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Chapter XXVII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9 page 3


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Upon the numbers being announced, Mr. Disraeli rose and said that the vote at which the committee had arrived had altered the relations between the Government and the House; he therefore moved that the House should adjourn to Monday the 4th May, to enable the Government to consider its position. Few imagined that after defeats so decisive the Government would be able to follow aught but one of two courses - either immediate resignation or immediate dissolution. Many, indeed, of the Liberal leaders maintained that the only constitutional course open to the Ministry was resignation. When a minister, defeated in the House of Commons, entertains a belief, based upon reasonable and adequate grounds, that an appeal to the constituencies will result in the return of a House the majority of which is animated by sentiments similar to his own, in that case, said these reasoners, dissolution after a decisive defeat may be justifiable. Such were the circumstances, for example, under which Lord Palmerston, after being defeated on the question of the Chinese lorcha in 1857, obtained, by means of a dissolution, a new House of Commons, reflecting more accurately the prevailing sentiments of the country, which reversed the decision of its predecessor. The present case, they urged, was widely different, since no one could reasonably doubt that an appeal to the constituencies would result in the return of a Parliament still more hostile to the Irish Church than that which was now sitting. Dissolution, therefore, could only mean that the country was appealed to say whether or not it had confidence in the present Ministry; but that, it was argued, was an issue which the Ministry had no right to put to the country, since it was constitutionally bound to stake its existence on the possession of the confidence of Parliament, and of Parliament alone. But his opponents did not know all. that the accomplished and versatile Premier was capable of. Mr. Disraeli was not yet at the end of his resources. He contrived to extract out of defeat a secure tenure of office for seven months longer, and all the rage and vituperation of the baffled victors could avail nothing against his imperturbable front. On the 4th May he rose in his place, and stated that, having waited on Her Majesty, he told her that " the advice which her ministers would, in the full spirit of the constitution, offer her, would be that Her Majesty should dissolve this Parliament, and take the opinion of the country upon the conduct of her ministers, and on the question at issue; but, at the same time, with the full concurrence of my colleagues, I represented to Her Majesty that there were important occasions on which it was wise that the sovereign should not be embarrassed by personal claims, however constitutional, valid, or meritorious; and that if her Majesty was of opinion that the question at issue could be more satisfactorily settled, or that the interests of the country would be promoted by the immediate retirement of the present Government from office, we were prepared to quit Her Majesty's service immediately, with no other feeling but that which every minister who has served the Queen must entertain, viz., a feeling of gratitude to Her Majesty for the warm constitutional support which she always gives to her ministers, and I may add - for it is a truth that cannot be concealed - for the aid and assistance which any minister must experience from a sovereign who has such a vast acquaintance with the public affairs. Sir, I, in fact, tendered my resignation to the Queen. Hier Majesty commanded me to attend her in audience on the next day, when Her Majesty was pleased to express her pleasure not to accept the resignation of her ministers, and her readiness to dissolve Parliament so soon as the state of public business would permit. Under these circumstances, I advised Her Majesty that, although the present constituency was no doubt admirably competent to decide upon the question of the disestablishment of the Church, still it was the opinion of Her Majesty's ministers that every effort should be made that the appeal should, if possible, be directed to the new constituencies which the wisdom of Parliament provided last year; and I expressed to Her Majesty that, if we had the cordial co-operation of Parliament, I was advised by those who are experienced and skilful in these matters that it would be possible to make arrangements by which that dissolution could take place in the autumn of this year."

