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(M111) He was always perfectly ready at this period to acquiesce in Irish exclusion from Westminster, on the ground that they would want all the brains they had for their own parliament. At the same time he would have liked a provision for sending a delegation to Westminster on occasion, with reference to some definite Irish questions such as might be expected to arise. As to the composition of the upper or protective order in the Irish parliament, he was wholly unfamiliar with the various utopian plans that have been advanced for the protection of minorities, and he declared himself tolerably indifferent whether the object should be sought in nomination by the crown, or through a special and narrower elective body, or by any other scheme. To such things he had given no thought. He was a party chief, not a maker of const.i.tutions. He liked the idea of both orders sitting in one House. He made one significant suggestion: he wished the bill to impose the same disqualification upon the clergy as exists in our own parliament. But he would have liked to see certain ecclesiastical dignitaries included by virtue of their office in the upper or protective branch. All questions of this kind, however, interested him much less than finance. Into financial issues he threw himself with extraordinary energy, and he fought for better terms with a keenness and tenacity that almost baffled the mighty expert with whom he was matched. They only met once during the weeks of the preparation of the bill, though the indirect communication was constant. Here is my scanty note of the meeting:-
_April 5._-Mr. Parnell came to my room at the House at 8.30, and we talked for two hours. At 10.30 I went to Mr. Gladstone next door, and told him how things stood. He asked me to open the points of discussion, and into my room we went. He shook hands cordially with Mr. Parnell, and sat down between him and me. We at once got to work. P. extraordinarily close, tenacious, and sharp.
It was all finance. At midnight, Mr. Gladstone rose in his chair and said, “I fear I must go; I cannot sit as late as I used to do.” “Very clever, very clever,” he muttered to me as I held open the door of his room for him. I returned to Parnell, who went on repeating his points in his impenetrable way, until the policeman mercifully came to say the House was up.
Mr. Gladstone’s own note must also be transcribed:-
_April 5._-Wrote to Lord Spencer. The Queen and ministers. Four hours on the matter for my speech. 1- hours with Welby and Hamilton on the figures. Saw Lord Spencer, Mr. Morley, Mr. A. M.
H. of C., 5-8. Dined at Sir Thomas May’s.
1- hours with Morley and Parnell on the root of the matter; rather too late for me, 10–12. A hard day. (_Diary._)
On more than one financial point the conflict went perilously near to breaking down the whole operation. “If we do not get a right budget,” said Mr. Parnell, “all will go wrong from the very first hour.” To the last he held out that the just proportion of Irish contribution to the imperial fund was not one-fourteenth or one-fifteenth, but a twentieth or twenty-first part. He insisted all the more strongly on his own more liberal fraction, as a partial compensation for their surrender of fiscal liberty and the right to impose customs duties. Even an hour or two before the bill was actually to be unfolded to the House, he hurried to the Irish office in what was for him rather an excited state, to make one more appeal to me for his fraction. It is not at all improbable that if the bill had gone forward into committee, it would have been at the eleventh hour rejected by the Irish on this department of it, and then all would have been at an end. Mr. Parnell never concealed this danger ahead.
In the cabinet things went forward with such ups and downs as are usual when a difficult bill is on the anvil. In a project of this magnitude, it was inevitable that some minister should occasionally let fall the consecrated formula that if this or that were done or not done, he must reconsider his position. Financial arrangements, and the protection of the minority, were two of the knottiest points,-the first from the contention raised on the Irish side, the second from misgiving in some minds as to the possibility of satisfying protestant sentiment in England and Scotland. Some kept the colonial type more strongly in view than others, and the bill no doubt ultimately bore that cast.
(M112) The draft project of surrendering complete taxing-power to the Irish legislative body was eventually abandoned. It was soon felt that the bare possibility of Ireland putting duties on British goods-and it was not more than a bare possibility in view of Britain’s position as practically Ireland’s only market-would have destroyed the bill in every manufacturing and commercial centre in the land. Mr. Parnell agreed to give up the control of customs, and also to give up direct and continuous representation at Westminster. On this cardinal point of the cesser of Irish representation, Mr. Gladstone to the last professed to keep an open mind, though to most of the cabinet, including especially three of its oldest hands and coolest heads, exclusion was at this time almost vital.
