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WHEN GLADSTONE IN 1880 BECAME PRIME MINISTER FOR THE second time his position was not the comfortable one he had held twelve years before. Then, with a determined Cabinet and a united party, he had presided over the enactment of a great series of reforms. Expectation now stood just as high, for a triumphant election campaign had given him a majority of 137 over his Conservative opponents. But almost as soon as the House assembled the Speaker remarked that Gladstone had “a difficult team to drive.” So it was to prove. Few periods of office have begun with higher hopes; none has been more disappointing in its outcome.

The main fault lay in the composition of the Liberal Party. For long it had prided itself upon the strength afforded by diversity, but it soon began to find that the divisions between Whig and Radical, Right and Left, were unbridgeable. In the first Gladstone Government there had been little discord. But the old Whig faction thought that reform had gone far enough, and Gladstone himself had some sympathy with them. He disliked intensely the methods of the Radical caucus and scorned their policies of social and economic reform. “Their pet idea,” he wrote, “is what they call construction—that is to say, taking into the hands of the State the business of the individual man.” Moreover he found the Whigs much better company than Radical newcomers like Joseph Chamberlain. Men such as the Foreign Secretary, Lord Granville, had been his friends and colleagues for many years, and Gladstone never lost his conviction that the natural leaders of the Liberal cause were a small, leisured, cultured aristocracy.

When it came to forming his Cabinet he had to conciliate these same Whigs. The Marquess of Hartington, who had led the party in the Commons during his chief’s retirement, had never been happy about Gladstone’s onslaught on Disraeli’s Eastern policy. He and his friends were fearful of the direction that the Prime Minister’s mind and energy were next likely to take. In the upshot only one Radical, Chamberlain, was admitted to the Cabinet, and to him was assigned what was then a lowly office, the Presidency of the Board of Trade. This was Gladstone’s first great error. Not only was a Whig Cabinet profoundly unsuited to a time when the Liberal Party was becoming more and more Radical, but its leader was to find himself in direct clash and conflict with his own colleagues on the main political, Imperial, and foreign issues of the day, and above all on Ireland. A Cabinet with such deep cleavages was unlikely to prove an effective instrument of government. John Morley, Gladstone’s biographer, wrote that it was not only a coalition, but “a coalition of that vexatious kind where those who happened not to agree sometimes seemed to be almost as well pleased with contention as with harmony.” Over this ruled the Grand Old Man, as he was already considered at the age of seventy-one, his force and energy undimmed, his passions and enthusiasms growing more intense with every year that passed. He towered above his colleagues. When he was away from Cabinet, wrote one of them, it was as though he had “left us mice without the cat.”

But the Liberals, or rather the Whigs, were not alone in their troubles and anxieties. Shocked by the onset of democracy and its threat to old, established interests, the Tory leaders proceeded to forget the lessons which Disraeli had tried so long to teach them. Their leader in the Commons was Sir Stafford Northcote, who had once been Gladstone’s private secretary and still stood in awe of the great man. His companions on the Front Bench, frightened by the prospect of universal suffrage, clung desperately to the faith, practice, and timidity of their youth. Into the breach stepped a small but extremely able group whose prowess at Parliamentary guerrilla fighting has rarely been equalled, the “Fourth Party”—Lord Randolph Churchill, A. J. Balfour, Sir Henry Drummond Wolff, and John Gorst. They teased and taunted Gladstone without mercy or respect. But Lord Randolph, who quickly rose to special prominence, reserved his fiercest criticism for the leaders of his own side. In a letter to The Times he charged them with “a series of neglected opportunities, pusillanimity, combativeness at wrong moments, vacillation, dread of responsibility, repression and discouragement of hard-working followers, collusions with the Government, hankerings after coalitions, jealousies, commonplaces, want of perception.” His denunciations were not confined to Parliament. With the motto “Trust the People” and the slogan “Tory Democracy” he appealed to the rank and file over the heads of their nominal leaders. So dramatic was his success that his power soon became almost as strong as Salisbury’s.

