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IT WAS NOT IMMEDIATELY PERCEIVED IN THE SUMMER OF 1886 THAT the controversy over Home Rule for Ireland had wrought a deep change in the allegiance of English political parties. Salisbury’s Government depended upon the support of the Liberal Unionists, led by Hartington, though their most formidable figure, both in Parliament and in the country, was Joseph Chamberlain. They protested that they were still Liberals, and for ten years they continued to sit on the Liberal side of the House of Commons. This infuriated the followers of Gladstone, many of whom bitterly and publicly likened Chamberlain to Judas Iscariot. It was tacitly accepted, after the failure of a Round Table Conference between the leaders of the two sides, held at the beginning of 1887, that the gulf was too wide to be bridged. This decisive split produced strange bedfellows. Salisbury had to work with the man whom he had denounced as a mob-leader and a “Jack Cade” only a few months before. He had to accept part of Chamberlain’s programme as the price of his support. Chamberlain, now tied to the Conservative chariot, was impelled for his part to retract many of his former policies and opinions. On the Liberal side Gladstone, deprived of his Whig supporters, was forced to make concessions to the Radical sections of his party, whose views were far in advance of his own.

Salisbury’s Government was not much different from that of the previous year, except that Hicks Beach insisted on standing down from the Leadership of the House of Commons. He argued that “the leader in fact should be leader in name.” At the age of thirty-seven therefore Lord Randolph Churchill became Leader of the House and Chancellor of the Exchequer. His career had reached its pinnacle. In the course of six years his skill in debate and political tactics had carried him beyond all his rivals. His position in the Commons was unchallenged by any other member of his party, although many distrusted his methods and disliked his policies. Inside the Cabinet there was little harmony. Lord Randolph’s ideas on Tory Democracy struck no spark in Salisbury’s traditional Conservatism. The Prime Minister had no great faith in betterment by legislation. He believed that the primary business of government was to administer the existing order, and that the Conservatives owed their first duty to the classes who relied upon them to defend their interests. Lord Randolph wrote to him in November 1886, “I am afraid it is an idle schoolboy’s dream to suppose that Tories can legislate—as I did—stupidly. They can govern and make wars and increase taxation and expenditure à merveille, but legislation is not their province in a democratic constitution.” Salisbury replied, “We must work at less speed and at a lower temperature than our opponents. Our Bills must be tentative and cautious, not sweeping and dramatic.” This clash was intensified by Lord Randolph’s excursions into the field of foreign affairs. In October he had publicly attacked the reigning policy of friendship for Turkey and declared himself in favour of independence for the Balkan peoples. The differences between the two men, both in character and policy, were fundamental. The final collision occurred over a comparatively trivial point, Lord Randolph’s demand for a reduction in the Army and Navy Estimates. He resigned on the eve of Christmas 1886 at the wrong time, on the wrong issue, and he made no attempt to rally support. He lived for another nine years, enduring much ill-health, but already his career lay in ruins.

This dramatic fall came as the finale to a year of political sensations. It was the equivalent on the Conservative side to the Whig defection from Gladstone. Salisbury made George Goschen, a Liberal Unionist of impeccable Whig views, his Chancellor of the Exchequer, thus proclaiming that Tory Democracy was now deemed an unnecessary encumbrance. Thereafter his Government’s record in law-making was meagre in the extreme. The main measure was the Local Government Act of 1888, which created county councils and laid the basis for further advance. Three years later school fees were abolished in elementary schools, and a Factory Act made some further attempt to regulate evils in the employment of women and children. It was not an impressive achievement. Even these minor measures were largely carried out as concessions to Chamberlain. From outside the Government he constantly preached the doctrine that the Unionist cause would be best served by a policy of active reform.


