Billeder på siden




[ocr errors]


will be interesting in the pre

juncture, to take a rapid glance at the successive administrations of the present long reign, and those critical parliamentary divisions which have determined the fate of ministers and the character of our public policy. Mr. Disraeli has not waited for a parliamentary vote before resigning. It was manifest that he was to be checkmated, and he has preferred, without going through the dull processes of defeat, to toss up the chessmen and begin another fresh game. Nothing of the kind has ever happened before in the reign, and it is said that Mr. Disraeli has been sinning against the highest etiquette. But Mr. Disraeli is one of those who make etiquette rather than those for whom etiquette is made. He has followed his own bold originality in preferring abdication to expulsion, and in ignoring the last premier by advising the Queen to send at once for the right honourable member for Greenwich.

When her gracious Majesty came to the throne, a generation ago, there existed a variety of political conditions strongly akin to those that now exist, or which may be expected to arise. There had been some years before a Reform Bill passed, the result of which had been to give the Whigs a tremendous majority, a majority counted by hundreds, and almost to annihilate the Tory, or Conservative party. That majority, however, gradually grew less and less, and after the dissolution of parliament, consequent on the demise of the king, it hardly amounted to a dozen votes. This was a majority perilously small. Under the old system, when the third George was king, if the majority had not some five or six times exceeded this, any Ministry, except under very exceptional circumstances, would have resigned. When the Queen came to the throne, her Majesty unconsciously furnished


Lord Melbourne and his ministry with a large amount of political capital. The young Queen, hitherto brought up in strict seclusion, was now brought into sudden intimacy with many of the most brilliant and distinguished men in the country, readily giving them her fullest confidence and favour, and enlisting all her sympathies on their side against their political opponents. The Whigs surrounded the youthful sovereign with ladies of her chamber and court who were altogether devoted to their interests, and thus Her Majesty was made to appear in the unpopular light of a partisan. The Queen herself, in the Life of the Prince Consort,' has alluded to the perilous position in which she found herself placed. There were not wanting many persons at the time who protested against the real unkindness which placed the Queen in so unfair a position. Since that time she has fully mastered the theory of the Constitution, and is a most impartial arbitress amid the conflict of parties. The practical results of Lord Melbourne's personal policy towards the sovereign soon became apparent in the famous Bedchamber Plot. Those who fell into what Baron Bunsen speaks of as the mistake of supposing that the sovereign has no power, should see how the will of a young girl was able to thwart the almost absolute power of a statesman with a real majority of parliament and the nation at his back. The parliamentary division which produced the first ministerial crisis of the reign was on the vexed Jamaica question. This left the ministry in a minority of five. In consequence of this they resigned, and Sir Robert Peel was sent for to form an administration. It is said that almost accidentally Sir Robert Peel, on referring to the Blue Book, found how entirely the Queen was surrounded by ladies of a political character. He conceived that while this was the case he could not be


said to possess that entire confidence of her Majesty which he considered necessary for the stability of his ministry. Her Majesty declined to take the course he suggested, and which she declared to be repugnant to her feelings. A good deal of misapprehension existed on the subject of those ladies of the bedchamber. It was imagined that the Queen was called upon to part with the beloved companions of her youth, whereas those ladies had hardly been in office above a twelvemonth. Neither did Sir Robert desire to make a general revolution in the domestic department of the palace, for he only desired two alterations in that department.

This was especially the era of critical parliamentary divisions. At no other period during the reign were these divisions so close, so frequent, and so exciting. The real power lay with the Opposition. They could check, and they could almost carry any measure that they chose. The majority in the upper house was altogether with them. In the lower house they were only nominally in a minority, a minority which any day might be converted into a majority. The sympathies of the Crown were supposed to be with ministers, but this hardly helped them in the popular estimation. Still, on the resignation of Mr. Abercrombie, the Whigs carried the appointment of Mr. Shaw Lefevre as the new Speaker, in opposition to Mr. Goulburn, who was supported by Sir Robert and his friends. The Tories afterwards abundantly acquiesced in the great merits of this appointment. The following year the subject of the Queen's marriage came before the House of Commons. The ministry proposed to settle fifty thousand a-year on the Prince. Colonel Sibthorp, famous for proposing utterly abortive motions, proposed that the grant should be reduced to thirty thousand a-year. To his huge delight Sir Robert Peel supported him. At first sight it certainly looked as if Sir Robert Peel was resenting the slight passed upon him in the previous year and making his power felt in a very practical way. But Sir Robert

[merged small][merged small][merged small][ocr errors][merged small]

Although the majority was so great, more than a hundred, it was not considered decisive against the ministry, inasmuch as it was chiefly effected by the support of the large Radical section who sought to reduce the national expenditure as far as possible. Before long the Ministry retrieved their position by a favourable division. Sir John Yarde Buller brought forward his motion of want of confidence. On this occasion Mr. Macaulay made his first speech in the house after his return from India, and becoming a cabinet minister. The close parliamentary divisions of the period were of the most exciting nature, and had a truly dramatic interest. On this occasion the numbers were:

[merged small][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][merged small][merged small][merged small][ocr errors][ocr errors][merged small][merged small][ocr errors][ocr errors][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small]

election. It was known that the Melbourne Ministry were in a hopeless minority, but it did not occur to them to resign until an adverse vote was challenged and accepted from the house.

