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Chapter XXVII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9


Parliament meets in November, 1867 - Votes money for the Abyssinian Expedition - Enquiry about the Letter from the Emperor Theodore to the Queen: it had been left unanswered - Altercations in the House - Parliament adjourned on 7th December - Meets again in February, 1868 - Summary of the Political Situation - Renewal of the Habeas Corpus Suspension Act in Ireland - Scotch Reform Bill - Mortifying Defeats of the Government - Disfranchisement of English Boroughs - Bill for the Abolition of Church Rates carried through both Houses - Retirement of Lord Derby from Office - Mr. Disraeli becomes Prime Minister - Lord Cairns accepts the Great Seal - Re-union of the Liberal Party, under Mr. Gladstone's leadership, on the basis of Justice to Ireland through the Disestablishment of the Irish Church - Important Irish Debate - Speeches of Mr. Bright, Mr. Gladstone, and Mr. Disraeli - The Irish Reform Bill: it is carried with little alteration - The Boundaries Bill - Resolutions on the Irish Church introduced by Mr. Gladstone - Lord Stanley gives notice of an Amendment - Debate - Speech of Mr. Lowe - The Amendment rejected - Public Meetings - The Discussion resumed - Defeat of the Government on the First Resolution - Different Courses supposed to be open to Mr. Disraeli - Ministerial Statement - Disappointment of the Liberals - Mr. Bright's attack on the Premier - Mr. Disraeli's Reply - Fourth Resolution, relating to the withdrawal of the Maynooth Grant and the Regium Donum, adopted by Mr. Gladstone - The Queen's Reply to the Address respecting Irish Temporalities - The Suspensory Bill: rejected in the Lords - Failure of the Negotiation with the Bishops respecting the Catholic University - Mr. Rearden's extraordinary Question: the Speaker's Reply - Act for the Purchase of the Telegraph Lines by the State - Mr. Disraeli on the Foreign Policy of his Government - Parliament Prorogued at the end of July - Dissolved in November - General Election - Mr. Gladstone Defeated in South Lancashire - Increased Liberal Majority- Mr. Disraeli resigns Office before Parliament meets - The Queen sends for Mr. Gladstone - The new Administration - Parliament adjourned to February, 1869.
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The necessity for sending an armed force to Abyssinia, in order to compel the sovereign of that country, who had turned a deaf ear to repeated solicitations and remonstrances, to release a number of British subjects, including an agent specially accredited to him from the Foreign Office, whom he had thrown into prison - a necessity foreshadowed in the speech from the throne by which the session of the summer of 1867 was terminated - made it advisable for the Government of Lord Derby to convene Parliament for a short winter session, in order that the exact state of the question might be explained to both Houses, their approval of the expedition secured, and the grant of the necessary advances obtained from the House of Commons. Parliament accordingly was summoned to meet on the 19th November for the dispatch of business, and was opened by commission. In the royal speech Her Majesty declared that she confidently relied upon the support and co-operation of her Parliament in her endeavour at once to relieve their countrymen from an unjust imprisonment, and to vindicate the honour of the crown. The hope was expressed that the French Emperor, now that the objects of the late French expedition had been fully attained, would respect the just susceptibilities of the Italian people, and withdraw his troops as soon as possible from Italian soil. With regard to the legislative labours of the session, Reform Bills for Scotland and Ireland were promised, which should assimilate the franchises of those countries to those recently established in England, and also measures on public schools and elementary education. On the motion of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, 2,000,000 were voted for the Abyssinian expedition, the total cost of which, unless the Emperor Theodore should succumb, and give up his prisoners without fighting, was estimated by the Government at about 3,500,000. To meet this expenditure, the House of Commons voted the addition of a penny to the income tax, and sanctioned the payment of the Indian troops engaged out of Indian revenues. Objections were raised to the expedition from various quarters, but they were sustained with little earnestness. In the Commons it was said that the Ministers had involved the country in war without keeping Parliament duly informed of the progress of the difficulty in its earlier stages; in the Upper House, a noble lord predicted failure, and said that for the army to keep up its communications with the sea after having penetrated into the highlands of Abyssinia would be found impossible. However, the general feeling, both in Parliament and in the country, went along with the Government in thinking that all peaceful modes of settlement had been exhausted, and that there remained only the alter' native of an appeal to arms.