Exclusion was favoured not only on its merits. Mr. Bright was known to regard it as large compensation for what otherwise he viewed as pure mischief, and it was expected to win support in other quarters generally hostile. So in truth it did, but at the cost of support in quarters that were friendly. On April 30, Mr. Gladstone wrote to Lord Granville, “I scarcely see how a cabinet could have been formed, if the inclusion of the Irish members had been insisted on; and now I do not see how the scheme and policy can be saved from shipwreck, if the exclusion is insisted on.”
The plan was bound to be extensive, as its objects were extensive, and it took for granted in the case of Ireland the fundamental probabilities of civil society. He who looks with “indolent and kingly gaze” upon all projects of written const.i.tutions need not turn to the Appendix unless he will. Two features of the plan were cardinal.
The foundation of the scheme was the establishment in Ireland of a domestic legislature to deal with Irish as distinguished from imperial affairs. It followed from this that if Irish members and representative peers remained at Westminster at all, though they might claim a share in the settlement of imperial affairs, they could not rightly control English or Scotch affairs. This was from the first, and has ever since remained, the Gordian knot. The cabinet on a review of all the courses open determined to propose the plan of total exclusion, save and unless for the purpose of revising this organic statute.
The next question was neither so hard nor so vital. Ought the powers of the Irish legislature to be specifically enumerated? Or was it better to enumerate the branches of legislation from which the statutory parliament was to be shut out? Should we enact the things that they might do, or the things that they might not do, leaving them the whole residue of law-making power outside of these exceptions and exclusions? The latter was the plan adopted in the bill. Disabilities were specified, and everything not so specified was left within the scope of the Irish authority. These disabilities comprehended all matters affecting the crown. All questions of defence and armed force were shut out; all foreign and colonial relations; the law of trade and navigation, of coinage and legal tender. The new legislature could not meddle with certain charters, nor with certain contracts, nor could it establish or endow any particular religion.(196)
Among his five spurious types of courage, Aristotle names for one the man who seems to be brave, only because he does not see his danger. This, at least, was not Mr. Gladstone’s case. No one knew better than the leader in the enterprise, how formidable were the difficulties that lay in his path.
The giant ma.s.s of secular English prejudice against Ireland frowned like a mountain chain across the track. A strong and proud nation had trained itself for long courses of time in habits of dislike for the history, the political claims, the religion, the temperament, of a weaker nation. The violence of the Irish members in the last parliament, sporadic barbarities in some of the wilder portions of the island, the hideous murders in the Park, had all deepened and vivified the scowling impressions nursed by large bodies of Englishmen for many ages past about unfortunate Ireland.
Then the practical operation of shaping an Irish const.i.tution, whether on colonial, federal, or any (M113) other lines, was in itself a task that, even if all external circ.u.mstance had been as smiling as it was in fact the opposite, still abounded in every kind of knotty, intricate, and intractable matter.
It is true that elements could be discovered on the other side. First, was Mr. Gladstone’s own high place in the confidence of great ma.s.ses of his countrymen, the result of a lifetime of conspicuous service and achievement. Next, the lacerating struggle with Ireland ever since 1880, and the confusion into which it had brought our affairs, had bred something like despair in many minds, and they were ready to look in almost any direction for relief from an intolerable burden. Third, the controversy had not gone very far before opponents were astounded to find that the new policy, which they angrily scouted as half insanity and half treason, gave comparatively little shock to the new democracy. This was at first imputed to mere ignorance and raw habits of political judgment.
Wider reflection might have warned them that the plain people of this island, though quickly roused against even the shadow of concession when the power or the greatness of their country is openly a.s.sailed, seem at the same time ready to turn to moral claims of fair play, of conciliation, of pacific truce. With all these magnanimous sentiments the Irish case was only too easily made to a.s.sociate itself. The results of the Irish elections and the force of the const.i.tutional demand sank deep in the popular mind. The grim spectre of Coercion as the other alternative wore its most repulsive look in the eyes of men, themselves but newly admitted to full citizenship. Rash experiment in politics has been defined as raising grave issues without grave cause. n.o.body of any party denied in this crisis the gravity of the cause.
