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19. 19 Liberals, Radicals, Irish

THOUGH THE ACTIVE OPPOSITION contained within its ranks a greater number of men who had won their positions by ability and proportionately more marked personalities than the Ministerial benches, they were disunited, repressed and distrustful to such a degree that they scarcely counted in politics and appeared to have no future before them. The one great figure among them, Sir William Vernon Harcourt, remained like Lord Salisbury only waiting to be relieved at his post. He had resigned the Liberal leadership in the Commons when it became plain that the long and much coveted Premiership was beyond his reach. Like the lion that has missed his spring, he was disappearing to his forest haunts but cheerily and not sulkily and keeping a brave face not merely to his foes but to the pack around him. In everything except scientific knowledge and titular rank he was Lord Salisbury's superior; perhaps his political conscience was a little more elastic but on the other hand he possessed a mind more open to the light and was as progressive as it was possible for an old Whig to be. At least as intellectual and a more potent force in the House, on the platform or with the pen, his career was as long, as honourable and more rich in achievement. He was perhaps, because of his superior force, a more egotistic and more aggressive cynic and therefore made many more enemies but he was also a genuine humourist, a great conversationalist, and far more versatile in acquirements and talents than the rival whose better fortune had made him so much more conspicuous. A greater suspicion of insincerity attached to Harcourt, and probably his more mobile disposition was less consistent and perhaps less loyal, but the Whig position was more difficult than [that] of the Tory and its very principle in modern times was compromise. Physically as huge but with a far finer and more striking face, carriage and presence, with a longer and more distinguished lineage and a more distinctly political capacity, Harcourt would have been a more ideal Tory chieftain and might well have succeeded Disraeli. Only the tremendous personality of Gladstone, superior in vitality,


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flexibility, sympathy and picturesqueness to any contemporary could have cast him into the shade. He was of the race of noble rulers who like Grey, Melbourne and Peel preserved the great traditions of the great families who gave themselves with lofty courage to the more popular cause, while themselves remaining apart and above them in their order. Winning the love of his few intimates, the admiration of all associates and the reluctant homage of his foes, his stately figure passed from the scene veiling the depth of his disappointment beneath the unfeigned heartiness of his penetrating jests at his time.

In 1887 when Deakin had previously visited London the Salisbury Government appeared to hold office insecurely while the Opposition benches still retained Mr Gladstone and the corner was led by Parnell. Randolph Churchill having shot his bolt and missed, sat chewing his moustache, a moody and silent figure, immediately behind the colleagues from whom he had separated, not sufficiently notable to withdraw attention from the two great figures confronting the Tory majority. Gladstone, despite his years, was probably in mere physique the handsomest and finest man in the whole Assembly. His manner in addressing it on the Crimes Bill was full of fire and indeed often appeared theatrical in suddenness and vividness of gesture. His fluency, fecundity and grace of expression, the vibrating eagerness of his eagle glance and resonant ring of a slightly failing voice still carried through his ornate periods the electric properties which roused and thrilled. Parnell at this time ill-dressed, almost shabby and even in some degree unkempt with pale, absolutely impassive face, keen and hard in outline, a cold, clear unimpassioned voice and quiet deadliness of speech and demeanour, was at the very opposite pole of parliamentary style and appearance. Only once did his voice for a single brief instant rise above the even level of its flow when he stigmatised the letter published in that morning's Times as a forgery. There was at once an answering yell like that of a pack of hounds from his followers, after which in the same monotonous almost weary manner their chief continued and concluded his featureless explanation of his views. Still, while men like these remained, Parliament was the absorbing centre of national life and interest upon which every eye was fastened and where the people's destinies were decided. This was the field of combat and here were the heroes in full panoply engaged in deadly combat while as of old from the walls of Troy the readers of English in both hemispheres, the nation at home and abroad, and indeed the whole civilised


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world looked on as spectators and cheered the fortunes of the fray.

