Truth and Trees in Politics

Will Shirey, University of Pennsylvania

William Ewart Gladstone, the four-time Liberal Prime Minister of Britain at the end of the 19th century, filled his free time in two ways. One was chopping down trees, mainly oak; the other was extensively reading theology. The former, one imagines, was cathartic and mindless, a procedure which he mastered and could perform with no purpose but the pleasure of drawing his own sweat. The latter was, of course, about pondering a higher and ultimate Truth. (Being one of the most devout heads-of-state in modern British history was not without its drawbacks: Gladstone’s later cabinets found substantive discussion of the future difficult, as he constantly threatened to retire into a life of pure theological contemplation.)

Gladstone’s career is mostly remembered for his pursuit of Irish Home Rule—a position he began to hold around 1885. Gladstone insisted on Home Rule without consulting his party and without effectively convincing the nation of the rightness of his cause. As a result, the Liberal party splintered into the Gladstonian Liberals and the Liberal Unionists, who effectively joined the Conservatives in a voting bloc against Home Rule. Gladstone himself was at fault: he shrugged off the dull but necessary commitment to party that should have underpinned his efforts. That the late 19th century Liberal party fell on a truly legitimate cause shows that a politics of justice and equality is only effectively pursued with the use of tools considered ugly and impure—coalition making, political tact, and, often, gradualism. Justice requires not only the contemplation of Truth; it requires as well the ugly and procedural chopping of trees.

In the 1870s, the ministerial style of Gladstone himself began to weaken the Liberal party. Gladstone had strong prescriptive views for British society: these centered on economy and smaller governmental interference, self-government underpinned by authentic Christianization, and—increasingly over time—political devolution. Gladstone saw Parliament and his ministry less as a deliberative body in which he would attempt to reach equitable policy decisions, and more as an obstacle on the quickest path to more moral government. As Harcourt, one of his cabinet members, remarked, “[Gladstone] regards the rest of us as children…by whose opinion he is not likely to be guided.” Gladstone himself later declared that, rather than deferring to colleagues in the course of the legislative process, he was inclined to “leave behind those who can’t keep up with me.” Gladstone’s temperament was fundamentally athwart the building of coalitions for the sake of legislative practicality; he idealized the people and preferred to appeal to them rather than appeal to the parliamentarians of the Liberal party.

Ultimately, the political power that Gladstone accrued made it difficult for those Liberals who dissented from his populism and his program to make their arguments heard. Politicians of both the Conservative and Liberal parties were critical of his managerial style throughout his career: the Conservative Lord Stanley called him “dictatorial” and “dogmatic”; his cabinet member Lord Chancellor Selbourne called him “incapable of harmonis[ing] and regulat[ing other men’s] action in the manner necessary for good government.” As Gladstone in 1885 began to push harder and harder for more pro-Irish measures, he failed to consult with his ministers—despite setting himself on a campaign to win public opinion. Only in 1886, when a large portion of his cabinet was on the verge of open rebellion, did Gladstone arrange interviews with the top figures of his party. After his introduction of his Home Rule bill, Liberal resignations poured in, though none of his ministers followed through in resigning. Gladstone had clearly damaged his own position as an influencer through his brash anti-parliamentarianism. Gladstone’s attitude to governance was, throughout his years of political power, profoundly anti-party. The party suffered in due course.

More specifically, it was Gladstone’s dogmatic stance on the Irish question that plunged the Liberal party into disarray, eventuating in the Conservative-Unionist alliance and the siphoning of some Liberals into the Conservative ranks. In the early 1870s, the erstwhile largely Liberal Irish MPs began to break away from the party; in 1870 the Home Government Association was founded, to be superseded three years later by the Irish Nationalist Parnell’s Home Rule League. The breakaway was more firmly expressed in Parnell’s 1882 Irish Parliamentary Party, yet the underlying truth remained: not satisfied by Gladstone’s legislative efforts to give better property conditions and local government rights to the Irish, Parnell and the Irish Nationalists decoupled themselves from the Liberal party in order to press primarily for Home Rule.

