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ART. XII.-The Parliamentary Debates. (Authorised Edition.) 4th Series. Sessions 1893–94. London, 1893–94.
HE soundness of Hosea Biglow's advice “never to prophesy unless you know ’ seems at first sight to have received signal confirmation in the non-fulfilment of the forecasts which were made as to the immediate results of Mr. Gladstone's withdrawal from public life. The admirers and detractors of the late Premier, his political partisans equally with his political opponents, Liberals, Radicals, and Nationalists on the one hand, Conservatives and Liberal Unionists on the other, were of one mind as to the consequences which must ensue whenever the veteran leader of the Liberals ceased to exercise the authority he had wielded so long and so vigorously. Putting party sentiment altogether aside, it may be said with truth that, up to a few months ago, the Liberal party and Mr. Gladstone were convertible terms. Even in the ranks of his own followers, the then Prime Minister had either out-lived or out-stayed all his possible competitors. To paraphrase the well-known saying about Eclipse, Gladstone was first and the rest nowhere. Under these circumstances it seemed safe to foretell that the disappearance of the ‘Grand Old Man, however it might be brought about, must entail the disruption of his party and the consequent dissolution of Parliament. People might and did differ as to the ulterior results of Mr. Gladstone's removal, but nobody doubted that this eventuality, whenever it occurred, would bring about a complete reconstruction of the Government,
if not an actual re-organization of the Liberal party. These anticipations, we need hardly say, have so far been falsified by the event. The long-dreaded contingency has occurred : Mr. Gladstone has retired into private life; and yet the Parliament elected under his auspices and in his name goes on much as before; the Government remains pretty well the same ; and the Liberal Party is not, at first sight, substantially different from what it was in the latter days of the Gladstonian era. When Louis XVIII. returned to France after the restoration, a courtier asked him whether he perceived much change in France. ‘No,' was the Royal reply; “there is only one Frenchman the more.’ In like manner, if Mr. Gladstone were asked in the seclusion of Hawarden whether he saw much change in the aspect of politics, he might reply with far greater truth, ‘No ; there is only one Minister the less.’ “Lord Rosebery Premier, vice Mr. Gladstone resigned. In this brief phrase is recorded the net upshot of the crisis, which it was believed
believed beforehand would at once revolutionize the whole face
and aspect of British politics.
follows on all exaggerated estimates, would have operated less rapidly. But with the hero still alive, and yet giving no fresh manifestation of his heroism, the process of unconscious depreciation caused by the contrast between anticipation and retro
spect has commenced before its time. Moreover, it must fairly be admitted that the mode and manner of Mr. Gladstone's retirement were strangely lacking in the dramatic element. To use a French phrase, il a manqué sa sortie, when he elected to remain in office after the rejection of the Home Rule Bill by the House of Lords. To repeal the Union, to undo the work of Pitt, and to redress the wrongs of Ireland by the restoration of her parliamentary independence, was the achievement to which he had devoted the last seven years of his life. He had fought the battle of Home Rule with a vigour and fulness of resource which even those who disapproved most strongly of his policy could not refuse to admire. By the magic of his personal influence, by his own exuberance of vitality, even more than by the sacrifice of all the principles he had professed throughout his lifetime, and by the surrender of all other objects to the creation of a coalition majority, he had succeeded in inducing a British House of Commons to pass a measure for the dismemberment of the British Empire. For the aims he had pursued since 1885 there was only one justification possible, and that was, that in his own conviction the repeal of the Union was a necessity of such Imperial interest as to override all minor considerations. In the House of Commons his efforts had been crowned with success— success, if you like, dearly bought, and carried by unworthy means, but still success. The Bill, which was to prove the magnum opus of the late Premier's career, which was to place the relations of Great Britain and Ireland upon a basis of permanent goodwill and amity, had been fought stage by stage through the Lower House, the debates having occupied a length of time unparalleled in our legislative annals, and having only been brought to a close at last by a resort to measures utterly inconsistent with all the traditions of a free Legislature. Upon being submitted to the House of Lords, the Bill in question was contemptuously rejected after a couple of nights' discussion by a majority of some four hundred and fifty as against a couple of score of votes recorded in its favour. Under these circumstances, there was but one course open to the Government. Mr. Gladstone's obligations to Ireland, to his party, to the United Kingdom, and to his own honour, were one and the same. Every precedent of Parliament, every principle of politics, every consideration of self-respect, combined to point