John Morley.

The life of William Ewart Gladstone, Volume 2 online

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Mr. Chamberlain had announced that he would move the
rejection. In the face of ever-growing embarrassments
and importunities, recourse was had to the usual device
of a meeting of the party at the foreign office (May 27).
The circular calling the meeting was addressed to those
liberals who, while retaining full freedom on all particulars
in the bill, were 'in favour of the establishment of a
legislative body in Dublin for the management of affairs
specifically and exclusively Irish.' This was henceforth to
be the test of party membership. A man who was for an
Irish legislative body was expected to come to the party
meeting, and a man who was against it was expected to stay

1 In the end exactly 93 liberals did vote against the bill.

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away. Many thought this discrimination a mistake. Some
two hundred and twenty members attended. The pith of v
the prime minister's speech, which lasted for an hour, came iET * 77,
to this : that the government would not consent to emascu-
late the principle of the bill, or turn it into a mockery, a
delusion, and a snare; that members who did not wholly
agree with the bill, might still in accordance with the strict
spirit of parliamentary rules vote for the second reading
with a view to its amendment in committee ; that such a
vote would not involve support of the Land bill; that he
was ready to consider any plan for the retention of the
Irish members, provided that it did not interfere with the
liberty of the Irish legislative body, and would not introduce
confusion into the imperial parliament. Finally, as to pro-
cedure — and. here his anxious audience fell almost breathless
— they could either after a second reading hang up the bill,
and defer committee until the autumn ; or they could wind
up the session, prorogue, and introduce the bill afresh with
the proper amendments in October. The cabinet, he told
them, inclined to the later course.

Before the meeting Mr. Parnell had done his best to
impress upon ministers the mischievous effect that would
be produced on Irish members and in Ireland, by any
promise to withdraw the bill after the second reading. On
the previous evening, I received from him a letter of unusual
length. ' You of course/ he said, ' are the best judges of what
the result may be in England, but if it be permitted me to
express an opinion, I should say that withdrawal could
scarcely fail to give great encouragement to those whom it
cannot conciliate, to depress and discourage those who are
now the strongest fighters for the measure, to produce doubt
and wonder in the country and to cool enthusiasm; and
finally, when the same bill is again produced in the autumn,
to disappoint and cause reaction among those who may
have been temporarily disarmed by withdrawal, and to
make them at once more hostile and less easy to appease/
This letter I carried to Mr. Gladstone the next morning, and
read aloud to him a few minutes before he was to cross over
to the foreign office. For a single instant — the only occasion

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that I can recall during all these severe weeks — his patience
, broke. The recovery was as rapid as the flash, for he knew
1886. the duty of the lieutenant of the watch to report the signs
of rock or shoal He was quite as conscious of all that was
urged in Mr. Parneirs letter as was its writer, but perception
of risks on one side did not overcome risks on the other.
The same evening they met for a second time : —

May 27. — . . . Mr. Gladstone and Parnell had a conversation
in my room. Parnell courteous enough, but depressed and
gloomy. Mr. Gladstone worn and fagged. . . . When he was
gone, Parnell repeated moodily that he might not be able to vote
for the second reading, if it were understood that after the second
reading the bill was to be withdrawn. 'Very well/ said I, 'that
will of course destroy the government and the policy ; but be that
as it may, the cabinet, I am positive, won't change their line.'

The proceedings at the foreign office brought to the
supporters of government a lively sense of relief. In the
course of the evening a score of the waverers were found
to have been satisfied, and were struck off the dissentient
lists. But the relief did not last for many hours. The
opposition instantly challenged ministers (May 28) to say
plainly which of the two courses they intended to adopt
Though short, this was the most vivacious debate of alL
Was the bill to be withdrawn, or was it to be postponed?
If it was to be withdrawn, then, argued the tory leader
(Sir M. H. Beach) in angry tones, the vote on the second
reading would be a farce. If it was to be postponed, what
was that but to paralyse the forces of law and order in
Ireland in the meantima Such things were trifling with
parliament, trifling with a vital constitutional question, and
trifling with the social order which the government professed
to be so anxious to restore. A bill read a second time on
such terms as these would be neither more nor less than
a Continuance-in-Office bill

