Gladstone and Ireland: Cloud in the West
Kevin Haddick Flynn looks at the attempt of the Grand Old Man of Liberalism to solve the Irish question and his conversion to Home Rule in the mid-1880s.
Ireland! Ireland! That cloud in the west, that coming storm, the minister of God’s retribution upon cruel and inveterate and half-atoned injustice! Gladstone, 1845.
In the opinion of some, William Ewart Gladstone was the greatest statesman of his age. His career continues to fascinate and its appeal springs not only from his pre-eminence as a politician but from the unusual nature of his personality and character. ‘A comic genius’ is how one contemporary described him. But in truth the Grand Old Man, or GOM as he became known, was never comic, at least not intentionally. He was a highly resolute man in a sombre and straitlaced age. Benjamin Disraeli neatly captured Gladstone’s character when he remarked that he did not possess ‘a single redeeming defect’.
What were the traits that marked him? First, he was a man of exceptional physical energy, although often subject to bouts of serious illness. He was a keen traveller, but when visiting stately homes often chose to walk the last half-dozen miles. Where Harold Wilson left tobacco pipes, Gladstone left axes with which he had hewn down great trees. After an arduous day of Cabinet meetings and parliamentary business, sometimes followed by a formal dinner, it was not unusual for him to venture onto the streets to ‘rescue’ ladies of the night. Roy Jenkins says that Gladstone’s diaries indicate that he sometimes succumbed to these ladies’ allurements; other historians are less sure. His jottings reveal, however, that he was frequently torn by conscience and actually chastised himself to banish temptations of the flesh.
Second, his physical prowess was matched by extraordinary mental energy. An inveterate diarist, he chronicled his life in great detail, not just daily, but practically hourly from his early years until shortly before his death aged 89. He was a prodigious reader; Jenkins estimates that he read 20,000 books (an average of five a week) during his lifetime; otherwise his leisures were few, although he was a discriminating diner and an occasional theatregoer (though he admitted to having slept through Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People). A compulsive penman, but not a great author, he published more than 30 books and pamphlets and was a recognised, if idiosyncratic, authority on Homer. He wrote a three-volume work on the poet claiming that he was a mystic who anticipated the doctrine of the Trinity. He lectured on his hero to great applause at the Oxford Union when over 80. On the day of his final retirement from Parliament (in 1894) he completed a translation of the Odes of Horace and the following year edited a hefty volume of the works of Bishop Joseph Butler.
Of a religious bent, Gladstone initially felt drawn towards ordination in the Church of England, but was dissuaded by his father. He saw his career in politics as part of God’s calling, an attitude that prompted the Whig radical Henry Labouchere to remark that, although he did not object to Gladstone having an ace up his sleeve, he took exception to the view that God had put it there. Gladstone’s first published work was entitled The State in its Relations with the Church (1838) and argued that the Church of England represented the conscience of the British state. Macaulay, in a savage refutation, castigated him as ‘the rising hope of those stern and unbending Tories’.
He was born in Liverpool in 1809, the fourth son of a wealthy Scot who owned slave plantations in the West Indies. He went to Eton and Christ Church, Oxford and the acerbic Walter Bagehot remarked of him that he gave the impression of being ‘Oxford on the surface and Liverpool underneath’. Gladstone explained his success as being due to his ability to combine both. He took a first class degree in classics and mathematics and became president of the Union. His oratory, cultivated accent and fine physical presence impressed, as did his capacity for hard work. On graduation he was offered the parliamentary seat of Newark in Nottinghamshire, then in the patronage of the Duke of Newcastle. His entry to the Commons in June 1833 began a slow march from High Church Toryism to ardent Liberalism. His initial speech was nonetheless in defence of his father’s slave-owning interest.
In the 1840s a change was discerned in Gladstone; after the death in 1830 of his mentor Robert Peel he had become gradually disillusioned with Toryism and convinced that ordinary people had a greater capacity for virtuous public behaviour than the landed elite, who, he believed, looked only to their own self interest. He incurred the wrath of his peers when he declared himself more concerned with ‘the masses’ than ‘the classes’. This earned him the tag: ‘The People’s William’.