out the path of duty. duty. The immediate dissolution of Parliament had become an imperative necessity. Under our Constitution the electorate forms the ultimate Court of Appeal in the case of any important conflict between the two Houses of Parliament. To use plain English, the House of Commons had declared that the Act of Union had to be repealed ; the House of Lords had declared that the Act must be upheld in its integrity. It was for the constituencies, and the constituencies alone, to decide which House was right and which House was wrong. The question at issue was one which could be decided in no other way; while the only justification for raising such a question at all lay in the assumption that its decision, one way or the other, was a matter of immediate, urgent, and paramount necessity. Is Mr. Gladstone had had the courage of his opinions, the rejection of the Home Rule Bill by the Lords would have been followed at once by the announcement that Parliament was to be dis. solved as soon as the necessary business had been concluded. If this course had been adopted, one of two consequences must have followed. The constituencies, if the issue of Repeal or no Repeal had thus been placed clearly before them, must have returned either a Separatist or a Unionist majority. In the former case, Mr. Gladstone would have re-introduced a Bill granting Ireland an independent executive; and the Bill, sup: ported as it would have been by the deliberate and definite sanction of the country, would in all likelihood have passed the House of Commons by a far larger vote than it had been able to obtain in 1893. In such an event it seems to us more than doubtful whether the Upper House would have felt justi. fied in rejecting the Bill a second time; while if the Lords had maintained their attitude of unflinching opposition, the Government would have been entitled, by the usages of out Constitution, to call for such a creation of Peers as would over-ride the antagonism of the hereditary Chamber. Upon this supposition, therefore, the Bill would long before this have become law. The Liberal party would then have been entitled to the credit of having carried, whether for good or evil, the greatest Parliamentary measure of the present century; while the veteran Premier might have claimed with perfect truth the of this measure he, and he alone, was the parent, author, and creator. If, on the other hand, the constituencies had retume a Unionist majority, the Premier might have retired with dignity from an untenable position. He, at any rate, had do all that man could do for the cause of Irish independent. Even though he could not have hoped to lead the attack again, he might have rested content with the belief that time Will
would justify the wisdom of his rejected policy; and that whenever this result came to pass his name would remain indissolubly
connected with the achievement of Repeal. Unfortunately for his repute as a statesman, party considerations were allowed to over-ride what we are convinced must have been Mr. Gladstone's first impulse on the almost contemptuous rejection of the measure which he regarded as the crowning triumph of a grand career. It soon became obvious, even to his flatterers and followers, that the action of the House of Lords was regarded with absolute indifference, if not with positive approval, by the country at large. The attempt to raise an outcry against the hereditary Chamber died still-born; and all the Tapers and Tadpoles of the Liberal party besought the Premier not to appeal to the country upon an issue on which defeat was certain. Their advice was to try and divert public attention from the fiasco of Home Rule, and to endeavour to pick a quarrel with the Lords on measures not directly connected with Ireland,-measures which had at any rate a chance of exciting popular interest to such an extent as to make their rejection by the Peers a cry on which it was possible to go to
the country with some prospect of success. It has been ascribed as a merit to British pugilists that they do not know when they are beaten. But we never heard it claimed for them as a title of honour, that when they knew they were beaten they declined to surrender the belt of championship. Yet this is exactly the policy adopted by Mr. Gladstone and his colleagues. They knew that they were defeated, and yet declined either to appeal to the country or to resign office. We do not assert, we do not even believe, that Mr. Gladstone was influenced by an ignoble desire for office, though his personal love of power was unquestionably one of the considerations which induced him to defer to the wishes of his party, and to consent to remain at the head of the Government. The Home Rule Bill, on which he had staked the fortunes of his Ministry, whose enactment he had represented as a measure of vital interest to the welfare of the country, had been thrown out by the Lords, treated as a measure of no importance, and, in the language used about a play that has been damned, its reproduction, had been adjourned till further notice. Forthwith the whole energies of the Ministry were devoted to composing a new and more attractive play-bill that might hit the taste of the British public, while the Nationalists were kept quiet by the assurance that the stage manager intended to give their favourite drama another chance, if only he could succeed in replenishing his political treasury by a piece that would fill the