The Story of a Memorable Session.
T.P. O'CONNOR, M.P.
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The Sketches contained in the following pages originally appeared in the WEEKLY SUN, under the title, "At the Bar of the House." Owing to the reiterated requests of many readers they are now republished in their present form.
CHAPTER I. PAGE OPENING OF A HISTORIC SESSION 9
CHAPTER II. THE HOME RULE BILL 31
CHAPTER III. A SOBER AND SUBDUED OPPOSITION 40
CHAPTER IV. THE PERSONAL ELEMENT 49
CHAPTER V. OBSTRUCTION AND ITS AGENTS 67
CHAPTER VI. GLADSTONE AND THE SURVIVAL 82
CHAPTER VII. A FORTNIGHT OF QUIET WORK 96
CHAPTER VIII. THE CALM BEFORE THE STORM 111
CHAPTER IX. THE END OF A GREAT WEEK 131
CHAPTER X. THE BUDGET, OBSTRUCTION, AND EGYPT 146
CHAPTER XI. THE BILL IN COMMITTEE 164
CHAPTER XII. RENEWAL OF THE FIGHT 178
CHAPTER XIII. THE SEXTON INCIDENT 198
CHAPTER XIV. THE BURSTING OF THE STORM 207
CHAPTER XV. MR. DILLON'S FORGETFULNESS 219
CHAPTER XVI. REDUCED MAJORITIES 229
CHAPTER XVII. THE FIGHT IN THE HOUSE 242
CHAPTER XVIII. IRELAND'S CHARTER THROUGH 254
CHAPTER XIX. HOME RULE IN THE LORDS 269
OPENING OF A HISTORIC SESSION.
There is always something that depresses, as well as something that exhilarates, in the first day of a Session of Parliament. In the months which have elapsed, there have been plenty of events to emphasize the mutability and the everlasting tragedy of human life. Some men have died; figures that seemed almost the immortal portion of the life of Parliament have disappeared into night, and their place knows them no more; others have met the fate, more sinister and melancholy, of changing a life of dignity and honour for one of ignominy and shame.
[Sidenote: The irony of the seats.]
But no such thought disturbed the cheerful souls of some of the Irish Members; in the worst of times there is something exuberant in the Celt that rises superior to circumstance. This was to be an Irish Session; and the great fight of Ireland's future government was to be fought—perhaps finally. But there was another circumstance which distinguished this Session from its predecessors. The question of seats is always a burning one in the House of Commons. In an assembly in which there is only sitting accommodation for two out of every three members, there are bound to be some awkward questions when feeling runs high and debates are interesting. But at the beginning of this Session, things had got to a worse pass than ever. The Irish Party resolved to remain on the Opposition side of the House, true to their principle, that until Ireland receives Home Rule, they are in opposition to all and every form of Government from Westminster. The result was the bringing together of the strangest of bedfellows in all sections in the House. There is none so fiercely opposed to Home Rule as the Irish Orangeman. But the Orangemen are a portion of the Opposition as well as the Irish Nationalists, with the inconvenient result that there sat cheek by jowl men who had about as much love for each other's principles as a country vicar has for a Northampton Freethinker. On the other hand, a deadlier hatred exists between the regular Liberal and the Liberal Unionist than between the ordinary Liberal and the ordinary Tory. But by the irony of fate, the action of the Irish Party compelled the Unionists to sit on the Liberal benches again, with the result that men were ranged side by side, whose hatreds, personal and political, were as deadly as any in the House.
[Sidenote: Watchers for the dawn.]
As a result of all this, there occurred in the House on Tuesday morning, January 31st, a scene unparalleled since the famous day when Mr. Gladstone brought in his Home Rule Bill in 1886. Night was still fighting the hosts of advancing morn, when a Tory Member—Mr. Seton-Karr—approached the closed doors of the House of Commons, and demanded admission to a seat. For nearly an hour he was left alone with the darkness, and the ghosts of dead statesmen and forgotten scenes of oratory, passion, and triumph. But as six o'clock was striking, there entered the yard around the House two figures—similar in purpose—different in appearance. Mr. Johnson, of Ballykilbeg, is by this time one of the familiar types of the House; and, from his evident sincerity, is, in spite of the terrible and mediaeval narrowness of his creed, personally popular. Mr. Johnson is an Orangeman of Orangemen. Now and then he delivers a speech, in which he declares that rather than see Home Rule in Ireland, he and his friends will line the ditches with riflemen. The Pope disturbs his dreams by night and stalks across his speeches by day; and there is a general impression about him that he is resolved, some time or other, to walk through a good large stream of Papist blood. He is also a violent teetotaller; and is so strong on this point that he is ready to shake hands, even with the deadliest Irish opponent, across the back of a Sunday Closing Bill. Like most Parliamentary fire-eaters, he is a mild-mannered man. Time hath dealt tenderly with him. But still he is well on to the seventies: his hair, once belligerently red, is thin and streaked with grey; and he walks somewhat slowly, and not very vigorously. Dr. Rentoul is a man of a different type. What Johnson feels, Rentoul affects. He is a tall, common-looking, heavily-built, blustering kind of fellow; great, it is said, on the abusive Tory platform, almost dumb and utterly impotent in the House of Commons. These were the vanguard of the Orange army, and they proceeded to appropriate the first and best seats they could lay their hands upon.
[Sidenote: Dr. Tanner and his waistcoat.]
Dr. Tanner, soon after this, appeared blazing on the scene; and sorrow came upon him that any of the enemy should have forestalled him. Like Mr. Johnson, Tanner is a Protestant—but, unlike him, is as fiercely Nationalist as the other is Orange; and, whenever the waves are disturbed by the Parliamentary storm, Tanner is pretty sure to be heard of and from. Viewing the scene of battle strategically, Tanner struck on an idea which was certainly original. Accounts differ as to whether he was the possessor of one hat or several; but tradition would suggest that he had more than one. It is certain, however, that he did take off his coat and waistcoat; and stretching these across the unclaimed land of seats, did thereby signify to all mankind that the seats thus decorated were his. But the novel form of appropriation—it suggests a wrinkle to prospectors in mining countries—was held to be illegal; and the poor doctor had to content himself with using the hat, or hats, as a means of securing seats.
[Sidenote: Colonel Saunderson.]
Colonel Saunderson—another of the Orange army of fire-eaters—was early at the trysting-place; and this brought about one of the curiosities of the sitting. On the first seat below the gangway sat Dr. Tanner; on the very next seat, as close to him as one sardine to another in a box, sat Colonel Saunderson. Not for worlds would these two men exchange a syllable; indeed, it was a relief to most people to find that they did not break out into oaths and blows. What rendered the situation worse, was that Dr. Tanner has a fine exuberant habit of expressing his opinions for the benefit of all around him. At his back sat William O'Brien, with his keen thin face, his eyes full of latent fire, his stern, set jaw—his glasses suggesting the student and philosopher, who is always the most perilous and fierce of politicians; and to William O'Brien, Tanner made a running and biting commentary on the speeches—a commentary, as can easily be guessed, from the extreme National point of view. This was the music to which the Orange Colonel had to listen through the long hours that stretched between his early morning arrival and midnight. How men will consent to go through all this travail is, to easy-going people, one of the curiosities of political struggle.
[Sidenote: The Chamberlain Party.]
Meantime, there had been another and an equally important descent. Mr. Chamberlain made his son the Whip of the Unionist Party. The resemblance between father and son is something even closer than that usually noticed between relatives. The son looks a good deal more gentlemanly than the father. But the single eyeglass—which no man can wear without looking more or less of a snob—is even less becoming to the youthful Austen than to the parent; and gives him even a coarser air. There is a suspicion that young Chamberlain also came to the House armed with a goodly supply of hats; at all events, he and his friends managed to secure a large number of seats for the Unionists. Chamberlain and his friends sat together on the third bench below the gangway—a position of 'vantage in some respects—from which they could survey the House. The first seat was occupied by Mr. Chamberlain; next him was Sir Henry James, and then came Mr. Courtney, in a snuff-coloured coat and drab waistcoat; for all the world like an old-fashioned squire who has not yet learned to accommodate himself to the sombre garments of an unpicturesque age. The dutiful Austen left himself without a seat, and was content to kneel in the gangway, and there take sweet counsel from his parent.
[Sidenote: Enter the G.O.M.]
