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The life of William Ewart Gladstone, Volume 2 online

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House after dinner. It had always been his habit in taking
charge of bills to work the ship himself No wonder that
he held to his habit in this case.

On another occasion ministers had taken ground that, as
the debate went on, everybody saw they could not hold. An
official spokesman for the bill had expressed an opinion, or
intention, that, as very speedily appeared, Irish opposition
would not allow to be maintained. There was no great
substance in the point, but even a small dose of humiliation
will make a parliamentary dish as bitter to one side as it is
savoury to the other. The opposition grew more and more
radiant, as it grew more certain that the official spokesman



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OBSTRUCTION 741

must be thrown over. The discomfiture of the ministerialists CHAF
at the prospect of the public mortification of their leaders v
was extreme in the same degree. ' I suppose we must give
it up/ said Mr. Gladstone. This was clear ; and when he
rose, he was greeted with mocking cheers from the enemy,
though the enemy's chief men who had long experience of
his Protean resources were less confident. Beginning in a
tone of easy gravity and candour, he went on to points of
pleasant banter, got his audience interested and amused and
a little bewildered ; carried men with him in graceful argu-
ments on the merits; and finally, with bye-play of con-
summate sport, showed in triumph that the concession that
we consented to make was so right and natural, that it must
have been inevitable from the very first. Never were tables
more effectively turned ; the opposition watched first with
amazement, then with excitement and delight as children
watch a wizard ; and he sat down victorious. Not another
word was said or could be said. ' Never in all my parlia-
mentary years/ said a powerful veteran on the front bench
opposite, as he passed behind the Speaker's chair, ' never have
I seen so wonderful a thing done as that.'

The state of the county of Clare was a godsend to the
obstructive. Clare was not at that moment quite as inno-
cent as the garden of Eden before the fall, but the condition
was not serious ; it had been twenty times worse before with-
out occupying the House of Commons five minutes. Now
an evening a week was not thought too much for a hollow
debate on disorder in Clare. It was described as a definite
matter of urgent importance, though it had slept for years,
and though three times in succession the judge of assize
(travelling entirely out of his proper business) had denounced
the state of things. It was made to support five votes of
censure in eight weeks.

On one of these votes of censure on Irish administration,
moved by Mr. Balfour (March 27), Mr. Gladstone listened to
the debate. At 8 we begged him not to stay and not to take
the trouble to speak, so trumpery was the whole affair. He
said he must, if only for five minutes, to show that he
identified himself with his Irish minister. He left to dine,



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742 THE FOURTH ADMINISTRATION

and then before ten was on his feet, making what Lord
Randolph Churchill rightly called ' a most impressive and
1893. entrancing speech/ He talked of Pat this and Michael that,
and Father the other, as if he had pondered their cases for a
month, clenching every point with extraordinary strength
as well as consummate ease and grace, and winding up with
some phrases of wonderful simplicity and concentration.

A distinguished member made a motion for the exclusion
of Irish cabinet ministers from their chamber. Mr. Gladstone
was reminded on the bench just before he rose, that the same
proposal had been inserted in the Act of Settlement, and
repealed in 1705. He wove this into his speech with a skill, «
and amplified confidence, that must have made everybody
suppose that it was a, historic fact present every day to his
mind. The attention of a law-officer sitting by was called to
this rapid amplification. 'I never saw anything like it in
all my whole life,' said the law-officer; and he was a man
who had been accustomed t6 deal with some of the strongest
and quickest minds of the day as judges and advocates.

One day when a tremendous afternoon of obstruction had
almost worn him down, the adjournment came at seven
o'clock. He was haggard and depressed. On returning at
ten we found him making a most lively and amusing speech
upon procedure. He sat down as blithe as dawn. 'To
make a speech of that sort/ he said in deprecation of com-
pliment, 'a man does best to dine out; 'tis no use to lie
on a sofa and think about it. 1

