed men in angry mood, would be likely to end in a serious explosion. While putting all sides of the question before his government, Sir Garnet inserted one paragraph of momentous import. “The Transvaal,” he said, “is rich in minerals; gold has already been found in quantities, and there can be little doubt that larger and still more valuable goldfields will sooner or later be discovered. Any such discovery would soon bring a large British population here. The time must eventually arrive when the Boers will be in a small minority, as the country is very sparsely peopled, and would it not therefore be a very near-sighted policy to recede now from the position we have taken up here, simply because for some years to come, the retention of 2000 or 3000 troops may be necessary to reconsolidate our power?”11 This pregnant and far-sighted warning seems to have been little considered by English statesmen of either party at this critical time or afterwards, though it proved a vital element in any far-sighted decision.

On March 9—the day, as it happened, on which the intention to dissolve parliament was made public—Sir Garnet telegraphed for a renewed expression of the determination of the government to retain the country, and he received the assurance that he sought. The Vaal river, he told the Boers, would flow backwards through the Drakensberg sooner than the British would be withdrawn from the Transvaal. The picturesque figure did not soften the Boer heart. [pg 027]

Decision Of The Government

This was the final share of the conservative cabinet in the unfortunate enterprise on which they had allowed the country to be launched.


When the question of annexation had originally come before parliament, Mr. Gladstone was silent. He was averse to it; he believed that it would involve us in unmixed mischief; but he felt that to make this judgment known at that period would not have had any effect towards reversing what had been done, while it might impede the chances of a good issue, slender as these might be.12 In the discussion at the opening of the final session of the old parliament, Lord Hartington as leader of the opposition, enforcing the general doctrine that it behoved us to concentrate our resources, and to limit instead of extending the empire, took the Transvaal for an illustration. It was now conclusively proved, he said, that a large majority of the Boers were bitterly against annexation. That being so, it ought not to be considered a settled question merely because annexation had taken place; and if we should find that the balance of advantage was in favour of the restoration of independence, no false sense of dignity should stand in the way. Mr. Gladstone in Midlothian had been more reserved. In that indictment, there are only two or three references, and those comparatively fugitive and secondary, to this article of charge. There is a sentence in one of the Midlothian speeches about bringing a territory inhabited by a free European Christian republic within the limits of a monarchy, though out of 8000 persons qualified to vote, 6500 voted against it. In another sentence he speaks of the Transvaal as a country “where we have chosen most unwisely, I am tempted to say insanely, to place ourselves in the strange predicament of the free subjects of a monarchy going to coerce the free subjects of a republic, and to compel them to accept a citizenship which they decline and refuse; but if that is to be done, it must be done by force.”13 A third sentence completes the tale: “If Cyprus and the [pg 028] Transvaal were as valuable as they are valueless, I would repudiate them because they are obtained by means dishonourable to the character of the country.” These utterances of the mighty unofficial chief and the responsible official leader of the opposition were all. The Boer republicans thought that they were enough.

On coming into power, the Gladstone government found the official evidence all to the effect that the political aspect of the Transvaal was decidedly improving. The commissioners, the administrators, the agents, were unanimous. Even those among them who insisted on the rooted dislike of the main body of the Boers to British authority, still thought that they were acquiescing, exactly as the Boers in the Cape Colony had acquiesced. Could ministers justify abandonment, without far stronger evidence than they then possessed that they could not govern the Transvaal peaceably? Among other things, they were assured that abandonment would be fatal to the prospects of confederation, and might besides entail a civil war. On May 7, Sir Bartle Frere pressed the new ministers for an early announcement of their policy, in order to prevent the mischiefs of agitation. The cabinet decided the question on May 12, and agreed upon the terms of a telegram14 by which Lord Kimberley was to inform Frere that the sovereignty of the Queen over the Transvaal could not be relinquished, but that he hoped the speedy accomplishment of confederation would enable free institutions to be conferred with promptitude. In other words, in spite of all that had been defiantly said by Lord Hartington, and more cautiously implied by Mr. Gladstone, the new government at once placed themselves exactly in the position of the old one.15

The case was stated in his usual nervous language by Mr. Chamberlain a few months later.16 “When we came into [pg 029] office,”

Decision Of The Government

he said, “we were all agreed that the original annexation was a mistake, that it ought never to have been made; and there arose the question could it then be undone? We were in possession of information to the effect that the great majority of the people of the Transvaal were reconciled to annexation; we were told that if we reversed the decision of the late government, there would be a great probability of civil war and anarchy; and acting upon these representations, we decided that we could not recommend the Queen to relinquish her sovereignty. But we assured the Boers that we would take the earliest opportunity of granting to them the freest and most complete local institutions compatible with the welfare of South Africa. It is easy to be wise after the event. It is easy to see now that we were wrong in so deciding. I frankly admit we made a mistake. Whatever the risk was, and I believe it was a great risk, of civil war and anarchy in the Transvaal, it was not so great a danger as that we actually incurred by maintaining the wrong of our predecessors.” Such was the language used by Mr. Chamberlain after special consultation with Lord Kimberley. With characteristic tenacity and that aversion ever to yield even the smallest point, which comes to a man saturated with the habit of a lifetime of debate, Mr. Gladstone wrote to Mr. Chamberlain (June 8, 1881): “I have read with pleasure what you say of the Transvaal. Yet I am not prepared, for myself, to concede that we made a mistake in not advising a revocation of the annexation when we came in.”

At this instant a letter reached Mr. Gladstone from Kruger and Joubert (May 10, 1880), telling him that there was a firm belief among their people that truth prevailed. “They were confident that one day or another, by the mercy of the Lord, the reins of the imperial government would be entrusted again to men who look out for the honour and glory of England, not by acts of injustice and crushing force, but by the way of justice and good faith. And, indeed, this belief has proven to be a good belief.” It would have been well for the Boers and well for us, if that had indeed been so. Unluckily the reply sent in Mr. Gladstone's name (June 15), [pg 030] informed them that obligations had now been contracted, especially towards the natives, that could not be set aside, but that consistently with the maintenance of the Queen's sovereignty over the Transvaal, ministers desired that the white inhabitants should enjoy the fullest liberty to manage their local affairs. “We believe that this liberty may be most easily and promptly conceded to the Transvaal, as a member of a South African confederation.” Solemn and deliberate as this sounds, no step whatever was effectively taken towards conferring this full liberty, or any liberty at all.

It is worth while, on this material point, to look back. The original proclamation had promised the people the fullest legislative privileges compatible with the circumstances of the country and the intelligence of the people. Then, at a later date (April 1877), Sir Bartle Frere met a great assemblage of Boers, and told them that they should receive, as soon as circumstances rendered it practicable, as large a measure of self-government as was enjoyed by any colony in South Africa.17 The secretary of state had also spoken to the same effect. During the short period in which Sir Bartle Frere was connected with the administration of the Transvaal, he earnestly pressed upon the government the necessity for redeeming the promises made at the time of annexation, “of the same measure of perfect self-government now enjoyed by Cape Colony,” always, of course, under the authority of the crown.18 As the months went on, no attempt was made to fulfil all these solemn pledges, and the Boers naturally began to look on them as so much mockery. Their anger in turn increased the timidity of government, and it was argued that the first use that the Boers would make of a free constitution would be to stop the supplies. So a thing called an Assembly was set up (November 9, 1879), composed partly of British officers and partly of nominated members. This was a complete falsification of a whole set of our national promises. Still annexation might conceivably have been [pg 031]

Boer Rising

accepted, even the sting might have been partially taken out of the delay of the promised free institutions, if only the administration had been considerate, judicious, and adapted to the ways and habits of the people. Instead of being all these things it was stiff, headstrong, and intensely stupid.19

The value of the official assurances from agents on the spot that restoration of independence would destroy the chances of confederation, and would give fuel to the fires of agitation, was speedily tested. It was precisely these results that flowed from the denial of independence. The incensed Boer leaders worked so successfully on the Cape parliament against confederation, that this favourite panacea was indefinitely hung up. Here, again, it is puzzling to know why ministers did not retrace their steps. Here, again, their blind guides in the Transvaal persisted that they knew the road; persisted that with the exception of a turbulent handful, the Boers of the Transvaal only sighed for the enjoyment of the pax britannica, or, if even that should happen to be not quite true, at any rate they were incapable of united action, were mortal cowards, and could never make a stand in the field. While folly of this kind was finding its way by every mail to Downing Street, violent disturbances broke out in the collection of taxes. Still Sir Owen Lanyon—who had been placed in control in the Transvaal in March 1879—assured Lord Kimberley that no serious trouble would arise (November 14). At the end of the month he still denies that there is much or any cause for anxiety. In December several thousands of Boers assembled at Paardekraal, declared for the restoration of their republic, and a general rising followed. Colley, who had succeeded General Wolseley as governor of Natal and high commissioner for south-east Africa, had been so little prepared for this, that at the end of August he had recommended a reduction of the Transvaal garrisons,20 and even now he [pg 032] thought the case so little serious that he contented himself (December 4) with ordering four companies to march for the Transvaal. Then he and Lanyon began to get alarmed, and with good reason. The whole country, except three or four beleaguered British posts, fell into the hands of the Boers.

The pleas for failure to take measures to conciliate the Boers in the interval between Frere's recall and the outbreak, were that Sir Hercules Robinson had not arrived;21 that confederation was not yet wholly given up; that resistance to annexation was said to be abating; that time was in our favour; that the one thing indispensable to conciliate the Boers was a railway to Delagoa Bay; that this needed a treaty, and we hoped soon to get Portugal to ratify a treaty, and then we might tell the Boers that we should soon make a survey, with a view at some early date to proceed with the project, and thus all would in the end come right. So a fresh page was turned in the story of loitering unwisdom.


On December 6, Mr. Brand, the sagacious president of the Orange Free State, sent a message of anxious warning to the acting governor at Cape Town, urging that means should be devised to avert an imminent collision. That message, which might possibly have wakened up the colonial office to the real state of the case, did not reach London until December 30. Excuses for this fatal delay were abundant: a wire was broken; the governor did not think himself concerned with Transvaal affairs; he sent the message on to the general, supposing that the general would send it on home; and so forth. For a whole string of the very best reasons in the world the message that [pg 033]

Paragraph In The Royal Speech

might have prevented the outbreak, arrived through the slow post at Whitehall just eleven days after the outbreak had begun. Members of the legislature at the Cape urged the British government to send a special commissioner to inquire and report. The policy of giving consideration to the counsels of the Cape legislature had usually been pursued by the wiser heads concerned in South African affairs, and when the counsels of the chief of the Free State were urgent in the same direction, their weight should perhaps have been decisive. Lord Kimberley, however, did not think the moment opportune (Dec. 30).22 Before many weeks, as it happened, a commission was indeed sent, but unfortunately not until after the mischief had been done. Meanwhile in the Queen's speech a week later an emphatic paragraph announced that the duty of vindicating her Majesty's authority had set aside for the time any plan for securing to European settlers in the Transvaal full control over their own local affairs. Seldom has the sovereign been made the mouthpiece of an utterance more shortsighted.

Again the curtain rose upon a new and memorable act. Four days after the Queen's speech, President Brand a second time appeared upon the scene (Jan. 10, 1881), with a message hoping that an effort would be made without the least delay to prevent further bloodshed. Lord Kimberley replied that provided the Boers would desist from their armed opposition, the government did not despair of making a satisfactory settlement. Two days later (Jan. 12) the president told the government that not a moment should be lost, and some one (say Chief Justice de Villiers) should be sent to the Transvaal burghers by the government, to stop further collision and with a clear and definite proposal [pg 034] for a settlement. “Moments,” he said, “are precious.” For twelve days these precious moments passed. On Jan. 26 the secretary of state informed the high commissioner at Cape Town, now Sir Hercules Robinson, that President Brand pressed for the offer of terms and conditions to the Boers through Robinson, “provided they cease from armed opposition, making it clear to them how this is to be understood.” On this suggestion he instructed Robinson to inform Brand that if armed opposition should at once cease, the government “would thereupon endeavour to frame such a scheme as in their belief would satisfy all friends of the Transvaal community.” Brand promptly advised that the Boers should be told of this forthwith, before the satisfactory arrangements proposed had been made more difficult by further collision. This was on Jan. 29. Unhappily on the very day before, the British force had been repulsed at Laing's Nek. Colley, on Jan. 23, had written to Joubert, calling on the Boer leaders to disperse, informing them that large forces were already arriving from England and India, and assuring them that if they would dismiss their followers, he would forward to London any statement of their grievances. It would have been a great deal more sensible to wait for an answer. Instead of waiting for an answer Colley attacked (Jan. 28) and was beaten back—the whole proceeding a rehearsal of a still more disastrous error a month later.

Brand was now more importunate than ever, earnestly urging on General Colley that the nature of the scheme should be made known to the Boers, and a guarantee undertaken that if they submitted they would not be treated as rebels. “I have replied,” Colley tells Lord Kimberley, “that I can give no such assurance, and can add nothing to your words.” In other correspondence he uses grim language about the deserts of some of the leaders. On this Mr. Gladstone, writing to Lord Kimberley (Feb. 5), says truly enough, “Colley with a vengeance counts his chickens before they are hatched, and his curious letter throws some light backward on the proceedings in India. His line is singularly wide of ours.” The secretary of state, finding barrack-room rigidity out of place, directs Colley (Feb. 8) to inform Brand [pg 035]

Boer Overtures

that the government would be ready to give all reasonable guarantees as to treatment of Boers after submission, if they ceased from armed opposition, and a scheme would be framed for permanent friendly settlement. As it happened, on the day on which this was despatched from Downing Street, Colley suffered a second check at the Ingogo River (Feb. 8). Let us note that he was always eager in his recognition of the readiness and promptitude of the military support from the government at home.23

Then an important move took place from the other quarter. The Boers made their first overture. It came in a letter from Kruger to Colley (Feb. 12). Its purport was fairly summarised by Colley in a telegram to the colonial secretary, and the pith of it was that Kruger and his Boers were so certain of the English government being on their side if the truth only reached them, that they would not fear the result of inquiry by a royal commission, and were ready, if troops were ordered to withdraw from the Transvaal, to retire from their position, and give such a commission a free passage. This telegram reached London on Feb. 13th, and on the 15th it was brought before the cabinet.

Mr. Gladstone immediately informed the Queen (Feb. 15) that viewing the likelihood of early and sanguinary actions, Lord Kimberley thought that the receipt of such an overture at such a juncture, although its terms were inadmissible, made it a duty to examine whether it afforded any hope of settlement. The cabinet were still more strongly inclined towards coming to terms. Any other decision would have broken up the government, for on at least one division in the House on Transvaal affairs Mr. Bright and Mr. Chamberlain, along with three other ministers not in the cabinet, had abstained from voting. Colley was directed (Feb. 16) to inform the Boers that on their desisting from armed opposition, the government would be ready to send commissioners [pg 036] to develop a scheme of settlement, and that meanwhile if this proposal were accepted, the English general was authorised to agree to the suspension of hostilities. This was in substance a conditional acceptance of the Boer overture.24 On the same day the general was told from the war office that, as respected the interval before receiving a reply from Mr. Kruger, the government did not bind his discretion, but “we are anxious for your making arrangements to avoid effusion of blood.” The spirit of these instructions was clear. A week later (Feb. 23) the general showed that he understood this, for he wrote to Mr. Childers that “he would not without strong reason undertake any operation likely to bring on another engagement, until Kruger's reply was received.”25 If he had only stood firm to this, a tragedy would have been averted.

On receiving the telegram of Feb. 16, Colley was puzzled to know what was the meaning of suspending hostilities if armed opposition were abandoned by the Boers, and he asked the plain question (Feb. 19) whether he was to leave Laing's Nek (which was in Natal territory) in Boer occupation, and our garrisons isolated and short of provisions, or was he to occupy Laing's Nek and relieve the garrisons. Colley's inquiries were instantly considered by the cabinet, and the reply settled. The garrisons were to be free to provision themselves and peaceful intercourse allowed; “but,” Kimberley tells Colley, “we do not mean that you should march to the relief of garrisons or occupy Laing's Nek, if the arrangement proceeds. Fix reasonable time within which answer must be sent by Boers.

On Feb. 21 Colley despatched a letter to Kruger, stating that on the Boers ceasing from armed opposition, the Queen would appoint a commission. He added that “upon this proposal being accepted within forty-eight hours from the receipt of this letter,” he was authorised to agree to a suspension of hostilities on the part of the British.

[pg 037]


Repulse On Majuba Hill

In this interval a calamity, destined to be historic, occurred, trivial in a military sense, but formidable for many years to come in the issues moral and political that it raised, and in the passions for which it became a burning watchword. On the night of Feb. 26, Colley with a force of 359 men all told, made up of three different corps, marched out of his camp and occupied Majuba Hill. The general's motives for this precipitancy are obscure. The best explanation seems to be that he observed the Boers to be pushing gradually forward on to advanced ground, and thought it well, without waiting for Kruger's reply, to seize a height lying between the Nek and his own little camp, the possession of which would make Laing's Nek untenable. He probably did not expect that his move would necessarily lead to fighting, and in fact when they saw the height occupied, the Boers did at first for a little time actually begin to retire from the Nek, though they soon changed their minds.26 The British operation is held by military experts to have been rash; proper steps were not taken by the general to protect himself upon Majuba, the men were not well handled, and the Boers showed determined intrepidity as they climbed steadily up the hill from platform to platform, taking from seven in the morning (Feb. 27) up to half-past eleven to advance some three thousand yards and not losing a man, until at last they scaled the crest and poured a deadly fire upon the small British force, driving them headlong from the summit, seasoned soldiers though most of them were. The general who was responsible for the disaster paid the penalty with his life. Some ninety others fell and sixty were taken prisoners.

At home the sensation was profound. The hysterical complaints about our men and officers, General Wood wrote to Childers, “are more like French character than English used to be.” Mr. Gladstone and his colleagues had a political question to consider. Colley could not be technically accused of want of good faith in moving forward on the 26th, as the [pg 038] time that he had appointed had expired. But though Majuba is just inside Natal—some four miles over the border—his advance was, under the circumstances of the moment, essentially an aggressive movement. Could his defeat justify us in withdrawing our previous proposals to the Boers? Was a military miscarriage, of no magnitude in itself, to be turned into a plea for abandoning a policy deliberately adopted for what were thought powerful and decisive reasons? “Suppose, for argument's sake,” Mr. Gladstone wrote to Lord Kimberley when the sinister news arrived (Mar. 2), “that at the moment when Colley made the unhappy attack on Majuba Hill, there shall turn out to have been decided on, and possibly on its way, a satisfactory or friendly reply from the Boer government to your telegram? I fear the chances may be against this; but if it prove to be the case, we could not because we had failed on Sunday last, insist on shedding more blood.” As it happened, the Boer answer was decided on before the attack at Majuba, and was sent to Colley by Kruger at Heidelberg in ignorance of the event, the day after the ill-fated general's death. The members of the Transvaal government set out their gratitude for the declaration that under certain conditions the government of the Queen was inclined to cease hostilities; and expressed their opinion that a meeting of representatives from both sides would probably lead with all speed to a satisfactory result. This reply was despatched by Kruger on the day on which Colley's letter of the 21st came into his hands (Feb. 28), and it reached Colley's successor on March 7.

Sir Evelyn Wood, now after the death of Colley in chief command, throughout recommended military action. Considering the disasters we had sustained, he thought the happiest result would be that after a successful battle, which he hoped to fight in about a fortnight, the Boers would disperse without any guarantee, and many now in the field against their will would readily settle down. He explained that by happy result, he did not mean that a series of actions fought by any six companies could affect our military prestige, but that a British victory would enable the Boer [pg 039]

Sir Evelyn Wood's View

leaders to quench a fire that had got beyond their control. The next day after this recommendation to fight (March 6), he, of his own motion, accepted a proposal telegraphed from Joubert at the instigation of the indefatigable Brand, for a suspension of hostilities for eight days, for the purpose of receiving Kruger's reply. There was a military reason behind. General Wood knew that the garrison in Potchefstrom must surrender unless the place were revictualled, and three other beleaguered garrisons were in almost equal danger. The government at once told him that his armistice was approved. This armistice, though Wood's reasons were military rather than diplomatic, virtually put a stop to suggestions for further fighting, for it implied, and could in truth mean nothing else, that if Kruger's reply were promising, the next step would not be a fight, but the continuance of negotiation. Sir Evelyn Wood had not advised a fight for the sake of restoring military prestige, but to make it easier for the Boer leaders to break up bands that were getting beyond their control. There was also present in his mind the intention, if the government would sanction it, of driving the Boers out of Natal, as soon as ever he had got his men up across the swollen river. So far from sanctioning it, the government expressly forbade him to take offensive action. On March 8, General Wood telegraphed home: “Do not imagine I wish to fight. I know the attending misery too well. But now you have so many troops coming, I recommend decisive though lenient action; and I can, humanly speaking, promise victory. Sir G. Colley never engaged more than six companies. I shall use twenty and two regiments of cavalry in direction known to myself only, and undertake to enforce dispersion.” This then was General Wood's view. On the day before he sent this telegram, the general already had received Kruger's reply to the effect that they were anxious to negotiate, and it would be best for commissioners from the two sides to meet. It is important to add that the government were at the same time receiving urgent warnings from President Brand that Dutch sympathy, both in the Cape Colony and in the Orange Free State, with the Dutch in the Transvaal was [pg 040] growing dangerous, and that the prolongation of hostilities would end in a formidable extension of their area.27 Even in January Lanyon had told Colley that men from the Free State were in the field against him. Three days before Majuba, Lord Kimberley had written to Colley (February 24), “My great fear has been lest the Free State should take part against us, or even some movement take place in the Cape Colony. If our willingness to come to terms has avoided such a calamity, I shall consider it will have been a most important point gained.”28

Two memoranda for the Queen show the views of the cabinet on the new position of affairs:—

To the Queen.

March 8, 1881.—The cabinet considered with much care the terms of the reply to Sir Evelyn Wood's telegram reporting (not textually) the answer of the Boer leaders to the proposals which Sir George Colley had sent to them. They felt justified in construing the Boer answer as leaving the way open to the appointment of commissioners, according to the telegram previously seen and approved by your Majesty. They were anxious to keep the question moving in this direction, and under the extreme urgency of the circumstances as to time, they have despatched a telegram to Sir Evelyn Wood accordingly. Mr. Gladstone has always urged, and still feels, that the proposal of the Boers for the appointment of commissioners was fortunate on this among other grounds, that it involved a recognition of your Majesty's de facto authority in the Transvaal.

March 12.—The cabinet determined, in order to obviate misapprehension or suspicion, to desire Sir E. Wood to inform the government from what quarter the suggestion of an armistice [pg 041] actually proceeded. They agreed that the proper persons to be appointed as commissioners were Sir H. Robinson, Sir E. Wood, and Mr. De Villiers, chief justice of the Cape; together with Mr. Brand of the Free State as amicus curiæ, should he be willing to lend his good offices in the spirit in which he has hitherto acted. The cabinet then considered fully the terms of the communication to be made to the Boers by Sir E. Wood. In this, which is matter of extreme urgency, they prescribe a time for the reply of the Boers not later than the 18th; renew the promise of amnesty; require the dispersion of the Boers to their own homes; and state the general outlines of the permanent arrangement which they would propose for the territory.... The cabinet believe that in requiring the dispersion of the Boers to their homes, they will have made the necessary provision for the vindication of your Majesty's authority, so as to open the way for considering terms of pacific settlement.

On March 22, under instructions from home, the general concluded an agreement for peace. The Boers made some preliminary requests to which the government declined to assent. Their proposal that the commission should be joint was rejected; its members were named exclusively by the crown. They agreed to withdraw from the Nek and disperse to their homes; we agreed not to occupy the Nek, and not to follow them up with troops, though General Roberts with a large force had sailed for the Cape on March 6. Then the political negotiation went forward. Would it have been wise, as the question was well put by the Duke of Argyll (not then a member of the government), “to stop the negotiation for the sake of defeating a body of farmers who had succeeded under accidental circumstances and by great rashness on the part of our commanders, in gaining a victory over us?” This was the true point.

The parliamentary attack was severe. The galling argument was that government had conceded to three defeats what they had refused to ten times as many petitions, memorials, remonstrances; and we had given to men with arms in their hands what we refused to their peaceful prayers. A great lawyer in the House of Lords made [pg 042] the speech that is expected from a great lawyer who is also a conspicuous party leader; and ministers undoubtedly exposed an extent of surface that was not easy to defend, not because they had made a peace, but because they had failed to prevent the rising. High military authorities found a curious plea for going on, in the fact that this was our first contest with Europeans since the breech-loader came in, and it was desirable to give our troops confidence in the new-fashioned weapon. Reasons of a very different sort from this were needed to overthrow the case for peace. How could the miscarriage at Majuba, brought on by our own action, warrant us in drawing back from an engagement already deliberately proffered? Would not such a proceeding, asked Lord Kimberley, have been little short of an act of bad faith? Or were we, in Mr. Gladstone's language, to say to the Boers, “Although we might have treated with you before these military miscarriages, we cannot do so now, until we offer up a certain number of victims in expiation of the blood that has been shed. Until that has been done, the very things which we believed before to be reasonable, which we were ready to discuss with you, we refuse to discuss now, and we must wait until Moloch has been appeased”? We had opened a door for negotiation; were we to close it again, because a handful of our forces had rashly seized a post they could not hold? The action of the Boers had been defensive of the status quo, for if we had established ourselves on Majuba, their camp at Laing's Nek would have been untenable. The minister protested in the face of the House of Commons that “it would have been most unjust and cruel, it would have been cowardly and mean, if on account of these defensive operations we had refused to go forward with the negotiations which, before the first of these miscarriages had occurred, we had already declared that we were willing to promote and undertake.”29

The policy of the reversal of annexation is likely to remain a topic of endless dispute.30 As Sir Hercules Robinson put [pg 043]

Case Considered

it in a letter to Lord Kimberley, written a week before Majuba (Feb. 21), no possible course was free from grave objection. If you determine, he said, to hold by the annexation of the Transvaal, the country would have to be conquered and held in subjection for many years by a large force. Free institutions and self-government under British rule would be an impossibility. The only palliative would be to dilute Dutch feeling by extensive English immigration, like that of 1820 to the Eastern Province. But that would take time, and need careful watching; and in the meantime the result of holding the Transvaal as a conquered colony would undoubtedly be to excite bitter hatred between the English and Dutch throughout the Free State and this colony, which would be a constant source of discomfort and danger. On the other hand, he believed that if they were, after a series of reverses and before any success, to yield all the Boers asked for, they would be so overbearing and quarrelsome that we should soon be at war with them again. On the whole, Sir Hercules was disposed to think—extraordinary as such a view must appear—that the best plan would be to re-establish the supremacy of our arms, and then let the malcontents go. He thought no middle course any longer practicable. Yet surely this course was open to all the objections. To hold on to annexation at any cost was intelligible. But to face all the cost and all the risks of a prolonged and a widely extended conflict, with the deliberate intention of allowing the enemy to have his own way after the conflict had been brought to an end, was not intelligible and was not defensible.

Some have argued that we ought to have brought up an overwhelming force, to demonstrate that we were able to beat them, before we made peace. Unfortunately demonstrations of this species easily turn into provocations, and talk of this kind mostly comes from those who believe, not [pg 044] that peace was made in the wrong way, but that a peace giving their country back to the Boers ought never to have been made at all, on any terms or in any way. This was not the point from which either cabinet or parliament started. The government had decided that annexation had been an error. The Boers had proposed inquiry. The government assented on condition that the Boers dispersed. Without waiting a reasonable time for a reply, our general was worsted in a rash and trivial attack. Did this cancel our proffered bargain? The point was simple and unmistakable, though party heat at home, race passion in the colony, and our everlasting human proneness to mix up different questions, and to answer one point by arguments that belong to another, all combined to produce a confusion of mind that a certain school of partisans have traded upon ever since. Strange in mighty nations is moral cowardice, disguised as a Roman pride. All the more may we admire the moral courage of the minister. For moral courage may be needed even where aversion to bloodshed fortunately happens to coincide with high prudence and sound policy of state.


The negotiations proceeded, if negotiation be the right word. The Boers disbanded, a powerful British force was encamped on the frontier, no Boer representative sat on the commission, and the terms of final agreement were in fact, as the Boers afterwards alleged, dictated and imposed. Mr. Gladstone watched with a closeness that, considering the tremendous load of Ireland, parliamentary procedure, and the incessant general business of a prime minister, is amazing. When the Boers were over-pressing, he warned them that it was only “the unshorn strength” of the administration that enabled the English cabinet, rather to the surprise of the world, to spare them the sufferings of a war. “We could not,” he said to Lord Kimberley, “have carried our Transvaal policy, unless we had here a strong government, and we spent some, if not much, of our strength in carrying it.” A convention was concluded at Pretoria in [pg 045]

The Sequel

August, recognising the quasi-independence of the Transvaal, subject to the suzerainty of the Queen, and with certain specified reservations. The Pretoria convention of 1881 did not work smoothly. Transvaal affairs were discussed from time to time in the cabinet, and Mr. Chamberlain became the spokesman of the government on a business where he was destined many years after to make so conspicuous and irreparable a mark. The Boers again sent Kruger to London, and he made out a good enough case in the opinion of Lord Derby, then secretary of state, to justify a fresh arrangement. By the London convention of 1884, the Transvaal state was restored to its old title of the South African Republic; the assertion of suzerainty in the preamble of the old convention did not appear in the new one;31 and various other modifications were introduced—the most important of them, in the light of later events, being a provision for white men to have full liberty to reside in any part of the republic, to trade in it, and to be liable to the same taxes only as those exacted from citizens of the republic.

Whether we look at the Sand River Convention in 1852, which conferred independence; or at Shepstone's proclamation in 1877, which took independence away; or at the convention of Pretoria in 1881, which in a qualified shape gave it back; or at the convention of London in 1884, which qualified the qualification over again, till independence, subject to two or three specified conditions, was restored,—we can but recall the caustic apologue of sage Selden in his table-talk on [pg 046] contracts. “Lady Kent,” he says, “articled with Sir Edward Herbert that he should come to her when she sent for him, and stay with her as long as she would have him; to which he set his hand. Then he articled with her that he should go away when he pleased, and stay away as long as he pleased; to which she set her hand. This is the epitome of all the contracts in the world, betwixt man and man, betwixt prince and subject.”

[pg 047]

Chapter IV. New Phases Of The Irish Revolution. (1880-1882)

The agitation of the Irish land league strikes at the roots of all contract, and therefore at the very foundations of modern society; but if we would effectually withstand it, we must cease to insist on maintaining the forms of free contract where the reality is impossible.—T. H. Green.32


On the day in 1880 when Lord Beaconsfield was finally quitting the official house in Downing Street, one who had been the ablest and most zealous supporter of his policy in the press, called to bid him good-bye. The visitor talked gloomily of the national prospect; of difficulties with Austria, with Russia, with the Turk; of the confusions to come upon Europe from the doctrines of Midlothian. The fallen minister listened. Then looking at his friend, he uttered in deep tones a single word. Ireland! he said.

In a speech made in 1882 Mr. Gladstone put the case to the House of Commons:—

The government had to deal with a state of things in Ireland entirely different from any that had been known there for fifty years.... With a political revolution we have ample strength to cope. There is no reason why our cheeks should grow pale, or why our hearts should sink, at the idea of grappling with a political revolution. The strength of this country is tenfold what is required for such a purpose. But a social revolution is a very different matter.... The seat and source of the movement was not to be found during the time the government was in power. It is to be looked for in the foundation of the land league.33

Two years later he said at Edinburgh:—

I frankly admit I had had much upon my hands connected with [pg 048] the doings of the Beaconsfield government in almost every quarter of the world, and I did not know, no one knew, the severity of the crisis that was already swelling upon the horizon, and that shortly after rushed upon us like a flood.34

So came upon them by degrees the predominance of Irish affairs and Irish activity in the parliament of 1880, which had been chosen without much reference to Ireland.


A social revolution with the land league for its organ in Ireland, and Mr. Parnell and his party for its organ in parliament, now, in Mr. Gladstone's words, rushed upon him and his government like a flood. The mind of the country was violently drawn from Dulcigno and Thessaly, from Batoum and Erzeroum, from the wild squalor of Macedonia and Armenia to squalor not less wild in Connaught and Munster, in Mayo, Galway, Sligo, Kerry. Agrarian agitation on the one hand, parliamentary violence on the other, were the two potent weapons by which the Irish revolutionary leader assailed the misrule of the British garrison as the agents of the British parliament in his country. This formidable movement slowly unmasked itself. The Irish government, represented by Mr. Forster in the cabinet, began by allowing the law conferring exceptional powers upon the executive to lapse. The main reason was want of time to pass a fresh Act. In view of the undoubted distress in some parts of Ireland, and of the harshness of certain evictions, the government further persuaded the House of Commons to pass a bill for compensating an evicted tenant on certain conditions, if the landlord turned him out of his holding. The bill was no easy dose either for the cabinet or its friends. Lord Lansdowne stirred much commotion by retiring from the government, and landowners and capitalists were full of consternation. At least one member of the cabinet was profoundly uneasy. It is impossible to read the letters of the Duke of Argyll to Mr. Gladstone on land, church establishment, the Zulu war, without wondering on what theory a cabinet was formed that included him, able and [pg 049]

Action Of The Lords

upright as he was, along with radicals like Mr. Chamberlain. Before the cabinet was six months old the duke was plucking Mr. Gladstone's sleeve with some vivacity at the Birmingham language on Irish land. Mr. Parnell in the committee stage abstained from supporting the measure, sixteen liberals voted against the third reading, and the House of Lords, in which nationalist Ireland had not a single representative, threw out the bill by a majority of 282 against 51. It was said that if all the opposition peers had stayed away, still ministers would have been beaten by their own supporters.

Looking back upon these events, Mr. Gladstone set out in a memorandum of later years, that during the session of 1880 the details of the budget gave him a good deal to do, while the absorbing nature of foreign questions before and after his accession to office had withdrawn his attention from his own Land Act of 1870:35

Late in the session came the decisive and disastrous rejection by the House of Lords of the bill by means of which the government had hoped to arrest the progress of disorder, and avert the necessity for measures in the direction of coercion. The rapid and vast extension of agrarian disturbance followed, as was to be expected, this wild excess of landlordism, and the Irish government proceeded to warn the cabinet that coercive legislation would be necessary.

Forster allowed himself to be persuaded by the governmental agents in Ireland that the root of the evil lay within small compass; that there were in the several parishes a certain limited number of unreasonable and mischievous men, that these men were known to the police, and that if summary powers were confided to the Irish government, by the exercise of which these objectionable persons might be removed, the evil would die out of itself. I must say I never fell into this extraordinary illusion of Forster's about his 'village ruffian.' But he was a very impracticable man placed in a position of great responsibility. He was set upon a method of legislation adapted to the erroneous belief that the mischief lay only with a very limited number of well-known individuals, that is to say, the suspension of the Habeas Corpus [pg 050] Act.... Two points of difference arose: first, as to the nature of the coercion to be used; secondly, as to its time. I insisted that we were bound to try what we could do against Parnell under the existing law, before asking for extraordinary powers. Both Bright and Chamberlain, if I remember right, did very good service in protesting against haste, and resisting Forster's desire to anticipate the ordinary session for the purpose of obtaining coercive powers. When, however, the argument of time was exhausted by the Parnell trial36 and otherwise, I obtained no support from them in regard to the kind of coercion we were to ask. I considered it should be done by giving stringency to the existing law, but not by abolishing the right to be tried before being imprisoned. I felt the pulse of various members of the cabinet, among whom I seem to recollect Kimberley and Carlingford, but I could obtain no sympathy, and to my dismay both Chamberlain and Bright arrived at the conclusion that if there was to be coercion at all, which they lamented, there was something simple and effective in the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act which made such a method preferable to others.37 I finally acquiesced. It may be asked why? My resistance would have broken up the government or involved my own retirement. My reason for acquiescence was that I bore in mind the special commission under which the government had taken office. It related to the foreign policy of the country, the whole spirit and effect of which we were to reconstruct. This work had not yet been fully accomplished, and it seemed to me that the effective prosecution of it was our first and highest duty. I therefore submitted.

By the end of November Mr. Gladstone explained to the Queen that the state of Ireland was menacing; its distinctive character was not so much that of general insecurity of life, as that of a widespread conspiracy against property. The worst of it was, he said, that the leaders, unlike O'Connell, failed to denounce crime. The outbreak was not comparable to that of 1832. In 1879 homicides were 64 against 242 for the earlier year of disturbance. But things were bad enough. [pg 051]

Disturbances In Ireland

In Galway they had a policeman for every forty-seven adult males, and a soldier for every ninety-seven. Yet dangerous terrorism was rampant. “During more than thirty-seven years since I first entered a cabinet,” Mr. Gladstone told the Speaker (November 25), “I have hardly known so difficult a question of administration, as that of the immediate duty of the government in the present state of Ireland. The multitude of circumstances to be taken into account must strike every observer. Among these stand the novelty of the suspension of Habeas Corpus in a case of agrarian crime stimulated by a public society, and the rather serious difficulty of obtaining it; but more important than these is the grave doubt whether it would really reach the great characteristic evil of the time, namely, the paralysis of most important civil and proprietary rights, and whether the immediate proposal of a remedy, probably ineffective and even in a coercive sense partial, would not seriously damage the prospects of that arduous and comprehensive task which without doubt we must undertake when parliament is summoned.” In view of considerations of this kind, the awkwardness of directing an Act of parliament virtually against leaders who were at the moment the object of indictment in the Irish law courts; difficulties of time; doubts as to the case being really made out; doubts as to the efficacy of the proposed remedy, Mr. Forster did not carry the cabinet, but agreed to continue the experiment of the ordinary law. The experiment was no success, and coercion accompanied by land reform became the urgent policy.


The opening of the session of 1881 at once brought obstruction into full view. The Irish took up their position as a party of action. They spoke incessantly; as Mr. Gladstone put it, “sometimes rising to the level of mediocrity, and more often grovelling amidst mere trash in unbounded profusion.” Obstruction is obstruction all the world over. It was not quite new at Westminster, but it was new on this scale. Closure proposals sprang up like mushrooms. Liberal members with a historical bent ran privately to the Speaker with [pg 052] ancient precedents of dictatorial powers asserted by his official ancestors, and they exhorted him to revive them.

Mr. Forster brought in his bill. Its scope may be described in a sentence. It practically enabled the viceroy to lock up anybody he pleased, and to detain him as long as he pleased, while the Act remained in force.38 The debate for leave to introduce the bill lasted several days, without any sign of coming to an end. Here is the Speaker's account of his own memorable act in forcing a close:—

Monday, Jan. 31.—The House was boiling over with indignation at the apparent triumph of obstruction, and Mr. G., yielding to the pressure of his friends, committed himself unwisely, as I thought, to a continuous sitting on this day in order to force the bill through its first stage.

On Tuesday, after a sitting of twenty-four hours, I saw plainly that this attempt to carry the bill by continuous sitting would fail, the Parnell party being strong in numbers, discipline, and organisation, and with great gifts of speech. I reflected on the situation, and came to the conclusion that it was my duty to extricate the House from the difficulty by closing the debate of my own authority, and so asserting the undoubted will of the House against a rebellious minority. I sent for Mr. G. on Tuesday (Feb. 1), about noon, and told him that I should be prepared to put the question in spite of obstruction on the following conditions: 1. That the debate should be carried on until the following morning, my object in this delay being to mark distinctly to the outside world the extreme gravity of the situation, and the necessity of the step which I was about to take. 2. That he should reconsider the regulation of business, either by giving more authority to the House, or by conferring authority on the Speaker.

He agreed to these conditions, and summoned a meeting of the cabinet, which assembled in my library at four p.m. on Tuesday while the House was sitting, and I was in the chair. At that meeting the resolution as to business assumed the shape in which it finally appeared on the following Thursday, it having been previously [pg 053] considered at former meetings of the cabinet. I arranged with Playfair to take the chair on Tuesday night about midnight, engaging to resume it on Wednesday morning at nine. Accordingly at nine I took the chair, Biggar being in possession of the House. I rose, and he resumed his seat. I proceeded with my address as concerted with May, and when I had concluded I put the question. The scene was most dramatic; but all passed off without disturbance, the Irish party on the second division retiring under protest.

I had communicated, with Mr. G.'s approval, my intention to close the debate to Northcote, but to no one else, except May, from whom I received much assistance. Northcote was startled, but expressed no disapproval of the course proposed.

So ended the memorable sitting of January 31. At noon, on February 2, the House assembled in much excitement. The question was put challenging the Speaker's conduct. “I answered,” he says, “on the spur of the moment that I had acted on my own responsibility, and from a sense of duty to the House. I never heard such loud and protracted cheering, none cheering more loudly than Gladstone.” “The Speaker's firmness in mind,” Mr. Gladstone reported to the Queen, “his suavity in manner, his unwearied patience, his incomparable temper, under a thousand provocations, have rendered possible a really important result.”


After coercion came a land bill, and here Mr. Gladstone once more displayed his unequalled mastery of legislative skill and power. He had to explain and be ready to explain again and again, what he told Lord Selborne was “the most difficult measure he had ever known to come under the detailed consideration of a cabinet.” It was no affair this time of speeches out of a railway carriage, or addressed to excited multitudes in vast halls. That might be, if you so pleased, “the empty verbosity of exuberant rhetoric”; but nobody could say that of the contest over the complexities of Irish tenure, against the clever and indomitable Irish experts who fought under the banner of Mr. Parnell. Northcote was not far wrong when he said [pg 054] that though the bill was carried by two to one, there was hardly a man in the House beyond the Irish ranks who cared a straw about it. Another critic said that if the prime minister had asked the House to pass the Koran or the Nautical Almanac as a land bill, he would have met no difficulty.

The history of the session was described as the carriage of a single measure by a single man. Few British members understood it, none mastered it. The whigs were disaffected about it, the radicals doubted it, the tories thought that property as a principle was ruined by it, the Irishmen, when the humour seized them, bade him send the bill to line trunks. Mr. Gladstone, as one observer truly says, “faced difficulties such as no other bill of this country has ever encountered, difficulties of politics and difficulties of law, difficulties of principle and difficulties of detail, difficulties of party and difficulties of personnel, difficulties of race and difficulties of class, and he has never once failed, or even seemed to fail, in his clear command of the question, in his dignity and authority of demeanour, in his impartiality in accepting amending suggestions, in his firmness in resisting destructive suggestions, in his clear perception of his aim, and his strong grasp of the fitting means. And yet it is hardly possible to appreciate adequately the embarrassments of the situation.”

Enough has already been said of the legislation of 1870, and its establishment of the principle that Irish land is not the subject of an undivided ownership, but a partnership.39 The act of 1870 failed because it had too many exceptions and limitations; because in administration the compensation to the tenant for disturbance was inadequate; and because it did not fix the cultivator in his holding. Things had now ripened. The Richmond Commission shortly before had pointed to a court for fixing rents; that is, for settling the terms of the partnership. A commission nominated by Mr. Gladstone and presided over by Lord Bessborough had reported early in 1881 in favour not only of fair rents to be settled by a tribunal, but of fixity of tenure or the right of [pg 055]

Great Agrarian Law

the tenant to remain in his holding if he paid his rent, and of free sale; that is, his right to part with his interest. These “three F's” were the substance of the legislation of 1881.

Rents could not be paid, and landlords either would not or could not reduce them. In the deepest interests of social order, and in confirmation of the tenant's equitable and customary ownership, the only course open to the imperial legislature was to erect machinery for fixing fair rents. The alternative to what became matter of much objurgation as dual ownership, was a single ownership that was only a short name for allowing the landlord to deal as he liked with the equitable interest of the tenant. Without the machinery set up by Mr. Gladstone, there could be no security for the protection of the cultivator's interest. What is more, even in view of a wide and general extension of the policy of buying out the landlord and turning the tenant into single owner, still a process of valuation for purposes of fair price would have been just as indispensable, as under the existing system was the tiresome and costly process of valuation for purposes of fair rent. It is true that if the policy of purchase had been adopted, this process would have been performed once for all. But opinion was not nearly ready either in England or Ireland for general purchase. And as Mr. Gladstone had put it to Bright in 1870, to turn a little handful of occupiers into owners would not have touched the fringe of the case of the bulk of the Irish cultivators, then undergoing acute mischief and urgently crying for prompt relief. Mr. Bright's idea of purchase, moreover, assumed that the buyer would come with at least a quarter of the price in his hand,—an assumption not consistent with the practical possibilities of the case.

The legislation of 1881 no doubt encountered angry criticism from the English conservative, and little more than frigid approval from the Irish nationalist. It offended the fundamental principle of the landlords; its administration and the construction of some of its leading provisions by the courts disappointed and irritated the tenant party. Nevertheless any attempt in later times to impair the authority of the Land Act of 1881 brought the fact instantly [pg 056] to light, that the tenant knew it to be the fundamental charter of his redemption from worse than Egyptian bondage. In measuring this great agrarian law, not only by parliamentary force and legislative skill and power, but by the vast and abiding depth of its social results, both direct and still more indirect, many will be disposed to give it the highest place among Mr. Gladstone's achievements as lawmaker.

Fault has sometimes been found with Mr. Gladstone for not introducing his bill in the session of 1880. If this had been done, it is argued, Ireland would have been appeased, no coercion would have been necessary, and we should have been spared disastrous parliamentary exasperations and all the other mischiefs and perils of the quarrel between England and Ireland that followed. Criticism of this kind overlooks three facts. Neither Mr. Gladstone nor Forster nor the new House of Commons was at all ready in 1880 to accept the Three F's. Second, the Bessborough commission had not taken its evidence, and made its momentous report. Third, this argument assumes motives in Mr. Parnell, that probably do not at all cover the whole ground of his policy. As it happened, I called on Mr. Gladstone one morning early in 1881. “You have heard,” I asked, “that the Bessborough commission are to report for the Three F's?” “I have not heard,” he said; “it is incredible!” As so often comes to pass in politics, it was only a step from the incredible to the indispensable. But in 1880 the indispensable was also the impossible. It was the cruel winter of 1880-1 that made much difference.

In point of endurance the session was one of the most remarkable on record. The House of Commons sat 154 days and for 1400 hours; some 240 of these hours were after midnight. Only three times since the Reform bill had the House sat for more days; only once, in 1847, had the total number of hours been exceeded and that only by seven, and never before had the House sat so many hours after midnight. On the Coercion bill the House sat continuously once for 22 hours, and once for 41. The debates on the Land bill took up 58 sittings, and the Coercion bill 22. No such length of discussion, Mr. Gladstone told the Queen, [pg 057]

Its Reception In Ireland

was recorded on any measure since the committee on the first Reform bill. The Reform bill of 1867 was the only measure since 1843 that took as many as 35 days of debate. The Irish Church bill took 21 days and the Land bill of 1870 took 25. Of the 14,836 speeches delivered, 6315 were made by Irish members. The Speaker and chairman of committees interposed on points of order nearly 2000 times during the session. Mr. Parnell, the Speaker notes, “with his minority of 24 dominates the House. When will the House take courage and reform its procedure?” After all, the suspension of habeas corpus is a thing that men may well think it worth while to fight about, and a revolution in a country's land-system might be expected to take up a good deal of time.


It soon appeared that no miracle had been wrought by either Coercion Act or Land Act. Mr. Parnell drew up test cases for submission to the new land court. His advice to the army of tenants would depend, he said, on the fate of these cases. In September Mr. Forster visited Hawarden, and gave a bad account of the real meaning of Mr. Parnell's plausible propositions for sending test cases to the newly established land commission, as well as of other ugly circumstances. “It is quite clear as you said,” wrote Mr. Gladstone to Forster in Ireland, “that Parnell means to present cases which the commission must refuse, and then to treat their refusal as showing that they cannot be trusted, and that the bill has failed.” As he interpreted it afterwards, there was no doubt that in one sense the Land Act tended to accelerate a crisis in Ireland, for it brought to a head the affairs of the party connected with the land league. It made it almost a necessity for that party either to advance or to recede. They chose the desperate course. At the same date, he wrote in a letter to Lord Granville:—

With respect to Parnellism, I should not propose to do more than a severe and strong denunciation of it by severing him altogether from the Irish people and the mass of the Irish members, and by saying that home rule has for one of its aims [pg 058] local government—an excellent thing to which I would affix no limits except the supremacy of the imperial parliament, and the rights of all parts of the country to claim whatever might be accorded to Ireland. This is only a repetition of what I have often said before, and I have nothing to add or enlarge. But I have the fear that when the occasion for action comes, which will not be in my time, many liberals may perhaps hang back and may cause further trouble.

In view of what was to come four years later, one of his letters to Forster is interesting (April 12, 1882), among other reasons as illustrating the depth to which the essence of political liberalism had now penetrated Mr. Gladstone's mind:—

1. About local government for Ireland, the ideas which more and more establish themselves in my mind are such as these.

(1.) Until we have seriously responsible bodies to deal with us in Ireland, every plan we frame comes to Irishmen, say what we may, as an English plan. As such it is probably condemned. At best it is a one-sided bargain, which binds us, not them.

(2.) If your excellent plans for obtaining local aid towards the execution of the law break down, it will be on account of this miserable and almost total want of the sense of responsibility for the public good and public peace in Ireland; and this responsibility we cannot create except through local self-government.

(3.) If we say we must postpone the question till the state of the country is more fit for it, I should answer that the least danger is in going forward at once. It is liberty alone which fits men for liberty. This proposition, like every other in politics, has its bounds; but it is far safer than the counter doctrine, wait till they are fit.

(4.) In truth I should say (differing perhaps from many), that for the Ireland of to-day, the first question is the rectification of the relations between landlord and tenant, which happily is going on; the next is to relieve Great Britain from the enormous weight of the government of Ireland unaided by the people, and from the hopeless contradiction in which we stand while we give a parliamentary representation, hardly effective for anything but mischief [pg 059] without the local institutions of self-government which it presupposes, and on which alone it can have a sound and healthy basis.

We have before us in administration, he wrote to Forster in September—

a problem not less delicate and arduous than the problem of legislation with which we have lately had to deal in parliament. Of the leaders, the officials, the skeleton of the land league I have no hope whatever. The better the prospects of the Land Act with their adherents outside the circle of wire-pullers, and with the Irish people, the more bitter will be their hatred, and the more sure they will be to go as far as fear of the people will allow them in keeping up the agitation, which they cannot afford to part with on account of their ulterior ends. All we can do is to turn more and more the masses of their followers, to fine them down by good laws and good government, and it is in this view that the question of judicious releases from prison, should improving statistics of crime encourage it, may become one of early importance.


It was in the autumn of 1881 that Mr. Gladstone visited Leeds, in payment of the debt of gratitude due for his triumphant return in the general election of the year before. This progress extended over four days, and almost surpassed in magnitude and fervour any of his experiences in other parts of the kingdom. We have an interesting glimpse of the physical effort of such experiences in a couple of his letters written to Mr. Kitson, who with immense labour and spirit had organized this severe if glorious enterprise:—

Hawarden Castle, Sept. 28, 1881.—I thank you for the very clear and careful account of the proposed proceedings at Leeds. It lacks as yet that rough statement of numbers at each meeting, which is requisite to enable me to understand what I shall have to do. This will be fixed by the scale of the meeting. I see no difficulty but one—a procession through the principal thoroughfares is one of the most exhausting processes I know as a preliminary to addressing a mass meeting. A mass meeting requires the physical powers [pg 060] to be in their best and freshest state, as far as anything can be fresh in a man near seventy-two; and I have on one or more former occasions felt them wofully contracted. In Midlothian I never had anything of the kind before a great physical effort in speaking; and the lapse even of a couple of years is something. It would certainly be most desirable to have the mass meeting first, and then I have not any fear at all of the procession through whatever thoroughfares you think fit.

Oct. 2, 1881.—I should be very sorry to put aside any of the opportunities of vision at Leeds which the public may care to use; but what I had hoped was that these might come after any speeches of considerable effort and not before them. To understand what a physical drain, and what a reaction from tension of the senses is caused by a progress before addressing a great audience, a person must probably have gone through it, and gone through it at my time of life. When I went to Midlothian, I begged that this might never happen; and it was avoided throughout. Since that time I have myself been sensible for the first time of a diminished power of voice in the House of Commons, and others also for the first time have remarked it.

Vast torchlight processions, addresses from the corporation, four score addresses from political bodies, a giant banquet in the Cloth Hall Yard covered in for the purpose, on one day; on another, more addresses, a public luncheon followed by a mass meeting of over five-and-twenty thousand persons, then a long journey through dense throngs vociferous with an exultation that knew no limits, a large dinner party, and at the end of all a night train. The only concessions that the veteran asked to weakness of the flesh, were that at the banquet he should not appear until the eating and drinking were over, and that at the mass meeting some preliminary speakers should intervene to give him time to take breath after his long and serious exercises of the morning. When the time came his voice was heard like the note of a clear and deep-toned bell. So much had vital energy, hardly less rare than his mental power, to do with the varied exploits of this spacious career.

The topics of his Leeds speeches I need not travel over. [pg 061]

Arrest Of Mr. Parnell

What attracted most attention and perhaps drew most applause was his warning to Mr. Parnell. “He desires,” said the minister, “to arrest the operation of the Land Act; to stand as Moses stood between the living and the dead; to stand there not as Moses stood, to arrest, but to spread the plague.” The menace that followed became a catchword of the day: “If it shall appear that there is still to be fought a final conflict in Ireland between law on the one side and sheer lawlessness upon the other, if the law purged from defect and from any taint of injustice is still to be repelled and refused, and the first conditions of political society to remain unfulfilled, then I say, gentlemen, without hesitation, the resources of civilisation against its enemies are not yet exhausted.”40

Nor was the pageant all excitement. The long speech, which by way of prelusion to the great mass meeting he addressed to the chamber of commerce, was devoted to the destruction of the economic sophisters who tried to persuade us that “the vampire of free-trade was insidiously sucking the life-blood of the country.” In large survey of broad social facts, exposition of diligently assorted figures, power of scientific analysis, sustained chain of reasoning, he was never better. The consummate mastery of this argumentative performance did not slay a heresy that has nine lives, but it drove the thing out of sight in Yorkshire for some time to come.41


On Wednesday October 12, the cabinet met, and after five hours of deliberation decided that Mr. Parnell should be sent to prison under the Coercion Act. The Irish leader was arrested at his hotel the next morning, and carried off to Kilmainham, where he remained for some six months. The same day Mr. Gladstone was presented with an address from the Common Council of London, and in his speech at the Guildhall gave them the news:—

Our determination has been that to the best of our power, our words should be carried into acts [referring to what he had said [pg 062] at Leeds], and even within these few moments I have been informed that towards the vindication of law and order, of the rights of property, of the freedom of the land, of the first elements of political life and civilisation, the first step has been taken in the arrest of the man who unhappily from motives which I do not challenge, which I cannot examine and with which I have nothing to do, has made himself beyond all others prominent in the attempt to destroy the authority of the law, and to substitute what would end in being nothing more or less than anarchical oppression exercised upon the people of Ireland.

The arrest of Mr. Parnell was no doubt a pretty considerable strain upon powers conferred by parliament to put down village ruffians; but times were revolutionary, and though the Act of parliament was not a wise one, but altogether the reverse of wise, it was no wonder that having got the instrument, ministers thought they might as well use it. Still executive violence did not seem to work, and Mr. Gladstone looked in a natural direction for help in the milder way of persuasion. He wrote (December 17th) to Cardinal Newman:—

I will begin with defining strictly the limits of this appeal. I ask you to read the inclosed papers; and to consider whether you will write anything to Rome upon them. I do not ask you to write, nor to tell me whether you write, nor to make any reply to this letter, beyond returning the inclosures in an envelope to me in Downing Street. I will state briefly the grounds of my request, thus limited. In 1844, when I was young as a cabinet minister, and the government of Sir R. Peel was troubled with the O'Connell manifestations, they made what I think was an appeal to Pope Gregory XVI. for his intervention to discourage agitation in Ireland. I should be very loath now to tender such a request at Rome. But now a different case arises. Some members of the Roman catholic priesthood in Ireland deliver certain sermons and otherwise express themselves in the way which my inclosures exhibit. I doubt whether if they were laymen we should not have settled their cases by putting them into gaol. I need not describe the sentiments uttered. Your eminence will feel them and judge them as strongly as I do. But now as to the Supreme [pg 063] Pontiff. You will hardly be surprised when I say that I regard him, if apprised of the facts, as responsible for the conduct of these priests. For I know perfectly well that he has the means of silencing them; and that, if any one of them were in public to dispute the decrees of the council of 1870 as plainly as he has denounced law and order, he would be silenced.

Mr. Errington, who is at Rome, will I believe have seen these papers, and will I hope have brought the facts as far as he is able to the knowledge of his holiness. But I do not know how far he is able; nor how he may use his discretion. He is not our official servant, but an independent Roman catholic gentleman and a volunteer.

My wish is as regards Ireland, in this hour of her peril and her hope, to leave nothing undone by which to give heart and strength to the hope and to abate the peril. But my wish as regards the Pope is that he should have the means of bringing those for whom he is responsible to fulfil the elementary duties of citizenship. I say of citizenship; of Christianity, of priesthood, it is not for me to speak.

The cardinal replied that he would gladly find himself able to be of service, however slight it might be, in a political crisis which must be felt as of grave anxiety by all who understand the blessing of national unity and peace. He thought Mr. Gladstone overrated the pope's power in political and social matters. Absolute in questions of theology, it was not so in political matters. If the contest in Ireland were whether “rebellion” or whether “robbery” was a sin, we might expect him to anathematise its denial. But his action in concrete matters, as whether a political party is censurable or not, was not direct, and only in the long run effective. Local power and influence was often a match for Roman right. The pope's right keeps things together, it checks extravagances, and at length prevails, but not without a fight. Its exercise is a matter of great prudence, and depends upon times and circumstances. As for the intemperate dangerous words of priests and curates, surely such persons belonged to their respective bishops, and scarcely required the introduction of the Supreme Authority.

[pg 064]


We have now arrived at April 1882. The reports brought to the cabinet by Mr. Forster were of the gloomiest. The Land Act had brought no improvement. In the south-west and many of the midland counties lawlessness and intimidation were worse than ever. Returns of agrarian crime were presented in every shape, and comparisons framed by weeks, by months, by quarters; do what the statisticians would, and in spite of fluctuations, murders and other serious outrages had increased. The policy of arbitrary arrest had completely failed, and the officials and crown lawyers at the Castle were at their wits' end.

While the cabinet was face to face with this ugly prospect, Mr. Gladstone received a communication volunteered by an Irish member, as to the new attitude of Mr. Parnell and the possibility of turning it to good account. Mr. Gladstone sent this letter on to Forster, replying meanwhile “in the sense of not shutting the door.” When the thing came before the cabinet, Mr. Chamberlain—who had previously told Mr. Gladstone that he thought the time opportune for something like a reconciliation with the Irish party—with characteristic courage took his life in his hands, as he put it, and set to work to ascertain through the emissary what use for the public good could be made of Mr. Parnell's changed frame of mind. On April 25th, the cabinet heard what Mr. Chamberlain had to tell them, and it came to this, that Mr. Parnell was desirous to use his influence on behalf of peace, but his influence for good depended on the settlement of the question of arrears. Ministers decided that they could enter into no agreement and would give no pledge. They would act on their own responsibility in the light of the knowledge they had gained of Mr. Parnell's views. Mr. Gladstone was always impatient of any reference to “reciprocal assurances” or “tacit understanding” in respect of the dealings with the prisoner in Kilmainham. Still the nature of the proceedings was plain enough. The object of the communications to which the government were invited by Mr. Parnell through his emissary, was, supposing him to be anxious to do what [pg 065]

Mr. Forster's Resignation

he could for law and order, to find out what action on the part of the government would enable him to adopt this line.

Events then moved rapidly. Rumours that something was going on got abroad, and questions began to be put in parliament. A stout tory gave notice of a motion aiming at the release of the suspects. As Mr. Gladstone informed the Queen, there was no doubt that the general opinion of the public was moving in a direction adverse to arbitrary imprisonment, though the question was a nice one for consideration whether the recent surrender by the no-rent party of its extreme and most subversive contentions, amounted to anything like a guarantee for their future conduct in respect of peace and order. The rising excitement was swelled by the retirement of Lord Cowper from the viceroyalty, and the appointment as his successor of Lord Spencer, who had filled that post in Mr. Gladstone's first government. On May 2nd, Mr. Gladstone read a memorandum to the cabinet to which they agreed:—

The cabinet are of opinion that the time has now arrived when with a view to the interests of law and order in Ireland, the three members of parliament who have been imprisoned on suspicion since last October, should be immediately released; and that the list of suspects should be examined with a view to the release of all persons not believed to be associated with crimes. They propose at once to announce to parliament their intention to propose, as soon as necessary business will permit, a bill to strengthen the ordinary law in Ireland for the security of life and property, while reserving their discretion with regard to the Life and Property Protection Act [of 1881], which however they do not at present think it will be possible to renew, if a favourable state of affairs shall prevail in Ireland.

From this proceeding Mr. Forster dissented, and he resigned his office. His point seems to have been that no suspect should be released until the new Coercion Act had been fashioned, whereas the rest of the cabinet held that there was no excuse for the continued detention under arbitrary warrant of men as to whom the ground for the “reasonable suspicion” required by the law had now disappeared. He [pg 066] probably felt that the appointment of a viceroy of cabinet rank and with successful Irish experience was in fact his own supersession. “I have received your letter,” Mr. Gladstone wrote to him (May 2), “with much grief, but on this it would be selfish to expatiate. I have no choice; followed or not followed I must go on. There are portions of the subject which touch you personally, and which seem to me to deserve much attention. But I have such an interest in the main issue, that I could not be deemed impartial; so I had better not enter on them. One thing, however, I wish to say. You wish to minimise in any further statement the cause of your retreat. In my opinion—and I speak from experience—viewing the nature of that course, you will find this hardly possible. For a justification you, I fear, will have to found upon the doctrine of ‘a new departure.’ We must protest against it, and deny it with heart and soul.”

The way in which Mr. Gladstone chose to put things was stated in a letter to the Queen (May 3): “In his judgment there had been two, and only two, vital powers of commanding efficacy in Ireland, the Land Act, and the land league; they had been locked in a combat of life and death; and the cardinal question was which of the two would win. From the serious effort to amend the Land Act by the Arrears bill of the nationalists,42 from the speeches made in support of it, and from information voluntarily tendered to the government as to the views of the leaders of the league, the cabinet believed that those who governed the land league were now conscious of having been defeated by the Land Act on the main question, that of paying rent.”

For the office of Irish secretary Mr. Gladstone selected Lord Frederick Cavendish, who was the husband of a niece of Mrs. Gladstone's, and one of the most devoted of his friends and adherents. The special reason for the choice of this capable and high-minded man, was that Lord Frederick had framed a plan of finance at the treasury for a new scheme of land purchase. The two freshly appointed Irish ministers at once crossed over to a country seething in disorder. The [pg 067]

The Murders In The Phœnix Park

afternoon of the fatal sixth of May was passed by the new viceroy and Lord Frederick in that grim apartment in Dublin Castle, where successive secretaries spend unshining hours in saying No to impossible demands, and hunting for plausible answers to insoluble riddles. Never did so dreadful a shadow overhang it as on that day. The task on which the two ministers were engaged was the consideration of the new provisions for coping with disorder, which had been prepared in London. The under-secretary, Mr. Burke, and one of the lawyers, were present. Lord Spencer rode out to the park about five o'clock, and Lord Frederick followed him an hour later. He was overtaken by the under-secretary walking homewards, and as the two strolled on together, they were both brutally murdered in front of the vice-regal residence. The assassins did not know who Lord Frederick was. Well has it been said that Ireland seems the sport of a destiny that is aimless.43

The official world of London was on that Saturday night in the full round of its pleasures. The Gladstones were dining at the Austrian embassy. So, too, was Sir William Harcourt, and to him as home secretary the black tidings were sent from Dublin late in the evening. Mr. and Mrs. Gladstone had already left, she for a party at the admiralty, he walking home to Downing Street. At the admiralty they told her of bad news from Ireland and hurried her away. Mr. Gladstone arrived at home a few minutes after her. When his secretary in the hall told him of the horrible thing that had been done, it was as if he had been felled to the ground. Then they hastened to bear what solace they could, to the anguish-stricken home where solace would be so sorely needed.

The effect of this blind and hideous crime was at once to arrest the spirit and the policy of conciliation. While the Irish leaders were locked up, a secret murder club had taken matters in hand in their own way, and ripened plots [pg 068] within a stone's throw of the Castle. No worse blow could have been struck at Mr. Parnell's policy. It has been said that the nineteenth century had seen the course of its history twenty-five times diverted by actual or attempted crime. In that sinister list the murders in the Phoenix Park have a tragic place.

The voice of party was for the moment hushed. Sir Stafford Northcote wrote a letter of admirable feeling, saying that if there was any way in which Mr. Gladstone thought they could serve the government, he would of course let them know. The Prince of Wales wrote of his own horror and indignation at the crime, and of his sympathy with Mr. Gladstone in the loss of one who was not only a colleague of many merits, but a near connection and devoted friend. With one or two scandalous exceptions, the tone of the English press was sober, sensible, and self-possessed. “If a nation,” said a leading journal in Paris, “should be judged by the way in which it acts on grave occasions, the spectacle offered by England is calculated to produce a high opinion of the political character and spirit of the British people.” Things of the baser sort were not quite absent, but they did not matter. An appeal confronted the electors of the North-West Riding as they went to the poll at a bye-election a few days later, to “Vote for ——, and avenge the death of Lord Frederick Cavendish!” They responded by placing ——'s opponent at the head of the poll by a majority of two thousand.

The scene in the House had all the air of tragedy, and Mr. Gladstone summoned courage enough to do his part with impressive composure. A colleague was doing some business with him in his room before the solemnity began. When it was over, they resumed it, Mr. Gladstone making no word of reference to the sombre interlude, before or after. “Went reluctantly to the House,” he says in his diary, “and by the help of God forced out what was needful on the question of the adjournment.” His words were not many, when after commemorating the marked qualities of Mr. Burke, he went on in laboured tones and slow speech and hardly repressed emotion:—

[pg 069]
The hand of the assassin has come nearer home; and though I feel it difficult to say a word, yet I must say that one of the very noblest hearts in England has ceased to beat, and has ceased at the very moment when it was just devoted to the service of Ireland, full of love for that country, full of hope for her future, full of capacity to render her service.

Writing to Lady Frederick on a later day, he mentions a public reference to some pathetic words of hers (May 19):—

Sexton just now returned to the subject, with much approval from the House. You will find it near the middle of a long speech. Nothing could be better either in feeling or in grace (the man is little short of a master), and I think it will warm your heart. You have made a mark deeper than any wound.