Mr. Gladstone, as everybody knows, was not technically a member of the House of Commons when it met at the beginning of the Session. He had to be sworn, and the first business of the House was to witness this ceremony. I remember the first day I was a member of the House, and saw a similar spectacle—it was in 1880. Then the House was crowded, and there was a tremendous demonstration; but on the opening day of the Session just ended, the ceremony came off a little earlier than had been expected, and the House was not as full as one would have anticipated. Then there was a great deal of work to be done; every section of the House was busy with the attempt to get an opportunity of bringing in Bills. The Irishmen are always to the front on these occasions, with the list of a dozen Bills, which they seek to bring forward on Wednesdays—the day that is still sacred to the private member anxious to legislate. The Welsh members have now taken up the same lesson; the London members are likewise on the alert. Now, in order to get a chance of bringing in a Bill, it is necessary to ballot—then it is first come, first served. To get your chance in the ballot, you must put your name down on what is called the notice paper, where a number is placed opposite your name. The clerks put into the balloting-box as many numbers as there are names on the notice paper—they approached 400 on the day in question—and then the number is drawn out, and the Speaker calls upon the member whose number has proved to be the lucky one. A whole crowd of members were standing waiting their turn to do this the very moment when the Old Man walked up the floor of the House to take the oaths, and there was a great deal of noise and confusion; but his advent was noted instinctively and rapidly, and there was a mighty cheer of welcome.
[Sidenote: How he looked.]
Mr. Gladstone walks down to the House, unless on great occasions. Then there would be an obvious danger, from the enthusiasm of his admirers, if he were on foot. Whenever there is any chance of a demonstration, accordingly, he comes down in an open carriage, with Mrs. Gladstone at his side. On that 31st of January, the enthusiastic love of which he was the object, had several times overflowed; it had brought a huge crowd to Downing Street, and it had dogged the footsteps of the Prime Minister wherever he was seen. With bare head—with eyes glistening—with a cheek whose wax-like pallor was touched with an unusual gleam of colour—the Grand Old Man came down to his greatest Session, amid a thicket of loving faces and cheering throats. I fancy one of Mrs. Gladstone's heaviest tasks is to look after the clothes of her illustrious husband. He manages to make them all awry whenever he gets the chance. He may be seen at the beginning of an evening with a neat black tie just in its proper place; and towards the end of the evening the same tie is away under his jugular—as though he were trying experiments in the art of expeditiously hanging a man. But on these great occasions he is always so dressed as to bring out in full relief all the strange and varied beauty of his splendid face and figure. For nature—in the richness and abundance of her endowment of this portentous personage—has made him not only the greatest man in the House of Commons, but also the handsomest. He was dressed in the solemn black frock coat which he always wears on great occasions, and in his buttonhole there was a beautiful little boutonniere of white roses and lilies of the valley. The waxen pallor was still relieved by the glow caused by his enthusiastic reception from the people, as, with his son Herbert on the one side and Mr. Marjoribanks, the chief Liberal whip, on the other, he walked up the floor of the House.
[Sidenote: The new Ministry.]
One after another, the new Ministers followed—their receptions varying with their popularity—and at last they were all seated on the Treasury Bench. In their looks there was ample indication of the intellectual supremacy which had raised them to that exalted position. Mr. Gladstone had Sir William Harcourt—his Chancellor of the Exchequer—on his right, and on his left sat Mr. John Morley, with his thin face and smile, half ascetic, half kindly. Then came the newest man of the Government, that fortunate youth to whom power and recognition have come, not in withered or soured old age, but in the full prime of his manhood. Mr. Asquith takes his seat next Mr. Morley; and it is, perhaps, the close proximity which suggests the strong physical likeness between the two. Both are clean shaven; both have the long narrow profile that is called hatchet-faced; in both there is the compression of lips that reveals depths of strength and tenacity; both have the slightly ascetic air of the philosopher turned politician; both look singularly young, not only for their years, but for the dazzling eminence of their positions.
[Sidenote: Other groups.]
Meantime, there are other groups in the House that are gradually forming, and that have since played a momentous part in this great Session. Mr. Labouchere sits in his old place below the gangway—a seat which has become his almost by right of usage, but which he has to secure still every day, by that regular attendance at prayers which is so sweet to a devout soul. Next him sits Mr. Philipps—one of the younger generation of Radicals; and then comes Sir Charles Dilke—very carefully dressed, looking wonderfully well—rosy-cheeked, and altogether a younger-looking and gayer-spirited man than the haggard and pale figure which used to sit on the Treasury Bench in the days of his glory. John Burns is up among the Irish and the Tories, in visible opposition to all Governments. There is something breezy about John Burns that does one good to look at. He wears a short coat—generally of a thick blue material, that always brings to one's mental eye the flowing sea and the mounting wave. A stout-limbed, lion-hearted skipper—that's what John Burns looks like. There is plenty of fire in the deep, dark, large eyes, and of tenderness as well; and all that curious mixture of rage and tears that makes up the stern defender of the hopeless and the forlorn and weak. On the opposite side, in the Liberal ranks, sits Sam Woods—the miners' agent, who was sent from the Ince Division of Lancashire instead of an aristocrat of ancient race; also a remarkable man, with the somewhat pallid face of the life-long teetotaller, and eyes that have the mingled expression of wrath and pity common among the leaders of forlorn hopes and new crusades. Mr. Wilson, the member for Middlesbrough, is restless, and moves about a good deal. He has resolved to bring in a Bill to improve the wretched condition of "Poor Jack," in whose company he spent many years of his own hard life; and there is a gleam of triumph as an Irish member, in accordance with a previous arrangement, gives notice of a Bill for that purpose when the hazard of the ballot gives opportunity.
[Sidenote: Mover and Seconder.]
It is an honourable but a painful distinction to have either to move or to second the reply to the Speech from the Throne. One of the silly survivals of a feudal past still obliges men who have to perform this duty to make perfect guys of themselves, by wearing some outlandish uniform. Even the sturdiest Radical has to submit to this process; though I hope when John Burns comes to figure in that honourable position he will insist on retaining his breezy pea-jacket and his billycock hat. It was very late in the evening when Mr. Lambert—the victor in the great South Molton fight—had the opportunity of rising; and it was even still later when Mr. Beaufoy rose. I must pass over their speeches by saying that both speakers did extremely well. Even Mr. Balfour had to compliment them; and the Old Man almost went out of his way to express his gratification.
[Sidenote: Mr. Balfour.]
It was everywhere remarked that most of the leaders of parties began the Session in excellent fighting trim. Mr. Morley has been living in the pleasant green meadows and fields of the Phoenix Park, and looks five years younger than he did last year. The Old Man astounded everybody by his briskness; and Mr. Balfour also entered on the fray with every sign of being in excellent health and spirits. There had been a great roar of triumph when he came into the House, and throughout his speech—clever, biting, and adroit—his party kept up a ringing and well-organized chorus of pointed cheers. The speech was a significant departure from the ordinary stamp—a fact which Mr. Gladstone, who is notably a great stickler for tradition, did not fail to notice. For the almost unbroken tradition of the House of Commons is that the first night shall be one of almost loving-kindness between the one side and the other. I remember well Punch indicated this once by representing Mr. Gladstone and Mr. Disraeli beginning a Session by presenting each other with roses, while behind their backs was a thick bundle of whips.
[Sidenote: The fray opens.]
But Mr. Balfour is independent of tradition, and demonstrated it at once with a speech almost vehement, in part, in its attack. He had a whole host of flings at Mr. Justice Mathew and the Evicted Tenants' Commission—his hits, though sufficiently obvious, and almost cheap, being rapturously received. Altogether, it must be said the Opposition were in excellent form, and cheered their man with a lustiness which did them infinite credit. The Liberals, on the other hand, with forces somewhat scattered—the round Irish chorus being especially so, in the remote distance—did not seem equally well-organized from the point of view of the claque. With the dynamite prisoners Mr. Balfour dealt so gingerly that it was evident he knew the weakness of the Tory case, and was very apprehensive that Mr. Matthews would be found to have sold the pass. The ex-Home Secretary, meantime, was still disporting himself around the Red Sea or in the Straits of Bab-el-mandeb; and Mr. Balfour, who has notoriously a bad memory, was left groping in the cobwebs of his brain, trying to recollect which of the dynamitards it was Mr. Matthews intended to retain and which to release. Attacking the action of Mr. Morley with regard to the liberation of the Gweedore prisoners, Mr. Balfour brought upon himself a series of sharp interruptions from Mr. Morley; and there was some very pretty play, Mr. Balfour retorting now and then with considerable skill and readiness. Altogether it was an excellent fighting speech, and a good beginning. There were, in addition to what I have mentioned, plenty of shots about the foreign policy of the Government, especially in Uganda and Egypt; and it is needless to say that Mr. Balfour accused his successors of swallowing in office all the principles they had professed in Opposition.
[Sidenote: The Old Man rises.]
