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Chapter XXVII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9 page 2


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Age and the undermining effects of his hereditary malady, the gout, had told heavily this winter on the vigorous constitution of Lord Derby, and he felt no longer equal to the cares and toils of office. His retirement from the Ministry was announced by his son, Lord Stanley, in the House of Commons on the 25th February, and drew forth expressions of warm and respectful sympathy from both sides of the House. The way was thus naturally opened for the gratification of the great and worthy ambition of a lifetime. Mr. Disraeli was sent for by the Queen, and requested to take the post of Premier and reconstruct the Government. That well-grounded confidence was now justified before the world, which, according to a well-known story, made the new Premier, when resuming his seat amid the shower of " Oh! Oh's! " and derisive cheers which greeted his unsuccessful maiden speech, utter the words, " The time, I feel, will come when you will hear me." On the 27th Mr. Disraeli had an audience of Her Majesty, and kissed hands upon his appointment as First Lord of the Treasury. To pass over two or three minor changes, the new Premier declined to include the Chancellor, Lord Chelmsford (Sir Frederic Thesiger), in the reconstructed Ministry; and that high functionary was therefore compelled to resign the seals, which were given with a peerage to Sir Hugh Cairns. The great ability, industry, and readiness in debate of the new Chancellor were much needed to strengthen the ministerial side in the House of Lords. On the 5th March, Mr. Disraeli addressed a meeting of his parliamentary supporters, and encouraged them to look hopefully forward to the future, and to remember through what storms and sunken rocks they had been safely steered.

O passi graviora, dabit Deus Ms quoque finem!

He admitted the difficulties that lay in their path as a minority having to deal with the great question now pressing on their attention. But the past two years had given them great triumphs, and he had every confidence that with a firm front they might add to them fresh triumphs in 1868. But there were others who felt confident, and With better reason - unfortunately for him - than Mr. Disraeli. That condition of the Liberal party described in the caustic observation of Mr. Bouverie, when it had " leaders that wouldn't lead, and followers that wouldn't follow," was now at an end. The ironical section of the Liberals, as it maybe called, who had watched with delight and amusement the superb performances of that great political maestro, Mr. Disraeli, and had insisted that so brilliant a display should not be prematurely terminated, - to whom also, it may be added, the consternation of their austerely moral leader at their unaccountable dereliction of duty had been a source of much malicious amusement, - were by this time tired of the sport, and began to think that the ordinary relations between majority and minority might as well be resumed. Mr. Gladstone, who assiduously sounded the pulse of his party, soon discovered that those who had played truant were willing to submit to discipline once more, and his exultation was extreme. " Having put our hand to the plough," he said, at a dinner given to Mr. Brand, the Liberal whip, at the end of March, " we shall not look back. I have entertained from the first a confident hope and belief that a long and arduous struggle would be accompanied by complete success." The battle-ground which the Liberal leader had chosen was well adapted to bring together all the scattered sections of the party; it was the proposal to disestablish the Irish Protestant Church. The perturbed and discontented state of Ireland was a continual source of anxiety. The proposal to abolish the State Church was satisfactory to the Liberals who were only politicians, because it involved what they deemed a useful and tranquillising concession to the feelings of the Roman Catholic majority of the Irish people. It was also satisfactory to that large and important class of Liberals who had Dissenting sympathies, because it aimed at doing away with an Established Church, and reducing its ministers to find their subsistence through reliance on the principle of Voluntaryism.

On the 10th March, there was an important debate on Irish affairs in the House of Commons. It was raised by a motion of Mr. Maguire, the earnest and eloquent member for Cork, that the House should resolve itself into a committee to take the condition of Ireland into immediate consideration. Prominent among the grievances which, he said, retarded material progress and kept up a chronic disaffection in Ireland, were the existence of the Irish Protestant Church, monopolising all the revenues which had in former times been at the disposal of the Church of the majority, and the unprotected and precarious tenure of the occupiers of land. Lord Mayo, while combating Mr. Maguire's statements to a considerable extent, took this opportunity of declaring what was the Government policy for Ireland. It included measures about the tenure of land and Irish railways, which, as they never advanced beyond the embryonic stage, it is unnecessary to dwell upon; but its boldest and most salient feature was the proposal to endow and grant a charter to the Irish Catholic University, while leaving Trinity and the Queen's Colleges just as they were. For the management of the University a senate would be constituted, consisting of a chancellor and a vice-chancellor, four prelates nominated by the Roman Catholic hierarchy, and six elected laymen. With regard to the Irish Church, the Government did not intend, seeing that an inquiry into the amount and distribution of its revenues was then pending, to introduce any measure into Parliament in that session. The debate on Mr. Maguire's motion lasted over four nights. On the third night, Mr. Bright, who, as one of the serious, not the ironical Liberals, was in a chronic state of moral exasperation at the success and audacity of Mr. Disraeli, related the following anecdote. " I recollect," he said, "that Addison, a good while ago now, writing about the curious things that happened in his time, said there was a man in his county - I do not know whether it was in Buckinghamshire or not - he was not a Cabinet Minister, he was only a mountebank - but this man set up a stall, and to the country people he offered to sell pills that were very good against the earthquake." Amidst the laughter which followed this sally, Mr. Bright proceeded to explain that Ireland was suffering under a social and political earthquake, and that the only remedy proposed by Mr. Disraeli was his little pill of university education for the sons of rich Roman Catholics. It was a witty and a telling thrust; nevertheless, the more drastic medicines soon after applied by Mr. Bright and Mr. Gladstone did not succeed in purging the evil of disaffection out of the patient's system.

