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The Elementary Education Act of 1870 page 4


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This able and vigorous spokesman of the Dissenters wound up his speech with a reproachful appeal to the Government. The Nonconformists, he urged, made up half the people of England - more than half the Liberal party. They had never refused help to a Liberal Government, nor had that help been coldly and grudgingly given. Liberals they were, and would remain. " Our difference on this point will not affect our general support of the Government.... Our allegiance is secure: you know it. The wrong can be committed with impunity; but not on that account - assuredly not on that account - will the injustice be less keenly felt, or less bitterly remembered! "

We have dwelt at length upon Mr. Winterbotham's speech, because it represented far better, and more vividly than anything else in the Education debates, the real feeling of the great Nonconformist party. It embodied their whole claim, and stated their whole grievance with singular sharpness and vigour. It went to the root of the question, and the Church party were fairly startled by the depth and bitterness of the feeling disclosed. The cultivated Churchman, or the philosophic essayist, might equally deplore the additional narrowness and heat imported by Mr. Winterbotham into the controversy upon Education, when he represented the question as so largely affected by social differences and social jealousies. But the fact remained, and subsequent history has only brought out more clearly the unhappy and lamentable truth, that the difference between the Church and Dissent is, at least in many places throughout England, marked by the worst characteristics of a class quarrel. Such a speech as Mr. Winterbotham's could not but rouse the Churchmen of the House. The challenge was taken up in turn by Lord Robert Montagu, Mr. Beresford Hope, who thought it " impossible to conceive a speech worse timed, or struck in a more unfortunate key," and that Churchman of Churchmen, Sir Roundell Palmer, who rebuked the Dissenters through Mr. Winterbotham, not without some dignity and reason, for " inflaming the religious difficulty." He declared in decisive language, "that the views advocated by the member for Stroud were such as never could be accepted as the basis of a common system of national education by that portion of the people who belonged to the Established Church." He argued from " the broad facts of existing schools " that the mind of the country as a whole was strongly opposed to the principle of secular education, and in favour of that of religious education. On the other hand, Mr. Miall and Mr. Auberon Herbert spoke strongly in favour of the amendment; while Mr. Samuelson, also a member of the League, announced, as did Mr. Mundella on the third night of the debate, that, while approving heartily of the principle of the amendment, he should vote against it, believing that the advocates of unsectarian education should reserve all their strength for the amendment of the bill in committee, rather than risk, by such a motion as Mr. Dixon's, the indefinite postponement of the whole question. Mr. Lowe had, as usual, a witty remark to make upon the situation. It reminded him, he said, of a fine herd of cattle in a large meadow, deserting the grass which was abundant all about them, and delighting themselves by fighting over a bed of nettles in the corner of the field - the bed of nettles being, of course, the religious difficulty. He denied altogether that the Government had " nailed their colours to the mast," and were determined to make no concessions. In fact, his cry was the same as Mr. Forster's: " Let us get into committee; then will be the time to make concessions on both sides." The third night of the debate was marked by several fine speeches. First of all came a clever, popular, ad captandum attack upon the Government by Mr. Vernon Harcourt. He returned Mr. Lowe's hard hits with others equally hard, and drew an amusing picture of the municipal elections of the future, when the bill had introduced into them the fatal element of religious disagreement. Mr. Mundella and Mr. Jacob Bright took up the middle position of voting against the amendment for conscience' sake, the speech of the former being memorable for its moderation and fairness of tone. Conservative speakers like Sir Charles Adderley were, of course, strong in their denunciations of Mr. Dixon's proposal; but though the Government was sure of its majority, it was thought politic not to alienate its Radical supporters by allowing the question to proceed to a division. Mr. Gladstone rose to play the part of peacemaker - which, indeed, was his rôle throughout the Education debates - and promised large concessions on the three important points of compulsion, the election of school boards, and the relation of religious to secular teaching. With this promise the recalcitrant Liberals professed to be contented. Mr. Dixon withdrew his amendment, and the bill was allowed to pass the second reading.