Undoubtedly Mr. Gladstone's method in this long com-
mittee carried with it some disadvantages. His discursive
treatment exposed an enormous surface. His abundance of
illustration multiplied points for debate. His fertility in
improvised arguments encouraged improvisation in dis-
putants without the gift. Mr. Gladstone always supposed
that a great theme needs to be copiously handled, which is
perhaps doubtful, and indeed is often an exact inversion of
the true state of things. However that may be, copiousness
is a game at which two can play, as a patriotic opposition
now and at other times has effectually disclosed. Some
thought in these days that a man like Lord Althorp, for



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THE GUILLOTINE 743

instance, would have given the obstructives much more CHAP,
trouble in their pursuits than did Mr. Gladstone. , * <

That Mr. Gladstone's supporters should become restive at iET * 84#
the slow motion of business was natural enough. They came
to ministers, calling out for a drastic closure, as simple tribes
might clamour to a rain-maker. It was the end of June, and
with a reasonable opposition conducted in decent good faith,
it was computed that the bill might be through committee
in nineteen days. But the hypothesis of reason and good
faith was not thought to be substantial, and the cabinet
resolved on resort to closure on a scale like that on which it
had been used by the late government in the case of the
Crimes Act of 1887, arid of the Special Commission. It has
been said since on excellent authority, that without speaking
of their good faith, Mr. Gladstone's principal opponents were
now running absolutely short of new ammunition, and having
used the same arguments and made the same speeches for
so many weeks, they were so worn out that the guillotine
was superfluous. Of these straits, however, there was little
evidence. Mr. Gladstone entered into the operation with
a good deal of chagrin. He saw that the House of Commons
in which he did his work and rose to glory was swiftly fading
out of sight, and a new institution of different habits of re-
sponsibility and practice taking its place.

The stage of committee lasted for sixty-three sittings. The
whole proceedings occupied eighty-two. It is not necessary
to hold that the time was too long for the size of the task, if
it had been well spent. The spirit of the debate was aptly
illustrated by the plea of a brilliant tory, that he voted
for a certain motion against a principle that he approved,
because he thought the carrying of the motion ' would make
the bill more detestable/ Opposition rested on a view of
Irish character and Irish feeling about England, that can
hardly have been very deeply thought out, because ten years
later the most bitter opponents of the Irish claim launched
a policy, that was to make Irish peasants direct debtors to
the hated England to the tune of one hundred million
pounds, and was to dislodge by imperial cash those who were
persistently called the only friends of the imperial connection.



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744 THE FOURTH ADMINISTRATION

BOOK The bill passed its second reading by 347 against 304, or
_^ — - a majority of 43. In some critical divisions, the majority
1894 - ran down to 27. The third reading was carried by 301
against 267, or a majority of 34. It was estimated that
excluding the Irish, there was a majority against the bill
of 23. If we counted England and Wales alone, the adverse
majority was 48. When it reached them, the Lords in-
continently threw it out. The roll of the Lords held 560
names, beyond the peers of the royal house. Of this body
of 560, no fewer than 419 voted against the bill, and only 41
voted for it.



VI

The session was protracted until it became the longest in
the history of parliament. The House was sitting when Mr.
Gladstone's eighty-fourth birthday arrived. ' Before putting
a question/ said Mr. Balfour in a tone that, after the heat and
exasperations of so many months, was refreshing to hear, 'per-
haps the right honourable gentlemen will allow me, on my own
part and on that of my friends, to offer him our most sincere
congratulations/ ' Allow me to thank him/ said Mr. Glad-
stone, 'for his great courtesy and kindness/ The govern-
ment pressed forward and carried through the House of
Commons a measure dealing with the liability of employers
for accidents, and a more important measure setting up
elective bodies for certain purposes in parishes. Into the
first the Lords introduced such changes as were taken to
nullify all the advantages of the bill, and the cabinet
approved of its abandonment Into the second they forced
back certain provisions that the Commons had with full
deliberation decisively rejected.

