John Morley.

The life of William Ewart Gladstone, Volume 2 online

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goings in thy path, that my footsteps slip not.' Settled finally my
figures with Welby and Hamilton ; other points with Spencer and
Morley. Eeflected much. Took a short drive. H. of C, 4£-8£.
Extraordinary scenes outside the House and in. My speech, which
I have sometimes thought could never end, lasted nearly 3 \ hours.
Voice and strength and freedom were granted to me in a degree
beyond what I could have hoped. But many a prayer had gone
up for me, and not I believe in vain.

No such scene has ever been beheld in the House of
Commons. Members came down at break of day to secure
their places; before noon every seat was marked, and


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crowded benches were even arrayed on the floor of the CHAP.
House from tfie mace to the bar. Princes, ambassadors, *
great peers, high prelates, thronged the lobbies. The fame 4 ® a * 7l -
of the orator, the boldness of his exploit, curiosity as to the
plan, poignant anxiety as to the party result, wonder
whether a wizard had at last actually arisen with a spell
for casting out the baleful spirits that had for so many
ages made Ireland our torment and our dishonour, all these
things brought together such an assemblage as no minister
before had ever addressed within those world -renowned
walls. The parliament was new. Many of its members had
fought a hard battle for their seats, and trusted they were
safe in the haven for half a dozen good years to come.
Those who were moved by professional ambition, those
whose object was social advancement, those who thought
only of upright public service, the keen party men, the men
who aspired to office, the men with a past and the men who
looked for a future, all alike found themselves adrift on
dark and troubled waters. The secrets of the bill had been
well kept. To-day the disquieted host were first to learn
what was the great project to which they would have to say
that Aye or No on which for them and for the state so
much would hang.

Of the chief comrade^ or rivals of the minister's own
generation, the strong administrators, the eager and accom-
plished debaters, the sagacious leaders, the only survivor
now comparable to him in eloquence or in influence was
Mr. Bright. That illustrious man seldom came into the
House in those distracted days; and on this memorable
occasion his stern and noble head was to be seen in dim
obscurity. Various as were the emotions in other regions
of the House, in one quarter rejoicing was unmixed.
There, at least, was no doubt and no misgiving. There
pallid and tranquil sat the Irish leader, whose hard insight,
whose patience, energy, and spirit of command, had achieved
this astounding result, and done that which he had vowed
to his countrymen that he would assuredly be able to do.
On the benches round him, genial excitement rose almost to
tumult. Well it might. For the first time since the union,

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BOOK the Irish case was at last to be pressed in all its force and
^ strength, in every aspect of policy and of conscience, by the

1886. most powerful Englishman then alive.

More striking than the audience, was the man; more
striking than the multitude of eager onlookers from the
shore was the rescuer with deliberate valour facing the
floods ready to wash him down; the veteran Ulysses, who
after more than half a century of combat, service, toil,
thought it not too late to try a further ' work of noble note/
In the hands of such a master of the instrument, the theme
might easily have lent itself to one of those displays of
exalted passion which the House had marvelled at in more
than one of Mr. Gladstone's speeches on the Turkish ques-
tion, or heard with religious reverence in his speech on the
Affirmation bill in 1883. What the occasion now required
was that passion should burn low, and reasoned persuasion
hold up the guiding lamp. An elaborate scheme was to be
unfolded, an unfamiliar policy to be explained and vindi-
cated. Of that best kind of eloquence which dispenses with
declamation, this was a fine and sustained example. There
was a deep, rapid, steady, onflowing volume of argument,
exposition, exhortation. Every hard or bitter stroke was
avoided. Now and again a fervid note thrilled the ear and
lifted all hearts. But political oyatory is action, not words,
— action, character, will, conviction, purpose, personality.
As this eager muster of men underwent the enchantment
of periods exquisite in their balance and modulation, the
compulsion of his flashing glance and animated gesture,
what stirred and commanded them was the recollection
of national service, the thought of the speaker's master-
ing purpose, his unflagging resolution and strenuous will,
his strength of thew and sinew well tried in long years of
resounding war, his unquenched conviction that the just
cause can never fail Few are the heroic moments in our
parliamentary politics, but this was one.