To Lord Ripon in India, he wrote (June 1):—

The black act brought indeed a great personal grief to my wife and me; but we are bound to merge our own sorrow in the larger and deeper affliction of the widow and the father, in the sense of the public loss of a life so valuable to the nation, and in the consideration of the great and varied effects it may have on immediate and vital interests. Since the death of this dearly loved son, we have heard much good of the Duke, whom indeed we saw at Chatsworth after the funeral, and we have seen much of Lady Frederick, who has been good even beyond what we could have hoped. I have no doubt you have heard in India the echo of words spoken by Spencer from a letter of hers, in which she said she could give up even him if his death were to work good to his fellow-men, which indeed was the whole object of his life. These words have had a tender effect, as remarkable as the horror excited by the slaughter. Spencer wrote to me that a priest in Connemara read them from the altar; when the whole congregation spontaneously fell down upon their knees. In England, the national attitude has been admirable. The general strain of language has been, Do not let this terrible and flagitious crime deter you from persevering with the work of justice.

Well did Dean Church say that no Roman or Florentine lady ever uttered a more heroic thing than was said by this [pg 070] English lady when on first seeing Mr. Gladstone that terrible midnight she said, “You did right to send him to Ireland.”44 “The loss of F. Cavendish,” Mr. Gladstone wrote to his eldest son, “will ever be to us all as an unhealed wound.”

On the day after the murders Mr. Gladstone received a note through the same channel by which Mr. Chamberlain had carried on his communications: “I am authorised by Mr. Parnell to state that if Mr. Gladstone considers it necessary for the maintenance of his [Mr. G.'s] position and for carrying out his views, that Mr. Parnell should resign his seat, Mr. Parnell is prepared to do so immediately.” To this Mr. Gladstone replied (May 7):—

My duty does not permit me for a moment to entertain Mr. Parnell's proposal, just conveyed to me by you, that he should if I think it needful resign his seat; but I am deeply sensible of the honourable motives by which it has been prompted.

“My opinion is,” said Mr. Gladstone to Lord Granville, “that if Parnell goes, no restraining influence will remain; the scale of outrages will be again enlarged; and no repressive bill can avail to put it down.” Those of the cabinet who had the best chance of knowing, were convinced that Mr. Parnell was “sincerely anxious for the pacification of Ireland.”

The reaction produced by the murders in the Park made perseverance in a milder policy impossible in face of English opinion, and parliament eagerly passed the Coercion Act of 1882. I once asked an Irishman of consummate experience and equitable mind, with no leanings that I know of to political nationalism, whether the task of any later ruler of Ireland was comparable to Lord Spencer's. “Assuredly not,” he replied: “in 1882 Ireland seemed to be literally a society on the eve of dissolution. The Invincibles still roved with knives about the streets of Dublin. Discontent had been stirred in the ranks of the Royal Irish Constabulary, and a dangerous mutiny broke out in the metropolitan force. Over half of the country the demoralisation of every class, the terror, the fierce hatred, the universal distrust, had grown to an incredible pitch. The moral cowardice of what ought [pg 071] to have been the governing class was astounding. The landlords would hold meetings and agree not to go beyond a certain abatement, and then they would go individually and privately offer to the tenant a greater abatement. Even the agents of the law and the courts were shaken in their duty. The power of random arrest and detention under the Coercion Act of 1881 had not improved the moral of magistrates and police. The sheriff would let the word get out that he was coming to make a seizure, and profess surprise that the cattle had vanished. The whole country-side turned out in thousands in half the counties in Ireland to attend flaming meetings, and if a man did not attend, angry neighbours trooped up to know the reason why. The clergy hardly stirred a finger to restrain the wildness of the storm; some did their best to raise it. All that was what Lord Spencer had to deal with; the very foundations of the social fabric rocking.”

The new viceroy attacked the formidable task before him with resolution, minute assiduity, and an inexhaustible store of that steady-eyed patience which is the sovereign requisite of any man who, whether with coercion or without, takes in hand the government of Ireland. He was seconded with high ability and courage by Mr. Trevelyan, the new Irish secretary, whose fortitude was subjected to a far severer trial than has ever fallen to the lot of any Irish secretary before or since. The coercion that Lord Spencer had to administer was at least law. The coercion with which parliament entrusted Mr. Forster the year before was the negation of the spirit of law, and the substitution for it of naked and arbitrary control over the liberty of the subject by executive power—a system as unconstitutional in theory as it was infatuated in policy and calamitous in result. Even before the end of the parliament, Mr. Bright frankly told the House of Commons of this Coercion Act: “I think that the legislation of 1881 was unfortunately a great mistake, though I was myself a member of the government concerned in it.”

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Chapter V. Egypt. (1881-1882)

I find many very ready to say what I ought to have done when a battle is over; but I wish some of these persons would come and tell me what to do before the battle.—Wellington.

In 1877 Mr. Gladstone penned words to which later events gave an only too striking verification. “Territorial questions,” he said, “are not to be disposed of by arbitrary limits; we cannot enjoy the luxury of taking Egyptian soil by pinches. We may seize an Aden and a Perim, where is no already formed community of inhabitants, and circumscribe a tract at will. But our first site in Egypt, be it by larceny or be it by emption, will be the almost certain egg of a North African empire, that will grow and grow until another Victoria and another Albert, titles of the lake-sources of the White Nile, come within our borders; and till we finally join hands across the equator with Natal and Cape Town, to say nothing of the Transvaal and the Orange River on the south, or of Abyssinia or Zanzibar to be swallowed by way of viaticum on our journey.”45 It was one of the ironies in which every active statesman's life abounds, that the author of that forecast should have been fated to take his country over its first marches towards this uncoveted destination.


For many months after Mr. Gladstone formed his second ministry, there was no reason to suppose that the Egyptian branch of the eastern question, which for ever casts its [pg 073]

Anti-European Rising

perplexing shadow over Europe, was likely to give trouble. The new Khedive held a regularly defined position, alike towards his titular sovereign at Constantinople, towards reforming ministers at Cairo, towards the creditors of his state, and towards the two strong European Powers who for different reasons had the supervision of Egyptian affairs in charge. The oppression common to oriental governments seemed to be yielding before western standards. The load of interest on a profligate debt was heavy, but it was not unskilfully adjusted. The rate of village usury was falling, and the value of land was rising. Unluckily the Khedive and his ministers neglected the grievances of the army, and in January 1881 its leaders broke out in revolt. The Khedive, without an armed force on whose fidelity he could rely, gave way to the mutineers, and a situation was created, familiar enough in all oriental states, and not unlike that in our own country between Charles I., or in later days the parliament, and the roundhead troopers: anger and revenge in the breast of the affronted civil ruler, distrust and dread of punishment in the mind of the soldiery. During the autumn (1881) the crisis grew more alarming. The Khedive showed neither energy nor tact; he neither calmed the terror of the mutineers nor crushed them. Insubordination in the army began to affect the civil population, and a national party came into open existence in the chamber of notables. The soldiers found a head in Arabi, a native Egyptian, sprung of fellah origin. Want either of stern resolution or of politic vision in the Khedive and his minister had transferred the reality of power to the insurgents. The Sultan of Turkey here saw his chance; he made a series of diplomatic endeavours to reestablish a shattered sovereignty over his nominal feudatory on the Nile. This pretension, and the spreading tide of disorder, brought England and France actively upon the scene. We can see now, what expert observers on the spot saw then, that the two Powers mistook the nature of the Arabist movement. They perceived in it no more than a military rising. It was in truth national as well as military; it was anti-European, and above all, it was in its objects anti-Turk.

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In 1879 the two governments had insisted on imposing over Egypt two controllers, with limited functions but irremovable. This, as Mr. Gladstone argued later, was to bring foreign intervention into the heart of the country, and to establish in the strictest sense a political control.46 As a matter of fact, not then well known, in September 1879 Lord Salisbury had come to a definite understanding with the French ambassador in London, that the two governments would not tolerate the establishment in Egypt of political influence by any competing European Power; and what was more important, that they were prepared to take action to any extent that might be found necessary to give effect to their views in this respect. The notable acquisition by Lord Beaconsfield of an interest in the Suez Canal, always regarded by Mr. Gladstone as a politically ill-advised and hazardous transaction, had tied the English knot in Egypt still tighter.

The policy of the Gladstone cabinet was defined in general words in a despatch from the foreign minister to the British agent at Cairo. Lord Granville (November 1881) disclaimed any self-aggrandising designs on the part of either England or France. He proclaimed the desire of the cabinet to uphold in Egypt the administrative independence secured to her by the decrees of the sovereign power on the Bosphorus. Finally he set forth that the only circumstances likely to force the government of the Queen to depart from this course of conduct, would be the occurrence in Egypt of a state of anarchy.47

Justly averse to a joint occupation of Egypt by England and France, as the most perilous of all possible courses, the London cabinet looked to the Sultan as the best instrument for restoring order. Here they were confronted by two insurmountable obstacles: first, the steadfast hostility of France to any form of Turkish intervention, and second, that strong current of antipathy to the Sultan which had been set flowing over British opinion in the days of Midlothian.48

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Policy Of England And France

In December (1881) the puissant genius of Gambetta acquired supremacy for a season, and he without delay pressed upon the British cabinet the necessity of preparing for joint and immediate action. Gambetta prevailed. The Turk was ruled out, and the two Powers of the west determined on action of their own. The particular mode of common action, however, in case action should become necessary, was left entirely open.

Meanwhile the British cabinet was induced to agree to Gambetta's proposal to send instructions to Cairo, assuring the Khedive that England and France were closely associated in the resolve to guard by their united efforts against all causes of complaint, internal or external, which might menace the existing order of things in Egypt. This was a memorable starting-point in what proved an amazing journey. This Joint Note (January 6, 1881) was the first link in a chain of proceedings that brought each of the two governments who were its authors, into the very position that they were most strenuously bent on averting; France eventually ousted herself from Egypt, and England was eventually landed in plenary and permanent occupation. So extraordinary a result only shows how impenetrable were the windings of the labyrinth. The foremost statesmen of England and France were in their conning towers, and England at any rate employed some of the ablest of her agents. Yet each was driven out of an appointed course to an unforeseen and an unwelcome termination. Circumstances like these might teach moderation both to the French partisans who curse the vacillations of M. de Freycinet, and to the English partisans who, while rejoicing in the ultimate result, curse the vacillations of the cabinet of Mr. Gladstone, in wisely striving to unravel a knot instead of at all risks cutting it.


The present writer described the effect of the Joint Note in the following words written at the time49: “At Cairo the [pg 076] Note fell like a bombshell. Nobody there had expected any such declaration, and nobody was aware of any reason why it should have been launched. What was felt was that so serious a step on such delicate ground could not have been adopted without deliberate calculation, nor without some grave intention. The Note was, therefore, taken to mean that the Sultan was to be thrust still further in the background; that the Khedive was to become more plainly the puppet of England and France; and that Egypt would sooner or later in some shape or other be made to share the fate of Tunis. The general effect was, therefore, mischievous in the highest degree. The Khedive was encouraged in his opposition to the sentiments of his Chamber. The military, national, or popular party was alarmed. The Sultan was irritated. The other European Powers were made uneasy. Every element of disturbance was roused into activity.”

It is true that even if no Joint Note had ever been despatched, the prospects of order were unpromising. The most careful analysis of the various elements of society in Egypt by those best acquainted at first hand with all those elements, whether internal or external, whether Egyptian or European, and with all the roots of antagonism thriving among them, exhibited no promise of stability. If Egypt had been a simple case of an oriental government in revolutionary commotion, the ferment might have been left to work itself out. Unfortunately Egypt, in spite of the maps, lies in Europe. So far from being a simple case, it was indescribably entangled, and even the desperate questions that rise in our minds at the mention of the Balkan peninsula, of Armenia, of Constantinople, offer no such complex of difficulties as the Egyptian riddle in 1881-2. The law of liquidation50—whatever else we may think of it—at least made the policy of Egypt for the Egyptians unworkable. Yet the British cabinet were not wrong in thinking that this was no reason for sliding into the competing policy of Egypt for the English and the French, which would have been more unworkable still.

England strove manfully to hold the ground that she [pg 077]


had taken in November. Lord Granville told the British ambassador in Paris that his government disliked intervention either by themselves or anybody else as much as ever; that they looked upon the experiment of the Chamber with favourable eyes; that they wished to keep the connection of the Porte with Egypt so far as it was compatible with Egyptian liberties; and that the object of the Joint Note was to strengthen the existing government of Egypt. Gambetta, on the other hand, was convinced that all explanations of this sort would only serve further to inflate the enemies of France and England in the Egyptian community, and would encourage their designs upon the law of liquidation. Lord Granville was honourably and consistently anxious to confine himself within the letter of international right, while Gambetta was equally anxious to intervene in Egyptian administration, within right or without it, and to force forward that Anglo-French occupation in which Lord Granville so justly saw nothing but danger and mischief. Once more Lord Granville, at the end of the month which had opened with the Joint Note, in a despatch to the ambassador at Paris (January 30), defined the position of the British cabinet. What measures should be taken to meet Egyptian disorders? The Queen's government had “a strong objection to the occupation of Egypt by themselves.” Egypt and Turkey would oppose; it would arouse the jealousy of other Powers, who would, as there was even already good reason to believe, make counter demonstrations; and, finally, such an occupation would be as distasteful to the French nation as the sole occupation of Egypt by the French would be to ourselves. Joint occupation by England and France, in short, might lessen some difficulties, but it would seriously aggravate others. Turkish occupation would be a great evil, but it would not entail political dangers as great as those attending the other two courses. As for the French objections to the farther admission of the other European Powers to intervene in Egyptian affairs, the cabinet agreed that England and France had an exceptional position in Egypt, but might it not be desirable to enter into some communication with the other Powers, as to the best way of dealing with a state of [pg 078] things that appeared likely to interfere both with the Sultan's firmans and with Egypt's international engagements?

At this critical moment Gambetta fell from power. The mark that he had set upon western policy in Egypt remained. Good observers on the spot, trained in the great school of India, thought that even if there were no more than a chance of working with the national party, the chance was well worth trying. As the case was put at the time, “It is impossible to conceive a situation that more imperatively called for caution, circumspection, and deference to the knowledge of observers on the scene, or one that was actually handled with greater rashness and hurry. Gambetta had made up his mind that the military movement was leading to the abyss, and that it must be peremptorily arrested. It may be that he was right in supposing that the army, which had first found its power in the time of Ismail, would go from bad to worse. But everything turned upon the possibility of pulling up the army, without arousing other elements more dangerous still. M. Gambetta's impatient policy was worked out in his own head without reference to the conditions on the scene, and the result was what might have been expected.”51


The dual control, the system of carrying on the Egyptian government under the advice of an English and a French agent, came to an end. The rude administration in the provinces fell to pieces. The Khedive was helplessly involved in struggle after struggle with the military insurgents. The army became as undisputed masters of the government, as the Cromwellian army at some moments in our civil war. Meanwhile the British government, true to Mr. Gladstone's constant principle, endeavoured to turn the question from being purely Anglo-French, into an international question. The Powers were not unfavourable, but nothing came of it. Both from Paris and from London somewhat bewildered suggestions proceeded by way of evading the central enigma, whether the intervention should be Turkish [pg 079]

Diplomatic Labyrinth

or Anglo-French. It was decided at any rate to send powerful Anglo-French fleets to Alexandria, and Mr. Gladstone only regretted that the other Powers (including Turkey) had not been invited to have their flags represented. To this the French objected, with the evil result that the other Powers were displeased, and the good effect that the appearance of the Sultan in the field might have had upon the revolutionary parties in Egypt was lost. On May 21, 1882, M. de Freycinet went so far as to say that, though he was still opposed to Turkish intervention, he would not regard as intervention a case in which Turkish forces were summoned by England and France to operate under Anglo-French control, upon conditions specified by the two Powers. If it became advisable to land troops, recourse should be had on these terms to Turkish troops and them only. Lord Granville acceded. He proposed (May 24) to address the Powers, to procure international sanction for the possible despatch of Turkish troops to Egypt. M. Freycinet insisted that no such step was necessary. At the same time (June 1), M. de Freycinet told the Chamber that there were various courses to which they might be led, but he excluded one, and this was a French military intervention. That declaration narrowed the case to a choice between English intervention, or Turkish, or Anglo-Turkish, all of them known to be profoundly unpalatable to French sentiment. Such was the end of Lord Granville's prudent and loyal endeavour to move in step with France.

The next proposal from M. de Freycinet was a European conference, as Prince Bismarck presumed, to cover the admissibility of Turkish intervention. A conference was too much in accord with the ideas of the British cabinet, not to be welcomed by them. The Turk, however, who now might have had the game in his own hands, after a curious exhibition of duplicity and folly, declined to join, and the conference at first met without him (June 23). Then, pursuing tactics well known at all times at Constantinople, the Sultan made one of his attempts to divide the Powers, by sending a telegram to London (June 25), conferring upon England rights of exclusive control in the administration of Egypt.

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This Mr. Gladstone and Lord Granville declined without even consulting the cabinet, as too violent an infraction, I suppose, of the cardinal principle of European concert. The Queen, anxious for an undivided English control at any price, complained that the question was settled without reference to the cabinet, and here the Queen was clearly not wrong, on doctrines of cabinet authority and cabinet responsibility that were usually held by nobody more strongly than by the prime minister himself.

Mr. Gladstone and his cabinet fought as hard as they could, and for good reasons, against single-handed intervention by Great Britain. When they saw that order could not be re-established without the exercise of force from without, they insisted that this force should be applied by the Sultan as sovereign of Egypt. They proposed this solution to the conference, and Lord Dufferin urged it upon the Sultan. With curious infatuation (repeated a few years later) the Sultan stood aside. When it became necessary to make immediate provision for the safety of the Suez Canal, England proposed to undertake this duty conjointly with France, and solicited the co-operation of any other Power. Italy was specially invited to join. Then when the progress of the rebellion had broken the Khedive's authority and brought Egypt to anarchy, England invited France and Italy to act with her in putting the rebellion down. France and Italy declined. England still urged the Porte to send troops, insisting only on such conditions as were indispensable to secure united action. The Porte again held back, and before it carried out an agreement to sign a military convention, events had moved too fast.52 Thus, by the Sultan's perversities and the fluctuations of purpose and temper in France, single-handed intervention was inexorably forced upon the one Power that had most consistently striven to avoid it. Bismarck, it is true, judged that Arabi was now a power to be reckoned with; the Austrian representatives used language of like purport; and Freycinet also inclined to coming to terms with Arabi. The British cabinet had persuaded themselves that the overthrow of the military [pg 081]

Bombardment Of Alexandria

party was an indispensable precedent to any return of decently stable order.

The situation in Egypt can hardly be adequately understood without a multiplicity of details for which this is no place, and in such cases details are everything. Diplomacy in which the Sultan of Turkey plays a part is always complicated, and at the Conference of Constantinople the cobwebs were spun and brushed away and spun again with diligence unexampled. The proceedings were without any effect upon the course of events. The Egyptian revolution ran its course. The moral support of Turkish commissioners sent by the Sultan to Cairo came to nothing, and the moral influence of the Anglo-French squadron at Alexandria came to nothing, and in truth it did more harm than good. The Khedive's throne and life were alike in danger. The Christians flocked down from the interior. The residents in Alexandria were trembling for their lives. At the end of May our agent at Cairo informed his government that a collision between Moslems and Christians might occur at any moment. On June 11 some fifty Europeans were massacred by a riotous mob at Alexandria. The British consul was severely wounded, and some sailors of the French fleet were among the killed. Greeks and Jews were murdered in other places. At last a decisive blow was struck. For several weeks the Egyptians had been at work upon the fortifications of Alexandria, and upon batteries commanding the British fleet. The British admiral was instructed (July 3) that if this operation were continued, he should immediately destroy the earthworks and silence the batteries. After due formalities he (July 11) opened fire at seven in the morning, and by half-past five in the evening the Alexandria guns were silenced. Incendiaries set the town on fire, the mob pillaged it, and some murders were committed. The French ships had sailed away, their government having previously informed the British ambassador in Paris that the proposed operation would be an act of war against Egypt, and such an act of war without the express consent of the Chamber would violate the constitution.

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The new situation in which England, now found herself was quickly described by the prime minister to the House of Commons. On July 22, he said: “We should not fully discharge our duty, if we did not endeavour to convert the present interior state of Egypt from anarchy and conflict to peace and order. We shall look during the time that remains to us to the co-operation of the Powers of civilised Europe, if it be in any case open to us. But if every chance of obtaining co-operation is exhausted, the work will be undertaken by the single power of England.” As for the position of the Powers it may be described in this way. Germany and Austria were cordial and respectful; France anxious to retain a completely friendly understanding, but wanting some equivalent for the inevitable decline of her power in Egypt; Italy jealous of our renewing close relations with France; Russia still sore, and on the lookout for some plausible excuse for getting the Berlin arrangement of 1878 revised in her favour, without getting into difficulties with Berlin itself.

France was not unwilling to take joint action with England for the defence of the canal, but would not join England in intervention beyond that object. At the same time Freycinet wished it to be understood that France had no objection to our advance, if we decided to make an advance. This was more than once repeated. Gambetta in vehement wrath declared his dread lest the refusal to co-operate with England should shake an alliance of priceless value; and lest besides that immense catastrophe, it should hand over to the possession of England for ever, territories, rivers, and ports where the French right to live and trade was as good as hers. The mighty orator declaimed in vain. Suspicion of the craft of Bismarck was in France more lively than suspicion of aggressive designs in the cabinet of Mr. Gladstone, and the Chamber was reminded how extremely well it would suit Germany that France should lock up her military force in Tunis yesterday, in Egypt to-day. Ingenious speakers, pointing to Europe covered with camps of armed men; pointing to the artful statesmanship that had pushed Austria into Bosnia and [pg 083]


Herzegovina, and encouraged France herself to occupy Tunis; pointing to the expectant nations reserving their liberty for future occasions—all urgently exhorted France now to reserve her own liberty of action too. Under the influence of such ideas as these, and by the working of rival personalities and parties, the Chamber by an immense majority turned the Freycinet government out of office (July 29) rather than sanction even such a degree of intervention as concerned the protection of the Suez Canal.

Nine days after the bombardment of Alexandria, the British cabinet decided on the despatch of what was mildly called an expeditionary force to the Mediterranean, under the command of Sir Garnet Wolseley. The general's alertness, energy, and prescient calculation brought him up to Arabi at Tel-el-Kebir (Sept. 13), and there at one rapid and decisive blow he crushed the military insurrection.53


The bombardment of Alexandria cost Mr. Gladstone the British colleague who in fundamentals stood closest to him of them all. In the opening days of July, amid differences of opinion that revealed themselves in frequent and protracted meetings of the cabinet, it was thought probable that Mr. Gladstone and Bright would resign rather than be parties to despatching troops to the Mediterranean; and the two representative radicals were expected to join them. Then came the bombardment, but only Bright went—not until after earnest protestations from the prime minister. As Mr. Gladstone described things later to the Queen, Bright's letters and conversation consisted very much more of references to his past career and strong statements of feeling, than of attempts to reason on the existing facts of the case, with the obligations that they appeared to entail. Not satisfied with his own efforts, Mr. Gladstone turned to Lord Granville, who had been a stout friend in old days when Bright's was a name of reproach and obloquy:—

July 12.—Here is the apprehended letter from dear old John [pg 084] Bright, which turns a white day into a black one. It would not be fair in me to beg an interview. His kindness would make him reluctant to decline; but he would come laden with an apprehension, that I by impetuosity and tenacity should endeavour to overbear him. But pray consider whether you could do it. He would not have the same fear of your dealings with him. I do not think you could get a reversal, but perhaps he would give you another short delay, and at the end of this the sky might be further settled.

Two days later Mr. Gladstone and Bright had a long, and we may be sure that it was an earnest, conversation. The former of them the same day put his remarks into the shape of a letter, which the reader may care to have, as a statement of the case for the first act of armed intervention, which led up by a direct line to the English occupation of Egypt, Soudan wars, and to some other events from which the veil is not even yet lifted:—

The act of Tuesday [the bombardment of Alexandria] was a solemn and painful one, for which I feel myself to be highly responsible, and it is my earnest desire that we should all view it now, as we shall wish at the last that we had viewed it. Subject to this testing rule, I address you as one whom I suppose not to believe all use whatever of military force to be unlawful; as one who detests war in general and believes most wars to have been sad errors (in which I greatly agree with you), but who in regard to any particular use of force would look upon it for a justifying cause, and after it would endeavour to appreciate its actual effect.

The general situation in Egypt had latterly become one in which everything was governed by sheer military violence. Every legitimate authority—the Khedive, the Sultan, the notables, and the best men of the country, such as Cherif and Sultan pashas—had been put down, and a situation, of force had been created, which could only be met by force. This being so, we had laboured to the uttermost, almost alone but not without success, to secure that if force were employed against the violence of Arabi, it should be force armed with the highest sanction of law; that it should be the force of the sovereign, authorised and [pg 085] restrained by the united Powers of Europe, who in such a case represent the civilised world.

While this is going on, a by-question arises. The British fleet, lawfully present in the waters of Alexandria, had the right and duty of self-defence. It demanded the discontinuance of attempts made to strengthen the armament of the fortifications.... Met by fraud and falsehood in its demand, it required surrender with a view to immediate dismantling, and this being refused, it proceeded to destroy.... The conflagration which followed, the pillage and any other outrages effected by the released convicts, these are not due to us, but to the seemingly wanton wickedness of Arabi....

Such being the amount of our act, what has been its reception and its effect? As to its reception, we have not received nor heard of a word of disapproval from any Power great or small, or from any source having the slightest authority. As to its effect, it has taught many lessons, struck a heavy, perhaps a deadly, blow at the reign of violence, brought again into light the beginnings of legitimate rule, shown the fanaticism of the East that massacre of Europeans is not likely to be perpetrated with impunity, and greatly advanced the Egyptian question towards a permanent and peaceable solution. I feel that in being party to this work I have been a labourer in the cause of peace. Your co-operation in that cause, with reference to preceding and collateral points, has been of the utmost value, and has enabled me to hold my ground, when without you it might have been difficult.

The correspondence closed with a wish from Mr. Gladstone: “Believe in the sore sense of practical loss, and the (I trust) unalterable friendship and regard with which I remain, etc.” When Bright came to explain his resignation in parliament, he said something about the moral law, which led to a sharp retort from the prime minister, but still their friendship did appear to remain unalterable, as Mr. Gladstone trusted that it would.

When the question by and by arose whether Arabi should be put to death, Bright wrote to the prime minister on behalf of clemency. Mr. Gladstone in replying took a severe line: “I am sorry to say the inquiry is too likely to show [pg 086] that Arabi is very much more than a rebel. Crimes of the gravest kind have been committed; and with most of them he stands, I fear, in presumptive (that is, unproved) connection. In truth I must say that, having begun with no prejudice against him, and with the strong desire that he should be saved, I am almost driven to the conclusion that he is a bad man, and that it will not be an injustice if he goes the road which thousands of his innocent countrymen through him have trodden.” It is a great mistake to suppose that Mr. Gladstone was all leniency, or that when he thought ill of men, he stayed either at palliating words or at half-measures.

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Chapter VI. Political Jubilee. (1882-1883)

ἀγωνίζεται γὰρ ὥσπερ ἀθλητὴς κατὰ τὸν βίον, ὅταν δὲ διαγωνίσηται, τότε τυγχάνει τῶν προσηκόντων.—Plutarch, Moralia, c. 18.

He strives like an athlete all his life long, and then when he comes to the end of his striving, he has what is meet.

ἐπάμεροι: τί δέ τις; τί δ᾽ οὔ τις; σκιᾶς ὄναρ
ἄνθρωπος. ἀλλ᾽ ὅταν αἴγλα διόσδοτος ἔλθῃ,
λαμπρὸν φέγγος ἔπεστιν ἀνδρῶν καὶ μείλικος αἰών.
Pindar, Pyth. viii. 135.

Things of a day! What is a man? What, when he is not? A dream of shadow is mankind. Yet when there comes down glory imparted from God, radiant light shines among men and genial days.

θανεῖν δ᾽ οἷσιν ἀνάγκα, τί κέ τις ἀνώνυμον γῆρας ὲν σκότῳ καθήμενος ἔψοι μάταν;—Ol. i. 131.

Die since we must, wherefore should a man sit idle and nurse in the gloom days of long life without aim, without name?


The words from “antique books” that I have just translated and transcribed, were written out by Mr. Gladstone inside the cover of the little diary for 1882-3. To what the old world had to say, he added Dante's majestic commonplace: “You were not to live like brutes, but to pursue virtue and knowledge.”54 These meditations on the human lot, on the mingling of our great hopes with the implacable realities, made the vital air in which all through his life he drew [pg 088] deep breath. Adjusted to his ever vivid religious creed, amid all the turbid business of the worldly elements, they were the sedative and the restorer. Yet here and always the last word was Effort. The moods that in less strenuous natures ended in melancholy, philosophic or poetic, to him were fresh incentives to redeem the time.

The middle of December 1882 marked his political jubilee. It was now half a century since he had entered public life, and the youthful graduate from Oxford had grown to be the foremost man in his country. Yet these fifty courses of the sun and all the pageant of the world had in some ways made but little difference in him. In some ways, it seemed as if time had rolled over him in vain. He had learned many lessons. He had changed his party, his horizons were far wider, new social truths had made their way into his impressionable mind, he recognised new social forces. His aims for the church, that he loved as ardently as he gloried in a powerful and beneficent state, had undergone a revolution. Since 1866 he had come into contact with democracy at close quarters; the Bulgarian campaign and Midlothian lighting up his early faith in liberty, had inflamed him with new feeling for the voice of the people. As much as in the early time when he had prayed to be allowed to go into orders, he was moved by a dominating sense of the common claims and interests of mankind. 'The contagion of the world's slow stain' had not infected him; the lustre and long continuity of his public performances still left all his innermost ideals constant and undimmed.

His fifty years of public life had wrought his early habits of severe toil, method, exactness, concentration, into cast-iron. Whether they had sharpened what is called knowledge of the world, or taught him insight into men and skill in discrimination among men, it is hard to say. He always talked as if he found the world pretty much what he had expected. Man, he used often to say, is the least comprehensible of creatures, and of men the most incomprehensible are the politicians. Yet nobody was less of the cynic. As for Weltschmerz, world-weariness, ennui, tedium [pg 089]

After Fifty Years

vitæ—that enervating family were no acquaintances of his, now nor at any time. None of the vicissitudes of long experience ever tempted him either into the shallow satire on life that is so often the solace of the little and the weak; or on the other hand into the saeva indignatio, the sombre brooding reprobation, that has haunted some strong souls from Tacitus and Dante to Pascal, Butler, Swift, Turgot. We may, indeed, be sure that neither of these two moods can ever hold a place in the breast of a commanding orator.


I have spoken of his new feeling for democracy. At the point of time at which we have arrived, it was heartily reciprocated. The many difficulties in the course of public affairs that confronted parliament and the nation for two years or more after Mr. Gladstone's second accession to power, did little to weaken either his personal popularity or his hold upon the confidence of the constituencies. For many years he and Mr. Disraeli had stood out above the level of their adherents; they were the centre of every political storm. Disraeli was gone (April 19, 1881), commemorated by Mr. Gladstone in a parliamentary tribute that cost him much searching of heart beforehand, and was a masterpiece of grace and good feeling. Mr. Gladstone stood alone, concentrating upon himself by his personal ascendency and public history the bitter antagonism of his opponents, only matched by the enthusiasm and devotion of his followers. The rage of faction had seldom been more unbridled. The Irish and the young fourth party were rivals in malicious vituperation; of the two, the Irish on the whole observed the better manners. Once Mr. Gladstone was wounded to the quick, as letters show, when a member of the fourth party denounced as “a government of infamy” the ministry with whose head he had long been on terms of more than friendship alike as host and guest. He could not fell his trees, he could not read the lessons in Hawarden church, without finding these innocent habits turned into material for platform mockery. “In the eyes of the opposition, as indeed of the country,” said a great print that was [pg 090] never much his friend, “he is the government and he is the liberal party,” and the writer went on to scold Lord Salisbury for wasting his time in the concoction of angry epigrams and pungent phrases that were neither new nor instructive.55 They pierced no joint in the mail of the warrior at whom they were levelled. The nation at large knew nothing of difficulties at Windsor, nothing of awkward passages in the cabinet, nothing of the trying egotisms of gentlemen out of the cabinet who insisted that they ought to be in. Nor would such things have made any difference except in his favour, if the public had known all about them. The Duke of Argyll and Lord Lansdowne had left him; his Irish policy had cost him his Irish secretary, and his Egyptian policy had cost him Mr. Bright. They had got into a war, they had been baffled in legislation, they had to raise the most unpopular of taxes, there had been the frightful tragedy in Ireland. Yet all seemed to have been completely overcome in the public mind by the power of Mr. Gladstone in uniting his friends and frustrating his foes, and the more bitterly he was hated by society, the more warmly attached were the mass of the people. Anybody who had foreseen all this would have concluded that the government must be in extremity, but he went to the Guildhall on the 9th of November 1882, and had the best possible reception on that famous stage. One tory newspaper felt bound to admit that Mr. Gladstone and his colleagues had rehabilitated themselves in the public judgment with astounding rapidity, and were now almost as strong in popular and parliamentary support as when they first took office.56 Another tory print declared Mr. Gladstone to be stronger, more popular, more despotic, than at any time since the policy to carry out which he was placed in office was disclosed.57 The session of 1882 had only been exceeded in duration by two sessions for fifty years.

The reader has had pictures enough from friendly hands, so here is one from a persistent foe, one of the most brilliant journalists of that time, who listened to him from [pg 091]

Parliamentary Power Unbroken

the gallery for years. The words are from an imaginary dialogue, and are put into the mouth of a well-known whig in parliament:—

Sir, I can only tell you that, profoundly as I distrusted him, and lightly as on the whole I valued the external qualities of his eloquence, I have never listened to him even for a few minutes without ceasing to marvel at his influence over men. That white-hot face, stern as a Covenanter's yet mobile as a comedian's; those restless, flashing eyes; that wondrous voice, whose richness its northern burr enriched as the tang of the wood brings out the mellowness of a rare old wine; the masterly cadence of his elocution; the vivid energy of his attitudes; the fine animation of his gestures;—sir, when I am assailed through eye and ear by this compacted phalanx of assailants, what wonder that the stormed outposts of the senses should spread the contagion of their own surrender through the main encampment of the mind, and that against my judgment, in contempt of my conscience, nay, in defiance of my very will, I should exclaim, This is indeed the voice of truth and wisdom. This man is honest and sagacious beyond his fellows. He must be believed, he must be obeyed!58

On the day of his political jubilee (Dec. 13), the event was celebrated in many parts of the country, and he received congratulatory telegrams from all parts of the world; for it was not only two hundred and forty liberal associations who sent him joyful addresses. The Roumelians poured out aloud their gratitude to him for the interest he constantly manifested in their cause, and for his powerful and persistent efforts for their emancipation. From Athens came the news that they had subscribed for the erection of his statue, and from the Greeks also came a splendid casket. In his letter of thanks,59 after remonstrating against its too great material value, he said:—

I know not well how to accept it, yet I am still less able to decline it, when I read the touching lines of the accompanying address, in itself an ample token, in which you have so closely [pg 092] associated my name with the history and destinies of your country. I am not vain enough to think that I have deserved any of the numerous acknowledgments which I have received, especially from Greeks, on completing half a century of parliamentary life. Your over-estimate of my deeds ought rather to humble than to inflate me. But to have laboured within the measure of justice for the Greece of the future, is one of my happiest political recollections, and to have been trained in a partial knowledge of the Greece of the past has largely contributed to whatever slender faculties I possess for serving my own country or my kind. I earnestly thank you for your indulgent judgment and for your too costly gifts, and I have the honour to remain, etc.

What was deeper to him than statues or caskets was found in letters from comparative newcomers into the political arena thanking him not only for his long roll of public service, but much more for the example and encouragement that his life gave to younger men endeavouring to do something for the public good. To one of these he wrote (Dec. 15):—

I thank you most sincerely for your kind and friendly letter. As regards the prospective part of it, I can assure you that I should be slow to plead the mere title to retirement which long labour is supposed to earn. But I have always watched, and worked according to what I felt to be the measure of my own mental force. A monitor from within tells me that though I may still be equal to some portions of my duties, or as little unequal as heretofore, there are others which I cannot face. I fear therefore I must keep in view an issue which cannot be evaded.


As it happened, this volume of testimony to the affection, gratitude, and admiration thus ready to go out to him from so many quarters coincided in point of time with one or two extreme vexations in the conduct of his daily business as head of the government. Some of them were aggravated by the loss of a man whom he regarded as one of his two or three most important friends. In September 1882 the Dean of Windsor died, and in his death Mr. Gladstone [pg 093]

Dean Wellesley

suffered a heavy blow. To the end he always spoke of Dr. Wellesley's friendship, and the value of his sagacity and honest service, with a warmth by this time given to few.

Death of the Dean of Windsor.

To Lord Granville, Sept. 18, 1882.—My belief is that he has been cognizant of every crown appointment in the church for nearly a quarter of a century, and that the whole of his influence has been exercised with a deep insight and a large heart for the best interests of the crown and the church. If their character during this period has been in the main more satisfactory to the general mind of the country than at some former periods, it has been in no small degree owing to him.

It has been my duty to recommend I think for fully forty of the higher appointments, including twelve which were episcopal. I rejoice to say that every one of them has had his approval. But I do not scruple to own that he has been in no small degree a help and guide to me; and as to the Queen, whose heart I am sure is at this moment bleeding, I do not believe she can possibly fill his place as a friendly adviser either in ecclesiastical or other matters.

To the Duchess of Wellington, Sept. 24.—He might, if he had chosen, have been on his way to the Archbishopric of Canterbury. Ten or eleven years ago, when the present primate was not expected to recover, the question of the succession was considered, and I had her Majesty's consent to the idea I have now mentioned. But, governed I think by his great modesty, he at once refused.

To Mrs. Wellesley, Nov. 19, 1882.—I have remained silent, at least to you, on a subject which for no day has been absent from my thoughts, because I felt that I could add nothing to your consolations and could take away nothing from your grief under your great calamity. But the time has perhaps come when I may record my sense of a loss of which even a small share is so large. The recollections of nearly sixty years are upon my mind, and through all that period I have felt more and more the force and value of your husband's simple and noble character. No less have I entertained an ever-growing sense of his great sagacity and the singularly true and just balance of his mind. We owe much [pg 094] indeed to you both for your constantly renewed kindness, but I have another debt to acknowledge in the invaluable assistance which he afforded me in the discharge of one among the most important and most delicate of my duties. This void never can be filled, and it helps me in some degree to feel what must be the void to you. Certainly he was happy in the enjoyment of love and honour from all who knew him; yet these were few in comparison with those whom he so wisely and so warmly served without their knowing it; and the love and honour paid him, great as they were, could not be as great as he deserved. His memory is blessed—may his rest be deep and sweet, and may the memory and example of him ever help you in your onward pilgrimage.

The same week Dr. Pusey died—a name that filled so large a space in the religious history of England for some thirty years of the century. Between Mr. Gladstone and him the old relations of affectionate friendship subsisted unbroken, notwithstanding the emancipation, as we may call it, of the statesman from maxims and principles, though not, so far as I know, from any of the leading dogmatic beliefs cherished by the divine. “I hope,” he wrote to Phillimore (Sept. 20, 1882), “to attend Dr. Pusey's funeral to-morrow at Oxford.... I shall have another mournful office to discharge in attending the funeral of the Dean of Windsor, more mournful than the first. Dr. Pusey's death is the ingathering of a ripe shock, and I go to his obsequies in token of deep respect and in memory of much kindness from him early in my life. But the death of Dean Wellesley is to my wife and me an unexpected and very heavy blow, also to me an irreparable loss. I had honoured and loved him from Eton days.”

The loss of Dean Wellesley's counsels was especially felt in ecclesiastical appointments, and the greatest of these was made necessary by the death of the Archbishop of Canterbury at the beginning of December. That the prime minister should regard so sage, conciliatory, and large-minded a steersman as Dr. Tait with esteem was certain, and their relations were easy and manly. Still, Tait had been an active liberal when Mr. Gladstone was a tory, and [pg 095]

Recommendation To Canterbury

from the distant days of the Tracts for the Times, when Tait had stood amongst the foremost in open dislike of the new tenets, their paths in the region of theology lay wide apart. “I well remember,” says Dean Lake, “a conversation with Mr. Gladstone on Tait's appointment to London in 1856, when he was much annoyed at Tait's being preferred to Bishop Wilberforce, and of which he reminded me nearly thirty years afterwards, at the time of the archbishop's death, by saying, ‘Ah! I remember you maintaining to me at that time that his σεμνότης and his judgment would make him a great bishop.’ ”60 And so, from the point of ecclesiastical statesmanship, he unquestionably was.

The recommendation of a successor in the historic see of Canterbury, we may be very certain, was no common event to Mr. Gladstone. Tait on his deathbed had given his opinion that Dr. Harold Browne, the Bishop of Winchester, would do more than any other man to keep the peace of the church. The Queen was strong in the same sense, thinking that the bishop might resign in a year or two, if he could not do the work. He was now seventy-one years old, and Mr. Gladstone judged this to be too advanced an age for the metropolitan throne. He was himself now seventy-three, and though his sense of humour was not always of the protective kind, he felt the necessity of some explanatory reason, and with him to seek a plea was to find one. He wrote to the Bishop of Winchester:—

... It may seem strange that I, who in my own person exhibit so conspicuously the anomaly of a disparate conjunction between years and duties, should be thus forward in interpreting the circumstances of another case certainly more mitigated in many respects, yet differing from my own case in one vital point, the newness of the duties of the English, or rather anglican or British, primacy to a diocesan bishop, however able and experienced, and the newness of mental attitude and action, which they would require. Among the materials of judgment in such an instance, it seems right to reckon precedents for what they are worth; and I cannot find that from the time of Archbishop Sheldon any one has [pg 096] assumed the primacy at so great an age as seventy. Juxon, the predecessor of Sheldon, was much older; but his case was altogether peculiar. I cannot say how pleasant it would have been to me personally, but for the barrier I have named, to mark my respect and affection for your lordship by making to you such a proposal. What is more important is, that I am directly authorised by her Majesty to state that this has been the single impediment to her conferring the honour, and imposing the burden, upon you of such an offer.61

The world made free with the honoured name of Church, the Dean of Saint Paul's, and it has constantly been said that he declined the august preferment to Canterbury on this occasion. In that story there is no truth. “Formal offer,” the Dean himself wrote to a friend, “there was none, and could not be, for I had already on another occasion told my mind to Gladstone, and said that reasons of health, apart from other reasons, made it impossible for me to think of anything, except a retirement altogether from office.”62

When it was rumoured that Mr. Gladstone intended to recommend Dr. Benson, then Bishop of Truro, to the archbishopric, a political supporter came to remonstrate with him. “The Bishop of Truro is a strong tory,” he said, “but that is not all. He has joined Mr. Raikes's election committee at Cambridge; and it was only last week that Raikes made a violent personal attack on yourself.” “Do you know,” replied Mr. Gladstone, “you have just supplied me with a strong argument in Dr. Benson's favour? For if he had been a worldly man or self-seeker, he would not have done anything so imprudent.” Perhaps we cannot wonder that whips and wirepullers deemed this to be somewhat over-ingenious, a Christianity out of season. Even liberals who took another point of view, still asked themselves how it was [pg 097]

Church Appointments

that when church preferment came his way, the prime minister so often found the best clergymen in the worst politicians. They should have remembered that he was of those who believed “no more glorious church in Christendom to exist than the church of England”; and its official ordering was in his eyes not any less, even if it was not infinitely more, important in the highest interests of the nation than the construction of a cabinet or the appointment of permanent heads of departments. The church was at this moment, moreover, in one of those angry and perilous crises that came of the Elizabethan settlement and the Act of Uniformity, and the anglican revival forty years ago, and all the other things that mark the arrested progress of the Reformation in England. The anti-ritualist hunt was up. Civil courts were busy with the conscience and conduct of the clergy. Harmless but contumacious priests were under lock and key. It seemed as if more might follow them, or else as if the shock of the great tractarian catastrophe of the forties might in some new shape recur. To recommend an archbishop in times like these could to a churchman be no light responsibility.

With such thoughts in his mind, however we may judge them, it is not altogether surprising that in seeking an ecclesiastical governor for an institution to him the most sacred and beloved of all forms of human association, Mr. Gladstone should have cared very little whether the personage best fitted in spirituals was quite of the right shade as to state temporals. The labour that he now expended on finding the best man is attested by voluminous correspondence. Dean Church, who was perhaps the most freely consulted by the prime minister, says, “Of one thing I am quite certain, that never for hundreds of years has so much honest disinterested pains been taken to fill the primacy—such inquiry and trouble resolutely followed out to find the really fittest man, apart from every personal and political consideration, as in this case.”63

Another ecclesiastical vacancy that led to volumes of correspondence was the deanery of Westminster the year [pg 098] before. In the summer of 1881 Dean Stanley died, and it is interesting to note how easy Mr. Gladstone found it to do full justice to one for whom as erastian and latitudinarian he could in opinion have such moderate approval. In offering to the Queen his “cordial sympathy” for the friend whom she had lost, he told her how early in his own life and earlier still in the dean's he had opportunities of watching the development of his powers, for they had both been educated at a small school near the home of Mr. Gladstone's boyhood.64 He went on to speak of Stanley's boundless generosity and brilliant gifts, his genial and attaching disposition. “There may be,” he said, “and must be much diversity as to parts of the opinions of Dean Stanley, but he will be long remembered as one who was capable of the deepest and widest love, and who received it in return.”

Far away from these regions of what he irreverently called the shovel hat, about this time Carlyle died (Feb. 4, 1881), a firm sympathiser with Mr. Gladstone in his views of the unspeakable Turk, but in all else the rather boisterous preacher of a gospel directly antipathetic. “Carlyle is at least a great fact in the literature of his time; and has contributed largely, in some respects too largely, towards forming its characteristic habits of thought.” So Mr. Gladstone wrote in 1876, in a highly interesting parallel between Carlyle and Macaulay—both of them honest, he said, both notwithstanding their honesty partisans; both of them, though variously, poets using the vehicle of prose; both having the power of painting portraits extraordinary for vividness and strength; each of them vastly though diversely powerful in expression, each more powerful in expression than in thought; neither of them to be resorted to for comprehensive disquisition, nor for balanced and impartial judgments.65 Perhaps it was too early in 1876 to speak of Carlyle as forming the characteristic habits of thought of his time, but undoubtedly now when he died, his influence was beginning to tell heavily against the speculative liberalism that had reigned in England for two generations, with enormous advantage to the peace, prosperity and power of [pg 099]


the country and the two generations concerned. Half lights and half truths are, as Mr. Gladstone implies, the utmost that Carlyle's works were found to yield in philosophy and history, but his half lights pointed in the direction in which men for more material reasons thought that they desired to go.


A reconstruction of the ministry had become necessary by his own abandonment of the exchequer. For one moment it was thought that Lord Hartington might become chancellor, leaving room for Lord Derby at the India office, but Lord Derby was not yet ready to join. In inviting Mr. Childers to take his place as chancellor of the exchequer, Mr. Gladstone told him (Dec. 1, 1882): “The basis of my action is not so much a desire to be relieved from labour, as an anxiety to give the country a much better finance minister than myself,—one whose eyes will be always ranging freely and vigilantly over the whole area of the great establishments, the public service and the laws connected with his office, for the purposes of improvement and of good husbandry.”

The claim of Sir Charles Dilke to a seat in the cabinet had become irresistible alike by his good service as undersecretary at the foreign office, and by his position out of doors; and as the admission of a radical must be balanced by a whig—so at least it was judged—Mr. Gladstone succeeded in inducing Lord Derby to join, though he had failed with him not long before.66

Apart from general objections at court, difficulties arose about the distribution of office. Mr. Chamberlain, who has always had his full share of the virtues of staunch friendship, agreed to give up to Sir C. Dilke his own office, which he much liked, and take the duchy, which he did not like at all. In acknowledging Mr. Chamberlain's letter (Dec. 14) Mr. Gladstone wrote to him, “I shall be glad, if I can, to avoid acting upon it. But I cannot refrain from at once writing a hearty line to acknowledge the self-sacrificing spirit in which it is written; and which, I am sure, you will never see cause to repent or change.” This, however, [pg 100] was found to be no improvement, for Mr. Chamberlain's language about ransoms to be paid by possessors of property, the offence of not toiling and spinning, and the services rendered by courtiers to kings, was not much less repugnant than rash assertions about the monarch evading the income-tax. All contention on personal points was a severe trial to Mr. Gladstone, and any conflict with the wishes of the Queen tried him most of all. One of his audiences upon these affairs Mr. Gladstone mentions in his diary: “Dec. 11.—Off at 12.45 to Windsor in the frost and fog. Audience of her Majesty at 3. Most difficult ground, but aided by her beautiful manners, we got over it better than might have been expected.” The dispute was stubborn, but like all else it came to an end; colleagues were obliging, holes and pegs were accommodated, and Lord Derby went to the colonial office, and Sir C. Dilke to the local government board. An officer of the court, who was in all the secrets and had foreseen all the difficulties, wrote that the actual result was due “to the judicious manner in which Mr. Gladstone managed everything. He argued in a friendly way, urging his views with moderation, and appealed to the Queen's sense of courtesy.”

In the course of his correspondence with the Queen, the prime minister drew her attention (Dec. 18) to the fact that when the cabinet was formed it included three ministers reputed to belong to the radical section, Mr. Bright, Mr. Forster, and Mr. Chamberlain, and of these only the last remained. The addition of Lord Derby was an addition drawn from the other wing of the party. Another point presented itself. The cabinet originally contained eight commoners and six peers. There were now seven peers and six commoners. This made it requisite to add a commoner. As for Mr. Chamberlain, the minister assured the Queen that though he had not yet, like Mr. Bright, undergone the mollifying influence of age and experience, his leanings on foreign policy would be far more acceptable to her Majesty than those of Mr. Bright, while his views were not known to be any more democratic in principle. He further expressed his firm opinion (Dec. 22) [pg 101]


that though Lord Derby might on questions of peace and war be some shades nearer to the views of Mr. Bright than the other members of the cabinet, yet he would never go anything like the length of Mr. Bright in such matters. In fact, said Mr. Gladstone, the cabinet must be deemed a little less pacific now than it was at its first formation. This at least was a consolatory reflection.

Ministerial reconstruction is a trying moment for the politician who thinks himself “not a favourite with his stars,” and is in a hurry for a box seat before his time has come. Mr. Gladstone was now harassed with some importunities of this kind.67 Personal collision with any who stood in the place of friends was always terrible to him. His gift of sleep deserted him. “It is disagreeable to talk of oneself,” he wrote to Lord Granville (Jan. 2, 1883), “when there is so much of more importance to think and speak about, but I am sorry to say that the incessant strain and pressure of work, and especially the multiplication of these personal questions, is overdoing me, and for the first time my power of sleep is seriously giving way. I dare say it would soon right itself if I could offer it any other medicine than the medicine in Hood's ‘Song of the Shirt.’ ” And the next day he wrote: “Last night I improved, 3-½-hours to 4-½, but this is different from 7 and 8, my uniform standard through life.” And two days later: “The matter of sleep is with me a very grave one. I am afraid I may have to go up and consult Clark. My habit has always been to reckon my hours rather exultingly, and say how little I am awake. It is not impossible that I may have to ask you to meet me in London, but I will not do this except in necessity. I think that, to convey a clear idea, I should say I attach no importance to the broken sleep itself; it is the state of the brain, tested by my own sensations, when I begin my work in the morning, which may [pg 102] make me need higher assurance.” Sir Andrew Clark, “overflowing with kindness, as always,” went down to Hawarden (Jan. 7), examined, and listened to the tale of heavy wakeful nights. While treating the case as one of temporary and accidental derangement, he instantly forbade a projected expedition to Midlothian, and urged change of air and scene.

This prohibition eased some of the difficulties at Windsor, where Midlothian was a name of dubious association, and in announcing to the Queen the abandonment by Dr. Clark's orders of the intended journey to the north, Mr. Gladstone wrote (Jan. 8, 1883):—

In your Majesty's very kind reference on the 5th to his former visits to Midlothian, and to his own observations on the 24th April 1880, your Majesty remarked that he had said he did not then think himself a responsible person. He prays leave to fill up the outline which these words convey by saying he at that time (to the best of his recollection) humbly submitted to your Majesty his admission that he must personally bear the consequences of all that he had said, and that he thought some things suitable to be said by a person out of office which could not suitably be said by a person in office; also that, as is intimated by your Majesty's words, the responsibilities of the two positions severally were different. With respect to the political changes named by your Majesty, Mr. Gladstone considers that the very safe measure of extending to the counties the franchise enjoyed by the boroughs stands in all likelihood for early consideration; but he doubts whether there can be any serious dealing of a general character with the land laws by the present parliament, and so far as Scottish disestablishment is concerned he does not conceive that that question has made progress during recent years; and he may state that in making arrangements recently for his expected visit to Midlothian, he had received various overtures for deputations on this subject, which he had been able to put aside.


On January 17, along with Mrs. Gladstone, at Charing Cross he said good-bye to many friends, and at Dover to Lord Granville, and the following afternoon he found himself at Cannes, the guest of the Wolvertons at the Château [pg 103]

Holiday At Cannes

Scott, “nobly situated, admirably planned, and the kindness exceeded even the beauty and the comfort.” “Here,” he says, “we fell in with the foreign hours, the snack early, déjeuner at noon, dinner at seven, break-up at ten.... I am stunned by this wonderful place, and so vast a change at a moment's notice in the conditions of life.” He read steadily through the Odyssey, Dixon's History of the Church of England, Scherer's Miscellanies, and The Life of Clerk-Maxwell, and every day he had long talks and walks with Lord Acton on themes personal, political and religious—and we may believe what a restorative he found in communion with that deep and well-filled mind—that “most satisfactory mind,” as Mr. Gladstone here one day calls it. He took drives to gardens that struck him as fairyland. The Prince of Wales paid him kindly attentions as always. He had long conversations with the Comte de Paris, and with M. Clémenceau, and with the Duke of Argyll, the oldest of his surviving friends. In the evening he played whist. Home affairs he kept at bay pretty successfully, though a speech of Lord Hartington's about local government in Ireland drew from him a longish letter to Lord Granville that the reader, if he likes, will find elsewhere.68 His conversation with M. Clémenceau (whom he found “decidedly pleasing”) was thought indiscreet, but though the most circumspect of men, the buckram of a spurious discretion was no favourite wear with Mr. Gladstone. As for the report of his conversation with the French radical, he wrote to Lord Granville, “It includes much which Clémenceau did not say to me, and omits much which he did, for our principal conversation was on Egypt, about which he spoke in a most temperate and reasonable manner.” He read the “harrowing details” of the terrible scene in the court-house at Kilmainham, where the murderous Invincibles were found out. “About Carey,” he said to Lord Granville, “the spectacle is indeed loathsome, but I cannot doubt that the Irish government are distinctly right. In accepting an approver you do not incite him to do what is in itself wrong; only his own bad mind can make it wrong to him. The government looks for the truth. Approvers are, I suppose, [pg 104] for the most part base, but I do not see how you could act on a distinction of degree between them. Still, one would have heard the hiss from the dock with sympathy.”

Lord Granville wrote to him (Jan. 31, 1883) that the Queen insisted much upon his diminishing the amount of labour thrown upon him, and expressed her opinion that his acceptance of a peerage would relieve him of the heavy strain. Lord Granville told her that personally he should be delighted to see him in the Lords, but that he had great doubts whether Mr. Gladstone would be willing. From Cannes Mr. Gladstone replied (Feb. 3):—

As to removal into the House of Lords, I think the reasons against it of general application are conclusive. At least I cannot see my way in regard to them. But at any rate it is obvious that such a step is quite inapplicable to the circumstances created by the present difficulty. It is really most kind of the Queen to testify such an interest, and the question is how to answer her. You would do this better and perhaps more easily than I.

Perhaps he remembered the case of Pulteney and of the Great Commoner.

He was not without remorse at the thought of his colleagues in harness while he was lotus-eating. On the day before the opening of the session he writes, “I feel dual: I am at Cannes, and in Downing Street eating my parliamentary dinner.” By February 21 he was able to write to Lord Granville:—

As regards my health there is no excuse. It has got better and better as I have stayed on, and is now, I think, on a higher level than for a long time past. My sleep, for example, is now about as good as it can be, and far better than it was during the autumn sittings, after which it got so bad. The pleasure I have had in staying does not make an argument at all; it is a mere expression or anticipation of my desire to be turned out to grass for good....

At last the end of the holiday came. “I part from Cannes with a heavy heart,” he records on Feb. 26:—

Read the Iliad, copiously. Off by the 12.30 train. We exchanged bright sun, splendid views, and a little dust at the [pg 105] beginning of our journey, for frost and fog, which however hid no scenery, at the end. 27th, Tuesday.—Reached Paris at 8, and drove to the Embassy, where we had a most kind reception [from Lord Lyons]. Wrote to Lord Granville, Lord Spencer, Sir W. Harcourt. Went with Lord L. to see M. Grévy; also Challemel-Lacour in his most palatial abode. Looked about among the shops; and at the sad face of the Tuileries. An embassy party to dinner; excellent company.

To Lord Granville.

Feb. 27th.—I have been with Lord Lyons to see Grévy and Challemel-Lacour. Grevy's conversation consisted of civilities and a mournful lecture on the political history of France, with many compliments to the superiority of England. Challemel thought the burdens of public life intolerable and greater here than in England, which is rather strong. Neither made the smallest allusion to present questions, and it was none of my business to introduce them....

After three days of bookstalls, ivory-hunting, and conversation, by the evening of March 2 the travellers were once more after a bright day and rapid passage safe in Downing Street.

Shortly after their return from the south of France the Gladstones paid a visit to the Prince and Princess of Wales:—

March 30, 1883.—Off at 11.30 to Sandringham. Reception kinder if possible even than heretofore. Wrote.... Read and worked on London municipality. 31, Saturday.—Wrote. Root-cut a small tree in the forenoon; then measured oaks in the park; one of 30 feet. In the afternoon we drove to Houghton, a stately house and place, but woe-begone. Conversation with Archbishop of Canterbury, Prince of Wales and others. Read ... Life of Hatherley, Law's account of Craig. April 1.—Sandringham church, morning. West Newton, evening. Good services and sermons from the archbishop. The Prince bade me read the lessons. Much conversation with the archbishop, also Duke of Cambridge. Read Nineteenth Century on Revised Version; Manning on Education; Life of Hatherley; Craig's Catechism. Wrote, etc. 2.—Off [pg 106] at 11. D. Street 3.15. Wrote to the Queen. Long conversation with the archbishop in the train.

Here a short letter or two may find a place:—

To Lady Jessel on her husband's death.

March 30.—Though I am reluctant to intrude upon your sorrow still so fresh, and while I beg of you on no account to acknowledge this note, I cannot refrain from writing to assure you not only of my sympathy with your grief, but of my profound sense of the loss which the country and its judiciary have sustained by the death of your distinguished husband. From the time of his first entrance into parliament I followed his legal expositions with an ignorant but fervid admiration, and could not help placing him in the first rank, a rank held by few, of the many able and powerful lawyers whom during half a century I have known and heard in parliament. When I came to know him as a colleague, I found reason to admire no less sincerely his superiority to considerations of pecuniary interest, his strong and tenacious sense of the dignity of his office, and his thoroughly frank, resolute, and manly character. These few words, if they be a feeble, yet I assure you are also a genuine, tribute to a memory which I trust will long be cherished. Earnestly anxious that you may have every consolation in your heavy bereavement.

To Cardinal Manning.

April 19.—I thank you much for your kind note, though I am sorry to have given you the trouble of writing it. Both of us have much to be thankful for in the way of health, but I should have, hoped that your extremely spare living would have saved you from the action of anything like gouty tendencies. As for myself, I can in no way understand how it is that for a full half century I have been permitted and enabled to resist a pressure of special liabilities attaching to my path of life, to which so many have given way. I am left as a solitary, surviving all his compeers. But I trust it may not be long ere I escape into some position better suited to declining years.

To Sir W. V. Harcourt.

April 27.—A separate line to thank you for your more than kind words about my rather Alexandrine speech last night; as to [pg 107] which I can only admit that it contained one fine passage—six lines in length.69 Your instincts of kindliness in all personal matters are known to all the world. I should be glad, on selfish grounds, if I could feel sure that they had not a little warped your judicial faculty for the moment. But this misgiving abates nothing from my grateful acknowledgment.

An application was made to him on behalf of a member of the opposite party for a political pension, and here is his reply, to which it may be added that ten years later he had come rather strongly to the view that political pensions should be abolished, and he was only deterred from trying to carry out his view by the reminder from younger ministers, not themselves applicants nor ever likely to be, that it would hardly be a gracious thing to cut off benefactions at a time when the bestowal of them was passing away from him, though he had used them freely while that bestowal was within his reach.

Political Pensions.

July 4, 1883.—You are probably aware that during the fifty years which have passed since the system of political and civil pensions was essentially remodelled, no political pension has been granted by any minister except to one of those with whom he stood on terms of general confidence and co-operation. It is needless to refer to older practice.

This is not to be accounted for by the fact that after meeting the just claims of political adherents, there has been nothing left to bestow. For, although it has happened that the list of pensions of the first class has usually been full, it has not been so with political pensions of the other classes, which have, I think, rarely if ever been granted to the fullest extent that the Acts have allowed. At the present time, out of twelve pensions which may legally be conferred, only seven have been actually given, if I reckon rightly. I do not think that this state of facts can have been due to the absence of cases entitled to consideration, and I am quite certain that it is not to be accounted for by what are commonly termed party motives. It was obvious to me that I [pg 108] could not create a precedent of deviation from a course undeviatingly pursued by my predecessors of all parties, without satisfying myself that a new form of proceeding would be reasonable and safe. The examination of private circumstances, such as I consider the Act to require, is from its own nature difficult and invidious: but the examination of competing cases in the ex-official corps is a function that could not, I think, be discharged with the necessary combination of free responsible action, and of exemption from offence and suspicion. Such cases plainly may occur.70

To H.R.H. the Prince of Wales.

August 14th.—I am much shocked at an omission which I made last night in failing to ask your royal Highness's leave to be the first to quit Lord Alcester's agreeable party, in order that I might attend to my duties in the House of Commons. In my early days not only did the whole company remain united, if a member of the royal family were present, until the exalted personage had departed; but I well recollect the application of the same rule in the case of the Archbishop (Howley) of Canterbury. I am sorry to say that I reached the House of Commons in time to hear some outrageous speeches from the ultra Irish members. I will not say that they were meant to encourage crime, but they tended directly to teach the Irish people to withhold their confidence from the law and its administrators; and they seemed to exhibit Lord Spencer as the enemy to the mass of the community—a sad and disgraceful fact, though I need not qualify what I told your royal Highness, that they had for some time past not been guilty of obstruction.

Even in pieces that were in their nature more or less official, he touched the occasions of life by a note that was not merely official, or was official in its best form. To Mrs. Garfield he wrote (July 21, 1881):—

You will, I am sure, excuse me, though a personal stranger, for addressing you by letter, to convey to you the assurance of my [pg 109] own feelings and those of my countrymen on the occasion of the late horrible attempt to murder the President of the United States, in a form more palpable at least than that of messages conveyed by telegraph. Those feelings have been feelings in the first instance of sympathy, and afterwards of joy and thankfulness, almost comparable, and I venture to say only second to the strong emotions of the great nation, of which he is the appointed head. Individually I have, let me beg you to believe, had my full share in the sentiments which have possessed the British nation. They have been prompted and quickened largely by what I venture to think is the ever-growing sense of harmony and mutual respect and affection between the two countries, and of a relationship which from year to year becomes more and more a practical bond of union between us. But they have also drawn much of their strength from a cordial admiration of the simple heroism which has marked the personal conduct of the President, for we have not yet wholly lost the capacity of appreciating such an example of Christian faith and manly fortitude. This exemplary picture has been made complete by your own contribution to its noble and touching features, on which I only forbear to dwell because I am directly addressing you.

Under all the conventional solemnities in Mr. Gladstone on such occasions, we are conscious of a sincere feeling that they were in real relation to human life and all its chances and changes.

[pg 110]

Chapter VII. Colleagues—Northern Cruise—Egypt. (1883)

Parran faville della sua virtute
In non curar d'argento nè d'affanni.

Paradiso, xvii. 83.

Sparks of his worth shall show in the little heed he gives either to riches or to heavy toils.


The session of 1883 was marked by one legislative performance of the first order, the bill devised against corrupt practices at elections. This invaluable measure was worked through the House of Commons mainly by Sir Henry James, the attorney general, whose skill and temper in a business that was made none the easier by the fact of every man in the House supposing himself to understand the subject, excited Mr. Gladstone's cordial admiration; it strengthened that peculiarly warm regard in which he held Sir Henry, not only now but even when the evil days of political severance came. The prime minister, though assiduous, as he always was, in the discharge of those routine and secondary duties which can never be neglected without damage to the House, had, for the first session in his career as head of a government, no burden in the shaping of a great bill. He insisted, in spite of some opposition in the cabinet, on accepting a motion pledging parliament to economy (April 3). In a debate on the Congo, he was taken by some to have gone near to giving up the treaty-making power of the crown. He had to face more than one of those emergencies that were naturally common for the leader of a party with a zealous radical wing represented in his cabinet, and in some measure these occasions beset Mr. Gladstone from 1869 [pg 111]

Mr. Bright And The Irishmen

onwards. His loyalty and kindness to colleagues who got themselves and him into scrapes by imprudent speeches, and his activity and resource in inventing ways out of scrapes, were always unfailing. Often the difficulty was with the Queen, sometimes with the House of Lords, occasionally with the Irish members. Birmingham, for instance, held a grand celebration (June 13) on the twenty-fifth anniversary of Mr. Bright's connection as its representative. Mr. Bright used strong language about “Irish rebels,” and then learned that he would be called to account. He consulted Mr. Gladstone, and from him received a reply that exhibits the use of logic as applied to inconvenient displays of the sister art of rhetoric:—

To Mr. Bright.

June 15, 1883.—I have received your note, and I am extremely sorry either that you should have personal trouble after your great exertions, or that anything should occur to cloud the brilliancy or mar the satisfaction of your recent celebration in Birmingham. I have looked at the extract from your speech, which is to be alleged as the corpus delicti, with a jealous eye. It seems well to be prepared for the worst. The points are, I think, three:—1. Not a few tories are guilty of determined obstruction. I cannot conceive it possible that this can be deemed a breach of privilege. 2. These members are found 'in alliance' with the Irish party. Alliance is often predicated by those who disapprove, upon the ground that certain persons have been voting together. This I think can hardly be a breach of privilege even in cases where it may be disputable or untrue.