Mr. Gladstone had to stand silent for a few minutes in face of the thunderous welcome which he received from the Irish benches. Though the reception was gratifying, he seemed to be impatiently awaiting its termination, for he was full of vigour and eagerness for the attack, and never in his most youthful hours did he display a greater readiness to meet all assaults half-way. Those who are accustomed to the Old Man are in the habit of noting a few premonitory signs which will always pretty well forecast the kind of speech he will make. If he starts up flurried and excited, it is ten chances to one that the speech will not remain vigorous to the end; that there will be a break of voice and a weakening of strength, and that the close will not be equal to the opening. But when the voice is cold—though full of a deep underswell at the moment of starting—when Mr. Gladstone moves his body with the easy grace of perfect self-mastery, then the House is going to have an oratorical treat. So it was in this initial speech. There was just a touch of hoarseness in the voice, but it had a fine roll, the roll of the wave on a pebbly beach in an autumn evening; and he carried himself so finely and so flauntingly that there was no apprehension of anything like a loss or a waste of strength.
[Sidenote: A pounce.]
At once he pounced on a passage in the speech of Mr. Balfour, who had made the statement that such a policy as Home Rule had always led to the disintegration and destruction of empires. He rolled out the case of Austria, which had been preserved from ruin by Home Rule; and when there was a sniff from the Tory benches, Mr. Gladstone, in tones of thunder, referred to the speech of Lord Salisbury in 1885, when he was angling for the Irish vote, and when he pointed to Austria as perhaps supplying some indication of the method of settling the Irish question. This was good old party warfare; the Liberals cheered in delight, and the old warrior glowed with all his old fire. There was a softer and more subdued tone when the Prime Minister referred to Foreign Affairs, speaking of these things with the slowness and the gravity which such ticklish subjects demand. But again Mr. Gladstone was in all the full blast of oratorical vehemence when he took up the attack that had been made on the Irish policy of Mr. Morley. Now and then prompted by that gentleman, and with an occasional word from Mr. Asquith, the Old Man gave figure after figure to show that Ireland has vastly improved since coercion had been dropped as a policy. Altogether it was a splendid fighting speech, and dissipated in a few moments all prophecies of gloom and forebodings of dark disaster which have been prevalent for so many weeks with regard to the health of the old leader. Thus in fire and fury began the Session, the leaders on both sides fully equal to their reputation and at their best, and all the dark and slumbering forces that lie behind them as yet an undiscovered country of grim and strange possibilities.
[Sidenote: Lord Randolph.]
But the solid and united ranks of the Tories were broken by one figure that was once the most potent among them all. I had been strangely moved at a theatre, a week or so before, as I looked at Lord Randolph Churchill. I remembered him twelve years ago—a mere boy in appearance, with clean-shaven face, dapper and slight figure, the alertness and grace of youth, and a face smooth as the cheek of a maiden. And now—bearded, slightly bowed, with lines deep as the wrinkles of an octogenarian, he sometimes looks like the grandfather of his youthful self. It is in the deep-set, brilliant eyes that you still see all the fire of his extraordinary political genius, and the embers, that may quickly burst into flame, of all the passion and force of a violently strong character. For the moment he sits silent and expectant. He has even refused to take his rightful place among the leaders of the party on the Front Opposition Bench. Still he sits in the corner immediately behind, which is the spectral throne of exiled rulers. He has the power of all strong natures of creating around him an atmosphere of uncertainty, apprehension, and fear. Of all the many problems of this Session of probably fierce personal conflict, this was the most unreadable sphinx.
There came upon the House at the beginning of the following week a deadly calm, very much in contrast with the storm and stress of its predecessor. It is ever thus in the House of Commons. You can never tell how things are going to turn out, except to this extent—that passion inevitably exhausts itself; and that accordingly, when there has been a good deal of fire and fury one day, or for a few days, there is certain to come a great and deadly calm. Uganda is not a subject that excites anybody but Mr. Labouchere and Mr. Burdett-Coutts; and even on them it has a disastrous effect. Mr. Burdett-Coutts is always dull; but Uganda makes him duller than ever. Labby is usually brilliant; while he discoursed on Uganda he actually made people think Mr. Gladstone ought to have made him a Cabinet Minister—he displayed such undiscovered and unsuspected powers of respectable dulness.
[Sidenote: Still the seats.]
Nevertheless, there was still room for excitement and drollery in the perennial question of the seats. Mr. Chamberlain is not a man to whom people are inclined to make concessions; he is so little inclined to give up anything himself; and, accordingly, there arose a very serious question as to the first seat on the third bench below the Gangway, which he had taken all defiantly for his own. He counted without one of the oldest and most respected, but also one of the firmest, men in the House. Mr. T.B.—or, as everybody calls him, Tom Potter—sits for Rochdale; he was the life-long friend, and for years he has been the political successor of Cobden in the representation of Rochdale, and he is likewise the founder and the President of the Cobden Club. Every man has his weakness, and the weakness of Mr. Potter is to always occupy the first seat on the third bench above the Gangway. Everyone loves the good, kindly old man, the survivor of some of the fiercest conflicts of our time, and everybody is willing to give way to him. When the Liberals were in Opposition, there was a general desire among the Irish members to take possession of the third seat above the Gangway; and the first seat has enormous advantages—tactically—for anyone anxious to catch the Speaker's eye. But whenever the sturdy form of the member for Rochdale appeared, the fiercest of the Irishry were ready to give way; and from his coign of vantage, he beamed blissfully down on the House of Commons.
[Sidenote: Strong, but Merciful.]
Mr. Chamberlain had the boldness to challenge what hitherto had remained unchallenged; and Mr. Potter's wrath was aroused. He is not one of those people who require the spiritual sustenance of the Chaplain's daily prayers; and, accordingly, it was an effort to get down at three o'clock, when that ceremony begins; but his wrath upheld him; and thus it was that on a certain night, the thin form and sharp nose of Mr. Chamberlain peered out on the House from behind the massive form of the Member for Rochdale. It looked as if the unhappy Member for West Birmingham had undergone a sort of transformation, and had, like Mr. Anstey's hero in "Vice Versa," gone back to the tiny form and slight face of his boyhood. Mr. Potter, however, is merciful, and having asserted his rights, he surrendered them again gracefully to Mr. Chamberlain; and the perky countenance of the gentleman from Birmingham once more looked down from the heights of the third bench. It would take Mr. Chamberlain a long time to do so graceful an act to anybody else.
But on the Monday night nobody need have been very particular as to what seat he occupied; for nothing could have been much more dull than the whole proceedings. I make only one or two observations upon Uganda. And first, why is it that so few members of the House of Commons can pronounce that word correctly? Mr. Chamberlain,—if there be anything illiterate to be done, he is always prominent in doing it—Mr. Chamberlain never mentions the word without pronouncing it "Ugander." Mr. Courtney for a long while did not venture on the word; and therein he acted with prudence. It is a curious fact with regard to Mr. Courtney that when he first came into the House he had a terrible difficulty with his "h's." In his case it was not want of culture, for he was a University man, and one of the most accomplished and widely-read men in the House of Commons. But still there it was; he was weak on his "h's." He has, however, by this time overcome the defect. Mr. Labouchere talks classic English; was at a German university; has been in every part of the world; has written miles of French memorandums; has sung serenades in Italian; and, if he were not so confoundedly lazy, would probably speak more languages than any man in Parliament. But yet he cannot pronounce either a final "g" or allow a word to end in a vowel without adding the ignoble, superfluous, and utterly brutal "er." When he wishes to confound Mr. Gladstone, he assaults about "Ugander"; when the concerns of our great Eastern dependency move him to interest, he asks about "Indier"; and he speaks of the primordial accomplishments of man as "readin'" and "writin'."
[Sidenote: Sir Edward Grey.]
Ugander gave Sir Edward Grey his first opportunity of speaking in his new capacity of Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs. There are some men in the House of Commons whose profession is written in the legible language of nature on every line of their faces. You could never, looking at Mr. Haldane, for instance, be in doubt that he was an Equity barrister, with a leaning towards the study of German philosophy and a human kindliness, dominated by a reflective system of economics. Mr. Carson—the late Solicitor-General for Ireland, and Mr. Balfour's chief champion in the Coercion Courts—with a long hatchet face, a sallow complexion, high cheek-bones, cavernous cheeks and eyes—is the living type of the sleuth-hound whose pursuit of the enemy of a Foreign Government makes the dock the antechamber to the prison or the gallows. Sir Edward Grey, with his thin face, prominent Roman nose, extraordinarily calm expression, and pleasant, almost beautiful, voice, shows that the blood of legislators flows in his veins; he might stand for the highest type of the young English official. He has not spoken often in the House of Commons—not often enough; but he is known on the platform and at the Eighty Club. He has the perfect Parliamentary style, with its virtues and defects, just as another young member of the House—Mr. E.J.C. Morton—has the perfect platform manner, also with its virtues and defects. Sir Edward Grey speaks with grace, ease, with that tendency to modest understatement, to the icy coldness of genteel conversation, which everybody will recognize as the House of Commons style. This means perfect correctness, especially in an official position; but, on the other hand, it lacks warmth. It is only Mr. Gladstone, perhaps, among the members of the House of Commons—old or new—who has power of being at once, easy, calm, perfect in tone, and full of the inspiring glow of oratory.