Mr. Gladstone was at Biarritz, he records, when this hap-
pened in the January of 1894. He had gone there to recruit
after the incomparable exertions of the session, and also to
consider at a cool distance and in changed scenes other topics
that had for some weeks caused him some agitation. He
now thought that there was a decisive case against the
House of Lords. Apart from the Irish bill to which the



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QUESTION OF DISSOLUTION 745

Commons had given eighty-two days, the Lords had maimed CHAP,
the bill for parish councils, to which had gone the labour of v_J_
forty-one days. Other bills they had mutilated or defeated. ^ Et * 85 -
Upon the whole, he argued, it was not too much to say that
for practical purposes the Lords had destroyed the work of
the House of Commons, unexampled as that work was in the
time and pains bestowed upon it. ' I suggested dissolution
to my colleagues in London, where half, or more than half,
the cabinet were found at the moment I received by tele-
graph a hopelessly adverse reply.' Keluctantly he let the
idea drop, always maintaining, however, that a signal oppor-
tunity had been lost. Even in my last conversation with
him in 1897, he held to his text that we ought to have
dissolved at this moment. The case, he said, was clear,
thorough, and complete. As has been already mentioned,
there were four occasions on which he believed that he
had divined the right moment for a searching appeal to
public opinion on a great question. 1 The renewal of the
income tax in 1853 was the first; the proposal of religious
equality for Ireland in 1868 was the second; home rule
was the third, and here he was justified by the astonishing
and real progress that he had made up to the catastrophe
at the end of 1890. The fourth case was this, of a dissolu-
tion upon the question of the relations of the two Houses.

1 See above, i. p. 875.

t



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CHAPTER VIII

RETIREMENT FROM PUBLIC LIFE

(1894)

*
0, 'tis a burden, Cromwell, 'tis a burden
Too heavy for a man that hopes for heaven.

Henry VIII. iii. 2.

' Politics/ wrote Mr. Gladstone in one of his private memo-
- randa in March 1894, c are like a labyrinth, from the inner
1894. intricacies of which it is even more difficult to find the way
of escape, than it was to find the way into them. My age
did something but not enough. The deterioration of my
hearing helped, but insufficiently. Jt is the state of my
sight which has supplied me with effectual aid in exchanging
my imperious public obligations for what seems to be a free
place on " the breezy common of humanity." And it has
only been within the last eight months or thereabouts, that
the decay of working sight has advanced at such a pace as
to present the likelihood of its becoming stringently opera-
tive at an early date. It would have been very difficult to
fix that date at this or that precise point, without the appear-
ance of making an arbitrary choice; but then the closing
of the parliamentary session (1893-4) offered a natural break
between the cessation and renewal of engagements, which
was admirably suited to the design. And yet I think it, if
not certain, yet very highly probable at the least, that any
disposition of mine to profit by this break would — but for the
naval scheme of my colleagues in the naval estimates — have
been frustrated by their desire to avoid the inconveniences
of a change, and by the pressure which they would have
brought to bear upon me in consequence. The effect of that

740



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NAVAL ESTIMATES 747


scheme was not to bring about the construction of an arti- CHAP,
ficial cause, or pretext rather, of resignation, but to compel *
me to act upon one that was rational, sufficient, and ready ^ Et * ^
to hand/

This is the short, plain, and intelligible truth as to what
now happened. There can be no reason to-day for not stating
what was for a long time matter of common surmise, if not
of common knowledge, that' Mr. Gladstone did not regard
the naval estimates, opened but not settled in December
1893, as justified by the circumstances of the time. He
made a speech that month in parliament in reply to a
motion from the front bench opposite, and there he took a
position undoubtedly antagonistic to the new scheme that
found favour with his cabinet, though not with all its
members. The present writer is of course not free to go
into details, beyond those that anybody else not a member of
of the cabinet would discover from Mr. Gladstone's papers.
Nor does the public lose anything of real interest by this
necessary reserve. Mr. Gladstone said he wished to make
me 'his depositary' as things gradually moved on, and he
wrote me a series of short letters from day to day. If they
could be read aloud in Westminster Hall, no harm would be
done either to surviving colleagues or to others ; they would
furnish no new reason for thinking either better or worse of
anybody ; and no one with a decent sense of the value of time
would concern himself in all the minor detail of an ineffectual
controversy. The central facts were simple. Two things
weighed with him, first his infirmities, and second his dis-
approval of the policy. How, he asked himself, could he turn
his back on his former self by becoming a party to swollen ex-
penditure ? True he had changed from conservative to liberal
in general politics, but when he was conservative, that party
was the economic party, ' Peel its leader being a Cobdenite.'
To assent to this new outlay in time of peace was to revolu-
tionize policy. Then he would go on — ' Owing to the part
which I was drawn to take, first in Italy, then as to Greece,
then on the eastern question, I have come to be considered
not only an English but a European statesman. My name
stands in Europe as a symbol of the policy of peace, modera-



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1894.