These were strange years for party warfare. The upsurge of the new forces, Radicalism and Tory Democracy, was playing havoc with the old Parliamentary system. Issues were confused and cut across party lines. Conflict was fierce, but often internecine. Chamberlain and Lord Randolph, though sometimes in bitter disagreement, had far more in common than they had with their own leaders. The confusion was not to be resolved until Gladstone, using Home Rule for Ireland like an axe, divided the political world by forcing men to make a clear and sharp decision about a single great proposal.


It was a constant complaint among Liberals that whenever they succeeded the Tories in office they fell heirs to a set of Imperial complications which involved them in enterprises hateful to their anti-Imperialist sentiments. So it was in 1880. One of their first troubles sprang from South Africa. There the Boer Republic of the Transvaal had long been in difficulties, threatened by bankruptcy and disorders within and by the Zulu warrior kingdom upon its eastern border. To save it from ruin and possible extinction Disraeli’s Government had annexed it, an action which at first met with little protest. Disraeli looked forward to a union of all the white communities of South Africa in a self-governing Confederation on the Canadian model, but the times were not yet ripe. A fierce desire for renewed independence began to stir among the Transvaal Boers, and they looked for an opportunity to throw off British rule. As soon as British arms had finally quelled the Zulus in 1879 they felt safe enough to seize their chance. It was perhaps natural that they should expect their freedom from a Liberal Government. Gladstone had denounced the annexation of the Transvaal, but a powerful section of his party favoured the African natives more than the Boers. He himself was convinced that federation was the only solution for the South African puzzle, and he refused to make any immediate change. At the end of 1880 the Boers revolted and a small British force was cut to pieces at Majuba Hill. There was available in South Africa a force large enough to crush the Boers, but Gladstone declined to bow to the outcry for retaliation and continued with the negotiations that had already been under way at the time of Majuba. The outcome was the Pretoria Convention of 1881, which, modified in 1884, gave virtual independence to the Transvaal. This application of Liberal principles provided the foundation of Boer power in South Africa. All might have gone more smoothly in the future but for two developments. Immensely rich goldfields were discovered on the Rand and a large, bustling cosmopolitan mining community was suddenly planted in the midst of the Boer farmers’ Republic. Meanwhile at Cape Town Cecil Rhodes had entered politics, resolved to create a vast, all-embracing South African dominion, and endowed by nature with the energy that often makes dreams come true. From these events sprang consequences which have yet to run their course.


As Gladstone had foreseen at the time, Disraeli’s purchase of shares in the Suez Canal, brilliant stroke though it was, soon brought all the problems of Egypt in its wake. When he took office, Egypt, nominally ruled by the Khedive, was in effect under Anglo-French control. The Khedive had only temporarily been saved from bankruptcy by selling his Canal shares. Soon French and British Debt Commissioners were appointed to take charge of his finances, and of much else too. The British Commissioner was Evelyn Baring, later Lord Cromer, and one of the greatest of Imperial proconsuls. With a single break he was to preside over the destinies of Egypt for thirty years. At the end of 1881 however Anglo-French control was shattered by a nationalist revolt led by Colonel Arabi Pasha. It was backed by the Army and rapidly swept through the whole country. Gladstone tried in vain to apply the principles of the Concert of Europe. A sudden twist in the domestic politics of France forced her to stand aside, and the other European Powers remained aloof. On June 11, 1882, fifty Europeans were killed in riots in Alexandria. Arabi began to fortify the city in such a way as to threaten British ships in the harbour. Hence, exactly a month later, and after warning had been given, the forts were bombarded and the guns silenced. A few days later the Cabinet decided to dispatch an army under Sir Garnet Wolseley to Egypt. The decision was crowned by military success, and Arabi’s army was decisively defeated at Tel-el-Kebir on September 13. Gladstone delighted in the victory, but was troubled in his conscience. The Liberal instinct was now to withdraw, but Egypt could not be left a vacuum. To annex her, though logical and expected by the other Powers of Europe, was too repugnant to the Liberal conscience. Gladstone therefore chose the worst of both worlds. The odium of occupation remained on the British, but much authority continued to be exercised by the Commissioners of the Debt, a state of affairs which allowed all the major European Powers to interfere. Nevertheless, after Baring became Consul-General in 1883, and in effect ruler of the country, a new era opened of much-needed reform.

