The Liberals won the 1880 election by a greater margin than anticipated, gaining 112 seats and, despite the strength of the Irish nationalist party, a majority of over 50 against all other parties. Despite significant achievements including the 1884 Reform Act the 1880-1885 Gladstonian administration has not been celebrated in the same way as its Liberal predecessor. Most commentary, coloured by hindsight of the schism in the party in 1886, has focussed on its difficulties.
Gladstone did not seek to pursue a positive personal programme for government but, as outlined in his Midlothian speeches, to purge the country of the consequences of Disraeli’s period in power – essentially a negative objective that created frustrating quarrelsome cabinet meetings.
In addition, Gladstone’s age and hopes for retirement deceived his colleagues into premature jostling for the succession. The principal protagonists were Lord Hartington for the moderate Liberals and Joseph Chamberlain for the Radicals. This personal competition for leadership amplified their ideological differences threatening to split the party apart.
Parliamentary constraints arose from the advent of new leaders of the opposition. In leading the Irish nationalist party, Parnell combined mastery of parliamentary obstruction with exploitation of agrarian discontents to promote Irish issues above all other business. On Lord Beaconsfield’s death in 1881, Lord Salisbury secured the Tory leadership but, in the Commons, Sir Stafford Northcote was too moderate to lead effectively. The consequent indiscipline of Lord Randolph Churchill and a small ginger group distracted both Northcote and the Liberal government. House of Commons procedures relied on the self-restraint of honourable gentlemen, a weakness that Churchill and Parnell fully exploited, finding in Charles Bradlaugh a case almost heaven sent to embarrass Gladstone.
Bradlaugh was an atheist elected as MP for Northampton in 1880, who asked to affirm rather than swear an oath on entering the House. Refused this option, he was repeatedly expelled and re-elected. In 1883, the Government introduced an Affirmations Bill. Hearing the High Church Gladstone argue the case for permitting unbelievers to be legislators in a Christian nation and still lose the bill by three votes delighted the opposition. (Eventually, in 1886, Bradlaugh quietly took the oath.)
The government’s first year was its most productive with the first Employers’ Liability Act providing compensation for employees injured at work and Mundella’s education act making primary education compulsory and establishing truancy officers to enforce attendance. The Burials Act of the same year satisfied a long-standing non-conformist grievance. A Ground Game Act and the abolition of the Malt Tax provided some relief from the agricultural depression.
The government was particularly efficient in extending electoral reform. The 1883 Corrupt and Illegal Practices Act imposed strict limits on campaign spending, largely outlawed paid canvassing and introduced tougher penalties for bribery, changing the culture of Victorian elections. The 1884 Representation of the People Act was the first to treat all parts of the United Kingdom equally. It lowered the county franchise to the level of the boroughs, increasing the electorate by two thirds in England and Wales, by three quarters in Scotland and tripling the Irish electorate. The Tory majority in the House of Lords obstructed the bill until Gladstone, Charles Dilke and Salisbury, negotiated a redistribution bill. The resulting move to single member seats eliminated the cosy division of multi-member constituencies equally between the parties or between factions within Liberalism. The smallest boroughs were abolished to augment the number of constituencies in the principal cities and the counties. Subsequent analysis suggests that Salisbury got the better of the bargain.
The agricultural depression had a greater impact in Ireland than Britain and famine was feared, when lower grain prices combined with a drop in potato production. As landlords tightened rent collection and consolidated holdings through eviction, tenants offered retaliatory violence, a regular feature of rural Ireland. But after 1879 two differences were evident. Firstly, Michael Davitt, a former Fenian, efficiently organised the protesting tenants and secondly Parnell, combining parliamentary leadership with presidency of the Irish National Land League, effectively exploited Irish grievances in the Commons.
Britain traditionally dealt with Irish problems by temporarily suspending normal legal procedures to allow violent protesters to be locked up when local juries refused to convict – ‘Coercion’. After order was restored ameliorative measures were offered.
