« PreviousContinue »
A FLYING VISIT TO THE UNITED STATES. By Lord Brassey
No. CXIII.—JULY 1886.
THE UNIONIST VOTE.
But a few months have come and gone since I, writing in these pages on the eve of the last election, advised the moderate Liberals to vote for the Conservatives, so as to prevent the return of Mr. Gladstone to power. The plea I urged in defence of my advice amounted chiefly to this. The Liberal party under Mr. Gladstone's leadership had, as I held, deserted the true traditions of Liberalism, and had embarked on a line of policy inconsistent with the principles on which the Liberal cause could alone be upheld. In fact, though not in name, these traditions and these principles were, as I opined, far safer in the hands of Lord Salisbury's Government than in those of any Government which Mr. Gladstone could form. I therefore appealed to those who shared my views to do what in them lay to retain Lord Salisbury in office and to keep Mr. Gladstone out of office.
My advice, I admit frankly, was not adopted. Party bonds proved too strong to be cast off on the grounds that were then before the public. With few exceptions the moderate Liberals threw in their lot with Mr. Gladstone and voted the Liberal ticket. They may have wavered in their allegiance, they may have been lukewarm in their advocacy. But yet they could not make up their minds to part company with Mr. Gladstone, and in consequence they allowed their names, their authority, and their influence to be used in order to secure the return of a Liberal majority It is in the agricultural counties that the moderate Liberals are most powerful, and it is in the counties tbat the Liberals gained their most numerous and most decisive successes. The result was that office was VOL. XX.-No. 113.
once more brought within measurable distance of Mr. Gladstone's attainment.
Had other and as I deem wiser-counsels prevailed, the country might have been spared the danger of dismemberment. But it was not to be. Lord Hartington, and the great mass of moderate Liberals of whom he is the representative, agreed to accept the Hawarden programme, and to follow Mr. Gladstone's leadership. The member for Midlothian had, as they imagined, learnt wisdom by his late defeat, and might be trusted not to repeat the errors which had upset his last administration. They disliked the idea of a coalition with the Conservatives, they distrusted the possibility of a fusion, they flattered themselves that if they stuck by their party their influence would prove strong enough to keep the Liberals from any extreme measures. Party ties, personal likes and dislikes, political prepossessions had undoubtedly much to do with the decision of the moderate Liberals to support Mr. Gladstone at the last election. But the dominant cause of their so deciding lay in the fact that their confidence in Mr. Gladstone, though shaken, had not then been destroyed.
Their confidence proved misplaced. The general election had left the Parnellites in a position to decide whether the Liberals should or should not return to office. Without their aid, the accession of a Liberal Government was an impossibility; with their aid it was a certainty. The price of their aid was the concession of Home Rule. That price Mr. Gladstone suddenly awoke to the necessity of paying. I am not concerned with the question of Mr. Gladstone's motives. Psychological problems have no great interest for me, and the extent to which a man may deceive himself while deceiving others is a consideration into which I have neither the wish nor the power to enter. All I-or the world at large for that matter-have to deal with are Mr. Gladstone's acts, not his motives. In the annals of American politics it is recorded that, on a change of administration at Washington, a Western editor who had supported the defeated party was informed that the Government advertisements would be withdrawn unless he defended the policy of the party in power. The editor in question forthwith wired back, 'It is a sharp curve and an ugly curve, but I'll take it.' If Mr. Gladstone was not constitutionally incapable of ever using plain language to express plain ideas, it is in such terms as this he might have given in his adhesion to Home Rule. It was a very sharp curve, a very ugly curve indeed ! Not only had Mr. Gladstone throughout his long career set his face against Home Rule, not only had he time after time declined to consider it as coming within the domain of practical politics, but he had distinguished himself above other English statesmen by the vehemence with which he had denounced its champions and advocates. If, as he now wishes us to believe, he had all along cherished a secret regard for Home Rule, he had succeeded most admirably in conceal
ing his affection. Throughout his five years' tenure of office Mr. Gladstone and his colleagues had contrived to make themselves so exceptionally disliked and distrusted by the Irish Nationalists, that the Irish vote had been given to the Conservatives, not because much was expected from them, but because they were opposed to Mr. Gladstone. The fact that this support had been so given had been seized upon as an electioneering weapon by Mr. Gladstone, and had been used unscrupulously by his followers. The mere suspicion that some of the Conservative Ministers might be disposed to make concessions to the Home Rule agitators in return for the Irish vote had been urged as a grave offence against them upon every Liberal platform. Mr. Gladstone himself had made a solemn appeal to the constituencies imploring them to return a strong Liberal majority in order to deprive the Home Rule vote of its importance. In fact, if there was one point to which Mr. Gladstone and the Liberal party stood committed by the course they adopted at the last election, it was resistance to Home Rule.