Gladstone showed little interest in Ireland in his early career. In 1845, the French statesman François Guizot reproached him on its plight. The rebuke stung. Aware of his own inability to act, Gladstone told a colleague: ‘For years I have been watching the sky with a strong impulse to act at the first streak of dawn.’ That streak appeared in December 1868 when, while cutting down a tree on his estate, a telegraph arrived from the Queen commissioning him to form a government. ‘Very significant,’ was his comment as he put down his axe. After a few moments, he said with great earnestness: ‘My mission is to pacify Ireland.’
A final conflict
Gladstone had a three-stage plan: to disestablish the minority Church of Ireland, to reform the land laws and to amend the university system to rectify Catholic grievance. The strategy was based on the belief that the Irish problem was not a demand for independence but an amalgam of social and religious complaints. He acted quickly and showed his willingness to adjust the Act of Union (1800) to maintain stability. His University Bill of March 1873, however, fell foul of the Commons – the bugbear being the Catholic bishops’ insistence that third-level education should be denominational. This defeat contributed to the fall of the government which was then showing fatigue, being compared by Disraeli to ‘a range of exausted volcanoes’; the Tories replaced them in 1874.
Gladstone was now 64 and on losing office quit the party leadership. No one could then foresee that he would shortly return and be prime minister on three future occasions. The spur for his comeback was the indifference of the Disraeli government to Ottoman atrocities in Bulgaria. In an outburst of oratory in Scotland in the winter of 1879-80 – the famous ‘Midlothian Campaign’ – Gladstone was returned to the House of Commons, where the Liberals now had a majority. The Queen wanted his successor as party leader, Lord Hartington, to form her new government, but was persuaded by him to bring back Gladstone as prime minister.
Ireland, in the meantime, remained in crisis. Most tenants simply could not afford to pay their rents. Secret groups of rick-burners, cattle-hockers and other intimidators held sway over large areas. In Parliament the Home Rule MPs were obstructive and the response of their leader Charles Stewart Parnell to the emergency was to promote,with the ex-Fenian Michael Davitt, the Land League,which marshalled resistance to the landlords. As the violence continued, in March 1881 Gladstone put through the Irish Coercion Act which empowered the authorities to arrest and imprison without trial any person reasonably suspected of treasonable practices or agrarian offences. He declared: ‘If there is to be fought in Ireland a final conflict between law on one side and lawlessness on the other then, I say, gentlemen, the resources of civilisation are not yet exausted’. The measure led to uproar in the Commons which was forced to sit for 41 continuous hours before the Speaker ended the debate.
The turning point
Gladstone won over the tenants with the popular Land Law Act of August 1881, which established the principle of ‘dual ownership’, legalised the ‘three F’s’ (fixity of tenure, fair rent and free sale) and established a Land Commission and Land Court.He also struck a deal with Parnell by which the Irish leader would use his influence to end lawlessness in exchange for legislation cancelling arrears in rents. This was the socalled Kilmainham Treaty of May 1882 which ended the ‘Land War’ and slowed down the agitation. The agreement reached at Kilmainham gaol was a turning point. Released from prison, Parnell thenceforward led a strictly constitutional movement and concentrated on playing off one Westminster party against the other to gain a measure of legislative independence. Things remained thus until August 1885 when Gladstone went on a yachting holiday in Norway. As he sailed through the fjords, he reflected on the constitutional position of Norway vis-à-vis Sweden. It interested him that a small people could prosper and remain tied to a larger neighbour. Could it be, he wondered, because Norway enjoyed a measure of self-government? The thought was not at variance with contemporary opinion as devolved government was sometimes used to conciliate nationalist pressures. Some believe that it was while in Norway that Gladstone made his decision to plump for Home Rule. As yet, he thought it expedient to keep his own counsel as he felt that an Irish settlement should not, as he said, ‘fall into the lines of party conflict’. He believed that the Tories, controlling the House of Lords, had the better chance of settling it.
The Tories had been congenial towards the Home Rulers for some time. They disagreed with Gladstone’s coercion policy and attacked it. It was no surprise when (in June 1885) they combined with the Home Rulers to defeat the government, thereby giving coercion a knockout blow. Gladstone resigned and Lord Salisbury formed a caretaker administration until a general election could be held. The Tories dropped coercion and introduced the Purchase of Land (Ireland) Act of August 1885, a scheme of loans, at low interest, to enable tenants to buy their holdings. Parnell thought that he had received a down payment for his support; the question was, how much more could he get?
