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Mr. Gladstone and Lord Hartington appealed to the Government to declare their intentions on the subject, and complained that they had not sooner done so after the report of the Lords Committee on Intemperance.
When this report was first published, members of the Government had referred to it as marking an epoch in the history of the question. But Mr. Cross, speaking now for the Government, in answer to the appeal from the leader of the Opposition, declared that to his mind the twenty recommendations of the Committee presented no clear lines of action against excessive drunkenness. The only thing to be done, it seemed to him, was to make the best of the present system by regulation and supervision, trusting to the beneficial effects of education, improved dwellings, and such general influences in building up habits of sobriety. He denied that the present licensing authorities showed any tendency to laxity in the issuing of new licenses. Their tendency was all the other way, and everywhere there had been a steady disinclination to grant new licenses except for special reasons. It was indispensable that the licensing authority should have something of a judicial character, otherwise its decisions would give rise to much dissatisfaction. The tribunal should not be a tribunal appointed ad hoc, and it ought not to be appointed by a popular vote.
The falling off in Sir W. Lawson's support, as compared with the division of the previous year, was perhaps partly attributable to the scare produced by the activity of the publicans, and the revelations of the electoral strength commanded by them in the recent elections for Sheffield, Liverpool, and Southwark. But considerable effect was doubtless also produced by the speeches against the Resolution from members who fully recognised the evils of the existing system, although they were not convinced of the feasibility of any proposed alternative. “We believe,” the Times said, commenting on the debate, “that Mr. Gladstone yesterday expressed the opinion of the centre of the House of Commons. The best men on both sides agreed with him. The present system of licensing houses for the sale of intoxicating liquors is far from perfect. It is not merely imperfect as all human laws must be; it has imperfections that might be removed, shortcomings that could be made good.”
The announcement of the dissolution was made in both Houses on Monday, March 8. The secret was well kept till the moment of its revelation, and everybody was taken by surprise, although everybody, once the announcement was made, could see how steadily the Government had been getting ready for the momentous step.
Lord Beaconsfield in the House of Lords contented himself with a simple intimation that Parliament would be dissolved as soon as the Chancellor of the Exchequer had made his financial statement for the year, “which he hoped to do almost immediately.” Sir Stafford Northcote spoke on the subject at greater length, explaining the reasons for dissolving Parliament at the proposed time, and for not having made the intimation sooner. “ It was not within our power," he said, “to come to a decision upon this subject earlier than the present time. In the course of the autumn the state of Ireland caused no inconsiderable amount of anxiety. We perceived from an early period that we should bave to, and as time went on we saw that it was necessary for us to, take measures upon our own responsibility as a Government to prevent distress, or to alleviate distress, in that country. Those measures we took without the authority or sanction of Parliament, and it was necessary that Parliament should be called together in order to consider and give its sanction to what we had done, and also to consider what further measures should be taken.” The Irish business, which had rendered necessary the reassembling of the House, having been disposed of, the Government had next to consider what would be the most convenient time for a dissolution. A Spring dissolution was on many grounds preferable to an autumn dissolution, and it was better to dissolve at Easter than at Wbitsuntide, because there would still be time for a Session of the new Parliament in which important business might be got through. “ There are various measures,” Sir S. Northcote said, “ which bave been introduced, with which it is desirable that Parliament should proceed, but which we should not expect to finish by Whitsuntide, and which, if we were to dissolve at Whitsuntide, it would be quite too late to take up when Parliament reassembled.” The etfect of dissolving at Easter would be that Parliament could meet again by the beginning of May, and three months would be tolerably clear for the consideration of any measures that Parliament might take in hand.
With regard to the business of the House during its remaining fortnight of existence, Sir S. Northcote proposed to take votes on account of the Navy and the Civil Service Estimates, so that the Government might be able to put themselves in funds to carry them over the time of the dissolution. The Budget would be introduced without delay. The Metropolitan Water Bill had, of course, to be dropped, and Sir Stafford did not anticipate that there would be time to pass the Bill for the redistribution of the vacant seats, but the Government were anxious to proceed with the Parliamentary Elections Bill, and more particularly to deal with the vexed question of the conveyance of voters to the poll, which they thought ought not to be left in its present uncertain state.
The newspapers were filled next morning with accounts of the excitement produced in the constituencies by the announcement of the dissolution. Sir Stafford Northcote made his statement about five o'clock in the afternoon, and the word dissolution was hardly out of his mouth when members rushed off to the telegraph office with the momentous news. The office in the lobby of the House was besieged, from that centre the news was spread in a few hours all over the country, and in a few hours more the busy wires, the conducting nerves of the body politic, brought back accounts of the effect produced and the preliminary steps taken for action.
The newspapers of the 9th contained graphic descriptions of the stirring of the political hive by the news of the dissolution, and they contained also a very remarkable document—the manifesto of the Prime Minister, couched in the form of a letter to the Duke of Marlborough, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. It began by referring to the measures taken for the relief of the impending distress, and then, after an allusion to the care which the administration had shown for six years for the improvement of Ireland and their success in solving its difficult educational problems, proceeded as follows:
“ Nevertheless, a danger, in its ultimate results scarcely less disastrous than pestilence and famine, and which now engages your Excellency's anxious attention, distracts that country. A portion of its population is attempting to sever the Constitutional tie which unites it to Great Britain in that bond which has favoured the power and prosperity of both.
“It is to be hoped that all men of light and leading will resist this destructive doctrine. The strength of this nation depends on the unity of feeling which should pervade the United Kingdom and its wide-spread Dependencies. The first duty of an English Minister should be to consolidate that co-operation which renders irresistible a community educated, as our own, in an equal love of liberty and law.
