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Mr. Gladstone's formal abdication of Opposition leadership-Public opinion on the
subject-Lord Hartington succeeds him-Meeting of the Liberals—Prince Leopold's illness-Opening of Parliament—Tipperary election-Death of Mitchel -Election of Dr. Kenealy for Stoke-upon-Trent-General character of Government Legislation—Dr. Kenealy-Prittlewell petition, &c.—Irish Peace Preservation Act-Question of Privilege--Mr. Sullivan and Mr. Lopes-Honduras Loan case—“Espial of strangers ”–Regimental Exchanges Bill-Army and Navy estimates, Budget—Sinking Fund-Mr. Gladstone and Sir Stafford NorthcoteAbsence of Ecclesiastical legislation.
The close of the year 1874 left the Leader of the Liberal opposition absorbed in the mazes of theological polemics. Mr. Gladstone's attendance in the House of Commons had through the late session been fitful and uncertain ; in fact, at its commencement, when he first abdicated the office of Prime Minister, he had given ample warning to his followers that his continuancé at the head of one of the two great political armies of the State must be a matter for himself to determine at any time on grounds personal to himself.
Nevertheless, it was with something of surprise as well as, to the Liberal party, of consternation, that about three weeks before the meeting of Parliament the following announcement, in a letter from Mr. Gladstone to Lord Granville, was read in the public journals:
“11, Carlton House Terrace, S.W., Jan. 13. “ MY DEAR GRANVILLE,—The time has, I think, arrived when I ought to revert to the subject of the letter which I addressed to you on March 12.
“ Before determining whether I should offer to assume a charge which might extend over a length of time, I have reviewed, with all the care in my power, a number of considerations, both public and private, of which a portion, and these not by any means insignificant, were not in existence at the date of that letter.
“ The result has been that I see no public advantage in my continuing to act as the leader of the Liberal party ; and that, at the age of sixty-five, and after forty-two years of a laborious public life, I think myself entitled to retire on the present opportunity. This retirement is dictated to me by my personal views as to the best method of spending the closing years of my life.
“ I need hardly say that my conduct in Parliament will continue to be governed by the principles on which I have heretofore acted; and, whatever arrangements may be made for the treatment of general business and for the advantage or convenience of the Liberal party, they will have my cordial support. I should, perhaps, add that I am at present, and mean for a short time to be, engaged on a special matter, which occupies me closely. « Believe me always sincerely yours,
“ W. E. GLADSTONE.” Various were the sentences passed upon this step by the organs of national opinion. The Times maintained that Mr. Gladstone's formal retirement from the Liberal leadership would give the Opposition a position of greater stability than that which it had held during the previous session, for that now his late colleagues, who would have to bear the responsibility of its acts, must be accepted as the authorised exponents of its policy. The Standard, the chief Conservative organ, asserted that Mr. Gladstone's retirement was certainly a misfortune to the country, and a disaster to the Liberal cause, and that the choice of his successor was a matter which did not concern the Liberals alone ; that the inconvenience of a state of things like that which prevailed during the last session, when under ordinary circumstances the Opposition was without a chief, and there was no one who could undertake to arrange on their behalf the course of debate, or the conduct of public business, was intolerable; and that it was simply a matter of necessity, that a body numbering 250 or 300 members of the House of Commons should select a leader and representative whose utterances it would accept as the expression of its collective purposes, whose engagements it would respect, by whose decision it would abide.
“ The personal effect of Mr. Gladstone's withdrawal from the Liberal leadership,” said the Daily News, “will be great and striking. The House of Commons will be a different House without his habitual presence. It is not to be wondered at if people receive with incredulous surprise the announcement of a change so difficult to realise in the mind at a moment's notice.”
Another journal declared that in one sense Mr. Gladstone was perfectly free to choose; that no one had a right to say that a man of sixty-five, who had passed forty-two years in active parliamentary life, was not at liberty to spend the closing years of his existence as he wished. “He, too, has his claims, and he may claim that he shall approach the solemn hour of death in the mode which to him seems most fitting. He has his own notions of the duties of each individual man to himself and to his Master, and he wants to carry them out. The time must in any case have come when the Liberal party would have to get on without Mr. Gladstone. The main duty of the Liberals, as they themselves own, will for some time be to watch the Bills of the Conservatives; and this duty is not one that seems to impose so awful a tax on human powers that Liberals need despair of finding some one capable of adequately fulfilling it.”
Another, again, announced it to be a stupendous misfortune that while still young, as years are counted in English politics, in the fullest vigour of health, with his brain teeming with capacities, with an army of followers ready at his back, Mr. Gladstone should retire from the service of the country which ởwed to him more than to any man now living, and at least as much as to any Premier in her constitutional record.