[Sidenote: Pity the poor farmer.]
The agriculturists are not very happy in their representatives. A debate on agriculture produces on the House the same effect as a debate on the Army. It is well known that the party of all the Colonels is enough to make any House empty; and a debate on agriculture is not much better. The farmer's friends are always a dreadfully dull lot; and they usually lag some half-century behind the political knowledge of the rest of the world. It would have been impossible for anybody but the county members to attempt a serious discussion on Protection or Bimetallism as cures for all the evils of the flesh; but that is what the agricultural members succeeded in doing on a certain Monday and Tuesday night. Their prosings were perhaps welcome to the House; but it was a curious thing to see an assembly, as yet in its very infancy, so bored as to find refuge in every part of the building, except the hall appropriated to its deliberations. Mr. Chaplin is always to the front on such occasions; pompous, prolix, and ineffably dull. Mr. Herbert Gardner made his debut as the Minister for Agriculture, and did it excellently.
Mr. Keir-Hardie is certainly one of the most curious forms which have yet appeared on the Parliamentary horizon. He wears a small cap—such as you see on men when they are travelling; a short sack coat; a pair of trousers of a somewhat wild and pronounced whiteish hue; and his beard is unkempt and almost conceals his entire face. The eyes are deep-set, restless, grey—with strange lights as of fanaticism, or dreams. He rather pleasantly surprised the House by his style of speech. Something wild in a harsh shriek was what was looked for; but the wildest of Scotchmen has the redeeming sense and canniness of his race—always excepting Mr. Cunninghame Graham, whose Scotch blood was infused with a large mixture of the wild tribe of an Arab ancestress; and Mr. Keir-Hardie—speaking a good deal like Mr. T.W. Russell—made a foolish proposal in a somewhat rational speech. But he was unlucky in his backers. The Liberal benches sate—dumb though attentive, and not unamiable. Mr. Gladstone gazed upon the new Parliamentary phenomenon with interest, but the only voices that broke the silence of the reception were the strident tones of Mr. Howard Vincent, of Sheffield, and Mr. Johnston, of Ballykilbeg. Now Howard Vincent is known to all men as one of the people who speak in season and out of season, when once they mount their hobby. The other day I heard of a bimetallist who was so fond of discussing bimetallism that the railway carriage, in which he went to town every morning, was always left vacant for him; nobody could stand him any longer. Similar is the attitude of the House of Commons to Howard Vincent. Fair Trade is his craze. He proposes it at Tory Conferences—much to the dismay of Tory wire-pullers; he gets it into the most unlikely discussions in the House of Commons; and all the world laughs at him as though he were to propose the restoration of slavery, or chaos come again. Poor Mr. Johnston only cares about the Pope, and cheers Mr. Hardie simply as a possible obstruction to Mr. Gladstone. Ill-omened welcomes these for a friend of Labour.
[Sidenote: Sir John Gorst.]
Sir John Gorst occupies a curious position in his own party. He is one of their very ablest debaters; always speaks forcibly and to the point; rarely makes a mistake; and has a wonderfully good eye for the weak points in the armoury of his opponents. He was the really strong man in the old Fourth Party combination; but somehow or other he does not get on with his friends, and has been left without Cabinet office at a time when many inferior men have been able to get ahead of him. He has a cold, cynical manner; suggests usually the clever lawyer rather than the sympathetic politician; and altogether seems at odds with the world and with himself. He made a bold bid, however, for labour legislation; placed himself in a different position from the rest of his colleagues; and altogether made one of those speeches which are listened to in amused curiosity by political opponents, and in ominous silence and with downcast looks by political friends. Mr. Balfour's face was a study; but it was a study in the impassibility which politicians cultivate when they desire to conceal their hatred of a political friend. It is on the same side of the House that the really violent and merciless animosities of the Parliamentary life prevail. I should think that Sir John Gorst is the object of about as bitter a hatred among his own gang as any man in the House.
[Sidenote: Mr. George Wyndham.]
In the happily-ended coercion days, letters constantly appeared in the newspapers, signed "George Wyndham." A certain flippancy and cynicism of tone, joined to a skilful though school-boyish delight in dialectics, suggested that though the name was George Wyndham, the writer was an eminent chief. When at last Mr. George Wyndham made his appearance in the House and delivered himself of his maiden speech, Mr. Campbell-Bannerman—one of the wittiest men in the House, though you would take him for a very serious Scotchman without a joke in him, at first sight—expressed his satisfaction to find that there was such a person as Mr. Wyndham, as he had been inclined to rank him with Mrs. 'Arris and other mythical personages of whom history speaks. Mr. Wyndham is a tall, handsome, slight fellow—with an immense head of black hair, regular features, hatchet but well-shaped face, and a fine nose, Roman in size, Norman in aquilinity and haughtiness. He is a smart rather than a clever man, but has plenty of vanity, ambition, and industry, and may go far.
[Sidenote: Who said "Rats"?]
Mr. Jesse Collings has changed from a respectable Radical, with good intentions and excellent sentiments, into a carping, venomous, wrong-headed hater of Mr. Gladstone and all the proposals which come from a Liberal Government. On the 8th of February, he gave an extremely ugly specimen of his malignant temper, by complaining that there was no care for the agricultural labourer on the part of a Government which has undertaken the largest scheme of agricultural reform ever presented to a House of Commons. This had the effect of rousing the Old Man to one of those devastating bits of scornful and quiet invective by which he sometimes delights the House of Commons. Jesse had spoken of the proposals of the Queen's Speech as a ridiculous mouse, and thereupon came the dread retort that mice were not the only "rodents" that infested ancient buildings; the words derived additional significance from the fact that, as he used them, the Prime Minister directed on Jesse those luminous, large, searching eyes of his, with all their infinite capacity for expressing passion, scorn, contempt, and disgust. The House was not slow to catch the significance of the phrase, and jumped at it, and yelled delightedly until the roof rang again.
[Sidenote: A tumble for Joe.]
This naturally called Joe, pliant creature, to the rescue of his beloved friend. That, however, was far from a lucky week with Joe; he had begun to look positively hang-dog, with baffled hate. He attempted to stem the splendid tide of enthusiasm on which the Grand Old Leader was swimming triumphantly, by stating that at one time Mr. Gladstone had separated himself from Mr. Collings's proposals for the reform of the position of the agricultural labourers. When anybody makes a quotation against Mr. Gladstone, the latter gentleman has a most awkward habit of asking for the date, the authority, and such like posers to men of slatternly memory, and doubtful accuracy. I have heard several of the wonderful Old Man's private secretaries declare that they had never been able to get over the dread with which this uncanny power of remembering everything inspired them—it was awe-inspiring, and produced a perpetual feeling of nervousness—as though they were in the presence of some extraordinary and incomprehensible great force of nature. It is rather unfortunate for Joe that nature did not endow him with any bump of veneration, and that he is thus ready to embark on hazardous enterprises, in which he oftens comes to grief. When he made this quotation against Mr. Gladstone, the Old Man at once pounced on him with a demand for the date and the authority. Joe was nonplussed, but he stuck to his point.
But on the following day Mr. Gladstone got up and in the blandest manner declared that he had since looked into the speech to which Mr. Chamberlain had alluded, and he found that what he had really said was, that Mr. Collings had been supposed to have advocated "three acres and a cow" as a policy, and to that policy Mr. Gladstone had declared he had never given his adherence. This was turning the tables with a vengeance. Jesse grinned and Joe frowned—the rest of the House was delighted.
[Sidenote: Mr. Asquith.]
The Home Secretary delivered a speech, which in one bound carried him to the front rank of Ministerial speakers. It was a triumph from beginning to end: in voice, in delivery, in language—above all, in revelation of character, it was an intoxication and a delight to the House of Commons. He swept over the emotions of that assembly like a splendid piece of music, and there was no room, or time, for reflection.
But there was an aftermath, and then it began to be hinted that it was the speech of an orator and an advocate rather than of a Minister, and that it was unnecessarily and unwisely harsh in tone; it uttered "no" and a "never"—which are the tombs of so many Ministerial declarations. The occasion was the motion of Mr. Redmond in reference to the release of the dynamitards. Mr. McCarthy, though he strongly disapproved of the motion, was forced to express regret that Mr. Asquith had closed the prison doors with a "bang;" and one or two of the supporters and friends of Mr. Asquith were also compelled to express their dissent, and to vote in the lobby against him. But undoubtedly that speech has immensely increased Mr. Asquith's reputation and strengthens his position. He is one of the strong and great men of the immediate future.
[Sidenote: Obstruction, naked and unashamed.]
