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William Ewart Gladstone
Chapter 3 - Parliamentarian


Mr. Gladstone sat for sixty-three years in Parliament, and for more than twenty-six years was the leader of his party, and therefore the central figure of English politics. As has been said, he began as a high Tory, remained about fifteen years in that camp, was then led by the split between Peel and the protectionists to take up an intermediate position, and finally was forced to cast in his lot with the Liberals, for in England, as in America, third parties seldom endure. No parliamentary career in English annals is comparable to his for its length and variety; and of those who saw its close in the House of Commons, there was only one man, Mr. Villiers (who died in January, 1898), who could remember its beginning. He had been opposed in 1833 to men who might have been his grandfathers; he was opposed in 1893 to men who might have been his grandchildren. In a sketch like this, it is impossible to describe or comment on the events of such a life. All that can be done is to indicate the more salient characteristics which a study of his career as a statesman and a parliamentarian sets before us.

The most remarkable of these characteristics is the sustained freshness, openness, eagerness of mind, which he preserved down to the end of his life. Most of us, just as we make few intimate friends, so we form few new opinions after thirty-five. Intellectual curiosity may remain fresh and strong even after fifty, but its range steadily narrows as one abandons the hope of attaining any thorough knowledge of subjects other than those which make the main business of one's life. One cannot follow the progress of all the new ideas that are set afloat in the world. One cannot be always examining the foundations of one's political or religious beliefs. Repeated disappointments and disillusionments make a man expect less from changes the older he grows; and mere indolence adds its influence in deterring us from entering upon new enterprises. None of these causes seemed to affect Mr. Gladstone. He was as much excited over a new book (such as Cardinal Manning's Life) at eighty-six as when at fourteen he insisted on compelling little Arthur Stanley (afterward Dean of Westminster, and then aged nine) to procure Gray's poems, which he had just perused himself. His reading covered almost the whole field of literature, except physical and mathematical science. While frequently declaring that he must confine his political thinking and leadership to a few subjects, he was so observant of the movements of opinion that the course of talk brought up scarcely any topic in which he did not seem to know what was the latest thing that had been said or done. Neither the lassitude nor the prejudices common in old age prevented him from giving a fair consideration to any new doctrines. But though his intellect was restlessly at work, and though his eager curiosity disposed him to relish novelties, except in theology, that bottom rock in his mind of caution and reserve, which has already been referred to, made him refuse to part with old views even when he was beginning to accept new ones. He allowed both to "lie on the table" together, and while declaring his mind to be open to conviction, he felt it safer to speak and act on the old lines till the process of conviction had been completed. It took fourteen years, from 1846 to 1860, to carry him from the Conservative into the Liberal camp. It took five stormy years to bring him round to Irish home rule, though his mind was constantly occupied with the subject from 1880 to 1885, and those who watched him closely saw that the process had advanced some considerable way even in 1881. And as regards ecclesiastical establishments, having written a book in 1838 as a warm advocate of state churches, it was not till 1867 that he adopted the policy of disestablishment for Ireland, not till 1890 that he declared himself ready to apply it in Wales and Scotland also.

Both these qualities--his disposition to revise his opinions in the light of new arguments and changing conditions, and the reticence he maintained till the process of revision had been completed--exposed him to misconstruction. Commonplace men, unwont to give serious scrutiny to their opinions, ascribed his changes to self-interest, or at best regarded them as the index of an unstable mind. Dull men could not understand why he should have forborne to set forth all that was passing in his mind, and saw little difference between reticence and dishonesty. Much of the suspicion and even fear with which he was regarded, especially after 1885, arose from the idea that it was impossible to predict what he would do next, and how far his openness of mind would carry him. In so far as they tended to shake public confidence, these characteristics injured him in his statesman's work, but the loss was far outweighed by the gain. In a country where opinion is active and changeful, where the economic conditions that legislation has to deal with are in a state of perpetual flux, where the balance of power between the upper and middle and poorer classes has been swiftly altering during the last sixty years, no statesman can continue to serve the public if he adheres obstinately to the views with which he started in life. He must--unless, of course, he stands aloof in permanent opposition-- either submit to advocate measures he secretly mislikes, or else must keep himself always ready to learn from events, and to reconsider his opinions in the light of emergent tendencies and insistent facts. Mr. Gladstone's pride as well as his conscience forbade the former alternative; it was fortunate that the inexhaustible activity of his intellect made the latter natural to him. He was accustomed to say that the great mistake of his earlier views had been in not sufficiently recognizing the worth and power of liberty, and the tendency which things have to work out for good when left to themselves. The application of this principle gave room for many developments, and many developments there were. He may have wanted that prescience which is, after integrity, the highest gift of a statesman, but which is almost impossible to a man so pressed by the constant and engrossing occupations of an English minister that he cannot find time for the patient study and thought from which alone sound forecasts can issue. But he had the next best quality, that of always learning from the events which passed under his eyes.