In 1900 the theatre of interest was elsewhere—in South Africa—and the stage was emptied of the four romantic figures which embodied English Liberalism, Whiggism, their Irish allies and the Tory Democracy, triumphant but still insecure in its seat. In Gladstone, Churchill, Harcourt, the three greatest debaters, and in Parnell, the most potent of party leaders were withdrawn. In 1887 John Bright was a very elderly, infirm and somewhat splenetic little gentleman greatly petted by the ladies in Unionist circles. ‘You appeal to us as your Mother Country while you tax all we sell to you’ said he sharply to one of the Australians [Deakin] and was apparently annoyed when the young colonist retorted, ‘You appeal to us as daughter colonies and yet trade with your bitterest foes if they are cheaper, instead of your own household.’ His masterpieces of oratory were still in men's mouths and the tradition of parliamentary debate was being worthily maintained. Chamberlain alone, not at the height of his power in 1887 besides occupying a dangerous and isolated position, connected the two periods. Then he was one of the front rank. In 1900 he was practically the master of the House of Commons. The Opposition benches contained no peer of his after Harcourt withdrew. The dispirited and divided Liberals fairly cowered before their old colleague. When he misquoted Mr Asquith while introducing the Commonwealth Bill, it was Mr Asquith whose contradiction was apologetic in manner while Chamberlain accepted the correction with the air of one conferring a favour. The overwhelming Tory majority, the ascendancy of Chamberlain in debate, the patent fact that in maintaining the war the country was behind them, added to their own jealousies, had reduced the Commons to a chamber of registration for Ministerial proposals and of apparently unanswerable expositions of the soundness of Ministerial policy. The Opposition existed, but was powerless to oppose with either force or effect, and therefore merely preserved the forms of debate without its reality. The transformation in thirteen years was complete. The Government no longer looked to the House or even over the heads of its members but directly to the electors for support and proceeded on their way with more apprehensions of mischief from their own supporters who were, so to speak, unemployed for want of an enemy to encounter, than from those who were nominally their antagonists, always supposed to be engaged in the endeavour to turn them out of office but as a matter of fact conscious that this feat was impossible and only seeking


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to keep them from dissolving at once, lest they should return with an even less respectable minority.

The official leader of the Liberal party among the Peers was the Earl of Kimberley, a sturdy, steady, staunch, hard-headed, clear-sighted counsellor, a sage administrator, a loyal follower and a sober gentleman whose speeches from end to end breathed caution, common sense and responsibility. In the Commons Campbell Bannerman was the Scotch equivalent of Kimberley without his long experience and strength of purpose but with a certain canniness [and] pawkiness that were national and a humorousness that was both national and original. He was a poor speaker except when thoroughly roused and well prepared and his timidity was increased by the very precarious and painful position he occupied between the Rosebery section of Imperialistic Liberals who were for the war, and the radical pro-Boer and anti-Rosebery section who regarded their colleagues as little better than Conservatives. The best speaker and readiest intellect among the Rosebery party was Asquith, already proved an energetic and progressive administrator, an effective and polished speaker and a colleague who understood compromise. What he appeared to lack most was a sympathetic manner and resolution to give effect to his ideas. Sir Edward Grey was much more thoroughly a politician of at least equal capacity but even more cold-blooded, cautious and realistic. He had apparently no illusions, no passions and no predominately great ideals. He had the official manner, imperturbable and impenetrable, which would have made the fortune of an ambassador in Bismarck's eyes. What he wanted even more than Asquith was fire, energy and expansion. Sir Henry Fowler was a capable speaker with a typical middle-class mercantile intelligence, very valuable in Liberal Cabinets.

By far the most notable figure among the Pro-Boers, and indeed on the Opposition front bench, was that of John Morley, the brilliant man of letters who represented the tendencies to scientific opinion applied to literature and history, the Puritan by temperament and training who began as an aggressive atheist and though not a Comtist or formalist in any sense, never consciously outgrew the religion of Humanity, though his intuitions flowered through his grim and gloomy philosophy into a high ethical purity and aspiration as mellow as those of his master, John Stuart Mill, in his later years. In 1887 Morley's severe features might have been those of a fierce dissenting parson, a keen successful north country employer, or a judge of the strong constructive


