A Vote of No Confidence
W. T. Stead (The Pall Mall Gazette, June 5, 1886)
Mr. Gladstone can do most things, but he could never have written the latter half of the Decalogue. The terse peremptoriness of the Commandments would in his hands have disappeared, to give place to long-winded periphrasis and a multitude of saving clauses.
Even to say “Thou shaft not kill” or “Thou shall not commit adultery,” would have been beyond him, for his mind, ingeniously sophistical, would have added a dozen saving clauses and explanations as to exceptions and qualifications beneath which the plain word for the plain man would have altogether disappeared.
Bearing this constitutional incapacity in mind, Mr. Gladstone has done fairly well in his letter to Mr. Moulton to make it clear to Liberal doubters that they may vote for the second reading with a clear conscience even if they altogether disapprove of every proposal in the Bill save the establishment of an Irish Parliament to deal with Irish affairs. Mr. Moulton wrote to Mr. Gladstone to say that the interpretation which he personally had given to the expressions of the Government was as follows:-
“That in voting for the second reading of the present Bill, one is affirming only the principle of the establishment in Ireland of a legislative body for the conduct of Irish as distinguished from Imperial affairs.”
To this Mr. Gladstone replies in “brief but explicit terms”:-
“I hold this to be indispensable, and, indeed, elementary.”
That is not bad. “Indispensable” is rather an odd word to employ, but “elementary” is clear and explicit. It is a declaration that Mr. Gladstone will accept a vote on the second reading simply and solely as an affirmation of the principle of Home Rule, or, as we would put it, as the recognition of the principle that the local affairs of Ireland should be directed and controlled by the representatives of Ireland.
We need not concern ourselves with the second head of Mr. Gladstone’s reply to Mr. Moulton. Ministers are, of course, bound to consider any amendments and free to accept any proposals for improving their Bill during the recess. If they carry the second reading by a majority of six, there need be little fear but that they will not only consider, but accept, amendments at which some time ago they would have refused even to look. What they have to do now is to carry the second reading, and, as they can only carry it by reducing the Bill to the position of a resolution shaped as a “draft for discussion, it is only natural that Mr. Gladstone should regard such reduction as “indispensable, and indeed elementary.” We are utterly at a loss to see how any Radical who accepts the principle of Home Rule can refuse to vote for the second reading now that Mr. Gladstone has, in Mr. Chamberlain’s phrase, offered them the principle without the details. Even if we were against one central Parliament at Dublin, and approved of establishing two or four provincial Legislatures, we would, still vote for the Bill, and distinctly affirm before we voted that we did so solely as a recognition of the principle of leaving the conduct of Irish affairs in Irish hands. Mr. Gladstone will repeat his assurances in the House on Monday night, and great will be the responsibility of any Liberal member who, with such assurances before him, deals a fatal blow at the Bill at the Government, and at the organization of the party. It will not be forgiven him. We are not among those who maintain a doctrine of subservience. We upheld the cause of political independence against Mr. Chamberlain when Mr. Chamberlain ran the machine. We have nothing but commendation for those who, like Mr. Bright and Lord Hartington, give effect to their conscientious objection to the principle of Home Rule by voting against the second reading. But we cannot understand the attitude of those men who proclaim their devotion to Home Rule in the same breath in which they pledge themselves to vote against the acceptance of the principle of Home Rule by the House of Commons. And our difficulty will be the difficulty of the Liberal electors.
Of course if Mr. Chamberlain and his friends cannot trust Mr, Gladstone even on his oath, that is another matter. A statesman who will deceive, is a statesman who should be turned out. If they give a hostile vote on that ground, it will not be so much a vote of opposition to the Home Rule Bill, as a vote of no confidence in its author. We do not envy the Liberal who has to justify before his constituents a vote which has wrecked the Government and the party, given because he believes that Mr. Gladstone is a sayer of falsehoods. For that is what it will come to. When Mr. Gladstone declares, as we believe he will declare, unmistakeably on the floor of the House of Commons on Monday next that the only question on which the vote will be taken is as to whether the conduct of Irish affairs should be placed in Irish hands, and that no one who votes for it will be held thereby committed in the least degree to any of the proposals of the Bill, it will only be possible for Mr. Chamberlain and his friends to vote against the second reading on the ground that Mr. Gladstone’s word is not to be trusted; that, in plain English, he lies. Mr. Chamberlain has done many things in his time which make his friends mourn, but this surely is beyond him. Hence we repeat once more our belief that, in spite of all the gloomy forebodings and faintheartedness of Ministerialists and their newspapers, the Bill will get through by the necessary majority of six.