With this singular openness and flexibility of mind, there went a not less remarkable ingenuity and resourcefulness. His mind was fertile in expedients, and still more fertile in reasonings by which to recommend the expedients. This gift was often dangerous, for he was apt to be carried away by the dexterity of his own dialectic, and to think schemes substantially good in whose support he could muster so formidable an array of arguments. He never seemed to be at a loss, in public or private, for a criticism, or for an answer to the criticisms of others. If his power of adapting his own mind to the minds of those whom he had to convince had been equal to the skill and swiftness with which he accumulated a mass of matter persuasive to those who looked at things in his own way, no one would have exercised so complete a control over the political opinion of his time. But his mind had not this power of adaptation. It moved on its own lines--peculiar lines, which were often misconceived, even by those who sought to follow him most loyally. Thus it happened that he was blamed for two opposite faults. Some, pointing to the fact that he had frequently altered his views, denounced him as a demagogue profuse of promises, ready to propose whatever he thought likely to catch the people's ear. Others complained that there was no knowing where to have him; that he had an erratic mind, whose currents ran underground and came to the surface in unexpected places; that he did not consult his party, but followed his own predilections; that his guidance was unsafe because his decisions were unpredictable. Both these views were unfair, yet the latter came nearer to the truth than the former. No great popular leader had in him less of the true ring of the demagogue. He saw, of course, that a statesman cannot oppose the popular will beyond a certain point, and may have to humor it in order that he may direct it. Now and then, in his later days, he so far yielded to his party advisers as to express his approval of proposals for which he cared little personally. But he was too self-absorbed, too eagerly interested in the ideas that suited his own cast of thought, to be able to watch and gage the tendencies of the multitude. On several occasions he announced a policy which startled people and gave a new turn to the course of events. But in none of these instances, and certainly not in the three most remarkable,--his declarations against the Irish church establishment in 1868, against the Turks and the traditional English policy of supporting them in 1876, and in favor of Irish home rule in 1886,--did any popular demand suggest his pronouncement. It was the masses who took their view from him, not he who took his mandate from the masses. In all of these instances he was at the time in opposition, and was accused of having made this new departure for the sake of recovering power. In the two former he prevailed, and was ultimately admitted, by his more candid adversaries, to have counseled wisely. In all of them he may, perhaps, be censured for not having sooner perceived, or at any rate for not having sooner announced, the need for reform. But it was very characteristic of him not to give the full strength of his mind to a question till he felt that it pressed for a solution. Those who discussed politics with him were scarcely more struck by the range of his vision and his power of correlating principles and details than by his unwillingness to commit himself on matters whose decision he could postpone. Reticence and caution were sometimes carried too far, not merely because they exposed him to misconstruction, but because they withheld from his party the guidance it needed. This was true in all the three instances just mentioned; and in the last of them his reticence probably contributed to the separation from him of some of his former colleagues. Nor did he always rightly divine the popular mind. Absorbed in his own financial views, he omitted to note the change that had been in progress between 1862 and 1874, and thus his proposal in the latter year to extinguish the income tax fell completely flat. He often failed to perceive how much the credit of his party was suffering from the belief, quite groundless so far as he personally was concerned, that his government was indifferent to what are called Imperial interests, the interests of England outside England. But he always thought for himself, and never stooped to flatter the prejudices or inflame the passions of any class in the community.

Though the power of reading the signs of the times and moving the mind of the nation as a whole may be now more essential to an English statesman than the skill which manages a legislature or holds together a cabinet, that skill counts for much, and must continue to do so while the House of Commons remains the supreme governing authority of the country. A man can hardly reach high place, and certainly cannot retain high place, without possessing this kind of art. Mr. Gladstone was at one time thought to want it. In 1864, when Lord Palmerston's end was evidently near and Mr. Gladstone had shown himself the most brilliant and capable man among the Liberal ministers in the House of Common's, people speculated about the succession to the headship of the party; and the wiseacres of the day were never tired of repeating that Mr. Gladstone could not possibly lead the House of Commons. He wanted tact (they said), he was too excitable, too impulsive, too much absorbed in his own ideas, too unversed in the arts by which individuals are conciliated. But when, after twenty-five years of his unquestioned reign, the time for his own departure drew nigh, men asked how the Liberal party in the House of Commons would ever hold together after it had lost a leader of such consummate capacity. Seldom has a prediction been more utterly falsified than that of the Whig critics of 1864. They had grown so accustomed to Palmerston's way of handling the House as to forget that a man might succeed by quite different methods. And they forgot also that a man may have many defects and yet in spite of them be incomparably the fittest for a great place.

