In November 1885 the Irish Nationalist leader, Charles Stewart Parnell proposed an independent constitution for Ireland and although the Liberal leader, William Gladstone, believed in the necessity of Home Rule by this time, he was also convinced that he needed further time to persuade his Party of this.
This he hoped to achieve by securing a large Liberal majority at the next election. In the subsequent contest that was held from 24th November to 18th December, the issue of Ireland was therefore largely ignored by the Liberals. Gladstone realised that his plans for Ireland would have to remain undisclosed for even longer, after he failed to secure the Liberal majority he desired for. Instead, the Irish nationalists were left holding the balance of power within the new Parliament, with the pledge that they would support the creation of any government that was prepared to introduce a Home Rule Bill. Recognising the controversial nature of the Irish issue, Gladstone decided that it would be far better to stand aside and let a Conservative administration wrestle with the issue. Sadly, attempts by Gladstone’s son to help advance sympathy for the Irish cause would reveal his father’s true intentions for Ireland and tear apart the Liberal Party over the issue of Home Rule, just as its leader had hoped to avoid.
On the 16th December 1885, Herbert Gladstone decided that he would help his father to drum up Liberal support for Irish Home Rule by briefing the press that his father was contemplating a plan for the creation of an Irish Parliament. Leaving the family home at Hawarden, Herbert visited Davison Rodgers, a journalist for the Liberal paper, the Leeds Mercury. Unfortunately, the story was also leaked to the Standard, a national Conservative paper, which ran an expose on the 17th December claiming that Gladstone was attempting to foist his Irish plan onto the British public.
The event became known as the Hawarden Kite and caused uproar within the Liberal Party, prompting a sharp rebuttal from William Gladstone, who repudiated the irresponsible speculations which appeared in the press. A number of Whig notables including Hartington, Goschen and Harcourt were particularly vexed on hearing of Gladstone’s plans for Ireland and despite their leader’s protestations, they remained unconvinced that he was not responsible for the revelations. Furthermore, the timing of the reports made it appear as if the Liberal leader was seeking to gain Irish support, as part of an opportunistic bid for office.
Writing to his leader, an irate Hartington explained:
My chief difficulty is this how to reconcile the advice which you give that we should not commit ourselves with the position that has been created by the rumours of which you complain, which, though perhaps inaccurate, appear to be not very far from the truth.
The Party was clearly furious at having been put in such an awkward position so soon after the General Election. Chamberlain warned that a decision to hold a further election on the issue would destroy the Liberals altogether and Randolph Churchill indicated that he would not hesitate to agitate Ulster even to resistance beyond constitutional limits if Home Rule were introduced.
As Whig notables began announcing their formal opposition to the policy, rumours began circulating about the possibility of a Whig-Tory coalition. Nonetheless, on the 27th January 1886 Gladstone seized the opportunity to defeat the Tory Government on an amendment to the address and had formed his own administration within days. Yet his decision to pursue Home Rule, despite opposition from his colleagues, essentially tore the Liberals apart. The 18 Whigs who had voted against Gladstone’s motion withdrew from the Party to form the Liberal Unionist group under Hartington’s leadership and John Bright, who had been amongst the 76 Liberals who had abstained on the vote, refused to join Gladstone’s government. Even Radicals such as Chamberlain and Trevelyan, who had both accepted Cabinet posts, resigned within months, in response to Gladstone’s dogged determination to pursue his Irish policy at all costs. In the summer of 1886 almost a third of Liberal MPs voted against Gladstone’s first Home Rule bill and his government dramatically fell from power, only to be replaced by a Conservative administration that was backed by his own former colleagues.
Thus, Herbert Gladstone’s ill-timed blunder had prematurely raised the issue of Home Rule and set in motion a chain of events that had changed the character of the Liberal Party forever and which would allow the Conservatives to dominate British politics over the next twenty years.