This biting sally raised the temper of the House on both
sides, and Mr. Gladstone met it with that dignity which did
not often fail to quell even the harshest of his adversaries.
'You pronounce that obviously the motive of the govern-

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ment is to ensure their own continuance in office. They CHAP.


prefer that to all the considerations connected with the . llm
great issue before them, and their minds in fact are of such ^ T - 77 -
a mean and degraded order, that they can only be acted
upon, not by motives of honour and duty, but simply by
those of selfishness and personal interest. Sir, I do not
condescend to discuss that imputation. The dare aimed at
our shield, being such a dart as that, is telum imbeUe sine
ictu* 1

The speaker then got on to the more hazardous part of *
the ground. He proceeded to criticise the observation of the
leader of the opposition that ministers had undertaken to
remodel the bilL ' That happy word/ he said, c as applied
to the structure of the bill, is a pure invention/ Lord
Randolph interjected that the word used was not ' re-
modelled/ but ' reconstructed.' ' Does the noble lord dare
to say/ asked the minister, ' that it was used in respect of
the bill ? ' ' Yes/ said the noble lord. ' Never, never/ cried
the minister, with a vehemence that shook the hearts of
doubting followers; 'it was used with respect to one par-
ticular clause, and one particular point of the bill, namely
so much of it as touches the future' relation of the repre-
sentatives of Ireland to the imperial parliament.' Before
the exciting episode was over, it was stated definitely that if
the bill were read a second time, ministers would advise a
prorogation and re-introduce the bill with amendments.
The effect of this couple of hours was to convince the House
that the government had made up their minds that it was
easier and safer to go to the country with the plan as it
stood, than to agree to changes that would entangle them
in new embarrassments, and discredit their confidence in
their own handiwork. Ingenious negotiators perceived that
their toil had been fruitless. Every man now knew the
precise situation that he had to face, in respect alike of the
Irish bill and liberal unity.

On the day following this decisive scene (May 29), under
the direction of the radical leader an invitation to a con-
ference was issued to those members ' who being in favour

1 Hans. 306, p. 322.

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of some sort of autonomy for Ireland, disapproved of the
- government bills in their present shape/ The form of the
1886. invitation is remarkable in view of its ultimate effect on
Irish autonomy. The meeting was held on May 31, in the
same committee room upstairs that four years later became
associated with the most cruel of all phases of the Irish
controversy. Mr. Chamberlain presided, and some fifty-five
gentlemen attended. Not all of them had hitherto been
understood to be in favour either of some sort, or of any sort,
of autonomy for Ireland. The question was whether they
should content themselves with abstention from the division,
or should go into the lobby against the government. If they
abstained, the bill would pass, and an extension of the party
schism would be averted. The point was carried, as all
great parliamentary issues arei by considerations apart from
the nice and exact balance of argument on the merits. In
anxious and distracting moments like this, when so many
arguments tell in one way and so many tell in another, a
casting vote often belongs to the moral weight of some
particular person. The chairman opened in a neutral
sense. It seems to have been mainly the moral weight of
Mr. Bright that sent down the scale. He was not present,
but he sent a letter. He hoped that every man would use
his own mind, but for his part he must vote against the bilL
This letter was afterwards described as the death-warrant of
the bill and of the administration. The course of the men
who had been summoned because they were favourable to
some sort of home rule was decided by the illustrious
statesman who opposed every sort of home rule. Their
boat was driven straight upon the rocks of coercion by
the influence of the great orator who had never in all his
career been more eloquent than when he was denouncing
the mischief and futility of Irish coercion, and protesting
that force is no remedy.