When the debate on amnesty was concluded, there came a climax to that system of obstruction in which the Tories and the Unionists indulged during the first fortnight; and there was indication of the growing exasperation of the Ministerial and the Irish members. Midnight had struck; and Mr. Balfour, on the part of the Tories, had the face to declare that it was impossible, at such a late hour, to do justice to the next amendment. As the next amendment dealt with the Gweedore prisoners, and as the House has heard of little else but the Gweedore prisoners for the last fortnight, the majority received this announcement with a fierce outburst of impatience, the Irish Bench especially being delighted at the opportunity of paying back to Mr. Balfour some of the insults he had poured on them so freely during his six years of power. Meantime, the Liberal temper had been roused to still more feverish heat by the splendid news from Halifax, followed by the even more unexpectedly good tidings from Walsall; and there was a determination to stand no nonsense. But Obstruction was determined to go on, and when it was two o'clock in the morning Sir William Harcourt declared that he would not persevere further. There arose a fierce shout of disappointment from his supporters and from the Irishry; but Sir William beamed pleasantly, and the majority submitted to the tyranny of the minority. And thus debating impracticable proposals, barely listening to long speeches, doing absolutely nothing, the days succeeded each other; and legislators who wanted work, longed for the steady and mechanical regularity of their well-ordered offices, their vast factories, their sanely-conducted communications with all parts of the world, to which English genius, sense, and industry have brought the goods of England. The contrast between the Englishman at business and at politics is exasperating, woeful, tragic.
THE HOME RULE BILL.
[Sidenote: I remember.]
When I saw Mr. Gladstone take his seat in the House of Commons on February 13th, I was irresistibly reminded of two scenes in my memory. One took place in Cork some twelve years ago. Mr. Parnell had made his entry into the city, and the occasion was one of a triumph such as an Emperor might have envied. The streets were impassable with crowds; every window had its full contingent; the people had got on the roofs. It almost seemed, as one of Mr. Parnell's friends and supporters declared, as if every brick were a human face. Men shouted themselves hoarse; young women waved their handkerchiefs till their arms must have ached; old women rushed down before the horses of the great Leader's carriage, and kissed the dust over which he passed. And, then, when it was all over, Mr. Parnell had to sit in a small room, listening to the complaints and most inconvenient cross-questionings of an extremely pragmatical supporter, who would have been an affliction to any man from the intensity and tenacity of his powers of boring. As I looked at poor Parnell, with that deprecatory smile of his which so often lit up the flint-like hardness, the terrible resolution of his face—as varied in its lights and shadows as a lake under an April sky—I thought of the contrast there was between the small annoyances, the squalid cares of even the greatest leaders of men and the brave outward show of their reception by the masses. And the other scene of which I thought, was the appearance of Mr. Irving on a first night in some big play, say, like "Lear." All the public know is that the actor is there, on the stage, to pronounce his kingly speech; but, before he has got there, Mr. Irving, perhaps, has had the sleepless nights which are required in thinking out the smallest details of his business; perchance, the second before he looks down on that wild pit, and up at that huge gallery, which are ready either to acclaim or devour him, he has been in the midst of a furious dispute about the price of tallow candles, or the delinquencies of the property-master.
[Sidenote: Tired eyelids upon tired eyes.]
So I thought, as I looked on Mr. Gladstone. For there was that in his face to suggest sleepless vigils, hard-fought fights—perhaps, small and irritating worries. Before that great moment, there had been consultations, negotiations, Cabinet Councils—perchance, long and not easy discussion of details, settlement of differences, composure of all those personal frictions and collisions which are inevitable in the treadmill of political life. Yes; it was the case of the actor-manager with the thousand and one details of outside work to attend to, as well as the great and swelling piece of magnificent work for which the great outside world alone cared—of which it alone knew. To anybody who knows politics from the inside comes ever some such haunting thought about the splendour and glory of popular receptions and public appearances. I must confess that I could not get rid of that impression when I looked on Mr. Gladstone on that Monday night. A deadlier pallor than usual had settled on that face which always has all the beautiful shade, as well as the fine texture of smooth ivory. There was a drawn, wearied look about the usually large, open, brilliant eyes—that rapt and far-off gaze which is always Mr. Gladstone's expression when his mind and heart are full. There are two kinds of excitement and excitability. The man who bursts into laughter, or shouts, or tears, suffers less from his overstrained nerves than he whose face is placid while within are mingled all the rage, and terror, and tumult of great thoughts, and passions, and hopes. It struck me that Mr. Gladstone was the victim of suppressed excitement and overstrained nerves, and that it was only the splendid masculine will, the great strength of his fine physique, which kept him up so well.
[Sidenote: The sudden awakening.]
Pallid, heavy-eyed, in a far-off dream—with all the world gazing upon him with painful concentration of attention and fixed stare—the Great Old Man sate, keeper still of the greatest and most momentous secret of his time, and about to make an appearance more historic, far-reaching, immortal, than any yet in his career. So, doubtless, he would have liked to remain for a long time still; but, with a start, he woke up, put his hands to his ear, as is his wont in these latter days when his hearing is not what it used to be, looked to the Speaker, and then to Mr. John Morley, and found that, all at once, without one moment's preparation, he had been called upon by the Speaker to enter on his great and perilous task. What had happened was this: The Irish members had put a number of questions on the notice-paper, but, anxious in every way to spare the Old Man, they quietly left the questions unasked; and so, when, as he thought, there was still a whole lot of preliminary business to go through, all was over, and the way was quite clear for his start. "The First Lord of the Treasury;" so spoke the Speaker—almost softly—and, in a moment, when he had realized what had taken place, the Old Man was upright, and the Liberal and Irish members were on their feet, waving their hats, cheering themselves hoarse. And yet an undercurrent and audible note of anxiety ran through all the enthusiasm. The honeymoon of Home Rule is over, and, curiously enough, the very sense of a great victory after a long struggle has always about it a solemnity too sad for tears, too deep for joy. The Liberals and the Irishry stood up; but, even at that hour, there were evidences of the fissures and chasms which the two great political disruptions-the disruption in the English Liberal and in the Irish party—have produced. On the third bench below the Gangway sate the Liberal Unionists, Mr. Gladstone's deadliest foes, with pallid-faced, perky-nosed, malignant Chamberlain at their head, the face distorted by the baffled hate, the accumulated venom of all these years of failure, apostasy, and outlawry. Not one of the renegade Liberals stood up, and there they sate, a solid mass of hatred and rancour. On the Irish side, Mr. Redmond and the few Parnellites kept up the tradition of their dead leader in his last years of distrust and dislike of Mr. Gladstone by also remaining seated.
[Sidenote: The speech.]
The first notes of the Old Man suggested he was in excellent form. It is always easy for those who are well acquainted with him to know when the Old Man is going to make a great, and when he will deliver only a moderately good speech. If he is going to do splendidly the tone at the start is very calm, the delivery is measured, the sentences are long, and break on the ear with something of the long-drawn-out slowness of the Alexandrine. So it was on this occasion. Sentence followed sentence in measured and perfect cadence; with absolute self-possession; and in a voice not unduly pitched. And yet there were those traces of fatigue to which I have alluded, and I have since heard that one of the few occasions in his life when Mr. Gladstone had a sleepless night was on the night before he introduced his second great Home Rule Bill. And it should be added that, stirring and eloquent as were the opening sentences, they were not listened to by the House with that extraordinary enthusiasm which, on other occasions, sentences of this splendid eloquence would have elicited. For what really the House wanted to learn was the great enigma which had been kept for seven long years—in spite of protests, hypocritical appeals, and, ofttimes, tedious remonstrance from over-zealous and over-fussy friends.
[Sidenote: The Bill.]
By the time Mr. Gladstone had got to the Bill, he had exhausted a good deal of his stock of voice, and yet he seemed to be less dependent than usual on the mysterious compound which Mrs. Gladstone mixes with her own wifely hand for those solemn occasions. It appeared that both she and her husband had somewhat dreaded the ordeal. The bottle which Mr. Gladstone usually brings with him is about the size of those small, stunted little jars in which, in the days of our youth, the young buck kept his bear's grease, or other ornament of the toilet. But on Monday Mr. Gladstone was armed with a large blue bottle—somewhat like one of those 8 oz. medicine bottles which stand so often beside our beds in this age of sleeplessness and worry. Nevertheless, Mr. Gladstone and his wife had miscalculated, for on two occasions only throughout the entire speech did he have to make application for sustenance to the medicine bottle. Another precaution which had been taken turned out also to be unnecessary. The Premier's eyesight is not as good as it was a few years ago; and he sometimes finds it difficult to read anything but the biggest print. For this reason, elaborate preparations had been made for helping his eyesight. On the table before the Speaker's chair there was a small lamp—somewhat like a student's lamp. This also turned out to be unnecessary, for the Old Man was able to read his notes without the smallest difficulty; and the speech had come to a conclusion long before the hour when the deepening shadows make it hard to read by the light from the glass roof of the House.