Yet, as soon as it became clear that the Liberal party could not return to office unless they could deprive the Conservatives of the support they had hitherto received from the Parnellites, Mr. Gladstone went over bag and baggage to the Home Rule camp. Negotiations were opened between Mr. Parnell and Mr. Gladstone, and a compact was entered into in virtue of which the Conservative Ministry were thrown out on the first pretext that presented itself, and Mr. Gladstone was placed in a position to resume office.
I am quite ready to believe that by this time Mr. Gladstone had worked himself up into a genuine belief in the excellence of Home Rule, just as on all previous occasions in his career he has always held the most fervent conviction of the innate truth of any cause which it has served his purpose to espouse. But the fact remains the same that Mr. Gladstone, having defeated the Conservatives by accusing them of parleying with Home Rule, became a convert to Home Rule the moment that his conversion was shown to be the condition of his return to office. Having obtained his majority, his next step was to form his ministry. For this purpose it was essential to keep back the full extent of his conversion. It is obvious, from what we know already, that the colleagues whose aid Mr. Gladstone solicited towards the formation of his ministry were kept utterly in the dark as to the policy on which he had determined, and were only given to understand that in view of the recent manifestation of popular sentiment in Ireland something must be done to satisfy the Irish demand for local self-government. It does credit to the sagacity as well as to the public spirit of Lord Hartington and his personal followers that, in spite of the assurances that were tendered them, they declined to accept office in an administration which was to be constructed on the basis of a coalition with the Parnellites.
The Ministry was formed; and then, without consulting with his colleagues, Mr. Gladstone availed himself of Mr. Parnell's assistance to concoct a scheme repealing the Act of Union and providing Ireland with an independent parliament and a separate executive.
It is needless for my present purpose to repeat how the disclosure of this scheme broke up the Ministry. Nor am I concerned to defend the absolute logical consistency of Mr. Chamberlain and the Radicals who were willing to go a certain length in conceding the principle of Home Rule, but who stopped short at the point to which Mr. Gladstone proposed to lead them. Their most valid defence against the charge of inconsistency must be found in the reply of an eminent American politician in the days of the secession war, who was taunted at a public meeting because, having been a Democrat all his life, he had joined the Republicans when the Southern States seceded. His answer was this : ‘Gentlemen,-I followed my party to the very steps of the gallows, but when it came to putting my neck in the noose I thought it time to part company.' When it came to the Repeal of the Union Mr. Chamberlain and Mr. Trevelyan drew back, and by so drawing back they have vindicated themselves from the stain which will attach indelibly to the ministers who consented to co-operate with Mr. Gladstone after his programme had been disclosed. Nor is it incumbent on me to do more than recall the expedients, devices, and subterfuges by which the Ministry attempted alternately to cajole or coerce the malcontent Liberals into accepting the fundamental principle of the Bill. If they could only have been got to admit that Ireland was henceforth to be administered by a parliament and an executive of her own, there was no concession the Ministry were not prepared to make, no assurance they were not ready to give, no engagement into which they were not willing to enter. Happily the snare was too apparent to be successful, and the malcontents stood firm. The Bill was doomed unless the opposition of the Liberal secessionists could be overcome, and to attain this end the Ministry stooped to intrigues and expedients of which happily our political history has had but scant experience. The Prime Minister of England was not ashamed to appeal to the lowest instincts of the masses, and to declare that the question at issue was one not to be decided by reason or argument, but by class prejudices and class sympathies. The whole organisation of the Liberal party was set in action to coerce any Liberal member who dared, after Mr. Gladstone had become a convert to Home Rule, to adhere to his own opinion. Social, personal, and political influences of all kinds were brought to bear upon every member whose vote was doubtful. Every art of Parliamentary strategy was resorted to in order to secure the passing of the Bill: no petty artifice, no device, however small, was rejected as unworthy of the occasion. And yet dodges, devices,