Chapter VI. Introduction Of The Bill. (1886)
Much have I seen and known; cities of men And manners, climates, councils, governments, Myself not least, but honour’d of them all….
There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail; There gloom the dark broad seas.
It was not within the compa.s.s either of human effort or human endurance even for the most practised and skilful of orators to unfold the whole plan, both government and land, in a single speech. Nor was public interest at all equally divided. Irish land had devoured an immense amount of parliamentary time in late years; it is one of the most technical and repulsive of all political subjects; and to many of the warmest friends of Irish self-government, any special consideration for the owners of Irish land was bitterly unpalatable. Expectation was centred upon the plan for general government. This was introduced on April 8. Here is the entry in the little diary:-
The message came to me this morning: “Hold thou up my goings in thy path, that my footsteps slip not.” Settled finally my figures with Welby and Hamilton; other points with Spencer and Morley.
Reflected much. Took a short drive. H. of C., 4–8-.
Extraordinary scenes outside the House and in. My speech, which I have sometimes thought could never end, lasted nearly 3- hours.
Voice and strength and freedom were granted to me in a degree beyond what I could have hoped. But many a prayer had gone up for me, and not I believe in vain.
No such scene had ever been beheld in the House of Commons. Members came down at break of day to secure their places; before noon every seat was marked, and (M114) crowded benches were even arrayed on the floor of the House from the mace to the bar. Princes, amba.s.sadors, great peers, high prelates, thronged the lobbies. The fame of the orator, the boldness of his exploit, curiosity as to the plan, poignant anxiety as to the party result, wonder whether a wizard had at last actually arisen with a spell for casting out the baleful spirits that had for so many ages made Ireland our torment and our dishonour, all these things brought together such an a.s.semblage as no minister before had ever addressed within those world-renowned walls. The parliament was new. Many of its members had fought a hard battle for their seats, and trusted they were safe in the haven for half a dozen good years to come. Those who were moved by professional ambition, those whose object was social advancement, those who thought only of upright public service, the keen party men, the men who aspired to office, the men with a past and the men who looked for a future, all alike found themselves adrift on dark and troubled waters. The secrets of the bill had been well kept. To-day the disquieted host were first to learn what was the great project to which they would have to say that Aye or No on which for them and for the state so much would hang.
Of the chief comrades or rivals of the minister’s own generation, the strong administrators, the eager and accomplished debaters, the sagacious leaders, the only survivor now comparable to him in eloquence or in influence was Mr. Bright. That ill.u.s.trious man seldom came into the House in those distracted days; and on this memorable occasion his stern and n.o.ble head was to be seen in dim obscurity. Various as were the emotions in other regions of the House, in one quarter rejoicing was unmixed.
There, at least, was no doubt and no misgiving. There pallid and tranquil sat the Irish leader, whose hard insight, whose patience, energy, and spirit of command, had achieved this astounding result, and done that which he had vowed to his countrymen that he would a.s.suredly be able to do. On the benches round him, genial excitement rose almost to tumult.
Well it might. For the first time since the union, the Irish case was at last to be pressed in all its force and strength, in every aspect of policy and of conscience, by the most powerful Englishman then alive.
More striking than the audience was the man; more striking than the mult.i.tude of eager onlookers from the sh.o.r.e was the rescuer with deliberate valour facing the floods ready to wash him down; the veteran Ulysses, who after more than half a century of combat, service, toil, thought it not too late to try a further “work of n.o.ble note.” In the hands of such a master of the instrument, the theme might easily have lent itself to one of those displays of exalted pa.s.sion which the House had marvelled at in more than one of Mr. Gladstone’s speeches on the Turkish question, or heard with religious reverence in his speech on the Affirmation bill in 1883. What the occasion now required was that pa.s.sion should burn low, and reasoned persuasion hold up the guiding lamp. An elaborate scheme was to be unfolded, an unfamiliar policy to be explained and vindicated. Of that best kind of eloquence which dispenses with declamation, this was a fine and sustained example. There was a deep, rapid, steady, onflowing volume of argument, exposition, exhortation.