[Sidenote: The peroration.]
At last, the latest details had been given; the Old Man approached his peroration. By this time the voice had sunk in parts to a low whisper, and the deathly hue of the beautiful face had grown deeper. There was something that almost inspired awe as one looked at that strange, curious, solitary figure in the growing darkness. The intense strain on the House had finally exhausted it, and there had come a silence that had in it the solemnity, the strange stillness, the rapt emotion of some sublime service in a great cathedral rather than the beginning of one of the fiercest and most rancorous party conflicts of our time. To this mood Mr. Gladstone attuned the closing words of his speech. The words came slowly, quietly, gently, sinking at times almost to a whisper. What fantasies could not one's mind play as one listened to these words. There was underneath the language, the looks, the voice, the tragic thought that this was a message rather from the shadow-land beyond the grave than from this rough, noisy, material world. Imagine yourself in a country church, the sole visitor in the ghostly silence and the solemn twilight, with spectres all around you in the memorials of the dead and memories of the living, and then fancy the organist silently stealing, also alone, to the organ, and giving out to the evening air some beautifully solemn anthem with all the sadness of death, and none of the exultant joy of resurrection, and then you will get some faint idea of the pent-up emotion which filled every sympathetic heart in the great assembly as the Old Man finally came to the closing words of his great speech. It was not so much a peroration as an appeal, a message, a benediction.
At first, when the Old Man sat down, the pause followed that speaks of emotion too deep for prompt expression, and then once again a rush to their feet by the Irishry and the Liberals, loud cheering, and the waving of hats, and all those other manifestations of vehement feeling which alone Mr. Gladstone is privileged to receive. The Tories had kept very quiet; had conducted themselves on the whole very well. Once or twice came a high sniff of disgust, and now and then a younger member could not restrain himself from an exclamation. But, altogether, the Opposition was under the same spell as the rest of the House, and listened patiently to the end.
[Sidenote: Mr. Sexton.]
I may pass over all that occurred on that Monday evening, with the single exception of the very remarkable speech of Mr. Sexton. It was well known that Mr. Sexton had taken a prominent part in laying before Mr. Gladstone and his colleagues the views of the Irish party as to what would constitute a satisfactory Bill to the Irish people; and Mr. Sexton was authorised by his colleagues to state their views to the House. This he did slowly, deliberately, without the least attempt at oratory, but in language extraordinarily lucid, delicately shaded, touching on points with exquisite art. And what he said came to this; that the Bill was a good Bill; that in his opinion it could be accepted by the Irish people as a satisfactory settlement of their demands; but that in two points it needed careful watching, and perhaps considerable amendment: the financial settlement and the future of the Land Question.
[Sidenote: Mr. Balfour.]
The Leader of the Opposition had not, so far, shone in his new position, and people were not slow in coming to the conclusion that he required the stimulus and the strength of a solid majority behind him to bring out his peculiar talents. At all events, his first speech following the introduction of the Home Rule Bill was a ghastly failure. It was listened to in almost unbroken silence from the beginning to the end—not that the speech had not plenty of cleverness in it, the small cleverness of small points—but it was badly delivered. It did not seem to rise to the heights expected on such an occasion; in short, it was a disappointment. Only once or twice did the Leader of the Opposition succeed in rousing his friends to even an approach to enthusiasm. Speaking of the amount of money put to the credit of Ireland, he declared the Government admitted they had been beaten in a conflict with the forces of law and order, and that this was the war indemnity which had to be paid—a hit that very much delighted Mr. Chamberlain. The portion of the speech which created sensation was that in which he alluded to the use of the veto. It had been contended by Mr. Sexton that the veto would never be used unless the Irish Parliament so abused its powers as to justify the use of it. This was an honourable bargain between the British Parliament and the Irish. To such a bargain Mr. Balfour declared he and his friends would be no parties. They would not let the weapon of veto rust in case it were put into their hands, and so on—a passage which excited some enthusiasm on the Tory benches and strong anger on the Irish.
[Sidenote: Mr. Bryce.]
The real framers of the Bill are understood to be Mr. Gladstone, Mr. Morley, and Mr. Bryce. No man in the House of Commons has so complete a knowledge as Mr. Bryce of the various forms of government in the world, especially in countries which have the complicated system that is about to be fashioned under the new Bill. Mr. Bryce is a professor and a student, and he has the manner of his calling and his pursuits. Arguing his case without passion, slowly, calmly, in excellently chosen language, he can speak on even the most violently contested measure as though it were a demonstration in anatomy. So he spoke on February 14th—making mince-meat with deadly tranquillity of manner of most of the objections of Mr. Balfour, and altogether strengthening the position of the Bill.
[Sidenote: Mr. Redmond.]
A speech which had been looked forward to with even greater curiosity was that of Mr. Redmond, the leader of the Parnellites. The Tories had settled themselves down in large numbers, counting on a great treat. And undoubtedly the opening of Mr. Redmond's speech was not auspicious. He thought that some recognition should have been given to the great dead Irishman as well as to the living Englishman who had brought the Home Rule question to its present position. The delighted Tories, not loving Mr. Parnell, but seeing in this the promise of a lively and unpleasant attack on the Bill, cheered lustily, and speeded Mr. Redmond on his way on the full tide of a splendid reception. But as time went on, their faces gradually grew longer, and when Mr. Redmond resumed his seat they had come to the conclusion that one of the strongest foundations on which they had built their hopes for wrecking the Bill had entirely gone. Summed up, what Mr. Redmond had to say came to this: that he saw many grave defects in the Bill; that he was especially dissatisfied with the financial arrangements; that he didn't approve of the retention of the Irish members in the Imperial Parliament; but that, nevertheless, it was a Bill to which he could give a general support. This speech was received with great though silent satisfaction on all the Irish benches; but the poor Tories were brought to a condition well nigh of despair. And thus, cheered heartily by both Irish sections and enthusiastically greeted by the Liberals, weakly fought, feebly criticised by the Opposition the Bill started splendidly on its perilous way.
A SOBER AND SUBDUED OPPOSITION.
I have always held that the present Government would first begin to fix its hold upon the country when it was face to face with Parliament. It was, during the vacation, like a great firm that is expected by everybody to do a vast amount of business, but that has been unduly and unexpectedly delayed in building its works. A visit to the House of Commons during the week ending February 24th would have exemplified what I say. It is true there would have been missed all the intense fury and excitement which characterised one of the most exciting and interesting weeks the House of Commons has seen for many a day. There was a calm, the deadliness of which it is impossible to exaggerate. But periods of calm are much more interesting to Governments than to the public. When there are the noise and tumult of battle; when the galleries are crowded—when peers jostle each other in the race for seats—when the Prince of Wales comes down to his place over the clock, then you may take it for granted that the business of the country is at a standstill; and that just so much of the public time is being wasted in mere emptiness and talk. But when the House is half empty—when the galleries are no longer full—when debates are brief and passionless, then you can reasonably conclude that things are going well with the Government; that useful business is in progress; and that something is being really added to the happiness of the nation.
[Sidenote: The humbled Opposition.]
So it was during the second week of the Home Rule Session. No great diplomats claimed their seats; the outer lobby was no longer besieged; there was no longer any ferocity of competition for seats; and the attendance at prayers visibly relaxed; but all the time more useful legislation was initiated in the course of the week than in any similar period for upwards of six or seven years of Parliamentary time. A good deal of the progress is due to the sober and subdued spirit of the Opposition. So long as Mr. Balfour was in power, the more democratic section of the Tory party was kept comparatively under; but with his fall came an outburst of freedom; and men like Sir Albert Rollit, who represent great constituencies, have been able to freely express their real opinions. Let me pause for a moment on Sir Albert Rollit, to say that he is a very remarkable type to those who have known the House of Commons for a number of years—as I have. It is rather hard to make a distinction between him and a moderate, and in some respects, even an advanced Liberal. He boasts, and rightly, that he represents as many working men as most of his Radical colleagues; and he certainly does sit for a place which is not inhabited by any large number of wealthy people. Disraeli, with his Household Suffrage; Lord Randolph Churchill, with his Tory Democracy, have brought this type of politician into existence, and now he is with us always. This is the answer to those who contend that because there will be always Tories and Whigs, it makes no difference what changes we make. The answer is Sir Albert Rollit; he is a Tory, but the Tory of to-day is pretty much the same as the Radical of a few years ago.
[Sidenote: The Registration Bill.]