Marked by especial discrimination and feeling was the tribute given to his merits by his late colleague in the ministry, Mr. Forster, in a speech at the Bradford Chamber of Commerce :
Although all of you and almost every man who takes part in politics knows what Mr. Gladstone's career has been, and knows what he is as regards power and eloquence, yet it is only those who have been brought into close personal contact with him who know what an example he has set in the absolute sincerity, the absolute want of selfishness or self-seeking in the principles and the manner in which he has conducted political life. It is difficult for any one who has not been brought into close contact with him, and seen him under occasions of difficulty such as those in which a colleague has seen him-occasions, I must say, not only of difficulty, but even of temptation—it is difficult for any one who has not been in that position thoroughly to realize what an example of purity, of self-sacrifice, and of disinterestedness he has set to politicians throughout the country, and to what an extent he, as far as he has acted, has raised the tone of political life. I think we should find, however much we may differ from him, and however much we may have expressed that difference—I think we should find that every one according to his power of knowledge recognized that fact
. I have only one word to add, and I think it is not unfitting to mention even in this business assembly, that although he has thought proper, from motives personal to himself, which are sufficient for himself and affecting his own personal life, to withdraw from the active leadership of one of the great parties in the State, yet I do not for one agree
that that implies that he will withdraw from party or political life. I am sure that, as men of business—as members of a chamber of commerce—we should be the last persons to desire that. He has many claims upon the gratitude of his fellowcountrymen for the services he has done them, and although perhaps not one of the greatest of those claims, yet a very great claim, is what he has done for commerce and men of business by his advocacy of the true principles of trade, and by his introduction of principles of finance which have had the effect of making the taxes less onerous upon
individuals than they ever had been before. It certainly is not for me to view with anything but with fear and alarm the thought that he could withdraw his talents and his power entirely from political or parliamentary life. I am sure you will join me in the hope and trust that this will not be the case."
But as it was a settled decree that the eloquent and energetic commander of the Liberal party was to lead its ranks no longer, it became necessary to fix on a substitute. Unfortunately the greater light bad so completely outshone the minor luminaries of its surrounding heavens, that the choice was a difficult one. It was tacitly understood, indeed, that Lord Granville in the Upper House was to hold the chief authority over the party. In the Lower House three among the members of the late Cabinet were named as most eligible for leadership, the Marquis of Hartington, eldest son of the Duke of Devonshire, Mr. Forster, and Mr. Goschen. It was a question on which the choice would rest.
A meeting of the Liberal members was appointed at the Reform Club for the 3rd of February. Two days before it took place Mr. Forster wrote a letter declining the candidature, inasmuch as he felt he could not reckon upon that general support without which he could not fulfil the duties of leader. This cleared one difficulty out of the way; and when Mr. Charles Villiers proposed the Marquis of Hartington, and Mr. Samuel Morley seconded the proposition, it was evident that no divider counsels would ensue.
“Lord Hartington,” said Mr. Villiers, “ has been before the public and the House of Commons for the last sixteen or seventeen years. We have seen him filling subordinate offices, and also filling the highest offices in the State. He has been Chief Secretary for Ireland, he has presided over the Post Office, and he has been Under-Secretary for War. We also have seen him-at least, I have seen him-presiding over committees of great public importance; and I am certain I but speak the truth when I say that on all those occasions he has displayed a good feeling, a good sense, a tact and a judgment that fairly entitle him to the confidence of the party. I will not for an instant believe that any prejudice can be fairly raised against the Marquis of Hartington merely from the circumstance of his family connections, seeing that his family happens to be associated with the great principles
which we have professed in our party for at least two centuries. I therefore propose him to your acceptance without any further remarks, and I believe sincerely that he will do honour to our choice.”
Lord Frederick Cavendish responded for his brother; and Mr. Bright, who was chairman of the meeting, passed a warm and hearty eulogium on the new leader of the Liberal forces.
It had been intimated that the Queen was on the present occasion intending to break her customary habits of seclusion, and to open the session of Parliament in person. A domestic trial, however, occurred to prevent her from carrying out any such design. Her youngest son, Prince Leopold, was taken dangerously ill of typhoid fever during the Christmas vacation, which he was passing at Osborne. It was supposed that Oxford was in an unsatisfactory sanitary state, and that the noxious poison had been introduced into the Prince's system before he quitted his abode at the University. Of a very delicate constitution, subject to alarming attacks of illness from his birth, and unable to join in any of the active pursuits which brace and animate the ordinary class of young men, the assault of the fearful enemy which had brought his father to the grave, and his elder brother to its very brink, seemed at first to leave no hope open for the slight stripling whose life at best was a constant invalidism. For many days the nation anticipated a fatal bulletin ; absent members of the family were sent for to the sick bed; the Queen's heart sickened at the sorrow which seemed to stare her in the face. But the blow was happily averted. When Parliament met, on the 6th of February, the special telegrams had ceased to be issued. Still the situation was such as to prevent the Queen from making the exertion which before her son's illness the public had been led to expect from her, and the delivery of the speech was committed to the Lord Chancellor. It ran thus:
“ My Lords and Gentlemen, “ It is with great satisfaction that I again meet you and resort to the advice and assistance of my Parliament.
“ I continue to receive assurances of friendship from all foreign Powers. The peace of Europe has remained, and I trust will remain, unbroken. To preserve and consolidate it will ever be a main object of my endeavours.
“ The Conference held at Brussels on the laws and usages of war has concluded its sittings. My Government have carefully examined the reports of its proceedings; but, bearing in mind, on the one hand, the importance of the principles involved, and, on the other, the widely divergent opinions which were there expressed, and the improbability of their being reconciled, I have not thought it right to accede to proposals which have been made for further negotiations on the subject. The correspondence which has passed will be presented to you.
“The Government of Spain, presided over by Marshal Serrano, has ceased to exist, and the Prince of Asturias has been called to