Salisbury’s interest and that of a large section of public opinion lay in the world overseas, where the Imperialist movement was reaching its climax of exploration, conquest, and settlement. Livingstone, Stanley, Speke, and other travellers had opened up the interior of darkest Africa. Their feats of exploration paved the way for the acquisition of colonies by the European Powers. It was the most important achievement of the period that this partition of Africa was carried out peacefully. The credit is largely due to Salisbury, who in 1887 became Foreign Secretary as well as Prime Minister, and who never lost sight of the need to preserve peace while the colonial map of Africa was being drawn. The French, seeking consolation for their defeat at the hands of the Prussians in 1870, had been first in the field, with the Germans, in the early eighties, not far behind. Gladstone and Disraeli, had they wished, with the naval and economic power at their disposal, could have annexed much of the continent which their countrymen had mapped and explored. But neither showed any enthusiasm for adventures in tropical Africa. The task of forwarding British interests was largely carried out by men like Cecil Rhodes, Sir William Mackinnon, and Sir George Goldie, who, in spite of the indifference of the Government at home, carved out a great new empire.

When Salisbury took office he himself promoted no great schemes of Imperial expansion, but he was prepared to back up the men on the spot. The work of consolidation and political control was entrusted, after the Elizabethan model, to three chartered companies. The Royal Niger Company operated in Nigeria, the British East Africa Company controlled what is now Kenya and Uganda, and the British South Africa Company acquired the territory of the Rhodesias. All were launched between 1886 and 1889. Rhodesia is the only self-governing member of the British Commonwealth which bears the name of the man who founded it, and foresaw its future. Its capital, Salisbury, commemorates the Prime Minister. Many border disputes with the other colonising Powers arose, but Salisbury pursued a steady policy of settlement by negotiation. It culminated in the signing of agreements with Germany, France, and Portugal in 1890. The German agreement, which was the most important of the three, defined the boundaries of the two countries’ possessions in Central and South Africa. As part of the bargain Heligoland was ceded to Germany in compensation for the recognition of the British protectorate of Zanzibar. A future German naval base was traded for a spice island. By 1892 Salisbury had largely succeeded in his aims. The assertion of British control over the Nile Valley and the settlement of the boundaries of the West African colonies were the only outstanding problems.


Salisbury’s foreign policy was largely swayed by these colonial affairs. Attached in principle to the idea of the Concert of Europe, he was inevitably drawn closer to Bismarck’s Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. Britain was in more or less constant conflict with France in West Africa and with Russia in the Near and Far East. The key to Salisbury’s success lay in his skilful handling of the innumerable complications that arose between the Powers in an age of intense national rivalries. He once said that “British policy is to drift lazily downstream, occasionally putting out a boat-hook to avoid a collision.” No British Foreign Secretary has wielded his diplomatic boat-hook with greater dexterity.


The relentless question of a sullen and embittered Ireland overshadowed domestic politics. “What Ireland wants,” Salisbury had asserted during the election campaign, “is government—government that does not flinch, that does not vary,” and in his nephew, A. J. Balfour, who became Irish Secretary in 1887, he found a man capable of putting into practice the notion that all could be solved by “twenty years of resolute government.” The situation that Balfour faced was very difficult. Agricultural prices were steadily falling, but the Government had rejected Parnell’s argument that the only way to prevent mass evictions was to reassess rents. The Irish peasants, organised by William O’Brien and John Dillon, had taken matters into their own hands by launching the “Plan of Campaign.” The basis of the Plan was that tenants in a body should ask for a reduction of rent. If the landlord refused rents were to be withheld and the money paid into a campaign fund. The Plan was enforced with the terrorist methods which had now become an implacable feature of Irish land disputes. The Government’s answer was to make a few concessions, and pass a Crimes Act which gave to the executive arbitrary powers of the most sweeping kind. Balfour stretched his authority to the limit and acted with a determination that fully matched the ruthlessness of his Irish opponents. In defending his actions in the House of Commons he displayed such skill and resource that he rose rapidly to the front rank of Parliamentarians.

Parnell stood aloof from these tumults. He now perceived that Home Rule could only be won by conciliating a broad section of English opinion. But his adherence to cautious and constitutional action was stricken by the publication in The Times on April 18, 1887, of a facsimile letter, purporting to bear his signature, in which he was made to condone the Phoenix Park murders. Parnell, while denouncing the letter as a forgery, refused to bring an action in an English court. Such forbearance, and the public acceptance by men as eminent as Salisbury that this and other letters were authentic, convinced most Englishmen of his guilt. But in the following year the Government set up a commission of three judges to investigate the whole field of Irish crime. They had been sitting for six months when, in February 1889, they at last began to probe the letters. They discovered that they had been forged by a decrepit Irish journalist named Richard Piggott. Piggott was betrayed by a fatal inability to spell correctly and crushed by the brilliant cross-examination of Sir Charles Russell. He broke down in the witness-box, and later confessed. A few weeks afterwards he blew out his brains in a hotel in Madrid. The effect on the public was most dramatic. For a few months Parnell rode the crest of the wave. Long execration turned into sudden, strange, and short-lived popularity. A General Election was approaching, the Government was out of favour, and nothing, it seemed, could prevent a victory for Gladstone and Home Rule.