The Government brought forward the first of their Bills, and at once the Tory Democrat showed what he was. For Mr. Fowler was able to quote opinions from Tories quite as favourable to reform of registration as from Radicals, and several Tories stood up to speak in favour of the measure. Opposition was really left to poor Mr. Webster, of St. Pancras; but, then, everybody knew what poor Mr. Webster meant, and nothing could better express the lowliness of the Tory party than that opposition to anything should be led by the hapless representative of St. Pancras. The consequence of all this was that the Registration Bill passed in the course of a few hours—the debate illumined by an excellent maiden speech from our John Burns—delivered in that fine, manly, deep voice of his—which always makes me think of a skipper on the hurricane deck in the midst of rolling seas and a crashing storm. Even a few briefer moments sufficed for the Scotch Registration Bill; and the House of Commons almost rubbed its eyes in astonishment to find that it had actually got through two great Bills and was about to listen to a third in the course of one evening.
[Sidenote: Employer's Liability.]
But so it was; and there verily stood Mr. Asquith at the box in front of the Speaker's chair introducing the third great Bill of the Government in the same evening. Mr. Asquith's grasp of Parliamentary method increases daily. He is really a born Parliamentarian. It is certain that he has made up his mind to go back to the bar when his time for retiring from office comes; it will be a tremendous pity if he does. Such a man is wasted before juries and in the pettiness of nisi prius. For the moment, however, he sails before the wind. With his youthful—almost boyish face—clean-shaven, fair and fresh—with his light brown hair carefully combed, school-boy fashion, and with no more trace of white than if he were playing football in a school gymnasium—he is a wonderful example of early and precocious political fortune. There is in his face a certain cheery cynicism—a combination of self-confidence and perhaps of self-mockery, the attitude of most clear-sighted men towards fortune, even when she is most smiling. At the outset Mr. Asquith had to encounter an amendment from Mr. Chamberlain. It is needless to say that, while the most Radical Government which ever existed is proposing Radical legislation, the cue of Mr. Chamberlain will be now and then to "go one better"—to use the American phrase; and accordingly here was an amendment from Birmingham which went even further than the Bill of Mr. Asquith. With gentle but effective ridicule Mr. Asquith, riddled the Chamberlain amendment; but for the moment the amendment served the purpose of delaying further progress with the Bill.
[Sidenote: Another surprise.]
And there was another surprise—actually a fourth Bill—also from the Government Bench; and also proposing to make a further beneficial change in the position of working men. Mr. Mundella wanted to get power for the Board of Trade to regulate the hours of labour among poor railway men. Sir Michael Hicks-Beach—who burnt his fingers over Stationmaster Hood—rushed up after Mr. Mundella had sate down—to claim a portion of the credit for this beneficial change. Here, again, the Opposition showed that meekness which has come over its temper. For six years the Tories were in office, but there was no Bill. The moment he was out, Sir Michael was full of the best intentions. But his attempt to get credit for other men's work was vain; for he counted without Mr. Bartley—the gentleman whom North Islington sends to Parliament for the purpose of impeding all useful legislation. And that Bill also was delayed.
[Sidenote: The government and private members.]
There is always something foredoomed about a night which ends in a count-out. You can almost feel its untimely end in the air at the very beginning of the sitting. There is always a great to-do about doing away with the privileges of the private member, but I have never really seen anything like a strong desire on the part of the House generally to keep the small quorum together which is necessary for giving the private member his opportunity. To the uninitiated, it is perhaps necessary to say that the sittings of the House are divided into two classes—what are called Government and what are called private members' nights. Government nights are Mondays and Thursdays. On these days, the Government is entirely master of the time of the House. They can bring on Government Bills and in whatever order they please. On Tuesdays and on Wednesdays the private member is master of the situation—that is to say, until the Government of the day get leave of the House to take all its time, and then the rights of private members disappear. On Fridays also the private member is in possession of most of the time of the sitting. That is the night on which the Government sets up Supply—that is to say, puts down the votes for the money required for the public service. It is a fundamental principle of the British Constitution that the demand for money involves the right to raise any grievance; and accordingly Supply on Friday night is always preceded by motions in reference to any subject which any member may desire to raise. These motions are put on the paper, but so inherent is the right to raise any grievance before giving money, that a member is entitled to get up, and without a moment's notice, raise any question which may appear to him desirable for discussion. As a rule, however, there is but one question fought out, and when that is decided the Government of the day is allowed to go on to the votes for money.
[Sidenote: Parliamentary Wednesdays.]
Wednesday is nearly always occupied with some Bill brought in by a private member, in which a large number of other members are interested. It used to be said that Wednesday was sacred to the churches and the chapels, and that only a religious debate could take place. This is still the case to a large extent; for instance, on Wednesday, February 22nd, they employed themselves at the House in discussing a Bill in which Dissenters are very much interested. Then, a division has to be taken at half-past five, and thus there is a good chance of a practical discussion with a practical result. The consequence is that Wednesday sittings are always looked forward to with a considerable interest, and it is always with a pang that the House gives up the right of the private member to them. A Wednesday sitting is rarely, if ever, counted out, and, indeed, I believe there is a rule which prevents them from being counted out before four o'clock, at which hour the late-comers find it possible to turn up. Friday sittings also rarely, if ever, end badly, for the Government is ever in want of money, and a Government has always forty staunch supporters who are ready to stay in the House in order to help it to get through its business. But Tuesday belongs to no man in particular. The Government don't bother themselves about it, because they don't have money to get at the end of it: instead of its being occupied with one Bill, which can raise a definite discussion, Tuesday has a number of motions on all sorts and kinds of subjects; and, in short, what's everybody's business is nobody's; and Tuesday constantly ends about eight or half-past eight o'clock in a count-out. The Government delightedly look on; it is an additional argument in favour of taking away the rights and privileges of private members and turning them into the voracious maw of the Government.
[Sidenote: Wales in a rage.]
A curious difference presented itself between the interior and the exterior of the House on the following day (February 23rd). Inside, there was for the most part a desert, yawning wide and drear, except on the benches which were occupied by the sons of Wales; while outside in the outer lobbies surged a wild, tumultuous, excited crowd, eagerly demanding admission from everybody who could be expected to have the least chance of giving it. Every Welshman in the world seemed to have got there. I saw Mr. Ellis Griffiths—an impassioned and brilliant Welsh orator who ought to be in the House; my friend, whom I used to know as Howell Williams, and I now have to call Mr. "Idris," as if he were an embodied mineral water, and many others. The secret was that the night was devoted to the Suspensory Bill for the Established Church in Wales, and anybody who knows Welshmen, will know that this is a question on which Welsh blood incontinently boils over. Terse, emphatic, business-like Mr. Asquith put the case for Disestablishment on the plain and simple ground that the Established Church was the church of the rich minority, and that the overwhelming majority of the Welsh representation had been returned over and over again to demand Disestablishment.
[Sidenote: The cynical Gorst.]
Sir John Gorst has an icy manner and generally the air of a man who has not found the world especially pleasant, and delights to take rather a pessimistic view of things. His great argument was that if this Bill were carried, young men would not find enough of coin to tempt them into the Church, and that accordingly it would languish and fade away. To such a prosaic view of the highest spiritual vocation, the unhappy Tories listened with ill-concealed vexation, and Gorst once more increased that distrust of his sincerity in Toryism which perhaps accounts for the small progress he has made in the ranks of his party.
[Sidenote: Randolph again.]
Throughout the night the debate languished, though there was an excellent speech from Mr. Stuart Rendel on behalf of the Welsh party. This was practically the only speech from that side; for perceiving that the game of the Tories was to talk against time, the Welshmen wisely declined to aid them, and sate dumb, unless when they snorted defiance at some absurd claim or fanciful exaggeration on the other side. At ten minutes past ten, however, quite a different complexion was given to the whole debate by the rise of Lord Randolph Churchill. He had not yet recovered his old mastery of himself or the House; but his appearance was very different from what it was a few nights earlier. There was no longer that constant trembling of the hands which made it almost painful to look at him; the voice did not shake painfully, and there was a certain recurrence of that old self-confidence. But still he was far from what he used to be. The once resonant voice was somewhat muffled and hoarse, accompanied by a certain tendency to feverish exaggeration of language—in fact, the old Fourth Party methods of almost conscious playing to the gallery. However, it was a good fighting speech, and the Tories had been so depressed by the bad speaking on their own side, and by the solid bench opposite of cheering, snorting, defiant, but distinctly practical Welshmen, that they were delighted, and cheered admiringly.
[Sidenote: Olympian wrath.]