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type sometimes found upon the Bench. In conversation he was swift, something imperious and a little censorious. He had a cut-and-dried political gospel and a creed of life which were, if not final, fully efficient and satisfactory in his eyes. He was still smarting under the defeat of Home Rule and the only instant for which he relaxed was when, on hearing of some vagaries of the Irish Catholic electors in Australia, he leaned back with a sudden burst of laughter that had in it a note of regret and pain as he cried ‘They are sometimes intolerable.’ In 1900 almost withdrawn from the House to write his life of Gladstone, doubtful of his own re-election because of his opposition to the war, all his expectations of the attitude of his countrymen under such conditions falsified by the event and his express prediction of the refusal of the colonies to co-operate still more crushingly contradicted, he was a changed man and strange to say inexpressibly sweetened and softened by the self-distrust which these experiences had promoted. There was quite a spiritual light upon his face when he spoke of the future and he was very tender even of the present with all its imperfections on its head and all its antagonisms to his own ideas. Radical to the core as ever, he was at the same time sympathetic to an extraordinary degree and had the humbleness of a child seeking information. In public and on the platform he was still the party man dealing swingeing blows at his opponents but in private he was another man, ripened in mood, enriched in sentiment and elevated in thought as if by constant communion with high ideas in his study, until lifted above the grosser ways and lower aims of the workaday world. His colleague, Bryce, sharing his opinions, did not share his enfranchisement of mind. In 1887 he was the Professor rather than the politician and in 1900, though the former was much less and the latter much more manifest in him, he was unlike Morley embittered by his reverses and those of his party. He cherished a bitter animus against Chamberlain who treated him with unconcealed disdain, as well he might on the floor of the House. A learned, conscientious and highly cultured man, it was by his books rather than by speeches or counsel that he was of service to his friends.

Separated from the front bench only by the gangway, that narrow path in his case forever impassable, sat the most pathetic figure in the British Parliament, one of its ablest and best-trained sons who had grown and matured under its traditions by the most patient devotion to its lore, one of its own breed and of its true stock in spirit, temper, manner, to whom in due time the House


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of Commons would have submitted itself as to its natural leader, if an untoward fate had not ostracised him and shattered at once his nerve, his reputation and his future. Sir Charles Dilke, in breadth and copiousness of information, in sound judgment of affairs, within the limits of his temperament, by a tact partly inborn and partly acquired in dealing with the great assembly to which he now again belonged, had probably no superior and possibly no equal as a Parliamentarian. He had not only the peculiar qualities of the House but their defects, so obvious and puzzling to the outsider because apparently without effect upon the influence of the member over his fellows in their corporate capacity. His statesmanship may be questioned for it was never really tested; his administrative ability was confessed and his sagacity as an interpreter of public opinion rarely at fault. But he was not so much noted for any single qualification as for a general all-round capacity, which enabled him to hold any office without discredit and without leaving any special mark behind him. His courage must have been considerable in his earlier years, but after his great ordeal his self-confidence was gone and he could not have been trusted to sustain the tension of a great emergency. He was more ambitious than most of his rivals, more industrious, more teachable and more versatile, and steadily rose to recognition as one of the most trustworthy and intellectual of radicals. After the catastrophe he strove in vain to satisfy his craving for distinction by literary work of a solid character such as might re-establish him in public opinion. Knowledge was his forte and omniscience his foible. He set out to be an authority upon both foreign and home affairs, social and colonial questions, naval and military problems, an art critic, a reader abreast of poetry, fiction and belles-lettres ancient and modern, with a sufficient knowledge of sport, racing, hunting and country pursuits to preserve his English air, while he courted foreign acquaintances and intimacies in most countries of Europe. The extent of his achievements proved the hunger of the heart, which spurred him on to follow his old pursuits with despairing energy rather than any real taste for many of them. The courage he exhibited in bearing his lot and painfully struggling back into some kind of prominence, if it had been as spirited at the time of his trial as it was patiently continuous afterwards, would have enabled him to avoid the shipwreck of his life and all his hopes.

The one representative in the Commons who belonged to the wage-earning classes of the country and who had retained public


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notice there was John Burns, the sturdy, handsome, honest workman who spoke in the House with something of an apologetic air, modifying awkwardly what must have been a good out-of-doors platform manner. He was self-educated and vain of his reading, of his knowledge of history, of his taste for art and of his own self-made fortune with a harmless child-like desire to outdo those with more advantages than himself. A simple, whole-some, manly upright nature only vitiated by a little egotism and a little class feeling, as was natural in one whose sympathies were all with his own people and their sufferings and who was deeply desirous of serving and elevating them himself.