Political manoeuvering now became intense. The parties initiated probing exercises to discern who would support whom in the event of a hung parliament. The Home Rulers, many felt, would hold the balance of power and it became important to discover exactly what Parnell wanted or,more accurately, how little he could be induced to accept. He set out his stall, stating that he would support whoever undertook to introduce a Home Rule Bill. The political flirtation increased and the Tory Lord Lieutenant, the Earl of Carnarvon, and Parnell met in Mayfair. The Irish leader was given to understand that the Tories would offer Ireland some form of self-government. Parnell sought alternative bids but Gladstone was a stumbling block; he found political auctioneering distasteful, but had reasons for his reticence: he was unsure whether the extreme factions in his party could be made to swallow Home Rule.
Call to vote Tory
As polling approached Parnell juggled the odds: two days before voting he called on the Irish in Britain to vote Tory. His motives were obvious; he wanted a result that would bring the two large parties as close as possible and to achieve this he had to throw his strength on the weaker side. If that side were to gain office with his support he would be able to extract the maximum concessions from it. The results were remarkable: the Liberals won 335 seats and the Tories and the Home Rulers together took a similar number. Parnell, with 86 MPs, held the balance of power. His advice to the Irish in Britain cost the Liberals an estimated 30 seats: enough to damage them badly, but not enough to give the Tories a majority. Parnell’s strategy had worked, but too well.
The Tories realised that Parnell had not enough strength to keep them in office and became cool. Gladstone, however, had not yet shown his hand. It distressed him to see the ‘Irish question’ being made into a plaything and he still strove to have it settled by consent. He made overtones to the Tories, urging them to settle the issue and offering a curtailment of party rivalry to enable them to do so. His approaches were rejected. When his son Herbert revealed to journalists that his father had converted to Home Rule the cynics were prepared to believe that the GOM was flying a kite. Almost immediately the Liberal party began to crumble: some of its Whigs began to jump ship and were joined by Joseph Chamberlain and his Radical friends who also began to defect. All the factors calculated to ferment a bitter struggle came into play.
With Irish support, Gladstone returned to office and it was rumoured that a Home Rule Bill had already been drafted. His age, 77, seemed prohibitive, but there appeared to be no waning of his powers. On April 6th, 1886 he introduced the Bill and drove that morning from Downing Street to the Commons amid the cheers of those who gathered to see him. The scene inside had never been witnessed before; every inch of space from the mace to the bar was crowded with chairs and extra benches. Not for years had so great an audience filled the House – peers and ambassadors, ladies of rank, foreign princes and business magnates, together with the full compliment of members. When Gladstone arrived, accompanied by his wife and daughters, a splendid reception awaited them. The Liberals rose as a body and there was tremendous cheering and clapping as he took his seat. At 4.30 pm he rose to speak and the House fell silent. For the next three and a half hours he gave a virtuoso performance. The breadth of his arguments and the richness of his vocabulary held everyone in rapt attention. In a pre-oration of great eloquence, he urged his listeners:
To go into the length and breath of the world, ransack the literature of all countries, find if you can a single voice, a single book, in which the conduct of England towards Ireland is anywhere treated except with profound and bitter condemnation. Are these the traditions by which we are exhorted to stand? No, they are a broad, black stain on the pages of our history.
Then, raising his voice and sweeping his hand at the benches opposite, he said:
Think, I beseech you, think well, think wisely, think not for the moment but for the years that are to come, before you reject this Bill.
But reject it they did, amid scenes of wild enthusiasm and at the ensuing General Election the people endorsed the verdict. The once great Liberal Party was split from top to bottom and the fate of Ireland seemed settled for generations. But, as his carriage rumbled over the cobblestones of Palace Yard that evening, Colonel Saunderson, the Ulster Unionist Leader, scribbled a note to his wife, saying: ‘Home Rule is dead, but not yet buried.’ His words were prophetic. Nowhere was the result greeted with such jubilation as in Belfast. Bonfires blazed and the Orangemen and their families danced in the streets. But the celebrations were not universal: on the Catholic Falls Road people set their chimneys alight. Their mood was bitter, sharpened by a wave of sectarian violence which had occurred days before in the shipyards.