The intimates of Mr. Gladstone declare that composure is perhaps the most remarkable of his many qualities. In the midst of a Cabinet crisis he would hand you a postage-stamp as though it were the sole matter that concerned him. But it is also said by his intimates that he has possibilities of Olympian wrath which almost frighten people. He was certainly roused to a passion by Lord Randolph—very much to the advantage and delight of the House of Commons; for during the earlier portion of the evening, and especially while the speech of Mr. Asquith was being delivered, there was an impression that he did not look very happy. It is known that he is still fondly devoted to the Church, and it was suspected that though his convictions were settled on the necessity of doing away with the Establishment in Wales, it was not the kind of work to which he went with any zest. But Lord Randolph roused the Old Lion within him, and with flashing eye, with a voice the resonance of which echoed through the House as though he were twenty years younger—with abundance of gesticulation, and sometimes with swinging blows that were almost cruel—he slew the young intruder and wound up the debate on the Church in a frenzy of excitement and delight among his followers.
[Sidenote: Mr. Kenyon.]
There came, then, a series of incidents which threw the House into convulsions of rancorous scorn and farcical laughter. Earlier in the evening there had been a speech by Mr. Kenyon. Words fail to describe the kind of speech Mr. Kenyon delivers. Sometimes one is doubtful as to the sex of the speaker, for he moans out his lamentations over "the dear old Church of England" exactly as one would imagine a sweet old lady with a gingham umbrella and a widow's cap to intone it. Meantime, the rest of the House is convulsed with laughter, so that there is the curious contrast of one man—Punch-like in complexion and face—reciting a dirge while the rest of the House are holding their universal sides with laughter. The anger came when Sir Henry James and Mr. T.W. Russell were seen to be fluctuating between the Liberal and the Tory lobby. Joe wisely found a convenient engagement at Birmingham. At last Toryism prevailed, and amid a tempest of ironical cheers, the Liberal renegades went into the Tory lobby.
Then the Tories were beaten by a majority of 56, after which they tried a little obstruction. But it was promptly sat upon; the closure was moved; only the solitary and plaintive voice of Mr. Kenyon rose in protest against it, and so, amid shouts of laughter and triumph, the doom of the Welsh Establishment was pronounced.
THE PERSONAL ELEMENT.
[Sidenote: Small jealousies and great questions.]
It is one of the delights of Parliamentary life that you can never be sure of what is going to take place. The strongest of all possible Governments may be threatened, and even destroyed, in the course of a sunny afternoon, which has begun in gaiety and brightest hope; a reputation may grow or be destroyed in an hour; and an intrigue may burst upon the assembly in a moment, which has been slowly germinating for many weeks. Mr. Gladstone had a notice upon the paper on Monday, February 27th, the effect of which was to demand for the Government most of the time which ordinarily belongs to the private member. There is no notice which has more hidden or treacherous depths and cross-currents. For when you interfere with the private member, you suddenly come in collision with a vast number of personal vanities, and when you touch anything in the shape of personal vanity in politics you have got into a hornet's nest, the multitudinousness, the pettiness, the malignity, the unexpectedness of which you can never appreciate. I sometimes gaze upon the House of Commons in a certain semi-detached spirit, and I ask myself if there be any place in the whole world where you can see so much of the mean as well as of the loftiest passions of human nature as in a legislative assembly. Look at these men sitting on the same bench and members of the same party—perhaps even with exactly the same great purpose to carry out in public policy, and neither really in the least dishonest nor insincere. They are talking in the most amicable manner, they pass with all in the world—including themselves—for bosom friends; and yet at a certain moment—in a given situation—they would stab each other in the back without compunction or hesitation, to gain a step in the race for distinction.
[Sidenote: The dearest foes.]
Between two other men there intervenes not the space of even a seat; they are cheek by jowl, and touching each other's coat-tails; and yet there yawns between them a gulf of deadly and almost murderous hate which not years, nor forgiveness, nor recollections of past comradeship will ever bridge over. And look at the House as a whole, and what do you see but a number of fierce ambitions, hatreds, and antipathies, natural and acquired—the play of the worst and the deadliest passions of the human heart? Above all things, be assured that there is scarcely one in all this assembly whose natural stock of vanity—that dreadful heritage we all have—has not been maximised and sharpened by the glare, the applause, the collisions and frictions of public life. I have heard it said that even the manliest fellow, who has become an actor, is liable to be filled to a bursting gorge with hatred of the pretty woman who may snatch from him a round of applause; and assuredly every nature is liable to be soured, inflamed, and degraded by those appearances before the gallery of the public meeting, the watchful voters, the echoing Press, and all the other agencies that create and register public fame.
[Sidenote: Blighted hopes.]
Think of all this, and then imagine what a Prime Minister does who proposes a scheme which will deprive some dozens of men of an opportunity of public attention for which they have been panting and working perchance for years. Recollect, furthermore, that the private member may be interested in his proposal with the fanaticism of the faddist—the relentless purpose of the philanthropist, the vehement ardour of the reformer. Then you can understand something of the danger which Mr. Gladstone had to face. For his motion came to this, that every member—except one—who had a resolution on the paper which he desired to bring before the House had to be either silenced altogether or pushed into a horrid and ghastly hour when either he would not be listened to by a dozen members, or would perhaps be guillotined out of a hearing by the count out. Let me further explain, for I wish to make the whole scene intelligible to every reader. Tuesdays and Fridays belong to private members as well as Wednesdays, and on Tuesdays and Fridays accordingly private members bring forward motions on some subjects in which they are especially interested. In order to get these Tuesdays and Fridays, they have to ballot—so keen is the competition for the place—and if a member be lucky enough to be first called in the ballot, he gives notice of his motion, and for the Tuesday or the Friday the best part of the sitting is as much his as if it belonged to the Government.
[Sidenote: Salaried Members—Railway Rates—Bimetallism.]
Now several members are interested in the question of payment of members, and for Tuesday, March 21st, or some such day, there was a motion down for payment of members. Dr. Hunter is interested in the new railway rates, and for Tuesday, March 14th, he had a motion down in reference to railway rates. Finally, several members are interested in bimetallism, and for Tuesday, February 28th, a motion on this subject was designed. What, then, Mr. Gladstone proposed meant that Dr. Hunter could not propose his motion of railway rates; that the member interested in payment of members could not propose his motion; that the motion on bimetallism could not be proposed; in short, that these gentlemen, and their motions and their time, should be swallowed up by the voracious maw of the Government. This description will suffice to bring before the mind of any reader the difficulty and danger of the situation.
[Sidenote: Disappointed Office-seekers.]
I tread on somewhat delicate ground when I tell the story of the manner in which some members of the Liberal party utilised this situation. It is no secret that there are in this, as in every House of Commons, a number of gentlemen who do not think that their services have been sufficiently appreciated by the Minister to whom the unhappy task was given of selecting his colleagues in office. This is the case with every Government, and with every House of Commons—with every party and with every Ministry. You do not think that the favourite of fortune whom you envy has reached a period of undisturbed happiness when he sits on the Treasury Bench—even when he speaks amid a triumphant chorus of cheers, or drives through long lines of enthusiastically cheering crowds. He has to fight for his life every moment of its existence. He is climbing not a secure ladder on solid earth, but up a glacier with slipping steps, the abyss beneath, the avalanche above—watchful enemies all round—even among the guides he ought to be able to trust. Do you suppose that every member of the Liberal party loves Mr. Asquith, and is delighted when he displays his great talents? Do you think that none of the gentlemen below the gangway do not believe that in their mute and inglorious breasts, there are no streams of eloquence more copious and resistless? No, my friend, take this as an axiom of political careers, that you hold your life as long as you are able to kill anybody who tries to kill you, and not one hour longer.
[Sidenote: Powerful malcontents.]
It will be seen at once that a party of malcontents is especially powerful in a Parliament which has in hand the greatest task of our time, and which on the other side has a majority which revolt of even a small number can at any moment turn into a dishonoured and impotent minority. Such being the material, a nice little plot was concocted by which a certain number of young members, full of all that vague distrust of existing ministries which belongs to ardent young Radicalism, were to be induced to give a vote against Mr. Gladstone's proposal to take away the time of private members. And it is reported that one member of the Liberal party had begun operations as many as four weeks before Mr. Gladstone's Bill came on, and had tried to extort a number of pledges, the full meaning of which would only come upon the unhappy people who made them when they had endangered or destroyed the best of modern Ministries.
[Sidenote: The out-manoeuvred Tories.]
I think I have now said enough to explain what I am going to relate. Mr. Gladstone explained his proposal; which briefly was, that in order to get on with Home Rule it was necessary to take the time of private members. As will have been seen, the meaning of this would have been to have swept away at once all the private motions in which members were interested. When the motion came to be discussed, there was a very curious phenomenon. Everybody had been reading in the morning papers the chorus of disapproval in which the Tory press had been denouncing the leadership of the Tory party, liberals had been repeating to each other with delight the verdict of the chief Tory organ—the Standard newspaper—that the Tory party had been out-manoeuvred and beaten at every point in the struggle, and that the portentous promises of the recess had been utterly baffled by the superior judgment, the better concerted tactics, and, above all, by the unexpected solidity and cohesion of the Liberal party.