John Morley.

The life of William Ewart Gladstone, Volume 2 online

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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 Devon-
shire 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.' 2 The next day the cabinet met ;

1 Colvile, n., Appendix 47, p. in extremis by the end of December.

274. Apart from the authority of * The story that he went to the

Kitchener, Gordon's own language theatre the same night is untrue,
shows that he knew himself to be

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mr. Gladstone's vindication 407

discussions 'difficult but harmonious.' The Queen sent to CHAP.


him and to Lord Hartington at Holker an angry telegram » ,
— blaming her ministers for what had happened — a telegram JBx% 76 -
not in cypher 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 des-
tination. 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.
Bat 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 testi-
mony and authority was decidedly against it, and the idea of the
SuaJdn 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 defini-
tive 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

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BOOK adequate military means, never to lose from view what might
- t ' ' have proved to be the destruction of the gallant army in the

1885, Soudan. It is probable that abundant wrath and indignation will
on this occasion be poured out upon them. Nor will they com-
plain 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 Khar-
toum 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 pro-

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minently, 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, iET * '**
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
mbved, and with the tories and the Irish have carried, a con-
demnatory 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 con-
nection 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 f ecure 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. 1

1 Bt\foroVs Magazine (New York) and consular-agent for the United

Sept. 1890. A French translation of States at Alexandria. Another book

this letter will be found in Utigypte of his, published in 1884, is The

et ses. Provinces Perdue*, by the Three Prophets; Chinese Gordon, El

recipient, Colonel C. Chaill^-Long Mafidi, and Arabi Pasha, Burton re-
Bey (1892), pp. 196-7. He was chief viewed Gordon's Kharto
of the staff to Gordon in the Soudan, Academy, June 11, 1885,

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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. — Bukke.

BOOK The year 1885 must be counted as in some respects the
t : > severest epoch of Mr. Gladstone's life. The previous twelve

1886. 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 disturb-
ance 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, frdm
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 occupa-
tions, 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


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sedative. More perplexing even than the successive CHAP,
problems of the hour, was the threatened disorganization, <_ x

not only of his cabinet, but of the party and its future. On Mt - 76 -
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£ 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 Harring-
ton 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 under-
stood 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, 1 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

1 Above, p. 406.

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BOOK cipher telegram (on February 5) bringing the evil news of

VIIL , the fall of Khartoum.

1885# It is not uninteresting to see how the notion of Mr. Glad-
stone'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 responsi-
bility. ... 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

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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, Et * 7ft "
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 construc-
tion, — 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 mactive. 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

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BOOK thought some of them were 'on various grounds open to
«• • grave objection/ yet they seemed to raise no ' definite point

188& 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 man-
hood 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

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

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the demands of the present, apart from signs that were CHAP,
ominous for the future. A year before, in a letter to Lord * ^
Granville (March 24, 1884), he had attempted a definition that Mr - 76 -
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 Keform 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 unfavour-
able issue, if not in the shape of an adverse majority, yet
in the form of a majority too small to enable the govern-

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BOOK ment to carry on with adequate authority and efficiency.
L - In the debate, said Mr. Gladstone, Lord Hartington re-stated

1885. w j t b 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 dazzling radiance five years ago, was worn
down to an attenuated majority of fourteen. 1

When the numbers were declared, Mr. Gladstone said
to a colleague on the bench, 'That will do. 9 Whether this
delphic utterance meant that the size of the majority
would justify resignation or retention, the colleague was
not su^e. 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 Kussia, 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

1 For the censure, 288 ; against, 302.

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retiring on a small scratch defeat on cordite. 1 So now C H AP,
he acted on the principle that with courage cabinets may - t ' •
weather almost any storm. No actual vote was taken, but JEXm 76>
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

Online LibraryJohn MorleyThe life of William Ewart Gladstone, Volume 2 → online text (page 38 of 91)