748 RETIREMENT FROM PUBLIC LIFE

#

tion, and non-aggression. What would be said of my active
-participation in a policy that will be taken as plunging
England into the whirlpool of militarism? Third, I have
been in active public life for a period nearly as long as the
time between the beginning of Mr. Pitt's first ministry, and
the close of Sir Robert Peel's; between 1783 and 1846 —
sixty-two years and a half. During tnat time I have
uniformly opposed militarism.' Thus he would put his
case.

After the naval estimates were brought forward, attempts
were naturally made at accommodation, for whether he
availed himself of the end of the session as a proper occa-
sion of retirement or not, he was bound to try to get the
estimates down if he could. He laboured hard at the task
of conversion, and though some of his colleagues needed no
conversion, with the majority he did not prevail He
admitted that he had made limited concessions to scares in
1860 and in 1884, and that he had besides been repeatedly
responsible for extraordinary financial provisions having
reference to some crisis of the day : —

I did this, (1)" By a preliminary budget in 1854 ; (2) By the final
budget of July 1859; by the vote of credit in July 1870; and
again by the vote of credit in 1884. Every one of these was
special, and was shown in each case respectively to be special by
the sequel : no one of them had reference to the notion of estab-
lishing dominant military or even naval power in Europe. Their
amounts were various, but were adapted to the view taken, at
least by me, of the exigency actually present. 1

II

While the House after so many months of toil was still
labouring manfully upon English bills, two of them of no
secondary importance, it was decided by his family and their
advisers that Mr. Gladstone should again try the effects of
Biarritz, and thither they went on January 13. Distance,
however, could not efface from his mind all thought of the
decision that the end of the session would exact from him.

1 See Appendix for further elucidation.



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AGAIN AT BIARRITZ 749

Rumours began to fly about in London that the prime CHAP,
minister upon his return intended to resign, and they were * *
naturally clad with intrinsic probability.. From Biarritz a iEx - 85 *
communication was made to the press with his authority.
It was to this effect, that the statement that Mr. Gladstone
had definitely decided, or had decided at all, on resigning
office was untrue. It was true that for many months past
his age and the condition of his sight and hearing had in his
judgment made relief from public cares desirable, and that
accordingly his tenure of office had been at any moment
liable to interruption from these causes, in their nature per-
manent.

Nature meanwhile could not set back the shadow on the
dial On his coming back from Biarritz (February 10) neither
eyes nor ears were better. How should they be at eighty-five ?
The session was ending, the prorogation speech was to be
composed, and the time had come for that ' natural break '
between the cessation and renewal of his official obligations,
of which we have already heard him speak. His colleagues
carried almost to importunity their appeals to him to stay ;
to postpone what one of them called, and many of them
truly felt to be, this ' moment of anguish.' The division of
opinion on estimates remained, but even if that could have
been bridged, his sight and hearing could not be made
whole. The rational and sufficient cause of resignation, as
he only too justly described it, was strong as ever. Whether
if the cabinet had come to his view on estimates, he would in
spite of his great age and infirmities have come to their view
of the importance of his remaining, we cannot tell. Accord-
ing to his wont, he avoided decision until the time had
come when decision was necessary, and then he made up his
mind, ' without the appearance of an arbitrary choice/ that
the time had come for accepting the natural break, and
quitting office.

On Feb. 27, arriving in the evening at Euston from Ire-
land, I was met by a messenger with a note from Mr. Glad-
stone, begging me to call on my way home. I found him busy
as usual at his table in Downing Street. ' I suppose 'tis the
long habit of a life/ he said cheerily, ' but even in the midst



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750 RETIREMENT FROM PUBLIC LIFE

BOOK of these passages, if ever I have half or quarter of an hour
/ - to spare, I find myself turning to my Horace translation.'
1894. jj e g^j tjjQ prorogation speech would be settled on Thurs-
day; the Queen would consider it on Friday; the council
would be held on Saturday, and on that evening or afternoon
he should send in his letter of resignation.