Intervention in Egypt led to an even more perplexing entanglement in the Sudan. This huge territory, more than a thousand miles deep, stretched along the torrid banks of the Nile from the borders of Egypt down almost to the Equator. It formed a part of the Khedive’s realm, and in spite of the efforts of British advisers it was woefully misgoverned by Pashas from Cairo. During the same year that the Egyptians revolted against France and Britain, the Sudanese rebelled against the Egyptians. They were led by the Mahdi, a Moslem fanatic who quickly destroyed an Egyptian army, and was soon in control of most of the Sudan. Gladstone spoke of the Sudanese as “a people rightly struggling to be free.” This was a highly flattering way of describing the Mahdi’s forces, whose blood-lust spread terror everywhere in their advance. Either the Sudan must be reconquered or it must be evacuated, and the Government in London chose evacuation. With this the Egyptians had to concur. At the end of 1883 the decision was made to withdraw their outlying garrisons scattered far to the South, for which Britain, as tutor to the Egyptian Army, had a general responsibility. To make the decision was easy; to carry it out more difficult. But on January 14, 1884, General Charles Gordon, who had achieved fame in Chinese wars, left London charged by the Cabinet with the task of evacuation.

Gordon had himself served in the Sudan, and had played a notable part in attempts to suppress the slave trade. He also had a conscience. It was to cost him his life. He arrived in Khartoum in February, and once there he judged that it would be wrong to withdraw the garrisons and abandon the country to the mercy of the Mahdi’s Dervishes. He accordingly asked for reinforcements and put forward plans for counter-attack. In London the Government were taken aback by this change of front. They might have foreseen that a commander cast in heroic mould would not readily lend himself to withdrawal. Retreat was never to Gordon’s liking. He was resolved to remain in Khartoum until his self-imposed mission was accomplished. His strength of will, often capricious in its expression, was pitted against Gladstone’s determination not to be involved in fresh colonial adventures. Lord Randolph Churchill was the first to raise in the House of Commons the problem of Gordon’s personal safety. In March he put a blunt question to the Government. “Are they going to remain indifferent,” he asked, “to the fate of the one man on whom they have counted to extricate them from their dilemmas, to leave him to shift for himself, and not to make a single effort on his behalf?” Lord Randolph was met with evasive replies. Help for Gordon was to be long in coming, in spite of his urgent appeals, which were backed by dispatches from Baring in Cairo and by the advice of the foremost Imperial soldier of the age, Lord Wolseley. By May Gordon was cut off in Khartoum. Meanwhile the Cabinet, still insistent on the policy of “scuttling out,” as Lord Salisbury called it, refused to dispatch a relieving army.

Throughout the spring and summer public opinion in England mounted, and large meetings were held demanding that Gordon must be saved. His stern religious faith, his Bible-reading, his assaults on slavery, his charitable work for the children of the poor, as well as his military prowess, had made him a popular figure, as gallant and noble as one of King Arthur’s Knights. But Gladstone’s mind was on other things. Reform of the franchise was one, and another was the case of the vehement atheist, Charles Bradlaugh, who had been elected to Parliament but refused his seat, and whose affairs perturbed the House of Commons and the Prime Minister’s conscience for over six years. In May Lord Randolph said of Gladstone in the House of Commons: “I have compared his efforts in the cause of General Gordon with his efforts in the cause of Mr Bradlaugh. If a hundredth part of those invaluable moral qualities bestowed upon the cause of a seditious blasphemer had been given to the support of a Christian hero the success of Gordon’s mission would have been assured.”

