The Conservatives were temporarily demoralized. After Disraeli’s death in April 1881 they divided the leadership between Sir Stafford Northcote in the Commons, and the Tory intellectual, Lord Salisbury, in the Lords. Salisbury was much the more impressive personality, though his impetuosity led Gladstone to call him ‘Prince Rupert’. As early as 1882 he had coined the phrase ‘Villa Toryism’ to describe the new Conservative supporters, and in the years of opposition he played an important role in the long process of transforming the Conservatives from the party of the landed interest to the party of property in general. The quasi-medieval Primrose League, founded in 1883, became the largest political body in the country.
The early months of Gladstone’s second premiership were wasted on the affair of Charles Bradlaugh, a Liberal MP for Northamptonshire, who between 1880 and 1886 was not allowed to take his seat because he refused to take the parliamentary oath.
The whole affair allowed a group of younger Tory MPs to practise their debating skills and their opportunism. They soon became known as the ‘Fourth Party’ and their leader was Lord Randolph Churchill. In 1884 he and Salisbury came to an agreement by which Salisbury became, in effect, the sole leader of the Conservatives.
The increasing ‘democratization’ of political life in the 1870s had led to a growing recognition that the Second Reform Act contained indefensible anomalies. The great towns and cities still lacked their rightful number of MPs and the small boroughs were heavily over-represented. The anomalies relating to the franchise were even more absurd. Since the vote in 1867 had been granted only to urban householders, industrial workers living outside the borough boundaries (such as miners) did not have the vote while farm labourers living in boroughs possessed it.
The contribution of the National Liberal Federation to Gladstone’s victory meant that not only was its founder, Joseph Chamberlain, MP for Birmingham since 1876, rewarded with a seat in the cabinet, but that the government was committed at least in principle to some measure of parliamentary reform. By 1883 Chamberlain’s patience could no longer be contained. The government passed three major reforming measures:
1. The Corrupt Practices Act (1883) restricted treating at elections.Following these reforms the United Kingdom electorate increased from 2.53 million in 1871 to 5.68 million at the end of 1884. By 1891 61% of adult males had the vote.
2. The Third Reform Bill was introduced in February 1884. essentially created a uniform householder and lodger franchise based on that introduced for the English boroughs in 1867. An amendment to give women the vote was defeated 271/135. The bill was initially blocked in the Lords but Salisbury eventually agreed to let it go through provided it was accompanied by a redistribution measure.
3. The Redistribution Act (1885) engineered the most extensive reform of the constituencies since 1832. The majority of seats were now single-member and of roughly equal size though the largest cities received between three and six new MPs apiece. Because this disaggregated city constituencies into smaller units, many of them suburban, the Conservatives were the main beneficiaries. Salisbury’s predictions about ‘villa Toryism’ proved correct.
Gladstone had been elected on a largely anti-imperialist platform and it is one of history's ironies that under his premiership the Empire expanded significantly. One of his government's most controversial actions was the bombardment of Alexandria in 1882.
At the beginning of the 1880s Egypt was a largely Turkish province whose strategic importance had been greatly increased by the completion of the French-inspired and French-financed Suez Canal in 1869. French predominance was somewhat redressed by Disraeli’s raid on the Suez Canal company, but this coup had been strongly opposed by Gladstone who had condemned it as a showy and dangerous example of ‘Beaconsfieldism’. In 1879 Khedive Ismail was deposed at the instigation of various European powers and replaced by his docile son, Tawfiq. At the same time the Egyptian finances were put under the so-called Dual Control of Britain of officials from Britain and France.
For all Gladstone’s anti-imperialist rhetoric, it was difficult to avoid entanglement in Egypt. Not only did it occupy a strategic position, but it had an enormous national debt which consumed two thirds of its revenue and was financed by bonds among the propertied classes of Vienna, Paris, and London. Gladstone had intensive holdings in Egypt, though neither he nor anyone else saw a conflict of interest. How times change!
But Egypt was vulnerable to charismatic opponents of European interference. In 1881 and 1882 coups were staged by a Nasser-like figure, Colonel Urabi Pasha (the name is variously transliterated) whose core message was ‘Egypt for the Egyptians’. In May 1882 British and French naval forces arrived off Alexandria to protect their respective ‘interests’. On 11 June an anti-Western riot in the town left 50 Europeans dead and another 60 injured, including the British consul. Urabi then began to fortify the harbour at Alexandria, event though a British fleet was lying off-shore.
Gladstone believed that Urabi had to be stopped. His preference was for a ‘Concert of Europe’ intervention, but this was blocked by Bismarck. The French were reluctant to get involved and their fleet simply steamed away from Alexandria. Most of Gladstone’s cabinet were firm for action.
On 11 July under the command of Admiral Seymour British naval guns pounded the Alexandria waterfront for ten and a half hours after which 40,000 men were landed under Sir Garnet Wolseley. There were not vast casualties, though substantial death and destruction took place in rioting when Urabi left the city. On the same day Gladstone made a statement in the Commons and was torn apart for his inconsistency by Arthur Balfour. The action caused John Bright to resign from the cabinet. He said in private that it was
simply damnable - worse than anything ever perpetrated by Dizzy.By the end of July the government was geared to a land expedition to back up the bombardment. 15,000 men were sent from England and another thousand from India under the command of Wolseley (the costs met by raising income tax from 5d to 8d for half the current financial year).