But then: 3. This Irish party are rebels whose oath of allegiance is broken by association with the enemies of the country. Whether these allegations are true or not, the following questions arise:—(a) Can they be proved; (b) Are they allegations which would be allowed in debate? I suppose you would agree with me that they cannot be proved; and I doubt whether they would be allowed in debate. The question whether they are a breach of privilege is for the House; but the Speaker would have to say, if called upon, whether they were allowable in debate. My impression [pg 112] is that he would say no; and I think you would not wish to use elsewhere expressions that you could not repeat in the House of Commons.

The Speaker has a jotting in his diary which may end this case of a great man's excess:—

June 18.—Exciting sitting. Bright's language about Irish rebels. Certainly his language was very strong and quite inadmissible if spoken within the House. In conversation with Northcote I deprecated the taking notice of language outside the House, though I could not deny that the House, if it thought fit, might regard the words as a breach of privilege. But Northcote was no doubt urged by his friends.

Mr. Chamberlain's was a heavier business, and led to much correspondence and difficult conversation in high places. A little of it, containing general principles, will probably suffice here:—

To Sir Henry Ponsonby.

June 22.—Re Chamberlain's speech. I am sorry to say I had not read the report until I was warned by your letters to Granville and to Hamilton, for my sight does not allow me to read largely the small type of newspapers. I have now read it, and I must at once say with deep regret. We had done our best to keep the Bright celebration in harmony with the general tone of opinion by the mission which Granville kindly undertook. I am the more sorry about this speech, because Chamberlain has this year in parliament shown both tact and talent in the management of questions not polemical, such as the bankruptcy bill. The speech is open to exception from three points of view, as I think—first in relation to Bright, secondly in relation to the cabinet, thirdly and most especially in relation to the crown, to which the speech did not indicate the consciousness of his holding any special relation.

June. 26.—It appeared to me in considering the case of Mr. Chamberlain's speech that by far the best correction would be found, if a natural opportunity should offer, in a speech differently coloured from himself. I found also that he was engaged to preside on Saturday next at the dinner of the Cobden Club. I addressed myself [pg 113] therefore to this point, and Mr. Chamberlain will revert, on that occasion, to the same line of thought.... But, like Granville, I consider that the offence does not consist in holding certain opinions, of which in my judgment the political force and effect are greatly exaggerated, but in the attitude assumed, and the tone and colour given to the speech.

To Lord Granville.

July 1, 1883.—I have read with care Chamberlain's speech of last night [at the Cobden Club dinner].... Am I right or wrong in understanding the speech as follows? He admits without stint that in a cabinet concessions may be made as to action, but he seems to claim an unlimited liberty of speech. Now I should be as far as possible from asserting that under all circumstances speech must be confined within the exact limits to which action is tied down. But I think the dignity and authority, not to say the honour and integrity, of government require that the liberty of speaking beyond those limits should be exercised sparingly, reluctantly, and with much modesty and reserve. Whereas Chamberlain's Birmingham speech exceeded it largely, gratuitously, and with a total absence of recognition of the fact that he was not an individual but a member of a body. And the claim made last night to liberty of speech must be read with the practical illustration afforded by the Birmingham discourse, which evidently now stands as an instance, a sort of moral instance, of the mode in which liberty of speech is to be reconciled with limitation of action.71

In order to test the question, must we not bear in mind that the liberty claimed in one wing of a cabinet may also be claimed in another, and that while one minister says I support this measure, though it does not go far enough, another may just as lawfully say I support this measure, though it goes too far? For example, Argyll agreed to the Disturbance Compensation bill in 1880, [pg 114] mainly out of regard to his colleagues and their authority. What if he had used in the House of Lords language like that I have just supposed? Every extravagance of this kind puts weapons into the hands of opponents, and weakens the authority of government, which is hardly ever too strong, and is often too weak already.

In a letter written some years before when he was leader of the House, Mr. Gladstone on the subject of the internal discipline of a ministerial corps told one, who was at that time and now his colleague, a little story:—

As the subject is one of interest, perhaps you will let me mention the incident which first obliged me to reflect upon it. Nearly thirty years ago, my leader, Sir R. Peel, agreed in the Irish Tithes bills to give 25 per cent. of the tithe to the landlord in return for that Commutation. Thinking this too much (you see that twist was then already in me), I happened to say so in a private letter to an Irish clergyman. Very shortly after I had a note from Peel, which inclosed one from Shaw, his head man in Ireland, complaining of my letter as making his work impossible if such things were allowed to go on. Sir R. Peel indorsed the remonstrance, and I had to sing small. The discipline was very tight in those days (and we were in opposition, not in government). But it worked well on the whole, and I must say it was accompanied on Sir R. Peel's part with a most rigid regard to rights of all kinds within the official or quasi-official corps, which has somewhat declined in more recent times.

A minister had made some reference in a public speech, to what happened in the cabinet of which he was a member. “I am sure it cannot have occurred to you,” Mr. Gladstone wrote, “that the cabinet is the operative part of the privy council, that the privy councillor's oath is applicable to its proceedings, that this is a very high obligation, and that no one can dispense with it except the Queen. I may add that I believe no one is entitled even to make a note of the proceedings except the prime minister, who has to report its proceedings on every occasion of its meeting to the Queen, and who must by a few scraps assist his memory.”

By the end of the session, although its labours had not [pg 115]

Official Discipline

been on the level of either 1881 or 1882, Mr. Gladstone was somewhat strained. On Aug. 22 he writes to Mrs. Gladstone at Hawarden: “Yesterday at 4½ I entered the House hoping to get out soon and write you a letter, when the Speaker told me Northcote was going to raise a debate on the Appropriation bill, and I had to wait, listen, and then to speak for more than an hour, which tired me a good deal, finding me weak after sitting till 2.30 the night before, and a long cabinet in the interval. Rough work for 73!”


In September he took a holiday in a shape that, though he was no hearty sailor, was always a pleasure and a relief to him. Three letters to the Queen tell the story, and give a glimpse of court punctilio:—

On the North Sea, Sept. 15. Posted at Copenhagen, Sept. 16, 1883.—Mr. Gladstone presents his humble duty to your Majesty, and has to offer his humble apology for not having sought from your Majesty the usual gracious permission before setting foot on a foreign shore. He embarked on the 8th in a steamer of the Castles Company under the auspices of Sir Donald Currie, with no more ambitious expectation than that of a cruise among the Western Isles. But the extraordinary solidity, so to call it, of a very fine ship (the Pembroke Castle, 4000 tons, 410 feet long) on the water, rendering her in no small degree independent of weather, encouraged his fellow-voyagers, and even himself, though a most indifferent sailor, to extend their views, and the vessel is now on the North Sea running over to Christiansand in Norway, from whence it is proposed to go to Copenhagen, with the expectation, however, of again touching British soil in the middle of next week. Mr. Gladstone humbly trusts that, under these circumstances, his omission may be excused.

Mr. Tennyson, who is one of the party, is an excellent sailor, and seems to enjoy himself much in the floating castle, as it may be termed in a wider sense than that of its appellation on the register. The weather has been variable with a heavy roll from the Atlantic at the points not sheltered; but the stormy North Sea has on the whole behaved extremely well as regards its two besetting liabilities to storm and fog.

[pg 116]

Ship Pembroke Castle, Mouth of the Thames. Sept. 20, 1883.—Mr. Gladstone with his humble duty reports to your Majesty his return this evening from Copenhagen to London. The passage was very rapid, and the weather favourable. He had the honour, with his wife and daughter and other companions of his voyage, to receive an invitation to dine at Fredensborg on Monday. He found there the entire circle of illustrious personages who have been gathered for some time in a family party, with a very few exceptions. The singularly domestic character of this remarkable assemblage, and the affectionate intimacy which appeared to pervade it, made an impression upon him not less deep than the demeanour of all its members, which was so kindly and so simple, that even the word condescending could hardly be applied to it. Nor must Mr. Gladstone allow himself to omit another striking feature of the remarkable picture, in the unrestrained and unbounded happiness of the royal children, nineteen in number, who appeared like a single family reared under a single roof.

[The royal party, forty in number, visit the ship.]

The Emperor of Russia proposed the health of your Majesty. Mr. Gladstone by arrangement with your Majesty's minister at this court, Mr. Vivian, proposed the health of the King and Queen of Denmark, and the Emperor and Empress of Russia, and the King and Queen of the Hellenes. The King of Denmark did Mr. Gladstone the honour to propose his health; and Mr. Gladstone in acknowledging this toast, thought he could not do otherwise, though no speeches had been made, than express the friendly feeling of Great Britain towards Denmark, and the satisfaction with which the British people recognised the tie of race which unites them with the inhabitants of the Scandinavian countries. Perhaps the most vigorous and remarkable portion of the British nation had, Mr. Gladstone said, been drawn from these countries. After luncheon, the senior imperial and royal personages crowded together into a small cabin on the deck to hear Mr. Tennyson read two of his poems, several of the younger branches clustering round the doors. Between 2 and 3, the illustrious party left the Pembroke Castle, and in the midst of an animated scene, went on board the King of Denmark's yacht, which steamed towards Elsinore.

[pg 117]

Mr. Gladstone was much pleased to observe that the Emperor of Russia appeared to be entirely released from the immediate pressure of his anxieties supposed to weigh much upon his mind. The Empress of Russia has the genial and gracious manners which on this, and on every occasion, mark H.R.H. the Princess of Wales.

Sept. 22, 1883.—Mr. Gladstone presents his humble duty to your Majesty, and has to acknowledge your Majesty's letter of the 20th giving him full credit for not having reflected at the time when he decided, as your Majesty believes, to extend his recent cruise to Norway and Denmark.

He may humbly state that he had no desire or idea beyond a glance, if only for a few hours, at a little of the fine and peculiar scenery of Norway. But he is also responsible for having acquiesced in the proposal (which originated with Mr. Tennyson) to spend a day at Copenhagen, where he happens to have some associations of literary interest; for having accepted an unexpected invitation to dine with the king some thirty miles off; and for having promoted the execution of a wish, again unexpectedly communicated to him, that a visit of the illustrious party to the Pembroke Castle should be arranged. Mr. Gladstone ought probably to have foreseen all these things. With respect to the construction put upon his act abroad, Mr. Gladstone ought again, perhaps, to have foreseen that, in countries habituated to more important personal meetings, which are uniformly declared to be held in the interests of general peace, his momentary and unpremeditated contact with the sovereigns at Fredensborg would be denounced, or suspected of a mischievous design. He has, however, some consolation in finding that, in England at least, such a suspicion appears to have been confined to two secondary journals, neither of which has ever found (so far as he is aware) in any act of his anything but guilt and folly.

Thus adopting, to a great extent, your Majesty's view, Mr. Gladstone can confirm your Majesty's belief that (with the exception of a sentence addressed by him to the King of the Hellenes singly respecting Bulgaria), there was on all hands an absolute silence in regard to public affairs....

In proposing at Kirkwall the health of the poet who was [pg 118] his fellow-guest on the cruise, Mr. Gladstone let fall a hint—a significant and perhaps a just one—on the comparative place of politics and letters, the difference between the statesman and orator and the poet. “Mr. Tennyson's life and labour,” he said, “correspond in point of time as nearly as possible to my own; but he has worked in a higher field, and his work will be more durable. We public men play a part which places us much in view of our countrymen, but the words which we speak have wings and fly away and disappear.... But the Poet Laureate has written his own song on the hearts of his countrymen that can never die.”


It was said in 1884 that the organisation of Egypt was a subject, whether regarded from the English or the European point of view, that was probably more complicated and more fraught with possible dangers in the future, than any question of foreign policy with which England had had to deal for the last fifty years or more.

The arguments against prolonged English occupation were tolerably clear. It would freeze all cordiality between ourselves and the French. It would make us a Mediterranean military power. In case of war, the necessity of holding Egypt would weaken us. In diplomacy it would expose fresh surface to new and hostile combinations. Yet, giving their full weight to every one of these considerations, a British statesman was confronted by one of those intractable dilemmas that make up the material of a good half of human history. The Khedive could not stand by himself. The Turk would not, and ought not to be endured for his protector. Some other European power would step in and block the English road. Would common prudence in such a case suffer England to acquiesce and stand aside? Did not subsisting obligations also confirm the precepts of policy and self-interest? In many minds this reasoning was clenched and clamped by the sacrifices that England had made when she took, and took alone, the initial military step.

Egyptian affairs were one of the heaviest loads that [pg 119]

Occupation Of Egypt

weighed upon Mr. Gladstone during the whole of 1884. One day in the autumn of this year, towards the end of the business before the cabinet, a minister asked if there was anything else. “No,” said Mr. Gladstone with sombre irony as he gathered up his papers, “we have done our Egyptian business, and we are an Egyptian government.” His general position was sketched in a letter to Lord Granville (Mar. 22, 1884): “In regard to the Egyptian question proper, I am conscious of being moved by three powerful considerations. (1) Respect for European law, and for the peace of eastern Europe, essentially connected with its observance. (2) The just claims of the Khedive, who has given us no case against him, and his people as connected with him. (3) Indisposition to extend the responsibilities of this country. On the first two I feel very stiff. On the third I should have due regard to my personal condition as a vanishing quantity.”

The question of the continuance of the old dual control by England and France was raised almost immediately after the English occupation began, but English opinion supported or stimulated the cabinet in refusing to restore a form of co-operation that had worked well originally in the hands of Baring and de Blignières, but had subsequently betrayed its inherent weakness. France resumed what is diplomatically styled liberty of action in Egypt; and many months were passed in negotiations, the most entangled in which a British government was ever engaged. Why did not England, impatient critics of Mr. Gladstone and his cabinet inquire, at once formally proclaim a protectorate? Because it would have been a direct breach of her moral obligations of good faith to Europe. These were undisputed and indisputable. It would have brought her within instant reach of a possible war with France, for which the sinister and interested approval of Germany would have been small compensation.

The issue lay between annexation and withdrawal,—annexation to be veiled and indirect, withdrawal to be cautious and conditional. No member of the cabinet at this time seems to have listened with any favour whatever to the mention of annexation. Apart from other [pg 120] objections, it would undeniably have been a flagrant breach of solemn international engagements. The cabinet was pledged up to the lips to withdrawal, and when Lord Hartington talked to the House of Commons of the last British soldier quitting Egypt in a few months, nobody ever doubted then or since that he was declaring the sincere intention of the cabinet. Nor was any doubt possible that the intention of the cabinet entirely coincided at that time with the opinion and wishes of the general public. The operations in Egypt had not been popular,72 and the national temper was still as hostile to all expansion as when it cast out Lord Beaconsfield. Withdrawal, however, was beset with inextricable difficulties. Either withdrawal or annexation would have simplified the position and brought its own advantages. Neither was possible. The British government after Tel-el-Kebir vainly strove to steer a course that would combine the advantages of both. Say what they would, military occupation was taken to make them responsible for everything that happened in Egypt. This encouraged the view that they should give orders to Egypt, and make Egypt obey. But then direct and continuous interference with the Egyptian administration was advance in a path that could only end in annexation. To govern Egypt from London through a native ministry, was in fact nothing but annexation, and annexation in its clumsiest and most troublesome shape. Such a policy was least of all to be reconciled with the avowed policy of withdrawal. To treat native ministers as mere ciphers and puppets, and then to hope to leave them at the end with authority enough to govern the country by themselves, was pure delusion.

So much for our relations with Egypt internally. Then came Europe and the Powers, and the regulation of a financial situation of indescribable complexity. “I sometimes fear,” Mr. Gladstone wrote to Lord Granville (Dec. 8, [pg 121]

Egyptian Finance

1884), “that some of the foreign governments have the same notion of me that Nicholas was supposed to have of Lord Aberdeen. But there is no one in the cabinet less disposed than I am to knuckle down to them in this Egyptian matter, about which they, except Italy, behave so ill, some of them without excuse.” “As to Bismarck,” he said, “it is a case of sheer audacity, of which he has an unbounded stock.” Two months before he had complained to Lord Granville of the same powerful personage: “Ought not some notice to be taken of Bismarck's impudent reference to the English exchequer? Ought you to have such a remark in your possession without protest? He coolly assumes in effect that we are responsible for all the financial wants and occasions of Egypt.”

The sensible reader would resist any attempt to drag him into the Serbonian bog of Egyptian finance. Nor need I describe either the protracted conference of the European Powers, or the mission of Lord Northbrook. To this able colleague, Mr. Gladstone wrote on the eve of his departure (Aug. 29, 1884):—

I cannot let you quit our shores without a word of valediction. Your colleagues are too deeply interested to be impartial judges of your mission. But they certainly cannot be mistaken in their appreciation of the generosity and courage which could alone have induced you to undertake it. Our task in Egypt generally may not unfairly be called an impossible task, and with the impossible no man can successfully contend. But we are well satisfied that whatever is possible, you will achieve; whatever judgment, experience, firmness, gentleness can do, will be done. Our expectations from the nature of the case must be moderate; but be assured, they will not be the measure of our gratitude. All good go with you.

Lord Northbrook's report when in due time it came, engaged the prime minister's anxious consideration, but it could not be carried further. What the Powers might agree to, parliament would not look at. The situation was one of the utmost delicacy and danger, as anybody who is aware of the diplomatic embarrassments of it knows. An agreement [pg 122] with France about the Suez Canal came to nothing. A conference upon finance came to nothing. Bismarck was out of humour with England, partly from his dislike of certain exalted English personages and influences at his own court, partly because it suited him that France and England should be bad friends, partly because, as he complained, whenever he tried to found a colony, we closed in upon him. He preached a sermon on do ut des, and while scouting the idea of any real differences with this country, he hinted that if we could not accommodate him in colonial questions, he might not find it in his power to accommodate us in European questions. Mr. Gladstone declared for treating every German claim in an equitable spirit, but said we had our own colonial communities to consider.

In March 1885, after negotiations that threatened to be endless, the London Convention was signed and the riddle of the financial sphinx was solved. This made possible the coming years of beneficent reform. The wonder is, says a competent observer, how in view of the indifference of most of the Powers to the welfare of Egypt and the bitter annoyance of France at our position in that country, the English government ever succeeded in inducing all the parties concerned to agree to so reasonable an arrangement.73

Meanwhile, as we shall see all too soon, the question of Egypt proper, as it was then called, had brought up the question of the Soudan, and with it an incident that made what Mr. Gladstone called “the blackest day since the Phœnix Park.” In 1884 the government still seemed prosperous. The ordinary human tendency to croak never dies, especially in the politics of party. Men talked of humiliation abroad, ruin at home, agricultural interests doomed, trade at a standstill—calamities all obviously due to a government without spirit, and a majority with no independence. But then humiliation, to be sure, only meant jealousy in other countries because we declined to put ourselves in the wrong, and to be hoodwinked into unwise alliances. Ruin only meant reform without revolution. Doom meant an inappreciable falling off in the vast volume of our trade.

[pg 123]

Chapter VIII. Reform. (1884)

Decision by majorities is as much an expedient as lighting by gas. In adopting it as a rule, we are not realising perfection, but bowing to an imperfection. It has the great merit of avoiding, and that by a test perfectly definite, the last resort to violence; and of making force itself the servant instead of the master of authority. But our country rejoices in the belief that she does not decide all things by majorities.—Gladstone (1858).


“The word procedure,” said Mr. Gladstone to a club of young political missionaries in 1884, “has in it something homely, and it is difficult for any one, except those who pass their lives within the walls of parliament, to understand how vital and urgent a truth it is, that there is no more urgent demand, there is no aim or purpose more absolutely essential to the future victories and the future efficiency of the House of Commons, than that it should effect, with the support of the nation—for it can be effected in no other way—some great reform in the matter of its procedure.” He spoke further of the “absolute and daily-growing necessity of what I will describe as a great internal reform of the House of Commons, quite distinct from that reform beyond its doors on which our hearts are at present especially set.” Reform from within and reform from without were the two tasks, neither of them other than difficult in themselves and both made supremely difficult by the extraordinary spirit of faction at that time animating the minority. The internal reform had been made necessary, as Mr. Gladstone expressed it, by systematised obstruction, based upon the abuse of ancient and generous rules, under which system the House of Commons “becomes more and more the slave of some of the poorest [pg 124] and most insignificant among its members.” Forty years before he told the provost of Oriel, “The forms of parliament are little more than a mature expression of the principles of justice in their application to the proceedings of deliberative bodies, having it for their object to secure freedom and reflection, and well fitted to attain that object.” These high ideals had been gradually lowered, for Mr. Parnell had found out that the rules which had for their object the security of freedom and reflection, could be still more effectually wrested to objects the very opposite.

In Mr. Gladstone's first session (1833) 395 members (the speaker excluded) spoke, and the total number of speeches was 5765. Fifty years later, in the session of 1883, the total number of speeches had risen to 21,160. The remedies proposed from time to time in this parliament by Mr. Gladstone were various, and were the occasion of many fierce and stubborn conflicts. But the subject is in the highest degree technical, and only intelligible to those who, as Mr. Gladstone said, “pass their lives within the walls of parliament”—perhaps not by any means to all even of them. His papers contain nothing of interest or novelty upon the question either of devolution or of the compulsory stoppage of debate. We may as well, therefore, leave it alone, only observing that the necessity for the closure was probably the most unpalatable of all the changes forced on Mr. Gladstone by change in social and political circumstance. To leave the subject alone is not to ignore its extreme importance, either in the effect of revolution in procedure upon the character of the House, and its power of despatching and controlling national business; or as an indication that the old order was yielding in the political sphere as everywhere else to the conditions of a new time.


The question of extending to householders in the country the franchise that in 1867 had been conferred on householders in boroughs, had been first pressed with eloquence and resolution by Mr. Trevelyan. In 1876 he introduced two resolutions, one for extended franchise, the other for a new [pg 125]

County Franchise

arrangement of seats, made necessary by the creation of the new voters. In a tory parliament he had, of course, no chance. Mr. Gladstone, not naturally any more ardent for change in political machinery than Burke or Canning had been, was in no hurry about it, but was well aware that the triumphant parliament of 1880 could not be allowed to expire without the effective adoption by the government of proposals in principle such as those made by Mr. Trevelyan in 1876. One wing of the cabinet hung back. Mr. Gladstone himself, reading the signs in the political skies, felt that the hour had struck; the cabinet followed, and the bill was framed. Never, said Mr. Gladstone, was a bill so large in respect of the numbers to have votes; so innocent in point of principle, for it raised no new questions and sprang from no new principles. It went, he contended and most truly contended, to the extreme of consideration for opponents, and avoided several points that had especial attractions for friends. So likewise, the general principles on which redistribution of seats would be governed, were admittedly framed in a conservative spirit.

The comparative magnitude of the operation was thus described by Mr. Gladstone (Feb. 28, 1884):—

In 1832 there was passed what was considered a Magna Charta of British liberties; but that Magna Charta of British liberties added, according to the previous estimate of Lord John Russell, 500,000, while according to the results considerably less than 500,000 were added to the entire constituency of the three countries. After 1832 we come to 1866. At that time the total constituency of the United Kingdom reached 1,364,000. By the bills which were passed between 1867 and 1869 that number was raised to 2,448,000. Under the action of the present law the constituency has reached in round numbers what I would call 3,000,000. This bill, if it passes as presented, will add to the English constituency over 1,300,000 persons. It will add to the Scotch constituency, Scotland being at present rather better provided in this respect than either of the other countries, over 200,000, and to the Irish constituency over 400,000; or in the main, to the present aggregate [pg 126] constituency of the United Kingdom taken at 3,000,000 it will add 2,000,000 more, nearly twice as much as was added since 1867, and more than four times as much as was added in 1832.

The bill was read a second time (April 7) by the overwhelming majority of 340 against 210. Even those who most disliked the measure admitted that a majority of this size could not be made light of, though they went on in charity to say that it did not represent the honest opinion of those who composed it. It was in fact, as such persons argued, the strongest proof of the degradation brought into our politics by the Act of 1867. “All the bribes of Danby or of Walpole or of Pelham,” cried one excited critic, “all the bullying of the Tudors, all the lobbying of George iii., would have been powerless to secure it in the most corrupt or the most servile days of the ancient House of Commons.”74

On the third reading the opposition disappeared from the House, and on Mr. Gladstone's prompt initiative it was placed on record in the journals that the bill had been carried by a unanimous verdict. It went to the Lords, and by a majority, first of 59 and then of 50, they put what Mr. Gladstone mildly called “an effectual stoppage on the bill, or in other words did practically reject it.” The plain issue, if we can call it plain, was this. What the tories, with different degrees of sincerity, professed to dread was that the election might take place on the new franchise, but with an unaltered disposition of parliamentary seats. At heart the bulk of them were as little friendly to a lowered franchise in the counties, as they had been in the case of the towns before Mr. Disraeli educated them. But this was a secret dangerous to let out, for the enfranchised workers in the towns would never understand why workers in the villages should not have a vote. Apart from this, the tory leaders believed that unless the allotment of seats went with the addition of a couple of million new voters, the prospect would be ruinously unfavourable to their party, and they offered determined resistance to the chance of a jockeying operation of this [pg 127]

Bill Rejected By The Lords

kind. At least one very eminent man among them had privately made up his mind that the proceeding supposed to be designed by their opponents—their distinct professions notwithstanding—would efface the tory party for thirty years to come. Mr. Gladstone and his government on the other hand agreed, on grounds of their own and for reasons of their own, that the two changes should come into operation together. What they contended was, that to tack redistribution on to franchise, was to scotch or kill franchise. “I do not hesitate to say,” Mr. Gladstone told his electors, “that those who are opposing us, and making use of this topic of redistribution of seats as a means for defeating the franchise bill, know as well as we do that, had we been such idiots and such dolts as to present to parliament a bill for the combined purpose, or to bring in two bills for the two purposes as one measure—I say, they know as well as we do, that a disgraceful failure would have been the result of our folly, and that we should have been traitors to you, and to the cause we had in hand.”75 Disinterested onlookers thought there ought to be no great difficulty in securing the result that both sides desired. As the Duke of Argyll put it to Mr. Gladstone, if in private business two men were to come to a breach, when standing so near to one another in aim and profession, they would be shut up in bedlam. This is just what the judicious reader will think to-day.

The controversy was transported from parliament to the platform, and a vigorous agitation marked the autumn recess. It was a double agitation. What began as a campaign on behalf of the rural householder, threatened to end as one against hereditary legislators. It is a well-known advantage in movements of this sort to be not only for, but also against, somebody or something; against a minister, by preference, or if not an individual, then against a body. A hereditary legislature in a community that has reached the self-governing stage is an anachronism that makes the easiest of all marks for mockery and attack, so long as it lasts. Nobody can doubt that if Mr. Gladstone had been the frantic demagogue or fretful revolutionist that his opponents [pg 128] thought, he now had an excellent chance of bringing the question of the House of Lords irresistibly to the front. As it was, in the midst of the storm raised by his lieutenants and supporters all over the country, he was the moderating force, elaborately appealing, as he said, to the reason rather than the fears of his opponents.

One reproachful passage in his speeches this autumn acquires a rather peculiar significance in the light of the events that were in the coming years to follow. He is dealing with the argument that the hereditary House protects the nation against fleeting opinions:—

How is it with regard to the solid and permanent opinion of the nation? We have had twelve parliaments since the Reform Act,—I have a right to say so, as I have sat in every one of them,—and the opinion, the national opinion, has been exhibited in the following manner. Ten of those parliaments have had a liberal majority. The eleventh parliament was the one that sat from 1841 to 1847. It was elected as a tory parliament; but in 1846 it put out the conservative government of Sir Robert Peel, and put in and supported till its dissolution, the liberal government of Lord John Russell. That is the eleventh parliament. But then there is the twelfth parliament, and that is one that you and I know a good deal about [Lord Beaconsfield's parliament], for we talked largely on the subject of its merits and demerits, whichever they may be, at the time of the last election. That parliament was, I admit, a tory parliament from the beginning to the end. But I want to know, looking back for a period of more than fifty years, which represented the solid permanent conviction of the nation?—the ten parliaments that were elected upon ten out of the twelve dissolutions, or the one parliament that chanced to be elected from the disorganized state of the liberal party in the early part of the year 1874? Well, here are ten parliaments on the one side; here is one parliament on the other side.... The House of Lords was in sympathy with the one parliament, and was in opposition ... to the ten parliaments. And yet you are told, when—we will say for forty-five years out of fifty—practically the nation has manifested its liberal tendencies by the election of liberal parliaments, and once only has chanced to elect a thoroughly [pg 129] tory parliament, you are told that it is the thoroughly tory parliament that represents the solid and permanent opinion of the country.76

In time a curious thing, not yet adequately explained, fell out, for the extension of the franchise in 1867 and now in 1884 resulted in a reversal of the apparent law of things that had ruled our political parties through the epoch that Mr. Gladstone has just sketched. The five parliaments since 1884 have not followed the line of the ten parliaments preceding, notwithstanding the enlargement of direct popular power.


In August Mr. Gladstone submitted to the Queen a memorandum on the political situation. It was much more elaborate than the ordinary official submissions. Lord Granville was the only colleague who had seen it, and Mr. Gladstone was alone responsible for laying it before the sovereign. It is a masterly statement of the case, starting from the assumption for the sake of argument that the tories were right and the liberals wrong as to the two bills; then proceeding on the basis of a strongly expressed desire to keep back a movement for organic change; next urging the signs that such a movement would go forward with irresistible force if the bill were again rejected; and concluding thus:—

I may say in conclusion that there is no personal act if it be compatible with personal honour and likely to contribute to an end which I hold very dear, that I would not gladly do for the purpose of helping to close the present controversy, and in closing it to prevent the growth of one probably more complex and more formidable.

This document, tempered, unrhetorical, almost dispassionate, was the starting-point of proceedings that, after enormous difficulties had been surmounted by patience and perseverance, working through his power in parliament and his authority in the country, ended in final pacification and a sound political settlement. It was Mr. Gladstone's statesmanship that brought this pacification into sight and within reach.

[pg 130]

The Queen was deeply struck both by the force of his arguments and the earnest tone in which they were pressed. Though doubting whether there was any strong desire for a change in the position of the House of Lords, still she “did not shut her eyes to the possible gravity of the situation” (Aug. 31). She seemed inclined to take some steps for ascertaining the opinion of the leaders of opposition, with a view to inducing them to modify their programme. The Duke of Richmond visited Balmoral (Sept. 13), but when Mr. Gladstone, then himself on Deeside, heard what had passed in the direction of compromise, he could only say, “Waste of breath!” To all suggestions of a dissolution on the case in issue, Mr. Gladstone said to a confidential emissary from Balmoral:—

Never will I be a party to dissolving in order to determine whether the Lords or the Commons were right upon the Franchise bill. If I have anything to do with dissolution, it will be a dissolution upon organic change in the House of Lords. Should this bill be again rejected in a definite manner, there will be only two courses open to me, one to cut out of public life, which I shall infinitely prefer; the other to become a supporter of organic change in the House of Lords, which I hate and which I am making all this fuss in order to avoid. We have a few weeks before us to try and avert the mischief. After a second rejection it will be too late. There is perhaps the alternative of advising a large creation of peers; but to this there are great objections, even if the Queen were willing. I am not at present sure that I could bring myself to be a party to the adoption of a plan like that of 1832.

When people talked to him of dissolution as a means of bringing the Lords to account, he replied in scorn: “A marvellous conception! On such a dissolution, if the country disapproved of the conduct of its representatives, it would cashier them; but, if it disapproved of the conduct of the peers, it would simply have to see them resume their place of power, to employ it to the best of their ability as opportunity might serve, in thwarting the desires of the country expressed through its representatives.”

It was reported to Mr. Gladstone that his speeches in [pg 131]


Scotland (though they were marked by much restraint) created some displeasure at Balmoral. He wrote to Lord Granville (Sept. 26):—

The Queen does not know the facts. If she did, she would have known that while I have been compelled to deviate from the intention, of speaking only to constituents which (with much difficulty) I kept until Aberdeen, I have thereby (and again with much difficulty in handling the audiences, every one of which would have wished a different course of proceeding) been enabled to do much in the way of keeping the question of organic change in the House of Lords out of the present stage of the controversy.

Sir Henry Ponsonby, of course at the Queen's instigation, was indefatigable and infinitely ingenious in inventing devices of possible compromise between Lords and Commons, or between Lords and ministers, such as might secure the passing of franchise and yet at the same time secure the creation of new electoral areas before the extended franchise should become operative. The Queen repeated to some members of the opposition—she did not at this stage communicate directly with Lord Salisbury—the essence of Mr. Gladstone's memorandum of August, and no doubt conveyed the impression that it had made upon her own mind. Later correspondence between her secretary and the Duke of Richmond set up a salutary ferment in what had not been at first a very promising quarter.

Meanwhile Mr. Gladstone was hard at work in other directions. He was urgent (Oct. 2) that Lord Granville should make every effort to bring more peers into the fold to save the bill when it reappeared in the autumn session. He had himself “garnered in a rich harvest” of bishops in July. On previous occasions he had plied the episcopal bench with political appeals, and this time he wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury:—

July 2, 1884.—I should have felt repugnance and scruple about addressing your Grace at any time on any subject of a political nature, if it were confined within the ordinary limits of such subjects. But it seems impossible to refuse credit to the accounts, which assure us that the peers of the opposition, under Lord [pg 132] Salisbury and his coadjutors, are determined to use all their strength and influence for the purpose of throwing out the Franchise bill in the House of Lords; and thus of entering upon a conflict with the House of Commons, from which at each step in the proceeding it may probably become more difficult to retire, and which, if left to its natural course, will probably develop itself into a constitutional crisis of such an order, as has not occurred since 1832....

To Tennyson, the possessor of a spiritual power even more than archiepiscopal, who had now a place among peers temporal, he addressed a remonstrance (July 6):—

... Upon consideration I cannot help writing a line, for I must hope you will reconsider your intention. The best mode in which I can support a suggestion seemingly so audacious is by informing you, that all sober-minded conservative peers are in great dismay at this wild proceeding of Lord Salisbury; that the ultra-radicals and Parnellites, on the other hand, are in a state of glee, as they believe, and with good reason, that the battle once begun will end in some great humiliation to the House of Lords, or some important change in its composition. That (to my knowledge) various bishops of conservative leanings are, on this account, going to vote with the government—as may be the case with lay peers also. That you are the only peer, so far as I know, associated with liberal ideas or the liberal party, who hesitates to vote against Lord Salisbury.

In the later stage of this controversy, Tennyson shot the well-known lines at him—

Steersman, be not precipitate in thine act
Of steering, for the river here, my friend,
Parts in two channels, moving to one end—
This goes straight forward to the cataract:
That streams about the bend.
But tho' the cataract seems the nearer way,
Whate'er the crowd on either bank may say,
Take thou the bend, 'twill save thee many a day.

To a poet who made to his generation such exquisite gifts of beauty and pleasure, the hardest of party-men may pardon unseasonable fears about franchise and one-horse constituencies. As matter of fact and in plain prose, this [pg 133]

Negotiation And Persuasion

taking of the bend was exactly what the steersman had been doing, so as to keep other people out of cataracts.

“Then why should not Lord Granville try his hand on ambassadors, pressing them to save their order from a tempest that must strain and might wreck it?” To Mr. Chamberlain, who was in his element, or in one of his elements, Mr. Gladstone wrote (Oct. 8):—

I see that Salisbury by his declaration in the Times of Saturday, that the Lords are to contend for the simultaneous passing of the two bills, has given you an excellent subject for denunciation, and you may safely denounce him to your heart's content. But I earnestly hope that you will leave us all elbow room on other questions which may arise. If you have seen my letters (virtually) to the Queen, I do not think you will have found reason for alarm in them. I am sorry that Hartington the other day used the word compromise, a word which has never passed my lips, though I believe he meant nothing wrong. If we could find anything which, though surrendering nothing substantial, would build a bridge for honourable and moderate men to retreat by, I am sure you would not object to it. But I have a much stronger plea for your reserve than any request of my own. It is this, that the cabinet has postponed discussing the matter until Wednesday simply in order that you may be present and take your share. They meet at twelve. I shall venture to count on your doing nothing to narrow the ground left open to us, which is indeed but a stinted one.

Three days later (Oct. 11) the Queen writing to the prime minister was able to mark a further stage:—

Although the strong expressions used by ministers in their recent speeches have made the task of conciliation undertaken by the Queen a most difficult one, she is so much impressed with the importance of the issue at stake, that she has persevered in her endeavours, and has obtained from the leaders of the opposition an expression of their readiness to negotiate on the basis of Lord Hartington's speech at Hanley. In the hope that this may lead to a compromise, the Queen has suggested that Lord Hartington may enter into communication with Lord Salisbury, and she trusts, from Mr. Gladstone's telegram received this morning, that [pg 134] he will empower Lord Hartington to discuss the possibility of an agreement with Lord Salisbury.

In acknowledgment, Mr. Gladstone offered his thanks for all her Majesty's “well-timed efforts to bring about an accommodation.” He could not, however, he proceeded, feel sanguine as to obtaining any concession from the leaders, but he is very glad that Lord Hartington should try.

Happily, and as might have been expected by anybody who remembered the action of the sensible peers who saved the Reform bill in 1832, the rash and headstrong men in high places in the tory party were not allowed to have their own way. Before the autumn was over, prudent members of the opposition became uneasy. They knew that in substance the conclusion was foregone, but they knew also that just as in their own body there was a division between hothead and moderate, so in the cabinet they could count upon a whig section, and probably upon the prime minister as well. They noted his words spoken in July, “It is not our desire to see the bill carried by storm and tempest. It is our desire to see it win its way by persuasion and calm discussion to the rational minds of men.”77

Meanwhile Sir Michael Hicks Beach had already, with the knowledge and without the disapproval of other leading men on the tory side, suggested an exchange of views to Lord Hartington, who was warmly encouraged by the cabinet to carry on communications, as being a person peculiarly fitted for the task, “enjoying full confidence on one side,” as Mr. Gladstone said to the Queen, “and probably more on the other side than any other minister could enjoy.” These two cool and able men took the extension of county franchise for granted, and their conferences turned pretty exclusively on redistribution. Sir Michael pressed the separation of urban from rural areas, and what was more specifically important was his advocacy of single-member or one-horse constituencies. His own long experience of a scattered agricultural division had convinced him that such areas with household suffrage would be unworkable. Lord Hartington knew the advantage of two-member constituencies [pg 135]

The Queen's Suggestion

for his party, because they made an opening for one whig candidate and one radical. But he did not make this a question of life or death, and the ground was thoroughly well hoed and raked. Lord Salisbury, to whom the nature of these communications had been made known by the colleague concerned, told him of the suggestion from the Queen, and said that he and Sir Stafford Northcote had unreservedly accepted it. So far the cabinet had found the several views in favour with their opponents as to electoral areas, rather more sweeping and radical than their own had been, and they hoped that on the basis thus informally laid, they might proceed to the more developed conversation with the two official leaders. Then the tory ultras interposed.


On the last day of October the Queen wrote to Mr. Gladstone from Balmoral:—

The Queen thinks that it would be a means of arriving at some understanding if the leaders of the parties in both Houses could exchange their views personally. The Duke of Argyll or any other person unconnected for the present with the government or the opposition might be employed in bringing about a meeting, and in assisting to solve difficulties. The Queen thinks the government should in any project forming the basis of resolutions on redistribution to be proposed to the House, distinctly define their plans at such a personal conference. The Queen believes that were assurance given that the redistribution would not be wholly inimical to the prospects of the conservative party, their concurrence might be obtained. The Queen feels most strongly that it is of the utmost importance that in this serious crisis such means, even if unusual, should be tried, and knowing how fully Mr. Gladstone recognises the great danger that might arise by prolonging the conflict, the Queen earnestly trusts that he will avail himself of such means to obviate it.

The Queen then wrote to Lord Salisbury in the same sense in which she had written to the prime minister. Lord Salisbury replied that it would give him great pleasure to consult with anybody the Queen might desire, and that in [pg 136] obedience to her commands he would do all that lay in him to bring the controversy finally to a just and honourable issue. He went on however to say, in the caustic vein that was one of his ruling traits, that while cheerfully complying with the Queen's wishes, he thought it right to add that, so far as his information went, no danger attached to the prolongation of the controversy for a considerable time, nor did he believe that there was any real excitement in the country about it. The Queen in replying (Nov. 5) said that she would at once acquaint Mr. Gladstone with what he had said.

The autumn session began, and the Franchise bill was introduced again. Three days later, in consequence of a communication from the other camp, the debate on the second reading was conciliatory, but the tories won a bye-election, and the proceedings in committee became menacing and clouded. Discrepancies abounded in the views of the opposition upon redistribution. When the third reading came (Nov. 11), important men on the tory side insisted on the production of a Seats bill, and declared there must be no communication with the enemy. Mr. Gladstone was elaborately pacific. If he could not get peace, he said, at least let it be recorded that he desired peace. The parleys of Lord Hartington and Sir Michael Hicks Beach came to an end.

Mr. Gladstone, late one night soon after this (Nov. 14), had a long conversation with Sir Stafford Northcote at the house of a friend. He had the authority of the cabinet (not given for this special interview) to promise the introduction of a Seats bill before the committee stage of the Franchise bill in the Lords, provided he was assured that it could be done without endangering or retarding franchise. Northcote and Mr. Gladstone made good progress on the principles of redistribution. Then came an awkward message from Lord Salisbury that the Lords could not let the Franchise bill through, until they got the Seats bill from the Commons. So negotiations were again broken off.

The only hope now was that a sufficient number of Lord Salisbury's adherents would leave him in the lurch, if he [pg 137]

Conferences With Lord Salisbury

did not close with what was understood to be Mr. Gladstone's engagement, to procure and press a Seats bill as soon as ever franchise was out of danger. So it happened, and the door that had thus been shut, speedily opened. Indirect communication reached the treasury bench that seemed to show the leaders of opposition to be again alive. There were many surmises, everybody was excited, and two great tory leaders in the Lords called on Lord Granville one day, anxious for a modus vivendi. Mr. Gladstone in the Commons, in conformity with a previous decision of the cabinet, declared the willingness of the government to produce a bill or explain its provisions, on receiving a reasonable guarantee that the Franchise bill would be passed before the end of the sittings. The ultras of the opposition still insisted on making bets all round that the Franchise bill would not become law; besides betting, they declared they would die on the floor of the House in resisting an accommodation. A meeting of the party was summoned at the Carlton club for the purpose of declaring war to the knife, and Lord Salisbury was reported to hold to his determination. This resolve, however, proved to have been shaken by Mr. Gladstone's language on a previous day. The general principles of redistribution had been sufficiently sifted, tested, and compared to show that there was no insuperable discrepancy of view. It was made clear to Lord Salisbury circuitously, that though the government required adequate assurances of the safety of franchise before presenting their scheme upon seats, this did not preclude private and confidential illumination. So the bill was read a second time.

All went prosperously forward. On November 19, Lord Salisbury and Sir S. Northcote came to Downing Street in the afternoon, took tea with the prime minister, and had a friendly conversation for an hour in which much ground was covered. The heads of the government scheme were discussed and handed to the opposition leaders. Mr. Gladstone was well satisfied. He was much struck, he said after, with the quickness of the tory leader, and found it a pleasure to deal with so acute a man. Lord Salisbury, for his part, was interested in the novelty of the proceeding, for no [pg 138] precedent could be found in our political or party history for the discussion of a measure before its introduction between the leaders of the two sides. This novelty stirred his curiosity, while he also kept a sharp eye on the main party chance. He proved to be entirely devoid of respect for tradition, and Mr. Gladstone declared himself to be a strong conservative in comparison. The meetings went on for several days through the various parts of the questions, Lord Hartington, Lord Granville, and Sir Charles Dilke being also taken into council—the last of the three being unrivalled master of the intricate details.

The operation was watched with jealous eyes by the radicals, though they had their guardians in the cabinet. To Mr. Bright who, having been all his life denounced as a violent republican, was now in the view of the new school hardly even so much as a sound radical, Mr. Gladstone thought it well to write (Nov. 25) words of comfort, if comfort were needed:—

I wish to give you the assurance that in the private communications which are now going on, liberal principles such as we should conceive and term them, are in no danger. Those with whom we confer are thinking without doubt of party interests, as affected by this or that arrangement, but these are a distinct matter, and I am not so good at them as some others; but the general proposition which I have stated is I think one which I can pronounce with some confidence.... The whole operation is essentially delicate and slippery, and I can hardly conceive any other circumstance in which it would be justified, but in the present very peculiar case I think it is not only warranted, but called for.

On November 27 all was well over; and Mr. Gladstone was able to inform the Queen that “the delicate and novel communications” between the two sets of leaders had been brought to a happy termination. “His first duty,” he said, “was to tender his grateful thanks to your Majesty for the wise, gracious, and steady influence on your Majesty's part, which has so powerfully contributed to bring about this accommodation, and to avert a serious crisis of affairs.” He [pg 139]

The Question Settled

adds that “his cordial acknowledgments are due to Lord Salisbury and Sir Stafford Northcote for the manner in which they have conducted their difficult communications.” The Queen promptly replied: “I gladly and thankfully return your telegrams. To be able to be of use is all I care to live for now.” By way of winding up negotiations so remarkable, Mr. Gladstone wrote to Lord Salisbury to thank him for his kindness, and to say that he could have desired nothing better in candour and equity. Their conversation on the Seats bill would leave him none but the most agreeable recollections.

The Queen was in high good humour, as she had a right to be. She gave Mr. Gladstone ample credit for his conciliatory spirit. The last two months had been very trying to her, she said, but she confessed herself repaid by the thought that she had assisted in a settlement. Mr. Gladstone's severest critics on the tory side confessed that “they did not think he had it in him.” Some friends of his in high places even suggested that this would be a good moment for giving him the garter. He wrote to Sir Arthur Gordon (Dec. 5): “The time of this government has been on the whole the most stormy and difficult that I have known in office, and the last six weeks have been perhaps the most anxious and difficult of the government.”


One further episode deserves a section, if the reader will turn back for a moment or two. The question whether the extension of the parliamentary franchise to rural householders should be limited to Great Britain or should apply to the whole kingdom, had been finally discussed in a couple of morning sittings in the month of May. Nobody who heard it can forget the speech made against Irish inclusion by Mr. Plunket, the eloquent grandson of the most eloquent of all the orators whom Ireland has sent to the imperial senate. He warned the House that to talk of assimilating the franchise in Ireland to the franchise in England, was to use language without meaning; that out of seven hundred and sixty thousand inhabited houses in [pg 140] Ireland, no fewer than four hundred and thirty-five thousand were rated at one pound and under; that those whom the bill would enfranchise would be taken from a class of whom more than forty per cent. could neither read nor write; that the measure would strengthen the hands of that disloyal party who boasted of their entire indifference to English opinion, and their undivided obligation to influences which Englishmen were wholly unable to realise. Then in a lofty strain Mr. Plunket foretold that the measure which they were asked to pass would lead up to, and would precipitate, the establishment of a separate Irish nationality. He reminded his hearers that the empire had been reared not more by the endurance of its soldiers and sailors than by the sagacity and firmness, the common sense and patriotism, of that ancient parliament; and he ended with a fervid prayer that the historian of the future might not have to tell that the union of these three kingdoms on which rested all its honour and all its power—a union that could never be broken by the force of domestic traitor or foreign foe—yielded at last under the pressure of the political ambitions and party exigencies of British statesmen.

The orator's stately diction, his solemn tone, the depth of his conviction, made a profound impression. Newer parliamentary hands below the government gangway, as he went on, asked one another by what arts of parliamentary defence the veteran minister could possibly deal with this searching appeal. Only a quarter of an hour remained. In two or three minutes Mr. Gladstone had swept the solemn impression entirely away. Contrary to his wont, he began at once upon the top note. With high passion in his voice, and mastering gesture in his uplifted arm, he dashed impetuously upon the foe. What weighs upon my mind is this, he said, that when the future historian speaks of the greatness of this empire, and traces the manner in which it has grown through successive generations, he will say that in that history there was one chapter of disgrace, and that chapter of disgrace was the treatment of Ireland. It is the scale of justice that will determine the issue of the conflict with Ireland, if conflict there is to be. There is nothing we can do, cried the orator, [pg 141]

Mr. Plunket's Speech

turning to the Irish members, except the imprudence of placing in your hands evidence that will show that we are not acting on principles of justice towards you, that can render you for a moment formidable in our eyes, should the day unfortunately arise when you endeavour to lay hands on this great structure of the British empire. Let us be as strong in right as we are in population, in wealth, and in historic traditions, and then we shall not fear to do justice to Ireland. There is but one mode of making England weak in the face of Ireland—that is by applying to her principles of inequality and principles of injustice.

As members sallied forth from the House to dine, they felt that this vehement improvisation had put the true answer. Mr. Plunket's fine appeal to those who had been comrades of the Irish loyalists in guarding the union was well enough, yet who but the Irish loyalists had held Ireland in the hollow of their hands for generation upon generation, and who but they were answerable for the odious and dishonouring failure, so patent before all the world, to effect a true incorporation of their country in a united realm? And if it should happen that Irish loyalists should suffer from extension of equal civil rights to Irishmen, what sort of reason was that why the principle of exclusion and ascendency which had worked such mischief in the past, should be persisted in for a long and indefinite future? These views, it is important to observe, were shared, not only by the minister's own party, but by a powerful body among his opponents. Some of the gentlemen who had been most furious against the government for not stopping Irish meetings in the autumn of 1883, were now most indignant at the bare idea of refusing or delaying a proposal for strengthening the hands of the very people who promoted and attended such meetings. It is true also that only two or three months before, Lord Hartington had declared that it would be most unwise to deal with the Irish franchise. Still more recently, Mr. W. H. Smith had declared that any extension of the suffrage in Ireland would draw after it “confiscation of property, ruin of industry, withdrawal of capital,—misery, wretchedness, and war.” The valour of the platform, however, often expires in the [pg 142] keener air of cabinet and parliament. It became Lord Hartington's duty now to move the second reading of provisions which, he had just described as most unwise provisions, and Mr. Smith found himself the object of brilliant mockery from the daring leader below the gangway on his own side.

Lord Randolph produced a more serious, though events soon showed it to be not any more solid an argument, when he said that the man who lives in a mud cabin very often has a decent holding, and has money in the savings' bank besides, and more than that, he is often more fit to take an interest in politics, and to form a sound view about them, than the English agricultural labourer. The same speaker proceeded to argue that the Fenian proclivities of the towns would be more than counterbalanced by the increased power given to the peasantry. The incidents of agricultural life, he observed, are unfavourable to revolutionary movements, and the peasant is much more under the proper and legitimate influence of the Roman catholic priesthood than the lower classes of the towns. On the whole, the extension of the franchise to the peasantry of Ireland would not be unfavourable to the landlord interest. Yet Lord Randolph, who regaled the House with these chimerical speculations, had had far better opportunities than almost any other Englishman then in parliament of knowing something about Ireland.

What is certain is that English and Scotch members acted with their eyes open. Irish tories and Irish nationalists agreed in menacing predictions. The vast masses of Irish people, said the former, had no sense of loyalty and no love of order to which a government could appeal. In many districts the only person who was unsafe was the peace officer or the relatives of a murdered man. The effect of the change would be the utter annihilation of the political power of the most orderly, the most loyal, the most educated classes of Ireland, and the swamping of one-fourth of the community, representing two-thirds of its property. A representative of the great house of Hamilton in the Commons, amid a little cloud of the dishevelled prophecies [pg 143]

The Case Of Ireland

too common in his class, assured the House that everybody knew that if the franchise in Ireland were extended, the days of home rule could not be far distant. The representative of the great house of Beresford in the Lords, the resident possessor of a noble domain, an able and determined man, with large knowledge of his country, so far as large knowledge can be acquired from a single point of view, expressed his strong conviction that after the passage of this bill the Irish outlook would be blacker than it had ever been before.78

Another person, far more powerful than any Hamilton or Beresford, was equally explicit. With characteristic frigidity, precision, and confidence, the Irish leader had defined his policy and his expectations. “Beyond a shadow of doubt,” he had said to a meeting in the Rotunda at Dublin, “it will be for the Irish people in England—separated, isolated as they are—and for your independent Irish members, to determine at the next general election whether a tory or a liberal English ministry shall rule England. This is a great force and a great power. If we cannot rule ourselves, we can at least cause them to be ruled as we choose. This force has already gained for Ireland inclusion in the coming Franchise bill. We have reason to be proud, hopeful, and energetic.”79 In any case, he informed the House of Commons, even if Ireland were not included in the bill, the national party would come back seventy-five strong. If household suffrage were conceded to Ireland, they would come back ninety strong.80 That was the only difference. Therefore, though he naturally supported inclusion,81 it was not at all indispensable to the success of his policy, and he watched the proceedings in the committee as calmly as he might have watched a battle of frogs and mice.

[pg 144]

Chapter IX. The Soudan. (1884-1885)

You can only govern men by imagination: without imagination they are brutes.... 'Tis by speaking to the soul that you electrify men.—Napoleon.


In the late summer of 1881 a certain native of Dongola, proclaiming himself a heaven-inspired Mahdi, began to rally to his banner the wild tribes of the southern Soudan. His mission was to confound the wicked, the hypocrite, the unbeliever, and to convert the world to the true faith in the one God and his prophet. The fame of the Mahdi's eloquence, his piety, his zeal, rapidly spread. At his ear he found a counsellor, so well known to us after as the khalifa, and this man soon taught the prophet politics. The misrule of the Soudan by Egypt had been atrocious, and the combination of a religious revival with the destruction of that hated yoke swelled a cry that was irresistible. The rising rapidly extended, for fanaticism in such regions soon takes fire, and the Egyptian pashas had been sore oppressors, even judged by the rude standards of oriental states. Never was insurrection more amply justified. From the first, Mr. Gladstone's curious instinct for liberty disclosed to him that here was a case of “a people rightly struggling to be free.” The phrase was mocked and derided then and down to the end of the chapter. Yet it was the simple truth. “During all my political life,” he said at a later stage of Soudanese affairs, “I am thankful to say that I have never opened my lips in favour of a domination such as that which has been exercised upon certain countries by certain other countries, and [pg 145] I am not going now to begin.”

The Mahdi

“I look upon the possession of the Soudan,” he proceeded, “as the calamity of Egypt. It has been a drain on her treasury, it has been a drain on her men. It is estimated that 100,000 Egyptians have laid down their lives in endeavouring to maintain that barren conquest.” Still stronger was the Soudanese side of the case. The rule of the Mahdi was itself a tyranny, and tribe fought with tribe, but that was deemed an easier yoke than the sway of the pashas from Cairo. Every vice of eastern rule flourished freely under Egyptian hands. At Khartoum whole families of Coptic clerks kept the accounts of plundering raids supported by Egyptian soldiers, and “this was a government collecting its taxes.” The function of the Egyptian soldiers “was that of honest countrymen sharing in the villainy of the brigands from the Levant and Asia Minor, who wrung money, women, and drink from a miserable population.”82 Yet the railing against Mr. Gladstone for saying that the “rebels” were rightly struggling to be free could not have been more furious if the Mahdi had been for dethroning Marcus Aurelius or Saint Louis of France.

The ministers at Cairo, however, naturally could not find in their hearts to withdraw from territory that had been theirs for over sixty years,83 although in the winter of 1882-3 Colonel Stewart, an able British officer, had reported that the Egyptian government was wholly unfit to rule the Soudan; it had not money enough, nor fighting men enough, nor administrative skill enough, and abandonment at least of large portions of it was the only reasonable course. Such counsels found no favour with the khedive's advisers and agents, and General Hicks, an Indian officer, appointed on the staff of the Egyptian army in the spring of 1883, was now despatched by the government of the khedive from Khartoum, for the recovery of distant and formidable regions. If his operations had been limited to the original intention of clearing Sennaar [pg 146] of rebels and protecting Khartoum, all might have been well. Unluckily some trivial successes over the Mahdi encouraged the Cairo government to design an advance into Kordofan, and the reconquest of all the vast wildernesses of the Soudan. Lord Dufferin, Sir E. Malet, Colonel Stewart, were all of them clear that to attempt any such task with an empty chest and a worthless army was madness, and they all argued for the abandonment of Kordofan and Darfur. The cabinet in London, fixed in their resolve not to accept responsibility for a Soudan war, and not to enter upon that responsibility by giving advice for or against the advance of Hicks, stood aloof.84 In view of all that followed later, and of their subsequent adoption of the policy of abandoning the Soudan, British ministers would evidently have been wiser if they had now forbidden an advance so pregnant with disaster. Events showed this to have been the capital miscalculation whence all else of misfortune followed. The sounder the policy of abandonment, the stronger the reasons for insisting that the Egyptian government should not undertake operations inconsistent with that policy. The Soudan was not within the sphere of our responsibility, but Egypt was; and just because the separation of Egypt from the Soudan was wise and necessary, it might have been expected that England would peremptorily interpose to prevent a departure from the path of separation. What Hicks himself, a capable and dauntless man, thought of the chances we do not positively know, but he was certainly alive to the risks of such a march with such material. On November 5 (1883) the whole force was cut to pieces, the victorious dervishes were free to advance northwards, and the loose fabric of Egyptian authority was shattered to the ground.

[pg 147]


Policy Of Evacuation

The three British military officers in Cairo all agreed that the Egyptian government could not hold Khartoum if the Mahdi should draw down upon it; and unless a British, an Indian, or a Turkish force came to the rescue, abandonment of the Soudan was the only possible alternative. The London cabinet decided that they would not employ British or Indian troops in the Soudan, and though they had no objection to the resort to the Turks by Egypt, if the Turks would pay their own expenses (a condition fatal to any such resort), they strongly recommended the khedive to abandon all territory south of Assouan or Wady-Halfa. Sir Evelyn Baring, who had now assumed his post upon a theatre where he was for long years to come to play the commanding part, concurred in thinking that the policy of complete abandonment was the best admitted by the circumstances. It is the way of the world to suppose that because a given course is best, it must therefore be possible and ought to be simple. Baring and his colleagues at Cairo were under no such illusion, but it was the foundation of most of the criticism that now broke forth in the English press.

The unparalleled difficulties that ultimately attended the evacuation of the Soudan naturally led inconsiderate critics,—and such must ever be the majority,—to condemn the policy and the cabinet who ordered it. So apt are men in their rough judgments on great disputable things, to mistake a mere impression for a real opinion; and we must patiently admit that the Result—success or failure in the Event—is the most that they have time for, and all that they can go by. Yet two remarks are to be made upon this facile censure. The first is that those who knew the Soudan best, approved most. On January 22, 1884, Gordon wrote to Lord Granville that the Soudan ever was and ever would be a useless possession, and that he thought the Queen's ministers “fully justified in recommending evacuation, inasmuch as the sacrifices necessary towards securing good government would be far too onerous to admit of such an attempt being made.” Colonel Stewart quite agreed, and added the exclamation [pg 148] that nobody who had ever visited the Soudan could escape the reflection, “What a useless possession and what a huge encumbrance on Egypt!” As we shall see, the time soon came when Gordon accepted the policy of evacuation, even with an emphasis of his own. The second remark is that the reconquest of the Soudan and the holding of Khartoum were for the Egyptian government, if left to its own resources, neither more nor less than impossible; these objects, whether they were good objects or bad, not only meant recourse to British troops for the first immense operations, but the retention of them in a huge and most inhospitable region for an indefinite time. A third consideration will certainly not be overlooked by anybody who thinks on the course of the years of Egyptian reform that have since elapsed, and constitute so remarkable a chapter of British administration,—namely, that this beneficent achievement would have been fatally clogged, if those who conducted it had also had the Soudan on their hands. The renovation or reconstruction of what is called Egypt proper, its finances, its army, its civil rule, would have been absolutely out of reach, if at the same time its guiding statesmen had been charged with the responsibilities recovering and holding that vaster tract which had been so rashly acquired and so mercilessly misgoverned. This is fully admitted by those who have had most to do with the result.


The policy of evacuation was taken as carrying with it the task of extricating the Egyptian garrisons. This aim induced Mr. Gladstone's cabinet once more to play an active military part, though Britain had no share in planting these garrisons where they were. Wise men in Egypt were of the same mind as General Gordon, that in the eastern Soudan it would have been better for the British government to keep quiet, and “let events work themselves out.” Unfortunately the ready clamour of headlong philanthropists, political party men, and the men who think England humiliated if she ever lets slip an excuse for drawing her sword, drove the cabinet on to the rocks. When the decision of the cabinet was [pg 149]

Despatch Of Gordon

taken (Feb. 12, 1883) to send troops to Suakin, Mr. Gladstone stood alone in objecting. Many thousands of savages were slaughtered under humanitarian pressure, not a few English lives were sacrificed, much treasure flowed, and yet Sinkat fell, and Tokar fell, and our labours in the eastern Soudan were practically fruitless.85 The operations had no effect upon the roll of the fierce mahdi wave over the Soudan.

In England, excitement of the unsound sort that is independent of knowledge, consideration, or deliberation; independent of any weighing of the actual facts and any forecast of latent possibilities, grew more and more vociferous. Ministers quailed. Twice they inquired of their agent in Egypt86 whether General Gordon might not be of use, and twice they received an adverse reply, mainly on the ground that the presence in authority of a Christian officer was a dubious mode of confronting a sweeping outbreak of moslem fanaticism, and would inevitably alienate tribes that were still not caught by the Mahdi.87 Unhappily a third application from London at last prevailed, and Sir E. Baring, supported by Nubar, by Sir Evelyn Wood, by Colonel Watson, who had served with Gordon and knew him well, all agreed that Gordon would be the best man if he would pledge himself to carry out the policy of withdrawing from the Soudan as quickly as possible. “Whoever goes,” said Sir E. Baring in pregnant words to Lord Granville, will “undertake a service of great difficulty and danger.” This was on January 16th. Two days later the die was cast. Mr. Gladstone was at Hawarden. Lord Granville submitted the question (Jan. 14, 1884) to him in this form: “If Gordon says he [pg 150] believes he could by his personal influence excite the tribes to escort the Khartoum garrison and inhabitants to Suakin, a little pressure on Baring might be advisable. The destruction of these poor people will be a great disaster.” Mr. Gladstone telegraphed that to this and other parts of the same letter, he agreed. Granville then sent him a copy of the telegram putting “a little pressure on Baring.” To this Mr. Gladstone replied (Jan. 16) in words that, if they had only been taken to heart, would have made all the difference:—

I can find no fault with your telegram to Baring re Chinese Gordon, and the main point that strikes me is this: While his opinion on the Soudan may be of great value, must we not be very careful in any instruction we give, that he does not shift the centre of gravity as to political and military responsibility for that country? In brief, if he reports what should be done, he should not be the judge who should do it, nor ought he to commit us on that point by advice officially given. It would be extremely difficult after sending him to reject such advice, and it should therefore, I think, be made clear that he is not our agent for the purpose of advising on that point.

On January 18, Lord Hartington (then secretary of state for war), Lord Granville, Lord Northbrook, and Sir Charles Dilke met at the war office in Pall Mall. The summons was sudden. Lord Wolseley brought Gordon and left him in the ante-room. After a conversation with the ministers, he came out and said to Gordon, “Government are determined to evacuate the Soudan, for they will not guarantee the future government. Will you go and do it?” I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Go in.’ I went in and saw them. They said, ‘Did Wolseley tell you our orders?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘You will not guarantee future government of the Soudan, and you wish me to go up and evacuate now.’ They said, ‘Yes,’ and it was over, and I left at 8 p.m. for Calais.”88 This graphic story does not pretend to be a full version of all that passed, though it puts the essential point unmistakably enough. Lord Granville seems to have drawn Gordon's [pg 151]

Character Of Gordon

special attention to the measures to be taken for the security of the Egyptian garrisons (plural) still holding positions in the Soudan and to the best mode of evacuating the interior.89 On the other hand, according to a very authentic account that I have seen, Gordon on this occasion stated that the danger at Khartoum was exaggerated, and that he would be able to bring away the garrisons without difficulty.

Thus in that conclave of sober statesmen a tragedy began. The next day one of the four ministers met another; “We were proud of ourselves yesterday—are you sure we did not commit a gigantic folly?” The prime minister had agreed at once on receiving the news of what was done at the war office, and telegraphed assent the same night.90 The whole cabinet met four days later, Mr. Gladstone among them, and the decision was approved. There was hardly a choice, for by that time Gordon was at Brindisi. Gordon, as Mr. Gladstone said, was a hero of heroes. He was a soldier of infinite personal courage and daring; of striking military energy, initiative, and resource; a high, pure, and single character, dwelling much in the region of the unseen. But as all who knew him admit, and as his own records testify, notwithstanding an under-current of shrewd common-sense, he was the creature, almost the sport, of impulse; his impressions and purposes changed with the speed of lightning; anger often mastered him; he went very often by intuitions and inspirations rather than by cool inference from carefully surveyed fact: with many variations of mood he mixed, as we often see in people less famous, an invincible faith in his own rapid prepossessions while they lasted. Everybody now discerns that to despatch a soldier of this temperament on a piece of business that was not only difficult and dangerous, as Sir E. Baring said, but profoundly obscure, and needing vigilant sanity and self-control, was little better than to call in a wizard with his magic. Mr. Gladstone always professed perplexity in understanding why the violent end of the gallant Cavagnari in Afghanistan, [pg 152] stirred the world so little in comparison with the fate of Gordon. The answer is that Gordon seized the imagination of England, and seized it on its higher side. His religion was eccentric, but it was religion; the Bible was the rock on which he founded himself, both old dispensation and new; he was known to hate forms, ceremonies, and all the “solemn plausibilities”; his speech was sharp, pithy, rapid, and ironic; above all, he knew the ways of war and would not bear the sword for nought. All this was material enough to make a popular ideal, and this is what Gordon in an ever-increasing degree became, to the immense inconvenience of the statesmen, otherwise so sensible and wary, who had now improvidently let the genie forth from the jar.


It has been sometimes contended that all the mischief that followed was caused by the diversion of Gordon from Suakin, his original destination. If he had gone to the Red Sea, as originally intended, there to report on the state and look of things in the Soudan, instead of being waylaid and brought to Cairo, and thence despatched to Khartoum, they say, no catastrophe would have happened. This is not certain, for the dervishes in the eastern Soudan were in the flush of open revolt, and Gordon might either have been killed or taken prisoner, or else he would have come back without performing any part of his mission. In fact, on his way from London to Port Said, Gordon had suggested that with a view to carrying out evacuation, the khedive should make him governor-general of the Soudan. Lord Granville authorised Baring to procure the nomination, and this Sir Evelyn did, “for the time necessary to accomplish the evacuation.” The instructions were thus changed, in an important sense, but the change was suggested by Gordon and sanctioned by Lord Granville.91

[pg 153]

Gordon's Instructions

When Gordon left London his instructions, drafted in fact by himself, were that he should “consider and report upon the best mode of effecting the evacuation of the interior of the Soudan.” He was also to perform such duties as the Egyptian government might wish to entrust to him, and as might be communicated to him by Sir E. Baring.92 At Cairo, Baring and Nubar, after discussion with Gordon, altered the mission from one of advice and report to an executive mission—a change that was doubtless authorised and covered by the original reference to duties to be entrusted to him by Egypt. But there was no change in the policy either at Downing Street or Cairo. Whether advisory or executive, the only policy charged upon the mission was abandonment. When the draft of the new instructions was read to Gordon at Cairo, Sir E. Baring expressly asked him whether he entirely concurred in “the policy of abandoning the Soudan,” and Gordon not only concurred, but suggested the strengthening words, that he thought “it should on no account be changed.”93 This despatch, along with the instructions to Gordon making this vast alteration, was not received in London until Feb. 7. By this time Gordon was crossing the desert, and out of reach of the English foreign office.