Eventually, upon the insistence of Lord Hartington, then Secretary of State for War, who made it a matter of confidence in the Cabinet, the Government were induced to rescue Gordon. In September Wolseley hastened to Cairo, and in less than a month he had assembled a striking force of ten thousand men. He knew that a rapid foray against the massed spearmen of the Mahdi would accomplish nothing. Speed was essential, but disaster could not be risked. A campaign of six months, soundly based, was the fastest he could hope for. In October he set out from the borders of Egypt upon the eight-hundred-mile advance to Khartoum. Much of his way lay through uncharted reaches of the Nile; rapids and cataracts abounded, and the heat was heavy and wearisome. In the Northern Sudan the river Nile describes an immense bend to the east. Wolseley was aware that time was fatally short. He felt the eyes and anxieties of England focused upon Gordon and himself, and on the distance that lay between them. His main strength must proceed steadily up-river until, all cataracts surmounted, they would be poised for a swoop upon Khartoum. In the meantime he detached the Camel Corps under Sir Herbert Stewart to cut across a hundred and fifty miles of desert and rejoin the Nile to the north of Gordon’s capital. Starting on December 30, Stewart acted with resolution. At Abu Klea, on January 17, a hundred and twenty miles short of his goal, Stewart was attacked by a Dervish host. His column of fewer than two thousand men confronted an enemy at least five times as numerous. Under a desperate onset the British square was broken by the Mahdi’s fanatical hordes, but the battle was won. Two days later, amid constant harassments, Stewart’s advanced troops reached the Nile, but he had been mortally wounded. His successor in command inherited a perilous situation. On January 21 steamers arrived from Khartoum, sent down-river by Gordon. There was a tragic but unavoidable delay while reconnaissances were made and the wounded tended. On the 24th a force of 26 British and 240 Sudanese sailed south on two of the steamers, assailed by Dervish musketry fire from the banks. On the 28th they reached Khartoum. It was too late. Gordon’s flag no longer flew over the Residency. He was dead; the city had fallen two days before, after a prodigious display of valour by its defender. He had fallen alone, unsuccoured and unsupported by any of his own countrymen. In the eyes of perhaps half the nation Gladstone was a murderer. The Queen was so distressed that she made her own feelings clear to him in an open telegram. Gordon became a national martyr. It was true that he had disobeyed his orders, as indeed he admitted in his journal, but the fact remained that the Cabinet which had sent him out had then virtually abandoned him. The rescuing force, whose efforts had been so nearly crowned with success, retired to Egypt. Thirteen years went by before Gordon was avenged. As Gladstone later confessed, the Government had sent a “hero of heroes” to Khartoum with all the defects and virtues of his type and they had paid the penalty.


The position of the Liberal Party had been equally shaken by its activities at home. While the nation thought only of Gordon the Government was pressing ahead with its one considerable piece of legislation, a Reform Bill which completed the work of democratising the franchise in the counties. Almost every adult male was given a vote. Another Act abolished the remaining small boroughs and, with a few exceptions, divided the country into single-Member constituencies. All this was a logical extension of the Act of 1867, but it exasperated an already difficult situation. Single-Member constituencies stopped the old practice of running a Whig and a Radical in harness. The Liberals and Radicals were quick to press their advantage. Chamberlain had made onslaught after onslaught on the class who “toil not, neither do they spin,” and with what is called his Unauthorised Programme, and its famous promise of “three acres and a cow,” he now switched his main attack from town to country. The Whigs could not ignore the challenge; the division between them and the Radicals was too deep and fundamental for them ever to work together again, and by the autumn of 1885 Salisbury, the Tory leader in the House of Lords, and now Prime Minister, could assert, and with some truth, that Gladstone’s “exhortation to unity was an exhortation to hypocrisy.”