In one of the debates in the House of Commons respecting our relations with Abyssinia, a singular and discreditable fact came to light.. Mr. Bernai Osborne and Colonel Sykes drew the attention of the House to a certain letter addressed by King Theodore to Queen Victoria several years before, to which no answer had been sent; since it appeared from the papers published in the blue-books that Theodore's resentment on account of this slight had much influenced his subsequent conduct. A lively debate ensued. Mr. Layard, who had been Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs under Lord Russell at the time (February, 1863) when Theodore's letter reached the Foreign Office, gave the best explanation that he could of the neglect, but it was a very lame one. He said that he himself (owing to some division of duties between himself and the official under secretary, Mr. Hammond) had never seen Theodore's letter; but that when, after a delay of eighteen months, the despatch of Consul Cameron, covering the King's letter, was looked for and found, it appeared that it had a minute written on it by Lord Russell, directing the correspondence to be sent to the India Office, " which was the usual course taken in all matters relating to Abyssinia." Why the affairs of a country, the politics of which are mixed up with those of Egypt and Turkey, should be referred to the Council for India, a country with which those affairs are totally disconnected, Mr. Layard did not explain. But what, the reader will ask, became of the letter after it had reached the India Office? The answer was given by Colonel Sykes, who had obtained his information from the officials at the India Office. This letter, on which the most momentous consequences hung, - in which the ruler of the one Christian nation in Africa entreated the Christian queen of a Christian nation to co-operate with him in his endeavours to drive the encroaching, cruel, bigoted Turks from his ancestral dominions - this letter, on reaching the India Office, appears never to have risen higher than the office of a chief clerk. It came to the hands of Mr. Kaye, who, supposing that the letter had been already answered from the Foreign Office, let the letter lie on his table, and took no action about it. A grosser case of blundering and mal-administration was never revealed. Years passed away, and still Theodore received no answer to his letter. One may conceive what interpretations, what crude reflections and deductions, would sweep through the soul of a passionate semi-barbarian monarch at finding the letter into which he had thrown all the rough sincerity of his heart, and from which he had expected great results, treated with silent contempt. "The postage of that letter," said Colonel Sykes, " will cost us five millions." Mr. Layard endeavoured, but in vain, to palliate the administrative incompetence which Lord Russell had displayed in the matter. King Theodore, he said, had been before distinctly warned by the British Government that we should not receive an embassy from him unless he abandoned his purpose of attacking the Turks. Now, the letter in question contained a renewed application that we should help him against the Turks; it therefore needed no reply, having been already answered by implication. The futility of this defence is obvious. Mr. Layard himself would not have maintained that an important despatch from any European Government, making a " renewed application " about some matter on which our Government had previously given an adverse opinion, might on that account be thrown aside and left unanswered. But if courtesy and common sense alike prescribe that the despatches of civilised Powers should not be thus cavalierly treated, they prescribe it perhaps yet more strongly in the case of a half-civilised potentate, who, unversed in the mysteries of red-tape and pigeonholes, cannot possibly view the neglect to answer his letters except in the light of a personal affront.

These Abyssinian debates led to the interchange of much bitter language. Mr. Layard, on a previous evening, had described Dr. Beke, the author of a book on Abyssinia, in which the policy of the English Foreign Office had been severely handled, as a " mendacious and meddling adventurer." Replying to this on behalf of his friend, in the debate which elicited the truth about the unanswered letter, Mr. Wyld said, "The House might remember that not many years ago there was an adventurer, if he might use the expression, who, for the sake of obtaining archaeological and historical information, conducted explorations on the plains of Mesopotamia, removed the accumulated dust of centuries, and in the monumental tombs of dead kings made discoveries which added to his fame, and perhaps contributed to place him in his present position, and to give him the opportunity of making the speech he made the other night, for which, as an attack on the character of another gentleman and distinguished traveller, he was bound to make some reparation."

On the 7th December, Parliament was adjourned till the 13th February, 1868. When it recommenced its sittings on that date the political situation was, of course, unchanged; the Tory Government was in a minority of from sixty to seventy voices in the House of Commons; yet, through the amazing suppleness, versatility, and adroitness of its leader in the Commons, ably seconded by the heavier metal of Sir Hugh Cairns, it made head for a time against all its opponents with surprising courage and success. One of the first measures proposed by Government was to renew the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act in Ireland for a twelvemonth. Already had the Habeas Corpus Act been suspended for two years in the sister island; yet, although Fenianism was less menacing than it had been, it still appeared unsafe to the Irish Government to dispense with the extraordinary powers for the repression of disorder which had been first granted in 1866. In asking leave to bring in a bill for the continuance of the suspension, Lord Mayo, Chief Secretary for Ireland, stated that though the Fenian leaders had recently transferred the scene of their active operations to this country, there were still events occurring in Ireland which made it necessary that the Government should have this power. That the enlarged powers of repression conferred by the law on the executive had not been ineffectual, he proved by reading j an extract from an American paper, which showed that I out of forty-three military leaders sent from America to aid and direct the Fenian movement, the three principals had never reached Ireland, and the others had either been brought to justice or were exiles. The bill passed through all its stages in both Houses with very little opposition.