This speech, so charmingly blended and tempered as it was, concealed under a cloud of plausible words the exact point which every one wanted to know - how far the ministerial plan was due to the Queen's own initiative, and how much was suggested to her by the Premier. The only point about which there could be no mistake was that the ministers meant to stay in till the autumn. The Liberals were greatly incensed; and although many of them must have keenly relished the joke, and internally done homage to the genius of this master of political legerdemain, the leaders of the party felt it as a very serious matter to be kept so long out of the fruits of a triumph which they had deemed secure. Mr. Disraeli was questioned and cross-questioned as to the exact nature of the communications which had taken place between the Queen and himself, and as to an apparent discrepancy between his own explanation of the circumstances and that given by the Duke of Richmond in the other House. Nothing could be more ingenuous and candid than Mr. Disraeli in his replies; nevertheless, the transaction continued to be wrapped in some degree of mystery, and Mr. Gladstone, Mr. Lowe, and others protested against the course taken by the Ministry as unconstitutional and unprecedented. Mr. Bright and Mr. Ayrton could not restrain their temper, and indulged in language which hardly fell short of being coarse and offensive. Thus, when Mr. Disraeli (who had declared that, though he dissented from, he should not actively oppose the adoption of Mr. Gladstone's second and third resolutions) had said, in reference to a warm discussion which arose among the Liberals respecting the future disposal of the funds of the Irish Church, that "the discussion had only anticipated what he always expected would be the case, that there would be a quarrel among the Liberal party over the division of the plunder," Mr. Bright retorted with extreme asperity. " The right honourable gentleman," he said, " the other night, with a mixture of pompousness and sometimes of servility, talked at large of the interviews which he had had with his sovereign. I venture to say that a minister who deceives his sovereign is as guilty as the conspirator who would dethrone her." Mr. Disraeli, in reply, said: " Sir, I won't notice the observations of the honourable member for Birmingham. He says that when it was my duty to make a communication to the House of the greatest importance, and which I certainly wished to make, as I hope I did make it, in a manner not unbecoming the occasion, I was at once ' pompous and servile.' Well, Sir, if it suits the heat of party acrimony to impute such qualities to me, any gentleman may do so; but I am in the memory and in the feeling of gentlemen on both sides of the House - and fortunately there are gentlemen on both sides of this House. They will judge of the accuracy of such a charge." These last sentences were greeted with loud and repeated cheers. To the statement of Mr. Lowe, that in not resigning the Ministry was treating the House with disrespect, since the large majorities by which the Government had been defeated on the Irish Church question amounted virtually to a vote of want of confidence, Mr. Disraeli declared that many of those who sided with the majority on those occasions had assured him that they did not so understand the votes which they gave; and he challenged Mr. Lowe and those who agreed with him to propose a direct vote of want of confidence, which could be argued and decided on that plain issue. The challenge was not taken up, and the excitement on this particular matter gradually subsided.

To the three original resolutions of Mr. Gladstone a fourth was added in the course of the discussion, relating to the Maynooth Grant and the Begium Donum. The former, which was originally fixed at 8,000 a year, was raised by Sir Robert Peel, in 1845, to 30,000 a year, and charged upon the Consolidated Fund. It was devoted to the sustentation of the great Roman Catholic seminary for the training of priests at Maynooth, and was administered by the Irish bishops, subject to the control of the Executive. Before Maynooth was established, the Irish priests were generally educated in France, whence they brought back, as it was supposed, feelings of alienation and hostility towards England; it was therefore considered to be an act of wise statesmanship to subsidise a seminary in Ireland itself, so that the priests might be educated at home. The Begium Donum was an annual grant of about 38,000, first instituted by Charles II., in favour of the Irish Presbyterian Church, and distributed among the ministers in stipends of 75 each. Evidently the grounds of justice and conciliation upon which Mr. Gladstone relied in moving for the disendowment of the Irish Church were inapplicable in the case of the Maynooth Grant and the Begium Donum, both of which were of very modest amount relatively to the size of the religious communities to which they were allotted, and the payment of which involved no injustice nor inequality. But it was necessary for Mr. Gladstone to include these also in his scheme of disendowment, as, otherwise, he would have forfeited the support of the English Dissenters and the Scotch Radicals. With these the disendowment of the Irish Church was popular, not so much as an abatement of an injustice, as because it committed the State pro tanto to the principle of Voluntaryism. " Levelling down " was the only kind of equalisation which they approved of; they desired that all religious organisations should be denuded of State aid equally with themselves, whether that aid were much or little. This applies more particularly to the Dissenters; with the Scotch members the detestation of everything Roman Catholic was the chief motive for their claiming that the Maynooth Grant should be included in the work of demolition. Mr. Gladstone, in order to preserve the unity of his party, which he had just patched together again with such infinite trouble, was obliged to consent to this enlargement of his scheme; and the fourth resolution accordingly ran thus: " That when legislative effect shall have been given to the first resolution of this committee, respecting the Established Church of Ireland, it is right and necessary that the grant to Maynooth and the Begium Donum be discontinued, due regard being had to all personal interests."