Further speculation about the future of English politics was abruptly cut short by the announcement of Gladstone’s conversion to the policy of Home Rule. To comprehend the significance and impact of this event we must look back upon the melancholy story of Ireland. In the years since the Great Famine of the 1840’s Ireland had continued in her misery. Her peasants, especially in the West, lived in a state of extreme poverty and degradation. General Gordon had thus described them some time before in a letter to The Times: “I must say, from all accounts and from my own observation, that the state of our fellow countrymen in the parts I have named is worse than that of any people in the world, let alone Europe.” They were “living on the verge of starvation in places in which we would not keep our cattle.” Ireland was, and is, a poor country, and in spite of famine and emigration she was still overpopulated. But these misfortunes were greatly aggravated by the policies of the English Government. The Irish peasant was crushed by a land system which he hated not only because it put almost absolute power into the hands of the landlord, but also because it rested on the expropriation of land which he considered, by right, to belong to him. His was a fierce, deep-rooted enmity. It was not just a matter of material poverty, of life passed in a one-roomed hut on a diet of potatoes. He felt he had been robbed of his heritage. For most of the nineteenth century the English answer was to ignore the hate and crush the crime which it produced. In the forty years before 1870 forty-two Coercion Acts were passed. During the same period there was not a single statute to protect the Irish peasant from eviction and rack-renting. This was deliberate; the aim was to make the Irish peasant a day-labourer after the English pattern. But Ireland was not England; the Irish peasant clung to his land; he used every means in his power to defeat the alien landlords.

It must not be supposed that the Irish picture can be seen from Britain entirely in black and white. The landlords were mostly colonists from England and of long standing; they believed themselves to be, and in many ways were, a civilising influence in a primitive country. They had often had to fight for their lives and their property. The deep hold of the Roman Catholic Church on a superstitious peasantry had tended on political as well as religious grounds to be hostile to England. Ireland more than once since the days of Queen Elizabeth had threatened to become a stepping-stone to the invasion of Britain from the Continent. Rick-burning, the assassination of landlords, and other acts of terrorism had contributed to a general acceptance in England of the landlord’s case. It was hard to grasp that the vicious circle of unrest, heavy-handed repression, and rebellion could only be broken by remedying fundamental grievances.

From the moment when he first took office as Prime Minister Gladstone made Irish affairs his special concern, until at last they came to dominate his mind to the exclusion of almost everything else. His crusade for Ireland, for such it was, faced formidable opposition. English political society had little sympathy for Irish problems, and indeed many of its leading figures were members of the Irish aristocracy. In his first Ministry Gladstone had dealt successfully with the Irish dislike of an alien Church by disestablishing the Protestant Church of Ireland. His second measure, a Land Act to prevent uncompensated eviction, had been passed in 1870, but proved a failure. Ten more years went by before he became convinced that the Irish peasant had to be given real security in the tenure of his land.

In 1873 Isaac Butt had founded the Home Rule League. It aimed to achieve Home Rule by peaceful, constitutional methods, and its leader, able, courteous, an admirable House of Commons man, put his faith in the persuasive processes of debate. But there was no response to his cause in England and no confidence in his methods in Ireland. Effective leadership of the movement soon passed into the hands of Charles Stewart Parnell. Parnell was a landlord, a Protestant, and a newcomer to Parliament. From his mother, the daughter of an American admiral who had won distinction fighting the British, he had acquired a hatred and contempt for English ways and institutions. A patrician in the Irish party, he was a born leader, with a power of discipline and a tactical skill that soon converted Home Rule from a debating topic into the supreme question of the hour. Ruthless in pressing his cause, and defiant of the traditions of the House of Commons, he swiftly gained such a position that an English politician said that “dealing with him was like dealing with a foreign Power.”