On his way from Brindisi, Gordon had prepared a memorandum for Sir E. Baring, in which he set out his opinion that the Soudan had better be restored to the different petty sultans in existence before the Egyptian conquest, and an attempt should be made to form them into some sort of confederation. These petty rulers might be left to accept the Mahdi for their sovereign or not, just as they pleased. But in the same document he emphasised the policy of abandonment. “I understand,” he says, “that H.M.'s government have come to the irrevocable decision not to incur the very onerous duty of granting to the peoples of the Soudan a just future government.” Left to their independence, the sultans “would doubtless fight among themselves.” As for future good government, it was evident that “this we could not [pg 154] secure them without an inordinate expenditure of men and money. The Soudan is a useless possession; ever was so, and ever will be so. No one who has ever lived in the Soudan, can escape the reflection, What a useless possession is this land.” Therefore—so he winds up—“I think H.M.'s government are fully justified in recommending the evacuation, inasmuch as the sacrifices necessary towards securing a good government would be far too onerous to admit of any such attempt being made. Indeed, one may say it is impracticable at any cost. H.M.'s government will now leave them as God has placed them.94

It was, therefore, and it is, pure sophistry to contend that Gordon's policy in undertaking his disastrous mission was evacuation but not abandonment. To say that the Soudanese should be left in the state in which God had placed them, to fight it out among themselves, if they were so minded, is as good a definition of abandonment as can be invented, and this was the whole spirit of the instructions imposed by the government of the Queen and accepted by Gordon.

Gordon took with him instruments from the khedive into which, along with definite and specific statements that evacuation was the object of his mission, two or three loose sentences are slipped about “establishing organised government in the different provinces of the Soudan,” maintaining order, and the like. It is true also that the British cabinet sanctioned the extension of the area of evacuation from Khartoum to the whole Soudan.95 Strictly construed, the whole body of instructions, including firmans and khedive's proclamations, is not technically compact nor coherent. But this is only another way of saying that Gordon was to have the widest discretionary powers as to the manner of carrying out the policy, and the best time and mode of announcing it. The policy itself, as well understood by Gordon as by everybody else, was untouched, and it was: to leave the Soudanese in the state in which God had placed them.

The hot controversy on this point is idle and without substance—the idlest controversies are always the hottest—for [pg 155]

Changes Of Policy

not only was Gordon the last man in all the world to hold himself bound by official instructions, but the actual conditions of the case were too little known, too shifting, too unstable, to permit of hard and fast directions beforehand how to solve so desperate a problem. Two things at any rate were clear—one, that Gordon should faithfully adhere to the policy of evacuation and abandonment which he had formally accepted; the other, that the British government should leave him a free hand. Unhappily neither of these two clear things was accepted by either of the parties.


Gordon's policies were many and very mutable. Viewing the frightful embarrassments that enveloped him, we cannot wonder. Still the same considerateness that is always so bounteously and so justly extended to the soldier in the field, is no less due in its measure to the councillor in the cabinet. This is a bit of equity often much neglected both by contemporaries and by history.

He had undertaken his mission without any serious and measured forecast, such as his comrade, Colonel Stewart, was well fitted to supply. His first notion was that he could restore the representatives of the old rulers, but when he got into the country, he found that there were none; with one by no means happy exception, they had all disappeared. When he reached Berber, he learned more clearly how the question of evacuation was interlaced with other questions. Once at Khartoum, at first he thought himself welcome as a deliverer, and then when new light as to the real feelings of the Soudanese broke upon him, he flung the policy of his mission overboard. Before the end of February, instead of the suzerainty of Egypt, the British government should control Soudanese administration, with Zobeir as their governor-general. “When Gordon left this country,” said Mr. Gladstone, “and when he arrived in Egypt, he declared it to be, and I have not the smallest doubt that it was—a fixed portion of his policy, that no British force should be employed in aid of his mission.”96 When March came, he [pg 156] flung himself with ardour into the policy of “smashing up” the Mahdi, with resort to British and Indian troops. This was a violent reversal of all that had been either settled or dreamed of, whether in London or at Cairo. A still more vehement stride came next. He declared that to leave outlying garrisons to their fate would be an “indelible disgrace.” Yet, as Lord Hartington said, the government “were under no moral obligation to use the military resources of this empire for the relief of those garrisons.” As for Gordon's opinion that “indelible disgrace” would attach to the British government if they were not relieved, “I do not admit,” said the minister very sensibly, “that General Gordon is on this point a better authority than anybody else.”97 All this illustrates the energy of Gordon's mental movements, and also, what is more important, the distracting difficulties of the case before him. In one view and one demand he strenuously persevered, as we shall now see.

Mr. Gladstone at first, when Gordon set all instructions at defiance, was for recalling him. A colleague also was for recalling him on the first instant when he changed his policy. Another important member of the cabinet was, on the contrary, for an expedition. “I cannot admit,” wrote a fourth leading minister, “that either generals or statesmen who have accepted the offer of a man to lead a forlorn hope, are in the least bound to risk the lives of thousands for the uncertain chance of saving the forlorn hope.” Some think that this was stern common sense, others call it ignoble. The nation, at any rate, was in one of its high idealising humours, though Gordon had roused some feeling against himself in this country (unjustly enough) by his decree formally sanctioning the holding of slaves.

The general had not been many hours in Khartoum (February 18) before he sent a telegram to Sir E. Baring, proposing that on his withdrawal from Khartoum, Zobeir Pasha should be named his successor as governor-general of the Soudan: he should be made a K.C.M.G., and have presents given to him. This request was strenuously pressed by Gordon. Zobeir had been a prime actor in the [pg 157]


devastations of the slave trade; it was he who had acquired Darfur for Egypt; he was a first-rate fighting man, and the ablest leader in the Soudan. He is described by the English officer who knows the Soudan best, as a far-seeing, thoughtful man of iron will—a born ruler of men.98 The Egyptian government had desired to send him down to aid in the operations at Suakin in 1883, but the government in London vetoed him, as they were now to veto him a second time. The Egyptian government was to act on its own responsibility, but not to do what it thought best. So now with Gordon.

Gordon in other days had caused Zobeir's son to be shot, and this was supposed to have set up an unquenchable blood-feud between them. Before reaching Cairo, he had suggested that Zobeir should be sent to Cyprus, and there kept out of the way. This was not done. On Gordon's way through Cairo, the two men met in what those present describe as a highly dramatic interview. Zobeir bitterly upbraided Gordon: “You killed my son, whom I entrusted to you. He was as your son. You brought my wives and women and children in chains to Khartoum.” Still even after that incident, Gordon declared that he had “a mystical feeling” that Zobeir and he were all right.99 What inspired his reiterated demand for the immediate despatch of Zobeir is surmised to have been the conviction forced upon him during his journey to Khartoum, that his first idea of leaving the various petty sultans to fight it out with the Mahdi, would not work; that the Mahdi had got so strong a hold that he could only be met by a man of Zobeir's political capacity, military skill, and old authority. Sir E. Baring, after a brief interval of hesitation, now supported Gordon's request. So did the shrewd and expert Colonel Stewart. Nubar too favoured the idea. The cabinet could not at once assent; they were startled by the change of front [pg 158] as to total withdrawal from the Soudan—the very object of Gordon's mission, and accepted by him as such. On February 21 Mr. Gladstone reported to the Queen that the cabinet were of opinion that there would be the gravest objection to nominating by an assumption of British authority a successor to General Gordon in the Soudan, nor did they as yet see sufficient reasons for going beyond Gordon's memorandum of January 25, by making special provision for the government of that country. But at first it looked as if ministers might yield, if Baring, Gordon, and Nubar persisted.

As ill-fortune had it, the Zobeir plan leaked out at home by Gordon's indiscretion before the government decided. The omnipotent though not omniscient divinity called public opinion intervened. The very men who had most loudly clamoured for the extrication of the Egyptian garrisons, who had pressed with most importunity for the despatch of Gordon, who had been most urgent for the necessity of giving him a free hand, now declared that it would be a national degradation and a European scandal to listen to Gordon's very first request. He had himself unluckily given them a capital text, having once said that Zobeir was alone responsible for the slave trade of the previous ten years. Gordon's idea was, as he explained, to put Zobeir into a position like that of the Ameer of Afghanistan, as a buffer between Egypt and the Mahdi, with a subsidy, moral support, and all the rest of a buffer arrangement. The idea may or may not have been a good one; nobody else had a better.

It was not at all surprising that the cabinet should ask what new reason had come to light why Zobeir should be trusted; why he should oppose the Mahdi whom at first he was believed to have supported; why he should turn the friend of Egypt; why he should be relied upon as the faithful ally of England. To these and other doubts Gordon had excellent answers (March 8). Zobeir would run straight, because it was his interest. If he would be dangerous, was not the Mahdi dangerous, and whom save Zobeir could you set up against the Mahdi? You talked of slave-holding and slave-hunting, but would slave-holding and slave-hunting [pg 159]


stop with your own policy of evacuation? Slave-holding you cannot interfere with, and as for slave-hunting, that depended on the equatorial provinces, where Zobeir could be prevented from going, and besides he would have his hands full in consolidating his power elsewhere. As for good faith towards Egypt, Zobeir's stay in Cairo had taught him our power, and being a great trader, he would rather seek Egypt's close alliance. Anyhow, said Gordon, “if you do not send Zobeir, you have no chance of getting the garrisons away.”

The matter was considered at two meetings of the cabinet, but the prime minister was prevented by his physician from attending.100 A difference of opinion showed itself upon the despatch of Zobeir; viewed as an abstract question, three of the Commons members inclined to favour it, but on the practical question, the Commons members were unanimous that no government from either side of the House could venture to sanction Zobeir. Mr. Gladstone had become a strong convert to the plan of sending Zobeir. “I am better in chest and generally,” he wrote to Lord Granville, “but unfortunately not in throat and voice, and Clark interdicts my appearance at cabinet; but I am available for any necessary communication, say with you, or you and Hartington.” One of the ministers went to see him in his bed, and they conversed for two hours. The minister, on his return, reported with some ironic amusement that Mr. Gladstone considered it very likely that they could not bring parliament to swallow Zobeir, but believed that he himself could. Whether his confidence in this was right or wrong, he was unable to turn his cabinet. The Queen telegraphed her agreement with the prime minister. But this made no difference. “On Saturday 15,” Mr. Gladstone notes, “it seemed as if by my casting vote Zobier was to be sent to Gordon. But [pg 160] on Sunday —— and —— receded from their ground, and I gave way. The nature of the evidence on which judgments are formed in this most strange of all cases, precludes (in reason) pressing all conclusions, which are but preferences, to extremes.” “It is well known,” said Mr. Gladstone in the following year when the curtain had fallen on the catastrophe, “that if, when the recommendation to send Zobeir was made, we had complied with it, an address from this House to the crown would have paralysed our action; and though it was perfectly true that the decision arrived at was the judgment of the cabinet, it was also no less the judgment of parliament and the people.” So Gordon's request was refused.

It is true that, as a minister put it at the time, to send Zobeir would have been a gambler's throw. But then what was it but a gambler's throw to send Gordon himself? The Soudanese chieftain might possibly have done all that Gordon and Stewart, who knew the ground and were watching the quick fluctuation of events with elastic minds, now positively declared that he would have the strongest motives not to do. Even then, could the issue have been worse? To run all the risks involved in the despatch of Gordon, and then immediately to refuse the request that he persistently represented as furnishing him his only chance, was an incoherence that the parliament and people of England have not often surpassed.101 All through this critical month, from the 10th until the 30th, Mr. Gladstone was suffering more or less from indisposition which he found it difficult to throw off.


The chance, whatever it may have been, passed like a flash. Just as the proposal inflamed many in England, so it did mischief in Cairo. Zobeir like other people got wind of it; enemies of England at Cairo set to work with him; Sir E. Baring might have found him hard to deal with. It was Gordon's rashness that had made the design public. Gordon, too, as it happened, had made a dire mistake on his way up. At Berber he had shown the khedive's secret firman, [pg 161]

Condition Of The Soudan

announcing the intended abandonment of the Soudan. The news spread; it soon reached the Mahdi himself, and the Mahdi made politic use of it. He issued a proclamation of his own, asking all the sheikhs who stood aloof from him or against him, what they had to gain by supporting a pasha who was the next day going to give the Soudan up. Gordon's argument for this unhappy proceeding was that, the object of his mission being to get out of the country and leave them to their independence, he could have put no sharper spur into them to make them organise their own government. But he spoke of it after as the fatal proclamation, and so it was.102

What happened was that the tribes round Khartoum almost at once began to waver. From the middle of March, says a good observer, one searches in vain for a single circumstance hopeful for Gordon. “When the eye wanders over the huge and hostile Soudan, notes the little pin-point garrisons, each smothered in a cloud of Arab spears, and remembers that Gordon and Stewart proceeded to rule this vast empire, already given away to others, one feels that the Soudanese view was marked by common sense.”103 Gordon's too sanguine prediction that the men who had beaten Hicks, and the men who afterwards beat Baker, would never fight beyond their tribal limits, did not come true. Wild forces gathered round the Mahdi as he advanced northwards. The tribes that had wavered joined them. Berber fell on May 26. The pacific mission had failed, and Gordon and his comrade Stewart—a more careful and clear-sighted man than himself—were shut up in Khartoum.

[pg 162]

Distractions grew thicker upon the cabinet, and a just reader, now far away from the region of votes of censure, will bear them in mind. The Queen, like many of her subjects, grew impatient, but Mr. Gladstone was justified in reminding her of the imperfect knowledge, and he might have called it blank ignorance, with which the government was required on the shortest notice to form conclusions on a remote and more than half-barbarous region.

Gordon had told them that he wanted to take his steam vessels to Equatoria and serve the king of the Belgians. This Sir Evelyn Baring refused to allow, not believing Gordon to be in immediate danger (March 26). From Gordon himself came a telegram (March 28), “I think we are now safe, and that, as the Nile rises, we shall account for the rebels.” Mr. Gladstone was still unwell and absent. Through Lord Granville he told the cabinet (March 15) that, with a view to speedy departure from Khartoum, he would not even refuse absolutely to send cavalry to Berber, much as he disliked it, provided the military authorities thought it could be done, and provided also that it was declared necessary for Gordon's safety, and was strictly confined to that object. The cabinet decided against an immediate expedition, one important member vowing that he would resign if an expedition were not sent in the autumn, another vowing that he would resign if it were. On April 7, the question of an autumn expedition again came up. Six were favourable, five the other way, including the prime minister.

Almost by the end of March it was too probable that no road of retreat was any longer open. If they could cut no way out, either by land or water, what form of relief was possible? A diversion from Suakin to Berber—one of Gordon's own suggestions? But the soldiers differed. Fierce summer heat and little water; an Indian force might stand it; even they would find it tough. A dash by a thousand cavalry across two hundred miles of desert—one hundred of them without water; without communication with its base, and with the certainty that whatever might befall, no reinforcements could reach it for months? What would be your feelings, and your language, asked Lord [pg 163]

Question Of An Expedition

Hartington, if besides having Gordon and Stewart beleaguered in Khartoum, we also knew that a small force of British cavalry unable to take the offensive was shut up in the town of Berber?104 Then the government wondered whether a move on Dongola might not be advantageous. Here again the soldiers thought the torrid climate a fatal objection, and the benefits doubtful. Could not Gordon, some have asked, have made his retreat at an early date after reaching Khartoum, by way of Berber? Answer—the Nile was too low. All this it was that at a later day, when the time had come to call his government to its account, justified Mr. Gladstone in saying that in such enterprises as these in the Soudan, mistakes and miscarriages were inevitable, for they were the proper and certain consequences of undertakings that lie beyond the scope of human means and of rational and prudent human action, and are a war against nature.105 If anybody now points to the victorious expedition to Khartoum thirteen years later, as falsifying such language as this, that experience so far from falsifying entirely justifies. A war against nature demands years of study, observation, preparation, and those who are best acquainted with the conditions at first hand all agree that neither the tribes nor the river nor the desert were well known enough in 1885, to guarantee that overthrow in the case of the Mahdi, which long afterwards destroyed his successor.

On April 14 Sir E. Baring, while as keenly averse as anybody in the world to an expedition for the relief of Khartoum if such an expedition could be avoided, still watching events with a clear and concentrated gaze, assured the government that it was very likely to be unavoidable; it would be well therefore, without loss of time, to prepare for a move as soon as ever the Nile should rise. Six days before, Lord Wolseley also had written to Lord Hartington at the war office, recommending immediate and active preparations for an exclusively British expedition to Khartoum. Time, he said, is the most important element in this [pg 164] question; and in truth it was, for time was flying, and so were events. The cabinet were reported as feeling that Gordon, “who was despatched on a mission essentially pacific, had found himself, from whatever cause, unable to prosecute it effectually, and now proposed the use of military means, which might fail, and which, even if they should succeed, might be found to mean a new subjugation of the Soudan—the very consummation which it was the object of Gordon's mission to avert.” On June 27 it was known in London that Berber had fallen a month before.


Lord Hartington, as head of the war department, had a stronger leaning towards the despatch of troops than some of his colleagues, but, says Mr. Gladstone to Lord Granville in a letter of 1888, “I don't think he ever came to any sharp issue (like mine about Zobeir); rather that in the main he got what he wanted.” Wherever the fault lay, the issue was unfortunate. The generals in London fought the battle of the routes with unabated tenacity for month after month. One was for the approach to Khartoum by the Nile; another by Suakin and Berber; a third by the Korosko desert. A departmental committee reported in favour of the Nile as the easiest, safest, and cheapest, but they did not report until July 29. It was not until the beginning of August that the House of Commons was asked for a vote of credit, and Lord Hartington authorised General Stephenson at Cairo to take measures for moving troops southward. In his despatch of August 8, Lord Hartington still only speaks of operations for the relief of Gordon, “should they become necessary”; he says the government were still unconvinced that Gordon could not secure the withdrawal of the garrison from Khartoum; but “they are of opinion that the time had arrived for obtaining accurate information as to his position,” and, “if necessary, for rendering him assistance.”106 As soon as the decision was taken, preparations were carried out with rapidity and skill. In the same month Lord Wolseley was [pg 165]

The Expedition Starts

appointed to command the expedition, and on September 9 he reached Cairo. The difficulties of a military decision had been great, said Lord Hartington, and there was besides, he added, a difference of opinion among the military authorities.107 It was October 5 before Lord Wolseley reached Wady-Halfa, and the Nile campaign began.

Whatever decision military critics may ultimately form upon the choice of the Nile route, or upon the question whether the enterprise would have been any more successful if the route had been by Suakin or Korosko, it is at least certain that no position, whether strategically false or no, has ever evoked more splendid qualities in face of almost preterhuman difficulties, hardship, and labour. The treacherous and unknown river, for it was then unknown, with its rapids, its shifting sandbanks and tortuous channels and rocky barriers and heart-breaking cataracts; the Bayuda desert, haunted by fierce and stealthy enemies; the trying climate, the heat, the thirst, all the wearisome embarrassments of transport on camels emaciated by lack of food and water—such scenes exacted toil, patience, and courage as worthy of remark and admiration as if the advance had successfully achieved its object. Nobody lost heart. “Everything goes on swimmingly,” wrote Sir Herbert Stewart to Lord Wolseley, except as to time.” This was on January 14, 1885. Five days later, he was mortally wounded.

The end of it all, in spite of the gallantry of Abu Klea and Kirbekan, of desert column and river column, is only too well known. Four of Gordon's small steamers coming down from Khartoum met the British desert column at Gubat on January 21. The general in command at once determined to proceed to Khartoum, but delayed his start until the morning of the 24th. The steamers needed repairs, and Sir Charles Wilson deemed it necessary for the safety of his troops to make a reconnaissance down the river towards Berber before starting up to Khartoum. He took with him on two of Gordon's steamers—described as of the dimensions of the penny boats upon the Thames, but bullet proof—a force of twenty-six British, and two hundred and forty Soudanese. [pg 166] He had also in tow a nugger laden with dhura. This was what, when Khartoum came in sight (Jan. 28) the “relief force” actually amounted to. As the two steamers ran slowly on, a solitary voice from the river-bank now and again called out to them that Khartoum was taken, and Gordon slain. Eagerly searching with their glasses, the officers perceived that the government-house was a wreck, and that no flag was flying. Gordon, in fact, had met his death two days before.

Mr. Gladstone afterwards always spoke of the betrayal of Khartoum. But Major Kitchener, who prepared the official report, says that the accusations of treachery were all vague, and to his mind, the outcome of mere supposition. “In my opinion,” he says, “Khartoum fell from sudden assault, when the garrison were too exhausted by privations to make proper resistance.”108 The idea that the relieving force was only two days late is misleading. A nugger's load of dhura would not have put an end to the privations of the fourteen thousand people still in Khartoum; and even supposing that the handful of troops at Gubat could have effected their advance upon Khartoum many days earlier, it is hard to believe that they were strong enough either to drive off the Mahdi, or to hold him at bay until the river column had come up.


The prime minister was on a visit to the Duke of Devonshire at Holker, where he had many long conversations with Lord Hartington, and had to deal with heavy post-bags. On Thursday, Feb. 5, after writing to the Queen and others, he heard what had happened on the Nile ten days before. “After 11 a.m.,” he records, “I learned the sad news of the fall or betrayal of Khartoum. H[artington] and I, with C [his wife], went off by the first train, and reached Downing Street soon after 8.15. The circumstances are sad and trying. It is one of the least points about them that they may put an end to this government.”109 The next day the cabinet met; [pg 167]

Mr. Gladstone's Vindication

discussions “difficult but harmonious.” The Queen sent to him and to Lord Hartington at Holker an angry telegram—blaming her ministers for what had happened—a telegram not in cipher as usual, but open. Mr. Gladstone addressed to the Queen in reply (Feb. 5, 1885) a vindication of the course taken by the cabinet; and it may be left to close an unedifying and a tragic chapter:—

To the Queen.

Mr. Gladstone has had the honour this day to receive your Majesty's telegram en clair, relating to the deplorable intelligence received this day from Lord Wolseley, and stating that it is too fearful to consider that the fall of Khartoum might have been, prevented and many precious lives saved by earlier action. Mr. Gladstone does not presume to estimate the means of judgment possessed by your Majesty, but so far as his information and recollection at the moment go, he is not altogether able to follow the conclusion which your Majesty has been pleased thus to announce. Mr. Gladstone is under the impression that Lord Wolseley's force might have been sufficiently advanced to save Khartoum, had not a large portion of it been detached by a circuitous route along the river, upon the express application of General Gordon, to occupy Berber on the way to the final destination. He speaks, however, with submission on a point of this kind. There is indeed in some quarters a belief that the river route ought to have been chosen at an earlier period, and had the navigation of the Nile in its upper region been as well known as that of the Thames, this might have been a just ground of reproach. But when, on the first symptoms that the position of General Gordon in Khartoum was not secure, your Majesty's advisers at once sought from the most competent persons the best information they could obtain respecting the Nile route, the balance of testimony and authority was decidedly against it, and the idea of the Suakin and Berber route, with all its formidable difficulties, was entertained in preference; nor was it until a much later period that the weight of opinion and information warranted the definitive choice of the Nile route. Your Majesty's ministers were well aware that climate and distance were far more formidable than the sword of the enemy, and they deemed it right, while providing [pg 168] adequate military means, never to lose from view what might have proved to be the destruction of the gallant army in the Soudan. It is probable that abundant wrath and indignation will on this occasion be poured out upon them. Nor will they complain if so it should be; but a partial consolation may be found on reflecting that neither aggressive policy, nor military disaster, nor any gross error in the application of means to ends, has marked this series of difficult proceedings, which, indeed, have greatly redounded to the honour of your Majesty's forces of all ranks and arms. In these remarks which Mr. Gladstone submits with his humble devotion, he has taken it for granted that Khartoum has fallen through the exhaustion of its means of defence. But your Majesty may observe from the telegram that this is uncertain. Both the correspondent's account and that of Major Wortley refer to the delivery of the town by treachery, a contingency which on some previous occasions General Gordon has treated as far from improbable; and which, if the notice existed, was likely to operate quite independently of the particular time at which a relieving force might arrive. The presence of the enemy in force would naturally suggest the occasion, or perhaps even the apprehension of the approach of the British army. In pointing to these considerations, Mr. Gladstone is far from assuming that they are conclusive upon the whole case; in dealing with which the government has hardly ever at any of its stages been furnished sufficiently with those means of judgment which rational men usually require. It may be that, on a retrospect, many errors will appear to have been committed. There are many reproaches, from the most opposite quarters, to which it might be difficult to supply a conclusive answer. Among them, and perhaps among the most difficult, as far as Mr. Gladstone can judge, would be the reproach of those who might argue that our proper business was the protection of Egypt, that it never was in military danger from the Mahdi, and that the most prudent course would have been to provide it with adequate frontier defences, and to assume no responsibility for the lands beyond the desert.

One word more. Writing to one of his former colleagues long after Mr. Gladstone says:—

Jan. 10, '90.—In the Gordon case we all, and I rather prominently, [pg 169] must continue to suffer in silence. Gordon was a hero, and a hero of heroes; but we ought to have known that a hero of heroes is not the proper person to give effect at a distant point, and in most difficult circumstances, to the views of ordinary men. It was unfortunate that he should claim the hero's privilege by turning upside down and inside out every idea and intention with which he had left England, and for which he had obtained our approval. Had my views about Zobeir prevailed, it would not have removed our difficulties, as Forster would certainly have moved, and with the tories and the Irish have carried, a condemnatory address. My own opinion is that it is harder to justify our doing so much to rescue him, than our not doing more. Had the party reached Khartoum in time, he would not have come away (as I suppose), and the dilemma would have arisen in another form.

In 1890 an application was made to Mr. Gladstone by a certain foreign writer who had undertaken an article on Gordon and his mission. Mr. Gladstone's reply (Jan. 11, '90) runs to this effect:—

I am much obliged by your kind letter and enclosure. I hope you will not think it belies this expression when I say that I feel myself precluded from supplying any material or entering upon any communications for the purpose of self-defence against the charges which are freely made and I believe widely accepted against myself and against the cabinet of 1880-5 in connection with General Gordon. It would be felt in this country, by friends I think in many cases as well as adversaries, that General Gordon's much-lamented death ought to secure him, so far as we are concerned, against the counter-argument which we should have to present on his language and proceedings. On this account you will, I hope, excuse me from entering into the matter. I do not doubt that a true and equitable judgment will eventually prevail.110
[pg 170]

Chapter X. Interior Of The Cabinet. (1895)

I am aware that the age is not what we all wish, but I am sure that the only means to check its degeneracy is heartily to concur in whatever is best in our time.—Burke.


The year 1885 must be counted as in some respects the severest epoch of Mr. Gladstone's life. The previous twelve months had not ended cheerfully. Sleep, the indispensable restorer, and usually his constant friend, was playing him false. The last entry in his diary was this:—

The year closed with a bad night, only one hour and a half of sleep, which will hardly do to work upon. There is much that I should like to have recorded.... But the pressure on me is too great for the requisite recollection. It is indeed a time of Sturm und Drang. What with the confusion of affairs, and the disturbance of my daily life by the altered character of my nights, I cannot think in calm, but can only trust and pray.

He was unable to be present at the dinner of the tenants, and his eldest son in his absence dwelt once more on his father's wish to retire, whenever occasion should come, from the public service, or at least from that kind of service to the public which imposed on him such arduous efforts.

One great element of confusion was the sphinx's riddle of Egyptian finance. On his birthday, among a dozen occupations, he says: “A little woodcraft for helping sleep; wrote mem. on Egyptian finance which I hope may help to clear my brain and nerves.” And this was a characteristic way of seeking a cure; for now and at every time, any task that demanded close thought and firm expression was his surest [pg 171]

Party Prospects

sedative. More perplexing even than the successive problems of the hour, was the threatened disorganisation, not only of his cabinet, but of the party and its future. On January 20 he was forced to London for two Egyptian cabinets, but he speedily returned to Hawarden, whence he immediately wrote a letter to Lord Granville:—

January 22, 1885.—Here I am after a journey of 5-½ hours from door to door, through the unsought and ill-deserved kindness of the London and North-Western railway, which entirely spoils me by special service.

There was one part of my conversation of to-day with Hartington which I should like not to leave in any case without record. He referred to the difficulties he had had, and he gratefully acknowledged the considerateness of the cabinet. He said the point always urged upon him was, not to break up the liberal party. But, he said, can we avoid its breaking up, within a very short time after you retire, and ought this consideration therefore to be regarded as of such very great force? I said, my reply is in two sentences. First, I admit that from various symptoms it is not improbable there may be a plan or intention to break up the party. But if a rupture of that kind comes,—this is my second sentence—it will come upon matters of principle, known and understood by the whole country, and your duty will probably be clear and your position unembarrassed. But I entreat you to use your utmost endeavour to avoid bringing about the rupture on one of the points of this Egyptian question, which lies outside the proper business of a government and is beyond its powers, which does not turn upon clear principles of politics, and about which the country understands almost nothing, and cares, for the most part, very little. All this he took without rejoinder.

P.S.—We are going to Holker next week, and Hartington said he would try to come and see me there.

As we have already seen,111 Mr. Gladstone paid his visit to Holker (January 30), where he found the Duke of Devonshire “wonderfully well, and kind as ever,” where he was joined by Lord Hartington, and where they together spelled out the [pg 172] cipher telegram (on February 5) bringing the evil news of the fall of Khartoum.

It is not uninteresting to see how the notion of Mr. Gladstone's retirement, now much talked of in his family, affected a friendly, philosophic, and most observant onlooker. Lord Acton wrote to him (February 2):—

You mean that the new parliament, the first of our democratic constitution, shall begin its difficult and perilous course without the services of a leader who has greater experience and authority than any other man. You design to withdraw your assistance when most urgently needed, at the moment of most conservative apprehension and most popular excitement. By the choice of this particular moment for retirement you increase the danger of the critical transition, because nobody stands as you do between the old order of things and the new, or inspires general confidence; and the lieutenants of Alexander are not at their best. Next year's change will appear vast and formidable to the suspicious foreigner, who will be tempted to doubt our identity. It is in the national interest to reduce the outer signs of change, to bridge the apparent chasm, to maintain the traditional character of the state. The unavoidable elements of weakness will be largely and voluntarily aggravated by their untimely coincidence with an event which must, at any time, be a blow to the position of England among the Powers. Your absence just then must grievously diminish our credit.... You alone inspire confidence that what is done for the great masses shall be done with a full sense of economic responsibility.... A divided liberal party and a weak conservative party mean the supremacy of the revolutionary Irish....

To this Mr. Gladstone replied:—

10 Downing Street, Feb. 11, 1885. Your argument against letting the outworn hack go to grass, depends wholly on a certain proposition, namely this, that there is about to be a crisis in the history of the constitution, growing out of the extension of the franchise, and that it is my duty to do what I can in aiding to steer the ship through the boiling waters of this crisis. My answer is simple. There is no crisis at all in view. There is a process of slow modification and development mainly in directions which [pg 173] I view with misgiving. Tory democracy, the favourite idea on that side, is no more like the conservative party in which I was bred, than it is like liberalism. In fact less. It is demagogism, only a demagogism not ennobled by love and appreciation of liberty, but applied in the worst way, to put down the pacific, law-respecting, economic elements which ennobled the old conservatism, living upon the fomentation of angry passions, and still in secret as obstinately attached as ever to the evil principle of class interests. The liberalism of to-day is better in what I have described as ennobling the old conservatism; nay, much better, yet far from being good. Its pet idea is what they call construction,—that is to say, taking into the hands of the state the business of the individual man. Both the one and the other have much to estrange me, and have had for many, many years. But, with all this, there is no crisis. I have even the hope that while the coming change may give undue encouragement to construction, it will be favourable to the economic, pacific, law-regarding elements; and the sense of justice which abides tenaciously in the masses will never knowingly join hands with the fiend of Jingoism. On the whole, I do not abandon the hope that it may mitigate the chronic distemper, and have not the smallest fear of its bringing about an acute or convulsive action. You leave me therefore rooted in my evil mind....

The activity of the left wing, acute, perhaps, but not convulsive, became much more embarrassing than the desire of the right wing to be inactive. Mr. Chamberlain had been rapidly advancing in public prominence, and he now showed that the agitation against the House of Lords was to be only the beginning and not the end. At Ipswich (January 14), he said this country had been called the paradise of the rich, and warned his audience no longer to allow it to remain the purgatory of the poor. He told them that reform of local government must be almost the first reform of the next parliament, and spoke in favour of allotments, the creation of small proprietors, the placing of a small tax on the total property of the taxpayer, and of free education. Mr. Gladstone's attention was drawn from Windsor to these utterances, and he replied (January 22) that though he [pg 174] thought some of them were “on various grounds open to grave objection,” yet they seemed to raise no “definite point on which, in his capacity of prime minister, he was entitled to interfere and lecture the speaker.” A few days later, more terrible things were said by Mr. Chamberlain at Birmingham. He pronounced for the abolition of plural voting, and in favour of payment of members, and manhood suffrage. He also advocated a bill for enabling local communities to acquire land, a graduated income-tax, and the breaking up of the great estates as the first step in land reform. This deliverance was described by not unfriendly critics as “a little too much the speech of the agitator of the future, rather than of the minister of the present.” Mr. Gladstone made a lenient communication to the orator, to the effect that “there had better be some explanations among them when they met.” To Lord Granville he wrote (January 31):—

Upon the whole, weak-kneed liberals have caused us more trouble in the present parliament than radicals. But I think these declarations by Chamberlain upon matters which cannot, humanly speaking, become practical before the next parliament, can hardly be construed otherwise than as having a remote and (in that sense) far-sighted purpose which is ominous enough. The opposition can hardly fail in their opportunity, I must add in their duty, to make them matter of attack. Such things will happen casually from time to time, and always with inconvenience—but there is here a degree of method and system which seem to give the matter a new character.

It will be seen from his tone that Mr. Gladstone, in all the embarrassments arising from this source, showed complete freedom from personal irritation. Like the lofty-minded man he was, he imputed no low motives to a colleague because the colleague gave him trouble. He recognised by now that in his cabinet the battle was being fought between old time and new. He did not allow his dislike of some of the new methods of forming public opinion, to prevent him from doing full justice to the energetic and sincere public spirit behind them. He had, moreover, quite enough to do with [pg 175]

The Left Wing

the demands of the present, apart from signs that were ominous for the future. A year before, in a letter to Lord Granville (March 24, 1884), he had attempted a definition that will, perhaps, be of general interest to politicians of either party complexion. It is, at any rate, characteristic of his subtlety, if that be the right word, in drawing distinctions:—

What are divisions in a cabinet? In my opinion, differences of views stated, and if need be argued, and then advisedly surrendered with a view to a common conclusion are not divisions in a cabinet. By that phrase I understand unaccommodated differences on matters standing for immediate action.

It was unaccommodated differences of this kind that cost Mr. Disraeli secessions on the Reform bill, and secessions no less serious on his eastern policy, and it is one of the wonders of his history that Mr. Gladstone prevented secession on the matters now standing for immediate action before his own cabinet. During the four months between the meeting of parliament and the fall of the government, the two great difficulties of the government—Egypt and Ireland—reached their climax.


The news of the fall of Khartoum reached England on February 5. One of the least points, as Mr. Gladstone wrote on the day, was that the grievous news would put an end to the government, and so it very nearly did. As was to be expected, Sir Stafford Northcote moved a vote of censure. Mr. Gladstone informed the Queen, on the day before the division, that the aspect of the House was “dubious and equivocal.” If there was a chance of overthrowing the ministry, he said, the nationalists were pretty sure to act and vote as a body with Sir Stafford. Mr. Forster, Mr. Goschen, and some members of the whig section of the liberal party, were likely either to do the same, or else to abstain. These circumstances looked towards an unfavourable issue, if not in the shape of an adverse majority, yet in the form of a majority too small to enable the government [pg 176] to carry on with adequate authority and efficiency. In the debate, said Mr. Gladstone, Lord Hartington re-stated with measured force the position of the government, and overthrew the contention that had taken a very forward place in the indictment against ministers, that their great offence was the failure to send forward General Graham's force to relieve General Gordon. In the course of this debate Mr. Goschen warned the government that if they flinched from the policy of smashing the Mahdi at Khartoum, he should vote against them. A radical below the gangway upon this went to the party whip and declared, with equal resolution, that if the government insisted on the policy, then it would be for him and others to vote against them. Sir William Harcourt, in a speech of great power, satisfied the gentlemen below the gangway, and only a small handful of the party went into the lobby with the opposition and the Irish. The division was taken at four in the morning (February 28), and the result was that the government which had come in with morning radiance five years ago, was worn down to an attenuated majority of fourteen.112

When the numbers were declared, Mr. Gladstone said to a colleague on the bench, That will do. Whether this delphic utterance meant that the size of the majority would justify resignation or retention, the colleague was not sure. When the cabinet met at a more mellowed hour in the day, the question between going out of office and staying in, was fully discussed. Mere considerations of ease all pointed one way, for, if they held on, they would seem to be dependent on tory support; trouble was brewing with Russia, and the Seats bill would not be through in a hurry. On the other hand, fourteen was majority enough to swear by, the party would be surprised by resignation and discouraged, and retirement would wear the look of a false position. In fact Mr. Gladstone, in spite of his incessant sighs for a hermit's calm, was always for fighting out every position to the last trench. I can think of no exception, and even when the time came ten years later, he thought his successors pusillanimous for [pg 177]

Narrow Escape In Parliament

retiring on a small scratch defeat on cordite.113 So now he acted on the principle that with courage cabinets may weather almost any storm. No actual vote was taken, but the numbers for and against retirement were equal, until Mr. Gladstone spoke. He thought that they should try to go on, at least until the Seats bill was through. This was the final decision.

All this brought once more into his mind the general consideration that now naturally much haunted him. He wrote to the Queen (February 27):—

Mr. Gladstone believes that circumstances independent of his own will enable him to estimate, with some impartiality, future political changes, and he is certainly under the impression that, partly from the present composition and temper of the liberal party, and still more, and even much more, from the changes which the conservative party has been undergoing during the last forty years (especially the last ten or fifteen of them), the next change of government may possibly form the introduction to a period presenting some new features, and may mean more than what is usually implied in the transfer of power from one party to another.

Mr. Bright has left a note of a meeting with him at this time:—

March 2, 1885.—Dined with Mrs. Gladstone. After dinner, sat for half an hour or more with Mr. Gladstone, who is ill with cold and hoarseness. Long talk on Egypt. He said he had suffered torment during the continuance of the difficulty in that country. The sending Gordon out a great mistake,—a man totally unsuited for the work he undertook. Mr. Gladstone never saw Gordon. He was appointed by ministers in town, and Gladstone concurred, but had never seen him.

At this moment clouds began to darken the remote horizon on the north-west boundary of our great Indian possessions. The entanglement in the deserts of the Soudan was an obvious temptation to any other Power with policies of its own, to disregard the susceptibilities or even the solid [pg 178] interests of Great Britain. As we shall see, Mr. Gladstone was as little disposed as Chatham or Palmerston to shrink from the defence of the legitimate rights or obligations of his country. But the action of Russia in Afghanistan became an added and rather poignant anxiety.

As early as March 12 the cabinet found it necessary to consider the menacing look of things on the Afghan frontier. Military necessities in India, as Mr. Gladstone described to the Queen what was in the mind of her ministers, “might conceivably at this juncture come to overrule the present intentions as to the Soudan as part of them, and it would consequently be imprudent to do anything which could practically extend our obligations in that quarter; as it is the entanglement of the British forces in Soudanese operations, which would most powerfully tempt Russia to adopt aggressive measures.” Three or four weeks later these considerations came to a head. The question put by Mr. Gladstone to his colleagues was this: “Apart from the defence of Egypt, which no one would propose to abandon, does there appear to be any obligation of honour or any inducement of policy (for myself I should add, is there any moral warrant?) that should lead us in the present state of the demands on the empire, to waste a large portion of our army in fighting against nature, and I fear also fighting against liberty (such liberty as the case admits) in the Soudan?” The assumptions on which the policy had been founded had all broken down. Osman Digna, instead of being readily crushed, had betaken himself to the mountains and could not be got at. The railway from Suakin to Berber, instead of serving the advance on Khartoum in the autumn, could not possibly be ready in time. Berber, instead of being taken before the hot season, could not be touched. Lord Wolseley, instead of being able to proceed with his present forces or a moderate addition, was already asking for twelve more battalions of infantry, with a proportion of other arms.

Mr. Gladstone's own view of this crisis is to be found in a memorandum dated April 9, circulated to the cabinet three or four days before the question came up for final settlement. [pg 179]

Change Of Soudan Policy

It is long, but then the case was intricate and the stages various. The reader may at least be satisfied to know that he will have little more of it.114

Three cabinets were held on three successive days (April 13-15). On the evening of the first day Mr. Gladstone sent a telegram to the Queen, then abroad, informing her that in the existing state of foreign affairs, her ministers felt bound to examine the question of the abandonment of offensive operations in the Soudan and the evacuation of the territory. The Queen, in reply, was rather vehement against withdrawal, partly on the ground that it would seriously affect our position in India. The Queen had throughout made a great point that the fullest powers should be granted to those on the spot, both Wolseley and Baring having been selected by the government for the offices they held. No question cuts deeper in the art of administering a vast system like that of Great Britain, than the influence of the agent at a distant place; nowhere is the balance of peril between too slack a rein from home and a rein too tight, more delicate. Mr. Gladstone, perhaps taught by the experience of the Crimean war, always strongly inclined to the school of the tight rein, though I never heard of any representative abroad with a right to complain of insufficient support from a Gladstone cabinet.115 On this aspect of matters, so raised by the Queen, Mr. Gladstone had (March 15) expressed his view to Sir Henry Ponsonby:—

Sir Evelyn Baring was appointed to carry onwards a declared and understood policy in Egypt, when all share in the management of the Soudan was beyond our province. To Lord Wolseley as general of the forces in Egypt, and on account of the arduous character of the work before him, we are bound to render in all military matters a firm and ungrudging support. We have accordingly not scrupled to counsel, on his recommendation, very heavy charges on the country, and military [pg 180] operations of the highest importance. But we have no right to cast on him any responsibility beyond what is strictly military. It is not surely possible that he should decide policy, and that we should adopt and answer for it, even where it is in conflict with the announcements we have made in parliament.

By the time of these critical cabinets in April Sir Evelyn Baring had spontaneously expressed his views, and with a full discussion recommended abandonment of the expedition to Khartoum.

On the second day the matter was again probed and sifted and weighed.

At the third cabinet the decision was taken to retire from the Soudan, and to fix the southern frontier of Egypt at the line where it was left for twelve years, until apprehension of designs of another European power on the upper waters of the Nile was held to demand a new policy. Meanwhile, the policy of Mr. Gladstone's cabinet was adopted and followed by Lord Salisbury when he came into office. He was sometimes pressed to reverse it, and to overthrow the dervish power at Khartoum. To any importunity of this kind, Lord Salisbury's answer was until 1896 unwavering.116

It may be worth noting that, in the course of his correspondence with the Queen on the change of policy in the Soudan, Mr. Gladstone casually indulged in the luxury of a historical parallel. “He must assure your Majesty,” he wrote in a closing sentence (April 20), “that at least he has never in any cabinet known any question more laboriously or more conscientiously discussed; and he is confident that the basis of action has not been the mere change in the public view (which, however, is in some cases imperative, as [pg 181] it was with King George iii. in the case of the American war), but a deep conviction of what the honour and interest of the empire require them as faithful servants of your Majesty to advise.”

A Historical Parallel

The most harmless parallel is apt to be a challenge to discussion, and the parenthesis seems to have provoked some rejoinder from the Queen, for on April 28 Mr. Gladstone wrote to her secretary a letter which takes him away from Khartoum to a famous piece of the world's history:—

To Sir Henry Ponsonby.

In further prosecution of my reply to your letter of the 25th, I advert to your remarks upon Lord North. I made no reference to his conduct, I believe, in writing to her Majesty. What I endeavoured to show was that King George iii., without changing his opinion of the justice of his war against the colonies, was obliged to give it up on account of a change of public opinion, and was not open to blame for so doing.

You state to me that Lord North never flinched from his task till it became hopeless, that he then resigned office, but did not change his opinions to suit the popular cry. The implied contrast to be drawn with the present is obvious. I admit none of your three propositions. Lord North did not, as I read history, require to change his opinions to suit the popular cry. They were already in accordance with the popular cry; and it is a serious reproach against him that without sharing his master's belief in the propriety of the war, he long persisted in carrying it on, through subserviency to that master.

Lord North did not resign office for any reason but because he could not help it, being driven from it by some adverse votes of the House of Commons, to which he submitted with great good humour, and probably with satisfaction.

Lord North did not, so far as I know, state the cause to be hopeless. Nor did those who were opposed to him. The movers of the resolution that drove him out of office did not proceed upon that ground. General Conway in his speech advised the retention of the ground we held in the colonies, and the resolution, which expressed the sense of the House as a body, bears a singular resemblance to the announcement we have lately made, [pg 182] as it declares, in its first clause, that the further prosecution of offensive war (on the continent of America) will be the means of weakening the efforts of this country against her European enemies, February 27, 1782. This was followed, on March 4, by an address on the same basis; and by a resolution declaring that any ministers who should advise or attempt to frustrate it should be considered as enemies to his Majesty and to this country. I ought, perhaps, to add that I have never stated, and I do not conceive, that a change in the public opinion of the country is the ground on which the cabinet have founded the change in their advice concerning the Soudan.


The reader has by this time perhaps forgotten how Mr. Gladstone good-humouredly remonstrated with Lord Palmerston for associating him as one of the same school as Cobden and Bright.117 The twenty intervening years had brought him more and more into sympathy with those two eminent comrades in good causes, but he was not any less alive to the inconvenience of the label. Speaking in Midlothian after the dissolution in 1880, he denied the cant allegation that to instal the liberals in power would be to hand over the destinies of the country to the Manchester school.118 “Abhorring all selfishness of policy,” he said, “friendly to freedom in every country of the earth attached, to the modes of reason, detesting the ways of force, this Manchester school, this peace-party, has sprung prematurely to the conclusion that wars may be considered as having closed their melancholy and miserable history, and that the affairs of the world may henceforth be conducted by methods more adapted to the dignity of man, more suited both to his strength and to his weakness, less likely to lead him out of the ways of duty, to stimulate his evil passions, to make him guilty before God for inflicting misery on his fellow-creatures.” Such a view, he said, was a serious error, though it was not only a respectable, it was even a noble error. Then he went on, “However much you may detest war—and you cannot detest it too much—there is [pg 183] no war—except one, the war for liberty—that does not contain in it elements of corruption, as well as of misery, that are deplorable to recollect and to consider; but however deplorable wars may be, they are among the necessities of our condition; and there are times when justice, when faith, when the welfare of mankind, require a man not to shrink from the responsibility of undertaking them. And if you undertake war, so also you are often obliged to undertake measures that may lead to war.”119

It is also, if not one of the necessities, at least one of the natural probabilities of our imperfect condition, that when a nation has its forces engaged in war, that is the moment when other nations may press inconvenient questions of their own. Accordingly, as I have already mentioned, when Egyptian distractions were at their height, a dangerous controversy arose with Russia in regard to the frontier of Afghanistan. The question had been first raised a dozen years before without effect, but it was now sharpened into actuality by recent advances of Russia in Central Asia, bringing her into close proximity to the territory of the Ameer. The British and Russian governments appointed a commission to lay down the precise line of division between the Turcoman territory recently annexed by Russia and Afghanistan. The question of instructions to the commission led to infinite discussion, of which no sane man not a biographer is now likely to read one word. While the diplomatists were thus teasing one another, Russian posts and Afghan pickets came closer together, and one day (March 30, 1885) the Russians broke in upon the Afghans at Penjdeh. The Afghans fought gallantly, their losses were heavy, and Penjdeh was occupied by the Russians. “Whose was the provocation,” as Mr. Gladstone said later, “is a matter of the utmost consequence. We only know that the attack was a Russian attack. We know that the Afghans suffered in life, in spirit, and in repute. We know that a blow was struck at [pg 184] the credit and the authority of a sovereign—our protected ally—who had committed no offence. All I say is, we cannot in that state of things close this book and say, ‘We will look into it no more.’ We must do our best to have right done in the matter.”

Here those who were most adverse to the Soudan policy stood firmly with their leader, and when Mr. Gladstone proposed a vote of credit for eleven millions, of which six and a half were demanded to meet “the case for preparation,” raised by the collision at Penjdeh, he was supported with much more than a mechanical loyalty, alike by the regular opposition and by independent adherents below his own gangway. The speech in which he moved this vote of a war supply (April 27) was an admirable example both of sustained force and lucidity in exposition, and of a combined firmness, dignity, reserve, and right human feeling, worthy of a great minister dealing with an international situation of extreme delicacy and peril. Many anxious moments followed; for the scene of quarrel was far off, details were hard to clear up, diplomacy was sometimes ambiguous, popular excitement was heated, and the language of faction was unmeasured in its violence. The preliminary resolution on the vote of credit had been received with acclamation, but a hostile motion was made from the front opposition bench (May 11), though discord on a high imperial matter was obviously inconvenient enough for the public interest. The mover declared the government to have murdered so many thousand men and to have arranged a sham arbitration, and this was the prelude to other speeches in the same key. Sir S. Northcote supported the motion—one to displace the ministers on a bill that it was the declared intention not to oppose. The division was taken at half-past two in the morning, after a vigorous speech from the prime minister, and the government only counted 290 against 260. In the minority were 42 followers of Mr. Parnell. This premature debate cleared the air. Worked with patience and with vigorous preparations at the back of conciliatory negotiation, the question was prosecuted to a happy issue, and those who had done their [pg 185]

The Vote Of Credit

best to denounce Mr. Gladstone and Lord Granville for trampling the interests and honour of their country underfoot thought themselves very lucky, when the time came for them to take up the threads, in being able to complete the business by adopting and continuing the selfsame line. With justifiable triumph Mr. Gladstone asked how they would have confronted Russia if “that insane policy—for so I still must call it”—of Afghan occupation which he had brought to an end in 1880, had been persevered in. In such a case, when Russia came to advance her claim so to adjust boundaries as to make her immediate neighbour to Afghanistan, she would have found the country full of friends and allies, ready to join her in opposing the foreigner and the invader; and she would have been recognised as the liberator.120


In some respects Mr. Gladstone was never more wonderful than in the few weeks that preceded the fall of his second administration. Between the middle of April and the middle of May, he jots down with half-rueful humour the names of no fewer than nine members of the cabinet who within that period, for one reason or another and at one moment or another, appeared to contemplate resignation; that is to say a majority. Of one meeting he said playfully to a colleague, “A very fair cabinet to-day—only three resignations.” The large packets of copious letters of this date, written and received, show him a minister of unalterable patience, unruffled self-command; inexhaustible in resource, catching at every straw from the resource of others, indefatigable in bringing men of divergent opinions within friendly reach of one another; of tireless ingenuity in minimising differences and convincing recalcitrants that what they took for a yawning gulf was in fact no more than a narrow trench that any decent political gymnast ought to be ashamed not to be able to vault over. Though he takes it all as being in the day's work, in the confidence of the old jingle, that be the day short or never so long, [pg 186] at length it ringeth to evensong, he does not conceal the burden. To Mrs. Gladstone he writes from Downing Street on May-day:—

Rather oppressed and tired with the magnitude and the complication of subjects on my mind, I did not think of writing by the first post, but I will now supply the omission by making use of the second. As to all the later history of this ministry, which is now entering on its sixth year, it has been a wild romance of politics, with a continual succession of hairbreadth escapes and strange accidents pressing upon one another, and it is only from the number of dangers we have passed through already, that one can be bold enough to hope we may pass also through what yet remain. Some time ago I told you that dark as the sky was with many a thunder-cloud, there were the possibilities of an admirable situation and result, and for me a wind-up better than at any time I could have hoped. Russia and Ireland are the two great dangers remaining. The ray I mentioned yesterday for the first is by no means extinct to-day, but there is nothing new of a serious character; what there is, is good. So also upon the Irish complications there is more hope than there was yesterday, although the odds may still be heavily against our getting forward unitedly in a satisfactory manner.

On May 2, as he was looking at the pictures in the Academy, Lord Granville brought him tidings of the Russian answer, which meant peace. His short entries tell a brave story:—

May 3, Sunday.—Dined at Marlborough House. They were most kind and pleasant. But it is so unsundaylike and unrestful. I am much fatigued in mind and body. Yet very happy. May 4.—Wrote to Lord Spencer, Mr. Chamberlain, Sir C. Dilke, Lord Granville. Conclave. H. of C., 4-¾-8-½ and 9-½-2-½. Spoke on Russian question. A heavy day. Much knocked up. May 5.—... Another anxious, very anxious day, and no clearing of the sky as yet. But after all that has come, what may not come? May 14, Ascension Day.—Most of the day was spent in anxious interviews, and endeavours to bring and keep the members of the cabinet together. May 15.—Cabinet 2-4-½. Again stiff. But I must not lose heart.
[pg 187]

State Of Ireland

Difference of opinion upon the budget at one time wore a threatening look, for the radicals disliked the proposed increase of the duty on beer; but Mr. Gladstone pointed out in compensation that on the other hand the equalisation of the death duties struck at the very height of class preference. Mr. Childers was, as always, willing to accommodate difficulties; and in the cabinet the rising storm blew over. Ireland never blows over.

The struggle had gone on for three years. Many murderers had been hanged, though more remained undetected; conspirators had fled; confidence was restored to public officers; society in all its various grades returned externally to the paths of comparative order; and the dire emergency of three years before had been brought to an apparent close. The gratitude in this country to the viceroy who had achieved this seeming triumph over the forces of disorder was such as is felt to a military commander after a hazardous and successful campaign. The country was once more half-conquered, but nothing was advanced, and the other half of the conquest was not any nearer. The scene was not hopeful. There lay Ireland,—squalid, dismal, sullen, dull, expectant, sunk deep in hostile intent. A minority with these misgivings and more felt that the minister's pregnant phrase about the government “having no moral force behind them” too exactly described a fatal truth.

[pg 188]

Chapter XI. Defeat Of Ministers. (May-June 1885)

τὰν Διὸς ἁρμονίαν
θνατῶν παρεξίασι βουλαί.

Æsch. Prom. v. 548.

Never do counsels of mortal men thwart the ordered purpose of Zeus.


What was to be the Irish policy? The Crimes Act would expire in August, and the state of parties in parliament and of sections within the cabinet, together with the approach of the general election, made the question whether that Act should be renewed, and if so on what terms, an issue of crucial importance. There were good grounds for suspecting that tories were even then intimating to the Irish that if Lord Salisbury should come into office, they would drop coercion, just as the liberals had dropped it when they came into office in 1880, and like them would rely upon the ordinary law. On May 15 Mr. Gladstone announced in terms necessarily vague, because the new bill was not settled, that they proposed to continue what he described as certain clauses of a valuable and equitable description in the existing Coercion Act.

No parliamentary situation could be more tempting to an astute opposition. The signs that the cabinet was not united were unmistakable. The leader of the little group of four clever men below the gangway on the tory side gave signs that he espied an opportunity. This was one of the occasions that disclosed the intrepidity of Lord Randolph Churchill. He made a speech after Mr. Gladstone's announcement of a [pg 189]

Lord Randolph Churchill And The Irishmen

renewal of portions of the Crimes Act, not in his place but at a tory club. He declared himself profoundly shocked that so grave an announcement should have been taken as a matter of course. It was really a terrible piece of news. Ireland must be in an awful state, or else the radical members of the cabinet would never have assented to such unanswerable evidence that the liberal party could not govern Ireland without resort to that arbitrary force which their greatest orators had so often declared to be no remedy. It did not much matter whether the demand was for large powers or for small. Why not put some kind thoughts towards England in Irish minds, by using the last days of this unlucky parliament to abrogate all that harsh legislation which is so odious to England, and which undoubtedly abridges the freedom and insults the dignity of a sensitive and imaginative race? The tory party should be careful beyond measure not to be committed to any act or policy which should unnecessarily wound or injure the feelings of our brothers on the other side of the channel of St. George.121

The key to an operation that should at once, with the aid of the disaffected liberals and the Irish, turn out Mr. Gladstone and secure the English elections, was an understanding with Mr. Parnell. The price of such an understanding was to drop coercion, and that price the tory leaders resolved to pay. The manœuvre was delicate. If too plainly disclosed, it might outrage some of the tory rank and file who would loathe an Irish alliance, and it was likely, moreover, to deter some of the disaffected liberals from joining in any motion for Mr. Gladstone's overthrow. Lord Salisbury and his friends considered the subject with “immense deliberation some weeks before the fall of the government.” They came to the conclusion that in the absence of official information, they could see nothing to warrant a government in applying for a renewal of exceptional powers. That conclusion they profess to have kept sacredly in their own bosoms. Why they should give immense deliberation to a decision that in their view must be worthless without official information, and that was to remain for an indefinite time in mysterious [pg 190] darkness, was never explained when this secret decision some months later was revealed to the public.122 If there was no intention of making the decision known to the Irishmen, the purpose of so unusual a proceeding would be inscrutable. Was it made known to them? Mr. McCarthy, at the time acting for his leader, has described circumstantially how the Irish were endeavouring to obtain a pledge against coercion; how two members of the tory party, one of them its recognised whip, came to him in succession declaring that they came straight from Lord Salisbury with certain propositions; how he found the assurance unsatisfactory, and asked each of these gentlemen in turn on different nights to go back to Lord Salisbury, and put further questions to him; and how each of them professed to have gone back to Lord Salisbury, to have conferred with him, and to have brought back his personal assurance.123 On the other hand, it has been uniformly denied by the tory leaders that there was ever any compact whatever with the Irishmen at this moment. We are not called upon here to decide in a conflict of testimony which turns, after all, upon words so notoriously slippery as pledge, compact, or understanding. It is enough to mark what is not denied, that Lord Salisbury and his confidential friends had resolved, subject to official information, to drop coercion, and that the only visible reason why they should form the resolution at that particular moment was its probable effect upon Mr. Parnell.


Let us now return to the ministerial camp. There the whig wing of the cabinet, adhering to Lord Spencer, were for a modified renewal of the Coercion Act, with the balm of a land purchase bill and a limited extension of self-government in local areas. The radical wing were averse to coercion, and averse to a purchase bill, but they were willing to yield a milder form of coercion, on condition that the cabinet would agree not merely to small measures of self-government in local areas, but to the erection of a [pg 191]

In The Ministerial Camp

central board clothed with important administrative functions for the whole of Ireland. In the House of Commons it was certain that a fairly strong radical contingent would resist coercion in any degree, and a liberal below the gangway, who had not been long in parliament but who had been in the press a strong opponent of the coercion policy of 1881, at once gave notice that if proposals were made for the renewal of exceptional law, he should move their rejection. Mr. Gladstone had also to inform the Queen that in what is considered the whig or moderate section of the House there had been recent indications of great dislike to special legislation, even of a mild character, for Ireland. These proceedings are all of capital importance in an eventful year, and bear pretty directly upon the better known crisis of the year following.

A memorandum by Mr. Gladstone of a conversation between himself and Lord Granville (May 6) will best show his own attitude at this opening of a momentous controversy:—

... I told him [Granville] I had given no pledge or indication of my future conduct to Mr. Chamberlain, who, however, knew my opinions to be strong in favour of some plan for a Central Board of Local Government in Ireland on something of an elective basis.... Under the circumstances, while the duty of the hour evidently was to study the means of possible accommodation, the present aspect of affairs was that of a probable split, independently of the question what course I might individually pursue. My opinions, I said, were very strong and inveterate. I did not calculate upon Parnell and his friends, nor upon Manning and his bishops. Nor was I under any obligation to follow or act with Chamberlain. But independently of all questions of party, of support, and of success, I looked upon the extension of a strong measure of local government like this to Ireland, now that the question is effectually revived by the Crimes Act, as invaluable itself, and as the only hopeful means of securing crown and state from an ignominious surrender in the next parliament after a mischievous and painful struggle. (I did not advert to the difficulties which will in this session be experienced in carrying on [pg 192] a great battle for the Crimes Act.) My difficulty would lie not in my pledges or declarations (though these, of a public character, are serious), but in my opinions.

Under these circumstances, I said, I take into view the freedom of my own position. My engagements to my colleagues are fulfilled; the great Russian question is probably settled; if we stand firm on the Soudan, we are now released from that embarrassment; and the Egyptian question, if the financial convention be safe, no longer presents any very serious difficulties. I am entitled to lay down my office as having done my work.

Consequently the very last thing I should contemplate is opening the Irish difficulty in connection with my resignation, should I resign. It would come antecedently to any parliamentary treatment of that problem. If thereafter the secession of some members should break up the cabinet, it would leave behind it an excellent record at home and abroad. Lord Granville, while ready to resign his office, was not much consoled by this presentation of the case.

Late in the month (May 23) Mr. Gladstone wrote a long letter to the Queen, giving her “some idea of the shades of opinion existing in the cabinet with reference to legislation for Ireland.” He thought it desirable to supply an outline of this kind, because the subject was sure to recur after a short time, and was “likely to exercise a most important influence in the coming parliament on the course of affairs.” The two points on which there was considerable divergence of view were the expiry of the Crimes Act, and the concession of local government. The Irish viceroy was ready to drop a large portion of what Mr. Gladstone called coercive provisions, while retaining provisions special to Ireland, but favouring the efficiency of the law. Other ministers were doubtful whether any special legislation was needed for Irish criminal law. Then on the point whether the new bill should be for two years or one, some, including Mr. Gladstone and Lord Spencer, were for the longer term, others, including Mr. Chamberlain and Sir Charles Dilke, for the shorter. At last the whole cabinet agreed to two years. Next for local government,—some held that a liberal move in this region [pg 193]

Opinion In The Cabinet

would possibly obviate all need for special criminal legislation, and would at any rate take the sting out of it. To this “vastly important subject” the prime minister presumed to draw the Queen's special attention, as involving great and far-reaching questions. He did not, he said, regard the differences of leaning in the cabinet upon these matters with either surprise or dismay. Such difficulties were due to inherent difficulties in the matters themselves, and were to be expected from the action of independent and energetic minds in affairs so complex.

There were two main opinions. One favoured the erection of a system of representative county government in Ireland. The other view was that besides the county boards, there should be in addition a central board for all Ireland, essentially municipal and not political; in the main executive and administrative, but also with a power to make bye-laws, raise funds, and pledge public credit in such modes as parliament should provide. The central board would take over education, primary, in part intermediate, and perhaps even higher; poor law and sanitary administration; and public works. The whole charge of justice, police, and prisons would remain with the executive. This board would not be directly elective by the whole Irish people; it would be chosen by the representative county boards. Property, moreover, should have a representation upon it distinct from numbers. This plan, “first made known to Mr. Gladstone by Mr. Chamberlain,” would, he believed, be supported by six out of the eight Commons ministers. But a larger number of ministers were not prepared to agree to any plan involving the principle of an elective central board as the policy of the cabinet. On account of this preliminary bar, the particular provisions of the policy of a central board were not discussed.

All this, however, was for the moment retrospective and historic, because a fortnight before the letter was written, the policy of the central board, of which Mr. Gladstone so decisively approved, had been killed. A committee of the cabinet was appointed to consider it; some remained stubbornly opposed; as the discussion went on, [pg 194] some changed their minds and, having resisted, at last inclined to acquiesce. Ministers were aware from the correspondence of one of them with an eminent third person, that Mr. Parnell approved the scheme, and in consideration of it would even not oppose a very limited Crimes bill. This, however, was no temptation to all of them; perhaps it had the contrary effect. When it came to the full cabinet, it could not be carried. All the peers except Lord Granville were against it. All the Commoners except Lord Hartington were for it. As the cabinet broke up (May 9), the prime minister said to one colleague, “Ah, they will rue this day”; and to another, “Within six years, if it please God to spare their lives, they will be repenting in sackcloth and ashes.” Later in the day he wrote to one of them, “The division of opinion in the cabinet on the subject of local government with a central board for Ireland was so marked, and if I may use the expression, so diametrical, that I dismissed the subject from my mind, and sorrowfully accepted the negative of what was either a majority, or a moiety of the entire cabinet.”

This decision, more profoundly critical than anybody excepting Mr. Gladstone and perhaps Mr. Chamberlain seemed to be aware, left all existing difficulties as acute as ever. In the middle of May things looked very black. The scheme for a central board was dead, though, wrote Mr. Gladstone to the viceroy, “for the present only. It will quickly rise again, as I think, perhaps in larger dimensions. Some members of the cabinet, he knew not how many, would resign rather than demand from parliament, without a Central Board bill, the new Coercion Act. If such resignations took place, how was a Coercion bill to be fought through the House, when some liberals had already declared that they would resist it?

On May 15 drafts not only of a Coercion bill, but of a bill for land purchase, came before the cabinet. Much objection was taken to land purchase, especially by the two radical leaders, and it was agreed to forego such a bill for the present session. The viceroy gravely lamented this decision, and Mr. Gladstone entered into communication with Mr. [pg 195]

Opinion In The Cabinet

Chamberlain and Sir C. Dilke. From them he understood that their main anxiety sprang from a fear lest the future handling of local government should be prejudiced by premature disposal of the question of land purchase, but that in the main they thought the question of local government would not be prejudiced if the purchase bill only provided funds for a year. Under this impression and with a full belief that he was giving effect to the real desire of his colleagues in general to meet the views of Lord Spencer, and finding the prospects of such a bill favourable, Mr. Gladstone proceeded (May 20) to give notice of its introduction. Mr. Chamberlain and Sir C. Dilke took this to be a reversal of the position to which they had agreed, and would not assent to land purchase unless definitely coupled with assurances as to local government. They immediately resigned. The misapprehension was explained, and though the resignations were not formally withdrawn, they were suspended. But the two radical leaders did not conceal their view of the general state of the case, and in very direct terms told Mr. Gladstone that they differed so completely on the questions that were to occupy parliament for the rest of the session, as to feel the continuance of the government of doubtful advantage to the country. In Mr. Chamberlain's words, written to the prime minister at the time of the misunderstanding (May 21)—

I feel there has been a serious misapprehension on both sides with respect to the Land Purchase bill, and I take blame to myself if I did not express myself with sufficient clearness.... I doubt very much if it is wise or was right to cover over the serious differences of principle that have lately disclosed themselves in the cabinet. I think it is now certain that they will cause a split in the new parliament, and it seems hardly fair to the constituencies that this should only be admitted, after they have discharged their function and are unable to influence the result.


