« PreviousContinue »
THE BATTLE WITH DEMOCRACY
(iii.) Fall of the Russell-Gladstone Government
ROBERT LOWE'S speech raised him to the pinnacle of parliamentary renown as an orator and debater. The Spectator (July 7, 1866), reviewing the Session, thus referred to him : Mr. Lowe is the great reputation of the Session in the House of Commons. No stranger now goes there without first looking for the white gleam, or rather flash, of his striking head, or listening anxiously for the cold, sardonic ring of his lucid voice, which vibrates like a glass ball through the House, penetrating it with a shiver of half-mocking intelligence.'
Such fame is apt to be evanescent, and certainly Lowe, who rarely glanced at the report of his own speeches, and kept few records of the impression they had created, was the last person to overrate the value of his achievement. But he realised that this speech had, to use his own expression, done its work-it had settled the fate of the Government.
The effect upon all who heard it was extraordinary, and Mr. Gladstone was by no means alone in thinking that his doughty antagonist was at the top of the tree.'
The Speaker to Mrs. Lowe.
House of Commons: April 27, 1866.
Dear Mrs. Lowe,-I offer you my compliments and congratulations on Mr. Lowe's speech last night, one of the greatest and ablest
which have been delivered within my memory. It was the more remarkable from following a most able speech on the same subject last year. There is (and can be) but one opinion of its surpassing ability and eloquence.
J. G. DENISON.
Sir John Walsh to the Right Hon. R. Lowe.
28 Berkeley Square: April 27, 1866.
Dear Mr. Lowe,-Mahomet's coffin, they say, was suspended between heaven and earth, and I know no other resemblance between Mahomet's coffin and this note than that it is written between your speech and the division which may consign us, not to earth, but to that region popularly supposed to be situated below the earth, to which Mr. Mill's Reform in what he calls a vertical direction would inevitably lead us. Is it presumption in me not to compliment you, but to express the genuine impression which your speech made upon my mind? I came into Parliament in July 1830, and I have heard, I believe, all the great speeches since that period. Others may have been more eloquent, more brilliant. I cannot decide, for it is difficult to carry a comparison over five-and-thirty years, but I am sure that yours was the greatest and the noblest. You owe something to the position in which you stand, fighting the battle of the English Constitution of mixed elements against the encroachments of insatiable democracy. But it is your highest praise that you have risen to that great issue, that you have not wasted your mighty powers upon the comparatively small and collateral issue of the objections to the Ministerial mode of dealing by two Bills with the question, although you have incidentally disposed of that argument, but that you have confronted the main question-Is England to continue a monarchy in which the aristocratic and democratic elements of the nation have ever harmoniously blended? Or is it, in spite of all experience, to adopt the lower form of civilisation? You have placed before the people of England that great issue as no man has hitherto placed it with equal force and distinctness. May they decide rightly!
Yours very faithfully,
These two letters, from the Speaker and an old Parliamentary hand,' written while the speech was, so to speak, ringing in their ears, may be taken as typical of many others. The magnificent praise of one who devoted all the manifold gifts
and moving eloquence of a great parliamentary statesman to the cause of the very classes whom Robert Lowe was supposed to have slandered and insulted, was naturally gratifying to him.
From the Diary of the Earl of Shaftesbury.
April 30, 1866.
Lowe's speech was a masterpiece of sustained and consecutive logic, and of well-chosen and adapted eloquence: well-chosen both in character and in place. His facts were singularly illustrative and stated with a brevity and precision of singular effect.
I doubt whether a speech better adapted to place, persons, and circumstances was ever delivered in any country or in any age.'
Almost any laudation after this would sound like an anticlimax; but there was an article headed Mr. Lowe's Speech,' in the Pall Mall Gazette, then a newly founded Conservative journal under the editorship of Mr. Frederick Greenwood, which pleased Lowe himself, more by its descriptive skill and critical discrimination than by its mere personal appreciation. This article, the only one preserved out of a host which were equally laudatory, opened with these words:
One orator, however, contrived thoroughly to revive the interest and excitement which had so long been flagging, and to command the almost rapt attention of the House for upwards of two hours. Mr. Lowe's was not only the speech of the night, but will probably turn out to be the speech of the debate. His style and matter are essentially sui generis. We never heard any speaker who at all resembled him. He is familiar and easy, without being colloquial; his language, always true and vivid, sometimes noble, sometimes peculiarly vernacular and nearly slang, is, though admirably well chosen, obviously quite extempore; and his best things are not only apparently impromptus, but have the air of dropping from him accidentally and almost unconsciously; so that it is not till the House has taken them and appreciated them that the orator himself awakens to the perception of having made a palpable hit, and shares with a natural laugh of boyish delight in the enjoyment of his audience. His argument, too, though full, is singularly close,
Life and Letters of the Earl of Shaftesbury. Edwin Hodder. (Hodder and Stoughton.)
