In his brief period out of office Gladstone came to the conclusion that the Irish, like the Italians, the Afghans, the Zulus and the Sudanese were a people rightly struggling to be free, and that Parnell’s demand for Home Rule ought to be conceded. The conversion was a bombshell comparable to Peel's conversion to free trade.
The election of 1885: The conversion to Home Rule was not a single moment of decision and was not the result of an inner struggle. He believed he needed time to educate his party and for this reason his manifesto for the election was vague on Ireland. Most Liberal candidates ignored the Home Rule issue.
All this sent out the wrong signals to Parnell. On 1 August he held a secret meeting in Mayfair with the new Irish Viceroy, Carnarvon, and came to believe that he might get something substantial from the Tories - a supposition confirmed by a speech delivered (cynically?) by Salisbury at Newport in October. Accordingly, he urged his followers to vote Conservative and in a speech delivered on 21 November in his election campaign he roundly abused the Liberals as ‘perfidious, treacherous, and incompetent’. The Catholic clergy in Ireland also urged their flocks to vote for the Conservatives. Many Liberals were deeply resentful of the way they were attacked by the Nationalists.
Thanks to the newly enfranchised county voters, in the election of November - December 1885 the Liberals won 335 seats and the Conservatives only 249. But Parnell was the real winner as his party won 86 seats (85 out of 103 Irish seats and one in Liverpool), which exactly equalled the Liberal majority over the Conservatives. The result confirmed Gladstone’s view that Pitt’s Act of Union had been a mistake and that the Irish desire for home rule was unstoppable. But since in the absence of any statement from Gladstone the Parnellites were still in nominal alliance with the Conservatives, and Salisbury remained in office.
The ‘Harwarden kite’: Gladstone reached the conclusion that it was Salisbury’s duty to bring in a Home Rule Bill, which would reach the statute book since it would be supported by the Gladstonian Liberals and the Irish Nationalists. He did not wish it to be a party political isse. With this in mind he had discreet consultations with his political opponents rather than his political allies. But Salisbury was aware that Home Rule would split his party (he himself had resigned from Derby’s cabinet in 1867). He therefore told Churchill that Gladstone’s ‘hypocrisy makes me sick’.
In December Herbert Gladstone, who was acting as his father’s private secretary, inadvertently flew ‘the Hawarden kite’ in which he went to London and spoke with prominent Liberals with contacts in the press. On 17 December the Evening Standard published what it described as Gladstone’s plans for Home Rule; the Pall Mall Gazette went further
Mr Gladstone has definitely adopted the policy of Home Rule for Ireland.Gladstone unconvincingly dismissed the articles as speculative, but his Liberal colleagues (especially Hartington) were horrified to find their names and (apparent) views discussed in the papers. This widened the rift between him and Gladstone.
In the new year, Gladstone then secured the agreement of his colleagues, apart from Hartington, that the government be brought down on a domestic (not Irish) issue. In January the government was duly defeated, but Hartington and 17 other Liberals voted with the Conservatives and 70 other Liberals, including John Bright, abstained; the abstainers knew very well that the real issue was Home Rule. The government was therefore overthrown by a mere 79 votes.
On 28 January Salisbury resigned and within 48 hours Gladstone was Prime Minister, much to (guess what?) the Queen’s dismay.
The Third Gladstone Administration, 1886
Gladstone thus headed a Liberal government about to implement a policy for which it had no mandate. Hartington refused to serve, though Chamberlain took office in the minor post of President of the Local Government Board. At the same time British opinion was hardening against Ireland both because of Parnell’s speeches and a recurrence of Irish outrages in London. Gladstone fatally misread the public mood and the mood of many in his own party.
The Home Rule Bill: On 20 March the Government of Ireland Bill was printed for cabinet distribution. On 26 March Chamberlain and Trevelyan resigned.
Gladstone’s principles behind his Home Rule proposals were (1) to preserve imperial unity, (2) to provide safeguards for the minority. This was shorthand for buying off the Protestant landlords, not for conciliating the Ulster Unionists and would entail considerable expenditure.
On 8 April the Bill was introduced. It was based on the Canadian model and had the effect of strapping Ireland firmly to the United Kingdom.
