John Morley.

The life of William Ewart Gladstone, Volume 2 online

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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 itself 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 system-
atised 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


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BOOK 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 pro-
posed 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 unpalat-
able 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 house-
holders 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

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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 JEn - 75 -
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. Glad-
stone 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 redis-
tribution 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 pre-
sented, 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 aggre-

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BOOK gate constituency of the United Kingdom taken at 3,000,000 it
' > will add 2,000,000 more, nearly twice as much as was added
1884, since 1867, and more than four times as much as was added in

The bill was read a second time (April 7) by the over-
whelming 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 iil, would
have been powerless to secure it in the most corrupt or the
most servile days of the ancient House of Commons/ x

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

1 Saturday Review, April 12, 1884.

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kind. At least one very eminent man among them had CHAP,
privately made up his mind that the proceeding supposed to *
be designed by their opponents — their distinct professions Mr - 75 '
notwithstanding, — would efface the tory party for thirty years
to coinp. 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 redistribu-
tion 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 disgrace-
ful 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.' * 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 cam-
paign 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 somethipg ; 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
1 Edinburgh, August 30, 1884.

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BOOK 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 reaso^ 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 1 — 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

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tory parliament, you are told that it is the thoroughly tory CHAP,
parliament that represents the solid and permanent opinion of the *
country. 1 JEt - 75 -

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 pre-
ceding, notwithstanding the enlargement of direct popular


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 com-
patible 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 dispas-
sionate, 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 states-
manship that brought this pacification into sight and within

1 Corn Exchange, Edinburgh, August 30, 1884
VOL. II. 2 A

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BOOK The Queen was deeply struck both by the force of his
l > arguments and the earnest tone in which they were pressed.

1884. 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 ascer-
taining 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

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Scotland (though they were marked by much restraint) CHAP
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 Eichmond 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 direc-
tions. 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 Arch-
bishop 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

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BOOK 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

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taking of the bend was exactly what the steersman had been CHAP,
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
Harrington'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

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BOOK he will empower Lord Harrington 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

Online LibraryJohn MorleyThe life of William Ewart Gladstone, Volume 2 → online text (page 34 of 91)