Tuesday, 20 November 2007

The Midlothian campaign

The troubles in South Asia and South Africa contributed to the government’s run of troubles. Domestically, unemployment was rising and the municipal elections had gone badly. A Farmers’ Alliance, formed in July 1879 began to put up candidates at by-elections demanding government assistance and a return to protection.

Disraeli also faced a resurgent Gladstone, even though Hartington, the heir of the duke of Devonshire, was the nominal leader of the Liberals. Hartington had disagreed with Gladstone’s policy on the Ottoman Empire, believing that, though Disraeli was wrong to offer unconditional support to Turkey, it was a mistake to encourage Balkan nationalism.

Gladstone, who was also unhappy with his Greenwich constituency, became convinced that it was right to accept an invitation from the marginal (and small) Conservative seat of Midlothian. After a survey revealed that the Liberals would almost certainly win the seat, he had announced his candidature in January 1879 and his determination to smash ‘Beaconsfieldism’ which he saw as an amoral programme of profligate expenditure and an unjust foreign policy..

In November 1879 he arrived in Scotland and began a fortnight’s ceaseless campaigning in Midlothian and the surrounding districts (24 November to 8 December). He progressed by train from Liverpool to Edinburgh with intermediate station speeches at Carlisle, Hawick, and Galashiels. The first week was devoted to strict Midlothian campaigning - nine speeches of which five were major orations - the second week to campaigning in other Scottish towns and cities.

What was novel about Gladstone’s actions was the delivery of a large number of connected speeches over a short period. The news agencies, freed from high charges by the Telegraph Act (1868) meant that his speeches were widely and speedily reported in four or five columns. Yet above all it was Gladstone’s physical presence that gave his speeches their electrifying effect. Enthusiasts came from all over Scotland to hear them. In Waverly Market, people who fainted were handed out over the heads. His message was simple: ‘Beaconsfieldism’ was rotten in every respect. His attacks focused above all on foreign affairs and finance. The most morally powerful speech was about Afghanistan:
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.
In March 1880 Disraeli, buoyed up by some by-election successes, announced the dissolution of Parliament. A week later, Gladstone journed to Edinburgh from London and was greeted by thousands at all the major stations of the east coast route. He then delivered a second round of speeches. His victory was declared on 7 April

The return of Gladstone
The final result was a Liberal increase from 243 to 351 seats, and a Conservative loss from 352 to 239. Especially noteworthy was the Liberal gain of 38 county seats in England and Scotland. Disraeli blamed the result on ‘six bad harvest in succession’.

Hartington, who had just been returned for North-East Lancashire, was in a difficult position because Gladstone stated that the unexpectedly decisive Liberal majority called for ‘skilled and strong hands’. The Queen wanted anyone but Gladstone to be Prime Minister. She wrote to her Secretary, Ponsonby:
She will sooner abdicate than send for that half-mad fire-brand who wd ruin everything & be a Dictator. Others but herself may submit to his democratic rule but not the Queen.
But Hartington knew he would be in an impossible position as Prime Minister, with Gladstone on the back benches. When Hartington was summoned to Windsor he recommended that Gladstone be sent for. Victoria reluctantly agreed and Gladstone became Prime Minister for the second time on 23 April. Gladstone to Bright:
You and I probably both think we see the hand of God manifest in what has been going on.