One of the best speakers in the House, though not at that
time in the cabinet, was making an admirably warm and
convinced defence alike of the policy and the bill while
these proceedings were going on. But Mr. Fowler was
listened to by men of pre-occupied minds. All knew what

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momentous business was on foot in another part of the CHAP,
parliamentary precincts. Many in the ranks were confident * *
that abstention would carry the day. Others knew that the Mt * 77 -
meeting had been summoned for no such purpose, and they
made sure that the conveners would have their way. The
quiet inside the House was intense and unnatural As
at last the news of the determination upstairs to vote
against the bill ran along the benches before the speaker
sat down, men knew that the ministerial day was lost It
was estimated by the heads of the 'Chamberlain group' *
that if they abstained, the bill would pass by a majority
of five. Such a bill carried by such a majority could of
course not have proceeded much further. The principle of
autonomy would have been saved, and time would have
been secured for deliberation upon a new plan. More than
once Mr. Gladstone observed that no decision taken from
the beginning of the crisis to the end was either more
incomprehensible or more disastrous.


The division was taken a little after one o'clock on the
morning of the 8th of June. The Irish leader made one
of the most masterly speeches that ever fell from him.
Whether agreeing with or differing from the policy, every un-
prejudiced listener felt that this was not the mere dialectic
of a party debater, dealing smartly with abstract or verbal
or artificial arguments, but the utterance of a statesman
with his eye firmly fixed upon the actual circumstances of
the nation for whose government this bill would make him
responsible. As he dealt with Ulster, with finance, with the
supremacy of parliament, with the loyal minority, with the
settlement of education in an Irish legislature, — soberly,
steadily, deliberately, with that full, familiar, deep insight
into the facts of a country, which is only possible to a man
who belongs to it and has passed his life in it, the effect of
Mr. ParnelTs speech was to make even able disputants on
either side look little better than amateurs.

The debate was wound up for the regular opposition by
Sir Michael Hicks Beach, who was justly regarded through-

vol. n. 2 o

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BOOK out the session as having led his party with remarkable skill
' - and judgment. Like the Irish leader, he seemed to be

1886. inspired by the occasion to a performance beyond his usual
range, and he delivered the final charge with strong effect.
The bill, he said, was the concoction of the prime minister
and the Irish secretary, and the cabinet had no voice in the
matter. The government had delayed the progress of the
bill for a whole long and weary month, in order to give
party wirepullers plenty of time in which to frighten
waverers. To treat a vote on the second reading as a mere
vote on a principle, without reference to the possibility of
applying it, was a mischievous farce. Could anybody dream
that if he supported the second reading now, he would not
compromise his action in the autumn, and would not be
appealed to as having made a virtual promise to Ireland, of
which it would be impossible to disappoint her ? As for the
bill itself, whatever lawyers might say of the theoretic
maintenance of supremacy, in practice it would have gone.
All this side of the case was put by the speaker with the
straight and vigorous thrust that always works with strong
effect in this great arena of contest.

Then came the unflagging veteran with the last of his five
speeches. He was almost as white as the flower in his coat,
but the splendid compass, the flexibility, the moving charm
and power of his voice, were never more wonderful. The
construction of the speech was a masterpiece, the temper of
it unbroken, its freedom from taunt and bitterness and small
personality incomparable. Even if Mr. Gladstone had been
in the prime of his days, instead of a man of seventy-six years
all struck ; even if he had been at his ease for the last four
months, instead of labouring with indomitable toil at the two
bills, bearing all the multifarious burdens of the head of a
government, and all the weight of the business of the leader of
the House, undergoing all the hourly strain and contention of
a political situation of unprecedented difficulty, — much of the
contention being of that peculiarly trying and painful sort
which means the parting of colleagues and friends — his
closing speech would still have been a surprising effort of
free, argumentative, and fervid appeal. With the fervid