In 1880, the government allowed these Coercion powers to lapse but its proposed Compensation for Disturbance Bill to help small tenants was overwhelmingly defeated in the Lords, sparking a further rise in Irish violence. Prosecution of Parnell and his chief lieutenants failed at the beginning of 1881 and Forster, Chief Secretary for Ireland, sponsored tough new legislation, which was met by interminable filibustering in the Commons. Ultimately the Speaker peremptorily curtailed the obstruction, Commons procedures were overhauled and Grand Committees were introduced to cover English, Scottish and Irish legislation. Parnell was imprisoned in Kilmainham jail.
In conciliation, Gladstone initiated further land reform to settle Irish demands for fixity of tenure, freedom of sale and fair rent. The act, which passed in August 1881, undermined the Land League’s intimidation by offering a legitimate method of securing rent reductions. For both political and personal reasons, Parnell was anxious to secure his release and, under the so called ‘Kilmainham Treaty’, agreed to co-operate with implementation of the Land Act in return for further legislation to protect tenants with rent arrears from eviction. Parnell reduced the rural direct action campaign and converted the Land League into the National League to campaign for Home Rule.
The Land Act cost Gladstone the services of the Duke of Argyll, who resented the interference in property rights, and the Kilmainham Treaty provoked the resignation of both Forster and Lord Carlisle, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Forster’s replacement, Lord Frederick Cavendish, Hartington’s brother and married to Mrs Gladstone’s niece, was assassinated almost immediately on his arrival in Dublin. The shock did not deter the government from implementing the arrears act but damaged English attitudes to Ireland and broke a link between Gladstone and Hartington.
The government’s record on foreign and colonial affairs did not always match Gladstone’s Midlothian ideals. The Afghan war soon faded but tension with Russia on India’s northwest frontier remained until resolved by the arbitration that followed the Pendjeh incident in 1885.
Despite early setbacks, the British quickly defeated the Zulus only to initiate a prolonged struggle with the Boers for dominance in Southern Africa. In spite of himself, Gladstone had added to Britain’s territorial responsibilities and worse followed at the other end of Africa.
European efforts to enforce the repayment of Egyptian loans provoked a nationalist revolt led by Arabi Pasha. In 1882, provoked by disorder and Arabi’s fortification of the city, a British fleet bombarded Alexandria, occasioning John Bright’s resignation from the cabinet.
A British army occupied Egypt in a short term policing action but remained until the break up of empire after the Second World War. Occupation of Egypt brought responsibility for the Sudan where in November 1883, the Mahdi destroyed an Anglo-Egyptian army under Hicks Pasha. General Gordon, sent to evacuate the remaining British forces, stayed in disobedience to his orders and was besieged in the Khartoum. The government prevaricated and only authorised a relief column when faced by Hartington’s threatened resignation; the force arrived at Khartoum in February 1885, two days after the garrison had fallen.
The cabinet’s divisions on Egypt compounded its disagreements over preparation for the general election. The rural bias of the new electorate favoured the Home Rulers in Ireland but offered scope for new Liberal policies elsewhere in Britain. Seizing the opportunity, Chamberlain published The Radical Programme in 1885, arguing that the disestablishment and disendowment of the Anglican Church would fund free education. He proposed graduated income tax and elected county councils with powers to create allotments for agricultural labourers – popularised under the slogan ‘Three Acres and a Cow’. Urban municipal authorities would be encouraged to undertake slum clearance. In cabinet, Chamberlain proposed an elected central board based in Dublin to provide Irish local government, which he mistakenly believed would satisfy demands for Home Rule. Hartington opposed both Chamberlain’s British and his Irish ideas while the prime minister rebuked Chamberlain’s provocative speeches expounding the Radical Programme and his departure from joint cabinet responsibility.
In June 1885, shortly after the government had seen the reform and the redistribution acts onto the statute book, it suffered a defeat on the budget and resigned. Lord Salisbury formed a minority Conservative government allowing Liberal forces time to re-group. The convenient defeat absolved Liberals from renewing the coercion legislation, it gave breathing space for the resolution of cabinet conflicts and allowed Chamberlain to campaign free of ministerial responsibility. Gladstone gained an opportunity to consider and justify his continued leadership of the party at the age of 75.
Tony Little is a pension fund manager and has been a student of Victorian politics for more than thirty years. He is Chairman of the Liberal History Group.