The first reading of the bill was allowed to pass without
a division. To the second, Lord Hartington moved an

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amendment in the ordinary form of simple rejection. 1 His
two speeches 2 present the case against the policy and the<
bill in its most massive form. The direct and unsophisti- ^* m 77#
cated nature of his antagonism, backed by a personal char-
acter of uprightness and plain dealing beyond all suspicion,
gave a momentum to his attack that was beyond any effect
of dialectics. It was noticed that he had never during his
thirty years of parliamentary life spoken with anything like
the same power before. The debates on the two stages
occupied sixteen nights. They were not unworthy of the
gravity of the issue, nor of the fame of the House of Com-
mons. Only one speaker held the magic secret of Demos-
thenic oratory. Several others showed themselves masters
of the higher arts of parliamentary discussion. One or two
transient spurts of fire in the encounters of orange and
green, served to reveal the intensity of the glow behind the
closed doors of the furnace. But the general temper was
good. The rule against irritating language was hardly ever
broken. Swords crossed according to the strict rules of
combat. The tone was rational and argumentative. There
was plenty of strong, close, and acute reasoning ; there was -
some learning, a considerable acquaintance both with historic
and contemporary, foreign and domestic fact, and when fact
and reasoning broke down, their place was abundantly filled
by eloquent prophecy of disaster on one side, or blessing on
the other. Neither prophecy was demonstrable ; both could
be made plausible.

Discussion was adorned by copious references to the
mighty shades who had been the glory of the House in a
great parliamentary age. We heard again the Virgilian
hexameters in which Pitt had described the spirit of his
policy at the union : —

Paribus se legibus ambse
Invictse gentes seterna in foedera mittant.

We heard once more how Grattan said that union of the
legislatures was severance of the nations; that the ocean

1 First reading, April 13. Motion made for second reading and amend-
ment, May 10. Land bill introduced and first reading, April 16.
* April 9, May 10.

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forbade union, the channel forbade separation ; that England
in her government of Ireland had gone to hell for her prin-
1686. c iples and to bedlam for her discretion. There was, above
all, a grand and copious anthology throughout the debate
from Burke, the greatest of Irishmen and the largest master
of civil wisdom in our tongue.

The appearance of a certain measure of the common form
of all debates was inevitable. No bill is ever brought in of
which its opponents do not say that it either goes too far, or
else it does not go far enough ; no bill of which its defenders
do not say as to some crucial flaw pounced upon and
paraded by the enemy, that after all it is a mere question of
drafting, or can be more appropriately discussed in com-
mittee. There was the usual evasion of the strong points of
the adversary's case, the usual exaggeration of its weak ones.
That is debating. Perorations ran in a monotonous mould ;
integrity of the empire on one side, a real, happy, and in-
dissoluble reconciliation between English and Irish on the

One side dwelt much on the recall of Lord Fitzwilliam in
1795, and the squalid corruption of the union ; the other, on
the hopeless distraction left by the rebellion of 1798, and
the impotent confusion of the Irish parliament. One
speaker enumerated Mr. Pitt's arguments for the jinion —
the argument about the regency and about the commercial
treaty, the argument about foreign alliances and confeder-
acies and the army, about free trade and catholic emanci-
pation; he showed that under all these six heads the new
bill carefully respected and guafded the grounds taken by
the minister of the 'union. He was bluntly answered by
the exclamation that nobody cared a straw about what Mr.
Pitt said, or what Sir Ralph Abercromby said ; what we had
to deal with were the facts of the case in the year 1886.
You show your mistrust of the Irish by inserting all these
safeguards in the bill, said the opposition. No, replied
ministers ; the safeguards are to meet no mistrusts of ours,
but those entertained or feigned by other people. You had
no mandate for home rule, said the opposition. Still less,
ministers retorted, had you a mandate for coercion.

