John Morley.

The life of William Ewart Gladstone, Volume 2 online

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recall the caustic apologue of sage Selden in his table-talk on

1 ' I apprehend, whether you call of legal definition, and because it
it a Protectorate, or a Suzerainty, or seemed to be a word which was likely
the recognition of England as a rara- to lead to misconception and mis-
mount Power, the fact is that a certain understanding. * — Lord Derby in the
controlling power is retained when the House of Lords, March 17, 1884. I
state which exercises this suzerainty do not desire to multiply points of
has a right to veto any negotiations controversy, but the ill-starred raising
into which the dependent state may of the ghost of suzerainty in 1897-9
enter with foreign powers. What- calls for the twofold remark that the
ever suzerainty meant in the Con- preamble was struck out by Lord
vcntipn of Pretoria, the condition of Derby's own hand, and that alike
things which it implied still remains; when Lord Knutsford and Lord Ripon
although the word is not actually em- were at the colonial office, answers
1, we have kept the substance, were given in the House of Commons

Tehave abstained from using the practically admitting that no claim
word because it was not capable of suzerainty could be put forward.

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BOOK contract* ' 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.'

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The agitation of the Irish land league strikes at the roots of all con-
tract, 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 im-
possible.— T. H. Green. 1

On the day in 1880 when Lord Beaconsfield was finally chap.
quitting the official house in Downing Street, one who had v lY -
been the ablest and most zealous supporter of his policy in J&t - 71.
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. 2

Two years later he said at Edinburgh; —

I frankly admit I had had much upon my hands connected with

1 Works of T. H. Green, iii. 382. a House of Commons, April 4, 1882.


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BOOK the doings of the Beaconsfield government in almost every quarter
* of the world, and I did not know, no one knew, the severity of
188 °- the crisis that was already swelling upon the horizon, and that
shortly after rushed upon us like a flood. 1

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 parlia-
ment, 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 govern-
• ment 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 con*
sternation. At least one member of the cabinet was pro-
foundly 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

1 Edinburgh, Sept. 1, 1884.

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upright as he was, along with radicals like Mr. Chamberlain. CHAP.
Before the cabinet was six months old the duke was pluck- <
ing Mr. Gladstone's sleeve with some vivacity at the Birming-
ham 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 l : —

Late in the session came the decisive and disastrous rejection
by the House of Lords ctf the bill by means of which the govern-
ment 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

Forster allowed himself to be persuaded by the governmental
agents in Ireland that the root of the evil lay within small com-
pass; 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 objection-
able 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

1 See vol. i. book vi. chap. n.

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BOOK 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

1880. we were ^m^ 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 trial 1 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 Carling-
ford, 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 some-
thing simple and effective in the suspension of the Habeas Corpus
Act which made such a method preferable to others. 2 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 com-
mission under which the government had taken office, k 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.

1 Proceedings had been instituted * Tried by Lord Spencer in West-

in the Dublin courts against Parnell meath in 1871, it had been successful,

and others for seditious conspiracy, but the area of disturbance was there

The jury were unable to agree on a comparatively insignificant,

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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 iEr - 71 *
years since I first entered a cabinet/ Mr. Gladstone told the
Speaker (Novembe*-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 in-
dictment 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 tho
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 obstruc-
tion 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 mera-
Jbers with a historical bent ran privately to the Speaker with

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BOOK ancient precedents of dictatorial powers asserted by his
VIIL ^ fg c jjj ancestors, and they exhorted him to revive them.

1881. Mr. Forster brought in his bill Its scope may be de-
scribed 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. 1 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
organization, 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 dis-
tinctly 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

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 nnally appeared on the following Thursday, it having been pre-

1 For a plain and precise description of the Coercion Act of 1881, see
Dicey 's Law of the Constitution, pp. 243*8.

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viously 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. Accord- * **
ingly 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 Houso 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/ c 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 in-
domitable Irish experts who fought under the banner of
Mr. Parnell. Northcote was not far wrong when he said

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BOOK that though the bill was carried by two to one, there was
T ' / hardly a man in the House beyond the Irish ranks who

I88L 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

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 resist-
ing 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 embarrass-
ments 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. 1
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

1 See vol. L p. 918.

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the tenant to remain in his holding if he paid his rent, and CHAP,
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 con-
sistent 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 administra-
tion 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

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ROOK 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 parliamen-
tary force and legislative skill and power, but by the vast
and abiding depth of its social results, both direct and still
moire 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/ 1 asked, ' that the Bessborough com-
mission 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 indis-
pensable. 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 mid-
night. 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,

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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. uEr - 72 -

Online LibraryJohn MorleyThe life of William Ewart Gladstone, Volume 2 → online text (page 27 of 91)