Gladstone was not prepared to accept defeat. Although his appeal to the electorate had been rejected, he felt that this would change. In 1892 when he formed his last administration (aged 83) he introduced a second Home Rule Bill. It got through the Commons but was defeated in the Lords. He was undaunted and reeled off numerous reasons for ploughing on, but his colleagues called a halt – they did not wish to lose office again because of Ireland. The GOM, seeing things going completely against him, threw in the towel. A few months later he retired honourably, acknowledging that he had failed to pacify Ireland.
Many reasons have been advanced for the failure of the Home Rule Bills. Modern research suggests that Gladstone underestimated the constitutional upheaval that Home Rule would have entailed for late Victorians. Dicey, the jurist and academic, wrote: ‘Home Rule is ostensibly a scheme for the government of Ireland, but it is more: a plan to unsettle the entire constitution of the United Kingdom.’ It was, he thought ‘more dangerous to the English than it is beneficial to the Irish’. This argument formed the essence of the Tory and Liberal Unionist opposition. Separate treatment for Ireland would, they felt, be wrong in principle. Chamberlain was explicit on this point. Many longstanding friends of Ireland, like the Quaker John Bright, agreed with him. The Liberal Party itself was scarcely fit to advance the measure. It was in serious decline and dissension among its leadership was evident; it had almost ripped itself apart at the 1885 hustings when Chamberlain advanced an ‘unauthorised programme’ at variance with official policy. Large sections of middle-class voters had become disenchanted with Gladstone’s populist appeals and were defecting. Home Rule, in these circumstances, was too controversial a policy to be carried through. In the event, it gave the party its dispatching blow.
So why did Gladstone push ahead? Surely because his views rested on a profound moral sense and on the belief that the Irish formed a separate nationality and required distinctive treatment. Relatedly, he held that a constitutional reorganisation of the United Kingdom was imperative if its territorial integrity was to be maintained. It is interesting, however, that historians’ interpretations of his policy have varied and have tended to mirror political divisions. Conservative views emphasise expediency and self-interest; Liberal (and Irish) interpretations focus on moral purpose. A curiosity has been Gladstone’s dismissal of Ulster Protestant opposition to Home Rule as a ‘momentary ebullition’. This misjudgement represents an uncharacteristic blind spot. Morley, his first biographer, said that Gladstone gave the Ulster question little thought; yet lack of research was not one of the GOM’s habits. Morley’s views were endorsed by Belfast businessmen who met the prime minister at Downing Street in 1886. They came away protesting that he was divorced from reality. Yet Gladstone was the only senior figure of his age who made a serious attempt to settle the Irish Question. That he should fail after such a spirited effort may, in some views, be a cause for regret; few will deny, however, that his appeal to think in the long term was anything but prophetic.
The GOM retained his Commons seat until 1895. In September 1897 the first anxiety about his health arose. He developed neuralgic pains in his nose and cheekbones and a growing physical deterioration was noticed. To avoid the rigours of an English winter he was taken to the French Riviera, but was uneasy and returned early in 1898. His doctors quickly concluded that his condition was due to cancer. He took the news with calmness and relief. The end came on May 19th as his family were by his bedside reading Scripture to him. As the reading ended he was heard to murmur ‘Amen’ and a minute later died.
Next day in Parliament the leaders of all parties paid their tributes. For two days his coffin lay in Westminster Hall, close to the chamber which so often resounded to his eloquence. On May 28th he was laid among the illustrious dead in Westminster Abbey and condolences were received from around the world. The Irish eulogy was delivered by the leading nationalist politician, John Dillon, and found a responsive echo among the people. The great statesman had championed their cause and freed them from the tyranny of a hated land system. They mourned his passing and praised his name.Accounts from Belfast struck a different note: a brisk trade in chamberpots displaying his image was reported.
Kevin Haddick Flynn is the author of Orangeism: The Making of a Tradition (Wolhand, 1999) and Sarsfield and the Jacobites (Mercier Press, 2003).
- Roy Jenkins, Gladstone (Macmillan, 1995)
- H.C.G. Matthew, Gladstone – 1809-1898, (OUP, 1997)
- Richard Shannon, Gladstone, (two vols, Penguin 1999)
- L.J. Hammond, Gladstone and the Irish Nation, (Frank Cass & Co,1964)
- Philip Magnus, Gladstone (John Murray,1954)
- Middle East
- North America
- South America
- Central America
- Early Modern
- 20th Century
- 21st Century
- Economic History
- Environmental History
- Historical Memory
- Science & Technology