Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Roy Jenkins, Gladstone: Chapters 15 and 16, "The People's William" and "Disraeli's Foil"

In the early 1860s, all the remaining Peelite luminaries other than Gladstone perished, leaving him with no political home but Liberalism.  Prince Albert also passed away in 1861, and with the removal of his influence Gladstone's relationship with Queen Victoria began to cool.

Through the first half of the decade, Gladstone's economizing budgets put him at odds with Palmerston's pressure for more spending.  Despite this, Gladstone maintained a respectful, if tense, partnership with his prime minister.  In the meantime, Gladstone's skill and command in managing the yearly budgets raised his political stature yet higher.

In 1862 he undertook a new round of political speeches in the north of England.  First, in April, he gave a round of speeches in Manchester.  In October, he did the same at Newcastle and other towns in the Northeast.  On the latter tour, his reception had the air of a festival, with huge water-parades in his honor.  The great success of this tour (despite making a serious gaffe in asserting that the American Confederacy was well on its way to securing its status a nation) secured his position as the foremost popular politician in England.  This was so despite the fact that he lacked any true popular cause other than his campaign to remove paper duties. Jenkins sees his success as a consequence of Gladstone being taken as an advocate for the morally serious, industrial, and industrious North against the decadence of London and the South.

Gladstone attempted to tax charitable bequests in his 1863 budget, with some claim to fairness (charitable contributions by the living were not exempt from taxation).  Despite making his case with skill and vigor, he only managed to annoy the defenders of charities before withdrawing the measure.  Also that year he was partially reconciled with two Catholic converts, his sister Helen and Henry Manning.

In the 1864 debate over extending the franchise, he unexpectedly endorsed the position that, in principle, there should be no property qualification at all (though he softened this in practice by opposing any rapid alteration in the electorate).  This put him on the wrong side of Palmerston, who had no desire for more democracy.  He further aggravated Palmerston by pushing for a scheme to nationalize railway networks and for further defense cuts (despite the fact that current outlays were both modest and diminishing).  He had no real support for either measure, even in the cabinet, but he continued to make himself and his colleagues miserable by fighting over military spending in the 1865 budget estimates.

Gladstone was evicted from his Oxford seat in the 1865 polls.  He was done in by an electorate that included, for the first time, a large proportion of conservative rural parsons who were able to vote by mail.  He unconvincingly secured an alternative seat in Lancashire by finishing third in a three-seat constituency.  This effectively liberated Gladstone from the constraints that the Oxford seat had put on his growing liberalism.

Before Parliament sat again, Palmerston passed away and Russell became the new prime minister.

Jenkins breaks off from the narrative at this point for a lengthy aside describing the daily and yearly timetable mid-century parliamentary life, with illustrations from Gladstone's meticulous diary. Parliament usually sat for only about half the year, from roughly February until August.  While they were in session, the schedule was heavy by modern standards.  Parliament generally met Monday through Friday and occasionally on Saturday, too. They would typically begin the day at 4 in the afternoon and continue until well after midnight.  In addition, under Palmerston cabinet meetings were regularly held on Saturday afternoons. Late breakfasts were the main social occasion among the members.  Saturday to Monday train excursions to country houses in the Southeast were also a regular feature.

The Russell government fell in less than a year due to resistance to a new reform bill.  Many Liberal members had been elected as supporters of Palmerston, who didn't favor any extension of the franchise.  This faction (the Adullamites), led by Robert Lowe in particular, joined with the Conservative minority led by Disraeli to make the Russell government's position in the Commons, where it was led by Gladstone, untenable  Rather than dissolve parliament and call new elections which might have produced a more unified liberal majority, however, the Russell cabinet decided to resign in favor of a minority Conservative government led by Derby.

In the course of this rearguard battle, Gladstone unleashed some memorable oratory -- remarkable enough, in any case, for Jenkins to quote two substantial extracts.  I think the second would still stand up well in a speech against reactionary politics today

Perhaps the great division of tonight is not the last that must take place in the struggle.  At some point of the contest you may possibly succeed.  You may drive us from our seats.  You may bury the bill that we have introduced, but we will write upon its gravestone for an epitaph this line, with certain confidence in its fulfillment -
Exoriare aliquis nostris ex ossibus ultor 
You cannot fight against the future.  Time is on our side.  The great social forces which move onwards in their might and majesty, and which the tumult of our debates does not for a moment impede or disturb -- those great social forces are against you; they are marshalled on our side; and the banner which we now carry in this fight, though perhaps at some moment it may droop over our sinking heads, yet it soon again will float in the eye of heaven, and it will be borne by the firm hands of the united people of the three kingdoms, perhaps not to an easy, but to a certain and to a not distant victory.

From the beginning, Disraeli was the animating genius of the Derby government.  He recognized the precarious predicament of minority government and, grasping the nettle, proceeded to unsettle the Gladstone-led opposition by pushing the reform cause himself.  Derby, who had become convinced by public demonstrations of the strength of popular support for reform, also lent his support.  At first, the government planned to charter a Royal Commission to study reform on the basis of a scheme of suffrage for all (male) heads of household balanced by a number of plural "fancy" franchises for those who met more than one eligibility test.  This seemed to outflank the liberals on the left (by proposing unrestricted household suffrage) while removing the political danger to the Conservatives (with plural franchises). 

In the event, the government abandoned this course in February and proposed the hastily considered "Ten-Minutes Bill" that only set a somewhat lower limit for householder qualification for the franchise.  (It would have been useful for Jenkins to make clear what the householder qualification measured -- was it the tax paid, the value of the property, or the imputed yearly rent? I think it is the last, but I'm not sure.)  A month later Disraeli had changed course yet again with a new bill which offered household franchise combined with plural votes for those with multiple qualifications.

In the subsequent debates, Disraeli basically showed himself willing to accept any amendment as long as it was not proposed by Gladstone.  The key goal for Disraeli was not so much any particular shape of legislation, but tactical victory over his rival. On two occasions, attempts by Gladstone to make compound ratepayers (householders who paid their taxes through their landlords) eligible for the franchise at the same level as direct taxpayers went down to defeat.  But Disraeli accepted without deliberation an amendment that abolished the practice of compounding, so that rates had to be paid directly, which had much the same effect, nearly doubling the number of householders made eligible for the vote.  In the end, Disraeli's reform bill enfranchised around one million new voters -- some 600,000 more than the Russell proposal he had opposed as too radical. Gladstone was, without doubt, discomfited by these maneuvers, but he managed to endure the humiliations and bide his time.

In February, 1868, Derby retired due to illness and Disraeli became prime minister.