Every hard or bitter stroke was avoided. Now and again a fervid note thrilled the ear and lifted all hearts. But political oratory is action, not words,-action, character, will, conviction, purpose, personality. As this eager muster of men underwent the enchantment of periods exquisite in their balance and modulation, the compulsion of his flashing glance and animated gesture, what stirred and commanded them was the recollection of national service, the thought of the speaker’s mastering purpose, his unflagging resolution and strenuous will, his strength of thew and sinew well tried in long years of resounding war, his unquenched conviction that the just cause can never fail. Few are the heroic moments in our parliamentary politics, but this was one.
The first reading of the bill was allowed to pa.s.s without a division. To the second, Lord Hartington moved an (M115) amendment in the ordinary form of simple rejection.(197) His two speeches(198) present the case against the policy and the bill in its most ma.s.sive form. The direct and unsophisticated nature of his antagonism, backed by a personal character of uprightness and plain dealing beyond all suspicion, gave a momentum to his attack that was beyond any effect of dialectics. It was noticed that he had never during his thirty years of parliamentary life spoken with anything like the same power before. The debates on the two stages occupied sixteen nights. They were not unworthy of the gravity of the issue, nor of the fame of the House of Commons. Only one speaker held the magic secret of Demosthenic oratory. Several others showed themselves masters of the higher arts of parliamentary discussion. One or two transient spurts of fire in the encounters of orange and green, served to reveal the intensity of the glow behind the closed doors of the furnace.
But the general temper was good. The rule against irritating language was hardly ever broken. Swords crossed according to the strict rules of combat. The tone was rational and argumentative. There was plenty of strong, close, and acute reasoning; there was some learning, a considerable acquaintance both with historic and contemporary, foreign and domestic fact, and when fact and reasoning broke down, their place was abundantly filled by eloquent prophecy of disaster on one side, or blessing on the other. Neither prophecy was demonstrable; both could be made plausible.
Discussion was adorned by copious references to the mighty shades who had been the glory of the House in a great parliamentary age. We heard again the Virgilian hexameters in which Pitt had described the spirit of his policy at the union:-
“Paribus se legibus ambae Invictae gentes aeterna in fdera mittant.”
We heard once more how Grattan said that union of the legislatures was severance of the nations; that the ocean forbade union, the channel forbade separation; that England in her government of Ireland had gone to h.e.l.l for her principles and to bedlam for her discretion. There was, above all, a grand and copious anthology throughout the debate from Burke, the greatest of Irishmen and the largest master of civil wisdom in our tongue.
The appearance of a certain measure of the common form of all debates was inevitable. No bill is ever brought in of which its opponents do not say that it either goes too far, or else it does not go far enough; no bill of which its defenders do not say as to some crucial flaw pounced upon and paraded by the enemy, that after all it is a mere question of drafting, or can be more appropriately discussed in committee. There was the usual evasion of the strong points of the adversary’s case, the usual exaggeration of its weak ones. That is debating. Perorations ran in a monotonous mould; integrity of the empire on one side, a real, happy, and indissoluble reconciliation between English and Irish on the other.
One side dwelt much on the recall of Lord Fitzwilliam in 1795, and the squalid corruption of the union; the other, on the hopeless distraction left by the rebellion of 1798, and the impotent confusion of the Irish parliament. One speaker enumerated Mr. Pitt’s arguments for the union-the argument about the regency and about the commercial treaty, the argument about foreign alliances and confederacies and the army, about free trade and catholic emanc.i.p.ation; he showed that under all these six heads the new bill carefully respected and guarded the grounds taken by the minister of the union. He was bluntly answered by the exclamation that n.o.body cared a straw about what Mr. Pitt said, or what Sir Ralph Abercromby said; what we had to deal with were the facts of the case in the year 1886. You show your mistrust of the Irish by inserting all these safeguards in the bill, said the opposition. No, replied ministers; the safeguards are to meet no mistrusts of ours, but those entertained or feigned by other people. You had no mandate for home rule, said the opposition. Still less, ministers retorted, had you a mandate for coercion. (M116) Such a scheme as this, exclaimed the critics, with all its checks and counterchecks, its truncated functions, its vetoes, exceptions, and reservations, is degrading to Ireland, and every Irish patriot with a spark of spirit in his bosom must feel it so. As if, retorted the defenders, there were no degradation to a free people in suffering twenty years of your firm and resolute coercion. One side argued that the interests of Ireland and Great Britain were much too closely intertwined to permit a double legislature.