The root of Parnell’s success was the junction of the Home Rule cause with a fresh outburst of peasant agitation. A grave fall in world crop prices in the late seventies and a series of bad harvests accelerated the number of evictions as the impoverished peasants failed to pay their rents. This process was just beginning when, in 1877, Michael Davitt came out of prison after serving a seven-year sentence for treason. Davitt was a remarkable man who, in his love for Ireland and warm human sympathies, made a sharp contrast with Parnell. It was Davitt’s belief that Home Rule and the land question could not be separated, and, in spite of opposition from the extreme Irish Nationalists, he successfully founded the Land League in 1879. Its objects were the reduction of rack-rents and the promotion of peasant ownership of the land. Davitt had previously assured himself of the material backing of the Irish in America. When Parnell declared his support for the League the land hunger of the peasant, the political demand for Home Rule, and the hatred of American emigrants for their unforgotten oppressors were at last brought together in a formidable alliance.


At the time none of this was immediately clear to Gladstone; his mind was occupied by the great foreign and Imperial issues that had provoked his return to power. His Government’s first answer was to promote an interim Compensation for Disturbance Bill. When this was rejected by the House of Lords in July 1880 Ireland was quick to reply with Terror. In the last quarter of the year nearly two thousand outrages were committed. A new weapon appeared when Parnell advised his followers to make life unbearable for anyone who violated peasant law and custom “by isolating him from his kind as if he were a leper of old.” One of the first victims was a land agent, Captain Boycott, whose name has passed into the English language. This was the period of the Land League’s greatest success. Funds were pouring in from America and Australia, and, since the League effectively controlled more of Ireland than did the authorities in Dublin Castle, evictions almost ceased.

The Government then decided both to strike at terrorism and to reform the land laws. In March 1881 a sweeping Coercion Act gave to the Irish Viceroy the power, in Morley’s phrase, “to lock up anybody he pleased and to detain him for as long as he pleased.” It was during the debate on the Coercion Bill that the climax came in Parnell’s policy of obstruction. His aim in the House of Commons had been to bring government to a standstill by exploiting the fact that Parliamentary procedure rested on custom rather than rules. From January 31 until February 2 the House sat continuously for forty-one hours, and the end came only when the Speaker took the arbitrary step of “putting” the Question that the House should now “adjourn.” Subsequently a resolution introducing the Closure was passed, thus making the first great breach in the traditional methods of carrying through Parliamentary business.

The Coercion Act was followed immediately by a Land Act which conceded almost everything that the Irish had demanded. The Act was based on the “three F’s”—Fair Rents to be decided by a tribunal, Fixity of Tenure for all who paid their rents, and Free Sale by the tenant. This was far more generous than anything the Irish had expected, but Parnell, driven by Irish-American extremists and by his belief that even greater concessions could be extracted from Gladstone, set out to obstruct the working of the new land courts. The Government had no alternative, under the Coercion Act, but to arrest him. This it did in October. He was asked who would take his place. His reply was “Captain Moonlight.” His prophesy was justified. Crime and murder multiplied, and by the spring of 1882 Gladstone was convinced that the policy of coercion had failed.

At the same time Parnell was anxious for release. As the extremists in Ireland were gaining ground it was vital for him to reassert his authority as leader. In April therefore what was called the “Kilmainham Treaty” was concluded, based on the understanding that Parnell would use his influence to end crime and terror in return for an Arrears Bill which would aid those tenants who, because they owed rent, had been unable to take advantage of the Land Act. W. E. Forster, Chief Secretary for Ireland and advocate of coercion, and the Viceroy, Lord Cowper, resigned. They were replaced by Lord Frederick Cavendish and Lord Spencer. Parnell and two of his henchmen were released on May 2, and it seemed that at last there was some likelihood of peace. But these bright prospects were destroyed by a terrible event. On May 6 Lord Frederick Cavendish landed in Dublin. A few hours after his arrival he was walking in Phoenix Park with his under-secretary, Burke, when both men were stabbed to death. The murderers were a group called the Invincibles. The object of their attack had been Burke. Lord Frederick, whom they did not know, was only killed because he had attempted to defend his companion. The English nation was shocked, the hand of the coercion party was strengthened, and all hope of any immediate conciliation was quenched. Gladstone did what he could to salvage a little from the wreck of his policy. He was now convinced that Parnell was a restraining influence in Ireland and that the only hope of any lasting success was to cooperate with him. This was not a view which commended itself to more than one or two members of his Cabinet. Parnell, for his part, was content to bide his time, and for three years Ireland was relatively quiet and peaceful.