Still the prime minister altogether declined, in his own phrase, to lose heart, and new compromises were invented. Meanwhile he cheerfully went for the Whitsuntide recess [pg 196] to Hawarden, and dived into Lechler's Wycliffe, Walpole's George III., Conrad on German Union, Cooper on the Atonement, and so forth. Among other guests at Hawarden came Lord Wolverton, “with much conversation; we opened rather a new view as to my retirement.” What the new view was we do not know, but the conversation was resumed and again resumed, until the unwelcome day (June 4) for return to Downing Street. Before returning, however, Mr. Gladstone set forth his view of the internal crisis in a letter to Lord Hartington:—

To Lord Hartington.

May 30, 1885.—I am sorry but not surprised that your rather remarkable strength should have given way under the pressure of labour or anxiety or both. Almost the whole period of this ministry, particularly the year and a half since the defeat of Hicks, and most particularly of all, the four months since the morning when you deciphered the Khartoum telegram at Holker, have been without example in my experience, as to the gravity and diversity of difficulties which they have presented. What I hope is that they will not discourage you, or any of our colleagues, in your anticipations of the future. It appears to me that there is not one of them, viewed in the gross, which has been due to our own action. By viewing in the gross, I mean taking the Egyptian question as one. When we subdivide between Egypt proper and the Soudan, I find what seem to me two grave errors in our management of the Soudan business: the first our landing at Suakin, the second the mission of Gordon, or rather the choice of Gordon for that mission. But it sometimes happens that the errors gravest in their consequences are also the most pardonable. And these errors were surely pardonable enough in themselves, without relying on the fact that they were approved by the public opinion of the day and by the opposition. Plenty of other and worse errors have been urged upon us which we have refused or avoided. I do not remember a single good measure recommended by opponents, which we have declined to adopt (or indeed any good measure which they have recommended at all). We certainly have worked hard. I believe that according to the measure of human infirmity, we have done fairly well, but the duties we have [pg 197] had to discharge have been duties, I mean in Egypt and the Soudan, which it was impossible to discharge with the ordinary measure of credit and satisfaction, which were beyond human strength, and which it was very unwise of our predecessors to saddle upon the country.

At this moment we have but two great desiderata: the Egyptian Convention and the Afghan settlement (the evacuation of the Soudan being in principle a thing done). Were these accomplished, we should have attained for the empire at home and abroad a position in most respects unusually satisfactory, and both of them ought to be near accomplishment. With the Egyptian Convention fairly at work, I should consider the Egyptian question as within a few comparatively easy stages of satisfactory solution.

Now as regards the immediate subject. What if Chamberlain and Dilke, as you seem to anticipate, raise the question of a prospective declaration about local government in Ireland as a condition of their remaining in the cabinet? I consider that question as disposed of for the present (much against my will), and I do not see that any of us, having accepted the decision, can attempt to disturb it. Moreover, their ground will be very weak and narrow; for their actual reason of going, if they go, will be the really small question arising upon the Land Purchase bill.

I think they will commit a great error if they take this course. It will be straining at the gnat. No doubt it will weaken the party at the election, but I entertain no fear of the immediate effect. Their error will, however, in my view go beyond this. Forgive me if I now speak with great frankness on a matter, one of few, in which I agree with them, and not with you. I am firmly convinced that on local government for Ireland they hold a winning position; which by resignation now they will greatly compromise. You will all, I am convinced, have to give what they recommend; at the least what they recommend.

There are two differences between them and me on this subject. First as to the matter; I go rather further than they do; for I would undoubtedly make a beginning with the Irish police. Secondly as to the ground; here I differ seriously. I do not reckon with any confidence upon Manning or Parnell; I have never looked much in Irish matters at negotiation or the conciliation of [pg 198] leaders. I look at the question in itself, and I am deeply convinced that the measure in itself will (especially if accompanied with similar measures elsewhere, e.g. in Scotland) be good for the country and the empire; I do not say unmixedly good, but with advantages enormously outweighing any drawbacks.

Apart from these differences, and taking their point of view, I think they ought to endeavour to fight the election with you; and in the new state of affairs which will be presented after the dissolution, try and see what effect may be produced upon your mind, and on other minds, when you have to look at the matter cominus and not eminus, as actual, and not as hypothetical. I gave Chamberlain a brief hint of these speculations when endeavouring to work upon him; otherwise I have not mentioned them to any one.


On the day of his return to London from Hawarden Mr. Gladstone had an interview with the two ministers with whom on the merits he was most disposed to agree, though he differed strongly from them as to tactics. Resignations were still only suspended, yet the prospects of compromise were hopeful. At a cabinet held on the following day (June 5) it was agreed that he should in the course of a week give notice of a bill to take the place of the expiring Crimes Act. The point left open was whether the operative provisions of such an Act—agreed on some time before—should not be brought into operation without some special act of the executive government, by proclamation, order in council, or otherwise. Local government was still left open. Lord Spencer crossed over from Ireland on the night of June 7, and the cabinet met next day. All differences were narrowed down to the point whether the enactments against intimidation should be inoperative unless and until the lord lieutenant should waken them into life by proclamation. As it happened, intimidation had been for a considerable time upon the increase—from which it might be inferred either, on the one side, that coercion failed in its object, or, on the other, that more coercion was still indispensable. The precise state in which matters were left at the eleventh hour before the crisis, now swiftly advancing, [pg 199]

Final Deliberations

was set out by Mr. Gladstone in a letter written by him to the Queen in the autumn (October 5), when he was no longer her Majesty's minister:—

To the Queen.

... He has perceived that in various quarters misapprehension prevails as to the point at which the deliberations of the late cabinet on the question of any renewal of, or substitution for, the Crimes Act in Ireland had arrived when their financial defeat on the 8th of June caused the tender of their resignation.

Mr. Gladstone prays your Majesty's gracious permission to remove this misapprehension by simply stating that which occurred in the cabinet at its latest meetings, with reference to this particular question. Substantially it would be a repetition, or little more (and without any mention of names), of his latest reports to your Majesty, to the effect—

1. That the cabinet had long before arrived at the conclusion that the coercion clauses of the Act, properly so called, might be safely abandoned.

2. With regard to the other clauses, which might be generally described as procedure clauses, they intended as a rule to advise, not their absolute re-enactment, but that the viceroy should be empowered to bring them into action, together or separately, as and when he might see cause.

3. But that, with respect to the intimidation or boycotting provisions, it still remained for consideration whether they should thus be left subject to executive discretion, or whether, as the offence had not ceased, they should, as an effective instrument of repression, remain in direct and full operation.

It is worth noticing here as a signal instance of Mr. Gladstone's tenacious and indomitable will after his defeat, that in a communication to the Queen four days later (June 12), he stated that the single outstanding point of difference on the Crimes bill was probably in a fair way of settlement, but that even if the dissent of the radical members of the cabinet had become operative, it was his firm intention to make new arrangements for filling the vacant offices and carrying on [pg 200] the government. The overthrow came in a different way. The deliberations thus summarised had been held under the shadow of a possibility, mentioned to the Queen in the report of this last cabinet, of a coalition between the tories and the Irish nationalists, in order to put an end to the existence of the government on their budget. This cloud at last burst, though Mr. Gladstone at any rate with his usual invincible adherence to the salutary rule never to bid good morrow to the devil until you meet him, did not strongly believe in the risk. The diary sheds no light on the state of his expectations:—

June 6.... Read Amiel's Journal Intime. Queen's birthday dinner, 39; went very well. Much conversation with the Prince of Wales, who was handy and pleasant even beyond his wont. Also had some speech of his son, who was on my left. June 7, Trinity Sunday.—Chapel Royal at noon and 5.30. Wrote.... Saw Lord Granville; ditto cum Kimberley. Read Amiel. Edersheim on Old Testament. June 8.—Wrote, etc.... Pitiless rain. Cabinet, 2-3-¾.... Spoke on budget. Beaten by 264:252. Adjourned the House. This is a considerable event.

The amendment that led to this “considerable event” was moved by Sir Michael Hicks Beach. The two points raised by the fatal motion were, first, the increased duty on beer and spirits without a corresponding increase on wine; and, second, the increase of the duty on real property while no relief was given to rates. The fiscal issue is not material. What was ominous was the alliance that brought about the result.

The defeat of the Gladstone government was the first success of a combination between tories and Irish, that proved of cardinal importance to policies and parties for several critical months to come. By a coincidence that cut too deep to be mere accident, divisions in the Gladstone cabinet found their counterpart in insurrection among the tory opposition. The same general forces of the hour, working through the energy, ambition, and initiative of individuals, produced the same effect in each of the two parties; the radical programme of Mr. Chamberlain was matched by the [pg 201]

Budget Rejected

tory democracy of Lord Randolph Churchill; each saw that the final transfer of power from the ten-pound householder to artisans and labourers would rouse new social demands; each was aware that Ireland was the electoral pivot of the day, and while one of them was wrestling with those whom he stigmatised as whigs, the other by dexterity and resolution overthrew his leaders as “the old gang.”

[pg 202]

Chapter XII. Accession Of Lord Salisbury. (1885)

Politics are not a drama where scenes follow one another according to a methodical plan, where the actors exchange forms of speech, settled beforehand: politics are a conflict of which chance is incessantly modifying the whole course.—Sorel.


In tendering his resignation to the Queen on the day following his parliamentary defeat (June 9), and regretting that he had been unable to prepare her for the result, Mr. Gladstone explained that though the government had always been able to cope with the combined tory and nationalist oppositions, what had happened on this occasion was the silent withdrawal, under the pressure of powerful trades, from the government ranks of liberals who abstained from voting, while six or seven actually voted with the majority. “There was no previous notice,” he said, “and it was immediately before the division that Mr. Gladstone was apprised for the first time of the likelihood of a defeat.” The suspicions hinted that ministers, or at least some of them, unobtrusively contrived their own fall. Their supporters, it was afterwards remarked, received none of those imperative adjurations to return after dinner that are usual on solemn occasions; else there could never have been seventy-six absentees. The majority was composed of members of the tory party, six liberals, and thirty-nine nationalists. Loud was the exultation of the latter contingent at the prostration of the coercion system. What was natural exultation in them, may have taken the form of modest satisfaction among many liberals, that they could go to the country without the obnoxious label of coercion tied round their necks. As for ministers, it was observed that if in the streets you saw a man coming along with a particularly elastic step and a joyful frame of [pg 203]

Resignation Of Office

countenance, ten to one on coming closer you would find that it was a member of the late cabinet.124

The ministerial crisis of 1885 was unusually prolonged, and it was curious. The victory had been won by a coalition with the Irish; its fruits could only be reaped with Irish support; and Irish support was to the tory victors both dangerous and compromising. The normal process of a dissolution was thought to be legally impossible, because by the redistribution bill the existing constituencies were for the most part radically changed; and a new parliament chosen on the old system of seats and franchise, even if it were legally possible, would still be empty of all semblance of moral authority. Under these circumstances, some in the tory party argued that instead of taking office, it would be far better for them to force Mr. Gladstone and his cabinet to come back, and leave them to get rid of their internal differences and their Irish embarrassments as they best could. Events were soon to demonstrate the prudence of these wary counsels. On the other hand, the bulk of the tory party like the bulk of any other party was keen for power, because power is the visible symbol of triumph over opponents, and to shrink from office would discourage their friends in the country in the electoral conflict now rapidly approaching.

The Queen meanwhile was surprised (June 10) that Mr. Gladstone should make his defeat a vital question, and asked whether, in case Lord Salisbury should be unwilling to form a government, the cabinet would remain. To this Mr. Gladstone replied that to treat otherwise an attack on the budget, made by an ex-cabinet minister with such breadth of front and after all the previous occurrences of the session, would be contrary to every precedent,—for instance, the notable case of December 1852,—and it would undoubtedly tend to weaken and lower parliamentary government.125 If an opposition [pg 204] defeated a government, they must be prepared to accept the responsibility of their action. As to the second question, he answered that a refusal by Lord Salisbury would obviously change the situation. On this, the Queen accepted the resignations (June 11), and summoned Lord Salisbury to Balmoral. The resignations were announced to parliament the next day. Remarks were made at the time, indeed by the Queen herself, at the failure of Mr. Gladstone to seek the royal presence. Mr. Gladstone's explanation was that, viewing “the probably long reach of Lord Hartington's life into the future,” he thought that he would be more useful in conversation with her Majesty than “one whose ideas might be unconsciously coloured by the limited range of the prospect before him,” and Lord Hartington prepared to comply with the request that he should repair to Balmoral. The visit was eventually not thought necessary by the Queen.

In his first audience Lord Salisbury stated that though he and his friends were not desirous of taking office, he was ready to form a government; but in view of the difficulties in which a government formed by him would stand, confronted by a hostile majority and unable to dissolve, he recommended that Mr. Gladstone should be invited to reconsider his resignation. Mr. Gladstone, however (June 13), regarded the situation and the chain of facts that had led up to it, as being so definite, when coupled with the readiness of Lord Salisbury to undertake an administration, that it would be a mere waste of valuable time for him to consult his colleagues as to the resumption of office. Then Lord Salisbury sought assurances of Mr. Gladstone's support, as to finance, parliamentary time, and other points in the working of executive government. These assurances neither Mr. Gladstone's own temperament, nor the humour of his friends and his party—for the embers of the quarrel with the Lords upon the franchise bill were still hot—allowed him to give, and he founded himself on the precedent of the communications of December 1845 between Peel and Russell. In this default of assurances, Lord Salisbury thought that he should render the Queen no useful service by taking office. So concluded the first stage.

[pg 205]

Ministerial Crisis

Though declining specific pledges, Mr. Gladstone now wrote to the Queen (June 17) that in the conduct of the necessary business of the country, he believed there would be no disposition to embarrass her ministers. Lord Salisbury, however, and his colleagues were unanimous in thinking this general language insufficient. The interregnum continued. On the day following (June 18), Mr. Gladstone had an audience at Windsor, whither the Queen had now returned. It lasted over three-quarters of an hour. “The Queen was most gracious and I thought most reasonable.” (Diary.) He put down in her presence some heads of a memorandum to assist her recollection, and the one to which she rightly attached most value was this: “In my opinion,” Mr. Gladstone wrote, “the whole value of any such declaration as at the present circumstances permit, really depends upon the spirit in which it is given and taken. For myself and any friend of mine, I can only say that the spirit in which we should endeavour to interpret and apply the declaration I have made, would be the same spirit in which we entered upon the recent conferences concerning the Seats bill.” To this declaration his colleagues on his return to London gave their entire and marked approval, but they would not compromise the liberty of the House of Commons by further and particular pledges.

It was sometimes charged against Mr. Gladstone that he neglected his duty to the crown, and abandoned the Queen in a difficulty. This is wholly untrue. On June 20, Sir Henry Ponsonby called and opened one or two aspects of the position, among them these:—

1. Can the Queen do anything more?

I answered, As you ask me, it occurs to me that it might help Lord Salisbury's going on, were she to make reference to No. 2 of my memorandum [the paragraph just quoted], and to say that in her judgment he would be safe in receiving it in a spirit of trust.

2. If Lord Salisbury fails, may the Queen rely on you?

I answered that on a previous day I had said that if S. failed, the situation would be altered. I hoped, and on the whole thought, he would go on. But if he did not? I could not [pg 206] promise or expect smooth water. The movement of questions such as the Crimes Act and Irish Local Government might be accelerated. But my desire would be to do my best to prevent the Queen being left without a government.126

Mr. Gladstone's view of the position is lucidly stated in the following memorandum, like the others, in his own hand, (June 21):—

1. I have endeavoured in my letters (a) to avoid all controversial matter; (b) to consider not what the incoming ministers had a right to ask, but what it was possible for us in a spirit of conciliation to give.

2. In our opinion there was no right to demand from us anything whatever. The declarations we have made represent an extreme of concession. The conditions required, e.g. the first of them [control of time], place in abeyance the liberties of parliament, by leaving it solely and absolutely in the power of the ministers to determine on what legislative or other questions (except supply) it shall be permitted to give a judgment. The House of Commons may and ought to be disposed to facilitate the progress of all necessary business by all reasonable means as to supply and otherwise, but would deeply resent any act of ours by which we agreed beforehand to the extinction of its discretion.

The difficulties pleaded by Lord Salisbury were all in view when his political friend, Sir M. H. Beach, made the motion which, as we apprised him, would if carried eject us from office, and are simply the direct consequences of their own action. If it be true that Lord Salisbury loses the legal power to advise and the crown to grant a dissolution, that cannot be a reason for leaving in the hands of the executive an absolute power to stop the action (except as to supply) of the legislative and corrective power of the House of Commons. At the same time these conditions do not appear to me to attain the end proposed by Lord Salisbury, for it would still be left in the power of the House to refuse supplies, and thereby to bring about in its worst form the difficulty which he apprehends.

It looked for a couple of days as if he would be compelled [pg 207]

Crisis Prolonged

to return, even though it would almost certainly lead to disruption of the liberal cabinet and party.127 The Queen, acting apparently on Mr. Gladstone's suggestion of June 20, was ready to express her confidence in Mr. Gladstone's assurance that there would be no disposition on the part of himself or his friends to embarrass new ministers. By this expression of confidence, the Queen would thus make herself in some degree responsible as it were for the action of the members of the defeated Gladstone government in the two Houses. Still Lord Salisbury's difficulties—and some difficulties are believed to have arisen pretty acutely within the interior conclaves of his own party—remained for forty-eight hours insuperable. His retreat to Hatfield was taken to mark a second stage in the interregnum.

June 22 is set down in the diary as “a day of much stir and vicissitude.” Mr. Gladstone received no fewer than six visits during the day from Sir Henry Ponsonby, whose activity, judgment, and tact in these duties of infinite delicacy were afterwards commemorated by Lord Granville in the House of Lords.128 He brought up from Windsor the draft of a letter that might be written by the Queen to Lord Salisbury, testifying to her belief in the sincerity and loyalty of Mr. Gladstone's words. Sir Henry showed the draft to Mr. Gladstone, who said that he could not be party to certain passages in it, though willing to agree to the rest. The draft so altered was submitted to Lord Salisbury; he demanded modification, placing a more definite interpretation on the words of Mr. Gladstone's previous letters to the Queen. Mr. Gladstone was immovable throughout the day in declining to admit any modifications in the sense desired; nor would he consent to be privy to any construction or interpretation placed upon his words which Lord Salisbury, with no less tenacity than his own, desired to extend.

At 5.40 [June 22] Sir H. Ponsonby returned for a fifth interview, his infinite patience not yet exhausted.... He said the Queen believed the late government did not wish to come back. [pg 208] I simply reminded him of my previous replies, which, he remembered, nearly as follows:—That if Lord Salisbury failed, the situation would be altered. That I could not in such a case promise her Majesty smooth water. That, however, a great duty in such circumstances lay upon any one holding my situation, to use his best efforts so as, quoad what depended upon him, not to leave the Queen without a government. I think he will now go to Windsor.—June 22, '85, 6 p.m.

The next day (June 23), the Queen sent on to Lord Salisbury the letter written by Mr. Gladstone on June 21, containing his opinion that facilities of supply might reasonably be provided, without placing the liberties of the House of Commons in abeyance, and further, his declaration that he felt sure there was no idea of withholding ways and means, and that there was no danger to be apprehended on that score. In forwarding this letter, the Queen expressed to Lord Salisbury her earnest desire to bring to a close a crisis calculated to endanger the best interests of the state; and she felt no hesitation in further communicating to Lord Salisbury her opinion that he might reasonably accept Mr. Gladstone's assurances. In deference to these representations from the Queen, Lord Salisbury felt it his duty to take office, the crisis ended, and the tory party entered on the first portion of a term of power that was destined, with two rather brief interruptions, to be prolonged for many years.129 In reviewing this interesting episode in the annals of the party system, it is impossible not to observe the dignity in form, the patriotism in substance, the common-sense in result, that marked the proceedings alike of the sovereign and of her two ministers.


After accepting Mr. Gladstone's resignation the Queen, on June 13, proffered him a peerage:—

[pg 209]

The Queen to Mr. Gladstone.

Mr. Gladstone mentioned in his last letter but one, his intention of proposing some honours. But before she considers these, she wishes to offer him an Earldom, as a mark of her recognition of his long and distinguished services, and she believes and thinks he will thereby be enabled still to render great service to his sovereign and country—which if he retired, as he has repeatedly told her of late he intended to do shortly,—he could not. The country would doubtless be pleased at any signal mark of recognition of Mr. Gladstone's long and eminent services, and the Queen believes that it would be beneficial to his health,—no longer exposing him to the pressure from without, for more active work than he ought to undertake. Only the other day—without reference to the present events—the Queen mentioned to Mrs. Gladstone at Windsor the advantage to Mr. Gladstone's health of a removal from one House to the other, in which she seemed to agree. The Queen trusts, therefore, that Mr. Gladstone will accept the offer of an earldom, which would be very gratifying to her.

The outgoing minister replied on the following day:—

Mr. Gladstone offers his humble apology to your Majesty. It would not be easy for him to describe the feelings with which he has read your Majesty's generous, most generous letter. He prizes every word of it, for he is fully alive to all the circumstances which give it value. It will be a precious possession to him and to his children after him. All that could recommend an earldom to him, it already has given him. He remains, however, of the belief that he ought not to avail himself of this most gracious offer. Any service that he can render, if small, will, however, be greater in the House of Commons than in the House of Lords; and it has never formed part of his views to enter that historic chamber, although he does not share the feeling which led Sir R. Peel to put upon record what seemed a perpetual or almost a perpetual self-denying ordinance for his family.

When the circumstances of the state cease, as he hopes they may ere long, to impose on him any special duty, he will greatly covet that interval between an active career and death, which the [pg 210] profession of politics has always appeared to him especially to require. There are circumstances connected with the position of his family, which he will not obtrude upon your Majesty, but which, as he conceives, recommend in point of prudence the personal intention from which he has never swerved. He might hesitate to act upon the motives to which he has last adverted, grave as they are, did he not feel rooted in the persuasion that the small good he may hope hereafter to effect, can best be prosecuted without the change in his position. He must beg your Majesty to supply all that is lacking in his expression from the heart of profound and lasting gratitude.

To Lord Granville, the nearest of his friends, he wrote on the same day:—

I send you herewith a letter from the Queen which moves and almost upsets me. It must have cost her much to write, and it is really a pearl of great price. Such a letter makes the subject of it secondary—but though it would take me long to set out my reasons, I remain firm in the intention to accept nothing for myself.

Lord Granville replied that he was not surprised at the decision. “I should have greatly welcomed you,” he said, “and under some circumstances it might be desirable, but I think you are right now.”

Here is Mr. Gladstone's letter to an invaluable occupant of the all-important office of private secretary:—

To Mr. E. W. Hamilton.

June 30, 1885.—Since you have in substance (and in form?) received the appointment [at the Treasury], I am unmuzzled, and may now express the unbounded pleasure which it gives me, together with my strong sense (not disparaging any one else) of your desert. The modesty of your letter is as remarkable as its other qualities, and does you the highest honour. I can accept no tribute from you, or from any one, with regard to the office of private secretary under me except this, that it has always been made by me a strict and severe office, and that this is really the only favour I have ever done you, or any of your colleagues to whom in their several places and measures I am similarly obliged.

[pg 211]

As to your services to me they have been simply indescribable. No one I think could dream, until by experience he knew, to what an extent in these close personal relations devolution can be carried, and how it strengthens the feeble knees and thus also sustains the fainting heart.


The declaration of the Irish policy of the new government was made to parliament by no less a personage than the lord-lieutenant.130 The prime minister had discoursed on frontiers in Asia and frontiers in Africa, but on Ireland he was silent. Lord Carnarvon, on the contrary, came forward voluntarily with a statement of policy, and he opened it on the broadest general lines. His speech deserves as close attention as any deliverance of this memorable period. It laid down the principles of that alternative system of government, with which the new ministers formally challenged their predecessors. Ought the Crimes Act to be re-enacted as it stood; or in part; or ought it to be allowed to lapse? These were the three courses. Nobody, he thought, would be for the first, because some provisions had never been put in force; others had been put in force but found useless; and others again did nothing that might not be done just as well under the ordinary law. The re-enactment of the whole statute, therefore, was dismissed. But the powers for changing venue at the discretion of the executive; for securing special juries at the same discretion; for holding secret inquiry without an accused person; for dealing summarily with charges of intimidation—might they not be continued? They were not unconstitutional, and they were not opposed to legal instincts. No, all quite true; but then the Lords should not conceal from themselves that their re-enactment would be in the nature of special or exceptional legislation. He had been looking through coercion Acts, he continued, and had been astonished to find that ever since 1847, with some very short intervals hardly worth mentioning, Ireland [pg 212] had lived under exceptional and coercive legislation. What sane man could admit this to be a satisfactory or a wholesome state of things? Why should not they try to extricate themselves from this miserable habit, and aim at some better solution? “Just as I have seen in English colonies across the sea a combination of English, Irish, and Scotch settlers bound together in loyal obedience to the law and the crown, and contributing to the general prosperity of the country, so I cannot conceive that there is any irreconcilable bar here in their native home and in England to the unity and the amity of the two nations.” He went to his task individually with a perfectly free, open, and unprejudiced mind, to hear, to question, and, as far as might be, to understand. “My Lords, I do not believe that with honesty and single-mindedness of purpose on the one side, and with the willingness of the Irish people on the other, it is hopeless to look for some satisfactory solution of this terrible question. My Lords, these I believe to be the opinions and the views of my colleagues.”131

This remarkable announcement, made in the presence of the prime minister, in the name of the cabinet as a whole, and by a man of known purity and sincerity of character, was taken to be an express renunciation, not merely of the policy of which notice had been given by the outgoing administration, but of coercion as a final instrument of imperial rule. It was an elaborate repudiation in advance of that panacea of firm and resolute government, which became so famous before twelve months were over. It was the suggestion, almost in terms, that a solution should be sought in that policy which had brought union both within our colonies, and between the colonies and the mother country, and men did not forget that this suggestion was being made by a statesman who had carried federation in Canada, and tried to carry it in South Africa. We cannot wonder that upon leading members of the late government, and especially upon the statesman who had been specially responsible for Ireland, the impression was startling and profound. Important members of the tory party hurried [pg 213]

The Maamtrasna Debate

from Ireland to Arlington Street, and earnestly warned their leader that he would never be able to carry on with the ordinary law. They were coldly informed that Lord Salisbury had received quite different counsel from persons well acquainted with the country.

The new government were not content with renouncing coercion for the present. They cast off all responsibility for its practice in the past. Ostentatiously they threw overboard the viceroy with whom the only fault that they had hitherto found, was that his sword was not sharp enough. A motion was made by the Irish leader calling attention to the maladministration of the criminal law by Lord Spencer. Forty men had been condemned to death, and in twenty-one of these cases the capital sentence had been carried out. Of the twenty-one executions six were savagely impugned, and Mr. Parnell's motion called for a strict inquiry into these and some other convictions, with a view to the full discovery of truth and the relief of innocent persons. The debate soon became famous from the principal case adduced, as the Maamtrasna debate. The topic had been so copiously discussed as to occupy three full sittings of the House in the previous October. The lawyer who had just been made Irish chancellor, at that time pronounced against the demand. In substance the new government made no fresh concession. They said that if memorials or statements were laid before him, the viceroy would carefully attend to them. No minister could say less. But incidental remarks fell from the government that created lively alarm in tories and deep disgust in liberals. Sir Michael Hicks Beach, then leader of the House, told them that while believing Lord Spencer to be a man of perfect honour and sense of duty, “he must say very frankly that there was much in the Irish policy of the late government which, though in the absence of complete information he did not condemn, he should be very sorry to make himself responsible for.”132 An even more important minister emphasised the severance of the new policy from the old. “I will tell you,” cried Lord Randolph Churchill, “how the present government is foredoomed to failure. [pg 214] They will be foredoomed to failure if they go out of their way unnecessarily to assume one jot or tittle of the responsibility for the acts of the late administration. It is only by divesting ourselves of all responsibility for the acts of the late government, that we can hope to arrive at a successful issue.”133

Tory members got up in angry fright, to denounce this practical acquiescence by the heads of their party in what was a violent Irish attack not only upon the late viceroy, but upon Irish judges, juries, and law officers. They remonstrated against “the pusillanimous way” in which their two leaders had thrown over Lord Spencer. “During the last three years,” said one of these protesting tories, “Lord Spencer has upheld respect for law at the risk of his life from day to day, with the sanction, with the approval, and with the acknowledgment inside and outside of this House, of the country, and especially of the conservative party. Therefore I for one will not consent to be dragged into any implied, however slight, condemnation of Lord Spencer, because it happens to suit the exigencies of party warfare.”134 This whole transaction disgusted plain men, tory and liberal alike; it puzzled calculating men; and it had much to do with the silent conversion of important and leading men.

The general sentiment about the outgoing viceroy took the form of a banquet in his honour (July 24), and some three hundred members of the two Houses attended, including Lord Hartington, who presided, and Mr. Bright. The two younger leaders of the radical wing who had been in the late cabinet neither signed the invitation nor were present. But on the same evening in another place, Mr. Chamberlain recognised the high qualities and great services of Lord Spencer, though they had not always agreed upon details. He expressed, however, his approval both of the policy and of the arguments which had led the new government to drop the Crimes Act. At the same time he denounced the “astounding tergiversation” of ministers, and energetically declared that “a strategic movement of that kind, executed in opposition to the notorious convictions of [pg 215] the men who effected it, carried out for party purposes and party purposes alone, is the most flagrant instance of political dishonesty this country has ever known.”

Change In Situation

Lord Hartington a few weeks later told his constituents that the conduct of the government, in regard to Ireland, had dealt a heavy blow “both at political morality, and at the cause of order in Ireland.” The severity of such judgments from these two weighty statesmen testifies to the grave importance of the new departure.

The enormous change arising from the line adopted by the government was visible enough even to men of less keen vision than Mr. Gladstone, and it was promptly indicated by him in a few sentences in a letter to Lord Derby on the very day of the Maamtrasna debate:—

Within the last two or three weeks, he wrote, the situation has undergone important changes. I am not fully informed, but what I know looks as if the Irish party so-called in parliament, excited by the high biddings of Lord Randolph, had changed what was undoubtedly Parnell's ground until within a very short time back. It is now said that a central board will not suffice, and that there must be a parliament. This I suppose may mean the repeal of the Act of Union, or may mean an Austro-Hungarian scheme, or may mean that Ireland is to be like a great colony such as Canada. Of all or any of these schemes I will now only say that, of course, they constitute an entirely new point of departure and raise questions of an order totally different to any that are involved in a central board appointed for local purposes.

Lord Derby recording his first impressions in reply (July 19) took the rather conventional objection made to most schemes on all subjects, that it either went too far or did not go far enough. Local government he understood, and home rule he understood, but a quasi-parliament in Dublin, not calling itself such though invested with most of the authority of a parliament, seemed to him to lead to the demand for fuller recognition. If we were forced, he said, to move beyond local government as commonly understood, he would rather have Ireland treated like Canada. “But the difficulties every [pg 216] way are enormous.” On this Mr. Gladstone wrote a little later to Lord Granville (Aug. 6):—

As far as I can learn, both you and Derby are on the same lines as Parnell, in rejecting the smaller and repudiating the larger scheme. It would not surprise me if he were to formulate something on the subject. For my own part I have seen my way pretty well as to the particulars of the minor and rejected plan, but the idea of the wider one puzzles me much. At the same time, if the election gives a return of a decisive character, the sooner the subject is dealt with the better.

So little true is it to say that Mr. Gladstone only thought of the possibility of Irish autonomy after the election.


Apart from public and party cares, the bodily machinery gave trouble, and the fine organ that had served him so nobly for so long showed serious signs of disorder.

To Lord Richard Grosvenor.

July 14.—After two partial examinations, a thorough examination of my throat (larynx versus pharynx) has been made to-day by Dr. Semon in the presence of Sir A. Clark, and the result is rather bigger than I had expected. It is, that I have a fair chance of real recovery provided I keep silent almost like a Trappist, but all treatment would be nugatory without this rest; that the other alternative is nothing dangerous, but merely the constant passage of the organ from bad to worse. He asked what demands the H. of C. would make on me. I answered about three speeches of about five minutes each, but he was not satisfied and wished me to get rid of it altogether, which I must do, perhaps saying instead a word by letter to some friend. Much time has almost of necessity been lost, but I must be rigid for the future, and even then I shall be well satisfied if I get back before winter to a natural use of the voice in conversation. This imports a considerable change in the course of my daily life. Here it is difficult to organise it afresh. At Hawarden I can easily do it, but there I am at a distance from the best aid. I am disposed to [pg 217] top up, with a sea voyage, but this is No. 3—Nos. 1 and 2 being rest and then treatment.

The sea voyage that was to “top up” the rest of the treatment began on August 8, when the Gladstones became the guests of Sir Thomas and Lady Brassey on the Sunbeam. They sailed from Greenhithe to Norway, and after a three weeks' cruise, were set ashore at Fort George on September 1. Mr. Gladstone made an excellent tourist; was full of interest in all he saw; and, I dare say, drew some pleasure from the demonstrations of curiosity and admiration that attended his presence from the simple population wherever he moved. Long expeditions with much climbing and scrambling were his delight, and he let nothing beat him. One of these excursions, the ascent to the Vöringfos, seems to deserve a word of commemoration, in the interest either of physiology or of philosophic musings after Cicero's manner upon old age. “I am not sure,” says Lady Brassey in her most agreeable diary of the cruise,135 “that the descent did not seem rougher and longer than our journey up had been, although, as a matter of fact, we got over the ground much more quickly. As we crossed the green pastures on the level ground near the village of Sæbö we met several people taking their evening stroll, and also a tourist apparently on his way up to spend the night near the Vöringfos. The wind had gone down since the morning, and we crossed the little lake with fair rapidity, admiring as we went the glorious effects of the setting sun upon the tops of the precipitous mountains, and the wonderful echo which was aroused for our benefit by the boatmen. An extremely jolty drive, in springless country carts, soon brought us to the little inn at Vik, and by half-past eight we were once more on board the Sunbeam, exactly ten hours after setting out upon our expedition, which had included a ride or walk, as the case might be, of eighteen miles, independently of the journey by boat and cart—a hardish day's work for any one, but really a wonderful undertaking for a man of seventy-five, who disdained all proffered help, and insisted on walking the whole distance. No one who saw Mr. Gladstone that evening [pg 218] at dinner in the highest spirits, and discussing subjects both grave and gay with the greatest animation, could fail to admire his marvellous pluck and energy, or, knowing what he had shown himself capable of doing in the way of physical exertion, could feel much anxiety on the score of the failure of his strength.”

He was touched by a visit from the son of an old farmer, who brought him as an offering from his father to Mr. Gladstone a curiously carved Norwegian bowl three hundred years old, with two horse-head handles. Strolling about Aalesund, he was astonished to find in the bookshop of the place a Norse translation of Mill's Logic. He was closely observant of all religious services whenever he had the chance, and noticed that at Laurvig all the tombstones had prayers for the dead. He read perhaps a little less voraciously than usual, and on one or two days, being unable to read, he “meditated and reviewed”—always, I think, from the same point of view—the point of view of Bunyan's Grace Abounding, or his own letters to his father half a century before. Not seldom a vision of the coming elections flitted before the mind's eye, and he made notes for what he calls an abbozzo or sketch of his address to Midlothian.

[pg 219]

Book IX. 1885-1886

Chapter I. Leadership And The General Election. (1885)

Our understanding of history is spoiled by our knowledge of the event.—Helps.


Mr. Gladstone came back from his cruise in the Sunbeam at the beginning of September; leaving the yacht at Fort George and proceeding to Fasque to celebrate his elder brother's golden wedding. From Fasque he wrote to Lord Hartington (Sept. 3): “I have returned to terra firma extremely well in general health, and with a better throat; in full expectation of having to consider anxious and doubtful matters, and now finding them rather more anxious and doubtful than I had anticipated. As yet I am free to take a share or not in the coming political issues, and I must weigh many things before finally surrendering this freedom.” His first business, he wrote to Sir W. Harcourt (Sept. 12), was to throw his thoughts into order for an address to his constituents, framed only for the dissolution, and “written with my best care to avoid treading on the toes of either the right or the left wing.” He had communicated, he said, with Granville, Hartington, and Chamberlain; by both of the two latter he had been a good deal buffeted; and having explained the general idea with which he proposed to write, he asked each of the pair whether upon the whole their wish was that he should go on or cut out. “To this question I have not yet got a clear affirmative answer from either of them.”

[pg 220]

“The subject of Ireland,” he told Lord Hartington, “has perplexed me much even on the North Sea,” and he expressed some regret that in a recent speech his correspondent had felt it necessary at this early period to join issue in so pointed a manner with Mr. Parnell and his party. Parnell's speech was, no doubt, he said, “as bad as bad could be, and admitted of only one answer. But the whole question of the position which Ireland will assume after the general election is so new, so difficult, and as yet, I think, so little understood, that it seems most important to reserve until the proper time all possible liberty of examining it.”

The address to his electors, of which he had begun to think on board the Sunbeam, was given to the public on September 17. It was, as he said, as long as a pamphlet, and a considerable number of politicians doubtless passed judgment upon it without reading it through. The whigs, we are told, found it vague, the radicals cautious, the tories crafty; but everybody admitted that it tended to heal feuds. Mr. Goschen praised it, and Mr. Chamberlain, though raising his own flag, was respectful to his leader's manifesto.136

The surface was thus stilled for the moment, yet the waters ran very deep. What were “the anxious and doubtful matters,” what “the coming political issues,” of which Mr. Gladstone had written to Lord Hartington? They were, in a word, twofold: to prevent the right wing from breaking with the left; and second, to make ready for an Irish crisis, which as he knew could not be averted. These were the two keys to all his thoughts, words, and deeds during the important autumn of 1885—an Irish crisis, a solid party. He was not the first great parliamentary leader whose course lay between two impossibilities.

All his letters during the interval between his return from the cruise in the Sunbeam and the close of the general election disclose with perfect clearness the channels in which events and his judgment upon them were moving. Whigs and radicals alike looked to him, and across him fought their battle. The Duke of Argyll, for example, [pg 221]

Whigs And Radicals

taking advantage of a lifelong friendship to deal faithfully with him, warned him that the long fight with “Beaconsfieldism” had thrown him into antagonism with many political conceptions and sympathies that once had a steady hold upon him. Yet they had certainly no less value and truth than they ever had, and perhaps were more needed than ever in face of the present chaos of opinion. To this Mr. Gladstone replied at length:—

To the Duke of Argyll.

Sept. 30, 1885.—I am very sensible of your kind and sympathetic tone, and of your indulgent verdict upon my address. It was written with a view to the election, and as a practical document, aiming at the union of all, it propounds for immediate action what all are supposed to be agreed on. This is necessarily somewhat favourable to the moderate section of the liberal party. You will feel that it would not have been quite fair to the advanced men to add some special reproof to them. And reproof, if I had presumed upon it, would have been two-sided. Now as to your suggestion that I should say something in public to indicate that I am not too sanguine as to the future. If I am unable to go in this direction—and something I may do—it is not from want of sympathy with much that you say. But my first and great cause of anxiety is, believe me, the condition of the tory party. As at present constituted, or at any rate moved, it is destitute of all the effective qualities of a respectable conservatism.... For their administrative spirit I point to the Beaconsfield finance. For their foreign policy they have invented Jingoism, and at the same time by their conduct re Lord Spencer and the Irish nationalists, they have thrown over—and they formed their government only by means of throwing over—those principles of executive order and caution which have hitherto been common to all governments....

There are other chapters which I have not time to open. I deeply deplore the oblivion into which public economy has fallen; the prevailing disposition to make a luxury of panics, which multitudes seem to enjoy as they would a sensational novel or a highly seasoned cookery; and the leaning of both parties to socialism, which I radically disapprove. I must lastly mention among my causes of dissatisfaction the conduct of the timid or reactionary [pg 222] whigs. They make it day by day more difficult to maintain that most valuable characteristic of our history, which has always exhibited a good proportion of our great houses at the head of the liberal movement. If you have ever noted of late years a too sanguine and high-coloured anticipation of our future, I should like to be reminded of it. I remain, and I hope always to be, your affectionate friend.

The correspondence with Lord Granville sets out more clearly than anything else could do Mr. Gladstone's general view of the situation of the party and his own relation to it, and the operative words in this correspondence, in view of the maelstrom to which they were all drawing nearer, will be accurately noted by any reader who cares to understand one of the most interesting situations in the history of party. To Lord Granville he says (September 9, 1885), “The problem for me is to make if possible a statement which will hold through the election and not to go into conflict with either the right wing of the party for whom Hartington has spoken, or the left wing for whom Chamberlain, I suppose, spoke last night. I do not say they are to be treated as on a footing, but I must do no act disparaging to Chamberlain's wing.” And again to Lord Granville a month later (Oct. 5):—

You hold a position of great impartiality in relation to any divergent opinions among members of the late cabinet. No other person occupies ground so thoroughly favourable. I turn to myself for one moment. I remain at present in the leadership of the party, first with a view to the election, and secondly with a view to being, by a bare possibility, of use afterwards in the Irish question if it should take a favourable turn; but as you know, with the intention of taking no part in any schism of the party should it arise, and of avoiding any and all official responsibility, should the question be merely one of liberal v. conservative and not one of commanding imperial necessity, such as that of Irish government may come to be after the dissolution.

He goes on to say that the ground had now been sufficiently laid for going to the election with a united front, that ground being the common profession of a limited creed [pg 223]

Party Aspects

or programme in the liberal sense, with an entire freedom for those so inclined, to travel beyond it, but not to impose their own sense upon all other people. No one, he thought, was bound to determine at that moment on what conditions he would join a liberal government. If the party and its leaders were agreed as to immediate measures on local government, land, and registration, were not these enough to find a liberal administration plenty of work, especially with procedure, for several years? If so, did they not supply a ground broad enough to start a government, that would hold over, until the proper time should come, all the questions on which its members might not be agreed, just as the government of Lord Grey held over, from 1830 to 1834, the question whether Irish church property might or might not be applied to secular uses?

As for himself, in the event of such a government being formed (of which I suppose Lord Granville was to be the head), “My desire would be,” he says, “to place myself in your hands for all purposes, except that of taking office; to be present or absent from the House, and to be absent for a time or for good, as you might on consultation and reflection think best.” In other words Mr. Gladstone would take office to try to settle the Irish question, but for nothing else. Lord Granville held to the view that this was fatal to the chances of a liberal government. No liberal cabinet could be constructed unless Mr. Gladstone were at its head. The indispensable chief, however, remained obdurate.

An advance was made at this moment in the development of a peculiar situation by important conversations with Mr. Chamberlain. Two days later the redoubtable leader of the left wing came to Hawarden for a couple of days, and Mr. Gladstone wrote an extremely interesting account of what passed to Lord Granville:137

[pg 224]

To Lord Granville.

Hawarden, Oct. 8, 1885.—Chamberlain came here yesterday and I have had a great deal of conversation with him. He is a good man to talk to, not only from his force and clearness, but because he speaks with reflection, does not misapprehend or (I think) suspect, or make unnecessary difficulties, or endeavour to maintain pedantically the uniformity and consistency of his argument throughout.

As to the three points of which he was understood to say that they were indispensable to the starting of a liberal government, I gather that they stand as follows:—

1. As to the authority of local authorities for compulsory expropriation.138 To this he adheres; though I have said I could not see the justification for withholding countenance from the formation of a government with considerable and intelligible plans in view, because it would not at the first moment bind all its members to this doctrine. He intimates, however, that the form would be simple, the application of the principle mild; that he does not expect wide results from it, and that Hartington, he conceives, is not disposed wholly to object to everything of the kind.

2. As regards readjustment of taxation, he is contented with the terms of my address, and indisposed to make any new terms.

3. As regards free education, he does not ask that its principle be adopted as part of the creed of a new cabinet. He said it would be necessary to reserve his right individually to vote for it. I urged that he and the new school of advanced liberals were not sufficiently alive to the necessity of refraining when in government from declaring by vote all their individual opinions; that a vote founded upon time, and the engagements of the House at the moment with other indispensable business, would imply no disparagement to the principle, which might even be expressly saved (without prejudice) by an amending resolution; that he could hardly carry this point to the rank of a sine quâ non. He said,—That the sense of the country might bind the liberal majority (presuming it to exist) to declare its opinion, even though unable [pg 225] to give effect to it at the moment; that he looked to a single declaration, not to the sustained support of a measure; and he seemed to allow that if the liberal sense were so far divided as not to show a unanimous front, in that case it might be a question whether some plan other than, and short of, a direct vote might be pursued.139

The question of the House of Lords and disestablishment he regards as still lying in the remoter distance.

All these subjects I separated entirely from the question of Ireland, on which I may add that he and I are pretty well agreed; unless upon a secondary point, namely, whether Parnell would be satisfied to acquiesce in a County Government bill, good so far as it went, maintaining on other matters his present general attitude.140 We agreed, I think, that a prolongation of the present relations of the Irish party would be a national disgrace, and the civilised world would scoff at the political genius of countries which could not contrive so far to understand one another as to bring their differences to an accommodation.

All through Chamberlain spoke of reducing to an absolute minimum his idea of necessary conditions, and this conversation so far left untouched the question of men, he apparently assuming (wrongly) that I was ready for another three or four years' engagement.

Hawarden, Oct. 8, 1885.—In another private, but less private letter, I have touched on measures, and I have now to say what passed in relation to men.

He said the outline he had given depended on the supposition of my being at the head of the government. He did not say he could adhere to it on no other terms, but appeared to stipulate for a new point of departure.

I told him the question of my time of life had become such, that in any case prudence bound him, and all who have a future, to think of what is to follow me. That if a big Irish question should arise, and arise in such a form as to promise a possibility of settlement, [pg 226] that would be a crisis with a beginning and an end, and perhaps one in which from age and circumstances I might be able to supply aid and service such as could not be exactly had without me.141 Apart from an imperious demand of this kind the question would be that of dealing with land laws, with local government, and other matters, on which I could render no special service, and which would require me to enter into a new contest for several years, a demand that ought not to be made, and one to which I could not accede. I did not think the adjustment of personal relations, or the ordinary exigencies of party, constituted a call upon me to continue my long life in a course of constant pressure and constant contention with half my fellow-countrymen, until nothing remained but to step into the grave.

He agreed that the House of Lords was not an available resort. He thought I might continue at the head of the government, and leave the work of legislation to others.142 I told him that all my life long I had had an essential and considerable share in the legislative work of government, and to abandon it would be an essential change, which the situation would not bear.

He spoke of the constant conflicts of opinion with Hartington in the late cabinet, but I reverted to the time when Hartington used to summon and lead meetings of the leading commoners, in which he was really the least antagonistic of men.

He said Hartington might lead a whig government aided by the tories, or might lead a radical government.... I recommended his considering carefully the personal composition of the group of leading men, apart from a single personality on which reliance could hardly be placed, except in the single contingency to which I have referred as one of a character probably brief.

He said it might be right for him to look as a friend on the formation of a liberal government, having (as I understood) moderate but intelligible plans, without forming part of it. I think this was the substance of what passed.

Interesting as was this interview, it did not materially alter Mr. Gladstone's disposition. After it had taken place he wrote to Lord Granville (Nov. 10):—

[pg 227]

To Lord Granville.

I quite understand how natural it is that at the present juncture pressure, and even the whole pressure, should from both quarters be brought to bear upon me. Well, if a special call of imperial interest, such as I have described, should arise, I am ready for the service it may entail, so far as my will is concerned. But a very different question is raised. Let us see how matters stand.

A course of action for the liberals, moderate but substantial, has been sketched. The party in general have accepted it. After the late conversations, there is no reason to anticipate a breach upon any of the conditions laid down anywhere for immediate adoption, between the less advanced and the more advanced among the leaders. It must occupy several years, and it may occupy the whole parliament. According to your view they will, unless on a single condition [i.e. Mr. Gladstone's leadership], refuse to combine in a cabinet, and to act, with a majority at their back; and will make over the business voluntarily to the tories in a minority, at the commencement of a parliament. Why? They agree on the subjects before them. Other subjects, unknown as yet, may arise to split them. But this is what may happen to any government, and it can form no reason.

But what is the condition demanded? It is that a man of seventy-five,143 after fifty-three years' service, with no particular qualification for the questions in view should enter into a fresh contract of service in the House of Commons, reaching according to all likelihood over three, four, or five years, and without the smallest reasonable prospect of a break. And this is not to solve a political difficulty, but to soothe and conjure down personal misgivings and apprehensions. I have not said jealousies, because I do not believe them to be the operative cause; perhaps they do not exist at all.

I firmly say this is not a reasonable condition, or a tenable demand, in the circumstances supposed. Indeed no one has endeavoured to show that it is. Further, abated action in the House of Commons is out of the question. We cannot have, in these times, a figurehead prime minister. I have gone a very long way in what I have said, and I really cannot go further.

[pg 228]

Lord Aberdeen, taking office at barely seventy in the House of Lords, apologised in his opening speech for doing this at a time when his mind ought rather to be given to other thoughts. Lord Palmerston in 1859 did not speak thus. But he was bound to no plan of any kind; and he was seventy-four, i.e. in his seventy-fifth year.


It is high time to turn to the other deciding issue in the case. Though thus stubborn against resuming the burden of leadership merely to compose discords between Chatsworth and Birmingham, Mr. Gladstone was ready to be of use in the Irish question, “if it should take a favourable turn.” As if the Irish question ever took a favourable turn. We have seen in the opening of the present chapter, how he spoke to Lord Hartington of a certain speech of Mr. Parnell's in September, “as bad as bad could be.” The secret of that speech was a certain fact that must be counted a central hinge of these far-reaching transactions. In July, a singular incident had occurred, nothing less strange than an interview between the new lord-lieutenant and the leader of the Irish party. To realise its full significance, we have to recall the profound odium that at this time enveloped Mr. Parnell's name in the minds of nearly all Englishmen. For several years and at that moment he figured in the public imagination for all that is sinister, treasonable, dark, mysterious, and unholy. He had stood his trial for a criminal conspiracy, and was supposed only to have been acquitted by the corrupt connivance of a Dublin jury. He had been flung into prison and kept there for many months without trial, as a person reasonably suspected of lawless practices. High treason was the least dishonourable of the offences imputed to him and commonly credited about him. He had been elaborately accused before the House of Commons by one of the most important men in it, of direct personal responsibility for outrages and murders, and he left the accusation with scant reply. He was constantly denounced as the apostle of rapine and rebellion. That the viceroy of the Queen should [pg 229]

A Remarkable Interview

without duress enter into friendly communication with such a man, would have seemed to most people at that day incredible and abhorrent. Yet the incredible thing happened, and it was in its purpose one of the most sensible things that any viceroy ever did.144

The interview took place in a London drawing-room. Lord Carnarvon opened the conversation by informing Mr. Parnell, first, that he was acting of himself and by himself, on his own exclusive responsibility; second, that, he sought information only, and that he had not come for the purpose of arriving at any agreement or understanding however shadowy; third, that he was there as the Queen's servant, and would neither hear nor say one word that was inconsistent with the union of the two countries. Exactly what Mr. Parnell said, and what was said in reply, the public were never authentically told. Mr. Parnell afterwards spoke145 as if Lord Carnarvon had given him to understand that it was the intention of the government to offer Ireland a statutory legislature, with full control over taxation, and that a scheme of land purchase was to be coupled with it. On this, the viceroy denied that he had communicated any such intention. Mr. Parnell's story was this:—

Lord Carnarvon proceeded to say that he had sought the interview for the purpose of ascertaining my views regarding—should he call it?—a constitution for Ireland. But I soon found out that [pg 230] he had brought me there in order that he might communicate his own views upon the matter, as well as ascertain mine.... In reply to an inquiry as to a proposal which had been made to build up a central legislative body upon the foundation of county boards, I told him I thought this would be working in the wrong direction, and would not be accepted by Ireland; that the central legislative body should be a parliament in name and in fact.... Lord Carnarvon assured me that this was his own view also, and he strongly appreciated the importance of giving due weight to the sentiment of the Irish in this matter.... He had certain suggestions to this end, taking the colonial model as a basis, which struck me as being the result of much thought and knowledge of the subject.... At the conclusion of the conversation, which lasted for more than an hour, and to which Lord Carnarvon was very much the larger contributor, I left him, believing that I was in complete accord with him regarding the main outlines of a settlement conferring a legislature upon Ireland.146

It is certainly not for me to contend that Mr. Parnell was always an infallible reporter, but if closely scrutinised the discrepancy in the two stories as then told was less material than is commonly supposed. To the passage just quoted, Lord Carnarvon never at any time in public offered any real contradiction. What he contradicted was something different. He denied that he had ever stated to Mr. Parnell that it was the intention of the government, if they were successful at the polls, to establish the Irish legislature, with limited powers and not independent of imperial control, which he himself favoured. He did not deny, any more than he admitted, that he had told Mr. Parnell that on opinion and policy they were very much at one. How could he deny it, after his speech when he first took office? Though the cabinet was not cognisant of the nature of these proceedings, the prime minister was. To take so remarkable a step without the knowledge and assent of the head of the government, would have been against the whole practice and principles of our ministerial system. Lord Carnarvon informed Lord Salisbury of his intention of meeting Mr. [pg 231]

A Remarkable Interview

Parnell, and within twenty-four hours after the meeting, both in writing and orally, he gave Lord Salisbury as careful and accurate a statement as possible of what had passed. We can well imagine the close attention with which the prime minister followed so profoundly interesting a report, and at the end of it he told the viceroy that “he had conducted the conversation with Mr. Parnell with perfect discretion.” The knowledge that the minister responsible for the government of Ireland was looking in the direction of home rule, and exchanging home rule views with the great home rule leader, did not shake Lord Salisbury's confidence in his fitness to be viceroy.

This is no mere case of barren wrangle and verbal recrimination. The transaction had consequences, and the Carnarvon episode was a pivot. The effect upon the mind of Mr. Parnell was easy to foresee. Was I not justified, he asked long afterwards, in supposing that Lord Carnarvon, holding the views that he now indicated, would not have been made viceroy unless there was a considerable feeling in the cabinet that his views were right?147 Could he imagine that the viceroy would be allowed to talk home rule to him—however shadowy and vague the words—unless the prime minister considered such a solution to be at any rate well worth discussing? Why should he not believe that the alliance formed in June to turn Mr. Gladstone out of office and eject Lord Spencer from Ireland, had really blossomed from being a mere lobby manœuvre and election expedient, into a serious policy adopted by serious statesmen? Was it not certain that in such remarkable circumstances Mr. Parnell would throughout the election confidently state the national demand at its very highest?

In 1882 and onwards up to the Reform Act of 1885, Mr. Parnell had been ready to advocate the creation of a central council at Dublin for administrative purposes merely. This he thought would be a suitable achievement for a party that numbered only thirty-five members. But the assured increase of his strength at the coming election made all the difference. When semi-official soundings were [pg 232] taken from more than one liberal quarter after the fall of the Gladstone government, it was found that Mr. Parnell no longer countenanced provisional reforms. After the interview with Lord Carnarvon, the mercury rose rapidly to the top of the tube. Larger powers of administration were not enough. The claim for legislative power must now be brought boldly to the front. In unmistakable terms, the Irish leader stated the Irish demand, and posed both problem and solution. He now declared his conviction that the great and sole work of himself and his friends in the new parliament would be the restoration of a national parliament of their own, to do the things which they had been vainly asking the imperial parliament to do for them.148


When politicians ruminate upon the disastrous schism that followed Mr. Gladstone's attempt to deal with the Irish question in 1886, they ought closely to study the general election of 1885. In that election, though leading men foresaw the approach of a marked Irish crisis, and awaited the outcome of events with an overshadowing sense of pregnant issues, there was nothing like general concentration on the Irish prospect. The strife of programmes and the rivalries of leaders were what engrossed the popular attention. The main body of the British electors were thinking mainly of promised agrarian booms, fair trade, the church in danger, or some other of their own domestic affairs.

Few forms of literature or history are so dull as the narrative of political debates. With a few exceptions, a political speech like the manna in the wilderness loses its savour on the second day. Three or four marked utterances of this critical autumn, following all that has been set forth already, will enable the reader to understand the division of counsel that prevailed immediately before the great change of policy in 1886, and the various strategic evolutions, masked movements, and play of mine, sap, and countermine, that led to it. As has just been described, and with good reason, [pg 233]

Lord Hartington And Mr. Chamberlain

for he believed that he had the Irish viceroy on his side, Mr. Parnell stood inflexible. In his speech of August 24 already mentioned, he had thrown down his gauntlet.

Much the most important answer to the challenge, if we regard the effect upon subsequent events, was that of Lord Salisbury two months later. To this I shall have to return. The two liberal statesmen, Lord Hartington and Mr. Chamberlain, who were most active in this campaign, and whose activity was well spiced and salted by a lively political antagonism, agreed in a tolerably stiff negative to the Irish demand. The whig leader with a slow mind, and the radical leader with a quick mind, on this single issue of the campaign spoke with one voice. The whig leader149 thought Mr. Parnell had made a mistake and ensured his own defeat: he overestimated his power in Ireland and his power in parliament; the Irish would not for the sake of this impossible and impracticable undertaking, forego without duress all the other objects which parliament was ready to grant them; and it remained to be seen whether he could enforce his iron discipline upon his eighty or ninety adherents, even if Ireland gave him so many.

The radical leader was hardly less emphatic, and his utterance was the more interesting of the two, because until this time Mr. Chamberlain had been generally taken throughout his parliamentary career as leaning strongly in the nationalist direction. He had taken a bold and energetic part in the proceedings that ended in the release of Mr. Parnell from Kilmainham. He had with much difficulty been persuaded to acquiesce in the renewal of any part of the Coercion Act, and had absented himself from the banquet in honour of Lord Spencer. Together with his most intimate ally in the late government, he had projected a political tour in Ireland with Mr. Parnell's approval and under his auspices. Above all, he had actually opened his electoral campaign with that famous declaration which was so long remembered: “The pacification of Ireland at this moment depends, I believe, on the concession to Ireland of [pg 234] the right to govern itself in the matter of its purely domestic business. Is it not discreditable to us that even now it is only by unconstitutional means that we are able to secure peace and order in one portion of her Majesty's dominions? It is a system as completely centralised and bureaucratic as that with which Russia governs Poland, or as that which prevailed in Venice under the Austrian rule. An Irishman at this moment cannot move a step—he cannot lift a finger in any parochial, municipal, or educational work, without being confronted with, interfered with, controlled by, an English official, appointed by a foreign government, and without a shade or shadow of representative authority. I say the time has come to reform altogether the absurd and irritating anachronism which is known as Dublin Castle. That is the work to which the new parliament will be called.”150 Masters of incisive speech must pay the price of their gifts, and the sentence about Poland and Venice was long a favourite in many a debate. But when the Irish leader now made his proposal for removing the Russian yoke and the Austrian yoke from Ireland, the English leader drew back. “If these,” he said, “are the terms on which Mr. Parnell's support is to be obtained, I will not enter into the compact.” This was Mr. Chamberlain's response.151


The language used by Mr. Gladstone during this eventful time was that of a statesman conscious of the magnitude of the issue, impressed by the obscurity of the path along which parties and leaders were travelling, and keenly alive to the perils of a premature or unwary step. Nothing was easier for the moment either for quick minds or slow minds, than to face the Irish demand beforehand with a bare, blank, wooden non possumus. Mr. Gladstone had pondered the matter more deeply. His gift of political imagination, his wider experience, and his personal share in some chapters of the modern history of Europe and its changes, planted him on a height whence he commanded a view of possibilities [pg 235]

Letter To Mr. Childers

and necessities, of hopes and of risks, that were unseen by politicians of the beaten track. Like a pilot amid wandering icebergs, or in waters where familiar buoys had been taken up and immemorial beacons put out, he scanned the scene with keen eyes and a glass sweeping the horizon in every direction. No wonder that his words seemed vague, and vague they undoubtedly were. Suppose that Cavour had been obliged to issue an election address on the eve of the interview at Plombières, or Bismarck while he was on his visit to Biarritz. Their language would hardly have been pellucid. This was no moment for ultimatums. There were too many unascertained elements. Yet some of those, for instance, who most ardently admired President Lincoln for the caution with which he advanced step by step to the abolition proclamation, have most freely censured the English statesman because he did not in the autumn of 1885 come out with either a downright Yes or a point-blank No. The point-blank is not for all occasions, and only a simpleton can think otherwise.

In September Mr. Childers—a most capable administrator, a zealous colleague, wise in what the world regards as the secondary sort of wisdom, and the last man to whom one would have looked for a plunge—wrote to Mr. Gladstone to seek his approval of a projected announcement to his constituents at Pontefract, which amounted to a tolerably full-fledged scheme of home rule.152 In view of the charitable allegation that Mr. Gladstone picked up home rule after the elections had placed it in the power of the Irish either to put him into office or to keep him out of office, his reply to Mr. Childers deserves attention:—

To Mr. Childers.

Sept. 28, 1885.—I have a decided sympathy with the general scope and spirit of your proposed declaration about Ireland. If I offer any observations, they are meant to be simply in furtherance of your purpose.

1. I would disclaim giving any exhaustive list of Imperial subjects, and would not put my foot down as to revenue, but [pg 236] would keep plenty of elbow-room to keep all customs and excise, which would probably be found necessary.

2. A general disclaimer of particulars as to the form of any local legislature might suffice, without giving the Irish expressly to know it might be decided mainly by their wish.

3. I think there is no doubt Ulster would be able to take care of itself in respect to education, but a question arises and forms, I think, the most difficult part of the whole subject, whether some defensive provisions for the owners of land and property should not be considered.

4. It is evident you have given the subject much thought, and my sympathy goes largely to your details as well as your principle. But considering the danger of placing confidence in the leaders of the national party at the present moment, and the decided disposition they have shown to raise their terms on any favourable indication, I would beg you to consider further whether you should bind yourself at present to any details, or go beyond general indications. If you say in terms (and this I do not dissuade) that you are ready to consider the question whether they can have a legislature for all questions not Imperial, this will be a great step in advance; and anything you may say beyond it, I should like to see veiled in language not such as to commit you.

The reader who is now acquainted with Mr. Gladstone's strong support of the Chamberlain plan in 1885, and with the bias already disclosed, knows in what direction the main current of his thought must have been setting. The position taken in 1885 was in entire harmony with all these premonitory notes. Subject, said Mr. Gladstone, to the supremacy of the crown, the unity of the empire, and all the authority of parliament necessary for the conservation of that unity, every grant to portions of the country of enlarged powers for the management of their own affairs, was not a source of danger, but a means of averting it. “As to the legislative union, I believe history and posterity will consign to disgrace the name and memory of every man, be he who he may, and on whichever side of the Channel he may dwell, that having the power to aid in an equitable settlement between Ireland and Great Britain, shall use that power not to [pg 237] aid, but to prevent or retard it.”153 These and all the other large and profuse sentences of the Midlothian address were undoubtedly open to more than one construction, and they either admitted or excluded home rule, as might happen. The fact that, though it was running so freely in his own mind, he did not put Irish autonomy into the forefront of his address, has been made a common article of charge against him. As if the view of Irish autonomy now running in his mind were not dependent on a string of hypotheses. And who can imagine a party leader's election address that should have run thus?—“ If Mr. Parnell returns with a great majority of members, and if the minority is not weighty enough, and if the demand is constitutionally framed, and if the Parnellites are unanimous, then we will try home rule. And this possibility of a hypothetical experiment is to be the liberal cry with which to go into battle against Lord Salisbury, who, so far as I can see, is nursing the idea of the same experiment.”

Some weeks later, in speaking to his electors in Midlothian, Mr. Gladstone instead of minimising magnified the Irish case, pushed it into the very forefront, not in one speech, but in nearly all; warned his hearers of the gravity of the questions soon to be raised by it, and assured them that it would probably throw into the shade the other measures that he had described as ripe for action. He elaborated a declaration, of which much was heard for many months and years afterwards. What Ireland, he said, may deliberately and constitutionally demand, unless it infringes the principles connected with the honourable maintenance of the unity of the empire, will be a demand that we are bound at any rate to treat with careful attention. To stint Ireland in power which might be necessary or desirable for the management of matters purely Irish, would be a great error; and if she was so stinted, the end that any such measure might contemplate could not be attained. Then came the memorable appeal: “Apart from the term of whig and tory, there is one thing I will say and will endeavour to impress upon you, and it is this. It will be a vital danger to the country and to the empire, if at a time when a demand from Ireland for larger powers [pg 238] of self-government is to be dealt with, there is not in parliament a party totally independent of the Irish vote.”154 Loud and long sustained have been the reverberations of this clanging sentence. It was no mere passing dictum. Mr. Gladstone himself insisted upon the same position again and again, that “for a government in a minority to deal with the Irish question would not be safe.” This view, propounded in his first speech, was expanded in his second. There he deliberately set out that the urgent expediency of a liberal majority independent of Ireland did not foreshadow the advent of a liberal government to power. He referred to the settlement of household suffrage in 1867. How was the tory government enabled to effect that settlement? Because there was in the House a liberal majority which did not care to eject the existing ministry.155 He had already reminded his electors that tory governments were sometimes able to carry important measures, when once they had made up their minds to it, with greater facility than liberal governments could. For instance, if Peel had not been the person to propose the repeal of the corn laws, Lord John would not have had fair consideration from the tories; and no liberal government could have carried the Maynooth Act.156

The plain English of the abundant references to Ireland in the Midlothian speeches of this election is, that Mr. Gladstone foresaw beyond all shadow of doubt that the Irish question in its largest extent would at once demand the instant attention of the new parliament; that the best hope of settling it would be that the liberals should have a majority of their own; that the second best hope lay in its settlement by the tory government with the aid of the liberals; but that, in any case, the worst of all conditions under which a settlement could be attempted—an attempt that could not be avoided—would be a situation in which Mr. Parnell should hold the balance between parliamentary parties.

The precise state of Mr. Gladstone's mind at this moment is best shown in a very remarkable letter written by him to Lord Rosebery, under whose roof at Talmeny he was staying at the time:—

[pg 239]

To Lord Rosebery.

Dalmeny Park, 13th Nov. 1885.—You have called my attention to the recent speech of Mr. Parnell, in which he expresses the desire that I should frame a plan for giving to Ireland, without prejudice to imperial unity and interests, the management of her own affairs. The subject is so important that, though we are together, I will put on paper my view of this proposal. For the moment I assume that such a plan can be framed. Indeed, if I had considered this to be hopeless, I should have been guilty of great rashness in speaking of it as a contingency that should be kept in view at the present election. I will first give reasons, which I deem to be of great weight, against my producing a scheme, reserving to the close one reason, which would be conclusive in the absence of every other reason.