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Such a scheme as this, exclaimed the critics, with all CHAP
its checks and counterchecks, its truncated functions, itsv.

vetoes, exceptions, and reservations, is degrading to Ireland, ^ n
and every Irish patriot with a spark of spirit in his bosom
must feel it so. As if, retorted the defenders, there were
no degradation to a free people in suffering twenty years of
your firm and resolute coercion. One side argued that the
interests, of Ireland and Great Britain were much too closely
intertwined to permit "a double legislature. The other
argued that this very interdependence was just what made
an Irish legislature safe, because it was incredible that they
should act as if they had no benefit to receive from us, and
no injury to suffer from injury inflicted upon us. Do you,
asked some, blot out of your minds the bitter, incendiary,
and rebellious speech of Irish members ? But do you then,
the rejoinder followed, suppose that the language that came
from men's hearts when a boon was refused, is a clue to the
sentiment in their hearts when the boon shall have been
granted? Ministers were bombarded with reproachful
quotations from their old speeches. They answered the
fire by taunts about the dropping of coercion, and the
amazing manoeuvres of the autumn of 1885. The device of
the two orders was denounced as inconsistent with the
democratic tendencies of the age. A very impressive argu-
ment forsooth from you, was the reply, who are either
stout defenders of the House of Lords as it is, or else stout
advocates for some of the multifarious schemes for mixing
hereditary peers with fossil officials, all of them equally
alien to the democratic tendencies whether of this age or
any other. So, with stroke and counter-stroke, was the
ball kept flying.

Much was made of foreign and colonial analogies ; of the
union between Austria and Hungary, Norway and Sweden,
Denmark and Iceland ; how in forcing legislative union on
North America we lost the colonies ; how the union of legis-
latures ended in the severance of Holland from Belgium.
All this carried little conviction. Most members of parlia-
ment like to think with pretty large blinkers on, and though
it may make for narrowness, this is consistent with much

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practical wisdom. Historical parallels in the actual politics
- of the day are usually rather decorative than substantial.
1886. if people disbelieve premisses, nothing can be easier than
to ridicule conclusions; and what happened now was that
critics argued against this or that contrivance in the
machinery, because they insisted that no machinery was
needed at all, and that no contrivance could ever be made
to work, because the Irish mechanicians would infallibly
devote all their infatuated energy and perverse skill, not
to work it, but to break it in pieces. The Irish, in Mr.
Gladstone's ironical paraphrase of these singular opinions,
had a double dose of original sin ; they belonged wholly to
the kingdoms of darkness, and therefore the rules of that
probability which wise men have made the guide of life can
have no bearing in any case of theirs. A more serious way
of stating the fundamental objection with which Mr. Glad-
stone had to deal was this. Popular government is at the
best difficult to work. It is supremely difficult to work in
a statutory scheme with limits, reservations, and restrictions
lurking round every corner. Finally, owing to history and
circumstance, no people in all the world is less fitted to try
a supremely difficult experiment in government than the
people who live in Ireland. Your superstructure, they said,
is enormously heavy, yet you are going to raise it on founda-
tions that are a quaking bog of incapacity and discontent
This may have been a good answer to the policy of the bill
But to criticise its provisions from such a point of view was
as inevitably unfruitful as it would be to set a hardened
agnostic to revise the Thirty-nine articles or the mystic
theses of the Athanasian creed.

On the first reading, Mr. Chamberlain astounded allies
and opponents alike by suddenly revealing his view, that
the true solution of the question was to be sought in some
form of federation. It was upon the line of federation, and
not upon the pattern of the self-governing colonies, that we
should find a way out of the difficulty. 1 Men could hardly
trust their ears. On the second reading, he startled us once
more by declaring that he was perfectly prepared, the very