The other argued that this very interdependence was just what made an Irish legislature safe, because it was incredible that they should act as if they had no benefit to receive from us, and no injury to suffer from injury inflicted upon us. Do you, asked some, blot out of your minds the bitter, incendiary, and rebellious speech of Irish members? But do you then, the rejoinder followed, suppose that the language that came from men’s hearts when a boon was refused, is a clue to the sentiment in their hearts when the boon shall have been granted? Ministers were bombarded with reproachful quotations from their old speeches. They answered the fire by taunts about the dropping of coercion, and the amazing manuvres of the autumn of 1885. The device of the two orders was denounced as inconsistent with the democratic tendencies of the age. A very impressive argument forsooth from you, was the reply, who are either stout defenders of the House of Lords as it is, or else stout advocates for some of the multifarious schemes for mixing hereditary peers with fossil officials, all of them equally alien to the democratic tendencies whether of this age or any other. So, with stroke and counter-stroke, was the ball kept flying.
Much was made of foreign and colonial a.n.a.logies; of the union between Austria and Hungary, Norway and Sweden, Denmark and Iceland; how in forcing legislative union on North America we lost the colonies; how the union of legislatures ended in the severance of Holland from Belgium. All this carried little conviction. Most members of parliament like to think with pretty large blinkers on, and though it may make for narrowness, this is consistent with much practical wisdom. Historical parallels in the actual politics of the day are usually rather decorative than substantial.
If people disbelieve premisses, nothing can be easier than to ridicule conclusions; and what happened now was that critics argued against this or that contrivance in the machinery, because they insisted that no machinery was needed at all, and that no contrivance could ever be made to work, because the Irish mechanicians would infallibly devote all their infatuated energy and perverse skill, not to work it, but to break it in pieces. The Irish, in Mr. Gladstone’s ironical paraphrase of these singular opinions, had a double dose of original sin; they belonged wholly to the kingdoms of darkness, and therefore the rules of that probability which wise men have made the guide of life can have no bearing in any case of theirs. A more serious way of stating the fundamental objection with which Mr. Gladstone had to deal was this. Popular government is at the best difficult to work. It is supremely difficult to work in a statutory scheme with limits, reservations, and restrictions lurking round every corner. Finally, owing to history and circ.u.mstance, no people in all the world is less fitted to try a supremely difficult experiment in government than the people who live in Ireland. Your superstructure, they said, is enormously heavy, yet you are going to raise it on foundations that are a quaking bog of incapacity and discontent. This may have been a good answer to the policy of the bill. But to criticise its provisions from such a point of view was as inevitably unfruitful as it would be to set a hardened agnostic to revise the Thirty-nine articles or the mystic theses of the Athanasian creed.
On the first reading, Mr. Chamberlain astounded allies and opponents alike by suddenly revealing his view, that the true solution of the question was to be sought in some form of federation. It was upon the line of federation, and not upon the pattern of the self-governing colonies, that we should find a way out of the difficulty.(199) Men could hardly trust their ears. On the second reading, he startled us once more by declaring that he was perfectly prepared, the very (M117) next day if we pleased, to establish between this country and Ireland the relations subsisting between the provincial legislatures and the dominion parliament of Canada.(200) As to the first proposal, anybody could see that federation was a vastly more revolutionary operation than the delegation of certain legislative powers to a local parliament. Moreover before federating an Irish legislature, you must first create it. As to the second proposal, anybody could see on turning for a quarter of an hour to the Dominion Act of 1867, that in some of the particulars deemed by Mr. Chamberlain to be specially important, a provincial legislature in the Canadian system had more unfettered powers than the Irish legislature would have under the bill. Finally, he urged that inquiry into the possibility of satisfying the Irish demand should be carried on by a committee or commission representing all sections of the House.(201) In face of projects so strangely fashioned as this, Mr. Gladstone had a right to declare that just as the subject held the field in the public mind-for never before had been seen such signs of public absorption in the House and out of the House-so the ministerial plan held the field in parliament. It had many enemies, but it had not a single serious rival.
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