Following his electoral defeat in 1874, Gladstone resigned the Liberal leadership and, in his sixties, hoped to spend the rest of his life in retirement. The Balkan Massacres of 1876 drew him back to politics in protest at what he saw as Disraeli’s (Lord Beaconsfield’s) cynical reaction and his own party’s supine response.
His anger at Conservative financial and foreign policies were the driving forces in the Midlothian campaign.
In 1878 Gladstone indicated his intention to retire from his Greenwich seat, sparking off a competition to offer him a new constituency. He chose Midlothian (the county seat surrounding Edinburgh) as a Conservative seat which with effort and enthusiasm could be won. In late 1879 he travelled north to meet his prospective new constituents, not with a single speech but with a whole campaign planned in advance to denounce the faults and failings of Disraeli’s years in power. If Gladstone’s speeches supplied the effort, it was met with an enthusiasm only found nowadays for pop groups. At the end of the campaign, Gladstone calculated his total audience to have been 86,930. When the general election came in April 1880 he won not only Midlothian but a second premiership.
The following speech was delivered by Gladstone at the Foresters Hall in Dalkieth on Novmber 26th 1879.
He had already spoken for an hour and a half to a crowd he variously estimated at 3000-3500. Then as he wrote in his diary, (after tea at Provost Mitchell’s and scores of introductions) to a Ladies meeting, with committees also, where presents were given to C. & I spoke again to some 750 people. The introduction to the speech contains the Victorian vices of class and gender sentimentality, but when he moves to the heart of his assault on colonial wars his humanitarianism and tolerance for other races shines through.
W E Gladstone: Foresters Hall, Dalkieth November 26th 1879
The right hon. gentleman proceeded from his speech at the Corn Exchange, after a short interval of rest spent at the house of Provost Mitchell, to the Foresters Hall, where a presentation was made to Mrs. Gladstone.
Mr. Gladstone, in acknowledging the gift, said:
Provost Mitchell, Mr. Tod, Ladies and Gentlemen, I rise to perform the duty of returning thanks on behalf of my wife and myself, at the same time that I feel that I can really add very little by expatiating upon the subject to the simple words that she has used, and which express a sentiment that comes with perfect sincerity from the very root of her feelings and of my own. You referred, sir, to the relations, the family relations in which I have had the happiness to stand; to the inestimable blessing not through my deserving that has been permitted me through a long life, for these family relations have been the source of unequalled and unfailing consolations, without a break, without a shadow, without a doubt, without a change.
I would, Mr. Tod, as far as I may presume to do so, venture so far to re-echo the words of that eloquent and beautiful eulogy, which I must in justice say to you, you have so admirably pronounced, even if its terms be warmer than a strict justice would warrant towards us who have been the subjects of the eulogy. Well, sir, you have spoken to me on a subject which always commands and stirs my feelings-the subject of Scotland. It is but two days since I re-entered it; and how many tokens, how unquestionable proofs, have I had presented to me at every turn of every road, at every hour of each of these days, and at every moment of each hour, that I am come back not only to the land of beautiful natural characteristics, not only to the Land of brown heath and shaggy wood, Land of the mountain and the flood – but I come back to that which is better still, to the land which has a prerogative, to describe which I will borrow the terms used in a higher sense by one of the latest, and certainly not the least, of your writers of beautiful songs I mean Lady Nairne. I hope Scotland may always itself deserve to be called, down to the latest posterity, The land of the leal. And, sir, with regard to the special occasion which has brought us here to-night, I understand it to be your wish that I should use some words addressed to the particular share that ladies, and that women, may be thought to have in the crisis of to-day. I use the expression women with greater satisfaction than the former one which I uttered, the name of ladies; because it is to them, not only in virtue of a particular station, not only by reason of their possessing a greater portion of the goods of life than may have been granted to the humbler classes of society, that I appeal. I appeal to them in virtue of the common nature which runs through us all. And I am very glad, sir, that you have introduced to us with a special notice the factory girls of the place, who on this occasion have been desirous to testify their kindly feelings. I hope you will convey to them the assurance that their particular act is not forgotten, and that the gift they offer is accepted with as lively thankfulness and as profound gratification as the most splendid offering that could be tendered by the noblest in the land.