With a critical majority of ninety in favour of Peel, the era of close parliamentary divisions was closed for some years. Sir Robert was at the head of a strong Government, the strongest that had for many years been known. He had his difficulties; he had that special difficulty of Ireland, that rock a-heal on which he made shipwreck at last; and the Opposition repeatedly measured its strength against him. But it cannot be said that there was a single division which in any degree imperilled his tenure of power. It was now known that his relations with the Queen and the Prince were of the most cordial description. His own party felt some dissatisfaction with him, and there was a section of them which would have preferred the leadership of Lord Lyndhurst. The Young England party, with its Coryphæus, Mr. Disraeli, looked upon him with dislike and suspicion. But the Minister maintained a position of unassailable strength. The augmentation of the Maynooth Grant shook his popularity, but here he was sure of the assistance of the bulk of the Liberals. Finally the convictions, slowly and painfully arrived at by Sir Robert, brought to an issue by the Irish famine, determined him to propose the repeal of the Corn Laws. It was, perhaps, unfortunate for his fame, that he remained in office to carry those measures which he had resisted in opposition. It was the story of the Catholic claims repeated over again. There was now an utter separation between the Conservative leaders and their rank and file. There was no doubt but Sir Robert, with the assistance of the Whigs, would triumphantly be able to carry the Repeal of the Corn Laws. Still there were memorable debates, in which Mr. Disraeli exhausted every weapon of scathing irony against the Premier, Sir Robert Peel. Perhaps he learned to regret that through ill advice he had neglected

Mr. Disraeli's claims for office, and he could little have foreseen in him a future Prime Minister. There can be no doubt but Sir Robert's course was dictated by motives of the purest patriotism. But that course was so tortuous, that he left behind him only a chequered and ambiguous fame. It cannot be said that the papers published by his executors, Lord Stanhope and Mr. Cardwell, have effectually cleared his name. With the amplest sympathy and allowance for him, he still remains a political enigma.

From that time to this the Conservative party have never recovered that proud position of political predominance to which they had attained during the premiership of Sir Robert. A memorable division on the protection of life on the Irish Coercion Bill, in which Protectionists and Whigs coalesced, placed him in a minority of seventy-three, and ejected him from office. During the remaining years of his life, Sir Robert gave an effectual support to the Whigs. It seemed, indeed, not improbable, on one occasion, that he might yet effect a reconciliation with his former friends. This was on the debate on Lord Palmerston's foreign policy, a debate famous for three great speeches: the speech of Lord Palmerston, which was his greatest parliamentary effort; the grand speech of Mr. Cockburn, which virtually made him Chief Justice; and the speech of Sir Robert Peel, once more drawing near to his old friends, and made in the unconscious, imminent shadow of approaching death. He died; and for weary years the betrayed Conservative party, slowly electing its generals and disciplining its rank and file, continued in gallant ineffectual opposition, never able to make head directly against the Government, but with the chance of profiting by occasional combination with disaffected elements of that great Liberal party which, like the Matterhorn, is always undergoing a process of disintegration.

The critical divisions of late years have been pretty uniformly effected by a junction of the Conservatives with some portion of the Liberal host. The Whigs had so far im

proved their position, that on the great party fight when Sir Robert Peel made his last speech, they had a majority of forty-six. In 1851 there was a ministerial crisis. At the beginning of the session, Mr. Disraeli was only left in a minority of fourteen in his motion on the relief of agricultural distress. Afterwards came Mr. Locke King's motion for equalizing the franchise in counties and boroughs, when the Government was defeated in a thin House of only a hundred and fifty members, and forthwith resigned. Lord Derby on this occasion found no Peelites willing to co-operate with the Protectionists, and he acknowledged that an adequate Cabinet could not be made from his friends, who were almost entirely destitute of any necessary official experience. The progress of events has subsequently taken away that reproach, if such it were. The Whig Government was then reinstated; but, with the fatality that attends it, they were left in a minority on an income-tax question, by Mr. Disraeli combining with a section of Radicals. Government prevented a crisis by acquiescing in the views of the majority. It was well understood, however, that it was in that progressive state of debility that no long continuance could be expected for it.