1 Hans. 304, pp. 1204-6.

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next day if we pleased, to establish between this country
and Ireland the relations subsisting between the provincial <
legislatures and the dominion parliament of Canada 1 As -**• 77 -
to the first proposal, anybody could see that federation was
a vastly more revolutionary operation than the delegation of
certain legislative powers to a local parliament. Moreover
before federating an Irish legislature, you must first create
it. As to the second proposal, anybody could see on turning
for a quarter of an hour to the Dominion Act of 1867, that
in some of the particulars deemed by Mr. Chamberlain to be
specially important, a provincial legislature in the Canadian
system had more unfettered powers than the Irish legislature
would have under the bill. Finally, he urged that inquiry
into the possibility of satisfying the Irish demand should
be carried on by a committee or commission representing
all sections of the House. 2 In face of projects so strangely
fashioned as this, Mr. Gladstone had a right to declare that
just as the subject held the field in the public mind — for
never before had been seen such signs of public absorption
in the House and out of the House — so the ministerial plan
held the field in parliament It had many enemies, but it
had not a single serious rivaL

The debate on the second reading had hardly begun when
Lord Salisbury placed in the hands of his adversaries a
weapon with which they took care to do much execution.
Ireland, he declared, is not one nation, but two nations.
There were races like the Hottentots, and even the Hindoos,
incapable of self-government He would not place confi-
dence in people who had acquired the habit of using knives
and slugs. His policy was that parliament should enable
the government of England to govern Ireland. ' Apply that
recipe honestly, consistently, and resolutely for twenty years,
and at the end of that time you will find that Ireland will
be fit to accept any gifts in the way of local government or
repeal of coercion laws that you may wish to give her.' 8 In
the same genial vein, Lord Salisbury told his Hottentot
fellow-citizens — one of the two invictce gentes of Mr. Pitt's
famous quotation — that if some great store of imperial

1 Hans. 306, p. 697. « Hans. 304, p. 1202. » May 15, 1886.

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treasure were going to be expended on Ireland, instead of
► buying out landlords, it would be far more usefully em-
1886. ployed in providing for the emigration of a million Irishmen.
Explanations followed this inconvenient candour, but ex-
planations are apt to be clumsy, and the pungency of the
indiscretion kept it long alive. A humdrum speaker, who
was able to contribute nothing better to the animation of
debate, could always by insinuating a reference to Hottentots,
knives and slugs, the deportation of a million Irishmen, and
twenty years of continuous coercion, make sure of a roar
of angry protest from his opponents, followed by a lusty
counter- volley from his friends.


The reception of the bill by the organs of Irish opinion
was easy to foretell The nationalists accepted it in sober
and rational language, subject to amendments on the head
of finance and the constabulary clauses. The tories said it
was a bill for setting up an Irish republic. It is another
selfish English plan, said the moderates. Some Irishmen
who had played with home rule while it was a phrase, drew
back when they saw it in a bill. Others, while holding to
home rule, objected to being reduced to the status of
colonists. The body of home rulers who were protestant was
small, and even against them it was retorted that for every
protestant nationalist there were ten catholic unionists.
The Fenian organs across the Atlantic, while quarrelling
with such provisions as the two orders, 'one of which
would be Irish and the other English,' did justice to the
bravery of the attempt, and to the new moral forces which
it would call out The florid violence which the Fenians
abandoned was now with proper variations adopted by
Orangemen in the north. The General Assembly of the
presbyterian church in Ireland passed strong resolutions
against a parliament, in favour of a peasant proprietary, in
favour of loyalty, and of coercion. A few days later the
general synod of the protestant episcopal church followed
suit, and denounced a parliament. The Orange. print in
Belfast drew up a Solemn League and Covenant for Ulster,

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to ignore and resist an Irish national government. Unionist
prints in Dublin declared and indignantly repelled 'the
selfish English design to get rid of the Irish nuisance from
Westminster, and reduce us to the position of a tributary
dependency/ x