Time had failed in the session of 1867 to carry through Parliament measures for the enlargement of the constituencies in Scotland and Ireland similar to Mr. Disraeli's Reform Bill for England. The matter was now taken up by the Government, and bills were introduced, and eventually passed, for reforming the representation of the people both in Scotland and Ireland. The circumstances attending the progress of these bills were in some respects unprecedented, and such as involved no slight humiliation to the Government, which, in spite of all Mr. Disraeli's adroitness, was compelled either to allow the details of the measures to be settled pretty nearly as the opposing majority might think fit, or to resist at the imminent peril of defeat and expulsion from office. The measure for Scotland was introduced by the Lord Advocate, Mr. Paton, on the 17th February. It proposed that the franchise should be settled on nearly the same basis as in England, both for counties and boroughs; so that in the former there would be an ownership franchise of 5 clear annual value, and an occupation franchise of 12; while in boroughs every householder rated and paying rates would have a vote. It further gave seven additional seats to Scotland, without disfranchising any boroughs in England or Ireland; so that, if the bill had passed in this form, there would have been a permanent increase in the numbers of the House of Commons. No sooner was the draft bill in the possession of the House, than Scotch members, as if by one consent, set to work to tear it to pieces. It is unnecessary to repeat all the objections that were raised, and the more so because all parties ultimately agreed to pass the second reading, affirming the principle of the bill; each trusting to obtain the modifications he desired in committee. So iar all had gone well for the Government; but when the House went into committee, their practical powerlessness was apparent to all the world, and must have been painfully mortifying to themselves. Mr. Baxter moved, " That it be an instruction to the committee that, instead of adding to the numbers of the House, they have power to disfranchise boroughs in England having by the Census returns of 1861 less than 5,000 inhabitants." He pointed out that there were ten such small boroughs in England; these he proposed to disfranchise, and to add the ten seats thus obtained to the representation of Scotland. Sir Rainald Knightley proposed that, instead of disfranchising any boroughs, the committee should take one member from each of those boroughs in England returning two members to Parliament which in 1861 had less than 12,000 inhabitants. Mr. Disraeli, on the part of the Government, accepted Sir Rainald Knightley's proposal. But Mr. Gladstone seconded the motion of Mr. Baxter, and it was carried on a division by a majority of 217 to 196. The Government was fain to acquiesce; and the only modification which Mr. Disraeli could obtain consisted in reducing the number of the boroughs marked out for immolation from ten to seven. The seven English boroughs which thus lost their ancient constitutional right of representation were the following - Arundel, Ashburton, Dartmouth, Honiton, Lyme Regis, Thetford, and Wells. The disfranchisement of Arundel, apart from the general merits of the question, was much deprecated, because by it the possibility of a partial representation of an important minority in England - the Roman Catholics - was taken away. The local influence of the Duke of Norfolk rendered the return of a Roman Catholic for Arundel possible; but in every other English borough, however large the Roman Catholic minority may be, it cannot, with the present system of voting, return a member to Parliament.

Another and still more damaging alteration in the Government bill was carried by Mr. Bouverie, who proposed to get rid of the ratepaying qualification in Scotland altogether, by omitting the words making the payment of rates (as in the English bill) a necessary condition of the franchise. We have seen, in the course of the Reform debates, how devotedly, one might almost say sentimentally, attached was Mr. Disraeli to the principle of the rating franchise. Yet, when defeated on Mr. Bouverie's motion, he resigned himself with a sigh to the excision of his darling principle, not only with reference to boroughs, but also to counties. The occupation franchise for counties was fixed at 14, the reference to rateable value being omitted. Thus amended, the bill passed through committee, and, meeting with hardly any opposition in the House of Lords, became law.

The author of " Church and State " succeeded in carrying through Parliament this year a bill for the abolition of church rates. In the debate on the second reading, Lord Cranborne said, " What shall we gain if we adhere to the principle of ' No surrender P ' That is a question which must be answered by the circumstances of the time. We must look not only to the disposition of the nation out of doors, but to the course of events in this house - the principles upon which parties guide their movements - the laws by which public men regulate their conduct. Looking to these matters, and taking the most impartial view in my power, I am bound to say that I do not think any gain to the Church will arise from prolonging the resistance." After speaking of the deep reluctance which he felt to give up anything that the Church possessed, he concluded with the words, " I think it wiser to accept the terms that are now offered to us, because I am distinctly of opinion that we may go farther and fare worse." The passing of this measure, though it cannot be said to have reconciled the main body of the Dissenters in any appreciable degree to the existence of the Church as an establishment, at least closed a long and wearisome chapter of local bickerings, distinguished by cheap martyrdom on one side, and indiscreet coercion on the other. In a few remote villages, where, from any particular cause or combination of causes, dissent may have firmly established itself, the impossibility of obtaining a church rate has, we believe, already, and will increasingly with the lapse of years result in the decay and destruction of a time-honoured fabric. But such cases will be few; as a general rule, the rates that are voluntarily paid, supplemented by private liberality, will be sufficient to keep our ancient parish churches in repair.

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