Next year an opportunity, for the first time, came to the new Conservative party of obtaining political power. Lord Palmerston had been somewhat curtly dismissed by the Premier, for writing important despatches without the concurrence of the Cabinet and the Queen. In retaliation Lord Palmerston proposed an amendment on the Militia Bill, and this being carried, Lord John Russell resigned. Lord Derby was sent for, and on this occasion he resolved that he would not shrink from the responsibility of forming a Ministry. In the words put in the mouth of the meanest criminal, but not unworthy of the First Minister of the Crown, "I elect to be tried by God and my country." The new Ministry, though unfledged in office, got through their work with great administrative ability; but it was

answered that they had only brought forward the measures which they found ready made in the Whig pigeon-holes. In due course they dissolved; but the General Election, though it improved their position, was very far from placing them in a majority. Under these circumstances their speedy ejection from office was only a matter of time. They were forced into the humiliating position of accepting a vote of the utter renunciation of the Protectionist doctrines. It was, however, on the Budget that they went out. The Peelites and the old Whigs definitively coalesced against the Ministers. Mr. Disraeli made his memorable declaration, that England does not love coalitions. Mr. Gladstone denied that his opposition was factious: he opposed the Budget because he thought it was a bad Budget, and fraught with mischieVous consequences. The rival speeches of the two statesmen afforded the finest possible example of an oratorical duel. The great combination of the two parties was then formed, under the premiership of the Earl of Aberdeen, whom both Palmerston and Lord John were willing to serve under, peculiarly rich in administrative talent, through its singular combination of the best men in the two parties which had been opposed in the earlier years of the reign.

So we come to the year 1855. That year proved the truth of Mr. Disraeli's assertion, that England does not love coalitions. The powerful Government of Lord Aberdeen, the Administration of All the Talents, came to an abrupt close. The evil days of the Crimean war, when our fleets and armies were rotting and perishing through the neglect and mismanagement of the home authorities, aroused a passion of sorrow and indignation through the country. Lord Russell, with his usual tricky insincerity, shook still more the falling Ministry through his selfish resignation. Mr. Roebuck's motion for a commission of inquiry, hardly critical, since it was well known how enormous a preponderance of numbers was on one side, was carried by about two to

one. In consequence of this Lord Derby was commissioned by the Queen to form a ministry. He would willingly have done so if he could have procured the assistance of Lord Palmerston and some of the Peelites. At first Lord Palmerston, who had served so many varying Administrations with a persistency worthy of the Vicar of Bray, was perfectly ready to serve under Lord Derby, and Mr. Disraeli professed his willingness to yield to him the leadership of the House of Commons. Suddenly, however, Lord Palmerston changed his mind. He probably perceived that the splendid prize of political power, after so many years, had slowly and surely ripened to his grasp. He would not coalesce with Lord Derby, neither would Mr. Gladstone or Mr. Sidney Herbert; and so Lord Palmerston became Premier.

This popular and prosperous statesman had some trouble in getting out of breakers into the open sea beyond. The shuffling of the political cards had again made Lord John Russell a Cabinet Minister, content to serve where he had formerly ruled. The publication of the Nesselrode circular, which showed that the English Minister for War was altogether opposed to war, awoke a storm of indignation; and Lord Russell by resignation prevented his ejection. The Peelite section of the Ministry resigned in consequence of the Sebastopol inquiry. It might have been thought that every element of instability belonged to Lord Palmerston's Government; but it became the most popular which the country had known for many years. It was always gratefully remembered by the nation, that at the time of the supreme Crimean difficulty, when the nation seemed deserted by its chiefs, Lord Palmerston had come to the helm and borne on the vessel of the State to victory and to peace. It became a question of amusing and interesting speculation whether the isolated Peelites would throw in their political lot with their old Tory allies, estranged by a quarrel so bitter and so prolonged, or whether they would again be ab

sorbed within the Liberal ranks. It seemed not improbable that the former would be the case. In the session of 1857, the events in China, in reference to the lorcha called the 'Arrow,' occasioned a combination that was at first successful against the popular Premier. He had with him, indeed, a majority of the House of Lords, a strong proof that he was practically regarded as a Conservative. Mr. Cobden, in pursuance of his peace principles, moved a vote of censure. Lord John was ready enough to embarrass his successful rival. The Conservatives of course availed themselves of this portentous party move. The Peelite section joined them. Lord Palmerston promptly dissolved. The unfriendly Peelites and Radicals were more than decimated, Lord Palmerston was enthusiastically supported throughout the country. His majority was enormous, his power almost autocratic. It almost seemed that we had established a Perpetual Dictator.

But among the lessons taught us concerning the vanity of human things, we may also be taught to put no trust in overwhelming parliamentary majorities. Lord Palmerston, confident in his great position and the national support, seemed to lose for a time his mental balance, and conducted himself with great arrogance towards individual members of the House. There generally exists towards a Minister a double current of feeling: the feeling of the nation that knows the Minister at a distance and in print, and the feeling of members who are brought into a close personal relation with him. The personal offence taken by the House was soon aggravated by the offence taken by the nation, because it was thought that he had submitted to French dictation in proposing an alteration of our law, and had not answered Count Walewski's despatch in a becoming manner. The Government was evicted by a majority of ninety, and we passed into a new phase of government by a minority. It was thought that the Conservatives only held their places at pleasure, and that whenever the Liberals might com

« ForrigeFortsæt »