The expedition was a quick action. Urabi declared a jihad but on 13 September his army was defeated at Tel-el-Kebir, 59 miles north-east of Cairo. British casualties were under 450. Urabi was captured, tried, made to plead guilty and then exiled to Ceylon. It was a spectacular exhibition of British supremacy. On hearing of his capture Gladstone ordered church bells to be rung and the guns to be fired in the London parks to mark the triumph. He welcomed the troops home with obvious enthusiasm. As Roy Jenkins says in his biography of Gladstone,
Within two months, only half by intention, Britain had put a lid on Egyptian nationalism, which was to be kept down for more or less seventy years, extruded French political and military ... influence, and assumed responsibility for the most prosperous and sophisticated country in Africa.But the Khedive remained the nominal ruler, and Britain refused to accept permanent responsibility for Egypt. In September Major Evelyn Baring was knighted and sent out to Egypt as British agent and consul-general. As Lord Cromer, he remained in Egypt for 23 years – though the occupation was meant to be temporary.
Britain’s actions had huge significance. France felt itself out-manoeuvred and the way was prepared for the Franco-Russian alliance of the early 1890s.
Gordon and the Sudan
Occupation of Egypt (temporary or otherwise) opened up the question of what was to be done about the Sudan, whose order was the responsibility for the Khedive, acting for the Sultan. In the Sudan Egypt’s authority had been challenged by a religious uprising led by a militant leader, Mohamed Ahmed, the Mahdi, a former slave trader and an Egyptian official. He had been declared a ‘False Prophet’ by orthodox Islamists, and the Khedive was determined to put him down. He sent an army of 10,000 Egyptian troops under a British commander, William Hicks (‘Hicks Pasha’), to achieve it. In retrospect the British government should have vetoed this.
In November 1883 just as the Cabinet was preparing the further reduction of its Egyptian garrison, the army was ambushed and Hicks killed. Most of the Sudan was now in the Mahdi’s hands. In January the government decided that the Sudan had to be evacuated, but a great difficulty arose over the scattered Egyptian garrisons, especially the ones centred round Khartoum.
British public opinion was outraged and edgy. A head of steam built up, led by W. T. Stead’s Pall Mall Gazette, to send out Major-General Charles Gordon, then in semi-retirement in order to carry out the policy of supervising the British evacuation - in spite of the fact that in both the Pall Mall Gazette and The Times Gordon had publicly opposed the policy. He was also a messianic, unstable character.
In January 1884 Gordon was appointed. He set off from Charing Cross (the foreign secretary had to buy his ticket) and arrived at Khartoum in February and formulated a plan to commission Zobeir Pasha, a former slave-trader, as governor-general of the Sudan to hold Khartoum and the Nile valley against the Mahdi.
In May the Mahdists advanced and Gordon was cut off at Khartoum. For a while the government did nothing - Gladstone was immersed in the details of the Third Reform Bill - and it was only in August that a relief force under Wolseley was despatched to the Sudan. They did not reach Khartoum until 28 January 1885. Gordon had been killed two days earlier after a siege of 320 days. His body was never found. News of his death reached England on 5 February.
[Even though El Mahdi died shortly after the fall of Khartoum, his Mahdist Islamic regime survived until 1889 when the Anglo-Egyptian forces under Kitchner captured Khartoum, regained control and proclaimed a British-Egyptian condominium dominated mainly by British policies. The British presence would last until 1956 when Sudan got its independence.]
Gladstone had viewed Gordon as an insubordinate general and a religious fanatic, and he was unable to grasp his hold on the popular imagination. When he heard the news he was in north Lancashire. Gladstone was furiously denounced by Opposition MPs. At Carnforth Junction, on his way down to London, he received a telegram en clair from the Queen, which was promptly leaked to the press. When Gladstone was seen at the theatre, he was promptly dubbed by the Tories as heartless. The popularity of the government declined steeply and Gladstone acquired the nickname ‘Murderer of Gordon’. A vote of censure in the Commons was defeated by only 14 votes.
By this time Gladstone's government was in deep trouble, not merely because of Gordon but also because of problems in Ireland (of which more later) and internal divisions between aristocratic Whigs like Hartington and Radicals like Joseph Chamberlain.
The fall of the government
By 1885 Gladstone’s government was battered. It was torn by internal tensions between Joseph Chamberlain who resented the inattention to social reform and by the Whigs who detested the Irish policy. (There will be a subsequent post on Ireland.) The Gordon affair administered the final blow.
In the spring of 1885 the Cabinet began to quarrel once more over whether or not to renew the Coercion Act of 1882. Chamberlain and his fellow Radical, Sir Charles Dilke wanted coercion dropped and a system of elected county councils in Ireland. Almost all the Whigs in the cabinet opposed the plan. In May Chamberlain and and Dilke resigned.
On 8 June the ‘Ministry of all the Troubles’ was defeated by 12 votes over the budget - largely as a result of heavy (76) Liberal abstentions. The new electoral registers were not yet ready, so there could be no general election for months to come. Gladstone resigned and Lord Salisbury became Prime Minister for the first time, at the head of a minority Conservative administration.