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appeal was mingled more than one piece of piquant mockery. CHAP.
Mr. Chamberlain had said that a dissolution had no terrors * V * L
for him. ' I do not wonder at it. I do not see how a dis- ^ T * 77 *
solution can have any terrors for him. He has trimmed his
vessel, and he has touched his rudder in such a masterly
way, that in whichever direction the winds of heaven may
blow they must fill his sails. Supposing that at an election
public opinion should be very strong in favour of the bill,
my right hon. friend would then be perfectly prepared to
meet that public opinion, and tell it, " I declared strongly
that I adopted the principla of the bill" On the other
hand, if public opinion were very adverse to the bill, he
again is in complete armour, because he saysb " Yes, I voted
against the bill." Supposing, again, public opinion is in
favour of a very large plan for Ireland, my right hon. friend
is perfectly provided for that case also. The government
plan was not large enough for him, and he proposed in his
speech on the introduction of the bill that we should have a
measure on the basis of federation, which goes beyond this
bill. Lastly — and now I have very nearly boxed the com-
pass — supposing that public opinion should take quite a
different turn, and instead of wanting very large measures
for Ireland, should demand very small measures for Ireland,
still the resources of my right hon. friend are not exhausted,
because he is then able to point out that the last of his plans
was for four provincial circuits controlled from London.'
All these alternatives and provisions were visibly ' creations
of the vivid imagination, born of the hour and perishing
with the hour, totally unavailable for the solution of a great
and difficult problem.'

Now, said the orator, was one of the golden moments of
our history, one of those opportunities which may come and
may go, but which rarely return, or if they return, return at
long intervals, and under circumstances which no man can
forecast. There was such a golden moment in 1795, on the
mission of Lord Fitzwilliam. At that moment the parlia-
ment of Grattan was on the point of solving the Irish pro-
blem. The cup was at Ireland's lips, and she was ready to
drink it, when the hand of England rudely and ruthlessly

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dashed it to the ground in obedience to the wild and
dangerous intimations of an Irish faction. There had been
no great day of hope for Ireland since, no day when you
might completely and definitely hope to end the controversy
till now — more than ninety years. The long periodic time
had at last run out, and the star had again mounted into
the heavens.

This strain of living passion was sustained with all its fire
and speed to the very close. 'Ireland stands at 'your bar
expectant, hopeful, almost suppliant. Her words are the
words of truth and soberness. She asks a blessed oblivion
of the past, and in that oblivion our interest is deeper even
than hers. You have been asked to-night to abide by the
traditions of which we are the heirs. What traditions ? By
the Irish traditions ? Go into the length and breadth of the
world, ransack the literature of all countries, find if you
can a single voice, a single book, in which the conduct of
England towards Ireland is anywhere treated except with
profound and bitter condemnation. Are these the traditions
by which we are exhorted to stand ? No, they are a sad
exception to the glory of our country. They are a broad
and black blot upon the pages of its history, and what we
want to do is to stand by the traditions of which we are the
heirs in all matters except our relations with Ireland, and
to make our relation with Ireland to conform to the other
traditions of our country. So we treat our traditions, so we
hail the demand of Ireland for what I call a blessed oblivion
of the past. She asks also a boon for the future ; and that
boon for the future, unless we are much mistaken, will be a
boon to us in respect of honour, no less than a boon to her
in respect of happiness, prosperity and peace. Such, sir, is
her prayer. Think, I beseech you ; think well, think wisely,
think, *not for the moment:, but for the years that are to
come, before you reject this bill.'

The question was put, the sand glass was turned upon the
table, the division bells were set ringing. Even at this
moment, the ministerial whips believed that some were still
wavering. A reference made by Mr. Parnell to harmonious
communications in the previous summer with a tory minister,

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inclined them to vote for the bill On the other hand, the CHAP,
prospect of going to an election without a tory opponent was ^
no weak temptation to a weak man. A common impression ^ Er - 77 -
was that the bill would be beaten by ten or fifteen. Others
were sure that it would be twice as much as either figure.
Some on the treasury bench, perhaps including the prime
minister himself, hoped against hope that the hostile majority
might not be more than five or six. It proved to be thirty.
The numbers were 343 against 313. Ninety-three liberals
voted against the bill These with the two tellers were
between one-third and one-fourth of the full liberal strength
from Great Britain. So ended the first engagement in this
long campaign. As I passed into his room at the House with
Mr. Gladstone that night, he seemed for the first time to
bend under the crushing weight of the burden that he had
taken up.