“ And yet there are some who challenge the expediency of the Imperial character of this realm. Having attempted, and failed, to enfeeble our Colonies by their policy of decomposition, they may perhaps now recognise in the disintegration of the United Kingdom a mode which will not only accomplish, but precipitate their purpose.
“ The immediate Dissolution of Parliament will afford an opportunity to the nation to decide upon a course which will materially influence its future fortunes and shape its destiny.
“ Rarely in this century has there been an occasion more critical. The power of England and the peace of Europe will largely depend on the verdict of the country. Her Majesty's present Ministers have hitherto been enabled to secure that peace, so necessary to the welfare of all civilised countries, and so peculiarly the interest of our own. But this ineffable blessing cannot be obtained by the passive principle of non-interference. Peace rests on the presence, not to say the ascendency, of England in the Councils of Europe. Even at this moment, the doubt, supposed to be inseparable from popular election, if it does not diminish, certainly arrests her influence, and is a main reason for not delaying an appeal to the national voice. Whatever may be its consequence to her Majesty's present advisers, may it return to Westminster a Parliament not unworthy of the power of England, and resolved to maintain it!"
The language as well as the substance and the circumstances of the letter were, as a matter of course, the subjects of much comment. Even the Standard admitted that “ there was rather too much sonorousness for the fastidious ear in the manifesto of the Premier;" but, it added, " when criticism has done its worst with his letter to
my Lord Duke,' there remains a substantial residuum of fact and sense.” Verbal critics particularly busied themselves with the phrase “men of light and leading,” which was declared to be ungrammatical; and demanded to know the meaning of the alleged “policy of decomposition." Political critics had graver fault to find with the attempt to fasten on the Liberal leaders complicity with the Home Rulers in the work of Parliamentary obstruction, and sympathy with their desire to “disintegrate the United Kingdom.” Then it was asked, what were the grave dangers threatening the peace of Europe, from which no deliverance was possible without the continuance of Lord Beaconsfield in power? And what did he mean by the ascendency of England in the Councils of Europe ? A debate was soon after raised in the House of Lords, on a motion by Lord Stratheden for the production of a letter from Shere Ali to the Sultan ; and Lord Beaconsfield was invited to explain himself. He declined to be more specific about his foreign policy, or the circumstances of which he was in apprehension, but explained that ascendency was a word of various meanings; that he meant nothing more than moral ascendency, and that he did not mean supremacy.
Meantime, however, the manifestoes from party leaders came pouring forth to engage public attention. Lord Hartington's address to the electors of North-east Lancashire was published on Thursday, March 11. It replied with spirit to the Prime Minister's challenge. “I seek,” Lord Hartington said, “to evade no issue which the Government can raise; but it is necessary that they should be plainly stated, and that others which he has avoided should be brought before you. I know of no party which
challenges the expediency of the Imperial character of this realm.' I know of none who have attempted to enfeeble our colonies by their policy of decomposition.' If our colonies are at this moment more loyal to the Throne, more attached to the connexion with the mother country, more willing to undertake the common responsibility and burdens which must be borne by all the members of a great Empire than at any former time, it is due to the fact that, under the guidance of Liberal statesmen, they have received institutions of complete self-government, and learnt to recognise the truth that entire dependence on Imperial assistance for their freedom and defence is not compatible with their dignity or freedom.
No patriotic purpose is, in my opinion, gained by the use of the language of exaggeration in describing the Irish agitation for Home Rule. I believe the demand so described to be impracticable; and considering that any concession, or appearance of concession, in this direction would be mischievous in its effects to the prosperity of Ireland as well as that of England and Scotland, I have consistently opposed it in office and in Opposition, and I shall continue to oppose it. This agitation has existed during the whole of the continuance of this Parliament. It has been treated by the Government until now, if not with indulgence, with indifference; and the attempt to arouse national jealousies, and reawaken national animosities by descriptions of dangers • worse than pestilence and famine,' appears to me to be unnecessary and unwise. This agitation must be met, not by passionate exaggerations, but by firm and consistent resistance, combined with the proof that the Imperial Parliament is able and willing to grant every reasonable and just demand of the Irish people for equal laws and institutions."
Touching the influence of England in the Councils of Europe, Lord Hartington said: “The just influence of England in the Councils of Europe is an object which the Liberal party has pursued with at least as much sincerity, and certainly with more success than has attended the policy of the present Administration. The creation of the independence of Belgium was the work of a Liberal Administration; and the successful measures taken by the Government of Mr. Gladstone to protect Belgium when menaced may be well contrasted with the result of the Turkish policy of Lord Beaconsfield. But the influence of England does not rest upon boasts of ascendency over Europe irrespective of the objects for which that ascendency is to be employed. It rests on the firmness and moderation of our conduct, based upon the material and moral strength of our position, and exercised in concert with other nations on behalf of peace, justice, and freedom.”
Mr. Gladstone's address to the electors of Midlothian appeared next day after Lord Hartington's. It had none of the diffuseness with which his oratory has often been charged; there was no surplus verbiage : viewed merely as a composition, it was a masterpiece of terseness and condensation. We quote the passages in which he replied to the “dark allusions” in “the electioneering address which the Prime Minister had issued.”
“ Gentlemen, those who endangered the Union with Ireland were the party that maintained there an alien Church, an unjust Land Law, and franchises inferior to our own; and the true supporters of the Union are those who firmly uphold the supreme authority of Parliament, but exercise that authority to bind the three nations by the indissoluble tie of liberal and equal laws.
“ As to the Colonies, Liberal Administrations set free their trade with all the world, gave them popular and responsible Government, undertook to defend Canada with the whole strength of the Empire, and organised the great scheme for uniting the several