But the case was altered. On November 13, 1890, the suit of O’Shea v. O’Shea and Parnell opened in the Divorce Court. A decree nisi was granted to Captain O’Shea. Parnell, as co-respondent, offered no defence. He had been living with Mrs O’Shea for ten years. Posterity was to learn that the circumstances were not so dishonourable to Parnell as they then appeared, but public opinion at the time was severe in condemnation. The Nonconformist conscience, powerful in the Liberal Party, reared its head. Gladstone, single-minded for Home Rule, refused to join in the moral censure, but he was convinced that the only way to stop the Conservatives from exploiting Parnell’s adultery was for the Irish leader to retire, at any rate for a while. “It’ll no’ dae,” was his constant reply to the suggestion that Parnell should remain. Tremendous pressure was put on the Irish leader. His friend and admirer Cecil Rhodes telegraphed, “Resign—marry—return.” It was wise advice. But Parnell was not to be moved; the passion which had burned for so long beneath his cold exterior burst into flame. His pride revolted. He refused to bow to “English hypocrisy,” whatever the cost to his country or his cause.

As a last measure Gladstone wrote to Parnell that he would cease to lead the Liberal Party unless the Irishman retired. Before the letter could be delivered the Irish Party confirmed Parnell in his leadership. Gladstone, in despair, sent his letter to the Press. It was an irretrievable step, a public ultimatum. Next morning Gladstone wrote, “For every day, I may say, of those five years we have been engaged in laboriously rolling uphill the stone of Sisyphus. Mr Parnell’s decision . . . means that the stone is to break away from us and roll down again to the bottom of the hill. I cannot recall the years that have elapsed.” The rest of the story is anti-climax. After Parnell had made a bitter attack upon Gladstone the Catholic Church declared against him, and he was disavowed by most of his party. In vain he made a series of wild and desperate efforts to regain power. Within a year he died.

Liberal prospects, which had been so bright in 1889, were now badly clouded. They were not improved by the adoption of the comprehensive “Newcastle Programme” of 1891. In trying to meet the demands of every section of the party this programme gave far more offence than satisfaction. When the election came in the summer of the following year the result was a Home Rule majority of only forty, dependent on the Irish Members. In the House there were 275 Liberals and 82 Irish Nationalists, as against 269 Conservatives and 46 Liberal Unionists. The majority was too thin for Gladstone’s purposes, but he formed a Cabinet which included men as gifted as Harcourt, Rosebery, Morley, and Campbell-Bannerman. The brightest star of them all was H. H. Asquith, the most able Home Secretary of the century.

Gladstone was resolute. Work began immediately on a second Home Rule Bill, and in February 1893 he introduced it himself. At the age of eighty-four he piloted the Bill through eighty-five sittings against an Opposition led by debaters as formidable as Chamberlain and Balfour. There have been few more remarkable achievements in the whole history of Parliament. It was all in vain. Passing through the Commons by small majorities, the Bill was rejected on the second reading in the Lords by 419 votes to 41. Thus perished all hope of a united, self-governing Ireland, loyal to the British Crown. A generation later civil war, partition, and the separation of the South from the main stream of world events were to be Ireland’s lot. The immediate reaction in England was one of indifference. Encouraged by their victory, the Lords hampered the Government incessantly. Only one major issue was successful, a new Local Government Act, which established urban, rural district, and parish councils. After the defeat of the Home Rule Bill Gladstone fell increasingly out of sympathy with his colleagues. They refused to support his scheme for a dissolution and an attack on the Lords. He, for his part, hated their plans for heavier taxation and increased expenditure on armaments. “The plan is mad,” he said of one proposal. “And who are they who propose it? Men who were not born when I had been in public life for years.” He resigned on March 3, 1894, fifty-two and a half years after his swearing in as a Privy Counsellor. His parting with his Ministers was affecting. Harcourt made a tearful speech of farewell, and there was much emotion. Gladstone, who remained unmoved, afterwards referred to this meeting as “that blubbering Cabinet.” He died in 1898. His career had been the most noteworthy of the century, leaving behind innumerable marks on the pages of history. He was the greatest popular leader of his age, and he has hardly been equalled in his power to move the people on great moral issues. He stands, too, in the very front rank of House of Commons figures. Few of his conceptions were unworthy. Gladstone’s achievements, like his failures, were on the grand scale.