When ministers went into the cabinet on the following
day, three of them inclined pretty strongly towards resigna-
tion as a better course than dissolution; mainly on the
ground that the incoming government would then have to
go to the country with a policy of their own. Mr. Gladstone,
however, entirely composed though pallid, at once opened
the case with a list of twelve reasons for recommending
dissolution, and the reasons were so cogent that his opening
of the case was also its closing. They were entirely char-
acteristic, for they began with precedent and the key was
courage. He knew of no instance where a ministry defeated
under circumstances like ours, upon a great policy or on a
vote of confidence, failed to appeal to the country. Then
with a view to the enthusiasm of our friends in this country,
as well as to feeling in Ireland, it was essential that we
should not let the flag go down. We had been constantly
challenged to a dissolution, and not to take the challenge up
would be a proof of mistrust, weakness, and a faint heart.
' My conclusion is/ he said, ' a dissolution is formidable, but
resignation would mean for the present juncture abandon-
ment of the cause/ His conclusion was accepted without

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BOOK comment. The experts outside the cabinet were convinced
/ - that a bold front was the best way of securing the full fight-

1886. jjjg p Gwer f the party. The white feather on such an issue,
and with so many minds wavering, would be a sure provoca-
tive of defeat.

Mr. Gladstone enumerated to the Queen what he took to
"be the new elements in the case. There were on the side of
the government, 1. The transfer of the Irish vote from
the tories, 2. The popular enthusiasm in the liberal masses
which he had never seen equalled. But what was the
electoral value of enthusiasm against (a) anti- Irish preju-
dices, (b) the power of rank, station, and wealth, (c) the kind
of influence exercised by the established clergy, ' perversely
applied as of course Mr. Gladstone thinks in politics, but
resting upon a very solid basis as founded on the generally
excellent and devoted work which they do in their parishes.'
This remained to be proved. On the other side there was
the whig defection, with the strange and unnatural addition
from Birmingham. ' Mr. Gladstone himself has no skill in
these matters, and dare not lay an opinion before your
Majesty on the probable general result* He thought there
was little chance, if any, of a tory majority in the new
parliament. Opinion taken as a whole seemed to point to a
majority not very large, whichever way it may be.

No election was ever fought more keenly, and never did
so many powerful men fling themselves with livelier activity
into a great struggle. The heaviest and most telling attack
came from Mr. Bright, who had up. to now in public been
studiously silent. Every word, as they said of Daniel
Webster, seemed to weigh a pound. His arguments were
mainly those of his letter already given, but they were
delivered with a gravity and force that told powerfully upon
the large phalanx of doubters all over the kingdom. On
the other side, Mr. Gladstone's plume waved in every part of •
the field. He unhorsed an opponent as he flew past on the
road; his voice rang with calls as thrilling as were ever
heard in England; he appealed to the individual, to his
personal responsibility, to the best elements in him, to the
sense of justice, to the powers of hope and of sympathy; he

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displayed to the full that rare combination of qualities that C ynf *
had always enabled him to view aflairs in all their range, v *

, - , * . , j. • -^T. 77.

at the same time from the high commanding eminence
and on the near and sober level.

He left London on June 17 on his way to Edinburgh, and
found ' wonderful demonstrations all along the road ; many
little speeches; could not be helped. 'The feeling here/
he wrote from Edinburgh (June 21), 'is truly wonderful,
especially when the detestable state of the press is con-
sidered/ Even Mr. Goschen, whom he described as ' supply-
ing in the main soul, brains, and movement to the dis-
sentient body/ was handsomely beaten in one of the
Edinburgh divisions, so fatal was the proximity of Achilles.
• June 22. Off to Glasgow, 12f. Meeting at 3. Spoke an
hour and twenty minutes. Off at 5.50. Reached Hawarden
at 12.30 or 40. Some speeches by the way ; others I declined.
The whole a scene of triumph. God help us, His poor
creatures/ At Hawarden, he found chaos in his room, and

Online LibraryJohn MorleyThe life of William Ewart Gladstone, Volume 2 → online text (page 53 of 91)