John Morley.

The life of William Ewart Gladstone, Volume 2 online

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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 in-
dustrious 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

Mr. 71.

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BOOK question 1 was effaced from all 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 senti-
ment 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. Con-
fronting Lord Hartington was Mr. Chamberlain, eager,
intrepid, self-reliant, alert, daring, with notions about pro-
perty, 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

1 Above, pp. 171-6.

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incidents, both during the life of this administration and for

the eventful year in Mr. Gladstone's career that followed *

its demise. ** 7L

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. Parlia-
ment 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,

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BOOK 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
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 prac-
tice 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

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House showed signs of independence that almost broke the chap
spirit of the ministerial whips. A bill about hares andv_^ — >
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. 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
ftiinisterialists, 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

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BOOK Bartle Frere. But apart from the fact that this pressure represents
' a feeling which extends far beyond the walls of parliament, your

1880. Majesty may probably remember that, in the early part of 1835,
the House of Commons addressed the crown against the appoint-
ment of Lord Londonderry to be ambassador at St. Petersburg, on
account, if Mr. Gladstone remembers rightly, of a general ante-
cedent 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 wLich is unquestionably within the
function of parliament and especially of the House of Commons.

In the field where mastery had never failed him, Mr. Glad-
stone 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 wit-
nesses 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 con-
verted 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 blew 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

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malt tax in the old House of Commons in the year 1833. Yet CHAP,
the lapse of nearly half a century of life in that great arena ^ *

had not relaxed his stringent sense of parliamentary duty. iEr * 71 *
During most of the course of this first session, he was always
early in his place and always left late. In every discussion
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 viil, 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 Orantully 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 expres-
sions 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 ex-
plained, he was ' in a position of greater freedom and less

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 cor-

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BOOK respondence, but his arguments and representations were

VIIL , without effect.

1880. 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 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 con-
sidered the sequestration of the customs' dues at Smyrna to
be practicable. Russia and Italy were friendly. France had
in a certain way assumed special cognizance 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 deter-
mined to give way on both the territorial questions. As
Mr. Gladstone enters in his diary, 'a feint tinge of doubt
remained/ That is to say, the Sultan might find out the rift
in the concert and retract. Russia, however, had actually

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agreed to force. On Tuesday, the 12th, Mr. Gladstone, meet-
ing Lord Granville and another colleague, was ' under the <
circumstances prepared to proceed en trois.' The other two ^ T * 71 -
'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
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 know-
ledge 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 Monte-
negrins, 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

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BOOK following January (1881). Lord Hartington stated the case
i of the government with masterly and crushing force, in a

1880. speech, 1 which is no less than a strong text-book of the
whole argument, if any reader should now desire to compre-
hend it. The evacuation was censured in the Lords by 165
against 79 ; in the Commons ministers carried the day by a
majority of 120.

1 March 25 6, 1881.

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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 iET - 7L
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,


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BOOK which few members of parliament had ever heard of or
y * / looked at. But even abstract republicanism was not the

1880. WO rst. 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. 1 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

1 Bradlaugh, who was a little vain taken in connection with the Parlia-
of his legal skill, founded thiB claim mentary Oaths and other Acts,
upon the Evidence Amendment Act,

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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 iET * 71#
they be whigs or radicals. 1

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 Brad-
laugh 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

Online LibraryJohn MorleyThe life of William Ewart Gladstone, Volume 2 → online text (page 23 of 91)