1. It is not the province of the person leading the party in opposition, to frame and produce before the public detailed schemes of such a class.

2. There are reasons of great weight, which make it desirable that the party now in power should, if prepared to adopt the principle, and if supported by an adequate proportion of the coming House of Commons, undertake the construction and proposal of the measure.

3. The unfriendly relations between the party of nationalists and the late government in the expiring parliament, have of necessity left me and those with whom I act in great ignorance of the interior mind of the party, which has in parliament systematically confined itself to very general declarations.

4. That the principle and basis of an admissible measure have been clearly declared by myself, if not by others, before the country; more clearly, I think, than was done in the case of the Irish disestablishment; and that the particulars of such plans in all cases have been, and probably must be, left to the discretion of the legislature acting under the usual checks.

But my final and paramount reason is, that the production at this time of a plan by me would not only be injurious, but would destroy all reasonable hope of its adoption. Such a plan, proposed by the heads of the liberal party, is so certain to have the [pg 240] opposition of the tories en bloc, that every computation must be founded on this anticipation. This opposition, and the appeals with which it will be accompanied, will render the carrying of the measure difficult even by a united liberal party; hopeless or most difficult, should there be serious defection.

Mr. Parnell is apprehensive of the opposition of the House of Lords. That idea weighs little with me. I have to think of something nearer, and more formidable. The idea of constituting a legislature for Ireland, whenever seriously and responsibly proposed, will cause a mighty heave in the body politic. It will be as difficult to carry the liberal party and the two British nations in favour of a legislature for Ireland, as it was easy to carry them in the case of Irish disestablishment. I think that it may possibly be done; but only by the full use of a great leverage. That leverage can only be found in their equitable and mature consideration of what is due to the fixed desire of a nation, clearly and constitutionally expressed. Their prepossessions will not be altogether favourable; and they cannot in this matter be bullied.

I have therefore endeavoured to lay the ground by stating largely the possibility and the gravity, even the solemnity, of that demand. I am convinced that this is the only path which can lead to success. With such a weapon, one might go hopefully into action. But I well know, from a thousand indications past and present, that a new project of mine launched into the air, would have no momentum which could carry it to its aim. So, in my mind, stands the case....

Three days before this letter, Mr. Gladstone had replied to one from Lord Hartington:—

To Lord Hartington.

Dalmeny, Nov. 10, 1885.—I made a beginning yesterday in one of my conversation speeches, so to call them, on the way, by laying it down that I was particularly bound to prevent, if I could, the domination of sectional opinion over the body and action of the party.

I wish to say something about the modern radicalism. But I must include this, that if it is rampant and ambitious, the two most prominent causes of its forwardness have been: 1. Tory [pg 241] democracy. 2. The gradual disintegration of the liberal aristocracy. On both these subjects my opinions are strong. I think the conduct of the Duke of Bedford and others has been as unjustifiable as it was foolish, especially after what we did to save the House of Lords from itself in the business of the franchise.

Nor can I deny that the question of the House of Lords, of the church, or both, will probably split the liberal party. But let it split decently, honourably, and for cause. That it should split now would, so far as I see, be ludicrous.

So far I have been writing in great sympathy with you, but now I touch a point where our lines have not been the same. You have, I think, courted the hostility of Parnell. Salisbury has carefully avoided doing this, and last night he simply confined himself to two conditions, which you and I both think vital; namely, the unity of the empire and an honourable regard to the position of the minority, i.e. the landlords. You will see in the newspapers what Parnell, making for himself an opportunity, is reported to have said about the elections in Ulster now at hand. You have opened a vista which appears to terminate in a possible concession to Ireland of full power to manage her own local affairs. But I own my leaning to the opinion that, if that consummation is in any way to be contemplated, action at a stroke will be more honourable, less unsafe, less uneasy, than the jolting process of a series of partial measures. This is my opinion, but I have no intention, as at present advised, of signifying it. I have all along in public declarations avoided offering anything to the nationalists, beyond describing the limiting rule which must govern the question. It is for them to ask, and for us, as I think, to leave the space so defined as open and unencumbered as possible. I am much struck by the increased breadth of Salisbury's declaration last night; he dropped the I do not see how.

We shall see how these great and difficult matters develop themselves. Meantime be assured that, with a good deal of misgiving as to the future, I shall do what little I can towards enabling all liberals at present to hold together with credit and good conscience.

[pg 242]


Mr. Gladstone's cardinal deliverance in November had been preceded by an important event. On October 7, 1885, Lord Salisbury made that speech at Newport, which is one of the tallest and most striking landmarks in the shifting sands of this controversy. It must be taken in relation to Lord Carnarvon's declaration of policy on taking office, and to his exchange of views with Mr. Parnell at the end of July. Their first principle, said Lord Salisbury, was to extend to Ireland, so far as they could, all the institutions of this country. But one must remember that in Ireland the population is on several subjects deeply divided, and a government is bound 'on all matters of essential justice' to protect a minority against a majority. Then came remarkable sentences: “Local authorities are more exposed to the temptation of enabling the majority to be unjust to the minority when they obtain jurisdiction over a small area, than is the case when the authority derives its sanction and extends its jurisdiction over a wider area. In a large central authority, the wisdom of several parts of the country will correct the folly and mistakes of one. In a local authority, that correction is to a much greater extent wanting, and it would be impossible to leave that out of sight, in any extension of any such local authority in Ireland.” This principle was often used in the later controversy as a recognition by Lord Salisbury that the creation of a great central body would be a safer policy than the mere extension of self-government in Irish counties. In another part of the speech, it is true, the finger-post or weather-vane pointed in the opposite direction. “With respect to the larger organic questions connected with Ireland,” said Lord Salisbury, “I cannot say much, though I can speak emphatically. I have nothing to say but that the traditions of the party to which we belong, are on this point clear and distinct, and you may rely upon it our party will not depart from them.” Yet this emphatic refusal to depart from the traditions of the tory party did not prevent Lord Salisbury from retaining at that moment in his cabinet an Irish viceroy, with whom he [pg 243]

Declarations From Lord Salisbury

was in close personal relations, and whose active Irish policy he must have known to be as wide a breach in tory tradition as the mind of man can imagine. So hard is it in distracted times, the reader may reflect, even for men of honourable and lofty motive to be perfectly ingenuous.

The speaker next referred to the marked way in which Mr. Parnell, a day or two before, had mentioned the position of Austro-Hungary. “I gathered that some notion of imperial federation was floating in his mind. With respect to Ireland, I am bound to say that I have never seen any plan or any suggestion which gives me at present the slightest ground for anticipating that it is in that direction that we shall find any substantial solution of the difficulties of the problem.” In an electric state of the political atmosphere, a statesman who said that at present he did not think federal home rule possible, was taken to imply that he might think it possible, by-and-by. No door was closed.

It was, however, Lord Salisbury's language upon social order that gave most scandal to simple consciences in his own ranks. You ask us, he said, why we did not renew the Crimes Act. There are two answers: we could not, and it would have done no good if we could. To follow the extension of the franchise by coercion, would have been a gross inconsistency. To show confidence by one act, and the absence of confidence by a simultaneous act, would be to stultify parliament. Your inconsistency would have provoked such intense exasperation, that it would have led to ten times more evil, ten times more resistance to the law, than your Crimes Act could possibly have availed to check. Then the audience was favoured with a philosophic view of boycotting. This, said the minister, is an offence which legislation has very great difficulty in reaching. The provisions of the Crimes Act against it had a very small effect. It grew up under that Act. And, after all, look at boycotting. An unpopular man or his family go to mass. The congregation with one accord get up and walk out. Are you going to indict people for leaving church? The plain fact is that boycotting “is more like the excommunication or interdict of the middle ages, than anything that we know [pg 244] now.” “The truth about boycotting is that it depends on the passing humour of the population.”

It is important to remember that in the month immediately preceding this polished apologetic, there were delivered some of the most violent boycotting speeches ever made in Ireland.157 These speeches must have been known to the Irish government, and their occurrence and the purport of them must presumably have been known therefore to the prime minister. Here was indeed a removal of the ancient buoys and beacons that had hitherto guided English navigation in Irish waters. There was even less of a solid ultimatum at Newport, than in those utterances in Midlothian which were at that time and long afterwards found so culpably vague, blind, and elusive. Some of the more astute of the minister's own colleagues were delighted with his speech, as keeping the Irishmen steady to the tory party. They began to hope that they might even come within five-and-twenty of the liberals when the polling began.

The question on which side the Irish vote in Great Britain should be thrown seems not to have been decided until after Mr. Gladstone's speech. It was then speedily settled. On Nov. 21 a manifesto was issued, handing over the Irish vote in Great Britain solid to the orator of the Newport speech. The tactics were obvious. It was Mr. Parnell's interest to bring the two contending British parties as near as might be to a level, and this he could only hope to do by throwing his strength upon the weaker side. It was from the weaker side, if they could be retained in office, that he would get the best terms.158 The document was composed with vigour and astuteness. But the phrases of the manifesto were the least important part of it. It was enough that the hard word was passed. Some estimated the loss to the liberal party in this island at twenty seats, others at forty. Whether twenty or forty, these lost seats made a fatal difference in the division on the Irish bill a few months later, and when [pg 245]

Irish Manifesto

that day had come and gone, Mr. Parnell sometimes ruefully asked himself whether the tactics of the electoral manifesto were not on the whole a mistake. But this was not all and was not the worst of it. The Irish manifesto became a fiery element in a sharp electioneering war, and threw the liberals in all constituencies where there was an Irish vote into a direct and angry antagonism to the Irish cause and its leaders; passions were roused, and things were said about Irishmen that could not at once be forgotten; and the great task of conversion in 1886, difficult in any case, was made a thousand times more difficult still by the arguments and antipathies of the electoral battle of 1885. Meanwhile it was for the moment, and for the purposes of the moment, a striking success.

[pg 246]

Chapter II. The Polls In 1885. (1885)

I would say that civil liberty can have no security without political power.—C. J. Fox.


The election ran a chequered course (Nov. 23-Dec. 19). It was the first trial of the whole body of male householders, and it was the first trial of the system of single-member districts. This is not the place for a discussion of the change of electoral area. As a scheme for securing representation of minorities it proved of little efficacy, and many believe that the substitution of a smaller constituency for a larger one has tended to slacken political interest, and to narrow political judgment. Meanwhile some of those who were most deeply concerned in establishing the new plan, were confident that an overwhelming liberal triumph would be the result. Many of their opponents took the same view, and were in despair. A liberal met a tory minister on the steps of a club in Pall Mall, as they were both going to the country for their elections. “I suppose,” said the tory, “we are out for twenty years to come.” O pectora cæca! He has been in office for nearly fifteen of the eighteen years since. In September one of the most authoritative liberal experts did not see how the tories were to have more than 210 out of the 670 seats, including the tory contingent from Ireland. Two months later the expert admitted that the tory chances were improving, mainly owing to what in electioneering slang was called the church scare. Fair trade, too, had made many converts in Lancashire. On the very eve of the polls the estimate at liberal headquarters was a majority of forty over tories and Irishmen combined.

[pg 247]


In Midlothian

As I should have told the reader on an earlier page, Mr. Gladstone had proceeded to his own constituency on November 9. The previous month had found, as usual, endless other interests to occupy him, quite apart from politics. These are the ordinary entries. “Worked, say, five hours on books. Three more hours reduced my books and rooms to apparent order, but much detail remains. Worked mildly on books.” In this region he would have said of disorder and disarray what Carlyle said to dirt, “Thou shalt not abide with me.” As to the insides of books, his reading was miscellaneous: Madame d'Arblay, Bodley's Remains, Bachaumont's Anecdotes, Cuvier's Theory of the Earth, Whewell on Astronomy, the Life of B. Gilpin, Hennell's Inquiry, Schmidt's Social Effects of Christianity, Miss Martineau's Autobiography, Anderson on Glory of the Bible, Barrow's Towards the Truth, and so on—many of the books now stone-dead. Besides such reading as this, he “made a beginning of a paper on Hermes, and read for it,” and worked hard at a controversial article, in reply to M. Réville, upon the Dawn of Creation and Worship. When he corrected the proof, he found it ill-written, and in truth we may rather marvel at, than admire, the hardihood that handled such themes amid such distractions.159 Much company arrived. “Count Münster came to luncheon; long walk and talk with him. The Derby-Bedford party came and went. I had an hour's good conversation with Lord D. Tea in the open air. Oct. 7.—Mr. Chamberlain came. Well, and much conversation. Oct. 8.—Mr. Chamberlain. Three hours of conversation.”

Before the end of the month the doctors reported excellently of the condition of his vocal cords, and when he started for Dalmeny and the scene of the exploits of 1880 once more, he was in spirits to enjoy “an animated journey,” and the vast enthusiasm with which Edinburgh again received him. His speeches were marked by undiminished fire. He boldly challenged a verdict on policy in the Soudan, while freely admitting that in some points, not immaterial, his cabinet had fallen into error, though in every case the error was fostered by the party opposite; and he pointed to the vital [pg 248] fact that though the party opposite were in good time, they never dreamed of altering the policy. He asked triumphantly how they would have fared in the Afghan dispute, if the policy anterior to 1880 had not been repudiated. In his address he took the same valiant line about South Africa. “In the Transvaal,” he said, “we averted a war of European and Christian races throughout South African states, which would have been alike menacing to our power, and scandalous in the face of civilisation and of Christendom. As this has been with our opponents a favourite subject of unmeasured denunciation, so I for one hail and reciprocate their challenge, and I hope the nation will give a clear judgment on our refusal to put down liberty by force, and on the measures that have brought about the present tranquillity of South Africa.” His first speech was on Ireland, and Ireland figured, as we have seen, largely and emphatically to the last. Disestablishment was his thorniest topic, for the scare of the church in danger was working considerable havoc in England, and every word on Scottish establishment was sure to be translated to establishment elsewhere. On the day on which he was to handle it, his entry is: “Much rumination, and made notes which in speaking I could not manage to see. Off to Edinburgh at 2.30. Back at 6. Spoke seventy minutes in Free Kirk Hall: a difficult subject. The present agitation does not strengthen in my mind the principle of establishment.” His leading text was a favourite and a salutary maxim of his, that “it is a very serious responsibility to take political questions out of their proper time and their proper order,” and the summary of his speech was that the party was agreed upon certain large and complicated questions, such as were enough for one parliament to settle, and that it would be an error to attempt to thrust those questions aside, to cast them into the shade and the darkness, “for the sake of a subject of which I will not undervalue the importance, but of which I utterly deny the maturity at the present moment.”160

On Nov. 27 the poll was taken; 11,241 electors out of 12,924, or 87 per cent., recorded their votes, and of these 7879 voted for Mr. Gladstone, and 3248 for Mr. Dalrymple, or a majority of 4631. So little impression had been made [pg 249]

First Days

in Midlothian by Kilmainham, Majuba, Khartoum, Penjdeh, and the other party cries of a later period.


Let us turn to the general result, and the final composition of Mr. Gladstone's thirteenth parliament. The polls of the first three or four days were startling. It looked, in the phrases of the time, as if there were conservative reaction all round, as if the pendulum had swung back to the point of tory triumph in 1874, and as if early reverses would wind up in final rout. Where the tories did not capture the seat, their numbers rose and the liberal majorities fell. At the end of four days the liberals in England and Wales had scored 86 against 109 for their adversaries. When two-thirds of the House had been elected, the liberals counted 196, the tories 179, and the Irish nationalists 37. In spite of the early panic or exultation, it was found that in boroughs of over 100,000 the liberals had after all carried seventeen, against eight for their opponents. But the tories were victorious in a solid Liverpool, save one Irish seat; they won all the seats in Manchester save one; and in London, where liberals had been told by those who were believed to know, that they would make a clean sweep, there were thirty-six tories against twenty-six liberals. Two members of the late liberal cabinet and three subordinate ministers were thrown out. “The verdict of the English borough constituencies,” cried the Times, “will be recorded more emphatically than was even the case in 1874 in favour of the conservatives. The opposition have to thank Mr. Chamberlain not only for their defeat at the polls, but for the irremediable disruption and hopeless disorganisation of the liberal party with its high historic past and its high claims to national gratitude. His achievement may give him such immortality as was won by the man who burned down the temple of Diana at Ephesus.”161 The same writers have ever since ascribed the irremediable disruption to Mr. Gladstone and the Irish question.

Now came the counties with their newly enfranchised [pg 250] hosts. Here the tide flowed strong and steady. Squire and parson were amazed to see the labourer, of whose stagnant indifference to politics they had been so confident, trudging four or five miles to a political meeting, listening without asking for a glass of beer to political speeches, following point upon-point, and then trudging back again dumbly chewing the cud. Politicians with gifts of rhetoric began to talk of the grand revolt of the peasants, and declared that it was the most remarkable transformation since the conversion of the Franks. Turned into prose, this meant that the liberals had extended their area into large rural provinces where hitherto tory supremacy had never been disputed. Whether or no Mr. Chamberlain had broken the party in the boroughs, his agrarian policy together with the natural uprising of the labourer against the party of squire and farmer, had saved it in the counties. The nominees of such territorial magnates as the Northumberlands, the Pembrokes, the Baths, the Bradfords, the Watkin Wynns, were all routed, and the shock to territorial influence was felt to be profound. An ardent agrarian reformer, who later became a conspicuous unionist, writing to Mr. Gladstone in July a description of a number of great rural gatherings, told him, “One universal feature of these meetings is the joy, affection, and unbounded applause with which your name is received by these earnest men. Never in all your history had you so strong a place in the hearts of the common people, as you have to-day. It requires to be seen to be realised.”

All was at last over. It then appeared that so far from there being a second version of the great tory reaction of 1874, the liberals had now in the new parliament a majority over tories of 82, or thirty under the corresponding majority in the year of marvel, 1880. In great Britain they had a majority of 100, being 333 against 233.162 But [pg 251]

General Result

they had no majority over tories and Irishmen combined. That hopeful dream had glided away through the ivory gate.

Shots between right wing and left of the liberal party were exchanged to the very last moment. When the borough elections were over, the Birmingham leader cried that so far from the loss in the boroughs being all the fault of the extreme liberals, it was just because the election had not been fought on their programme, but was fought instead on a manifesto that did not include one of the points to which the extreme liberals attached the greatest importance. For the sake of unity, they had put aside their most cherished principles, disestablishment for instance, and this, forsooth, was the result.163 The retort came as quickly as thunder after the flash. Lord Hartington promptly protested from Matlock, that the very crisis of the electoral conflict was an ill-chosen moment for the public expression of doubt by a prominent liberal as to the wisdom of a policy accepted by the party, and announced by the acknowledged leader of the whole party. When the party had found some more tried, more trusted, more worthy leader, then might perhaps be the time to impugn the policy. These reproachful ironies of Lord Hartington boded ill for any prospect of the heroes of this fratricidal war of the platform smoothing their wrinkled fronts in a liberal cabinet.


In Ireland the result shed a strong light on the debating prophecies that the extension of the county franchise would [pg 252] not be unfavourable to the landlord interest; that it would enable the deep conservative interest of the peasantry to vindicate itself against the nationalism of the towns; that it would prove beyond all doubt that the Irish leader did not really speak the mind of a decided majority of the people of Ireland. Relying on the accuracy of these abstract predictions, the Irish tories started candidates all over the country. Even some of them who passed for shrewd and candid actually persuaded themselves that they were making an impression on the constituencies. The effect of their ingenuous operations was to furnish such a measure of nationalist strength, as would otherwise have seemed incredible almost to the nationalists themselves. An instance or two will suffice. In two divisions of Cork, the tories polled 300 votes against nearly 10,000 for the nationalists. In two divisions of Mayo, the tories polled 200 votes against nearly 10,000 for the nationalists. In one division of Kilkenny there were 4000 nationalist votes against 170 for the tory, and in another division 4000 against 220. In a division of Kerry the nationalist had over 3000 votes against 30 for the tory,—a hundred to one. In prosperous counties with resident landlords and a good class of gentry such as Carlow and Kildare, in one case the popular vote was 4800 against 750, and in the other 3169 against 467. In some fifty constituencies the popular majorities ranged in round numbers from 6500 the highest, to 2400 the lowest. Besides these constituencies where a contest was so futile, were those others in which no contest was even attempted.

In Ulster a remarkable thing happened. This favoured province had in the last parliament returned nine liberals. Lord Hartington attended a banquet at Belfast (Nov. 5) just before the election. It was as unlucky an affair as the feast of Belshazzar. His mission was compared by Orange wits to that of the Greek hero who went forth to wrestle with Death for the body of an old woman. The whole of the liberal candidates in Ulster fell down as dead men. Orangemen and catholics, the men who cried damnation to King William and the men who cried “To hell with the Pope,” joined hands against them. In Belfast itself, nationalists were [pg 253]

Extraordinary Results In Ireland

seen walking to the booths with orange cards in their hats to vote for orangemen against liberals.164 It is true that the paradox did not last, and that the Pope and King William were speedily on their old terms again. Within six months, the two parties atoned for this temporary backsliding into brotherly love, by one of the most furious and protracted conflagrations that ever raged even in the holy places of Belfast. Meanwhile nationalism had made its way in the south of the province, partly by hopes of reduced rents, partly by the energy of the catholic population, who had not tasted political power for two centuries. The adhesion of their bishops to the national movement in the Monaghan election had given them the signal three years before. Fermanagh, hitherto invariably Orange, now sent two nationalists. Antrim was the single county out of the thirty-two counties of Ireland that was solid against home rule, and even in Antrim in one contest the nationalist was beaten only by 35 votes.

Not a single liberal was returned in the whole of Ireland. To the last parliament she had sent fourteen. They were all out bag and baggage. Ulster now sent eighteen nationalists and seventeen tories. Out of the eighty-nine contests in Ireland, Mr. Parnell's men won no fewer than eighty-five, and in most of them they won by such overwhelming majorities as I have described. It was noticed that twenty-two of the persons elected, or more than one-fourth of the triumphant party, had been put in prison under the Act of 1881. A species of purge, moreover, had been performed. All half-hearted nationalists, the doubters and the faithless, were dismissed, and their places taken by men pledged either to obey or else go.

The British public now found out on what illusions they had for the last four years been fed. Those of them who had memories, could recollect how the Irish secretary of the day, on the third reading of the first Coercion bill in 1881, had boldly appealed from the Irish members to the People of Ireland. “He was sure that he could appeal with confidence from gentlemen sitting below the gangway opposite to their constituents.”165 They remembered all the [pg 254] talk about Mr. Parnell and his followers being a mere handful of men and not a political party at all, and the rest of it. They had now a revelation what a fool's paradise it had been.

As a supreme electoral demonstration, the Irish elections of 1885 have never been surpassed in any country. They showed that neither remedial measures nor repressive measures had made even the fleeting shadow of an impression on the tenacious sentiment of Ireland, or on the powerful organisation that embodied and directed it. The Land Act had made no impression. The two Coercion Acts had made none. The imperial parliament had done its best for five years. Some of the ablest of its ministers had set zealous and intrepid hands to the task, and this was the end. Whether you counted seats or counted votes, the result could not be twisted into anything but what it was—the vehement protest of one of the three kingdoms against the whole system of its government, and a strenuous demand for its reconstruction on new foundations.

Endeavours were made to discredit so startling and unwelcome a result. It was called “the carefully prepared verdict of a shamefully packed jury.” Much was made of the number of voters who declared themselves illiterate, said to be compelled so to do in order that the priest or other intimidatory person might see that they voted right. As a matter of fact the percentage of illiterate voters answered closely to the percentage of males over twenty-one in the census returns, who could neither read nor write. Only two petitions followed the general election, one at Belfast against a nationalist, and the other at Derry against a tory, and in neither of the two was undue influence or intimidation alleged. The routed candidates in Ireland, like the same unlucky species elsewhere, raised the usual chorus of dolorous explanation. The register, they cried, was in a shameful condition; the polling stations were too few or too remote; the loyalists were afraid, and the poll did not represent their real numbers; people did not believe that the ballot was really secret; the percentage of illiterates was monstrous; promises and pledges went for nothing. Such are ever the too familiar voices of mortified electioneering.

[pg 255]

Mr. Parnell As Dictator

There was also the best known of all the conclusive topics from tory Ireland. It was all done, vowed the tories, by the bishops and clergy; they were indefatigable; they canvassed at the houses and presided at meetings; they exhorted their flocks from the altar, and they drilled them at the polling-booths. The spiritual screw of the priest and the temporal screw of the league—there was the whole secret. Such was the story, and it was not wholly devoid of truth; but then what balm, what comfort, had even the truth of it for British rulers?

Some thousands of voters stayed away from the polls. It was ingeniously explained that their confidence in British rule had been destroyed by the Carnarvon surrender; a shopkeeper would not offend his customers for the sake of a Union Jack that no longer waved triumphant in the breeze. They were like the Arab sheikhs at Berber, who, when they found that the Egyptian pashas were going to evacuate, went over to the Mahdi. The conventions appointed to select the candidates were denounced as the mere creatures of Mr. Parnell, the Grand Elector. As if anything could have shown a more politic appreciation of the circumstances. There are situations that require a dictator, not to impose an opinion, but to kindle an aspiration; not to shape a demand, but to be the effective organ of opinion and demand. Now in the Irish view was one of those situations. In the last parliament twenty-six seats were held by persons designated nominal home rulers; in the new parliament, not one. Every new nationalist member pledged himself to resign whenever the parliamentary party should call upon him. Such an instrument grasped in a hand of iron was indispensable, first to compel the British government to listen, and second, to satisfy any British government disposed to listen, that in dealing with Mr. Parnell they were dealing with nationalist Ireland, and with a statesman who had the power to make his engagements good. You need greater qualities, said Cardinal De Retz, to be a good party leader than to be emperor of the universe. Ireland is not that portion of the universe in which this is least true.

[pg 256]

Chapter III. A Critical Month (December 1885)

Whoever has held the post of minister for any considerable time can never absolutely, unalterably maintain and carry out his original opinions. He finds himself in the presence of situations that are not always the same—of life and growth—in connection with which he must take one course one day, and then, perhaps, another on the next day. I could not always run straight ahead like a cannon ball.—Bismarck.


The month of December was passed by Mr. Gladstone at Hawarden, in such depth of meditation as it is easy for us to conjecture. The composition of his party, the new situation in parliament, the mutual relations of important individuals, the Irish case, his own share in respect of the Irish case, the strange new departure in Irish policy announced and acted upon by the subsisting cabinet—from all these points of view it was now his business to survey the extraordinary scene. The knot to be unravelled in 1886 was hardly less entangled than that which engaged the powerful genius of Pitt at the opening of the century. Stripped of invidious innuendo, the words of Lord Salisbury a few weeks later state with strength and truth the problem that now confronted parliament and its chief men. “Up to the time,” said the tory prime minister, “when Mr. Gladstone took office, be it for good or evil, for many generations Ireland had been governed through the influence and the action of the landed gentry. I do not wish to defend that system. There is a good deal to be said for it, and a good deal to be said against it. What I wish to insist upon is, not that that system was good, but that the statesman who undertook to overthrow it, should have had something to put in its place. [pg 257] He utterly destroyed it. By the Land Act of 1870, by the Ballot Act of 1872, by the Land Act of 1881, and last of all by the Reform bill of 1884, the power of the landed gentry in Ireland is absolutely shattered; and he now stands before the formidable problem of a country deprived of a system of government under which it had existed for many generations, and absolutely without even a sketch of a substitute by which the ordinary functions of law and order can be maintained. Those changes which he introduced into the government of Ireland were changes that were admirable from a parliamentary point of view. They were suited to the dominant humour of the moment. But they were barren of any institutions by which the country could be governed and kept in prosperity for the future.”166 This is a statement of the case that biographer and historian alike should ponder. Particularly should they remember that both parties had renounced coercion.

Mr. Gladstone has publicly explained the working of his mind, and both his private letters at the time, and many a conversation later, attest the hold which the new aspect, however chimerical it may now seem to those who do not take long views, had gained upon him. He could not be blind to the fact that the action and the language of the tory ministers during the last six months had shown an unquestionable readiness to face the new necessities of a complex situation with new methods. Why should not a solution of the present difficulties be sought in the same co-operation of parties, that had been as advantageous as it was indispensable in other critical occasions of the century? He recalled other leading precedents of national crisis. There was the repeal of the Test Act in 1828; catholic emancipation in 1829; the repeal of the corn law in 1846; the extension of the franchise in 1867. In the history of these memorable transactions, Mr. Gladstone perceived it to be extremely doubtful whether any one of these measures, all carried as they were by tory governments, could have become law except under the peculiar conditions which secured for [pg 258] each of them both the aid of the liberal vote in the House of Commons, and the authority possessed by all tory governments in the House of Lords. What was the situation? The ministerial party just reached the figure of two hundred and fifty-one. Mr. Gladstone had said in the course of the election that for a government in a minority to deal with the Irish question would not be safe, such an operation could not but be attended by danger; but the tender of his support to Lord Salisbury was a demonstration that he thought the operation might still properly be undertaken.167

To Herbert Gladstone.

December 10, 1885.—1. The nationalists have run in political alliance with the tories for years; more especially for six months; most of all at the close during the elections, when they have made us 335 (say) against 250 [conservatives] instead of 355 against 230. This alliance is therefore at its zenith. 2. The question of Irish government ought for the highest reasons to be settled at once, and settled by the allied forces, (1) because they have the government, (2) because their measure will have fair play from all, most, or many of us, which a measure of ours would not have from the tories. 3. As the allied forces are half the House, so that there is not a majority against them, no constitutional principle is violated by allowing the present cabinet to continue undisturbed for the purpose in view. 4. The plan for Ireland ought to be produced by the government of the day. Principles may be laid down by others, but not the detailed interpretation of them in a measure. I have publicly declared I produce no plan until the government has arrived at some issue with the Irish, as I hope they will. 5. If the moment ever came when a plan had to be considered with a view to production on behalf of the liberal party, I do not at present see how such a question could be dissociated from another vital question, namely, who are to be the government. For a government alone can carry a measure, though some outline of essentials might be put out in a motion or resolution.

Happening in these days to meet in the neighbouring [pg 259]

Proffer Of Support

palace of a whig magnate, Mr. Balfour, a young but even then an important member of the government, with whom as a veteran with a junior of high promise he had long been on terms of friendly intimacy, Mr. Gladstone began an informal conversation with him upon the condition of Ireland, on the stir that it was making in men's minds, and on the urgency of the problem. The conversation he followed up by a letter (Dec. 20). Every post, he said, bore him testimony to the growing ferment. In urging how great a calamity it would be if so vast a question should fall into the lines of party conflict, he expressed his desire to see it taken up by the government, and to be able, with reserve of necessary freedom, to co-operate in their design. Mr. Balfour replied with courteous scepticism, but promised to inform Lord Salisbury. The tactical computation was presumably this, that Lord Salisbury would lose the Orange group from Ireland and the extreme tories in England, but would keep the bulk of his party. On the other hand, Mr. Gladstone in supporting a moderate home rule would drop some of the old whigs and some of the extreme radicals, but he too would keep the bulk of the liberal party. Therefore, even if Mr. Parnell and his followers should find the scheme too moderate to be endurable, still Lord Salisbury with Mr. Gladstone's help would settle the Irish question as Peel with the help of the whigs settled the question of corn.

Both at the time and afterwards Mr. Gladstone was wont to lay great stress upon the fact that he had opened this suggestion and conveyed this proffer of support. For instance, he writes to Lord Hartington (Dec. 20): “On Tuesday I had a conversation with Balfour at Eaton, which in conformity with my public statements, I think, conveyed informally a hope that they would act, as the matter is so serious, and as its becoming a party question would be a great national calamity. I have written to him to say (without speaking for others) that if they can make a proposal for the purpose of settling definitely the question of Irish government, I shall wish with proper reserves to treat it in the spirit in which I have treated Afghanistan and the Balkan Peninsula.”

The language of Lord Carnarvon when he took office and [pg 260] of Lord Salisbury at Newport, coupled with the more substantial fact of the alliance between tories and nationalists before and during the election, no doubt warranted Mr. Gladstone's assumption that the alliance might continue, and that the talk of a new policy had been something more than an electioneering manœuvre. Yet the importance that he always attached to his offer of support for a definite settlement, or in plainer English, some sort of home rule, implies a certain simplicity. He forgot in his patriotic zeal the party system. The tory leader, capable as his public utterances show of piercing the exigencies of Irish government to the quick, might possibly, in the course of responsible consultations with opponents for a patriotic purpose, have been drawn by argument and circumstance on to the ground of Irish autonomy, which he had hitherto considered, and considered with apparent favour, only in the dim distance of abstract meditation or through the eyes of Lord Carnarvon. The abstract and intellectual temperament is sometimes apt to be dogged and stubborn; on the other hand, it is often uncommonly elastic. Lord Salisbury's clear and rationalising understanding might have been expected to carry him to a thoroughgoing experiment to get rid of a deep and inveterate disorder. If he thought it politic to assent to communication with Mr. Parnell, why should he not listen to overtures from Mr. Gladstone? On the other hand, Lord Salisbury's hesitation in facing the perils of an Irish settlement in reliance upon the co-operation of political opponents is far from being unintelligible. His inferior parliamentary strength would leave him at the mercy of an extremely formidable ally. He may have anticipated that, apart from the ordinary temptations of every majority to overthrow a minority, all the strong natural impulses of the liberal leader, his vehement sympathy with the principle of nationality, the irresistible attraction for him of all the grand and eternal commonplaces of liberty and self-government, would inevitably carry him much further on the Irish road than either Lord Salisbury himself may have been disposed to travel, or than he could be sure of persuading his party to follow. He may [pg 261]

Leaders At Hawarden

well have seen grounds for pause before committing himself to so delicate and precarious an enterprise.


Early in December Lord Granville was at Hawarden, and the two discussed the crucial perplexities of the hour, not going further than agreement that responsibility lay with the government, and that the best chance for settlement lay in large concession. From Hawarden Lord Granville went to Chatsworth, where he found Lord Spencer on his way to visit Mr. Gladstone; but nothing important passed among the three leaders thus brought together under the roof of Lord Hartington. Lord Granville imparted to Lord Spencer and Lord Hartington that Mr. Gladstone was full of Ireland in the direction of some large concession of self-government. The host discussed the thing dispassionately without much expression of opinion. Proceeding to Hawarden, Lord Spencer was there joined by Lord Rosebery. Their chief repeated to them the propositions already stated (p. 258). Mr. Gladstone wrote to Lord Granville (Dec. 9):

You have, I think, acted very prudently in not returning here. It would have been violently canvassed. Your report is as favourable as could be expected. I think my conversations with Rosebery and Spencer have also been satisfactory. What I expect is a healthful, slow fermentation in many minds, working towards the final product. It is a case of between the devil and the deep sea. But our position is a bed of roses, compared with that of the government....

Lord Spencer was hardly second in weight to Mr. Gladstone himself. His unrivalled experience of Irish administration, his powers of firm decision in difficult circumstances, and the impression of high public spirit, uprightness, and fortitude, which had stamped itself deep upon the public mind, gave him a force of moral authority in an Irish crisis that was unique. He knew the importance of a firm and continuous system in Ireland. Such a system he had inflexibly carried out. Extreme concessions had been extorted from him by the radicals in the cabinet, and when the last moment [pg 262] of the eleventh hour had arrived, it looked as if he would break up the government by insisting. Then the government was turned out, and the party of “law and order” came in. He saw his firm and continuous system at the first opportunity flouted and discarded. He was aware, as officials and as the public were aware, that his successor at Dublin Castle made little secret that he had come over to reverse the policy. Lord Spencer, too, well knew in the last months of his reign at Dublin that his own system, in spite of outward success, had made no mark upon Irish disaffection. It is no wonder that after his visit to Hawarden, he laboured hard at consideration of the problem that the strange action of government on the one hand, and the speculations of a trusted leader on the other, had forced upon him. On Mr. Gladstone he pressed the question whether a general support should be given to Irish autonomy as a principle, before particulars were matured. In any case he perceived that the difficulty of governing Ireland might well be increased by knowledge of the mere fact that Mr. Gladstone and himself, whether in office or in opposition, were looking in the direction of autonomy. Somebody said to Mr. Gladstone, people talked about his turning Spencer round his thumb. “It would be more true,” he replied, “that he had turned me round his.” That is, I suppose, by the lessons of Lord Spencer's experience.

In the middle of the month Lord Hartington asked Mr. Gladstone for information as to his views and intentions on the Irish question as developed by the general election. The rumours in the newspapers, he said, as well as in private letters, were so persistent that it was hard to believe them without foundation. Mr. Gladstone replied to Lord Hartington in a letter of capital importance in its relation to the prospects of party union (Dec. 17):—

To Lord Hartington.

The whole stream of public excitement is now turned upon me, and I am pestered with incessant telegrams which I have no defence against, but either suicide or Parnell's method of self-concealment. The truth is, I have more or less of opinions and ideas, [pg 263] but no intentions or negotiations. In these ideas and opinions there is, I think, little that I have not more or less conveyed in public declarations; in principle nothing. I will try to lay them before you. I consider that Ireland has now spoken; and that an effort ought to be made by the government without delay to meet her demands for the management by an Irish legislative body of Irish as distinct from imperial affairs. Only a government can do it, and a tory government can do it more easily and safely than any other. There is first a postulate that the state of Ireland shall be such as to warrant it. The conditions of an admissible plan are—

1. Union of the empire and due supremacy of parliament.

2. Protection for the minority—a difficult matter on which I have talked much with Spencer, certain points, however, remaining to be considered.

3. Fair allocation of imperial charges.

4. A statutory basis seems to me better and safer than the revival of Grattan's parliament, but I wish to hear much more upon this, as the minds of men are still in so crude a state on the whole subject.

5. Neither as opinions nor as instructions have I to any one alive promulgated these ideas as decided on by me.

6. As to intentions, I am determined to have none at present, to leave space to the government—I should wish to encourage them if I properly could—above all, on no account to say or do anything which would enable the nationalists to establish rival biddings between us. If this storm of rumours continues to rage, it may be necessary for me to write some new letter to my constituents, but I am desirous to do nothing, simply leaving the field open for the government until time makes it necessary to decide. Of our late colleagues I have had most communication with Granville, Spencer, Rosebery. Would you kindly send this on to Granville?

I think you will find this in conformity with my public declarations, though some blanks are filled up. I have in truth thought it my duty without in the least committing myself or any one else, to think through the subject as well as I could, being equally convinced of its urgency and bigness. If H. and N. are with you, pray show them this letter, which is a very hasty one, [pg 264] for I am so battered with telegrams that I hardly know whether I stand on my head or my heels....

With regard to the letter I sent you, my opinion is that there is a Parnell party and a separation or civil war party, and the question which is to have the upper hand will have to be decided in a limited time. My earnest recommendation to everybody is not to commit himself. Upon this rule, under whatever pressure, I shall act as long as I can. There shall be no private negotiation carried on by me, but the time may come when I shall be obliged to speak publicly. Meanwhile I hope you will keep in free and full communication with old colleagues. Pray put questions if this letter seems ambiguous....

Pray remember that I am at all times ready for personal communication, should you think it desirable.


Before receiving this letter, Lord Hartington was startled, as all the world was, to come on something in the newspapers that instantly created a new situation. Certain prints published on December 17 what was alleged to be Mr. Gladstone's scheme for an Irish settlement.168 It proposed in terms the creation of an Irish parliament. Further particulars were given in detail, but with these we need not concern ourselves. The Irish parliament was enough. The public mind, bewildered as it was by the situation that the curious issue of the election had created, was thrown by this announcement into extraordinary commotion. The facts are these. Mr. Herbert Gladstone visited London at this time (Dec. 14), partly in consequence of a speech made a few days before by Sir C. Dilke, and of the club talk which the speech had set going. It was taken to mean that he and Mr. Chamberlain, the two radical leaders, thought that such an Irish policy as might be concocted between Mr. Gladstone and Mr. Parnell would receive no general support from the liberal party, and that it would be much safer to [pg 265]

Reports From Hawarden

leave the tories in power, in the expectation that some moderate measures of reform might be got from them, and that meanwhile they would become committed with the Irishmen. Tactics of this kind were equivalent to the exclusion of Mr. Gladstone, for in every letter that he wrote he pronounced the Irish question urgent. Mr. Herbert Gladstone had not been long in London before the impression became strong upon him, that in the absence of a guiding hint upon the Irish question, the party might be drifting towards a split. Under this impression he had a conversation with the chief of an important press agency, who had previously warned him that the party was all at sea. To this gentleman, in an interview at which no notes were taken and nothing read from papers—so little formal was it—he told his own opinions on the assumed opinions of Mr. Gladstone, all in general terms, and only with the negative view of preventing friendly writers from falling into traps. Unluckily it would seem to need at least the genius of a Bismarck, to perform with precision and success the delicate office of inspiring a modern oracle on the journalistic tripod. Here, what was intended to be a blameless negative soon swelled, as the oracular fumes are wont to do, into a giant positive. In conversations with another journalist, who was also his private friend (Dec. 15), he used language which the friend took to justify the pretty unreserved announcement that Mr. Gladstone was about to set to work in earnest on home rule.

“With all these matters,” Mr. Herbert Gladstone wrote to a near relative at the time, “my father had no more connection than the man in the moon, and until each event occurred, he knew no more of it than the man in the street.” Mr. Gladstone on the same day (Dec. 17) told the world by telegraph that the statement was not an accurate representation of his views, but a speculation upon them; he added that it had not been published with his knowledge or authority. There can be no doubt, whatever else may be said, that the publication was neither to his advantage, nor in conformity with his view of the crisis. No statesman in our history has ever been more careful of the golden rule of [pg 266] political strategy—to neglect of which Frederick the Great traced the failure of Joseph II.—not to take the second step before you have taken the first. Neither scheme nor intention had yet crystallised in his mind. Never was there a moment when every consideration of political prudence more imperatively counselled silence. Mr. Gladstone's denial of all responsibility was not found to be an explicit contradiction; it was a repudiation of the two newspapers, but it was not a repudiation of an Irish parliament. Therefore people believed the story the more. Friends and foes became more than ever alert, excited, alarmed, and in not a few cases vehemently angry. This unauthorised publication with the qualified denial, placed Mr. Gladstone in the very position which he declared that he would not take up; it made him a trespasser on ground that belonged to the government. Any action on his part would in his own view not only be unnecessary; it would be unwarrantable; it would be in the highest degree injurious and mischievous.169 Yet whatever it amounted to, some of this very injury and mischief followed.

Lord Hartington no sooner saw what was then called the Hawarden kite flying in the sky, than he felt its full significance. He at once wrote to Mr. Gladstone, partly in reply to the letter of the 17th already given, and pointed with frankness to what would follow. No other subject would be discussed until the meeting of parliament, and it would be discussed with the knowledge, or what would pass for knowledge, that in Mr. Gladstone's opinion the time for concession to Ireland had arrived, and that concession was practicable. In replying to his former letter Mr. Gladstone had invited personal communication, and Lord Hartington thought that he might in a few days avail himself of it, though (December 18) he feared that little advantage would follow. In spite of urgent arguments from wary friends, Lord Hartington at once proceeded to write to his chairman in Lancashire (December 20), informing the public that no proposals of liberal policy on the Irish demand had been communicated to him; for his own part he stood to what [pg 267]

Notes Of Conflict

he said, at the election. This letter was the first bugle note of an inevitable conflict between Mr. Gladstone and those who by and by became the whig dissentients.

To Lord Hartington resistance to any new Irish policy came easily, alike by temperament and conviction. Mr. Chamberlain was in a more embarrassing position; and his first speech after the election showed it. “We are face to face,” he said, “with a very remarkable demonstration by the Irish people. They have shown that as far as regards the great majority of them, they are earnestly in favour of a change in the administration of their government, and of some system which would give them a larger control of their domestic affairs. Well, we ourselves by our public declarations and by our liberal principles are pledged to acknowledge the justice of this claim.” What was the important point at the moment, Mr. Chamberlain declared that in his judgment the time had hardly arrived when the liberal party could interfere safely or with advantage to settle this great question. “Mr. Parnell has appealed to the tories. Let him settle accounts with his new friends. Let him test their sincerity and goodwill; and if he finds that he has been deceived, he will approach the liberal party in a spirit of reason and conciliation.”170

Translated into the language of parliamentary action, this meant that the liberals, with a majority of eighty-two over the tories, were to leave the tory minority undisturbed in office, on the chance of their bringing in general measures of which liberals could approve, and making Irish proposals to which Mr. Parnell, in the absence of competition for his support, might give at least provisional assent. In principle, these tactics implied, whether right or wrong, the old-fashioned union of the two British parties against the Irish. Were the two hundred and fifty tories to be left in power, to carry out all the promises of the general election, and fulfil all the hopes of a new parliament chosen on a new system? The Hawarden letter-bag was heavy with remonstrances from newly elected liberals against any such course.

[pg 268]

Second only to Mr. Gladstone in experience of stirring and perilous positions, Lord Granville described the situation to one of his colleagues as nothing less than “thoroughly appalling.” A great catastrophe, he said, might easily result from any of the courses open: from the adoption of coercion by either government or opposition; from the adoption by either of concession; from the attempt to leave the state of Ireland as it was. If, as some think, a great catastrophe did in the end result from the course that Mr. Gladstone was now revolving in his own mind at Hawarden, and that he had commended to the meditations of his most important colleagues, what alternative was feasible?


The following letters set out the various movements in a drama that was now day by day, through much confusion and bewilderment, approaching its climax.

To Lord Granville.

December 18, '85.—... Thinking incessantly about the matter, speaking freely and not with finality to you, and to Rosebery and Spencer—the only colleagues I have seen—I have trusted to writing to Hartington (who had had Harcourt and Northbrook with him) and to you for Derby.

If I have made any step in advance at all, which I am not sure of, it has most certainly been in the direction of leaving the field open for the government, encouraging them to act, and steadily refusing to say or do anything like negotiation on my own behalf. So I think Derby will see that in the main I am certainly with him.... What will Parnell do? What will the government do? How can we decide without knowing or trying to know, both if we can, but at any rate the second? This letter is at your discretion to use in proper quarters.

December 22.—In the midst of these troubles, I look to you as the great feud-composer, and your note just received is just what I should have hoped and expected. Hartington wrote to me on Saturday that he was going up to see Goschen, but as I thought inviting a letter from me, which I wrote [December 17, above], and it was with no small surprise that I read him yesterday in [pg 269] the Times. However, I repeated yesterday to R. Grosvenor all that I have said to you about what seems to me the plain duty of the party, in the event of a severance between nationalists and tories. Meantime I care not who knows my anxiety to prevent that severance, and for that reason among others to avoid all communications of ideas and intentions which could tend to bring it about.

On December 27, Lord Granville wrote to Mr. Gladstone at Hawarden:—

I have been asked to request you to call a cabinet of your late colleagues to discuss the present state of affairs. I have declined, giving my reasons, which appear to me to be good. At the same time, I think it would calm some fussiness that exists, if you let it be known to a few that you will be in town and ready for consultation, before the actual meeting.

Mr. Gladstone answered, as those acquainted with his modes of mind might have been sure that he would:—

December 28.—Thank you for stopping the request to which your letter of yesterday refers. A cabinet does not exist out of office, and no one in his senses could covenant to call the late cabinet together, I think, even if there were something on which it was ready to take counsel, which at this moment there is not. On the other hand, you will have seen from my letter that the idea before me has been that of going unusual lengths in the way of consulting beforehand, not only leading men but the party, or undertaking some special obligation to be assured of their concurrence generally, before undertaking new responsibilities.

The one great difficulty in proceeding to consult now, I think, is that we cannot define the situation for ourselves, as an essential element of it is the relation between nationalists and tories, which they—not we—have to settle. If we meet on Tuesday 12th to choose a Speaker, so far as I can learn, regular business will not begin before the 19th. By the 12th we shall have given ourselves a much better chance of knowing how the two parties stand together; and there will be plenty of time for our consultations. Thus at least I map out the time; pray give me any comments you think required.

[pg 270]

I begged you to keep Derby informed; would you kindly do the same with Harcourt? Rosebery goes to London to-morrow.

Two days before this resistance to the request for a meeting, he had written to Lord Granville with an important enclosure:—

December 26, 1885.—I have put down on paper in a memorandum as well as I can, the possible forms of the question which may have to be decided at the opening of the session. I went over the ground in conversation with you, and afterwards with R. Grosvenor, and I requested R. Grosvenor, who was going to London, to speak to Hartington in that sense. After his recent act of publication, I should not like to challenge him by sending him the written paper. Please, however, to send it on to Spencer, who will send it back to me.

The memorandum itself must here be quoted, for it sets out in form, succinct, definite, and exhaustive, the situation as Mr. Gladstone at that time regarded it:—

Secret. Hawarden Castle, Chester, Dec. 26, 1885.

1. Government should act.

2. Nationalists should support them in acting.

3. I have done what I can to bring about (1). I am confident the nationalists know my desire. They also publicly know there can be no plan from me in the present circumstances.

4. If (1) and (2) come about, we, who are half the House of Commons, may under the circumstances be justified in waiting for the production of a plan.

5. This would be in every sense the best situation.

6. But if ministers refuse to take up the question—or if from their not actually taking it up, or on any grounds, the nationalists publicly dissolve their alliance with them, the government then have a party of 250 in the face of 420, and in the face of 335 who were elected to oppose them.

7. The basis of our system is that the ministry shall have the confidence of the House of Commons. The exception is, when it is about to appeal to the people. The rule applies most strongly when an election has just taken place. Witness 1835, 1841, 1859, [pg 271] and the three last elections, after each of which, the rule has been acted upon, silent inference standing instead of a vote.

8. The present circumstances warrant, I think, an understanding as above, between ministers and the nationalists; but not one between us and the nationalists.

9. If from any cause the alliance of the tories and nationalists which did exist, and presumably does exist, should be known to be dissolved, I do not see how it is possible for what would then be the liberal majority to shrink from the duty appertaining to it as such, and to leave the business of government to the 250 men whom it was elected to oppose.

10. This looks towards an amendment to the Address, praying her Majesty to choose ministers possessed of the confidence of the House of Commons.

11. Which under the circumstances should, I think, have the sanction of a previous meeting of the party.

12. An attempt would probably be made to traverse the proceeding by drawing me on the Irish question.

13. It is impossible to justify the contention that as a condition previous to asserting the right and duty of a parliamentary majority, the party or the leaders should commit themselves on a measure about which they can form no final judgment, until by becoming the government they can hold all the necessary communications.

14. But in all likelihood jealousy will be stronger than logic; and to obviate such jealousy, it might be right for me [to go] to the very farthest allowable point.

15. The case supposed is, the motion made—carried—ministers resign—Queen sends for me.

Might I go so far as to say at the first meeting that in the case supposed, I should only accept the trust if assured of the adequate, that is of the general, support of the party to a plan of duly guarded home rule?

16. If that support were withheld, it would be my duty to stand aside.

17. In that event it would, I consider, become the duty of that portion of the party, which was not prepared to support me in an effort to frame a plan of duly guarded home rule, to form a government itself if invited by the Queen to do so.

[pg 272]

18. With me the Irish question would of course remain paramount; but preferring a liberal government without an adequate Irish measure to a tory government similarly lacking, such a liberal government would be entitled to the best general support I could give it.

The reference of this memorandum to Lords Granville and Spencer was regarded as one of the first informal steps towards a consultation of leaders. On receiving Lord Spencer's reply on the point of procedure Mr. Gladstone wrote to him (December 30):—

To Lord Spencer.

I understand your idea to be that inasmuch as leaders of the party are likely to be divided on the subject of a bold Irish measure, and a divergence might be exhibited in a vote on the Address, it may be better to allow the tory government, with 250 supporters in a house of 670, to assume the direction of the session and continue the administration of imperial affairs. I do not undervalue the dangers of the other course. But let us look at this one—

1. It is an absolute novelty.

2. Is it not a novelty which strikes at the root of our parliamentary government? under which the first duty of a majority freshly elected, according to a uniform course of precedent and a very clear principle, is to establish a government which has its confidence.

3. Will this abdication of primary duty avert or materially postpone the (apprehended) disruption of the party? Who can guarantee us against an Irish or independent amendment to the Address? The government must in any case produce at once their Irish plan. What will have been gained by waiting for it? The Irish will know three things—(1) That I am conditionally in favour of at least examining their demand. (2) That from the nature of the case, I must hold this question paramount to every interest of party. (3) That a part, to speak within bounds, of the liberal party will follow me in this respect. Can it be supposed that in these circumstances they will long refrain, or possibly refrain at all? With their knowledge of possibilities behind them, [pg 273] dare they long refrain? An immense loss of dignity in a great crisis of the empire would attend the forcing of our hands by the Irish or otherwise. There is no necessity for an instant decision. My desire is thoroughly to shake up all the materials of the question. The present leaning of my mind is to consider the faults and dangers of abstention greater than those of a more decided course. Hence, in part, my great anxiety that the present government should move. Please send this on to Granville.

Finding Mr. Gladstone immovable at Hawarden, four of the members of the last liberal cabinet of both wings met at Devonshire House on New Year's day. All, save one, found themselves hopeless, especially after the Hawarden revelations, as to the possibility of governing Ireland by mere repression. Lord Hartington at once communicated the desires of the conclave for information of his views and designs. Mr. Gladstone replied (January 2, 1886):—

On the 17th December I communicated to you all the opinions I had formed on the Irish question. But on the 21st you published in the Times a re-affirmation of opposite opinions.

On the Irish question, I have not a word to add to that letter. I am indeed doing what little the pressure of correspondence permits, to prepare myself by study and reflection. My object was to facilitate study by you and others—I cannot say it was wholly gained. But I have done nothing, and shall do nothing, to convert those opinions into intentions, for I have not the material before me. I do not know whether my postulate is satisfied.... I have taken care by my letter of the 17th that you should know my opinions en bloc. You are quite welcome to show it, if you think fit, to those whom you met. But Harcourt has, I believe, seen it, and the others, if I mistake not, know the substance.... There is no doubt that a very grave situation is upon us, a little sooner or a little later. All my desire and thought was how to render it less grave, for next to the demands of a question far higher than all or any party interests, is my duty to labour for the consolidation of the party.... Pray show this letter, if you think fit, to those on whose behalf you write. I propose to be available in London about 4 p.m., for any who wish to see me.

[pg 274]


Signals and intimations were not wholly wanting from the Irish camp. It was known among the subalterns in that rather impenetrable region, partly by the light of nature, partly by the indiscretions of dubiously accredited ambassadors, that Mr. Gladstone was not disposed on any terms to meet the Irish demand by more coercion. For the liberal party as a whole the Irish had a considerable aversion. The violent scenes that attended the Coercion bill of 1881, the interchange of hard words, the suspensions, the imprisonments—all mechanically acquiesced in by the ministerial majority—had engendered both bitterness and contempt. The Irishmen did not conceal the satisfaction with which they saw the defeat of some of those liberals who had openly gloated over their arrests and all the rest of their humiliations. Mr. Gladstone, it is true, had laid a heavy and chastening hand upon them. Yet, even when the struggle had been fiercest, with the quick intuition of a people long oppressed, they detected a note of half-sympathetic passion which convinced them that he would be their friend if he could, and would help them when he might.

Mr. Parnell was not open to impressions of this order. He had a long memory for injuries, and he had by no means satisfied himself that the same injuries might not recur. As soon as the general election was over, he had at once set to work upon the result. Whatever might be right for others, his line of tactics was plain—to ascertain from which of the two English parties he was most likely to obtain the response that he desired to the Irish demand, and then to concert the procedure best fitted to place that party in power. He was at first not sure whether Lord Salisbury would renounce the Irish alliance after it had served the double purpose of ousting the liberals from office, and then reducing their numbers at the election. He seems also to have counted upon further communications with Lord Carnarvon, and this expectation was made known to Mr. Gladstone, who expressed his satisfaction at the news, though it was also made known to him that Mr. Parnell doubted [pg 275]

Views Of Mr. Parnell

Lord Carnarvon's power to carry out his unquestionably favourable dispositions. He at the same time very naturally did his best to get some light as to Mr. Gladstone's own frame of mind. If neither party would offer a solution of the problem of Irish government, Mr. Parnell would prefer to keep the tories in office, as they would at least work out gradually a solution of the problems of Irish land. To all these indirect communications Mr. Gladstone's consistent reply was that Mr. Parnell's immediate business was with the government of the day, first, because only the government could handle the matter; second, because a tory government with the aid that it would receive from liberals, might most certainly, safely, and quickly settle it. He declined to go beyond the ground already publicly taken by him, unless by way of a further public declaration. On to this new ground he would not go, until assured that the government had had a fair opportunity given them.

By the end of December Mr. Parnell decided that there was not the slightest possibility of any settlement being offered by the conservatives under the existing circumstances. “Whatever chance there was,” he said, “disappeared when the seemingly authoritative statements of Mr. Gladstone's intention to deal with the question were published.” He regarded it as quite probable that in spite of a direct refusal from the tories, the Irish members might prefer to pull along with them, rather than run the risk of fresh coercion from the liberals, should the latter return to power. “Supposing,” he argued, “that the liberals came into office, and that they offered a settlement of so incomplete a character that we could not accept it, or that owing to defections they could not carry it, should we not, if any long interval occurred before the proposal of a fresh settlement, incur considerable risk of further coercion?” At any rate, they had better keep the government in, rather than oust them in order to admit Lord Hartington or Mr. Chamberlain with a new coercion bill in their pockets.

Foreseeing these embarrassments, Mr. Gladstone wrote in a final memorandum (December 24) of this eventful year, “I used every effort to obtain a clear majority at the election, [pg 276] and failed. I am therefore at present a man in chains. Will ministers bring in a measure? If ‘Aye,’ I see my way. If ‘No’: that I presume puts an end to all relations of confidence between nationalists and tories. If that is done, I have then upon me, as is evident, the responsibilities of the leader of a majority. But what if neither Aye nor No can be had—will the nationalists then continue their support and thus relieve me from responsibility, or withdraw their support [from the government] and thus change essentially my position? Nothing but a public or published dissolution of a relation of amity publicly sealed could be of any avail.”

So the year ended.

[pg 277]

Chapter IV. Fall Of The First Salisbury Government. (January 1886)

Historians coolly dissect a man's thoughts as they please; and label them like specimens in a naturalist's cabinet. Such a thing, they argue, was done for mere personal aggrandizement; such a thing for national objects; such a thing from high religious motives. In real life we may be sure it was not so.—Gardiner.


Ministers meanwhile hesitated, balanced, doubted, and wavered. Their party was in a minority, and so they had a fair plea for resigning and not meeting the new parliament. On the other hand, they had a fair plea for continuing in office, for though they were in a minority, no other party had a majority. Nobody knew what the Hartington whigs would do, or what the Irish would do. There seemed to be many chances for expert angling. Then with what policy were they to meet the House of Commons? They might adhere to the conciliatory policy of the summer and autumn, keep clear of repressive legislation, and make a bold attempt in the direction of self-government. Taking the same courageous plunge as was taken by Wellington and Peel in 1829, by Peel in the winter of 1845, by Disraeli in 1867, they might carry the declarations made by Lord Carnarvon on behalf of the government in July to their only practical conclusion. But then they would have broken up their party, as Wellington and Peel broke it up; and Lord Salisbury may have asked himself whether the national emergency warranted the party risk.

Resistance then to the Irish demand being assumed, various tactics came under review. They might begin by asking for a vote of confidence, saying plainly that if they [pg 278] were turned out and Mr. Gladstone were put in, he would propose home rule. In that case a majority was not wholly impossible, for the whig wing might come over, nor was it quite certain that the Irish would help to put the government out. At any rate the debate would force Mr. Gladstone into the open, and even if they did not have a majority, they would be in a position to advise immediate dissolution on the issue of home rule.

The only other course open to the cabinet was to turn their backs upon the professions of the summer; to throw overboard the Carnarvon policy as a cargo for which there was no longer a market; to abandon a great experiment after a ludicrously short trial; and to pick up again the old instrument of coercion, which not six months before they had with such elaborate ostentation condemned and discarded. This grand manœuvre was kept carefully in the background, until there had been time for the whole chapter of accidents to exhaust itself, and it had become certain that no trump cards were falling to the ministerial hand. Not until this was quite clear, did ministers reveal their poignant uneasiness about the state of Ireland.

In the middle of October (1885) Lord Randolph Churchill visited the viceroy in Dublin, and found him, as he afterwards said, extremely anxious and alarmed at the growing power of the National League. Yet the viceroy was not so anxious and alarmed as to prevent Lord Randolph from saying at Birmingham a month after, on November 20, that up to the present time their decision to preserve order by the same laws as in England had been abundantly justified, and that on the whole crime and outrage had greatly diminished. This was curious, and shows how tortuous was the crisis. Only a fortnight later the cabinet met (December 2), and heard of the extraordinary development and unlimited resources of the league. All the rest of the month of December,—so the public were by and by informed,—the condition of Ireland was the subject of the most anxious consideration. With great deliberation, a decision was at length reached. It was that ordinary law had broken down, and that exceptional means of repression were indispensable. Then a [pg 279]

Changes And Rumours

serious and embarrassing incident occurred. Lord Carnarvon “threw up the government of Ireland,” and was followed by Sir William Hart Dyke, the chief secretary.171 A measure of coercion was prepared, its provisions all drawn in statutory form, but who was to warrant the necessity for it to parliament?172

Though the viceroy's retirement was not publicly known until the middle of January, yet so early as December 17 the prime minister had applied to Mr. Smith, then secretary of state for war, to undertake the duties of Irish government.173 This was one of the sacrifices that no man of public spirit can ever refuse, and Mr. Smith, who had plenty of public spirit, became Irish secretary. Still when parliament assembled more than a month after Lord Salisbury's letter to his new chief secretary, no policy was announced. Even on the second night of the session Mr. Smith answered questions for the war office. The parliamentary mystification was complete. Who, where, and what was the Irish government?

The parliamentary session was rapidly approaching, and Mr. Gladstone had good information of the various quarters whence the wind was blowing. Rumours reached him (January 9) from the purlieus of Parliament Street, that general words of confidence in the government would be found in the Queen's Speech. Next he was told of the report that an amendment would be moved by the ultras of law and order,—the same who had mutinied on the Maamtrasna debate,—censuring ministers for having failed to uphold the authority of the Queen. The same correspondent (January 15), who was well able to make his words good, wrote to Mr. Gladstone that even though home rule might perhaps not be in a parliamentary sense before the House, it was in a most distinct manner before the country, and no political party could avoid expressing an opinion upon it. On the same day another colleague of hardly less importance drew attention to an article in a [pg 280] journal supposed to be inspired by Lord Randolph, to the effect that conciliation in Ireland had totally failed, that Lord Carnarvon had retired because that policy was to be reversed and he was not the man for the rival policy of vigour, and finally, that the new policy would probably be announced in the Queen's Speech; in no circumstances would it be possible to avoid a general action on the Address.


The current of domestic life at Hawarden, in the midst of all these perplexities, flowed in its usual ordered channels. The engagement of his second daughter stirred Mr. Gladstone's deepest interest. He practised occasional woodcraft with his sons, though ending his seventy-sixth year. He spends a morning in reviewing his private money affairs, the first time for three years. He never misses church. He corrects the proofs of an article on Huxley; carries on tolerably profuse correspondence, coming to very little; he works among his books, and arranges his papers; reads Beaconsfield's Home Letters, Lord Stanhope's Pitt, Macaulay's Warren Hastings, which he counts the most brilliant of all that illustrious man's performances; Maine on Popular Government; King Solomon's Mines; something of Tolstoy; Dicey's Law of the Constitution, where a chapter on semi-sovereign assemblies made a deep impression on him in regard to the business that now absorbed his mind. Above all, he nearly every day reads Burke: December 18.—Read Burke; what a magazine of wisdom on Ireland and America. January 9.—Made many extracts from Burke—sometimes almost divine.”174 We may easily imagine how the heat from that profound and glowing furnace still further inflamed strong purposes and exalted resolution in Mr. Gladstone. The Duke of Argyll wrote to say that he was sorry to hear of the study of Burke: “Your perfervidum ingenium Scoti does not need being touched with a live coal from that Irish altar. Of course your reference to Burke indicates a tendency to [pg 281] compare our position as regards Ireland to the position of George iii. towards the colonies. I deny that there is any parallelism or even analogy.”

End Of Seventy-Sixth Year

It was during these months that he renewed his friendly intercourse with Cardinal Manning, which had been suspended since the controversy upon the Vatican pamphlets. In November Mr. Gladstone sent Manning his article on the “Dawn of Creation.” The cardinal thanked him for the paper—“still more for your words, which revive the memories of old days. Fifty-five years are a long reach of life in which to remember each other. We have twice been parted, but as the path declines, as you say, it narrows, and I am glad that we are again nearing each other as we near our end.... If we cannot unite in the realm where ‘the morning stars sang together’ we should be indeed far off.” Much correspondence followed on the articles against Huxley. Then his birthday came:—

Postal deliveries and other arrivals were seven hundred. Immeasurable kindness almost overwhelmed us. There was also the heavy and incessant weight of the Irish question, which offers daily phases more or less new. It was a day for intense thankfulness, but, alas, not for recollection and detachment. When will that day come? Until then, why string together the commonplaces and generalities of great things, really unfelt?... I am certain there is one keen and deep desire to be extricated from the life of contention in which a chain of incidents has for the last four years detained me against all my will. Then, indeed, I should reach an eminence from which I could look before and after. But I know truly that I am not worthy of this liberty with which Christ makes free his elect. In his own good time, something, I trust, will for me too be mercifully devised.


At the end of this long travail, which anybody else would have found all the sorer for the isolation and quietude that it was ever Mr. Gladstone's fashion in moments of emergency to seek, he reached London on January 11th; two days later he took the oath in the new parliament, whose life was destined to be so short; and then he found himself on the [pg 282] edge of the whirlpool. Three days before formalities were over, and the House assembled for the despatch of business, he received a communication that much perturbed him, and shed an ominous light on the prospect of liberal unity. This communication he described to Lord Granville:—

21 Carlton House Terrace, Jan. 18, 1886.—Hartington writes to me a letter indicating the possibility that on Thursday, while I announce with reasons a policy of silence and reserve, he may feel it his duty to declare his determination to maintain the legislative union, that is to proclaim a policy (so I understand the phrase) of absolute resistance without examination to the demand made by Ireland through five-sixths of her members. This is to play the tory game with a vengeance. They are now, most rashly not to say more, working the Irish question to split the liberal party.

It seems to me that if a gratuitous declaration of this kind is made, it must produce an explosion; and that in a week's time Hartington will have to consider whether he will lead the liberal party himself, or leave it to chaos. He will make my position impossible. When, in conformity with the wishes expressed to me, I changed my plans and became a candidate at the general election, my motives were two. The first, a hope that I might be able to contribute towards some pacific settlement of the Irish question. The second, a desire to prevent the splitting of the party, of which there appeared to be an immediate danger. The second object has thus far been attained. But it may at any moment be lost, and the most disastrous mode of losing it perhaps would be that now brought into view. It would be certainly opposed to my convictions and determination, to attempt to lead anything like a home rule opposition, and to make this subject—the strife of nations—the dividing line between parties. This being so, I do not see how I could as leader survive a gratuitous declaration of opposition to me such as Hartington appears to meditate. If he still meditates it, ought not the party to be previously informed?