Mr. Gladstone in this same debate entered fully into the question of the Irish Church, and declared that, in his opinion, the time was now come for dealing with it and settling it. " If we be just men," he said, " we shall go forward in the name of truth and right, bearing this in mind - that, when the case is proved, and the hour is come, justice delayed is justice denied." Mr. Disraeli's reply was full of point and vigour. " I think," he said, "that we are embarking in a very dangerous course when, at a period at which no one could have anticipated it, a right honourable gentleman of great standing in the country comes forward suddenly, as it were from ambush, and announces that he proposes to destroy an institution which he has himself often advocated, and which he has told us to-night has existed from the time of the Tudors." With matchless adroitness he turned, in regard to this question of the Irish Church, the democratic sentiments of the Liberal leaders against themselves. Common sense would decide that on such a question a House of Commons elected by the £50 and the £10 householders was just as likely to arrive at a wise decision as one elected by the £12 householders and the ratepayers of the new Reform Bill. But from the point of view of the thorough democrat, the lower you go in the scale of property, education, and intelligence, the more certain you are to come upon a stratum - a couche sociale, as M. Gambetta would say - preeminently competent to decide the deepest and most difficult questions. Mr. Disraeli, therefore, with well- acted amazement, expressed his sorrow and surprise at the indecency of the action of the Liberal party in proposing to legislate on so important a question as the Irish Church in an unreformed Parliament, and before there had been an opportunity of appealing to the enlarged constituencies.

Although we shall be departing from the strict order of time, we prefer to describe the more important measures which the Government succeeded in carrying through Parliament this session, before entering upon the narrative of the party contest which resulted in their defeat and paved the way for their resignation. These measures were three in number. Of one, the Scotch Reform Bill, we have already given the history; the two others were the Irish Reform Bill, and the bill for defining the boundaries of boroughs in England and Wales. The Irish Reform Bill was brought in by Lord Mayo on the 19th March. It was in appearance a much simpler affair than the corresponding bill for Scotland; it gave to Ireland no new members, and made no change in the county franchise, which had been fixed at a £12 rental for Ireland some years before. In the boroughs the bill! enacted that the rates of all houses valued at less than £4 a year should be paid by the landlords, and fixed the franchise at £4 a year rental. Practically, therefore, it was a ratepaying franchise as in England. It also contained a redistribution scheme, which proposed to disfranchise six small boroughs, and allot one of the seats thus obtained to Dublin, and the other five to different counties which were at present inadequately represented. The bill was read a second time on the 7th May, and then the real battle began. The redistribution scheme appeared to please no one, and the Government withdrew it. The Irish Liberal members complained that the bill, which only added about nine thousand new names to the register of voters, was absurdly insufficient; they alleged that the qualification for the county franchise was far too high, and that the retention of the freeman franchise was an error. Sir Colman O'Loghlen moved an amendment which, if carried, would have swept away the freeman franchise of Dublin and other cities; and Colonel. French endeavoured to reduce the county qualification from £12 to £8. Other amendments also were moved; but from some cause or other the Government was always victorious when it came to a division; and the bill passed through committee substantially as its authors had framed it, minus the redistribution clause. The Irish members complained bitterly of this result, declaring that but for the apathy of English and Scotch Liberals, who had neglected to come to the House to support them, they would have carried the amendments above described, and greatly improved the bill. As for the county qualification, Sir John Gray declared that though nominally the same as in this country, a rental of £12 a year in Ireland was really equivalent to one of £30 a year in England.

The bill for regulating the boundaries of boroughs in England and Wales was founded on the report of a Royal Commission, which had minutely investigated the subject. When introduced into the House, there appeared to be an indisposition to accept it as it stood; because the municipalities of a number of boroughs whose boundaries had been extended by the commissioners remonstrated against such extension, and petitioned the House that the ancient boundaries might be preserved. A motion was accordingly made and accepted by the Government, that the bill should be referred to a select committee. The recommendations of the select committee went to undermine many of the conclusions of the Commission, and independent members moved amendments that were derogatory to the recommendations of the committee. Great wrangling and confusion ensued; but in the end the bill was carried as altered by the select committee; and fifteen important boroughs - among which Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool, and Manchester were included - were permitted to retain their ancient boundaries, contrary to the recommendations of the Commission. The bill was not passed by the House of Lords till near the end of the session.

