John Morley.

The life of William Ewart Gladstone, Volume 2 online

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

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

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

At this moment clouds began to darken the remote
horizon on the north-west boundary of our great Indian
possessions. The entanglement in the deserts of the Soudan
was an obvious temptation to any other Power with policies
of its own, to disregard the susceptibilities or even the solid

1 I often tried to persuade him that from pusillanimity, but he would not
our retreat was to be explained apart listen.

vol. n. 2d

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BOOK interests of Great Britain. As we shall see, Mr. Gladstone
^^ * was as little disposed as Chatham or Paimerston to shrink
1886. from the defence of the legitimate rights or obligations of
his country. But the action of Russia in Afghanistan be-
came an added and rather poignant anxiety.

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

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

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ment. It is long, but then the case was intricate and the CHAP,
stages various. The reader may at least be satisfied to know <
that he will have little more of it. 1

Three cabinets were held on three successive days (April
13-15). On the evening of the first day Mr. Gladstone sent
a telegram to the Queen, then abroad, informing her that
in the existing state of foreign affairs, her ministers felt
bound to examine the question of the abandonment of
offensive operations in the Soudan and the evacuation of
the territory. The Queen, in reply, was rather vehement
against withdrawal, partly on the ground that it would
seriously affect our position in India. The Queen had
throughout made a great point that the fullest powers
should be granted to those on the spot, both Wolseley and
Baring having been selected by the government for the
offices they held. No question cuts deeper in the art of
administering a vast system like that of Great Britain, than
the influence of the agent at a distant place ; nowhere is the
balance of peril between too slack a rein from home and
a rein too tight, more delicate. Mr. Gladstone, perhaps
taught by the experience of the Crimean war, always
strongly inclined to the school of the tight rein, though
I never heard of any representative abroad with a right
to complain of insufficient support from a Gladstone
•cabinet. 2 On this aspect of matters, so raised by the Queen,
Mr. Gladstone had (March 15) expressed his view to Sir
Henry Ponsonby : —

Sir Evelyn Baring was appointed to carry onwards a declared
And understood policy in Egypt, when all share in the manage-
ment of the Soudan was beyond oui province. To Lord
Wolseley as general of the forces in Egypt, and on account
of the arduous character of the work before him, we are bound
to render in all military matters a firm and ungrudging support.
We have accordingly not scrupled to counsel, on his recom-
mendation, very heavy charges on the country, and military

1 See Appendix. grateful I an* to you for the great

9 For instance when Mr. Gladstone advantage and encouragement I nave

iell from office in 1874, Lord Odo enjoyed while serving under your

Russell wrote to him, — 'how sorrel great administration, in Rome and

ieel at your retirement, and how Berlin.'

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BOOK operations of the highest importance. But we have no right to
^ * cast on him any responsibility beyond what is strictly military.

1886. j fc j g not gure iy possible that he should decide policy, and that
we should adopt and answer for it, even where it is in conflict
with the announcements we have made in parliament.

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

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

At the third cabinet the decision was taken to retire
from the Soudan, and to fix the southern frontier of Egypt
at the line where it was left for twelve years, until appre-
hension of designs of another European power on the
upper waters of the Nile was held to demand a new policy.
Meanwhile, the policy of Mr. Gladstone's cabinet was adopted
and followed by Lord Salisbury when he came into office.
He was sometimes pressed to reverse it, and to overthrow the
dervish power at Khartoum. To any importunity of this
kind, Lord Salisbury's answer was until 1896 unwavering. 1

It may be worth noting that, in the course of his corre-
spondence with the Queen on the change of policy in the
Soudan, Mr. Gladstone casually indulged in the luxury of a
historical parallel 'He must assure your Majesty/ he
wrote in a closing sentence (April 20), 'that at least he has
never in any cabinet known any question more laboriously
or more conscientiously discussed ; and he is confident that
the basis of action has not been the mere change in the
public view (which, however, is in some cases imperative, as

1 We do not depart in any decree it is a very serious obstacle to the

i the policy of leaving the Soudan, renewal and the conduct of that

As to the civilisation which the noble slave trade which is always trying

and gallant earl [Lord Dundonald] to pass over from Africa into Asia,

would impose upon us the duty of I do not think that the retention

restoring, it could only be carried of Suakin is of any advantage to

out by a large and costly expedition, the Egyptian government. If I

entailing enormous sacrifice of blood were to speak purely from the

and treasure, and for the present a point of view of that government's

continuous expenditure, which I do own interest, I should Bay, "Abandon

not think the people of this country Suakin at once." ' — Lord Salisbury, in

would sanction The defence th* House of Lords, March 16, 1

of our retention of Suakin is that

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it was with King George iil in the case of the American CHAP,
war), but a deep conviction of what the honour and interest v , -
of the empire require them as faithful servants of your JEfS * 76
Majesty to advise/ The most harmless parallel is apt to
be a challenge to discussion, and the parenthesis seems to
have provoked some rejoinder from the Queen, for on April
28 Mr. Gladstone wrote to her secretary a letter which takes
him away from Khartoum to a famous piece of the world's
history : —

To Sir Henry Ponsonby.

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

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

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

Lord North did not, so far as I know, state the cause to be
hopeless. Nor did those who were opposed to him. The movers
of the resolution that drove him out of office did not proceed
upon that ground. General Conway in his speech advised the
retention of the ground we held in the colonies, and the resolu-
tion, which expressed the sense of the House as a body, bears a
singular resemblance to the announcement we have lately made,

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BOOK as it declares, in its first clause, that the further prosecution of


* ^ offensive war (on the continent of America) ' will be the means

of weakening the efforts of this country against her European

enemies,' February 27, 1782. This was followed, on March 4, by

an address on the same basis ; and by a resolution declaring that

any ministers who should advise or attempt to frustrate it should

be considered 'as enemies to his Majesty and to this country.'