Pray, consider whether you can bring this subject before him, less invidiously than I. I have explained to you and I believe to him, and I believe you approve, my general idea, that we ought [pg 283] not to join issue with the government on what is called home rule (which indeed the social state of Ireland may effectually thrust aside for the time); and that still less ought we to join issue among ourselves, if we have a choice, unless and until we are called upon to consider whether or not to take the government. I for one will have nothing to do with ruining the party if I can avoid it.

This letter discloses with precision the critical state of facts on the eve of action being taken. Issue was not directly joined with ministers on home rule; no choice was found to exist as to taking the government; and this brought deep and long-standing diversities among the liberal leaders to the issue that Mr. Gladstone had strenuously laboured to avoid from the beginning of 1885 to the end.


The Irish paragraphs in the speech from the throne (January 21, 1886) were abstract, hypothetical, and vague. The sovereign was made to say that during the past year there had been no marked increase of serious crime, but there was in many places a concerted resistance to the enforcement of legal obligations, and the practice of intimidation continued to exist. “If,” the speech went on, “as my information leads me to apprehend, the existing provisions of the law should prove to be inadequate to cope with these growing evils, I look with confidence to your willingness to invest my government with all necessary powers.” There was also an abstract paragraph about the legislative union between the two islands.

In a fragment composed in the autumn of 1897, Mr. Gladstone has described the anxiety with which he watched the course of proceedings on the Address:—

I had no means of forming an estimate how far the bulk of the liberal party could be relied on to support a measure of home rule, which should constitute an Irish parliament subject to the supremacy of the parliament at Westminster. I was not sanguine on this head. Even in the month of December, when rumours of my intentions were afloat, I found how little I could reckon on a [pg 284] general support. Under the circumstances I certainly took upon myself a grave responsibility. I attached value to the acts and language of Lord Carnarvon, and the other favourable manifestations. Subsequently we had but too much evidence of a deliberate intention to deceive the Irish, with a view to their support at the election. But in the actual circumstances I thought it my duty to encourage the government of Lord Salisbury to settle the Irish question, so far as I could do this by promises of my personal support. Hence my communication with Mr. Balfour, which has long been in the hands of the public.

It has been unreasonably imputed to me, that the proposal of home rule was a bid for the Irish vote. But my desire for the adjustment of the question by the tories is surely a conclusive answer. The fact is that I could not rely upon the collective support of the liberals; but I could and did rely upon the support of so many of them as would make the success of the measure certain, in the event of its being proposed by the tory administration. It would have resembled in substance the liberal support given to Roman catholic emancipation in 1829, and the repeal of the corn laws in 1846. Before the meeting of parliament, I had to encounter uncomfortable symptoms among my principal friends, of which I think —— was the organ.

I was, therefore, by no means eager for the dismissal of the tory government, though it counted but 250 supporters out of 670, as long as there were hopes of its taking up the question, or at all events doing nothing to aggravate the situation.

When we came to the debate on the Address I had to face a night of extreme anxiety. The speech from the throne referred in a menacing way to Irish disturbances, and contained a distinct declaration in support of the legislative union. On referring to the clerks at the table to learn in what terms the Address in reply to the speech was couched, I found it was a thanking address, which did not commit the House to an opinion. What I dreaded was lest some one should have gone back to the precedent of 1833, when the Address in reply to the speech was virtually made the vehicle of a solemn declaration in favour of the Act of Union.175

[pg 285]

Home rule, rightly understood, altered indeed the terms of the Act of Union, but adhered to its principle, which was the supremacy of the imperial parliament. Still [it] was pretty certain that any declaration of a substantive character, at the epoch we had now reached, would in its moral effect shut the doors of the existing parliament against home rule.

In a speech of pronounced clearness, Mr. Arthur Elliot endeavoured to obtain a movement in this direction. I thought it would be morally fatal if this tone were extensively adopted on the liberal side; so I determined on an effort to secure reserve for the time, that our freedom might not be compromised. I, therefore, ventured upon describing myself as an old parliamentary hand, and in that capacity strongly advised the party to keep its own counsel, and await for a little the development of events. Happily this counsel was taken; had it been otherwise, the early formation of a government favourable to home rule would in all likelihood have become an impossibility. For although our Home Rule bill was eventually supported by more than 300 members, I doubt whether, if the question had been prematurely raised on the night of the Address, as many as 200 would have been disposed to act in that sense.

In the debate on the Address the draft Coercion bill reposing in the secret box was not mentioned. Sir Michael Hicks Beach, the leader of the House, described the mischiefs then afoot, and went on to say that whether they could be dealt with by ordinary law, or would require exceptional powers, were questions that would receive the new chief secretary's immediate attention,176 Parliament was told that [pg 286] the minister had actually gone to Ireland to make anxious inquiry into these questions. Mr. Smith arrived in Dublin at six o'clock on the morning of January 24, and he quitted it at six o'clock on the evening of the 26th. He was sworn in at the Castle in the forenoon of that day.177 His views must have reached the cabinet in London not later than the morning of the 26th. Not often can conclusions on such a subject have been ripened with such electrifying precocity.

“I intend to reserve my own freedom of action,” Mr. Gladstone said; “there are many who have taken their seats for the first time upon these benches, and I may avail myself of the privilege of old age to offer a recommendation. I would tell them of my own intention to keep my counsel and reserve my own freedom, until I see the moment and the occasion when there may be a prospect of public benefit in endeavouring to make a movement forward, and I will venture to recommend them, as an old parliamentary hand, to do the same.”178 Something in this turn of phrase kindled lively irritation, and it drew bitter reproaches from more than one of the younger whigs. The angriest of these remonstrances was listened to from beginning to end without a solitary cheer from the liberal benches. The great bulk of the party took their leader's advice. Of course the reserve of his speech was as significant of Irish concession, as the most open declaration would have been. Yet there was no rebellion. This was felt by ministers to be a decisive omen of the general support likely to be given to Mr. Gladstone's supposed policy by his own party. Mr. Parnell offered some complimentary remarks on the language of Mr. Gladstone, but he made no move in the direction of an amendment. The public outside looked on with stupefaction. For two or three days all seemed to be in suspense. But the two ministerial leaders in the Commons knew how to read the signs. What Sir Michael [pg 287]

Coercion Bill Announced

Hicks Beach and Lord Randolph foresaw, for one thing was an understanding between Mr. Gladstone and the Irishmen, and for another, they foresaw the acquiescence of the mass of the liberals. This twofold discovery cleared the ground for a decision. After the second night's debate ministers saw that the only chance now was to propose coercion. Then it was that the ephemeral chief secretary had started on his voyage for the discovery of something that had already been found.


On the afternoon of the 26th, the leader of the House gave notice that two days later the new Irish secretary would ask leave to introduce a bill dealing with the National League, with intimidation, and with the protection of life, property, and public order. This would be followed by a bill dealing with land, pursuing in a more extensive sense the policy of the Ashbourne Act of the year before. The great issue was thus at last brought suddenly and nakedly into view. When the Irish secretary reached Euston Square on the morning of the 27th, he found that his government was out.

The crucial announcement of the 26th of January compelled a prompt determination, and Mr. Gladstone did not shrink. A protest against a return to coercion as the answer of the British parliament to the extraordinary demonstration from Ireland, carried with it the responsibility of office, and this responsibility Mr. Gladstone had resolved to undertake.

The determining event of these transactions,—he says in the fragment already cited,—was the declaration of the government that they would propose coercion for Ireland. This declaration put an end to all the hopes and expectations associated with the mission of Lord Carnarvon. Not perhaps in mere logic, but practically, it was now plain that Ireland had no hope from the tories. This being so, my rule of action was changed at once, and I determined on taking any and every legitimate opportunity to remove the existing government from office. Immediately on making up my mind about the rejection of the government, I went to call upon Sir William Harcourt and informed him as to my [pg 288] intentions and the grounds of them. He said, What! Are you prepared to go forward without either Hartington or Chamberlain? I answered, Yes. I believe it was in my mind to say, if I did not actually say it, that I was prepared to go forward without anybody. That is to say without any known and positive assurance of support. This was one of the great imperial occasions which call for such resolutions.

An amendment stood upon the notice-paper in the name of Mr. Collings, regretting the omission from the speech of measures for benefiting the rural labourer; and on this motion an immediate engagement was fought. Time was important. An exasperating debate on coercion with obstruction, disorder, suspensions, would have been a damning prologue to any policy of accommodation. The true significance of the motion was not concealed. On the agrarian aspect of it, the only important feature was the adhesion of Mr. Gladstone, now first formally declared, to the policy of Mr. Chamberlain. The author of the agrarian policy fought out once more on the floor of the House against Lord Hartington and Mr. Goschen the battle of the platform. It was left for Sir Michael Hicks Beach to remind the House that, whatever the honest mover might mean, the rural labourer had very little to do with the matter, and he implored the gentlemen in front of him to think twice and thrice before they committed the future of this country to the gravest dangers that ever awaited it.

The debate was not prolonged. The discussion opened shortly before dinner, and by one o'clock the division was taken. The government found itself in a minority of 79. The majority numbered 331, composed of 257 liberals and 74 Irish nationalists. The ministerialist minority was 252, made up of 234 tories and 18 liberals. Besides the fact that Lord Hartington, Mr. Goschen, and Sir Henry James voted with ministers, there was a still more ominous circumstance. No fewer than 76 liberals were absent, including among them the imposing personality of Mr. Bright. In a memorandum written for submission to the Queen a few days later, Mr. Gladstone said, “I must express my personal conviction [pg 289] that had the late ministers remained in office and proceeded with their proposed plan of repression, and even had that plan received my support, it would have ended in a disastrous parliamentary failure.”179

The next day (Jan. 28) ministers of course determined to resign. A liberal member of parliament was overtaken by Lord Randolph on the parade ground, walking away from the cabinet. “You look a little pensive,” said the liberal. “Yes; I was thinking. I have plenty to think of. Well, we are out, and you are in.” “I suppose so,” the liberal replied, “we are in for six months; we dissolve; you are in for six years.” “Not at all sure,” said Lord Randolph; “let me tell you one thing most solemnly and most surely: the conservative party are not going to be made the instrument of the Irish for turning out Mr. Gladstone, if he refuses repeal.” “Nobody,” observed the sententious liberal, “should so often as the politician say the prayer not to be led into temptation. Remember your doings last summer.”

[pg 290]

Chapter V. The New Policy. (1886)

In reason all government without the consent of the governed is the very definition of slavery; but in fact eleven men well armed will certainly subdue one single man in his shirt.... Those who have used to cramp liberty have gone so far as to resent even the liberty of complaining; although a man upon the rack was never known to be refused the liberty of roaring as loud as he thought fit.—Jonathan Swift.


The tory government was defeated in the sitting of Tuesday (Jan. 26). On Friday, “at a quarter after midnight, in came Sir H. Ponsonby, with verbal commission from her Majesty, which I at once accepted.”180 The whole of Saturday was spent in consultations with colleagues. On Sunday, Mr. Gladstone records, “except church, my day from one to eight was given to business. I got only fragmentary reading of the life of the admirable Mr. Suckling and other books. At night came a painful and harassing succession of letters, and my sleep for once gave way; yet for the soul it was profitable, driving me to the hope that the strength of God might be made manifest in my weakness.” On Monday, Feb. 1, he went to attend the Queen. “Off at 9.10 to Osborne. Two audiences: an hour and half in all. Everything good in the main points. Large discourse upon Ireland in particular. Returned at 7-¾. I kissed hands and am thereby prime minister for the third time. But, as I trust, for a brief time only. Slept well, D.G.

The first question was, how many of his colleagues in the liberal cabinet that went out of office six months before, would now embark with him in the voyage into stormy and unexplored seas. I should suppose that no such difficulties [pg 291]

Again Prime Minister

had ever confronted the attempt at making a cabinet since Canning's in 1827.

Mr. Gladstone begins the fragment from which I have already quoted with a sentence or two of retrospect, and then proceeds:—

In 1885 (I think) Chamberlain had proposed a plan accepted by Parnell (and supported by me) which, without establishing in Ireland a national parliament, made very considerable advances towards self-government. It was rejected by a small majority of the cabinet—Granville said at the time he would rather take home rule. Spencer thought it would introduce confusion into executive duties.

On the present occasion a full half of the former ministers declined to march with me. Spencer and Granville were my main supports. Chamberlain and Trevelyan went with me, their basis being that we were to seek for some method of dealing with the Irish case other than coercion. What Chamberlain's motive was I do not clearly understand. It was stated that he coveted the Irish secretaryship.... To have given him the office would at that time have been held to be a declaration of war against the Irish party.

Selborne nibbled at the offer, but I felt that it would not work, and did not use great efforts to bring him in.181

When I had accepted the commission, Ponsonby brought me a message from the Queen that she hoped there would not be any Separation in the cabinet. The word had not at that time acquired the offensive meaning in which it has since been stereotyped by the so-called unionists; and it was easy to frame a reply in general but strong words. I am bound to say that at Osborne in the course of a long conversation, the Queen was frank and free, and showed none of the armed neutrality, which as far as I know has been the best definition of her attitude in the more recent years towards a liberal minister. Upon the whole, when I look back upon 1886, and consider the inveterate sentiment of hostility flavoured with contempt towards Ireland, which has from time [pg 292] immemorial formed the basis of English, tradition, I am much more disposed to be thankful for what we then and afterwards accomplished, than to murmur or to wonder at what we did not.

What Mr. Gladstone called the basis of his new government was set out in a short memorandum, which he read to each of those whom he hoped to include in his cabinet: “I propose to examine whether it is or is not practicable to comply with the desire widely prevalent in Ireland, and testified by the return of eighty-five out of one hundred and three representatives, for the establishment by statute of a legislative body to sit in Dublin, and to deal with Irish as distinguished from imperial affairs; in such a manner as would be just to each of the three kingdoms, equitable with reference to every class of the people of Ireland, conducive to the social order and harmony of that country, and calculated to support and consolidate the unity of the empire on the continued basis of imperial authority and mutual attachment.”

No definite plan was propounded or foreshadowed, but only the proposition that it was a duty to seek a plan. The cynical version was that a cabinet was got together on the chance of being able to agree. To Lord Hartington, Mr. Gladstone applied as soon as he received the Queen's commission. The invitation was declined on reasoned grounds (January 30). Examination and inquiry, said Lord Hartington, must mean a proposal. If no proposal followed inquiry, the reaction of Irish disappointment would be severe, as it would be natural. His adherence, moreover, would be of little value. He had already, he observed, in the government of 1880 made concessions on other subjects that might be thought to have shaken public confidence in him; he could go no further without destroying that confidence altogether. However that might be, he could not depart from the traditions of British statesmen, and he was opposed to a separate Irish legislature. At the same time he concluded, in a sentence afterwards pressed by Mr. Gladstone on the notice of the Queen: “I am fully convinced that the alternative policy of governing Ireland without large concessions [pg 293] to the national sentiment, presents difficulties of a tremendous character, which in my opinion could now only be faced by the support of a nation united by the consciousness that the fullest opportunity had been given for the production and consideration of a conciliatory policy.”

A few days later (February 5) Lord Hartington wrote: “I have been told that I have been represented as having been in general agreement with you on your Irish policy, and having been prevented joining your government solely by the declarations which I made to my constituents; and as not intending to oppose the government even on home rule. On looking over my letter I think that the general intention is sufficiently clear, but there is part of one sentence which, taken by itself, might be understood as committing me beyond what I intended or wished. The words I refer to are those in which I say that it may be possible for me as a private member to prevent obstacles being placed in the way of a fair trial being given to the policy of the new government. But I think that the commencement of the sentence in which these words occur sufficiently reserves my liberty, and that the whole letter shows that what I desire is that the somewhat undefined declarations which have hitherto been made should now assume a practical shape.”182

The decision was persistently regarded by Mr. Gladstone as an important event in English political history. With a small number of distinguished individual exceptions, it marked the withdrawal from the liberal party of the aristocratic element. Up to a very recent date this had been its governing element. Until 1868, the whig nobles and their connections held the reins and shaped the policy. After the accession of a leader from outside of the caste in 1868, when Mr. Gladstone for the first time became prime minister, they continued to hold more than their share of the offices, but [pg 294] in cabinet they sank to the position of what is called a moderating force. After 1880 it became every day more clear that even this modest function was slipping away. Lord Hartington found that the moderating force could no longer moderate. If he went on, he must make up his mind to go under the Caudine forks once a week. The significant reference, among his reasons for not joining the new ministry, to the concessions that he had made in the last government for the sake of party unity, and to his feeling that any further moves of the same kind for the same purpose would destroy all public confidence in him, shows just as the circumstances of the election had shown, and as the recent debate on the Collings amendment had shown, how small were the chances, quite apart from Irish policy, of uniting whig and radical wings in any durable liberal government.

Mr. Goschen, who had been a valuable member of the great ministry of 1868, was invited to call, but without hopes that he would rally to a cause so startling; the interview, while courteous and pleasant, was over in a very few minutes. Lord Derby, a man of still more cautious type, and a rather recent addition to the officers of the liberal staff, declined, not without good nature. Lord Northbrook had no faith in a new Irish policy, and his confidence in his late leader had been shaken by Egypt. Most lamented of all the abstentions was the honoured and trusted name of Mr. Bright.

Mr. Trevelyan agreed to join, in the entirely defensible hope that they “would knock the measure about in the cabinet, as cabinets do,” and mould it into accord with what had until now been the opinion of most of its members.183 Mr. Chamberlain, who was destined to play so singular and versatile a part in the eventful years to come, entered the cabinet with reluctance and misgiving. The Admiralty was first proposed to him and was declined, partly on the ground that the chief of the fighting and spending departments was not the post for one who had just given to domestic reforms the paramount place in his stirring addresses to [pg 295]

Position Of Mr. Chamberlain

the country. Mr. Chamberlain, we may be sure, was not much concerned about the particular office. Whatever its place in the hierarchy, he knew that he could trust himself to make it as important as he pleased, and that his weight in the cabinet and the House would not depend upon the accident of a department. Nobody's position was so difficult. He was well aware how serious a thing it would be for his prospects, if he were to join a confederacy of his arch enemies, the whigs, against Mr. Gladstone, the commanding idol of his friends, the radicals. If, on the other hand, by refusing to enter the government he should either prevent its formation or should cause its speedy overthrow, he would be left planted with a comparatively ineffective group of his own, and he would incur the deep resentment of the bulk of those with whom he had hitherto been accustomed to act.

All these were legitimate considerations in the mind of a man with the instinct of party management. In the end he joined his former chief. He made no concealment of his position. He warned the prime minister that he did not believe it to be possible to reconcile conditions as to the security of the empire and the supremacy of parliament, with the establishment of a legislative body in Dublin. He declared his own preference for an attempt to come to terms with the Irish members on the basis of a more limited scheme of local government, coupled with proposals about land and about education. At the same time, as the minister had been good enough to leave him unlimited liberty of judgment and rejection, he was ready to give unprejudiced examination to more extensive proposals.184 Such was Mr. Chamberlain's excuse for joining. It is hardly so intelligible as Lord Hartington's reasons for not joining. For the new government could only subsist by Irish support. That support notoriously depended on the concession of more than a limited scheme of local government. The administration would have been overthrown in a week, and to form a cabinet on such a basis as was here proposed would be the idlest experiment that ever was tried.

The appointment of the writer of these pages to be Irish [pg 296] secretary was at once generally regarded as decisive of Mr. Gladstone's ultimate intention, for during the election and afterwards I had spoken strongly in favour of a colonial type of government for Ireland. It was rightly pressed upon Mr. Gladstone by at least one of his most experienced advisers, that such an appointment to this particular office would be construed as a declaration in favour of an Irish parliament, without any further examination at all.185 And so, in fact, it was generally construed.

Nobody was more active in aiding the formation of the new ministry than Sir William Harcourt, in whose powerful composition loyalty to party and conviction of the value of party have ever been indestructible instincts. “I must not let the week absolutely close,” Mr. Gladstone wrote to him from Mentmore (February 6), “without emphatically thanking you for the indefatigable and effective help which you have rendered to me during its course, in the difficult work now nearly accomplished.”

At the close of the operation, he writes from Downing Street to his son Henry, then in India:—

February 12, 1886. You see the old date has reappeared at the head of my letter. The work last week was extremely hard from the mixture of political discussions on the Irish question, by way of preliminary condition, with the ordinary distribution of offices, which while it lasts is of itself difficult enough.

Upon the whole I am well satisfied with its composition. It is [pg 297] not a bit more radical than the government of last year; perhaps a little less. And we have got some good young hands, which please me very much. Yet short as the Salisbury government has been, it would not at all surprise me if this were to be shorter still, such are the difficulties that bristle round the Irish question. But the great thing is to be right; and as far as matters have yet advanced, I see no reason to be apprehensive in this capital respect. I have framed a plan for the land and for the finance of what must be a very large transaction. It is necessary to see our way a little on these at the outset, for, unless these portions of anything we attempt are sound and well constructed, we cannot hope to succeed. On the other hand, if we fail, as I believe the late ministers would have failed even to pass their plan of repressive legislation, the consequences will be deplorable in every way. There seems to be no doubt that some, and notably Lord R. Churchill, fully reckoned on my failing to form a government.186


The work pressed, and time was terribly short. The new ministers had barely gone through their re-elections before the opposition began to harry them for their policy, and went so far, before the government was five weeks old, as to make the extreme motion for refusing supply. Even if the opposition had been in more modest humour, no considerable delay could be defended. Social order in Ireland was in a profoundly unsatisfactory phase. That [pg 298] fact was the starting-point of the reversal of policy which the government had come into existence to carry out. You cannot announce a grand revolution, and then beg the world to wait. The very reason that justified the policy commanded expedition. Anxiety and excitement were too intense out of doors for anything but a speedy date, and it was quite certain that if the new plan were not at once propounded, no other public business would have much chance.

The new administration did not meet parliament until after the middle of February, and the two Irish bills, in which their policy was contained, were ready by the end of the first week of April. Considering the enormous breadth and intricacy of the subjects, the pressure of parliamentary business all the time, the exigencies of administrative work in the case of at least one of the ministers principally concerned, and the distracting atmosphere of party perturbation and disquiet that daily and hourly harassed the work, the despatch of such a task within such limits of time was at least not discreditable to the industry and concentration of those who achieved it. I leave it still open to the hostile critic to say, as Molière's Alceste says of the sonnet composed in a quarter of an hour, that time has nothing to do with the business.

All through March Mr. Gladstone laboured in what he called “stiff conclaves” about finance and land, attended drawing rooms, and “observed the variations of H.M.'s accueils; had an audience of the Queen, “very gracious, but avoided serious subjects”; was laid up with cold, and the weather made Sir Andrew Clark strict; then rose up to fresh grapples with finance and land and untoward colleagues, and all the “inexorable demands of my political vocation.” His patience and self-control were as marvellous as his tireless industry. Sorely tried by something or another at a cabinet, he enters,—“Angry with myself for not bearing it better. I ought to have been thankful for it all the time.” On a similar occasion, a junior colleague showed himself less thankful than he should have been for purposeless antagonism. “Think of it as discipline,” said Mr. [pg 299]

On Procedure By Resolution

Gladstone. “But why,” said the unregenerate junior, “should we grudge the blessings of discipline to some other people?”

Mr. Gladstone was often blamed even by Laodiceans among his supporters, not wise but foolish after the event, because he did not proceed by way of resolution, instead of by bill. Resolutions, it was argued, would have smoothed the way. General propositions would have found readier access to men's minds. Having accepted the general proposition, people would have found it harder to resist the particular application. Devices that startled in the precision of a clause, would in the vagueness of a broad and abstract principle have soothed and persuaded. Mr. Gladstone was perfectly alive to all this, but his answer to it was plain. Those who eventually threw out the bill would insist on unmasking the resolution. They would have exhausted all the stereotyped vituperation of abstract motions. They would have ridiculed any general proposition as mere platitude, and pertinaciously clamoured for working details. What would the resolution have affirmed? The expediency of setting up a legislative authority in Ireland to deal with exclusively Irish affairs. But such a resolution would be consistent equally with a narrow scheme on the one hand, such as a plan for national councils, and a broad scheme on the other, giving to Ireland a separate exchequer, separate control over customs and excise, and practically an independent and co-ordinate legislature.187 How could the government meet the challenge to say outright whether they intended broad or narrow? Such a resolution could hardly have outlived an evening's debate, and would not have postponed the evil day of schism for a single week.

Precedents lent no support. It is true that the way was prepared for the Act of Union in the parliament of Great Britain, by the string of resolutions moved by Mr. Pitt in the beginning of 1799. But anybody who glances at them, will at once perceive that if resolutions on their model had been framed for the occasion of 1886, they would have covered the whole ground of the actual bill, and would instantly have [pg 300] raised all the formidable objections and difficulties exactly as the bill itself raised them. The Bank Charter Act of 1833 was founded on eight resolutions, and they also set forth in detail the points of the ministerial plan.188 The renewal of the East India Company's charter in the same year went on by way of resolutions, less abundant in particulars than the Bank Act, but preceded by correspondence and papers which had been exhaustively canvassed and discussed.189 The question of Irish autonomy was in no position of that sort.

The most apt precedent in some respects is to be found on a glorious occasion, also in the year 1833. Mr. Stanley introduced the proposals of his government for the emancipation of the West Indian slaves in five resolutions. They furnished a key not only to policy and general principles, but also to the plan by which these were to be carried out.190 Lord Howick followed the minister at once, raising directly the whole question of the plan. Who could doubt that Lord Hartington would now take precisely the same course towards Irish resolutions of similar scope? The procedure on the India bill of 1858 was just as little to the point. The general disposition of the House was wholly friendly to a settlement of the question of Indian government by the existing ministry. No single section of the opposition wished to take it out of their hands, for neither Lord Russell nor the Peelites nor the Manchester men, and probably not even Lord Palmerston himself, were anxious for the immediate return of the last-named minister to power. Who will pretend that in the House, of Commons in February 1886, anything at all like the same state of facts prevailed? As for the resolutions in the case of the Irish church, they were moved by Mr. Gladstone in opposition, and he thought it obvious that a policy proposed in opposition stands on a totally different footing from a policy laid before parliament on the responsibility of a government, and a government bound by every necessity of the situation to prompt action.191

[pg 301]

Two Branches Of The Policy

At a later stage, as we shall see, it was actually proposed that a vote for the second reading of the bill should be taken to mean no more than a vote for its principle. Every one of the objections that instantly sprang out of their ambush against this proposal would have worked just as much mischief against an initial resolution. In short, in opening a policy of this difficulty and extent, the cabinet was bound to produce to parliament not merely its policy but its plan for carrying the policy out. By that course only could parliament know what it was doing. Any other course must have ended in a mystifying, irritating, and barren confusion, alike in the House of Commons and in the country.192

The same consideration that made procedure by resolution unadvisable told with equal force within the cabinet. Examination into the feasibility of some sort of plan was most rapidly brought to a head by the test of a particular plan. It is a mere fable of faction that a cast iron policy was arbitrarily imposed upon the cabinet; as matter of fact, the plan originally propounded did undergo large and radical modifications.

The policy as a whole shaped itself in two measures. First, a scheme for creating a legislative body, and defining its powers; second, a scheme for opening the way to a settlement of the land question, in discharge of an obligation of honour and policy, imposed upon this country by its active share in all the mischiefs that the Irish land system had produced. The introduction of a plan for dealing with the land was not very popular even among ministers, but it was pressed by Lord Spencer and the Irish secretary, on the double ground that the land was too burning a question to be left where it then stood, and next that it was unfair to a new and untried legislature in Ireland to find itself confronted by such a question on the very threshold.

The plan was opened by Mr. Gladstone in cabinet on [pg 302] March 13th, and Mr. Chamberlain and Mr. Trevelyan at once wished to resign. He remonstrated in a vigorous correspondence. “I have seen many and many a resignation,” he said, “but never one based upon the intentions, nay the immature intentions, of the prime minister, and on a pure intuition of what may happen. Bricks and rafters are prepared for a house, but are not themselves a house.” The evil hour was postponed, but not for long. The Cabinet met again a few days later (March 26) and things came to a sharp issue. The question was raised in a sufficiently definite form by the proposition from the prime minister for the establishment of a statutory body sitting in Dublin with legislative powers. No difficulty was made about the bare proposition itself. Every one seemed to go as far as that. It needed to be tested, and tests were at once forthcoming. Mr. Trevelyan could not assent to the control of the immediate machinery of law and order being withdrawn from direct British authority, among other reasons because it was this proposal that created the necessity for buying out the Irish landlords, which he regarded as raising a problem absolutely insoluble.193 Mr. Chamberlain raised four points. He objected to the cesser of Irish representation; he could not consent to the grant of full rights of taxation to Ireland; he resisted the surrender of the appointment of judges and magistrates; and he argued strongly against proceeding by enumeration of the things that an Irish government might not do, instead of by a specific delegation of the things that it might do.194 That these four objections were not in themselves incapable of accommodation was shown by subsequent events. The second was very speedily, and the first was ultimately allowed, while the fourth was held by good authority to be little more than a question of drafting. Even the third was not a point either way on which to break up a government, destroy a policy, and split a party. But everybody who is acquainted with either the great or the small conflicts of human history, knows how little the mere terms of a principle or of an objection are to be trusted as a clue either to its practical significance, or [pg 303]

Important Resignations

to the design with which it is in reality advanced. The design here under all the four heads of objection, was the dwarfing of the legislative body, the cramping and constriction of its organs, its reduction to something which the Irish could not have even pretended to accept, and which they would have been no better than fools if they had ever attempted to work.

Some supposed then, and Mr. Chamberlain has said since, that when he entered the cabinet room on this memorable occasion, he intended to be conciliatory. Witnesses of the scene thought that the prime minister made little attempt in that direction. Yet where two men of clear mind and firm will mean two essentially different things under the same name, whether autonomy or anything else, and each intends to stand by his own interpretation, it is childish to suppose that arts of deportment will smother or attenuate fundamental divergence, or make people who are quite aware how vitally they differ, pretend that they entirely agree. Mr. Gladstone knew the giant burden that he had taken up, and when he went to the cabinet of March 26, his mind was no doubt fixed that success, so hazardous at best, would be hopeless in face of personal antagonisms and bitterly divided counsels. This, in his view, and in his own phrase, was one of the “great imperial occasions” that call for imperial resolves. The two ministers accordingly resigned.

Besides these two important secessions, some ministers out of the cabinet resigned, but they were of the whig complexion.195 The new prospect of the whig schism extending into the camp of the extreme radicals created natural alarm but hardly produced a panic. So deep were the roots of party, so immense the authority of a veteran leader. It used to be said of the administration of 1880, that the world would never really know Mr. Gladstone's strength in parliament and the country, until every one of his colleagues [pg 304] had in turn abandoned him to his own resources. Certainly the secessions of the end of March 1886 left him undaunted. Every consideration of duty and of policy bound him to persevere. He felt, justly enough, that a minister who had once deliberately invited his party and the people of the three kingdoms to follow him on so arduous and bold a march as this, had no right on any common plea to turn back until he had exhausted every available device to “bring the army of the faithful through.”


From the first the Irish leader was in free and constant communication with the chief secretary. Proposals were once or twice made, not I think at Mr. Parnell's desire, for conversations to be held between Mr. Gladstone and himself, but they were always discouraged by Mr. Gladstone, who was never fond of direct personal contentions, or conversations when the purpose could be as well served otherwise, and he had a horror of what he called multiplying channels of communication. “For the moment,” he replied, “I think we may look to Mr. M. alone, and rely on all he says for accuracy as well as fidelity. I have been hard at work, and to-day I mean to have a further and full talk with Mr. M., who will probably soon after wish for some renewed conversation with Mr. Parnell.” Mr. Parnell showed himself acute, frank, patient, closely attentive, and possessed of striking though not rapid insight. He never slurred over difficulties, nor tried to pretend that rough was smooth. On the other hand, he had nothing in common with that desperate species of counsellor, who takes all the small points, and raises objections instead of helping to contrive expedients. He measured the ground with a slow and careful eye, and fixed tenaciously on the thing that was essential at the moment. Of constructive faculty he never showed a trace. He was a man of temperament, of will, of authority, of power; not of ideas or ideals, or knowledge, or political maxims, or even of the practical reason in any of its higher senses, as Hamilton, Madison, and Jefferson had practical reason. But he knew what he wanted.

[pg 305]

Mr. Parnell

He was always perfectly ready at this period to acquiesce in Irish exclusion from Westminster, on the ground that they would want all the brains they had for their own parliament. At the same time he would have liked a provision for sending a delegation to Westminster on occasion, with reference to some definite Irish questions such as might be expected to arise. As to the composition of the upper or protective order in the Irish parliament, he was wholly unfamiliar with the various utopian plans that have been advanced for the protection of minorities, and he declared himself tolerably indifferent whether the object should be sought in nomination by the crown, or through a special and narrower elective body, or by any other scheme. To such things he had given no thought. He was a party chief, not a maker of constitutions. He liked the idea of both orders sitting in one House. He made one significant suggestion: he wished the bill to impose the same disqualification upon the clergy as exists in our own parliament. But he would have liked to see certain ecclesiastical dignitaries included by virtue of their office in the upper or protective branch. All questions of this kind, however, interested him much less than finance. Into financial issues he threw himself with extraordinary energy, and he fought for better terms with a keenness and tenacity that almost baffled the mighty expert with whom he was matched. They only met once during the weeks of the preparation of the bill, though the indirect communication was constant. Here is my scanty note of the meeting:—

April 5.—Mr. Parnell came to my room at the House at 8.30, and we talked for two hours. At 10.30 I went to Mr. Gladstone next door, and told him how things stood. He asked me to open the points of discussion, and into my room we went. He shook hands cordially with Mr. Parnell, and sat down between him and me. We at once got to work. P. extraordinarily close, tenacious, and sharp. It was all finance. At midnight, Mr. Gladstone rose in his chair and said, I fear I must go; I cannot sit as late as I used to do. Very clever, very clever, he muttered to me as I held open the door of his room for him. I returned to Parnell, [pg 306] who went on repeating his points in his impenetrable way, until the policeman mercifully came to say the House was up.

Mr. Gladstone's own note must also be transcribed:—

April 5.—Wrote to Lord Spencer. The Queen and ministers. Four hours on the matter for my speech. 1-½ hours with Welby and Hamilton on the figures. Saw Lord Spencer, Mr. Morley, Mr. A. M. H. of C., 5-8. Dined at Sir Thomas May's.

1-½ hours with Morley and Parnell on the root of the matter; rather too late for me, 10-½-12. A hard day. (Diary.)

On more than one financial point the conflict went perilously near to breaking down the whole operation. “If we do not get a right budget,” said Mr. Parnell, “all will go wrong from the very first hour.” To the last he held out that the just proportion of Irish contribution to the imperial fund was not one-fourteenth or one-fifteenth, but a twentieth or twenty-first part. He insisted all the more strongly on his own more liberal fraction, as a partial compensation for their surrender of fiscal liberty and the right to impose customs duties. Even an hour or two before the bill was actually to be unfolded to the House, he hurried to the Irish office in what was for him rather an excited state, to make one more appeal to me for his fraction. It is not at all improbable that if the bill had gone forward into committee, it would have been at the eleventh hour rejected by the Irish on this department of it, and then all would have been at an end. Mr. Parnell never concealed this danger ahead.

In the cabinet things went forward with such ups and downs as are usual when a difficult bill is on the anvil. In a project of this magnitude, it was inevitable that some minister should occasionally let fall the consecrated formula that if this or that were done or not done, he must reconsider his position. Financial arrangements, and the protection of the minority, were two of the knottiest points,—the first from the contention raised on the Irish side, the second from misgiving in some minds as to the possibility of satisfying protestant sentiment in England and Scotland. Some kept the colonial type more strongly in view than others, and the bill no doubt ultimately bore that cast.

[pg 307]

The Bill On The Anvil

The draft project of surrendering complete taxing-power to the Irish legislative body was eventually abandoned. It was soon felt that the bare possibility of Ireland putting duties on British goods—and it was not more than a bare possibility in view of Britain's position as practically Ireland's only market—would have destroyed the bill in every manufacturing and commercial centre in the land. Mr. Parnell agreed to give up the control of customs, and also to give up direct and continuous representation at Westminster. On this cardinal point of the cesser of Irish representation, Mr. Gladstone to the last professed to keep an open mind, though to most of the cabinet, including especially three of its oldest hands and coolest heads, exclusion was at this time almost vital. Exclusion was favoured not only on its merits. Mr. Bright was known to regard it as large compensation for what otherwise he viewed as pure mischief, and it was expected to win support in other quarters generally hostile. So in truth it did, but at the cost of support in quarters that were friendly. On April 30, Mr. Gladstone wrote to Lord Granville, “I scarcely see how a cabinet could have been formed, if the inclusion of the Irish members had been insisted on; and now I do not see how the scheme and policy can be saved from shipwreck, if the exclusion is insisted on.”

The plan was bound to be extensive, as its objects were extensive, and it took for granted in the case of Ireland the fundamental probabilities of civil society. He who looks with “indolent and kingly gaze” upon all projects of written constitutions need not turn to the Appendix unless he will. Two features of the plan were cardinal.

The foundation of the scheme was the establishment in Ireland of a domestic legislature to deal with Irish as distinguished from imperial affairs. It followed from this that if Irish members and representative peers remained at Westminster at all, though they might claim a share in the settlement of imperial affairs, they could not rightly control English or Scotch affairs. This was from the first, and has ever since remained, the Gordian knot. The cabinet on a review of all the courses open determined to propose the [pg 308] plan of total exclusion, save and unless for the purpose of revising this organic statute.

The next question was neither so hard nor so vital. Ought the powers of the Irish legislature to be specifically enumerated? Or was it better to enumerate the branches of legislation from which the statutory parliament was to be shut out? Should we enact the things that they might do, or the things that they might not do, leaving them the whole residue of law-making power outside of these exceptions and exclusions? The latter was the plan adopted in the bill. Disabilities were specified, and everything not so specified was left within the scope of the Irish authority. These disabilities comprehended all matters affecting the crown. All questions of defence and armed force were shut out; all foreign and colonial relations; the law of trade and navigation, of coinage and legal tender. The new legislature could not meddle with certain charters, nor with certain contracts, nor could it establish or endow any particular religion.196


Among his five spurious types of courage, Aristotle names for one the man who seems to be brave, only because he does not see his danger. This, at least, was not Mr. Gladstone's case. No one knew better than the leader in the enterprise, how formidable were the difficulties that lay in his path. The giant mass of secular English prejudice against Ireland frowned like a mountain chain across the track. A strong and proud nation had trained itself for long courses of time in habits of dislike for the history, the political claims, the religion, the temperament, of a weaker nation. The violence of the Irish members in the last parliament, sporadic barbarities in some of the wilder portions of the island, the hideous murders in the Park, had all deepened and vivified the scowling impressions nursed by large bodies of Englishmen for many ages past about unfortunate Ireland. Then the practical operation of shaping an Irish constitution, whether on colonial, federal, or any [pg 309]

Forces For And Against

other lines, was in itself a task that, even if all external circumstance had been as smiling as it was in fact the opposite, still abounded in every kind of knotty, intricate, and intractable matter.

It is true that elements could be discovered on the other side. First, was Mr. Gladstone's own high place in the confidence of great masses of his countrymen, the result of a lifetime of conspicuous service and achievement. Next, the lacerating struggle with Ireland ever since 1880, and the confusion into which it had brought our affairs, had bred something like despair in many minds, and they were ready to look in almost any direction for relief from an intolerable burden. Third, the controversy had not gone very far before opponents were astounded to find that the new policy, which they angrily scouted as half insanity and half treason, gave comparatively little shock to the new democracy. This was at first imputed to mere ignorance and raw habits of political judgment. Wider reflection might have warned them that the plain people of this island, though quickly roused against even the shadow of concession when the power or the greatness of their country is openly assailed, seem at the same time ready to turn to moral claims of fair play, of conciliation, of pacific truce. With all these magnanimous sentiments the Irish case was only too easily made to associate itself. The results of the Irish elections and the force of the constitutional demand sank deep in the popular mind. The grim spectre of Coercion as the other alternative wore its most repulsive look in the eyes of men, themselves but newly admitted to full citizenship. Rash experiment in politics has been defined as raising grave issues without grave cause. Nobody of any party denied in this crisis the gravity of the cause.

[pg 310]

Chapter VI. Introduction Of The Bill. (1886)

Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour'd of them all....
There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail;
There gloom the dark broad seas.
Tennyson, Ulysses.


It was not within the compass either of human effort or human endurance even for the most practised and skilful of orators to unfold the whole plan, both government and land, in a single speech. Nor was public interest at all equally divided. Irish land had devoured an immense amount of parliamentary time in late years; it is one of the most technical and repulsive of all political subjects; and to many of the warmest friends of Irish self-government, any special consideration for the owners of Irish land was bitterly unpalatable. Expectation was centred upon the plan for general government. This was introduced on April 8. Here is the entry in the little diary:—

The message came to me this morning: Hold thou up my goings in thy path, that my footsteps slip not. Settled finally my figures with Welby and Hamilton; other points with Spencer and Morley. Reflected much. Took a short drive. H. of C., 4-½-8-¼. Extraordinary scenes outside the House and in. My speech, which I have sometimes thought could never end, lasted nearly 3-½ hours. Voice and strength and freedom were granted to me in a degree beyond what I could have hoped. But many a prayer had gone up for me, and not I believe in vain.

No such scene had ever been beheld in the House of Commons. Members came down at break of day to secure their places; before noon every seat was marked, and [pg 311]

Scene In Parliament

crowded benches were even arrayed on the floor of the House from the mace to the bar. Princes, ambassadors, great peers, high prelates, thronged the lobbies. The fame of the orator, the boldness of his exploit, curiosity as to the plan, poignant anxiety as to the party result, wonder whether a wizard had at last actually arisen with a spell for casting out the baleful spirits that had for so many ages made Ireland our torment and our dishonour, all these things brought together such an assemblage as no minister before had ever addressed within those world-renowned walls. The parliament was new. Many of its members had fought a hard battle for their seats, and trusted they were safe in the haven for half a dozen good years to come. Those who were moved by professional ambition, those whose object was social advancement, those who thought only of upright public service, the keen party men, the men who aspired to office, the men with a past and the men who looked for a future, all alike found themselves adrift on dark and troubled waters. The secrets of the bill had been well kept. To-day the disquieted host were first to learn what was the great project to which they would have to say that Aye or No on which for them and for the state so much would hang.

Of the chief comrades or rivals of the minister's own generation, the strong administrators, the eager and accomplished debaters, the sagacious leaders, the only survivor now comparable to him in eloquence or in influence was Mr. Bright. That illustrious man seldom came into the House in those distracted days; and on this memorable occasion his stern and noble head was to be seen in dim obscurity. Various as were the emotions in other regions of the House, in one quarter rejoicing was unmixed. There, at least, was no doubt and no misgiving. There pallid and tranquil sat the Irish leader, whose hard insight, whose patience, energy, and spirit of command, had achieved this astounding result, and done that which he had vowed to his countrymen that he would assuredly be able to do. On the benches round him, genial excitement rose almost to tumult. Well it might. For the first time since the union, [pg 312] the Irish case was at last to be pressed in all its force and strength, in every aspect of policy and of conscience, by the most powerful Englishman then alive.

More striking than the audience was the man; more striking than the multitude of eager onlookers from the shore was the rescuer with deliberate valour facing the floods ready to wash him down; the veteran Ulysses, who after more than half a century of combat, service, toil, thought it not too late to try a further “work of noble note.” In the hands of such a master of the instrument, the theme might easily have lent itself to one of those displays of exalted passion which the House had marvelled at in more than one of Mr. Gladstone's speeches on the Turkish question, or heard with religious reverence in his speech on the Affirmation bill in 1883. What the occasion now required was that passion should burn low, and reasoned persuasion hold up the guiding lamp. An elaborate scheme was to be unfolded, an unfamiliar policy to be explained and vindicated. Of that best kind of eloquence which dispenses with declamation, this was a fine and sustained example. There was a deep, rapid, steady, onflowing volume of argument, exposition, exhortation. Every hard or bitter stroke was avoided. Now and again a fervid note thrilled the ear and lifted all hearts. But political oratory is action, not words,—action, character, will, conviction, purpose, personality. As this eager muster of men underwent the enchantment of periods exquisite in their balance and modulation, the compulsion of his flashing glance and animated gesture, what stirred and commanded them was the recollection of national service, the thought of the speaker's mastering purpose, his unflagging resolution and strenuous will, his strength of thew and sinew well tried in long years of resounding war, his unquenched conviction that the just cause can never fail. Few are the heroic moments in our parliamentary politics, but this was one.


The first reading of the bill was allowed to pass without a division. To the second, Lord Hartington moved an [pg 313]

Character Of The Debate

amendment in the ordinary form of simple rejection.197 His two speeches198 present the case against the policy and the bill in its most massive form. The direct and unsophisticated nature of his antagonism, backed by a personal character of uprightness and plain dealing beyond all suspicion, gave a momentum to his attack that was beyond any effect of dialectics. It was noticed that he had never during his thirty years of parliamentary life spoken with anything like the same power before. The debates on the two stages occupied sixteen nights. They were not unworthy of the gravity of the issue, nor of the fame of the House of Commons. Only one speaker held the magic secret of Demosthenic oratory. Several others showed themselves masters of the higher arts of parliamentary discussion. One or two transient spurts of fire in the encounters of orange and green, served to reveal the intensity of the glow behind the closed doors of the furnace. But the general temper was good. The rule against irritating language was hardly ever broken. Swords crossed according to the strict rules of combat. The tone was rational and argumentative. There was plenty of strong, close, and acute reasoning; there was some learning, a considerable acquaintance both with historic and contemporary, foreign and domestic fact, and when fact and reasoning broke down, their place was abundantly filled by eloquent prophecy of disaster on one side, or blessing on the other. Neither prophecy was demonstrable; both could be made plausible.

Discussion was adorned by copious references to the mighty shades who had been the glory of the House in a great parliamentary age. We heard again the Virgilian hexameters in which Pitt had described the spirit of his policy at the union:—

Paribus se legibus ambæ
Invictæ gentes æterna in fœdera mittant.

We heard once more how Grattan said that union of the legislatures was severance of the nations; that the ocean [pg 314] forbade union, the channel forbade separation; that England in her government of Ireland had gone to hell for her principles and to bedlam for her discretion. There was, above all, a grand and copious anthology throughout the debate from Burke, the greatest of Irishmen and the largest master of civil wisdom in our tongue.

The appearance of a certain measure of the common form of all debates was inevitable. No bill is ever brought in of which its opponents do not say that it either goes too far, or else it does not go far enough; no bill of which its defenders do not say as to some crucial flaw pounced upon and paraded by the enemy, that after all it is a mere question of drafting, or can be more appropriately discussed in committee. There was the usual evasion of the strong points of the adversary's case, the usual exaggeration of its weak ones. That is debating. Perorations ran in a monotonous mould; integrity of the empire on one side, a real, happy, and indissoluble reconciliation between English and Irish on the other.

One side dwelt much on the recall of Lord Fitzwilliam in 1795, and the squalid corruption of the union; the other, on the hopeless distraction left by the rebellion of 1798, and the impotent confusion of the Irish parliament. One speaker enumerated Mr. Pitt's arguments for the union—the argument about the regency and about the commercial treaty, the argument about foreign alliances and confederacies and the army, about free trade and catholic emancipation; he showed that under all these six heads the new bill carefully respected and guarded the grounds taken by the minister of the union. He was bluntly answered by the exclamation that nobody cared a straw about what Mr. Pitt said, or what Sir Ralph Abercromby said; what we had to deal with were the facts of the case in the year 1886. You show your mistrust of the Irish by inserting all these safeguards in the bill, said the opposition. No, replied ministers; the safeguards are to meet no mistrusts of ours, but those entertained or feigned by other people. You had no mandate for home rule, said the opposition. Still less, ministers retorted, had you a mandate for coercion. [pg 315]

Stroke And Counter-Stroke

Such a scheme as this, exclaimed the critics, with all its checks and counterchecks, its truncated functions, its vetoes, exceptions, and reservations, is degrading to Ireland, and every Irish patriot with a spark of spirit in his bosom must feel it so. As if, retorted the defenders, there were no degradation to a free people in suffering twenty years of your firm and resolute coercion. One side argued that the interests of Ireland and Great Britain were much too closely intertwined to permit a double legislature. The other argued that this very interdependence was just what made an Irish legislature safe, because it was incredible that they should act as if they had no benefit to receive from us, and no injury to suffer from injury inflicted upon us. Do you, asked some, blot out of your minds the bitter, incendiary, and rebellious speech of Irish members? But do you then, the rejoinder followed, suppose that the language that came from men's hearts when a boon was refused, is a clue to the sentiment in their hearts when the boon shall have been granted? Ministers were bombarded with reproachful quotations from their old speeches. They answered the fire by taunts about the dropping of coercion, and the amazing manœuvres of the autumn of 1885. The device of the two orders was denounced as inconsistent with the democratic tendencies of the age. A very impressive argument forsooth from you, was the reply, who are either stout defenders of the House of Lords as it is, or else stout advocates for some of the multifarious schemes for mixing hereditary peers with fossil officials, all of them equally alien to the democratic tendencies whether of this age or any other. So, with stroke and counter-stroke, was the ball kept flying.

Much was made of foreign and colonial analogies; of the union between Austria and Hungary, Norway and Sweden, Denmark and Iceland; how in forcing legislative union on North America we lost the colonies; how the union of legislatures ended in the severance of Holland from Belgium. All this carried little conviction. Most members of parliament like to think with pretty large blinkers on, and though it may make for narrowness, this is consistent with much [pg 316] practical wisdom. Historical parallels in the actual politics of the day are usually rather decorative than substantial.

If people disbelieve premisses, nothing can be easier than to ridicule conclusions; and what happened now was that critics argued against this or that contrivance in the machinery, because they insisted that no machinery was needed at all, and that no contrivance could ever be made to work, because the Irish mechanicians would infallibly devote all their infatuated energy and perverse skill, not to work it, but to break it in pieces. The Irish, in Mr. Gladstone's ironical paraphrase of these singular opinions, had a double dose of original sin; they belonged wholly to the kingdoms of darkness, and therefore the rules of that probability which wise men have made the guide of life can have no bearing in any case of theirs. A more serious way of stating the fundamental objection with which Mr. Gladstone had to deal was this. Popular government is at the best difficult to work. It is supremely difficult to work in a statutory scheme with limits, reservations, and restrictions lurking round every corner. Finally, owing to history and circumstance, no people in all the world is less fitted to try a supremely difficult experiment in government than the people who live in Ireland. Your superstructure, they said, is enormously heavy, yet you are going to raise it on foundations that are a quaking bog of incapacity and discontent. This may have been a good answer to the policy of the bill. But to criticise its provisions from such a point of view was as inevitably unfruitful as it would be to set a hardened agnostic to revise the Thirty-nine articles or the mystic theses of the Athanasian creed.

On the first reading, Mr. Chamberlain astounded allies and opponents alike by suddenly revealing his view, that the true solution of the question was to be sought in some form of federation. It was upon the line of federation, and not upon the pattern of the self-governing colonies, that we should find a way out of the difficulty.199 Men could hardly trust their ears. On the second reading, he startled us once more by declaring that he was perfectly prepared, the very [pg 317]

Lord Salisbury

next day if we pleased, to establish between this country and Ireland the relations subsisting between the provincial legislatures and the dominion parliament of Canada.200 As to the first proposal, anybody could see that federation was a vastly more revolutionary operation than the delegation of certain legislative powers to a local parliament. Moreover before federating an Irish legislature, you must first create it. As to the second proposal, anybody could see on turning for a quarter of an hour to the Dominion Act of 1867, that in some of the particulars deemed by Mr. Chamberlain to be specially important, a provincial legislature in the Canadian system had more unfettered powers than the Irish legislature would have under the bill. Finally, he urged that inquiry into the possibility of satisfying the Irish demand should be carried on by a committee or commission representing all sections of the House.201 In face of projects so strangely fashioned as this, Mr. Gladstone had a right to declare that just as the subject held the field in the public mind—for never before had been seen such signs of public absorption in the House and out of the House—so the ministerial plan held the field in parliament. It had many enemies, but it had not a single serious rival.

The debate on the second reading had hardly begun when Lord Salisbury placed in the hands of his adversaries a weapon with which they took care to do much execution. Ireland, he declared, is not one nation, but two nations. There were races like the Hottentots, and even the Hindoos, incapable of self-government. He would not place confidence in people who had acquired the habit of using knives and slugs. His policy was that parliament should enable the government of England to govern Ireland. “Apply that recipe honestly, consistently, and resolutely for twenty years, and at the end of that time you will find that Ireland will be fit to accept any gifts in the way of local government or repeal of coercion laws that you may wish to give her.”202 In the same genial vein, Lord Salisbury told his Hottentot fellow-citizens—one of the two invictæ gentes of Mr. Pitt's famous quotation—that if some great store of imperial [pg 318] treasure were going to be expended on Ireland, instead of buying out landlords, it would be far more usefully employed in providing for the emigration of a million Irishmen. Explanations followed this inconvenient candour, but explanations are apt to be clumsy, and the pungency of the indiscretion kept it long alive. A humdrum speaker, who was able to contribute nothing better to the animation of debate, could always by insinuating a reference to Hottentots, knives and slugs, the deportation of a million Irishmen, and twenty years of continuous coercion, make sure of a roar of angry protest from his opponents, followed by a lusty counter-volley from his friends.


The reception of the bill by the organs of Irish opinion was easy to foretell. The nationalists accepted it in sober and rational language, subject to amendments on the head of finance and the constabulary clauses. The tories said it was a bill for setting up an Irish republic. It is another selfish English plan, said the moderates. Some Irishmen who had played with home rule while it was a phrase, drew back when they saw it in a bill. Others, while holding to home rule, objected to being reduced to the status of colonists. The body of home rulers who were protestant was small, and even against them it was retorted that for every protestant nationalist there were ten catholic unionists. The Fenian organs across the Atlantic, while quarrelling with such provisions as the two orders, “one of which would be Irish and the other English,” did justice to the bravery of the attempt, and to the new moral forces which it would call out. The florid violence which the Fenians abandoned was now with proper variations adopted by Orangemen in the north. The General Assembly of the presbyterian church in Ireland passed strong resolutions against a parliament, in favour of a peasant proprietary, in favour of loyalty, and of coercion. A few days later the general synod of the protestant episcopal church followed suit, and denounced a parliament. The Orange print in Belfast drew up a Solemn League and Covenant for Ulster, [pg 319] to ignore and resist an Irish national government. Unionist prints in Dublin declared and indignantly repelled “the selfish English design to get rid of the Irish nuisance from Westminster, and reduce us to the position of a tributary dependency.”203

The pivot of the whole policy was the acceptance of the bill by the representatives of Ireland. On the evening when the bill was produced, Mr. Parnell made certain complaints as to the reservation of the control of the constabulary, as to the power of the first order to effect a deadlock, and as to finance. He explicitly and publicly warned the government from the first that, when the committee stage was reached, he would claim a large decrease in the fraction named for the imperial contribution. There was never any dissembling as to this. In private discussion, he had always held that the fair proportion of Irish contribution to imperial charges was not a fifteenth but a twentieth, and he said no more in the House than he had persistently said in the Irish secretary's room. There too he had urged what he also declared in the House: that he had always insisted that due representation should be given to the minority; that he should welcome any device for preventing ill-considered legislation, but that the provision in the bill, for the veto of the first order, would lead to prolonged obstruction and delay. Subject to modification on these three heads, he accepted the bill. “I am convinced,” he said in concluding, “that if our views are fairly met in committee regarding the defects to which I have briefly alluded,—the bill will be cheerfully accepted by the Irish people, and by their representatives, as a solution of the long-standing dispute between the two countries.”204

It transpired at a later date that just before the introduction of the bill, when Mr. Parnell had been made acquainted with its main proposals, he called a meeting of eight of his leading colleagues, told them what these proposals were, and asked them whether they would take the [pg 320] bill or leave it.205 Some began to object to the absence of certain provisions, such as the immediate control of the constabulary, and the right over duties of customs. Mr. Parnell rose from the table, and clenched the discussion by informing them that if they declined the bill, the government would go. They at once agreed “to accept it pro tanto, reserving for committee the right of enforcing and, if necessary, reconsidering their position with regard to these important questions.” This is neither more nor less than the form in which Mr. Parnell made his declaration in parliament. There was complete consistency between the terms of this declaration, and the terms of acceptance agreed to by his colleagues, as disclosed in the black days of December four years later. The charge of bad faith and hypocrisy so freely made against the Irishmen is wholly unwarranted by a single word in these proceedings. If the whole transaction had been known to the House of Commons, it could not have impaired by one jot or tittle the value set by the supporters of the bill on the assurances of the Irishmen that, in principle and subject to modification on points named, they accepted the bill as a settlement of the question, and would use their best endeavours to make it work.206

[pg 321]

Chapter VII. The Political Atmosphere. Defeat Of The Bill. (1886)

Everything on every side was full of traps and mines.... It was in the midst of this chaos of plots and counterplots ... that the firmness of that noble person [Lord Rockingham] was put to the proof. He never stirred from his ground; no, not an inch.—Burke (1766).


The atmosphere in London became thick and hot with political passion. Veteran observers declared that our generation had not seen anything like it. Distinguished men of letters and, as it oddly happened, men who had won some distinction either by denouncing the legislative union, or by insisting on a decentralisation that should satisfy Irish national aspirations, now choked with anger because they were taken at their word. Just like irascible scholars of old time who settled controversies about corrupt texts by imputing to rival grammarians shameful crimes, so these writers could find no other explanation for an opinion that was not their own about Irish government, except moral turpitude and personal degradation. One professor of urbanity compared Mr. Gladstone to a desperate pirate burning his ship, or a gambler doubling and trebling his stake as luck goes against him. Such strange violence in calm natures, such pharisaic pretension in a world where we are all fallen, remains a riddle. Political differences were turned into social proscription. Whigs who could not accept the new policy were specially furious with whigs who could. Great ladies purified their lists of the names of old intimates. Amiable magnates excluded from their dinner-tables and their country houses once familiar friends who had fallen into the guilty heresy, and even harmless portraits of the [pg 322] heresiarch were sternly removed from the walls. At some of the political clubs it rained blackballs. It was a painful demonstration how thin after all is our social veneer, even when most highly polished.

When a royal birthday was drawing near, the prime minister wrote to Lord Granville, his unfailing counsellor in every difficulty political and social: “I am becoming seriously perplexed about my birthday dinner. Hardly any peers of the higher ranks will be available, and not many of the lower. Will the seceding colleagues come if they are asked? (Argyll, to whom I applied privately on the score of old friendship, has already refused me.) I am for asking them; but I expect refusal. Lastly, it has become customary for the Prince of Wales to dine with me on that day, and he brings his eldest son now that the young Prince is of age. But his position would be very awkward, if he comes and witnesses a great nakedness of the land. What do you say to all this? If you cannot help me, who can?” Most of the seceding colleagues accepted, and the dinner came off well enough, though as the host wrote to a friend beforehand, “If Hartington were to get up and move a vote of want of confidence after dinner, he would almost carry it.” The Prince was unable to be present, and so the great nakedness was by him unseen, but Prince Albert Victor, who was there instead, is described by Mr. Gladstone as “most kind.”

The conversion of Peel to free trade forty years before had led to the same species of explosion, though Peel had the court strongly with him. Both then and now it was the case of a feud within the bosom of a party, and such feuds like civil wars have ever been the fiercest. In each case there was a sense of betrayal—at least as unreasonable in 1886 as it was in 1846. The provinces somehow took things more rationally than the metropolis. Those who were stunned by the fierce moans of London over the assured decline in national honour and credit, the imminence of civil war, and the ultimate destruction of British power, found their acquaintances in the country excited and interested, but still clothed and in their right minds. The gravity of the question was fully understood, but in taking sides ordinary [pg 323]

Subterranean Activity

men did not talk as if they were in for the battle of Armageddon. The attempt to kindle the torch of religious fear or hate was in Great Britain happily a failure. The mass of liberal presbyterians in Scotland, and of nonconformists in England and Wales, stood firm, though some of their most eminent and able divines resisted the new project, less on religious grounds than on what they took to be the balance of political arguments. Mr. Gladstone was able to point to the conclusive assurances he had received that the kindred peoples in the colonies and America regarded with warm and fraternal sympathy the present effort to settle the long-vexed and troubled relations between Great Britain and Ireland:—

We must not be discouraged if at home and particularly in the upper ranks of society, we hear a variety of discordant notes, notes alike discordant from our policy and from one another. You have before you a cabinet determined in its purpose and an intelligible plan. I own I see very little else in the political arena that is determined or that is intelligible.

Inside the House subterranean activity was at its height all through the month of May. This was the critical period. The regular opposition spoke little and did little; with composed interest they watched others do their work. On the ministerial side men wavered and changed and changed again, from day to day and almost from hour to hour. Never were the motions of the pendulum so agitated and so irregular. So novel and complex a problem was a terrible burden for a new parliament. About half its members had not sat in any parliament before. The whips were new, some of the leaders on the front benches were new, and those of them who were most in earnest about the policy were too heavily engrossed in the business of the measure, to have much time for the exercises of explanation, argument, and persuasion with their adherents. One circumstance told powerfully for ministers. The great central organisation of the liberal party came decisively over to Mr. Gladstone (May 5), and was followed by nearly all the local associations in the country. Neither whig secession nor radical [pg 324] dubitation shook the strength inherent in such machinery, in a community where the principle of government by party has solidly established itself. This was almost the single consolidating and steadying element in that hour of dispersion. A serious move in the opposite direction had taken place three weeks earlier. A great meeting was held at the Opera House, in the Haymarket, presided over by the accomplished whig nobleman who had the misfortune to be Irish viceroy in the two dismal years from 1880, and it was attended both by Lord Salisbury on one side and Lord Hartington on the other. This was the first broad public mark of liberal secession, and of that practical fusion between whig and tory which the new Irish policy had actually precipitated, but to which all the signs in the political heavens had been for three or four years unmistakably pointing.

The strength of the friends of the bill was twofold: first, it lay in the dislike of coercion as the only visible alternative; and second, it lay in the hope of at last touching the firm ground of a final settlement with Ireland. Their weakness was also twofold: first, misgivings about the exclusion of the Irish members; and second, repugnance to the scheme for land purchase. There were not a few, indeed, who pronounced the exclusion of Irish members to be the most sensible part of the plan. Mr. Gladstone retained his impartiality, but knew that if we proposed to keep the Irishmen, we should be run in upon quite as fiercely from the other side. Mr. Parnell stood to his original position. Any regular and compulsory attendance at Westminster, he said, would be highly objectionable to his friends. Further, the right of Irish members to take part in purely English as well as imperial business would be seized upon by English politicians, whenever it should answer their purpose, as a pretext for interfering in Irish affairs. In short, he foresaw, as all did, the difficulties that would inevitably arise from retention. But the tide ran more and more strongly the other way. Scotland grew rather restive at a proposal which, as she apprehended, would make a precedent for herself when her turn for extension of local powers should come, and Scotchmen had no intention of being shut out [pg 325]

Strength And Weakness

from a voice in imperial affairs. In England, the catholics professed alarm at the prospect of losing the only catholic force in the House of Commons. “We cannot spare one of you,” cried Cardinal Manning. Some partisans of imperial federation took it into their heads that the plan for Ireland would be fatal to a plan for the whole empire, though others more rationally conceived that if there was to be a scheme for the empire, schemes for its several parts must come first. Some sages, while pretending infinite friendship to home rule, insisted that the parliament at Westminster should retain a direct and active veto upon legislation at Dublin, and that Irish members should remain as they were in London. That is to say, every precaution should be taken to ensure a stiff fight at Westminster over every Irish measure of any importance that had already been fought on College Green. Speaking generally, the feeling against this provision was due less to the anomaly of taxation without representation, than to fears for the unity of the empire and the supremacy of parliament.

The Purchase bill proved from the first to be an almost intolerable dose. Vivid pictures were drawn of a train of railway trucks two miles long, loaded with millions of bright sovereigns, all travelling from the pocket of the British son of toil to the pocket of the idle Irish landlord. The nationalists from the first urged that the scheme for home rule should not be weighted with a land scheme, though they were willing to accept it so long as it was not used to prejudice the larger demand. On the other side the Irish landlords themselves peremptorily rejected the plan that had been devised for their protection.

The air was thick with suggestions, devices, contrivances, expedients, possible or madly impossible. Proposals or embryonic notions of proposals floated like motes in a sunbeam. Those to whom lobby diplomacy is as the breath of their nostrils, were in their element. So were the worthy persons who are always ready with ingenious schemes for catching a vote or two here, at the cost of twenty votes elsewhere. Intrigue may be too dark a word, but coaxing, bullying, managing, and all the other arts of party emergency, went [pg 326] on at an unprecedented rate. Of these arts, the supervising angels will hardly record that any section had a monopoly. The legerdemain that makes words pass for things, and liquefies things into words, achieved many flashes of success. But they were only momentary, and the solid obstacles remained. The foundations of human character are much the same in all historic ages, and every public crisis brings out the same types.

Much depended on Mr. Bright, the great citizen and noble orator, who had in the last five-and-forty years fought and helped to win more than one battle for wise and just government; whose constancy had confronted storms of public obloquy without yielding an inch of his ground; whose eye for the highest questions of state had proved itself singularly sure; and whose simplicity, love of right, and unsophisticated purity of public and private conduct, commanded the trust and the reverence of nearly all the better part of his countrymen. To Mr. Bright the eyes of many thousands were turned in these weeks of anxiety and doubt. He had in public kept silence, though in private he made little secret of his disapproval of the new policy. Before the bill was produced he had a prolonged conversation (March 20) with Mr. Gladstone at Downing Street. “Long and weighty” are the words in the diary. The minister sketched his general design, Mr. Bright stated his objections much in the form in which, as we shall see, he stated them later. Of the exclusion of the Irish members he approved. The Land bill he thought quite wrong, for why should so enormous an effort be made for one interest only? He expressed his sympathy with Mr. Gladstone in his great difficulties, could not but admire his ardour, and came away with the expectation that the obstacles would be found invincible, and that the minister would retire and leave others to approach the task on other lines. Other important persons, it may be observed, derived at this time a similar impression from Mr. Gladstone's language to them: that he might discern the impossibility of his policy, that he would admit it, and would then hand the responsibility over to Lord Hartington, or whoever else might be willing to face it.

