THE ELECTION OF 1885 AND HOME RULE FOR IRELAND
GLADSTONE (WILLIAM EWART, 1809-1898, statesman, Prime Minister and author) IMPORTANT GROUP OF PAPERS RELATING TO THE GENERAL ELECTION OF 1885 AND TO HOME RULE FOR IRELAND, comprising two autograph letters signed with initials by Gladstone to his Chief Whip, Lord Richard Grosvenor, the second with autograph (blank) tables for the results of the Election, with a memorandum on headed notepaper of 12 Upper Brook Street in another hand (presumably that of Lord Richard) recording points apparently made by Gladstone on 12 December 1885, 10 pages in Gladstone's hand and 2 in the other, octavo, Hawarden Castle and Upper Brook Street, 3 to 12 December 1885
These important papers relate to the Election of 1885, during the campaign for which, partly based on his estimate of its outcome, Gladstone was converted to the necessity of Home Rule for Ireland, one of the most momentous changes in policy in British politics during the nineteenth century -- 'the mighty heave in the body politic'. Everything depended on how the Election went, in Ireland as much as in Britain.
Gladstone, then in opposition, was presiding over a divided party, with Hartington leading the right wing and Chamberlain the left. But this tension was also Gladstone's raison d'Ítre as leader, and the Irish question was a sufficient 'Supreme Moment' to suspend his plans for retirement. The first of the present documents was written on the same day (3 May) as Gladstone's composition of his own address to his Midlothian constituents, a masterly attempt to win his own seat and keep his party from disintegrating. The probable outcome of the election and the resulting balance of interests were therefore of the greatest importance to Gladstone. In the present papers he requires his Chief Whip to make estimates of that balance. The outcome of the Election was that 335 Liberals exactly matched the 249 Conservatives and 86 Irish Nationalists. Of the Liberals Lord Richard Grosvenor apparently told Gladstone that only 100 were radicals and likely to follow Chamberlain. The success of the Parnellites in taking 85 of the 103 seats in Ireland confirmed Gladstone in his view that Home Rule by orderly secession was possible. His tactics gave the Conservatives every opportunity to take the initiative, which they failed to do, and he revealed them as the party of coercion. As a result the Irish Nationalists transferred their support to the Liberals. The Irish issue came to the test on the 'three acres and a cow' amendment to the Queen's Speech on 28 January 1886 -- the vote on which would determine whether or not Gladstone would form a Home Rule government. Liberals and Irish Nationalists voting that he should numbered 332. Against were 234 Conservatives and 18 Whigs, elected as Liberals, with 76 Liberals absent or abstaining. 'That division', commented Roy Jenkins in his biography of Gladstone, 'was the beginning of the volvulus which knotted British politics for the next thirty years.'
E.J. Feuchtwanger concluded that 'it was a remarkable achievement, demanding consummate skill and tactical dexterity, that Gladstone managed to form a government, outmanoeuvring his recalcitrant and self-seeking colleagues yet keeping his hands free to take whatever course he wished.' The present papers reveal something of the process by which Gladstone secured that achievement. They also reflect the importance of the Irish question in his thinking at that time as well as the drift of that thought.
i) 3 December 1885, telling Grosvenor to send in his name 'anything you like & consider necessary & also safe', Gladstone asks if [Joseph] Arch is a case 'on one side strong but on the other dangerous' and suggests a form of words for encouraging the agricultural labourer's leader to stand for Parliament; he concludes at 7.00 p.m. by telling Grosvenor that he is writing his Midlothian address, 3 pages, octavo, slight staining and traces of former mounting
ii) 6 December 1885, asking Grosvenor to fill in the enclosed table once most of the results of the election are in ('...I think you will be of opinion that it is worth the trouble...') and suggesting that Head VII be kept confidential. Most of the remainder of this important letter is published in The Diaries of Gladstone from a holograph extract kept by Gladstone: '...It will now probably become most important to have the actual relations of the Nationalists to the Government. The Liberal party may waive the question of confidence on the Address if they are faced by two parties acting together which make up or exceed half the House. But if the Irish & the Govt part company how is it possible to allow some 250 men against 420 or even against 330, to hold the Executive power & direct the legislative business of the year...the principle that the Ministers must have the confidence of the House of Commons is now the root principle of our institutions...and this would therefore be the question of questions on the day of the Queen's speech, anterior in order even to the question of Ireland...', 4 pages, octavo, trace of former mounting, headed 'Private'
iii) [6 December 1885], a table divided into seven sections for entering the results of the election in columns -- 'Tories, Liberals, Parnell, Totals'. The seventh section asks for the estimated numbers of Radicals and Liberals respectively in the old and new Parliaments, 3 pages, octavo, traces of former mounting
iv) Written in another hand (?Grosvenor's) on 12 Upper Brook Street stationery and subscribed 'W.E.G. 12.12.85', listing a number of key points in the politics of the Irish situation: '1. Irish question ought to be treated without delay. 2 and if possible by Tories with aid of Nationalists...4. The Basis ought to be on perfect equality of Ireland with England & Scotland b. Equitable not illiberal partition of Imperial changes...e. but if Tories & Nationalists part company what then...', 3 pages, octavo, traces of former mounting
The Tories and Nationalists did part company once Gladstone showed his hand over Home Rule and therefore he came to form the next government, one committed to granting Irish independence.