Peace, Retrenchment, Reform
I speak to you, ladies, as women; and I do think and feel that the present political crisis has to do not only with human interests at large, but especially with those interests which are most appropriate, and ought to be most dear, to you. The harder, and sterner, and drier lessons of politics are little to your taste. You do not concern yourselves with abstract propositions. It is that side of politics, which is associated with the heart of man, that I must call your side of politics. When I look at the inscription which faces me on yonder gallery, I see the words Peace, Retrenchment, and Reform. All of these words, ladies, are connected with the promotion of human happiness; and what some would call the desert of this world, and of the political world in particular, would be an arid desert indeed if we could not hope that our labours are addressed to the increase of human happiness; that we try to diminish the sin and the sorrow in the world, to do something to reduce its grievous and overwhelming mass, to alleviate a little the burden of life for some, to take out of the way of struggling excellence those impediments at least which the folly or the graver offence of man has offered as obstacles in his progress. These are the hopes that cheer, that ought to cheer, the human heart amidst the labours and struggles of public life.
Of all these words-peace, retrenchment, and reform the one word upon which I will say a few more special words on this occasion is the word peace. Is this, ladies, a time of peace? Cast your eyes abroad over the world. Think what has taken place in the last three or four years. Think of the events which have deluged many a hill and many a valley with blood; and think, with regret and pain, of the share, not which you individually, but which your country collectively has had in that grievous operation.
Offered Their Naked Bodies To The Artillery
If we cast our eyes to South Africa, what do we behold? That a nation whom we term savages have in defence of their own land offered their naked bodies to the terribly improved artillery and arms of modern European science, and have been mowed down by hundreds and by thousands, having committed no offence; but having, with rude and ignorant courage, done what were for them, and done faithfully and bravely what were for them, the duties of patriotism. You may talk of glory, you may offer rewards and you are right to give rewards to the gallantry of your soldiers, who, I think, are entitled not only to our admiration for courage, but to our compassion for the nature of the duties they have been called to perform. But the grief and the pain none the less remain.
If They Resisted, Would Not You Have Done The Same?
Go from South Africa to the mountains of Central Asia. Go into the lofty hills of Afghanistan, as they were last winter, and what do we there see? I fear a yet sadder sight than was to be seen in the land of the Zulus. It is true that with respect to the operations of the war in Afghanistan you have seen none but official accounts, or hardly any but official accounts; and many of the facts belonging to that war have not been brought under the general notice of the British public. I think that a great misfortune. I know that it may be necessary and wise under certain circumstances to restrain what might be the injudicious and exaggerated, and therefore the dangerous communications that might proceed from irresponsible persons. At the same time, I deeply regret that we were not more fully informed of the proceedings of the war in Afghanistan, especially as we must bear in mind that our army is composed in great Part of a soldiery not British, and not under Christian obligations and restraints.
What we know is this, that our gallant troops have been called upon to ascend to an elevation of many thousand feet, and to operate in the winter months I am going back to a period of nine or twelve months amidst the snows of winter. We know that that was done for the most part not strictly in the territory of Afghanistan proper, but in its border lands, inhabited by hill tribes who enjoy more or less of political independence, and do not own a regular allegiance to the Afghan ruler. You have seen during last winter from time to time that from such and such a village attacks had been made upon the British forces, and that in consequence the village had been burned. Have you ever reflected on the meaning of these words? Do not suppose that I am pronouncing a censure, for I am not, either upon the military commanders or upon those who acted subject to their orders. But I am trying to point out the responsibility of the terrible consequences that follow upon such operations. Those hill tribes had committed no real offence against us. We, in the pursuit of our political objects, chose to establish military positions in their country. If they resisted, would not you have done the same? And when, going forth from their villages they had resisted, what you find is this, that those who went forth were slain, and that the village was burned. Again I say, have you considered the meaning of these words? The meaning of the burning of the village is, that the women and the children were driven forth to perish in the snows of winter. Is not that a terrible supposition? Is not that a fact for such, I fear, it must be reckoned to be which does appeal to your hearts as women, which does lay a special hold and make a special claim upon your interest, which does rouse in you a sentiment of horror and grief, to think that the name of England, under no political necessity, but for a war as frivolous as ever was waged in the history of man, should be associated with consequences such as these?