At a much earlier period, Mr. Gladstone sprang his first mine against the Government position with destructive effect. Three years before, when Mr. Dillwyn had brought up the question of the anomalous spectacle presented to Europe by the Irish Church, Mr. Gladstone had both spoken and written to. the effect, that while admitting the scandal and the danger of the existing state of things, he did not believe the question to be within the range of present politics, and considered that a long period must elapse before it would be ripe for settlement. Now, however, he had convinced himself that "the hour was come, and the man" - namely, himself. On the 23rd March, he laid three resolutions before the House, of which the first was, that, " in the opinion of this House, it is necessary that the Established Church of Ireland should cease to exist as an establishment, due regard being had to all personal interests, and to all individual rights of property." The object of the second and third resolutions was to prevent the creation of any more vested interests for the future. Vacancies occurring in the higher ecclesiastical appointments were not, if in public patronage, to be filled up pending the decision of Parliament; and the Queen was to be humbly solicited by the House to place at the disposal of Parliament, with a view to the aforesaid purposes, her interest in the archbishoprics, bishoprics, and other ecclesiastical dignities and benefices of Ireland. Mr. Disraeli, had all his Cabinet been of one mind, would probably have met the resolutions by a direct negative. But his Secretary for Foreign Affairs - Lord Stanley - the high descent and enormous wealth of whose family, coupled to his own unquestioned ability, enforced consideration for his opinions - was by no means disposed to maintain a war à outrance in defence of the Church of Ireland. It was accordingly agreed that Mr. Gladstone's resolutions should be met at the first stage by an amendment, to be moved by Lord Stanley: " That this House, while admitting that considerable modifications in the temporalities of the united Church in Ireland may, after pending inquiry, appear to be expedient, is of opinion that any proposition tending to the disestablishment or disendowment of the Church ought to be reserved for the decision of the new Parliament." The amendment was ingeniously framed, because it contained an implied menace that the Government, if defeated on the resolutions, would dissolve Parliament sooner than allow the Irish Church question to be dealt with by the " unreformed" constituencies; thus sending back members to their constituents to face all the trouble and expense of an election many months before the time that they had calculated upon. This disagreeable prospect might again, it was hoped, cause a split in the Liberal party. But the manœuvre did not succeed this time. The debate on the resolutions commenced on the 30th March, and was continued over four nights; the question being, whether the Speaker should leave the chair, so that the House might go into committee on the resolutions, or whether Lord Stanley's amendment should be affirmed. In the course of the debate, Mr. Lowe, the great deserter, who had now returned to his colours, made a vehement and powerful attack on the Government for its attempt (of which the term " united Church " in Lord Stanley's amendment was significant) to link the fortunes of the Church of England with those of the sister Establishment in Ireland. This, he said, was a Mezentian union - an attempt to link the living with the dead. " You see the living Church of England - the dying Church of Ireland. Why are you so anxious to unite them, seeing how much they are different? Why, because machinery is put in motion which may destroy the Irish Church, do you seek to involve the English Church in the ruins? Rely on it, all your efforts are in vain. You may do your utmost, but you will not save the Irish Church; nor will the country allow you to enjoy the pleasure of destroying her. You will not be able to play over again your game of last year. The net of the fowler will not again ensnare the birds. The Irish Church is founded on injustice - on the dominant right of the few over the many, and it shall not stand. You call it a missionary Church; if so, its mission is unfulfilled. It has utterly failed. It is like some exotic brought from a far country, tended with infinite pains and useless trouble. It is kept alive with the greatest difficulty, and at great expense, in an ungenial climate and an ungrateful soil. The curse of barrenness is upon it; it has no leaves, puts forth no blossom, and yields no fruit. ' Cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground?' " The division resulted in the rejection of Lord Stanley's amendment by a majority of 61; the numbers being 270 for, and 331 against it. No further progress was made for the moment, as the defeat of the Government occurred on the eve of the Easter recess. During the short interval the sense of the country was variously expressed by two great meetings, held in St. James's Hall - one for, the other against, disestablishment. At the first, presided over by Lord Russell, the Chairman professed himself ready to sacrifice what was, in his own opinion, the best course - the plan of concurrent endowment by paying the priests. Great unanimity prevailed. At the Conservative meeting, the only argument put forward that was of much weight was this - that the ill-feeling which prevailed in Ireland towards England was more deep-seated than most Englishmen supposed; and that the disestablishment of the Irish Church, which was far from being a generally unpopular institution, would do nothing to remove this feeling in the minds of the majority, while it would tend to diminish the attachment of the Protestant minority to this country. Parliament resumed its sittings on the 20th April, and the 27th was fixed for the debate in committee on Mr. Gladstone's first resolution. Three more nights were consumed in the discussion of the question in all its bearings; on the 30th April, the division took place, and resulted in the affirmation of the first resolution, by a majority against the Government of sixty-five.

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Pictures for Chapter XXVII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9 page 2

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