[pg 327]

Correspondence With Mr. Bright

On the other hand, Mr. Bright left the minister himself not without hopes that as things went forward he might count on this potent auxiliary. So late as the middle of May, though he could not support, it was not certain that he would actively oppose. The following letter to Mr. Gladstone best describes his attitude at this time:—

Mr. Bright to Mr. Gladstone.
Rochdale, May 13th, 1886.

My Dear Gladstone,—Your note just received has put me in a great difficulty. To-day is the anniversary of the greatest sorrow of my life, and I feel pressed to spend it at home. I sent a message to Mr. Arnold Morley last evening to say that I did not intend to return to town before Monday next—but I shall now arrange to go to-morrow—although I do not see how I can be of service in the great trouble which has arisen.

I feel outside all the contending sections of the liberal party—for I am not in favour of home rule, or the creation of a Dublin parliament—nor can I believe in any scheme of federation as shadowed forth by Mr. Chamberlain.

I do not believe that with regard to the Irish question the resources of civilisation are exhausted; and I think the plan of your bill is full of complexity, and gives no hope of successful working in Ireland or of harmony between Westminster and Dublin. I may say that my regard for you and my sympathy with you have made me silent in the discussion on the bills before the House. I cannot consent to a measure which is so offensive to the whole protestant population of Ireland, and to the whole sentiment of the province of Ulster so far as its loyal and protestant people are concerned. I cannot agree to exclude them from the protection of the imperial parliament. I would do much to clear the rebel party from Westminster, and I do not sympathise with those who wish to retain them, but admit there is much force in the arguments on this point which are opposed to my views upon it.

Up to this time I have not been able to bring myself to the point of giving a vote in favour of your bills. I am grieved to have to say this. As to the Land bill, if it comes to a second reading, I fear I must vote against it. It may be that my hostility to the rebel [pg 328] party, looking at their conduct since your government was formed six years ago, disables me from taking an impartial view of this great question. If I could believe them loyal, if they were honourable and truthful men, I could yield them much; but I suspect that your policy of surrender to them will only place more power in their hands, to war with greater effect against the unity of the three kingdoms with no increase of good to the Irish people.

How then can I be of service to you or to the real interests of Ireland if I come up to town? I cannot venture to advise you, so superior to me in party tactics and in experienced statesmanship, and I am not so much in accord with Mr. Chamberlain as to make it likely that I can say anything that will affect his course. One thing I may remark, that it appears to me that measures of the gravity of those now before parliament cannot and ought not to be thrust through the House by force of a small majority. The various reform bills, the Irish church bill, the two great land bills, were passed by very large majorities. In the present case, not only the whole tory party oppose, but a very important section of the liberal party; and although numerous meetings of clubs and associations have passed resolutions of confidence in you, yet generally they have accepted your Irish government bill as a 'basis' only, and have admitted the need of important changes in the bill—changes which in reality would destroy the bill. Under these circumstances it seems to me that more time should be given for the consideration of the Irish question. Parliament is not ready for it, and the intelligence of the country is not ready for it. If it be possible, I should wish that no division should be taken upon the bill. If the second reading should be carried only by a small majority, it would not forward the bill; but it would strengthen the rebel party in their future agitation, and make it more difficult for another session or another parliament to deal with the question with some sense of independence of that party. In any case of a division, it is I suppose certain that a considerable majority of British members will oppose the bill. Thus, whilst it will have the support of the rebel members, it will be opposed by a majority from Great Britain and by a most hostile vote from all that is loyal in Ireland. The result will [pg 329] be, if a majority supports you it will be one composed in effect of the men who for six years past have insulted the Queen, have torn down the national flag, have declared your lord lieutenant guilty of deliberate murder, and have made the imperial parliament an assembly totally unable to manage the legislative business for which it annually assembles at Westminster.

Pray forgive me for writing this long letter. I need not assure you of my sympathy with you, or my sorrow at being unable to support your present policy in the House or the country. The more I consider the question, the more I am forced in a direction contrary to my wishes.

For thirty years I have preached justice to Ireland. I am as much in her favour now as in past times, but I do not think it justice or wisdom for Great Britain to consign her population, including Ulster and all her protestant families, to what there is of justice and wisdom in the Irish party now sitting in the parliament in Westminster.

Still, if you think I can be of service, a note to the Reform Club will, I hope, find me there to-morrow evening.—Ever most sincerely yours, John Bright.

An old parliamentary friend, of great weight and authority, went to Mr. Bright to urge him to support a proposal to read the bill a second time, and then to hang it up for six months. Bright suffered sore travail of spirit. At the end of an hour the peacemaker rose to depart. Bright pressed him to continue the wrestle. After three-quarters of an hour more of it, the same performance took place. It was not until a third hour of discussion that Mr. Bright would let it come to an end, and at the end he was still uncertain. The next day the friend met him, looking worn and gloomy. “You may guess,” Mr. Bright said, “what sort of a night I have had.” He had decided to vote against the second reading. The same person went to Lord Hartington. He took time to deliberate, and then finally said, “No; Mr. Gladstone and I do not mean the same thing.”

[pg 330]


The centre of interest lay in the course that might be finally taken by those who declared that they accepted the principle of the bill, but demurred upon detail. It was upon the group led from Birmingham that the issue hung. “There are two principles in the bill,” said Mr. Chamberlain at this time, “which I regard as vital. The first is the principle of autonomy, to which I am able to give a hearty assent. The second is involved in the method of giving effect to this autonomy. In the bill the government have proceeded on the lines of separation or of colonial independence, whereas, in my humble judgment, they should have adopted the principle of federation as the only one in accordance with democratic aspirations and experience.”207 He was even so strong for autonomy, that he was ready to face all the immense difficulties of federation, whether on the Canadian or some other pattern, rather than lose autonomy. Yet he was ready to slay the bill that made autonomy possible. To kill the bill was to kill autonomy. To say that they would go to the country on the plan, and not on the principle, was idle. If the election were to go against the government, that would destroy not only the plan which they disliked, but the principle of which they declared that they warmly approved. The new government that would in that case come into existence, would certainly have nothing to say either to plan or principle.

Two things, said Mr. Chamberlain on the ninth night of the debate, had become clear during the controversy. One was that the British democracy had a passionate devotion to the prime minister. The other was the display of a sentiment out of doors, “the universality and completeness of which, I dare say, has taken many of us by surprise, in favour of some form of home rule to Ireland, which will give to the Irish people some greater control over their own affairs.”208 It did not need so acute a strategist as Mr. Chamberlain to perceive that the only hope of rallying any [pg 331]

Few Secondary Arguments

considerable portion of the left wing of the party to the dissentient flag, in face of this strong popular sentiment embodied in a supereminent minister, was to avoid as much as possible all irreconcilable language against either the minister or the sentiment, even while taking energetic steps to unhorse the one and to nullify the other.

The prime minister meanwhile fought the battle as a battle for a high public design once begun should be fought. He took few secondary arguments, but laboured only to hold up to men's imagination, and to burn into their understanding, the lines of central policy, the shame and dishonour from which it would relieve us, the new life with which it would inspire Ireland, the ease that it would bring to parliament in England. His tenacity, his force and resource, were inexhaustible. He was harassed on every side. The Irish leader pressed him hard upon finance. Old adherents urged concession about exclusion. The radicals disliked the two orders. Minor points for consideration in committee rained in upon him, as being good reasons for altering the bill before it came in sight of committee. Not a single constructive proposal made any way in the course of the debate. All was critical and negative. Mr. Gladstone's grasp was unshaken, and though he saw remote bearings and interdependent consequences where others supposed all to be plain sailing, yet if the principle were only saved he professed infinite pliancy. He protested that there ought to be no stereotyping of our minds against modifications, and that the widest possible variety of modes of action should be kept open; and he “hammered hard at his head,” as he put it, to see what could be worked out in the way of admitting Irish members without danger, and without intolerable inconvenience. If anybody considered, he continued to repeat in endless forms, that there was another set of provisions by which better and fuller effect could be given to the principle of the bill, they were free to displace all the particulars that hindered this better and fuller effect being given to the principle.209

[pg 332]


At the beginning of May the unionist computation was that 119 on the ministerial side of the House had, with or without qualification, promised to vote against the second reading. Of these, 70 had publicly committed themselves, and 23 more were supposed to be absolutely certain. If the whole House voted, this estimate of 93 would give a majority of 17 against the bill.210 The leader of the radical wing, however, reckoned that 55 out of the 119 would vote with him for the second reading, if he pronounced the ministerial amendments of the bill satisfactory. The amendments demanded were the retention of the Irish members, a definite declaration of the supremacy of the imperial parliament, a separate assembly for Ulster, and the abolition of the restrictive devices for the representation of minorities. Less than all this might have been taken in committee, provided that the government would expressly say before the second reading, that they would retain the Irish representation on its existing footing. The repeated offer by ministers to regard this as an open question was derided, because it was contended that if the bill were once safe through its second reading, Mr. Bright and the whigs would probably vote with ministers against Irish inclusion.

Even if this ultimatum had been accepted, there would still have remained the difficulty of the Land bill, of which Mr. Chamberlain had announced that he would move the rejection. In the face of ever-growing embarrassments and importunities, recourse was had to the usual device of a meeting of the party at the foreign office (May 27). The circular calling the meeting was addressed to those liberals who, while retaining full freedom on all particulars in the bill, were “in favour of the establishment of a legislative body in Dublin for the management of affairs specifically and exclusively Irish.” This was henceforth to be the test of party membership. A man who was for an Irish legislative body was expected to come to the party meeting, and a man who was against it was expected to stay [pg 333]

Party Meeting

away. Many thought this discrimination a mistake. Some two hundred and twenty members attended. The pith of the prime minister's speech, which lasted for an hour, came to this: that the government would not consent to emasculate the principle of the bill, or turn it into a mockery, a delusion, and a snare; that members who did not wholly agree with the bill, might still in accordance with the strict spirit of parliamentary rules vote for the second reading with a view to its amendment in committee; that such a vote would not involve support of the Land bill; that he was ready to consider any plan for the retention of the Irish members, provided that it did not interfere with the liberty of the Irish legislative body, and would not introduce confusion into the imperial parliament. Finally, as to procedure—and here his anxious audience fell almost breathless—they could either after a second reading hang up the bill, and defer committee until the autumn; or they could wind up the session, prorogue, and introduce the bill afresh with the proper amendments in October. The cabinet, he told them, inclined to the later course.

Before the meeting Mr. Parnell had done his best to impress upon ministers the mischievous effect that would be produced on Irish members and in Ireland, by any promise to withdraw the bill after the second reading. On the previous evening, I received from him a letter of unusual length. “You of course,” he said, “are the best judges of what the result may be in England, but if it be permitted me to express an opinion, I should say that withdrawal could scarcely fail to give great encouragement to those whom it cannot conciliate, to depress and discourage those who are now the strongest fighters for the measure, to produce doubt and wonder in the country and to cool enthusiasm; and finally, when the same bill is again produced in the autumn, to disappoint and cause reaction among those who may have been temporarily disarmed by withdrawal, and to make them at once more hostile and less easy to appease.” This letter I carried to Mr. Gladstone the next morning, and read aloud to him a few minutes before he was to cross over to the foreign office. For a single instant—the only occasion [pg 334] that I can recall during all these severe weeks—his patience broke. The recovery was as rapid as the flash, for he knew the duty of the lieutenant of the watch to report the signs of rock or shoal. He was quite as conscious of all that was urged in Mr. Parnell's letter as was its writer, but perception of risks on one side did not overcome risks on the other. The same evening they met for a second time:—

May 27.—... Mr. Gladstone and Parnell had a conversation in my room. Parnell courteous enough, but depressed and gloomy. Mr. Gladstone worn and fagged.... When he was gone, Parnell repeated moodily that he might not be able to vote for the second reading, if it were understood that after the second reading the bill was to be withdrawn. Very well, said I, that will of course destroy the government and the policy; but be that as it may, the cabinet, I am positive, won't change their line.

The proceedings at the foreign office brought to the supporters of government a lively sense of relief. In the course of the evening a score of the waverers were found to have been satisfied, and were struck off the dissentient lists. But the relief did not last for many hours. The opposition instantly challenged ministers (May 28) to say plainly which of the two courses they intended to adopt. Though short, this was the most vivacious debate of all. Was the bill to be withdrawn, or was it to be postponed? If it was to be withdrawn, then, argued the tory leader (Sir M.H. Beach) in angry tones, the vote on the second reading would be a farce. If it was to be postponed, what was that but to paralyse the forces of law and order in Ireland in the meantime? Such things were trifling with parliament, trifling with a vital constitutional question, and trifling with the social order which the government professed to be so anxious to restore. A bill read a second time on such terms as these would be neither more nor less than a Continuance-in-Office bill.

This biting sally raised the temper of the House on both sides, and Mr. Gladstone met it with that dignity which did not often fail to quell even the harshest of his adversaries. “You pronounce that obviously the motive of the government [pg 335] is to ensure their own continuance in office. They prefer that to all the considerations connected with the great issue before them, and their minds in fact are of such a mean and degraded order, that they can only be acted upon, not by motives of honour and duty, but simply by those of selfishness and personal interest. Sir, I do not condescend to discuss that imputation. The dart aimed at our shield, being such a dart as that, is telum imbelle sine ictu.”211

The speaker then got on to the more hazardous part of the ground. He proceeded to criticise the observation of the leader of the opposition that ministers had undertaken to remodel the bill. “That happy word,” he said, “as applied to the structure of the bill, is a pure invention.” Lord Randolph interjected that the word used was not “remodelled,” but “reconstructed.” “Does the noble lord dare to say,” asked the minister, “that it was used in respect of the bill?” “Yes,” said the noble lord. “Never, never,” cried the minister, with a vehemence that shook the hearts of doubting followers; “it was used with respect to one particular clause, and one particular point of the bill, namely so much of it as touches the future relation of the representatives of Ireland to the imperial parliament.” Before the exciting episode was over, it was stated definitely that if the bill were read a second time, ministers would advise a prorogation and re-introduce the bill with amendments. The effect of this couple of hours was to convince the House that the government had made up their minds that it was easier and safer to go to the country with the plan as it stood, than to agree to changes that would entangle them in new embarrassments, and discredit their confidence in their own handiwork. Ingenious negotiators perceived that their toil had been fruitless. Every man now knew the precise situation that he had to face, in respect alike of the Irish bill and liberal unity.

On the day following this decisive scene (May 29), under the direction of the radical leader an invitation to a conference was issued to those members “who being in favour [pg 336] of some sort of autonomy for Ireland, disapproved of the government bills in their present shape.” The form of the invitation is remarkable in view of its ultimate effect on Irish autonomy. The meeting was held on May 31, in the same committee room upstairs that four years later became associated with the most cruel of all phases of the Irish controversy. Mr. Chamberlain presided, and some fifty-five gentlemen attended. Not all of them had hitherto been understood to be in favour either of some sort, or of any sort, of autonomy for Ireland. The question was whether they should content themselves with abstention from the division, or should go into the lobby against the government. If they abstained, the bill would pass, and an extension of the party schism would be averted. The point was carried, as all great parliamentary issues are, by considerations apart from the nice and exact balance of argument on the merits. In anxious and distracting moments like this, when so many arguments tell in one way and so many tell in another, a casting vote often belongs to the moral weight of some particular person. The chairman opened in a neutral sense. It seems to have been mainly the moral weight of Mr. Bright that sent down the scale. He was not present, but he sent a letter. He hoped that every man would use his own mind, but for his part he must vote against the bill. This letter was afterwards described as the death-warrant of the bill and of the administration. The course of the men who had been summoned because they were favourable to some sort of home rule was decided by the illustrious statesman who opposed every sort of home rule. Their boat was driven straight upon the rocks of coercion by the influence of the great orator who had never in all his career been more eloquent than when he was denouncing the mischief and futility of Irish coercion, and protesting that force is no remedy.

One of the best speakers in the House, though not at that time in the cabinet, was making an admirably warm and convinced defence alike of the policy and the bill while these proceedings were going on. But Mr. Fowler was listened to by men of pre-occupied minds. All knew what [pg 337]

Death-Warrant Of The Bill

momentous business was on foot in another part of the parliamentary precincts. Many in the ranks were confident that abstention would carry the day. Others knew that the meeting had been summoned for no such purpose, and they made sure that the conveners would have their way. The quiet inside the House was intense and unnatural. As at last the news of the determination upstairs to vote against the bill ran along the benches before the speaker sat down, men knew that the ministerial day was lost. It was estimated by the heads of the “Chamberlain group” that if they abstained, the bill would pass by a majority of five. Such a bill carried by such a majority could of course not have proceeded much further. The principle of autonomy would have been saved, and time would have been secured for deliberation upon a new plan. More than once Mr. Gladstone observed that no decision taken from the beginning of the crisis to the end was either more incomprehensible or more disastrous.


The division was taken a little after one o'clock on the morning of the 8th of June. The Irish leader made one of the most masterly speeches that ever fell from him. Whether agreeing with or differing from the policy, every unprejudiced listener felt that this was not the mere dialectic of a party debater, dealing smartly with abstract or verbal or artificial arguments, but the utterance of a statesman with his eye firmly fixed upon the actual circumstances of the nation for whose government this bill would make him responsible. As he dealt with Ulster, with finance, with the supremacy of parliament, with the loyal minority, with the settlement of education in an Irish legislature,—soberly, steadily, deliberately, with that full, familiar, deep insight into the facts of a country, which is only possible to a man who belongs to it and has passed his life in it, the effect of Mr. Parnell's speech was to make even able disputants on either side look little better than amateurs.

The debate was wound up for the regular opposition by Sir Michael Hicks Beach, who was justly regarded throughout [pg 338] the session as having led his party with remarkable skill and judgment. Like the Irish leader, he seemed to be inspired by the occasion to a performance beyond his usual range, and he delivered the final charge with strong effect. The bill, he said, was the concoction of the prime minister and the Irish secretary, and the cabinet had no voice in the matter. The government had delayed the progress of the bill for a whole long and weary month, in order to give party wirepullers plenty of time in which to frighten waverers. To treat a vote on the second reading as a mere vote on a principle, without reference to the possibility of applying it, was a mischievous farce. Could anybody dream that if he supported the second reading now, he would not compromise his action in the autumn and would not be appealed to as having made a virtual promise to Ireland, of which it would be impossible to disappoint her? As for the bill itself, whatever lawyers might say of the theoretic maintenance of supremacy, in practice it would have gone. All this side of the case was put by the speaker with the straight and vigorous thrust that always works with strong effect in this great arena of contest.

Then came the unflagging veteran with the last of his five speeches. He was almost as white as the flower in his coat, but the splendid compass, the flexibility, the moving charm and power of his voice, were never more wonderful. The construction of the speech was a masterpiece, the temper of it unbroken, its freedom from taunt and bitterness and small personality incomparable. Even if Mr. Gladstone had been in the prime of his days, instead of a man of seventy-six years all struck; even if he had been at his ease for the last four months, instead of labouring with indomitable toil at the two bills, bearing all the multifarious burdens of the head of a government, and all the weight of the business of the leader of the House, undergoing all the hourly strain and contention of a political situation of unprecedented difficulty,—much of the contention being of that peculiarly trying and painful sort which means the parting of colleagues and friends,—his closing speech would still have been a surprising effort of free, argumentative, and fervid appeal. With the fervid [pg 339]

End Of The Debate

appeal was mingled more than one piece of piquant mockery. Mr. Chamberlain had said that a dissolution had no terrors for him. “I do not wonder at it. I do not see how a dissolution can have any terrors for him. He has trimmed his vessel, and he has touched his rudder in such a masterly way, that in whichever direction the winds of heaven may blow they must fill his sails. Supposing that at an election public opinion should be very strong in favour of the bill, my right hon. friend would then be perfectly prepared to meet that public opinion, and tell it, ‘I declared strongly that I adopted the principle of the bill.’ On the other hand, if public opinion were very adverse to the bill, he again is in complete armour, because he says, ‘Yes, I voted against the bill.’ Supposing, again, public opinion is in favour of a very large plan for Ireland, my right hon. friend is perfectly provided for that case also. The government plan was not large enough for him, and he proposed in his speech on the introduction of the bill that we should have a measure on the basis of federation, which goes beyond this bill. Lastly—and now I have very nearly boxed the compass—supposing that public opinion should take quite a different turn, and instead of wanting very large measures for Ireland, should demand very small measures for Ireland, still the resources of my right hon. friend are not exhausted, because he is then able to point out that the last of his plans was for four provincial circuits controlled from London.” All these alternatives and provisions were visibly “creations of the vivid imagination, born of the hour and perishing with the hour, totally unavailable for the solution of a great and difficult problem.”

Now, said the orator, was one of the golden moments of our history, one of those opportunities which may come and may go, but which rarely return, or if they return, return at long intervals, and under circumstances which no man can forecast. There was such a golden moment in 1795, on the mission of Lord Fitzwilliam. At that moment the parliament of Grattan was on the point of solving the Irish problem. The cup was at Ireland's lips, and she was ready to drink it, when the hand of England rudely and ruthlessly [pg 340] dashed it to the ground in obedience to the wild and dangerous intimations of an Irish faction. There had been no great day of hope for Ireland since, no day when you might completely and definitely hope to end the controversy till now—more than ninety years. The long periodic time had at last run out, and the star had again mounted into the heavens.

This strain of living passion was sustained with all its fire and speed to the very close. “Ireland stands at your bar expectant, hopeful, almost suppliant. Her words are the words of truth and soberness. She asks a blessed oblivion of the past, and in that oblivion our interest is deeper even than hers. You have been asked to-night to abide by the traditions of which we are the heirs. What traditions? By the Irish traditions? Go into the length and breadth of the world, ransack the literature of all countries, find if you can a single voice, a single book, in which the conduct of England towards Ireland is anywhere treated except with profound and bitter condemnation. Are these the traditions by which we are exhorted to stand? No, they are a sad exception to the glory of our country. They are a broad and black blot upon the pages of its history, and what we want to do is to stand by the traditions of which we are the heirs in all matters except our relations with Ireland, and to make our relation with Ireland to conform to the other traditions of our country. So we treat our traditions, so we hail the demand of Ireland for what I call a blessed oblivion of the past. She asks also a boon for the future; and that boon for the future, unless we are much mistaken, will be a boon to us in respect of honour, no less than a boon to her in respect of happiness, prosperity and peace. Such, sir, is her prayer. Think, I beseech you; think well, think wisely, think, not for the moment, but for the years that are to come, before you reject this bill.”

The question was put, the sand glass was turned upon the table, the division bells were set ringing. Even at this moment, the ministerial whips believed that some were still wavering. A reference made by Mr. Parnell to harmonious communications in the previous summer with a tory minister, [pg 341]

Dissolution Of Parliament

inclined them to vote for the bill. On the other hand, the prospect of going to an election without a tory opponent was no weak temptation to a weak man. A common impression was that the bill would be beaten by ten or fifteen. Others were sure that it would be twice as much as either figure. Some on the treasury bench, perhaps including the prime minister himself, hoped against hope that the hostile majority might not be more than five or six. It proved to be thirty. The numbers were 343 against 313. Ninety-three liberals voted against the bill. These with the two tellers were between one-third and one-fourth of the full liberal strength from Great Britain. So ended the first engagement in this long campaign. As I passed into his room at the House with Mr. Gladstone that night, he seemed for the first time to bend under the crushing weight of the burden that he had taken up.


When ministers went into the cabinet on the following day, three of them inclined pretty strongly towards resignation as a better course than dissolution; mainly on the ground that the incoming government would then have to go to the country with a policy of their own. Mr. Gladstone, however, entirely composed though pallid, at once opened the case with a list of twelve reasons for recommending dissolution, and the reasons were so cogent that his opening of the case was also its closing. They were entirely characteristic, for they began with precedent and the key was courage. He knew of no instance where a ministry defeated under circumstances like ours, upon a great policy or on a vote of confidence, failed to appeal to the country. Then with a view to the enthusiasm of our friends in this country, as well as to feeling in Ireland, it was essential that we should not let the flag go down. We had been constantly challenged to a dissolution, and not to take the challenge up would be a proof of mistrust, weakness, and a faint heart. “My conclusion is,” he said, “a dissolution is formidable, but resignation would mean for the present juncture abandonment of the cause.” His conclusion was accepted without [pg 342] comment. The experts outside the cabinet were convinced that a bold front was the best way of securing the full fighting power of the party. The white feather on such an issue, and with so many minds wavering, would be a sure provocative of defeat.

Mr. Gladstone enumerated to the Queen what he took to be the new elements in the case. There were on the side of the government, 1. The transfer of the Irish vote from, the tories, 2. The popular enthusiasm in the liberal masses which he had never seen equalled. But what was the electoral value of enthusiasm against (a) anti-Irish prejudices, (b) the power of rank, station, and wealth, (c) the kind of influence exercised by the established clergy, 'perversely applied as of course Mr. Gladstone thinks in politics, but resting upon a very solid basis as founded on the generally excellent and devoted work which they do in their parishes'? This remained to be proved. On the other side there was the whig defection, with the strange and unnatural addition from Birmingham. “Mr. Gladstone himself has no skill in these matters, and dare not lay an opinion before your Majesty on the probable general result.” He thought there was little chance, if any, of a tory majority in the new parliament. Opinion taken as a whole seemed to point to a majority not very large, whichever way it may be.

No election was ever fought more keenly, and never did so many powerful men fling themselves with livelier activity into a great struggle. The heaviest and most telling attack came from Mr. Bright, who had up to now in public been studiously silent. Every word, as they said of Daniel Webster, seemed to weigh a pound. His arguments were mainly those of his letter already given, but they were delivered with a gravity and force that told powerfully upon the large phalanx of doubters all over the kingdom. On the other side, Mr. Gladstone's plume waved in every part of the field. He unhorsed an opponent as he flew past on the road; his voice rang with calls as thrilling as were ever heard in England; he appealed to the individual, to his personal responsibility, to the best elements in him, to the sense of justice, to the powers of hope and of sympathy; he [pg 343]

At Edinburgh

displayed to the full that rare combination of qualities that had always enabled him to view affairs in all their range, at the same time from the high commanding eminence and on the near and sober level.

He left London on June 17 on his way to Edinburgh, and found “wonderful demonstrations all along the road; many little speeches; could not be helped.” “The feeling here,” he wrote from Edinburgh (June 21), “is truly wonderful, especially when, the detestable state of the press is considered.” Even Mr. Goschen, whom he described as “supplying in the main, soul, brains, and movement to the dissentient body,” was handsomely beaten in one of the Edinburgh divisions, so fatal was the proximity of Achilles. June 22. Off to Glasgow, 12-¾. Meeting at 3. Spoke an hour and twenty minutes. Off at 5.50. Reached Hawarden at 12.30 or 40. Some speeches by the way; others I declined. The whole a scene of triumph. God help us, His poor creatures.” At Hawarden, he found chaos in his room, and he set to work upon it, but he did not linger. On June 25, “off to Manchester; great meeting in the Free Trade Hall. Strain excessive. Five miles through the streets to Mr. Agnew's; a wonderful spectacle half the way.” From Manchester he wrote, “I have found the display of enthusiasm far beyond all former measure,” and the torrid heat of the meeting almost broke him down, but friends around him heard him murmur, “I must do it,” and bracing himself with tremendous effort he went on. Two days later (June 28) he wound up the campaign in a speech at Liverpool, which even old and practised political hands who were there, found the most magnificent of them all. Staying at Courthey, the residence of his nephews, in the morning he enters, “Worked up the Irish question once more for my last function. Seven or eight hours of processional uproar, and a speech of an hour and forty minutes to five or six thousand people in Hengler's Circus. Few buildings give so noble a presentation of an audience. Once more my voice held out in a marvellous manner. I went in bitterness, in the heat of my spirit, but the hand of the Lord was strong upon me.”

He had no sooner returned to Hawarden, than he wrote to [pg 344] tell Mrs. Gladstone (July 2) of a stroke which was thought to have a curiously dæmonic air about it:—

The Leith business will show you I have not been inactive here.—former M.P. attended my meeting in the Music Hall, and was greeted by me accordingly (he had voted against us after wobbling about much). Hearing by late post yesterday that waiting to the last he had then declared against us, I telegraphed down to Edinburgh in much indignation, that they might if they liked put me up against him, and I would go down again and speak if they wished it. They seem to have acted with admirable pluck and promptitude. Soon after mid-day to-day I received telegrams to say I am elected for Midlothian,212 and also for Leith,—having retired rather than wait to be beaten. I told them instantly to publish this, as it may do good.

The Queen, who had never relished these oratorical crusades whether he was in opposition or in office, did not approve of the first minister of the crown addressing meetings outside of his own constituency. In reply to a gracious and frank letter from Balmoral, Mr. Gladstone wrote:—

He must state frankly what it is that has induced him thus to yield [to importunity for speeches]. It is that since the death of Lord Beaconsfield, in fact since 1880, the leaders of the opposition, Lord Salisbury and Lord Iddesleigh (he has not observed the same practice in the case of Sir M. H. Beach) have established a rule of what may be called popular agitation, by addressing public meetings from time to time at places with which they were not connected. This method was peculiarly marked in the case of Lord Salisbury as a peer, and this change on the part of the leaders of opposition has induced Mr. Gladstone to deviate on this critical occasion from the rule which he had (he believes) generally or uniformly observed in former years. He is, as he has previously apprised your Majesty, aware of the immense responsibility he has assumed, and of the severity of just condemnation which will be pronounced upon him, if he should eventually prove to have been wrong. But your Majesty will be [pg 345] the first to perceive that, even if it had been possible for him to decline this great contest, it was not possible for him having entered upon it, to conduct it in a half-hearted manner, or to omit the use of any means requisite in order to place (what he thinks) the true issue before the country.

Nature, however, served the royal purpose. Before his speech at Liverpool, he was pressed to speak in the metropolis:—

As to my going to London,—he wrote in reply,—I have twice had my chest rather seriously strained, and I have at this moment a sense of internal fatigue within it which is quite new to me, from the effects of a bad arrangement in the hall at Manchester. Should anything like it be repeated at Liverpool to-morrow I shall not be fit physically to speak for a week, if then. Mentally I have never undergone such an uninterrupted strain as since January 30 of this year. The forming and reforming of the government, the work of framing the bills, and studying the subject (which none of the opponents would do), have left me almost stunned, and I have the autumn in prospect with, perhaps, most of the work to do over again if we succeed.

But this was not to be. The incomparable effort was in vain. The sons of Zeruiah were too hard for him, and England was unconvinced.

The final result was that the ministerialists or liberals of the main body were reduced from 235 to 196, the tories rose from 251 to 316, the dissentient liberals fell to 74, and Mr. Parnell remained at his former strength. In other words, the opponents of the Irish policy of the government were 390, as against 280 in its favour; or a unionist majority of 110. Once more no single party possessed an independent or absolute majority. An important member of the tory party said to a liberal of his acquaintance (July 7), that he was almost sorry the tories had not played the bold game and fought independently of the dissentient liberals. “But then,” he added, “we could not have beaten you on the bill, without the compact to spare unionist seats.”

England had returned opponents of the liberal policy in [pg 346] the proportion of two and a half to one against its friends; but Scotland approved in the proportion of three to two, Wales approved by five to one, and Ireland by four and a half to one. Another fact with a warning in it was that, taking the total poll for Great Britain, the liberals had 1,344,000, the seceders 397,000, and the tories 1,041,000. Therefore in contested constituencies the liberals of the main body were only 76,000 behind the forces of tories and seceders combined. Considering the magnitude and the surprise of the issue laid before the electors, and in view of the confident prophecies of even some peculiar friends of the policy, that both policy and its authors would be swept out of existence by a universal explosion of national anger and disgust, there was certainly no final and irrevocable verdict in a hostile British majority of no more than four per cent, of the votes polled. Apart from electoral figures, coercion loomed large and near at hand, and coercion tried under the new political circumstances that would for the first time attend it, might well be trusted to do much more than wipe out the margin at the polls. “There is nothing in the recent defeat,” said Mr. Gladstone, “to abate the hopes or to modify the anticipations of those who desire to meet the wants and wishes of Ireland.”


The question now before Mr. Gladstone was whether to meet the new parliament or at once to resign. For a short time he wavered, along with an important colleague, and then he and all the rest came round to resignation. The considerations that guided him were these. It is best for Ireland that the party strongest in the new parliament should be at once confronted with its responsibilities. Again, we were bound to consider what would most tend to reunite the liberal party, and it was in opposition that the chances of such reunion would be likely to stand highest, especially in view of coercion which many of the dissidents had refused to contemplate. If he could remodel the bill or frame a new one, that might be a possible ground for endeavouring to make up a majority, but he could not see his way to any [pg 347]

Cabinet Resign

such process, though he was ready for certain amendments. Finally, if we remained, an amendment would be moved definitely committing the new House against home rule.

The conclusion was for immediate resignation, and his colleagues were unanimous in assent. The Irish view was different and impossible. Returning from a visit to Ireland I wrote to Mr. Gladstone (July 19):—

You may perhaps care to see what —— [not a secular politician] thinks, so I enclose you a conversation between him and ——. He does not show much strength of political judgment, and one can understand why Parnell never takes him into counsel. Parnell, of course, is anxious for us to hold on to the last moment. Our fall will force him without delay to take up a new and difficult line. But his letters to me, especially the last, show a desperate willingness to blink the new parliamentary situation.

Mr. Parnell, in fact, pressed with some importunity that we should meet the new parliament, on the strange view that the result of the election was favourable on general questions, and indecisive only on Irish policy. We were to obtain the balance of supply in an autumn sitting, in January to attack registration reform, and then to dissolve upon that, without making any Irish proposition whatever. This curious suggestion left altogether out of sight the certainty that an amendment referring to Ireland would be at once moved on the Address, such as must beyond all doubt command the whole of the tories and a large part, if not all, of the liberal dissentients. Only one course was possible for the defeated ministers, and they resigned.

On July 30, Mr. Gladstone had his final audience of the Queen, of which he wrote the memorandum following:—

Conversation with the Queen, August 2, 1886.

The conversation at my closing audience on Friday was a singular one, when regarded as the probable last word with the sovereign after fifty-five years of political life, and a good quarter of a century's service rendered to her in office.

The Queen was in good spirits; her manners altogether pleasant. She made me sit at once. Asked after my wife as we [pg 348] began, and sent a kind message to her as we ended. About me personally, I think, her single remark was that I should require some rest. I remember that on a closing audience in 1874 she said she felt sure I might be reckoned upon to support the throne. She did not say anything of the sort to-day. Her mind and opinions have since that day been seriously warped, and I respect her for the scrupulous avoidance of anything which could have seemed to indicate a desire on her part to claim anything in common with me.

Only at three points did the conversation touch upon anything even faintly related to public affairs.... The second point was the conclusion of some arrangement for appanages or incomes on behalf of the third generation of the royal house. I agreed that there ought at a suitable time to be a committee on this subject, as had been settled some time back, she observing that the recent circumstances had made the time unsuitable. I did not offer any suggestion as to the grounds of the affair, but said it seemed to me possible to try some plan under which intended marriages should be communicated without forcing a reply from the Houses. Also I agreed that the amounts were not excessive. I did not pretend to have a solution ready: but said it would, of course, be the duty of the government to submit a plan to the committee. The third matter was trivial: a question or two from her on the dates and proceedings connected with the meeting. The rest of the conversation, not a very long one, was filled up with nothings. It is rather melancholy. But on neither side, given the conditions, could it well be helped.

On the following day she wrote a letter, making it evident that, so far as Ireland was concerned, she could not trust herself to say what she wanted to say....

Among the hundreds of letters that reached him every week was one from an evangelical lady of known piety, enclosing him a form of prayer that had been issued against home rule. His acknowledgment (July 27) shows none of the impatience of the baffled statesman:—

I thank you much for your note; and though I greatly deplored the issue, and the ideas of the prayer in question, yet, from the moment when I heard it was your composition, I knew [pg 349] perfectly well that it was written in entire good faith, and had no relation to political controversy in the ordinary sense. I cannot but think that, in bringing the subject of Irish intolerance before the Almighty Father, we ought to have some regard to the fact that down to the present day, as between the two religions, the offence has been in the proportion of perhaps a hundred to one on the protestant side, and the suffering by it on the Roman side. At the present hour, I am pained to express my belief that there is far more of intolerance in action from so-called protestants against Roman catholics, than from Roman catholics against protestants. It is a great satisfaction to agree with you, as I feel confident that I must do, in the conviction that of prayers we cannot possibly have too much in this great matter, and for my own part I heartily desire that, unless the policy I am proposing be for the honour of God and the good of His creatures, it may be trampled under foot and broken into dust. Of your most charitable thoughts and feelings towards me I am deeply sensible, and I remain with hearty regard.

As he wrote at this time to R. H. Hutton (July 2), one of the choice spirits of our age, “Rely upon it, I can never quarrel with you or with Bright. What vexes me is when differences disclose baseness, which sometimes happens.”

[pg 350]

Book X. 1886-1892

Chapter I. The Morrow Of Defeat. (1886-1887)

Charity rendereth a man truly great, enlarging his mind into a vast circumference, and to a capacity nearly infinite; so that it by a general care doth reach all things, by an universal affection doth embrace and grace the world.... Even a spark of it in generosity of dealing breedeth admiration; a glimpse of it in formal courtesy of behaviour procureth much esteem, being deemed to accomplish and adorn a man.—Barrow.


After the rejection of his Irish policy in the summer of 1886, Mr. Gladstone had a period of six years before him, the life of the new parliament. Strangely dramatic years they were, in some respects unique in our later history. The party schism among liberals grew deeper and wider. The union between tories and seceders became consolidated and final. The alternative policy of coercion was passed through parliament in an extreme form and with violent strain on the legislative machinery, and it was carried out in Ireland in a fashion that pricked the consciences of many thousands of voters who had resisted the proposals of 1886. A fierce storm rent the Irish phalanx in two, and its leader vanished from the field where for sixteen years he had fought so bold and uncompromising a fight. During this period Mr. Gladstone stood in the most trying of all the varied positions of his life, and without flinching he confronted it in the strong faith that the national honour as well as the assuagement [pg 351]

At Tegernsee

of the inveterate Irish wound in the flank of his country, were the issues at stake.

This intense pre-occupation in the political struggle did not for a single week impair his other interests, nor stay his ceaseless activity in controversies that were not touched by politics. Not even now, when the great cause to which he had so daringly committed himself was in decisive issue, could he allow it to dull or sever what had been the standing concerns of life and thought to him for so long a span of years. As from his youth up, so now behind the man of public action was the diligent, eager, watchful student, churchman, apologist, divine. And what is curious and delightful is that he never set a more admirable example of the tone and temper in which literary and religious controversy should be conducted, than in these years when in politics exasperation was at its worst. It was about this time that he wrote: “Certainly one of the lessons life has taught me is that where there is known to be a common object, the pursuit of truth, there should also be a studious desire to interpret the adversary in the best sense his words will fairly bear; to avoid whatever widens the breach; and to make the most of whatever tends to narrow it. These I hold to be part of the laws of knightly tournament.” And to these laws he sedulously conformed. Perhaps at some happy time before the day of judgment they may be transferred from the tournament to the battle-fields of philosophy, criticism, and even politics.


After the defeat in which his tremendous labours had for the moment ended, he made his way to what was to him the most congenial atmosphere in the world, to the company of Döllinger and Acton, at Tegernsee in Bavaria. “Tegernsee,” Lord Acton wrote to me (Sept. 7), “is an out-of-the-way place, peaceful and silent, and as there is a good library in the house, I have taken some care of his mind, leading in the direction of little French comedies, and away from the tragedy of existence. It has done him good, and he has just started with Döllinger to climb a high mountain in the neighbourhood.”

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To Mrs. Gladstone.

Tegernsee, Aug. 28, 1886.—We found Döllinger reading in the garden. The course of his life is quite unchanged. His constitution does not appear at all to have given way. He beats me utterly in standing, but that is not saying much, as it never was one of my gifts; and he is not conscious (eighty-seven last February) of any difficulty with the heart in going up hill. His deafness has increased materially, but not so that he cannot carry on very well conversation with a single person. We have talked much together even on disestablishment which he detests, and Ireland as to which he is very apprehensive, but he never seems to shut up his mind by prejudice. I had a good excuse for giving him my pamphlet,213 but I do not know whether he will tell us what he thinks of it. He was reading it this morning. He rises at six and breakfasts alone. Makes a good dinner at two and has nothing more till the next morning. He does not appear after dark. On the whole one sees no reason why he should not last for several years yet.

“When Dr. Döllinger was eighty-seven,” Mr. Gladstone wrote later, “he walked with me seven miles across the hill that separates the Tegernsee from the next valley to the eastward. At that time he began to find his sleep subject to occasional interruptions, and he had armed himself against them by committing to memory the first three books of the Odyssey for recital.”214 Of Mr. Gladstone Döllinger had said in 1885, “I have known Gladstone for thirty years, and would stand security for him any day; his character is a very fine one, and he possesses a rare capability for work. I differ from him in his political views on many points, and it is difficult to convince him, for he is clad in triple steel.”215

Another high personage in the Roman catholic world sent him letters through Acton, affectionately written and with signs of serious as well as sympathising study of his Irish policy. A little later (Sept. 21) Mr. Gladstone writes to his wife at Hawarden:—

Bishop Strossmayer may make a journey all the way to [pg 353] Hawarden, and it seems that Acton may even accompany him, which would make it much more manageable. His coming would be a great compliment, and cannot be discouraged or refused. It would, however, be a serious affair, for he speaks no language with which as a spoken tongue we are familiar, his great cards being Slavonic and Latin. Unfortunately I have a very great increase of difficulty in hearing the words in foreign tongues, a difficulty which I hope has hardly begun with you as yet.

Like a good host, Lord Acton kept politics out of his way as well as he could, but some letter of mine “set him on fire, and he is full of ——'s blunder and of Parnell's bill.” Parliamentary duty was always a sting to him, and by September 20 he was back in the House of Commons, speaking on the Tenants Relief (Ireland) bill. Then to the temple of peace at Hawarden for the rest of the year, to read the Iliad “for the twenty-fifth or thirtieth time, and every time richer and more glorious than before”; to write elaborately on Homeric topics; to receive a good many visitors; and to compose the admirable article on Tennyson's second Locksley Hall. On this last let us pause for an instant. The moment was hardly one in which, from a man of nature less great and powerful than Mr. Gladstone, we should have counted on a buoyant vindication of the spirit of his time. He had just been roughly repulsed in the boldest enterprise of his career; his name was a target for infinite obloquy; his motives were largely denounced as of the basest; the conflict into which he had plunged and from which he could not withdraw was hard; friends had turned away from him; he was old; the issue was dubious and dark. Yet the personal, or even what to him were the national discomfitures of the hour, were not allowed to blot the sun out of the heavens. His whole soul rose in challenge against the tragic tones of Tennyson's poem, as he recalled the solid tale of the vast improvements, the enormous mitigation of the sorrows and burdens of mankind, that had been effected in the land by public opinion and public authority, operative in the exhilarating sphere of self-government during the sixty years between the first and second Locksley Hall.

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The sum of the matter seems to be that upon the whole, and in a degree, we who lived fifty, sixty, seventy years back, and are living now, have lived into a gentler time; that the public conscience has grown more tender, as indeed was very needful; and that in matters of practice, at sight of evils formerly regarded with indifference or even connivance, it now not only winces but rebels; that upon the whole the race has been reaping, and not scattering; earning and not wasting; and that without its being said that the old Prophet is wrong, it may be said that the young Prophet was unquestionably right.

Here is the way in which a man of noble heart and high vision as of a circling eagle, transcends his individual chagrins. All this optimism was the natural vein of a statesman who had lived a long life of effort in persuading opinion in so many regions, in overcoming difficulty upon difficulty, in content with a small reform where men would not let him achieve a great one, in patching where he could not build anew, in unquenchable faith, hope, patience, endeavour. Mr. Gladstone knew as well as Tennyson that “every blessing has its drawbacks, and every age its dangers”; he was as sensitive as Tennyson or Ruskin or any of them, to the implacable tragedy of industrial civilisation—the city children “blackening soul and sense in city slime,” progress halting on palsied feet “among the glooming alleys,” crime and hunger casting maidens on the street, and all the other recesses of human life depicted by the poetic prophet in his sombre hours. But the triumphs of the past inspired confidence in victories for the future, and meanwhile he thought it well to remind Englishmen that “their country is still young as well as old, and that in these latest days it has not been unworthy of itself.”216

On his birthday he enters in his diary:—

Dec. 29, 1886.—This day in its outer experience recalls the Scotch usage which would say, terrible pleasant. In spite of the ruin of telegraph wires by snow, my letters and postal arrivals of to-day have much exceeded those of last year. Even my share of [pg 355] the reading was very heavy. The day was gone before it seemed to have begun, all amidst stir and festivity. The estimate was nine hundred arrivals. O for a birthday of recollection. It is long since I have had one. There is so much to say on the soul's history, but bracing is necessary to say it, as it is for reading Dante. It has been a year of shock and strain. I think a year of some progress; but of greater absorption in interests which, though profoundly human, are quite off the line of an old man's direct preparation for passing the River of Death. I have not had a chance given me of creeping from this whirlpool, for I cannot abandon a cause which is so evidently that of my fellow-men, and in which a particular part seems to be assigned to me. Therefore am I not disturbed though the hills be carried into the middle of the sea.


To Lord Acton.

Hawarden, Jan. 13, 1887.—It is with much pleasure that I read your estimate of Chamberlain. His character is remarkable, as are in a very high degree his talents. It is one of my common sayings that to me characters of the political class are the most mysterious of all I meet, so that I am obliged to travel the road of life surrounded by an immense number of judgments more or less in suspense, and getting on for practical purposes as well as I can.

I have with a clear mind and conscience not only assented to but promoted the present conferences, and I had laboured in that sense long before Mr. Chamberlain made his speech at Birmingham. It will surprise as well as grieve me if they do harm; if indeed they do not do some little good. Large and final arrangements, it would be rash I think to expect.

The tide is flowing, though perhaps not rapidly, in our favour. Without our lifting a finger, a crumbling process has begun in both the opposite parties. In quietness and in confidence shall be your strength is a blessed maxim, often applicable to temporals as well as spirituals. I have indeed one temptation to haste, namely, that the hour may come for me to say farewell and claim my retirement; but inasmuch as I remain in situ for the Irish question only, I cannot be so foolish as to allow myself to ruin by precipitancy my own purpose. Though I am writing a paper [pg 356] on the Irish question for Mr. Knowles, it is no trumpet-blast, but is meant to fill and turn to account a season of comparative quietude.

The death of Iddesleigh has shocked and saddened us all. He was full of excellent qualities, but had not the backbone and strength of fibre necessary to restore the tone of a party demoralised by his former leader. In gentleness, temper, sacrifice of himself to the common purpose of his friends, knowledge, quickness of perception, general integrity of intention, freedom from personal aims, he was admirable.... I have been constantly struggling to vindicate a portion of my time for the pursuits I want to follow, but with very little success indeed. Some rudiments of Olympian religion have partially taken shape. I have a paper ready for Knowles probably in his March number on the Poseidon of Homer, a most curious and exotic personage.... Williams and Norgate got me the books I wanted, but alack for the time to read them! In addition to want of time, I have to deplore my slowness in reading, declining sight, and declining memory; all very serious affairs for one who has such singular reason to be thankful as to general health and strength.

I wish I could acknowledge duly or pay even in part your unsparing, untiring kindness in the discharge of your engagements as Cook. Come early to England—and stay long. We will try what we can to bind you.

A few months later, he added to his multifarious exercises in criticism and controversy, a performance that attracted especial attention.217 “Mamma and I,” he wrote to Mrs. Drew, “are each of us still separately engaged in a death-grapple with Robert Elsmere. I complained of some of the novels you gave me to read as too stiff, but they are nothing to this. It is wholly out of the common order. At present I regard with doubt and dread the idea of doing anything on it, but cannot yet be sure whether your observations will be verified or not. In any case it is a tremendous book.” And on April 1 (1888), he wrote, “By hard work I have finished and am correcting my article on Robert Elsmere. [pg 357] It is rather stiff work. I have had two letters from her. She is much to be liked personally, but is a fruit, I think, of what must be called Arnoldism.”

To Lord Acton.

Aston Clinton, Tring, Easter Day, April 1, '88.—I do not like to let too long a time elapse without some note of intercourse, even though that season approaches which brings you back to the shores of your country. Were you here I should have much to say on many things; but I will now speak, or first speak, of what is uppermost, and would, if a mind is like a portmanteau, be taken or tumble out first.

You perhaps have not heard of Robert Elsmere, for I find without surprise, that it makes its way slowly into public notice. It is not far from twice the length of an ordinary novel; and the labour and effort of reading it all, I should say, sixfold; while one could no more stop in it than in reading Thucydides. The idea of the book, perhaps of the writer, appears to be a movement of retreat from Christianity upon Theism: a Theism with a Christ glorified, always in the human sense, but beyond the ordinary measure. It is worked out through the medium of a being—one ought to say a character, but I withhold the word, for there is no sufficient substratum of character to uphold the qualities—gifted with much intellectual subtlety and readiness, and almost every conceivable moral excellence. He finds vent in an energetic attempt to carry his new gospel among the skilled artisans of London, whom the writer apparently considers as supplying the norm for all right human judgment. He has extraordinary success, establishes a new church under the name of the new Christian brotherhood, kills himself with overwork, but leaves his project flourishing in a certain Elgood Street. It is in fact (like the Salvation Army), a new Kirche der Zukunft.

I am always inclined to consider this Theism as among the least defensible of the positions alternative to Christianity. Robert Elsmere who has been a parish clergyman, is upset entirely, as it appears, by the difficulty of accepting miracles, and by the suggestion that the existing Christianity grew up in an age specially predisposed to them.

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I want as usual to betray you into helping the lame dog over the stile; and I should like to know whether you would think me violently wrong in holding that the period of the Advent was a period when the appetite for, or disposition to, the supernatural was declining and decaying; that in the region of human thought, speculation was strong and scepticism advancing; that if our Lord were a mere man, armed only with human means, His whereabouts was in this and many other ways misplaced by Providence; that the gospels and the New Testament must have much else besides miracle torn out of them, in order to get us down to the caput mortuum of Elgood Street. This very remarkable work is in effect identical with the poor, thin, ineffectual production published with some arrogance by the Duke of Somerset, which found a quack remedy for difficulties in what he considered the impregnable citadel of belief in God.

Knowles has brought this book before me, and being as strong as it is strange, it cannot perish still-born. I am tossed about with doubt as to writing upon it.

To Lord Acton.

Oxford, April 8, '88.—I am grateful for your most interesting letter, which contains very valuable warnings. On the other side is copied what I have written on two of the points raised by the book. Have I said too much of the Academy? I have spoken only of the first century. You refer to (apparently) about 250 a.d. as a time of great progress? But I was astonished on first reading the census of Christian clergy in Rome temp. St. Cyprian, it was so slender. I am not certain, but does not Beugnot estimate the Christians, before Constantine's conversion, in the west at one-tenth of the population? Mrs. T. Arnold died yesterday here. Mrs. Ward had been summoned and she is coming to see me this evening. It is a very singular phase of the controversy which she has opened. When do you repatriate?

I am afraid that my kindness to the Positivists amounts only to a comparative approval of their not dropping the great human tradition out of view; plus a very high appreciation of the personal qualities of our friend ——.

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To Lord Acton.

Dollis Hill, May 13, '88.—Your last letter was one of extreme interest. It raised such a multitude of points, after your perusal of my article on R. Elsmere, as to stimulate in the highest degree my curiosity to know how far you would carry into propositions, the ideas which you for the most part obliquely put forward. I gave the letter to Mary, who paid us a flying visit in London, that she might take it to Hawarden for full digestion. For myself I feed upon the hope that when (when ?) you come back to England we may go over the points, and I may reap further benefits from your knowledge. I will not now attempt anything of the kind. But I will say this generally, that I am not so much oppressed as you appear to be, with the notion that great difficulties have been imported by the researches of scientists into the religious and theological argument. As respects cosmogony and geogony, the Scripture has, I think, taken much benefit from them. Whatever be the date of the early books, Pentateuch or Hexateuch in their present edition, the Assyriological investigations seem to me to have fortified and accredited their substance by producing similar traditions in variant forms inferior to the Mosaic forms, and tending to throw them back to a higher antiquity, a fountainhead nearer the source. Then there is the great chapter of the Dispersal: which Renan (I think) treats as exhibiting the marvellous genius (!) of the Jews. As to unbroken sequences in the physical order, they do not trouble me, because we have to do not with the natural but the moral order, and over this science, or as I call it natural science, does not wave her sceptre. It is no small matter, again (if so it be, as I suppose), that, after warring for a century against miracle as unsustained by experience, the assailants should now have to abandon that ground, stand only upon sequence, and controvert the great facts of the New Testament only by raising to an extravagant and unnatural height the demands made under the law of testimony in order to [justify] a rational belief. One admission has to be made, that death did not come into the world by sin, namely the sin of Adam, and this sits inconveniently by the declaration of Saint Paul.

Mrs. Ward wrote to thank me for the tone of my article. Her [pg 360] first intention was to make some reply in the Nineteenth Century itself. It appears that —— advised her not to do it. But Knowles told me that he was labouring to bring her up to the scratch again. There, I said, you show the cloven foot; you want to keep the Nineteenth Century pot boiling.

I own that your reasons for not being in England did not appear to me cogent, but it would be impertinent to make myself a judge of them. The worst of it was that you did not name any date. But I must assume that you are coming; and surely the time cannot now be far. Among other things, I want to speak with you about French novels, a subject on which there has for me been quite recently cast a most lurid light.

Acton's letters in reply may have convinced Mr. Gladstone that there were depths in this supreme controversy that he had hardly sounded; and adversaria that he might have mocked from a professor of the school or schools of unbelief, he could not in his inner mind make light of, when coming from the pen of a catholic believer. Before and after the article on Robert Elsmere appeared, Acton, the student with his vast historic knowledge and his deep penetrating gaze, warned the impassioned critic of some historic point overstated or understated, some dangerous breach left all unguarded, some lack of nicety in definition. Acton's letters will one day see the light, and the reader may then know how candidly Mr. Gladstone was admonished as to the excess of his description of the moral action of Christianity; as to the risk of sending modern questions to ancient answers, for the apologists of an age can only meet the difficulties of their age; that there are leaps and bounds in the history of thought; how well did Newman once say that in theology you have to meet questions that the Fathers could hardly have been made to understand; how if you go to St. Thomas or Leibnitz or Paley for rescue from Hegel or Haeckel your apologetics will be a record of disaster. You insist broadly, says Acton, on belief in the divine nature of Christ as the soul, substance, and creative force of Christian religion; you assign to it very much of the good the church has done; all this with little or no qualification or drawback from the other side:—

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Enter Martineau or Stephen or —— (unattached), and loq.:—Is this the final judgment of the chief of liberals? the pontiff of a church whose fathers are the later Milton and the later Penn, Locke, Bayle, Toland, Franklin, Turgot, Adam Smith, Washington, Jefferson, Bentham, Dugald Stewart, Romilly, Tocqueville, Channing, Macaulay, Mill? These men and others like them disbelieved that doctrine established freedom, and they undid the work of orthodox Christianity, they swept away that appalling edifice of intolerance, tyranny, cruelty, which believers in Christ built up to perpetuate their belief.

The philosophy of liberal history, Acton proceeds, which has to acknowledge the invaluable services of early Christianity, feels the anti-liberal and anti-social action of later Christianity, before the rise of the sects that rejected, some of them the divinity of Christ; others, the institutions of the church erected upon it. Liberalism if it admits these things as indifferent, surrenders its own raison d'être, and ceases to strive for an ethical cause. If the doctrine of Torquemada make us condone his morality, there can be no public right and no wrong, no political sin, no secular cause to die for. So it might be said that—

You do not work really from the principle of liberalism, but from the cognate, though distinct principles of democracy, nationality, progress, etc. To some extent, I fear, you will estrange valued friends, not assuredly by any expression of theological belief, but by seeming to ignore the great central problem of Christian politics. If I had to put my own doubts, instead of the average liberal's, I should state the case in other words, but not altogether differently.218
[pg 362]

Chapter II. The Alternative Policy In Act. (1886-1888)

Those who come over hither to us from England, and some weak people among ourselves, whenever in discourse we make mention of liberty and property, shake their heads, and tell us that Ireland is a depending kingdom, as if they would seem by this phrase to intend, that the people of Ireland are in some state of slavery or dependence different from those of England.—Jonathan Swift.


In the ministry that succeeded Mr. Gladstone in 1886, Sir Michael Hicks Beach undertook for the second time the office of Irish secretary, while Lord Randolph Churchill filled his place at the exchequer and as leader of the House. The new Irish policy was to open with the despatch of a distinguished soldier to put down moonlighters in Kerry; the creation of one royal commission under Lord Cowper, to inquire into land rents and land purchase; and another to inquire into the country's material resources. The two commissions were well-established ways of marking time. As for Irish industries and Irish resources, a committee of the House of Commons had made a report in a blue book of a thousand pages only a year before. On Irish land there had been a grand commission in 1880, and a committee of the House of Lords in 1882-3. The latest Purchase Act was hardly yet a year old. Then to commission a general to hunt down little handfuls of peasants who with blackened faces and rude firearms crept stealthily in the dead of night round lonely cabins in the remote hillsides and glens of Kerry, was hardly more sensible than it would be to send a squadron of life-guards to catch pickpockets in a London slum.

A question that exercised Mr. Gladstone at least as sharply as the proceedings of ministers, was the attitude [pg 363]

Dissentient Position

to be taken by those who had quitted him, ejected him in the short parliament of 1886, and fought the election against him. We have seen how much controversy arose long years before as to the question whereabouts in the House of Commons the Peelites should take their seats.219 The same perplexity now confronted the liberals who did not agree with Mr. Gladstone upon Irish government. Lord Hartington wrote to him, and here is his reply:—

August 2, 1886.—I fully appreciate the feeling which has prompted your letter, and I admit the reality of the difficulties you describe. It is also clear, I think, that so far as title to places on the front opposition bench is concerned, your right to them is identical with ours. I am afraid, however, that I cannot materially contribute to relieve you from embarrassment. The choice of a seat is more or less the choice of a symbol; and I have no such acquaintance with your political views and intentions, as could alone enable me to judge what materials I have before me for making an answer to your inquiry. For my own part, I earnestly desire, subject to the paramount exigencies of the Irish question, to promote in every way the reunion of the liberal party; a desire in which I earnestly trust that you participate. And I certainly could not directly or indirectly dissuade you from any step which you may be inclined to take, and which may appear to you to have a tendency in any measure to promote that end.

A singular event occurred at the end of the year (1886), that produced an important change in the relations of this group of liberals to the government that they had placed and maintained in power. Lord Randolph, the young minister who with such extraordinary rapidity had risen to ascendency in the councils of the government, suddenly in a fatal moment of miscalculation or caprice resigned (Dec. 23). Political suicide is not easy to a man with energy and resolution, but this was one of the rare cases. In a situation so strangely unstable and irregular, with an administration resting on the support of a section sitting on benches opposite, and still declaring every day that they adhered to old liberal [pg 364] principles and had no wish to sever old party ties, the withdrawal of Lord Randolph Churchill created boundless perturbation. It was one of those exquisite moments in which excited politicians enjoy the ineffable sensation that the end of the world has come. Everything seemed possible. Lord Hartington was summoned from the shores of the Mediterranean, but being by temperament incredulous of all vast elemental convulsions, he took his time. On his return he declined Lord Salisbury's offer to make way for him as head of the government. The glitter of the prize might have tempted a man of schoolboy ambition, but Lord Hartington was too experienced in affairs not to know that to be head of a group that held the balance was, under such equivocal circumstances, far the more substantial and commanding position of the two. Mr. Goschen's case was different, and by taking the vacant post at the exchequer he saved the prime minister from the necessity of going back under Lord Randolph's yoke. As it happened, all this gave a shake to both of the unionist wings. The ominous clouds of coercion were sailing slowly but discernibly along the horizon, and this made men in the unionist camp still more restless and uneasy. Mr. Chamberlain, on the very day of the announcement of the Churchill resignation, had made a speech that was taken to hold out an olive branch to his old friends. Sir William Harcourt, ever holding stoutly in fair weather and in foul to the party ship, thought the break-up of a great political combination to be so immense an evil, as to call for almost any sacrifices to prevent it. He instantly wrote to Birmingham to express his desire to co-operate in re-union, and in the course of a few days five members of the original liberal cabinet of 1886 met at his house in what was known as the Round Table Conference.220

A letter of Mr. Gladstone's to me puts some of his views on the situation created by the retirement of Lord Randolph:—

Hawarden, Christmas Day, 1886.—Between Christmas services, a flood of cards and congratulations for the season, and many [pg 365] interesting letters, I am drowned in work to-day, having just at 1-¼ p.m. ascertained what my letters are. So forgive me if, first thanking you very much for yours, I deal with some points rather abruptly.

1. Churchill has committed an outrage as against the Queen, and also the prime minister, in the method of resigning and making known his resignation. This, of course, they will work against him. 2. He is also entirely wrong in supposing that the finance minister has any ruling authority on the great estimates of defence. If he had, he would be the master of the country. But although he has no right to demand the concurrence of his colleagues in his view of the estimates, he has a rather special right, because these do so much towards determining budget and taxation, to indicate his own views by resignation. I have repeatedly fought estimates to the extremity, with an intention of resigning in case. But to send in a resignation makes it impossible for his colleagues as men of honour to recede. 3. I think one of his best points is that he had made before taking office recent and formal declarations on behalf of economy, of which his colleagues must be taken to have been cognisant, and Salisbury in particular. He may plead that he could not reduce these all at once to zero. 4. Cannot something be done, without reference to the holes that may be picked, to give him some support as a champion of economy? This talk about the continental war, I for one regard as pure nonsense when aimed at magnifying our estimates.

5. With regard to Hartington. What he will do I know not, and our wishes could have no weight with him.... The position is one of such difficulty for H. that I am very sorry for him, though it was never more true that he who makes his own bed in a certain way must lie in it. Chamberlain's speech hits him very hard in case of acceptance. I take it for granted that he will not accept to sit among thirteen tories, but will have to demand an entry by force, i.e. with three or four friends. To accept upon that footing would, I think, be the logical consequence of all he has said and done since April. In logic, he ought to go forward, or, as Chamberlain has done, backward. The Queen will, I have no doubt, be brought to bear upon him, and [pg 366] the nine-tenths of his order. If the Irish question rules all others, all he has to consider is whether he (properly flanked) can serve his view of the Irish question. But with this logic we have nothing to do. The question for us also is (I think), what is best for our view of the Irish question? I am tempted to wish that he should accept; it would clear the ground. But I do not yet see my way with certainty.

6. With regard to Chamberlain. From what has already passed between us you know that, apart from the new situation and from his declaration, I was very desirous that everything honourable should be done to conciliate and soothe. Unquestionably his speech is a new fact of great weight. He is again a liberal, quand même, and will not on all points (as good old Joe Hume used to say) swear black is white for the sake of his views on Ireland. We ought not to waste this new fact, but take careful account of it. On the other hand, I think he will see that the moment for taking account of it has not come. Clearly the first thing is to see who are the government. When we see this, we shall also know something of its colour and intentions. I do not think Randolph can go back. He would go back at a heavy discount. If he wants to minimise, the only way I see is that he should isolate his vote on the estimates, form no clique, and proclaim strong support in Irish matters and general policy. Thus he might pave a roundabout road of return.... In many things Goschen is more of a liberal than Hartington, and he would carry with him next to nobody.

7. On the whole, I rejoice to think that, come what may, this affair will really effect progress in the Irish question.

A happy Christmas to you. It will be happier than that of the ministers.

Mr. Gladstone gave the Round Table his blessing, his “general idea being that he had better meddle as little as possible with the conference, and retain a free hand.” Lord Hartington would neither join the conference, nor deny that he thought it premature. While negotiation was going on, he said, somebody must stay at home, guard the position, and keep a watch on the movements of the enemy, and this duty was his. In truth, after encouraging or pressing Mr. [pg 367]

Round Table Conference

Goschen to join the government, it was obviously impossible to do anything that would look like desertion either of him or of them. On the other side, both English liberals and Irish nationalists were equally uneasy lest the unity of the party should be bought by the sacrifice of fundamentals. The conference was denounced from this quarter as an attempt to find a compromise that would help a few men sitting on the fence to salve “their consciences at the expense of a nation's rights.” Such remarks are worth quoting, to illustrate the temper of the rank and file. Mr. Parnell, though alive to the truth that when people go into a conference it usually means that they are ready to give up something, was thoroughly awake to the satisfactory significance of the Birmingham overtures.

Things at the round table for some time went smoothly enough. Mr. Chamberlain gradually advanced the whole length. He publicly committed himself to the expediency of establishing some kind of legislative authority in Dublin in accordance with Mr. Gladstone's principle, with a preference in his own mind for a plan on the lines of Canada. This he followed up, also in public, by the admission that of course the Irish legislature must be allowed to organise their own form of executive government, either by an imitation on a small scale of all that goes on at Westminster and Whitehall, or in whatever other shape they might think proper.221 To assent to an Irish legislature for such affairs as parliament might determine to be distinctively Irish, with an executive responsible to it, was to accept the party credo on the subject. Then the surface became mysteriously ruffled. Language was used by some of the plenipotentiaries in public, of which each side in turn complained as inconsistent with conciliatory negotiation in private. At last on the very day on which the provisional result of the conference was laid before Mr. Gladstone, there appeared in a print called the Baptist222 an article from Mr. Chamberlain, containing an ardent plea for the disestablishment of the Welsh church, but warning the Welshmen that they and the Scotch crofters and the English [pg 368] labourers, thirty-two millions of people, must all go without much-needed, legislation because three millions were disloyal, while nearly six hundred members of parliament would be reduced to forced inactivity, because some eighty delegates, representing the policy and receiving the pay of the Chicago convention, were determined to obstruct all business until their demands had been conceded. Men naturally asked what was the use of continuing a discussion, when one party to it was attacking in this peremptory fashion the very persons and the policy that in private he was supposed to accept. Mr. Gladstone showed no implacability. Viewing the actual character of the Baptist letter, he said to Sir W. Harcourt, “I am inclined to think we can hardly do more now, than to say we fear it has interposed an unexpected obstacle in the way of any attempt at this moment to sum up the result of your communications, which we should otherwise hopefully have done; but on the other hand we are unwilling that so much ground apparently gained should be lost, that a little time may soften or remove the present ruffling of the surface, and that we are quite willing that the subject should stand over for resumption at a convenient season.”

The resumption never happened. Two or three weeks later, Mr. Chamberlain announced that he did not intend to return to the round table.223 No other serious and formal attempt was ever made on either side to prevent the liberal unionists from hardening into a separate species. When they became accomplices in coercion, they cut off the chances of re-union. Coercion was the key to the new situation. Just as at the beginning of