In January 1893 the Independent Labour Party had been founded at a conference at Bradford, with J. Keir Hardie, the Scottish miners’ leader, as its chairman. The aims of the I.L.P., as it was called, were the popularisation of Socialist doctrine and the promotion of independent working-class candidates at Parliamentary elections. Here was a sign, not much noticed in the great world of politics, of new forces which were coming to the surface in the industrial areas of Britain. The lull which followed the collapse of the Chartist movement had already been broken some years before by an outburst of Socialist propaganda and a wave of Trade Union activity. The first manifestation was the founding in 1881 of the Democratic Federation, which was converted to Marxism by the energy and money of a wealthy exponent of the principles of class-warfare and revolution, H. M. Hyndman. But the working class found Marxism unattractive even when expounded by a rich man, and the movement had little success.

Of far greater importance in England was the emergence about the same time of the Fabian Society, run by a group of young and obscure but highly gifted men, Sidney Webb and George Bernard Shaw among them. They damned all revolutionary theory and set about the propagation of a practical Socialist doctrine. They were not interested in the organisation of a new political party. Socialist aims could be achieved by “permeating” the existing political parties, and, largely through the agency of Sidney and Beatrice Webb, they attained some measure of success. The stream of publications which flowed from the Fabian pens, especially the Fabian Essays of 1889, did much to shape the course of Labour politics. The outlook, in the main, was practical and empirical, owing little to dogmatic theory and nothing to Marx. Great stress was placed on the slow and intricate nature of the change to Socialism—the “inevitability of gradualness.”

Most working men knew little of these higher intellectual activities. They were absorbed in efforts to raise their standards of living. During the mid-Victorian years Trade Union organisation had been largely confined to the skilled and relatively prosperous members of the working class. But in 1889 the dockers of London, a miserably underpaid group, struck for a wage of sixpence an hour. John Burns, one of the organisers of the strike, reminded the dockers of the relief of Lucknow. “This, lads,” he said, “is the Lucknow of Labour, and I myself, looking to the horizon, can see a silver gleam—not of bayonets to be imbrued in a brother’s blood, but the gleam of the full round orb of the dockers’ tanner.” It was indeed the Lucknow of Labour. The dockers’ victory, made possible by much public sympathy and support, was followed by a rapid expansion of Trade Union organisation among the unskilled workers.

Throughout the country small groups of Socialists began to form, but they were politically very weak. Their sole electoral success had been the return for West Ham in 1892 of Keir Hardie, who created a sensation by going to the House for his first time accompanied by a brass band and wearing a cloth cap. The greatest difficulty for these Socialist groups was that their fervent beliefs evoked no response either among the mass of working men or among Trade Union leaders, most of whom continued to put their trust in the Liberals and Radicals. But Keir Hardie patiently toiled to woo the Unions away from the Liberal connection. He had some success with the new Unions which had expanded after the dock strike and were willing to support political action. He was greatly aided in his task by the reluctance of the Liberal Party to sponsor working-class candidates for Parliament, apart from a handful, known as “Lib-Labs,” most of whom were miners.

The outcome was a meeting sponsored by the Socialist societies and a number of Trade Unions which was held in the Memorial Hall, Farringdon Street, London, on February 27, 1900. It was there decided to set up a Labour Representation Committee, with Ramsay MacDonald as its secretary. The aim of the committee was defined as the establishment of “a distinct Labour group in Parliament who shall have their own Whips and agree upon policy.” The Labour Party had been founded. MacDonald in the twentieth century was to become the first Labour Prime Minister. He was to split his party at a moment of national crisis, and die amid the execrations of the Socialists whose political fortunes he had done so much to build.