The pivot of the whole policy was the acceptance of the
bill by the representatives of Ireland. On the evening when
the bill was produced, Mr. Parnell made certain complaints
as to the reservation of the control of the constabulary,
as to the power of the first order to effect a deadlock, and as
to finance. He explicitly and publicly warned the govern-
ment from the first that, when the committee stage was
reached, he would claim a large decrease in the fraction
named for the imperial contribution. There was never any
dissembling as to this. In private discussion, he had always
held that the fair proportion of Irish contribution to im-
perial charges was not a fifteenth but a twentieth, and he
said no more in the House than he had persistently said in
the Irish secretary's room. There too he had urged what
he also declared in the House : that he had always insisted
that due representation should be given to the minority;
that he should welcome any device for preventing ill-con-
sidered legislation, but that the provision in the bill, for the
veto of the first order, would lead to prolonged obstruction
and delay. Subject to modification on these three heads, he
accepted the bill ' I am convinced/ he said in concluding,
' that if our views are fairly met in committee regarding the
defects to which I have briefly alluded, — the bill will be
cheerfully accepted by the Irish people, and by their repre-
sentatives, as a solution of the long-standing dispute between
the two countries.' 2

It transpired at a later date that just before the intro-
duction of the bill, when Mr. Parnell had been made
acquainted with its main proposals, he called a meeting of
eight of his leading colleagues, told them what these pro-
posals were, and asked them whether they would take the

1 See for instance, Irish Times, a Hans. 304, p. 1134. Also 305, p.
May 8, and Belfast Newsletter, May 1252.
17, 18, 21, 1886.

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bill or leave it. 1 Some began to object to the absence of
certain provisions, suoh as the immediate control of the
constabulary, and the right over duties of customs. Mr.
Parnell rose from the table, and clenched the discussion by
informing them that if they declined the bill, the govern-
ment would go. They at once agreed 'to accept it pro
tanto, reserving for committee the right of enforcing and,
if necessary, reconsidering their position with regard to
these important questions.' This is neither more nor less
than the form in which Mr. Parnell made his declaration in
parliament. There was complete consistency between the
terms of this declaration, and the terms of acceptance
agreed to by his colleagues, as disclosed in the black days
of December four years later. The charge of bad faith and
hypocrisy so freely made against the Irishmen is wholly
unwarranted by a single word in these proceedings. If the
whole transaction had been known to the House of Com-,
mons, it could not have impaired by one jot or tittle the
value set by the supporters of the bill on the assurances of
the Irishmen that, in principle and subject to modification
on points named, they accepted the bill as a settlement of
the question, and would use their best endeavours to make
it work. 2

1 When the bill was practically
settled, he asked if he might have
a draft of the main provisions, for
communication to half a dozen of his
confidential colleagues. After some
demur, the Irish secretary con-
sented, warning him of the damaging
consequences of any premature divul-
gation. The draft was duly returned,
and not a word leaked out. Some
time afterwards Mr. Parnell recalled
the incident to me. ' Three of the
men to whom I showed the draft

were newspaper men, and they were
poor men, and any newspaper would
have given them a thousand pounds
for it. No very wonderful virtue,
you may say. But how many of
your Home of Commons would
believe it ? '

9 For this point, see the Times
report of the famous proceedings in
Committee-room Fifteen, collected in
the volume entitled The PamelliU
Split (1891).

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Everything on every side was full of traps and mines. ... It was
in the midst of this chaos of plots and counterplots . . . that the
firmness of that noble person [Lord Rockingham] was put to the
proof. He never stirred from his ground \ no, not an inch. —
Bitrke (1766).

The atmosphere in London became thick and hot with CHAP,
political passion. Veteran observers declared that our * *
generation had not seen anything like it. Distinguished ^ T - 77 *
men of letters and, as it oddly happened, men who had won
some distinction either by denouncing the legislative union,
or by insisting on a decentralisation that should satisfy Irish
national aspirations, now choked with anger because they
were taken at their word. Just like irascible scholars of old
time who settled controversies about corrupt texts by im-
puting to rival grammarians shameful crimes, so these writers
could find no other explanation for an opinion that was
not their own about Irish government, except moral turpi-
tude and personal degradation. One professor of urbanity
compared Mr. Gladstone to a desperate pirate burning his
ship, or a gambler doubling and trebling his stake as luck
goes against him. Such strange violence in calm naturfes,
such pharisaic pretension in a world where we are all fallen,
remains a riddle. Political differences were turned into
social proscription. Whigs who could not accept the new

Online LibraryJohn MorleyThe life of William Ewart Gladstone, Volume 2 → online text (page 51 of 91)