The Irish party, ill-supplied with funds and poor in men, was no longer the phalanx with which Parnell had broken the ranks of the Gladstonians at the height of their power. Redmond, his successor, was a pleasant, sufficiently able man, though inferior in picturesqueness to Dillon and Davitt, prisoners of old and rebels of all time, who during their romantic careers and under their romantic exteriors cherished a bitter hatred of everything English, which was at the same time the source of their power and influence and their weakness, because it perverted their vision and prevented them from striving for or accepting the concessions towards Home Rule for which Saxon public opinion was steadily ripening. Redmond had rivalled them in violence but had developed under parliamentary auspices and by sheer pressure of the necessities of the situation into a comparatively constitutional line of policy. There was the same love of country in him as in Dillon and Davitt but not the intensity either of that love or of the hate of England which consumed them in impotent rage against the over-mastering power. The man of by far the greatest intellectual originality among them, and indeed in the whole House, was Healy, in whom a truly Irish sense of humour was employed by a keen and powerful intellect which, if accompanied by more self-restraint and deeper sympathy with his fellows, would have made him a parliamentary O'Connell in power, though never an impassioned popular orator or hero. His analytic insight and prosaic reason stripped all the poetry and a good deal of the truth from his associates as well as from his opponents, while his undisciplined temper left him equally ready to expend his biting wit upon those nearest or furthest from him in aims and attachments. He had never understood Parnell and had turned upon [him] viciously just when standing at bay against all the world he presented the most magnificent spectacle of haughty, self-reliant


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and overmastering bravery that modern political [life] has witnessed. How different would have been Dilke's fate if he had been quickened in the hour of danger by a spark of the splendid dauntlessness which sustained him fighting in a bad and hopeless cause against all the world and sacrificing for a woman and for his ambition all the fruits of a lifetime of successful intrigue and endeavour, his reputation, his allies, his party, his country's opportunity and his own life. Healy, quite incapable of entering into this tremendous tragedy or even of being affected by it, jeered and sneered at the dying lion and at Kitty O'Shea as furiously as at his deadliest enemies. He remained a thorn in the side of his friends and of the Ministry, long an obstacle to the union of his party and unwilling to sacrifice his Ishmaelitish jibes even to his country's cause. Sexton, the orator of the party in 1887 though never one of its chiefs, had fallen silent and his place was taken by Blake the Canadian, a man of fine figure, face, manner and disposition, whose rich voice, rounded periods and easy good nature recalled the typical Irish advocate of good family and education inspired by the cheery idealism of his race.

But in truth the House of Commons in 1900 was not rich either in effective set speakers or debaters. Blake was formal, Asquith cold, Grey colder, Morley academic, Goschen painful, Wyndham as yet too wanting in weight and inclined to sparkle out of season. When necessary Chamberlain outshone them all though he rarely soared and too frequently lapsed into mere personalities or partisan jibes. In debate he was still more over the heads of his adversaries, for Dilke lacked fire and courage to face him and Healy was too irresponsible to achieve a lasting success. Under Balfour's wing he remained quiet but ready to swoop whenever necessity should arise. [Balfour], the Leader of the House, himself was more than a match for any of these antagonists, readier, gayer, more popular, and after the House's manner always prepared to attack and defend in an offhand, unpretentious, sometimes slipshod but always straightforward unaffected manly fashion that brought the cheers at the right point and the votes at the right time in a brave, breezy British fashion, very satisfactory to the majority inside and accepted peacefully by those whom they represented. It was a dying Parliament with the shadow of dissolution hanging over it deeper every day but even that did not stimulate its members to declare themselves. It was dull, decorous, of grave deportment, heavy, nonchalant in style, unimpressive except for its order and uninspiring except for its memories. In a clumsy way it did most


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of what it thought to be the absolutely urgent business of the nation at vast expense of health, time, money and patience. The nation was apparently contented. That being so who can complain? Even radicalism can desire no more.

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