In the years 1884 and 1885, Gladstone came to the position of being a Home Ruler himself. This remained hidden from the public; meanwhile, the political world was largely inching towards an ameliorative local-government scheme, supported primarily by Chamberlain. Yet, in July of 1885, Gladstone came under the garbled impression that several main Conservative statesmen were nursing the same idea and in fact making overtures to the Parnellites. In response to his mistaken notion, Gladstone reached well beyond what was being advocated in the Liberal-Conservative political milieu at the time. He began to collaborate heavily with Parnell, citing the self-governing colonies as the ideal situation for Ireland. Gladstone pushed for Home Rule and only consulted with his ministers when they approached the brink of open rebellion. While the cabinet—eventually—met and agreed that Gladstone should introduce his Home Rule measure, Chamberlain was entirely alienated. As Gladstone’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Harcourt, hinted, Gladstone may have perhaps avoided outright enmity from Chamberlain had the two met in person to soften Chamberlain’s “post-resignation attitude.” But Gladstone did no such thing, perhaps because of a pre-existing dislike of Chamberlain. As Sir Edward Hamilton noted at the time, Gladstone was “not in a humour to make a compromise for Chamberlain. He has been forced too long and too hard by Chamberlain.”

Dissent from Gladstone began to solidify in the wake of the introduction of his Home Rule Bill on April 8th, 1886. Chamberlain, formerly a Cabinet member of Gladstone’s, referred to the Prime Minister as a “madman”. Peers began to meet and express their discontent only a week after the Bill’s introduction, centered on Hartington and Lord Randolph Churchill. Dissident Liberals established the Liberal Unionist office as early as the 22nd of April. Several ministers threatened to resign, and though no major resignations went through, the ministry, at least in the way it was perceived by the outside political world, became decidedly weakened. Gladstone failed at this stage to adequately gauge the import and extent of the resistance that was gathering against him in the political class, and was set on winning the public rather than the Parliament.          Gladstone’s immediate action in the wake of his introduction of the bill was to draft an address to the Midlothian electors—his ultimate back-up weapon was, should the Parliamentary situation remain dire for Home Rule, to dissolve Parliament and hope that his appeal to the nation worked. Yet before the crucial vote on the second reading of the Bill, Chamberlain hosted a meeting for dissenters. Crucially, at the meeting, a letter from John Bright—a long-influential voice in the Radical-leaning part of the Liberal party—was read announcing his intention of voting in the negative. The second reading of the Government of Ireland Bill was defeated 341 to 311. Gladstone dissolved the government for a “people’s election.”

The 1886 election shows the degree to which Gladstone’s attempt at Home Rule weakened the Liberal Party, allowing for a Conservative resurgence. Gladstone, before the election, campaigned throughout Scotland and England’s North; the Radical-Liberal Bright, however, began to speak publically against Gladstone’s position, declaring it to be “the will of Providence that these islands should be united together in a United Kingdom.” At length, the result of the election was a decisive mandate to keep Ireland firmly under the auspices of Westminster: 1886 saw the return of 197 Gladstonians and 85 Irish versus 315 Conservatives and 72 of the new non-Gladstonian Liberal Unionists. Despite the weakness of the following Salisbury (Conservative) government—Lord Randolph Churchill resigned as the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House of Commons over budget disagreements in December of 1886, and the Conservative attempt to ally with the Liberal Unionists remained testy—Gladstone could not regain the force which he had before his Home Rule effort.

Ultimately, Gladstone’s decision to work with Parnell proved explosively counter-productive; many Liberals refused to go along with Gladstone’s Irish measures so long as the hardline Irish Nationalist leader remained so powerful and so brash. Gladstone received a “bundle of letters daily” on the subject, and eventually encouraged him in a memorandum to altruistically surrender his duties. Parnell responded by fighting back and portraying himself as a victim of English hypocrisy. Despite Gladstone’s clear attempt to satiate his party’s wish for distance from Parnell, the damage had been done. Even later, when Gladstone was returned to power and the Unionist majority whittled down, Home Rule remained an exercise in futility. Chamberlain continued to lead his Unionists in railing against the Bill. Despite Gladstone’s even accepting an amendment asserting Westminster’s supremacy over Dublin after the 2nd reading, the Bill was defeated 419 to 41 in the House of Lords.

Lord Randolph Churchill—a contemporary and rival of Gladstone, the near-leader of the Conservative party, and the father of Winston—once remarked that “[f]or the purposes of recreation he has selected the felling of trees; and we may usefully remark that his amusements, like his politics, are essentially destructive. Every afternoon the whole world is invited to assist at the crashing fall of some beech or elm or oak. The forest laments in order that Mr. Gladstone may perspire.” Yet Gladstone’s politics cannot be symbolized by the value-free proceduralism of tree chopping; in his politics, Gladstone was less a tree-chopper, more a Truth contemplator. Ultimately, Gladstone’s inefficacy resulted from the fact that he ignored procedure, the ugly but necessary companion of justice.