Thus we return to the year 1885. On June 8 the Government was defeated on an amendment to the Budget, and Gladstone promptly resigned. Dissension and division in the Liberal Party had done their work, but a more direct cause was that the Irish Members voted with the Conservative Opposition. Lord Randolph Churchill had given Parnell to understand that a Conservative Government would discontinue coercion, and this was enough to swing Irish support. After some hesitation and difficulty Lord Salisbury formed a Government which was in a minority in the House of Commons. Lord Randolph took office as Secretary for India and his old enemy Northcote was elevated to the House of Lords, Sir Michael Hicks Beach becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the Commons. A most significant appointment was that of the Earl of Carnarvon as Viceroy of Ireland. It was well known that Carnarvon favoured a policy of Home Rule, and on August 1 he met Parnell in a house in Grosvenor Square. He left Parnell with the impression that the Government was contemplating a Home Rule measure. With an election approaching, Parnell had to make his choice. Through his mistress, Mrs O’Shea, who acted as intermediary, he made known to Gladstone the nature of the Conservative approach. Gladstone replied, “It is right I should say that into any counter-bidding of any sort against Lord R. Churchill I for one will not enter.” The truth was that at this time Gladstone had already been converted to Home Rule, but was not prepared to bargain with Parnell, preferring to hold his hand and leave the next move to Salisbury.

When the election came in November Parnell, unable to extract a clear promise of support from Gladstone, ordered the Irish in Britain to vote Conservative. Ireland was not an important issue at these hustings. The election was mainly fought on the unhappy record of the late Government. Chamberlain’s Unauthorised Radical Programme provided the only major diversion. The result could not have been more unfortunate. The Liberals lost a number of seats in the boroughs, but made some gains in the counties, where they attracted support from the recently enfranchised workers. In the new House of Commons the Liberal majority over the Conservatives was eighty-six. But Parnell had realised his dream. His followers, their ranks swollen by the operation of the Reform Act in the Irish counties, also numbered eighty-six. The position was exactly what Salisbury had described as “low-water mark—i.e., Tories + Parnellites = Liberals.”

In these circumstances Gladstone continued to hope that the Parnellite-Conservative alliance would hold fast and that Home Rule would pass as an agreed measure without undue opposition from the House of Lords. Precedents like Catholic Emancipation, the Repeal of the Corn Laws, and the second Reform Act were much in his mind. To all Parnell’s inquiries, put through Mrs O’Shea, he replied that it would be wrong for the Liberals to make any move until the Government had declared its policy. In December he saw A. J. Balfour, Salisbury’s nephew, and on the 20th wrote to him, “I feel sure that this question can only be dealt with by a Government, and I desire specially on grounds of public policy that it should be dealt with by the present Government.” The Conservatives treated this letter with contempt. A few days earlier the political situation had been transformed by the public disclosure of Gladstone’s views on Home Rule by his son, Herbert. The “Hawarden Kite,” as it came to be called, immediately brought to the surface all those forces which had been struggling, hidden from public view, in the political depths. The split in the Liberal Party which Gladstone had been so anxious to avoid became a reality. The Whigs, already alienated by the growing power of Radicalism, were solid against Home Rule. The attitude of the Conservatives hardened as they sensed the advantages they would gain from Gladstone’s dramatic conversion. A possible alliance between them and the Whigs was already in the air. For Parnell the outcome was a disaster. His support had made the Conservatives a present of thirty seats. It proved to be a gift to the enemy.