The resolutions having been carried in their final shape (May 8), the address to Her Majesty respecting the temporalities of the Irish Church was duly presented. Some inconsiderate persons supposed that either Mr. Disraeli would advise the Queen, or that the Queen herself, under the influence of an imagined scruple as to the bearing of the Coronation Oath, would refuse, to abandon to Parliament her interest in the Irish temporalities in the manner requested. But both Mr. Disraeli and the Queen knew better the path prescribed to each by constitutional duty. The answer of Her Majesty to the Commons' address, received at the House on the 12th May, stated that, relying on the wisdom of her Parliament, the Queen desired that her interest in the temporalities of the Irish Church should not stand in the way of the discussion of any measure which Parliament might deem necessary for the welfare of Ireland. To advise Her Majesty to any other course would have been the less excusable, because it was quite unnecessary; Mr. Disraeli being serenely confident that the Tory majority in the House of Lords would allow no measure touching the temporalities to pass into law - at any rate that year. This was soon made evident, when, as soon as possible after the receipt of the Queen's consent to legislative action, Mr. Gladstone brought in a Suspensory Bill, the object of which was to stop the creation of new vested interests, by preventing for a limited time any new appointments in the Irish Church, and to restrain for the same period in certain respects the proceedings of the Irish Ecclesiastical Commissioners. The Suspensory Bill passed easily through the House of Commons; but when it came to the Lords it was criticised with great severity, and the second reading was refused by a majority of ninety-five.

The rest of the session passed away with little that was eventful to mark its course. How the thanks of both Houses were voted to Sir Robert Napier for his successful conduct of the Abyssinian expedition, and what honours were heaped upon him, will be related in a future chapter. The Government brought in an Education Bill, which contained one noteworthy and excellent feature - the provision of a real Minister of Education, in the shape of a new Secretary of State for that special department. But the general scheme proposed in the bill was slight and not deeply considered; it therefore failed to stand its ground against the numerous objections raised against it, and was before long withdrawn by its promoters. The financial statement of Mr. Ward Hunt, the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, showed that the revenue continued to exhibit that character of elasticity which it had now maintained for several years. The plan for the public endowment of the Irish Catholic University fell to the ground at an early period of the session. The Irish prelates (Archbishop Leahy and Bishop Derry) who had been appointed to conduct the negotiation on the part of the University authorities with the Chief Secretary, Lord Mayo, demanded powers so extensive, not only as to the appointment and dismissal of professors and other officers, but also as to the use and prohibition of books, that the Government abruptly closed the correspondence. It afterwards appeared that the prelates had not put forward these demands as an ultimatum, and might have abated their terms upon good cause being shown. But it is probable that Mr. Disraeli, knowing how extremely averse was popular feeling in England to any concession to Romanism, felt little regret that the large demands of the prelates had furnished him with a decent excuse for abandoning the project.

A disagreeable yet ridiculous incident took place in the House on the 22nd May. Mr. Rearden, the member for Athlone, gave notice of his intention to ask the First Lord of the Treasury whether it was true that Her Majesty, on account of ill-health, had gone to Scotland, and did not intend to return to England for the remainder of the session; and if so, whether it was the intention of the Government, out of consideration for Her Majesty's health, comfort, and tranquillity, to advise Her Majesty to abdicate! This extraordinary question caused much agitation, and was followed by loud cries of " Order." One may fancy the cloud which rested on the ordinarily stern features of the then Speaker (Evelyn Denison) as he rose and said: " The House has anticipated what I had to say by its expression of opinion in regard to the terms employed in the notice of the honourable member. No doubt any question may be addressed by a member of this House to the confidential advisers of the Crown on any matter relating to the discharge of public duties, but such questions must be addressed in respectful and parliamentary terms. The question of the honourable member certainly does not appear to me to be couched in such terms." Mr. Rearden immediately apologised.

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