Cruel And A Grinding Oppression
I have carried you from South Africa to Central Asia. I carry you from Central Asia to Eastern Europe. And in the history of Eastern Europe in the last few years do you not again feel that this is no matter of dry political argument. That there was a wider theatre upon which for many generations a cruel and a grinding oppression, not resting upon superior civilisation, not upon superior knowledge, but a domination of mere force, had crushed down to the earth races who, four or five hundred years ago, greatly excelled our own forefathers in civilisation had crushed these races to the earth, had abated in them the manhood and the nobler qualities that belong to freedom had ground these qualities, it appeared, in some cases almost out of their composition had succeeded in impressing upon them some of the features of slaves and in addition to this, when from time to time the impulses of humanity would not be repressed, and an effort was made by any of these people to secure to themselves their long-lost liberties, these efforts had been put down with a cruelty incredible and unequalled, almost and perhaps entirely unequalled in the annals of mankind; and not only with that cruelty, but with a development of other horrors in the treatment of men, women, and children, which even decency does not permit me to describe? I will not dwell further on these matters than to say that I think in all these scenes, if peace be our motto, we must feel that a strong appeal is made to you as women-to you specially, and to whatever there is in men that associates itself with what is best and most peculiar in you.
The Same Pernicious Fanaticism
Ladies, I am not here before you as one of those who have ever professed to believe that the state which society has reached permits us to make a vow of universal peace, and of renouncing, in all cases, the alternative of war. But I am here to say that a long experience of life leads me, not towards any abstract doctrine upon the subject, but to a deeper and deeper conviction of the enormous mischiefs of war, even under the best and most favourable circumstances, and of the mischiefs indescribable and the guilt unredeemed of causeless and unnecessary wars. Look back over the pages of history; consider the feelings, with which we now regard wars that our forefathers in their time supported with the same pernicious fanaticism, of which we have had some developments in this country within the last three years. Consider, for example, that the American War, now condemned by 999 out of every 1000 persons in this country, was a war which for years was enthusiastically supported by the mass of the population. And then see how powerful and deadly are the fascinations of passion and of pride; and, if it be true that the errors of former times ale recorded for our instruction, in order that we may avoid their repetition, then I beg and entreat you, be on your guard against these deadly fascinations; do not suffer appeals to national pride to blind you to the dictates of justice.
Not Limited By The Shores Of This Island
Remember the rights of the savage, as we call him. Remember that the happiness of his humble home, remember that the sanctity of life in the hill villages of Afghanistan among the winter snows, is as inviolable in the eye of Almighty God as can be your own. Remember that He who has united you together as human beings in the same flesh and blood, has bound you by the law of mutual love; that that mutual love is not limited by the shores of this island, is not limited by the boundaries of Christian civilisation; that it passes over the whole surface of the earth, and embraces the meanest along with the greatest in its unmeasured scope. And, therefore, I think that in appealing to you ungrudgingly to open your own feelings, and bear your own part in a political crisis like this, we are making no inappropriate demand, but are beseeching you to fulfil a duty which belongs to you, which, so far from involving any departure from your character as women, is associated with the fulfilment of that character, and the performance of its duties; the neglect of which would in future times be to you a source of pain and just mortification, and the fulfilment of which will serve to gild your own future years with sweet remembrances, and to warrant you in hoping that, each in your own place and sphere, you have raised your voice for justice, and have striven to mitigate the sorrows and misfortunes of mankind.
A vote of thanks was, on the motion of Mr. Tod, by acclamation accorded to Mr. Gladstone, who then left the town, passing down rows of torch-bearers drawn up to illuminate the streets in his honour