I ought, perhaps, to add that I have never stated, and I do not

conceive, that a change in the public opinion of the country is

the ground on which the cabinet have founded the change in their

advice concerning the Soudan.

The reader has by this time perhaps forgotten how
Mr. Gladstone good humouredly remonstrated with Lord
Palmerston for associating him as one of the same school
as Cobden and Bright. 1 The twenty intervening years had
brought him more and more into sympathy with those two
eminent comrades in good causes, but he was not any less
alive to the inconvenience of the label. ^Speaking in Mid-
lothian after the dissolution in 1880, he denied the cant
allegation that to instal the liberals in power would be to
hand over the destinies of the country to the Manchester
school. 2 'Abhorring all selfishness of policy/ he said,
* friendly to freedom in every country of the earth, attached
to the modes of reason, detesting the ways of force, this
Manchester school, this peace-party, has sprung prema-
turely to the conclusion that wars may be considered as
having closed their melancholy and miserable history, and
that the affairs of the world may henceforth be conducted
by methods more adapted to the dignity of man, more
suited both to his strength and to his weakness, less likely
to lead him out of the ways of duty, to stimulate his evil
passions, to make him guilty before God for inflicting misery
on his fellow-creatures/ Such a view, he said, was a serious
error, though it was not only a respectable, it was even a
noble error. Then he went on, ' However much you may
detest war — and you cannot detest it too much — there is

1 Above, vol. i. p. 683. * Edinburgh, March 17, 1880.

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no war — except one, the war for liberty — that does not
contain in it elements of corruption, as well as of misery, <
that are deplorable to recollect and to consider; but however JEft ' 7fi *
deplorable wars may be, they are among the necessities of
our condition ; and there are times when justice, when faith,
when the welfare of mankind, require a man not to shrink
from the responsibility of undertaking them. And if you
undertake war, so also you are often obliged to undertake
measures that may lead to war.' 1

It is also, if not one of the necessities, at least one of
the natural probabilities of our imperfect condition, that
when a nation has its forces engaged in war, that is
the moment when other nations may press inconvenient
questions of their own. Accordingly, as I have already
mentioned, when Egyptian distractions were at their
height, a dangerous controversy arose with Russia in
regard to the frontier of Afghanistan. The question had
been first raised a dozen years before without effect, but
it was now sharpened into actuality by recent advances of
Russia in Central Asia, bringing her into close proximity
to the territory of the Ameer. The British and Russian
governments appointed a commission to lay down the pre-
cise line of division between the Turcoman territory recently
annexed by Russia, and Afghanistan. The question of in-
structions to the commission led to infinite discussion, of
which no sane man not a biographer is now likely to read
one word. While the diplomatists were thus teasing one
another, Russian posts and Afghan pickets came closer
together, and one day (March 30, 1885) the Russians broke
in upon the Afghans at Penjdeh. The Afghans fought gal-
lantly, their losses were heavy, and Penjdeh was occupied
by the Russians. '"Whose was the provocation,' as Mr.
Gladstone said later, 'is a matter of the utmost conse-
quence. We only know that the attack was a Russian
attack. We know that the Afghans suffered in life, in
spirit, and in repute. We know that a blow was struck at

1 In the letter to Mr. Bright his agreement with Bright in believ-

(July 14, 1882), already given, Mr. ing most wars to have been sad

Gladstone went somewhat nearer to errors,
the Manchester school, and expressed

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BOOK the credit and the authority of a sovereign — our protected

VIIL , n.Hy — who had committed no offence. All I say is, we

1886. cannot in that state of things close this book and say, " We

will look into it no more." We must do our best to have

right done in the matter/

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

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best to denounce Mr. Gladstone and Lord Granville for
trampling the interests and honour of their country under-
foot thought themselves very lucky, when the time came •**• 76
for them to take up the threads, in being able to complete
the business by adopting and continuing the selfsame line.
With justifiable triumph Mr. Gladstone asked how they
would have confronted Russia if ' that insane policy — for so
I still must call it 1 — of Afghan occupation which he had
brought to an end in 1880, had been persevered in. In
such a case, when Russia came to advance her claim so to
adjust boundaries as to make her immediate neighbour
to Afghanistan, she would have found the country full
oj friends and allies, ready to join her in opposing the
foreigner and the invader ; and she would have been recog-
nised as the liberator. 1


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

1 West Calder, November 17, 1885.

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BOOK at length it ringeth to evensong, he does not conceal the
, burden. To Mrs. Gladstone he writes from Downing Street
1885 « on May-day : —

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

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

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

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Difference of opinion upon the budget at one time wore
a threatening look, for the radicals disliked the proposed
increase of the duty on beer ; but Mr. Gladstone pointed out ^ T * 7&>
in compensation that on the other hand the equalisation of
the death duties struck at the very height of class pre-
ference. Mr. Childers was, as always, willing to accommo-
date difficulties ; and in the cabinet the rising storm blew
over. Ireland never blows over.

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

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{May-June 1885.)

rh.v Aids ap/toplar
$v<xt£>* wape^iafft ffovXaL

JBscn. Prom. v. 648.

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

BOOK What was to be the Irish policy ? The Crimes Act would
VIIL . expire in August, and the state of parties in parliament and
1885. f sections within the cabinet, together with the approach
. of the general election, made the question whether that Act
should be renewed, and if so on what terms, an issue of
crucial importance. There were good grounds for suspecting
that tories were even then intimating to the Irish that if
Lord Salisbury should come into office, they would drop
coercion, just as the liberals had dropped it when they

Online LibraryJohn MorleyThe life of William Ewart Gladstone, Volume 2 → online text (page 39 of 91)