Except for an occasional question and answer as to the meaning of certain portions of the bill, the subject of Education was not again brought forward in the House till three months had passed away. That time was spent by the Education Office in a careful collection of statistics, in the preparation of reports, and in various other routine business. And by the statesmen in charge of the bill it was spent to great profit in observing and noting the true direction of public feeling on the matter. The general current of Liberal opinion was indeed unmistakable, and it was felt on all hands that concessions must be made to it in committee. And concessions indeed were made, so far as Mr. Forster considered the essential principles of the bill allowed. Mr. Gladstone opened the debates in committee by the announcement that the Government, while rejecting a motion of Mr. Vernon Harcourt's for " undenominational education," combined with " unsectarian instruction in the Bible," on the ground that such phrases were vague and unpractical, were prepared to accept Mr. Cowper-Temple's amendment, " to exclude from all rate-built schools every catechism and formulary distinctive of denominational creeds, and to sever altogether the connection between the local school boards and the denominational schools, leaving the latter to look wholly to the central grant for help." In consequence of this, the central grant to all schools, rate-built or voluntary, was to be increased from one-third to one-half the total cost. The remaining half was to be rates and school-pence in the case of board schools, and voluntary subscriptions and school-pence in the case of denominational schools. Mr. Disraeli, in reply, had a great deal to say with regard to this proposal, which he described as an " entirely new bill; " but the Government knew very well that at this particular juncture they had little to fear, and everything to hope, from the Conservatives, and the policy of the League was just now far more important to them than any skirmishing of Mr. Disraeli's. An amendment by Mr. Richards, to the effect that "in any national system of elementary education the attendance should be everywhere compulsory, and the religious teaching supplied by voluntary effort, and not out of public funds," provoked another long debate on the " religious difficulty," in which a few irreconcilable Conservatives joined with Mr. Winterbotham and Mr. Vernon Harcourt to harass the Government. Once more did Mr. Forster defend his position, winding up a practical and temperate speech with language unexpectedly determined. The Government, he said, meant to yield no more ground. " We have considered," he said, " the whole of the religious question, and we present the bill to the House in the form in which we think we must adhere to it." Upon the supporters of the amendment, should it be successful, must " rest the responsibility of defeating the bill, and preventing the settlement of the Education question this year." Once more did Mr. Gladstone endeavour to pour oil on the troubled waters, promising that " effectual guarantees should be taken against the violation of conscience in rate-schools through the acts of a narrow or sectarian spirit," and pointing out to the Nonconformists that, in return for the great concession which was being made to them, in excluding all creeds and catechisms from rate-built schools, they owed some counterbalancing forbearance and consideration to the Church party, which felt as strongly as they, and had greater educational services to plead. But come what might, the Government would stand by their bill, and no more would be yielded. Mr. Richards' amendment, however, was thrown out by 421 to 60 - figures which might well give the Government confidence. Nor were these proportions substantially altered in later divisions. The bill was carried through triumphantly, in spite of ardent Churchmen like Sir Stafford Northcote, who were strongly opposed to the Government concessions, no less than of Mr. Dixon and Mr. Jacob Bright. Night after night did Mr. Forster sit through the tedious debates, ready to answer every question and parry every attack, evincing throughout such unfailing good humour, combined with such unflinching determination, that the House was at once impressed and conciliated. Strong in the general support of the Conservatives, joined to that of the moderate Liberals, he defended his bill at every essential point, regardless of the telling and often bitter criticism of the League. Still certain important alterations were made before the bill became law; chiefly that the school boards were to be re-elected every three years; that the school rate was never to exceed threepence in the pound, and not to be levied under a distinct name; that the election of school boards should be on the cumulative principle - that is, that where each voter had a number of votes, he might bestow them all on a single candidate if lie chose, instead of being compelled to divide them equally. Finally, after a debate of twenty-one days, the bill passed the third reading without a division, but amid the anathemas of both classes of irreconcilables. While Mr. Dixon pronounced that the Government had roused " the suspicion, distrust, and antagonism of some of their own most earnest supporters," Mr. Gathorne Hardy charged them with " inaugurating a system of hypocrisy, treachery, and baseness." Mr. Forster enjoyed the fate of all neutrals - of being heartily abused by both belligerents.

In the House of Lords the bill was well treated, the only important amendment being moved and carried by the Duke of Richmond, to the effect that vote by ballot should not extend to other than Metropolitan elections. With this alteration the bill passed through its last stages, and became law. History has not yet pronounced finally upon it, nor upon the indefatigable minister who carried it. The religious difficulty did not disappear with the passing of the bill, as was natural to a difficulty which, after all was primarily not religious, but social. The platforms of the League and the Union - of Nonconformity and the Established Church - were the platforms on which the first elections for school boards were fought; and nothing that has happened in subsequent years has tended to bring the differences into harmony. On the other hand, the Act has brought education within the reach of every English child, and " covered England with good schools."

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Professor Henry Fawcett, M.P.
Professor Henry Fawcett, M.P. >>>>
Mr. W. E. Forster, M.P.
Mr. W. E. Forster, M.P. >>>>
Mr. Mundella, M.P.
Mr. Mundella, M.P. >>>>
Attack on the English travellers
Attack on the English travellers >>>>

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