It is doubtful whether there had ever been substance in Gladstone’s hopes. Carnarvon represented himself and not his party or the Cabinet. His approach to Parnell had been tentative and the Government was uncommitted. Salisbury, for his part, was naturally content to have the Irish vote in a critical election, but his Protestantism, his belief in the Union, his loyalty to the landowners and to the Irish minority who had put their faith in the Conservative Party, were all far too strong for him ever to have seriously considered Home Rule. No leader has ever had less of the temperament of a Peel or a Gladstone. Enthusiasm of the kind that splits parties was quite outside Salisbury’s nature.

By Christmas 1885 the die was cast. Carnarvon resigned in the New Year, and on January 26 Salisbury’s Government announced that it would introduce a Coercion Bill of the most stringent kind. Without hesitation, almost without consultation with his colleagues, Gladstone brought about its defeat on an amendment to the Queen’s Speech. There was no doubt that the new Government would be a Home Rule Government, and Hartington and the other leading Whigs refused to join. This was probably inevitable, but Gladstone destroyed any remaining hope of success by his treatment of Chamberlain. In the eyes of the country Chamberlain now stood next to his leader in the Liberal Party. But Gladstone gravely underrated his importance, had refused him the Colonial Office, and sent him to the Local Government Board. Chamberlain’s views on Ireland had been changing rapidly during the previous year. His trust in Parnell had been shattered by what he considered the treacherous Irish switch to the Conservative side. The personal relations between the two men had also been poisoned by their intermediary, Captain O’Shea, the husband of Parnell’s mistress. Chamberlain was opposed to any large scheme of self-government, and it would have needed all Gladstone’s tact and persuasion to win him over. Gladstone made no attempt to do so. Chamberlain was not consulted in the preparation of the Home Rule Bill, and his own scheme for local government reform was ignored. He resigned on March 26, to become Gladstone’s most formidable foe.

The Home Rule Bill was introduced into the Commons on April 8, 1886, by Gladstone in a speech which lasted for three and a half hours. He put the case for Home Rule as one of justice for Ireland and freedom for her people. It was an impressive performance, outstanding even in Gladstone’s dazzling Parliamentary career. But his appeal to the Liberal principles of liberty and self-government struck against deep emotions. His sudden conversion to the new policy, his dependence upon the Irish vote for continuance in office, and the bitter memories of Irish crimes combined to deepen the fears and prejudices of his opponents. The emotions of race, religion, class, and economic interest all obscured the Liberal arguments which Gladstone used. Fire evoked fire. Gladstone’s deep moral feeling found its answer on the other side, which believed him to be a hypocrite or worse. He had embarked on a sudden, destructive crusade. “And why?” asked Lord Randolph Churchill. “For this reason and no other: to gratify the ambition of an old man in a hurry.”

The Bill was defeated on the second reading two months after its introduction. Ninety-three Liberals voted against the Government. Gladstone had a difficult decision to make. He could resign or dissolve. He chose the latter course and fought the election on the single issue of Home Rule. His zeal, enthusiasm, and energy were not enough to overcome the mighty forces arrayed against him. The new House contained 316 Conservatives and 78 Liberal Unionists, against 191 Gladstonians and 85 Parnellites. Gladstone resigned immediately, and Salisbury again took office.

Apart from one short spell the Conservatives were to remain in power for twenty years. The long period of Liberal-Whig predominance which had begun in 1830 was over. It had been brought to an end by Whig distaste for social reform and by Gladstone’s precipitate conversion to Home Rule. The outlook for the Liberal Party was dark. In committing itself to a policy which was electorally unpopular in England it had not only shed its Right Wing, but also the man who had been by far the most outstanding of its young, reforming leaders. The turn of the wheel had brought fortune to the Conservatives, whose prospects had seemed so gloomy in 1880. The opponents whom they had feared as the irresistible instruments of democracy had delivered themselves into their hands.

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