Monday, May 7, 2007

Home Rule - 2

By-elections during these years drained away Liberal MP’s. By the early 1885 vote of censure for the Gordon catastrophe at Khartoum, the Liberals survived by just fourteen votes. Then Parnell decided to throw his 37 votes to Churchill. They pulled the plug on Gladstone in June.

The Queen invited the head of the Conservative Party, Lord Salisbury, to kiss hands and form the new government. Salisbury invited Lord Randolf into the cabinet to head the India Office. Randolf refused unless the Leader of the House of Commons was moved out of it. The Queen had already had one run in with Randolf. “With due consideration to Lord R., do not think he should be allowed to dictate entirely his own terms, especially as he has never held office before.”

But by this time Salisbury needed him too much. The House of Commons Leader was removed to the House of Lords and Randolf entered the government.Then he annexed Burma.

With Parliament and the country so bitterly divided, there had to be an election. Parnell instructed the Irish in Britain to vote Conservative. Gladstone and the Liberals fought back and won.

In this election the Irish vote in Ireland swung decisively away from the Liberal candidates and towards Parnell. He even won a borough in Protestant Ulster. This presented a permanent shift in voting habits on the Irish Island.

The election deepened the deep fissures in British society. In Britain, Parnell’s support turned out to be the kiss of death. In Parliament it had become indispensable. The issue was tearing at the country and especially at the Liberal Party. This was Gladstone’s dilemma.

By January 1886 Gladstone decided to tackle it once and for all. He concluded more reforms would not be enough. The size of the vote as well as the history of Britain’s relations with the Irish demonstrated that. He decided to go all the way with Parnell on Home Rule for Ireland.

Liberal opinion was badly split. Joseph Chamberlain and other powerful leaders saw Home Rule as the beginning of the end of the British Empire.

The Grand Old Man moved the first reading of the Home Rule Bill on April 8, 1886. He was 77 years old. His speech lasted for 2 ½ hours. In both terms of quality and content it was one the great performances of history.

Lord Randolf practically declared civil war. “Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right!”

The debate was the high point of the Europe’s Imperial Age. To Gladstone it was about human rights. To his opponents it was about the goodness of the British Empire. Chamberlain and the other Liberal leaders as well as the Liberal rank and file deserted in droves.

In the final vote, Gladstone lost 311 to 341. Of his 311 votes, 84 came from Parnell’s Irish. Gladstone had got the Irish Party but his own party had broken in two. Could the Conservatives do any better?
Excerpt from a book in progress. Churchill Stories. (from Chapter 1.)