Gladstone had been succeeded as Prime Minister by Lord Rosebery. Rosebery had the good luck to win the Derby twice during his sixteen months of office. Not much other fortune befell him. Rosebery had a far-ranging mind, above the shifts and compromises indispensable in political life. He had been most at ease as Foreign Secretary, contemplating the larger issues of the world and delicately considering British action. He was the Queen’s own choice as Prime Minister, and his Imperialist views made him unpopular with his own party. The Lords continued to obstruct him. At this moment the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir William Harcourt, included in his Budget proposals a scheme for the payment of substantial death duties. This caused violent feeling throughout the capitalist class affected. The Cabinet was rent by clashes of personality and the quarrels of Imperialists and “Little Englanders.” As Rosebery later said, “I never did have power.” His was a bleak, precarious, wasting inheritance. When the Government was defeated on a snap vote in June 1895 it took the opportunity to resign. The quarrels of the Liberal leaders were now no longer confined by the secrecy of the Cabinet, and the years that followed were dark ones for the Liberal Party. At the General Election the Conservative-Liberal Unionist alliance won a decisive victory. Its majority over the Opposition, including the Irish Nationalists, was 152.

Lord Salisbury thereupon formed a powerful administration. He once again combined the offices of Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary, and his position in his own party and in the country was unrivalled. His methods of dispatching business were by now unorthodox. It is said that he sometimes failed to recognise members of his Cabinet when he met them on rare social occasions. He loved to retire to the great Cecil house at Hatfield, whence he discharged his vast responsibilities by a stream of letters written in his own hand. His leisure was spent in making scientific experiments in his private laboratory; he also enjoyed riding a stately tricycle around his park. His authority and prestige derived in part from the air of patrician assurance which marked his public speech and action. In character he presented the aristocratic tradition in politics at its best. He cared little for popular acclaim, and such disinterestedness in a democratic age was accepted and even approved. His deputy and closest adviser was his nephew, Arthur Balfour, who became First Lord of the Treasury. But the man who in the public eye dominated the Government was the Liberal Unionist leader, Joseph Chamberlain, now at the height of his powers and anxious for the office which had been denied to him for so long by the events of 1886. By his own choice Chamberlain became Colonial Secretary. His instinct was a sure one. Interest in home affairs had languished. In its five years of office the Government passed only one substantial reforming measure, the Workmen’s Compensation Act of 1897. The excitement of politics lay in the clash of Imperial forces in the continents of Africa and Asia, and it was there that Chamberlain resolved to make his mark.

Chamberlain approached his task with the reforming enthusiasm of his Radical days. A great change had taken place in him. The Municipal Socialist and Republican of his Birmingham years was now the architect of Empire. “It is not enough,” he declared, “to occupy certain great spaces of the world’s surface unless you can make the best of them—unless you are willing to develop them. We are landlords of a great estate; it is the duty of a landlord to develop his estate.” Chamberlain could not fulfil this promise in the way he would have wished, although some advances were made, especially in West Africa. From the moment he took office projects of reform were pushed into the background by the constant eruption of questions inseparable from a policy of expansion. The first was a small one, that of the Ashanti, who continued to terrorise much of the Gold Coast by their slave-raiding. An expedition was sent against them under Wolseley, and by January 1896 the Ashanti kingdom had been crushed. The situation in Nigeria was much more difficult, since another Great Power was involved. The French, by moving overland to the south of the Sahara Desert, were attempting to confine the British to the coastal areas by using their superior military strength. Chamberlain, who, as Salisbury said, hated to give anything away, retaliated by organising the West African Frontier Force, under Sir Henry Lugard. His measures were completely successful; skilful diplomacy backed resolute action, and the Anglo-French Convention of June 1898 drew boundary lines in West Africa which were entirely satisfactory to the British.