cogent, and sustained; he gives the impression of being always in earnest and sometimes angry, and he uses far fewer words in proportion to his matter than any living man of distinction in Parliament.
And ended thus:
As, therefore, the Government measure drew no line, pointed out no stopping-place, provided no safeguard against the ultimate admission of overwhelming numbers, but was manifestly based on and supported by arguments which, if good at all, were good for admitting those overwhelming numbers, Mr. Lowe felt himself fully justified in regarding the measure as a democratic one, and in controverting it by a demonstration of what democracy was, what it did, and whither it led; and the remainder of his speech was a masterly and nearly exhaustive exposition of his well-known views on this subject. On the whole, it was one of the most magnificent intellectual efforts ever witnessed within the walls of Parliament, and produced a marked and deep impression both against the Government and in favour of the speaker.
The division took place on April 27, 1866, immediately after Disraeli's attack and Mr. Gladstone's reply-one of the very finest speeches the latter ever delivered in the House of Commons, if one may judge by its perusal. The result was much more than a virtual defeat for the Government (who had only a majority of five in a House of 658), if we consider what the Liberal preponderance had been after the general election. The scene has been described by a graphic pen :
The Adullamites on the Ministerial benches, carried away by the delirium of the moment, waved their hats in sympathy with the Opposition, and cheered as loud as any. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, in his speech, had politely performed the operation of holding a candle to '-Lucifer; and he, the prince of the revolt, the leader, the instigator and prime mover of the conspiracy, stood up in the excitement of the moment, flushed, triumphant, and avenged. His hair, brighter than silver, shone and glistened in the brilliant light. His complexion had deepened into something like a bishop's purple. His small, regular, and almost woman-like features, always instinct with intelligence, now mantled with liveliest pleasure. He took off his hat, waved it in wide and triumphant circles over the heads of the very men who had just gone into the lobby against
him. 'Who would have thought there was so much in Bob Lowe ?' said one member to another; 'why, he was one of the cleverest men in Lord Palmerston's Government.'
Anyhow, there he stood, that usually cold, undemonstrative, intellectual, white-headed, red-faced, venerable-looking arch-conspirator, shouting himself hoarse like the ringleader of schoolboys at a successful barring-out, and amply repaid at that moment for all Skye-terrier witticisms, and any amount of popular obloquy.'
After the division it was clear to both sides of the House that the Reform Bill, if not the Russell-Gladstone Government, was doomed; though it was seen that the struggle might yet be severe.
Sir John Walsh to the Right Hon. R. Lowe.
28 Berkeley Square: May 1, 1866.
Dear Mr. Lowe,-I thank you very cordially for your note. You have interpreted very correctly my feelings with regard to your noble speeches, except that approbation is a term far too cold to express the admiration with which I regard them. They, particularly the last, rise above the level of mere Parliamentary debate, and, like the great orations of Burke, embody the principles of high statesmanship and political philosophy. I most earnestly hope that in the protracted form which this struggle is assuming, your efforts and ours may avert the incalculable evils with which we are menaced.
Yours very sincerely,
On May 7, Mr. Gladstone brought in the Redistribution of Seats Bill. It was opposed by Disraeli on its second reading a week afterwards in an effective speech, in which he told Mr. Gladstone that he must recross the Rubicon.' The following letters touch more or less on the great question then agitating the House and the country.
Robert Lowe to Henry Sherbrooke of Oxton.
34 Lowndes Square: May 7, 1866.
My dear Henry,-My speech is being published by Mr. Bush, 32 Whitehall, and will be out in a day or two. . . . I don't think
1 Annals of our Time, 1837-71, p. 737. Joseph Irving. (Macmillan.)