Mr. Gladstone had the defects that were ascribed to him. His impulsiveness sometimes betrayed him into declarations which a cooler man would have abstained from. The second reading of the Irish Home-Rule Bill of 1886 would probably have been carried had he not been goaded by his opponents into words which seemed to recall or modify the concessions he had announced at a meeting of the Liberal party held just before. More than once precious time was wasted in useless debates because his antagonists, knowing his excitable temper, brought on discussions with the sole object of annoying him and drawing from him some hasty deliverance. Nor was he an adept, like Disraeli and Sir John A. Macdonald, in the management of individuals. He had a contempt for the meaner side of human nature which made him refuse to play upon it. He had comparatively little sympathy with many of the pursuits which attract ordinary men; and he was too constantly engrossed by the subjects of enterprises which specially appealed to him to have leisure for the lighter but often very important devices of political strategy. A trifling anecdote, which was told in London about twenty-five years ago, may illustrate this characteristic. Mr. Delane, then editor of the "Times," had been invited to meet the prime minister at a moment when the support of the "Times" would have been specially valuable to the Liberal government. Instead of using the opportunity to set forth his policy and invite an opinion on it, Mr. Gladstone talked the whole time of dinner upon the question of the exhaustion of the English coal-beds, to the surprise of the company and the unconcealed annoyance of the powerful guest. It was the subject then uppermost in his mind, and he either did not think of winning Mr. Delane or disdained to do so. In the House of Commons he was entirely free from airs, or, indeed, from any sort of assumption of superiority. The youngest member might accost him in the lobby and be listened to with perfect courtesy. But he seldom addressed any one outside his own very small group of friends, and more than once made enemies by omitting to notice and show some attention to members of his party who, having been eminent in their own towns, expected to be made much of when they entered Parliament. Having himself plenty of pride and comparatively little vanity, he never realized the extent to which, and the cheapness with which, men can be captured and used through their vanity. And his mind, flexible as it was in seizing new points of view and devising expedients to meet new circumstances, did not easily enter into the characters of other men. Ideas and causes interested him more than personal traits did; his sympathy was keener and stronger for the sufferings of nations or masses of men than with the fortunes of a particular person. With all his accessibility and immensely wide circle of acquaintances, he was at bottom a man chary of real friendship, while the circle of his intimates became constantly smaller with advancing years.

So it befell that though his popularity among the general body of his adherents went on increasing, and the admiration of his parliamentary followers remained undiminished, he had few intimate friends, few men in the House of Commons who linked him to the party at large and rendered to him those confidential personal services which count for much in keeping a party in hearty accord and enabling the commander to gage the sentiment of his troops. Thus adherents were lost who turned into dangerous foes--lost for the want not so much of tact as of a sense for the need and use of tact in humoring and managing men.

If, however, we speak of parliamentary strategy in its larger sense, as covering familiarity with parliamentary forms and usages, the powers of seizing a parliamentary situation and knowing how to deal with it, the art of guiding a debate and choosing the right moment for reserve and for openness, for a dignified retreat, for a watchful defense, for a sudden rattling charge upon the enemy, no one had a fuller mastery of it. His recollection of precedents was unrivaled, for it began in 1833 with the first reformed Parliament, and it seemed as fresh for those remote days as for last month. He enjoyed combat for its own sake, not so much from any inborn pugnacity, for he was not disputatious in ordinary conversation, as because it called out his fighting force and stimulated his whole nature. "I am never nervous in reply," he once said, "though I am sometimes nervous in opening a debate." And although his impetuosity sometimes betrayed him into imprudence when he was taken unawares, no one could be more wary or guarded when a crisis arrived whose gravity he had foreseen. In the summer of 1881 the House of Lords made some amendments to the Irish Land Bill which were deemed ruinous to the working of the measure, and therewith to the prospects of the pacification of Ireland. A conflict was expected which might have strained the fabric of the constitution. The excitement which quickly arose in Parliament spread to the whole nation. Mr. Gladstone alone remained calm and confident. He devised a series of compromises, which he advocated in conciliatory speeches. He so played his game that by a few minor concessions he secured nearly all of the points he cared for, and, while sparing the dignity of the Lords, steered his bill triumphantly out of the breakers which had threatened to engulf it. Very different was his ordinary demeanor in debate when he was off his guard. Observers have often described how his face and gestures while he sat in the House of Commons listening to an opponent would express all the emotions that crossed his mind; with what eagerness he would follow every sentence, sometimes contradicting half aloud, sometimes turning to his next neighbor to express his displeasure at the groundless allegations or fallacious arguments he was listening to, till at last he would spring to his feet and deliver a passionate reply. His warmth would often be in excess of what the occasion required, and quite disproportioned to the importance of his antagonist. It was in fact the unimportance of the occasion that made him thus yield to his feeling. As soon as he saw that bad weather was coming, and that careful seamanship was wanted, his coolness returned, his language became guarded and careful, and passion, though it might increase the force of his oratory, never made him deviate a hand's breadth from the course he had chosen.


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