A few months later a far more dangerous dispute broke out between Britain and France over the control of the Upper Nile. Since the death of Gordon the Dervishes had held unquestioned sway in the Sudan. Their prophet, the Mahdi, was dead, but his successor, the Khalifa as he was called, kept their loose military empire in his grip. He also cherished ambitions for enlarging his domains at the expense of Egypt and Abyssinia. Meanwhile the Egyptian Army, reorganised and reformed by British officers, successfully defended the Lower Nile and the Red Sea coast from Dervish incursions. In 1896 the time had come for the British Command in Egypt to strike back at the restless fanatics to their south. French moves towards the sources of the Nile were already taking place, and must be forestalled; the Italian settlements on the Red Sea needed support; the slave-trade, which the Dervishes had revived, called for suppression; and at home Lord Salisbury’s Government was not averse to an Imperial advance. In March Sir Herbert Kitchener, Sirdar of the Egyptian Army, launched his campaign for the avenging of Gordon and the reconquest of the Sudan. This vast tract of African territory could no longer be left a prey to barbarous rule, or remain a magnet for European rivalries.

The desert and the harsh tropical climate presented a formidable challenge to Kitchener’s expedition, and he left nothing to chance. His great capacity, now to be displayed, was his foresight in organisation. The River War on the banks of the Nile was a painstaking operation, well planned and well directed. A single reverse would have aroused an outcry of criticism in Britain, and only carefully calculated risks could be taken. Supply was the chief problem, and to meet the needs of Kitchener’s columns far in the interior of the African continent over five hundred miles of railway were built through arid and unsurveyed regions. It was largely an engineers’ war, enlivened by many short, fierce, gallant actions. Kitchener started the campaign with 15,000 men, and at the end commanded 25,000, of whom 8,000 were British. The Khalifa’s forces were at least three times as numerous, devoted to their cause, ferociously brave, and wily in the ways of the desert. After two and a half years the Dervish Army was finally confronted and destroyed outside Khartoum at the Battle of Omdurman on September 2, 1898. This, as described at the time by a young Hussar who took part in the battle, was “the most signal triumph ever gained by the arms of science over barbarians.” The Khalifa and his surviving lieutenants were gradually hunted down, and the Sudan then entered upon a period of constructive rule.

Five days after the Battle of Omdurman news reached Khartoum that there were Europeans at Fashoda, a post high upon the White Nile. They were Major Marchand and his officers, with a platoon of West African soldiers, who had marched for two years from the Atlantic coast across 2,500 miles of jungle in the hope of establishing France astride the sources of the Nile between the Congo and Abyssinia. Kitchener himself sailed up-river to meet Marchand in person. Courtesies were exchanged between the two soldiers, but it was evident who held the ground in greater force. For a time the French flag flew alongside the British and the Egyptian at Fashoda fort while matters were referred to London and Paris. In both capitals there was a flurry of talk about war. But French claims to the provinces of the Southern Sudan could not be sustained in the light of the British victory in the River War. The French gave way, and by the Convention of March 1899 the watershed of the Congo and the Nile was fixed as the boundary separating British and French interests. This was virtually the last of the colonial disputes which for some decades had poisoned relations between Britain and France. Henceforward, under the growing menace of Germany, the two countries found themselves in constantly increasing harmony.

These were not the only external preoccupations of the Government. At the end of 1895 a crisis occurred with the United States, when, as has been related, President Cleveland claimed the American right to make an arbitrary settlement of the boundary between British Guiana and Venezuela. Throughout these years Germany was hard at work promoting her plans for the penetration of Asia Minor, and there was much talk of a Berlin-Baghdad railway. To this Salisbury raised no objection. He preferred to see the Germans rather than the Russians busy in Turkey. In the Far East the Russian threat to China, made possible by the building of the trans-Siberian railway, perpetually agitated the Foreign Office. The province of Manchuria, with the naval base of Port Arthur, was falling into the grasp of the Russians. Few foresaw at that time the startling defeats which Japanese arms would shortly inflict upon the Czar. Chamberlain, who had a large say in foreign affairs, was provoked into making an ill-considered bid for an alliance with Germany. Salisbury held aloof, and restrained his ardent colleague, perceiving more perils in a European alliance than in a policy of isolation. His confidence in Britain’s power to stand alone was now to be tested. For the great events on the world stage, and the diplomatic manœuvres that attended them, were for the Island eclipsed by the struggle in South Africa.

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