The next day he had an audience at Buckingham Palace,
and indirectly conveyed to the Queen what she might soon
expect to learn from him. His rigorous sense of loyalty to
colleagues made it improper and impossible to bring either
before the Queen or the public his difference of judgment on
matters for which his colleagues, not he, would be responsible,
and on which they, not he, would have to take action. He
derived certain impressions at his audience, he told me, one
of them being that the Sovereign would not seek his advice
as to a successor.

He wrote to inform the Prince of Wales of the approaching
event : —

In thus making it known to your royal Highness, he concluded,
I desire to convey, on my own and my wife's part our fervent
thanks for the unbounded kindness which we have at all times
received from your royal Highness and not less from the beloved
Princess of Wales. The devotion of an old man is little worth ;
but if at any time there be the smallest service which by informa-
tion or suggestion your royal Highness may believe me capable
of rendering, I shall remain as much at your command as if I had
continued to be an active and responsible servant of the Queen. I
remain with heartfelt loyalty and gratitude, etc.

The Prince expressed his sincere regret, said how deeply
the Princess and he were touched by the kind words about
them, and how greatly for a long number of years they had
valued his friendship and that of Mrs. Gladstone. Mr.
Balfour, to whom he also confidentially told the news, com-
municated among other graceful words, ' the special debt of
gratitude that was due to him for the immense public service
he had performed in fostering and keeping alive the great
traditions of the House of Commons.' The day after that
(March 1) was his last cabinet council, and a painful day it



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LAST CABINET 751

was. The business of the speech and other matters were chap.
discussed as usual, then came the end. In his report to the
Queen — his last — he said : —

Looking forward to the likelihood that this might be the last
occasion on which Mr. Gladstone and his colleagues might meet in
the cabinet, Lord Kimberley and Sir William Harcourt on their
own part and on that of the ministers generally, used words un-
deservedly kind of acknowledgment and farewell. Lord Kimberley
will pray your Majesty to appoint a council for Saturday, at as
early an* hour as may be convenient.

Mr. Gladstone sat composed and still as marble, and the
emotion of the cabinet did not gain him for an instant. He
followed the 'words of acknowledgment and farewell' in a
little speech of four or five minutes, his voice unbroken and
serene, the tone low, grave, and steady. He was glad to know
that he had justification in the condition of his senses. He
was glad to think that notwithstanding difference upon a
public question, private friendships would remain unaltered
and unimpaired. Then hardly above a breath, but every
accent heard, he said ' God bless you all.' He rose slowly
and went out of one door, while his colleagues with minds
oppressed filed out by the other. In his diary he enters — ' A
really moving scene.'

A little later in the afternoon he made his last speech in
the House of Commons. It was a vigorous assault upon the
House of Lords. His mind had changed since the day in
September 1884 when he had declared to an emissary from
the court that he hated organic change in the House of
Lords, and would do much to avert that mischief. 1 Circum-
stances had now altered the case ; we had come to a more
acute stage. Were they to accept the changes made by the
Lords in the bill for parish councils, or were they to drop
it ? The question, he said, is whether the work of the House
of Lords is not merely to modify, but to annihilate the whole
work of the House of Commons, work which has been per-
formed at an amount of sacrifice — of time, of labour, of con-
venience, and perhaps of health — but at any rate an amount

1 Above, p. 370.



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752 RETIREMENT FROM PUBLIC LIFE

BOOK of sacrifice totally unknown to the House of Lords. The
* ^ government had resolved that great as were the objections



1894 - to acceptance of the changes made by the Lords, the argu-
ments against rejection were still weightier. Then he struck
a note of passion, and spoke with rising fire : —

We are compelled to accompany that acceptance with the sorrow-
ful declaration that the differences, not of a temporary or casual
nature merely, but differences of conviction, differences of prepos-



Online LibraryJohn MorleyThe life of William Ewart Gladstone, Volume 2 → online text (page 68 of 91)