There would be a unicameral Irish legislative body which would consist of two ‘orders’ (a) representative peers and others elected on a £25 occupier franchise and (b) the existing 103 Irish MPs plus another 101 members elected along similar lines.The details of the bill mattered less than the fact that politicians on all sides were forced to realign their relationships.
From the two orders an executive would gradually emerge via Privy Councillors as the Viceroy became like the Canadian Governor-General.
London was to retain control over defence, foreign policy, and international trade.
Ireland to bear one-fifteenth of imperial costs.
There would be no Irish MPs at Westminster, though Gladstone had agonized over this question. To exclude them would encourage separatism, but their inclusion in the Westminster parliament would raise what is now known as the ‘West Lothian question’.
Salisbury was determined to destroy Gladstone. With Lord Randolph Churchill’s help he raised the temperature so high that compromise became impossible. On 22 February Churchill had visited Belfast. Some weeks later he coined the slogan,
Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right.On 2 March Salisbury defended Orange resistance in a speech in Crystal Palace. On 15 May he told an audience in St James’s Hall, Piccadilly, that the best way to govern Ireland was twenty years of coercion. He declared that ‘some races’ (he mentioned ‘Hottentots’ and ‘Hindoos’ but he also meant the Irish) were inherently incapable of self-government. He said that the best use for public money in Ireland was in promoting emigration.
The Liberals split: Gladstone had presented his party with a ‘take it or leave it’ bill.
On the introduction of the Home Rule Bill (8 April), Hartington declared his opposition. He insisted that Britain had a responsibility to secure law and order in Ireland and to protect property—not least that of Protestants with capital to invest in economic development. Gladstone claimed that his scheme guaranteed the continuing supremacy of the imperial parliament over Irish affairs, but Hartington regarded this as naïve.
Chamberlain also threw himself into the fight against Gladstone's proposals, for a combination of reasons, imperial, domestic, and personal: because they threatened to weaken the central government of the United Kingdom, because they took precedence away from his radical programme, and because they undermined his own standing in the Liberal hierarchy.
On 31 May and 1 June, Chamberlain and Hartington respectively held meetings with dissident Liberal MPs. In the early hours of 8 June the votes on the second reading were taken. Gladstone spoke of Ireland standing
at your bar, expectant, hopeful, almost suppliant.Members voted 341/311 against Home Rule; 94 Liberals had gone into the lobby against Gladstone and another half dozen had abstained. Gladstone wrote in his diary:
The defeat is a smash.In July Gladstone decided to call an election rather than resign and allow Salisbury to form another minority government. This led the dissident Liberals to form a distinct Liberal Unionist group under Hartington's leadership and to fight the ensuing election in tandem with the Conservatives.
Gladstone fought the campaign as another Midlothian, developing the theme of class division. In a speech in Liverpool he listed ten major reforms enacted during the previous half century and declared that
on every one of them without exception the masses have been right and the classes have been wrong.In spite of Gladstone’s rhetoric, the Conservatives won 316 seats, the Liberals 191, the Liberal Unionists 78, and the Irish Nationalists 85. Scotland, Wales and Ireland all produced Home Rule majorities by almost three to one. Only England voted the other way. The central element in the Liberal defeat was the collapse of the Liberal agricultural vote.
Outside Westminster the Home Rule crisis accelerated the shift of middle and upper middle-class voting support from the Liberals to the Conservatives - helping to create Salisbury’s ‘villa Toryism’. The ‘unique duality of Ireland as both a domestic and an imperial concern’ meant that Conservatism became ever more stridently attached to empire. Salisbury was to be prime minister for 13 of the next 16 years. The transformation of British politics was part of a general European trend: the arrival of mass politics favouring right-wing governments.
In the Irish debates, Gladstone argued
This, if I understand it, is one of those golden moments in our history; one of those opportunities which may come and may go, but which rarely return, or if the return, return at long intervals, and under circumstances which no man can forecast.In 1930 George V told Ramsay MacDonald.
What fools we were not to have accepted Gladstone’s Home Rule Bill. The Empire would not have had the Irish Free State giving us so much trouble and pulling us to pieces.Was he right?