The motto of Mr. Parnell and his followers seemed to be, " If you will not spare time to discuss the claims and grievances of Ireland, you shall not be allowed to transact any other business whatever." The existing rules of Parliamentary life allowed almost limitless freedom of debate, and by the use which the new Irish Party made of this advantage, it soon became almost impossible to get on with the regular work of Parliament. Even if Lord Beaconsfield could have done anything to cope with this obstruction, had he been in the House of Commons, it is quite certain that he could do nothing whatever to cope with it, seeing that he was now relegated to the House of Lords. But the effect of the new agitation was decidedly damaging to the strength and to the reputation of his Ministry. Then, as has been said in the opening of this chapter, there was a new breath of domestic reform abroad over Great Britain and Ireland, and the breath this time blew in the direction of Ireland in particular. Lord Beaconsfield had nothing new to offer as regards the condition of Ireland. Moreover, his Ministry had nearly run its allotted course, and the natural tendency of British constituences is to get rather tired of the Ministry which is drawing towards the close of its seven years, and to think that it is time for new men to come in. Lord Beaconsfield made up his mind and issued a long, high-flown manifesto in the spring of 1880, announcing his intention to appeal to the country by a dissolution of Parliament, for what would be called in French political life a fresh mandate. The result of the elections was that the Liberals came back to power with a strong majority, and Gladstone became once again Prime Minister.
General Gordon. 1833-1885.
In the meantime the Sovereign had suffered a deep sorrow, and the whole country was a sympathetic sharer of her grief. The sorrow came with the death of the Princess Alice, the Queen's second daughter and third child, who died on the 14th of December, 1878. The Princess had had sixteen years of happy married life with her husband, the Grand Duke of Hesse. She was known to be a devoted friend as well as a devoted daughter to her mother; and the mourning assumed for her was something far different indeed from the ordinary court ceremonial.
The force of events soon compelled Gladstone to take upon himself the responsibility of accepting for England the sole conduct of affairs in Egypt. That responsibility has entailed upon England many a risk and many a sacrifice. Expedition after expedition southward has been called for to maintain the position which England believed herself compelled to accept. It cost, among other gallant lives, the life of the noble-hearted General Gordon. "The Englishman," said Kinglake, in his "Eothen" forty years before, "straining far over to hold his loved India, will plant a firm foot on the banks of the Nile and sit in the seats of the Faithful." Many have questioned, and always will question, the policy which induced England to adopt so terrible a responsibility; but the policy was none of Gladstone's making, and under the circumstances which surrounded him at the time of the troubles in Alexandria, there seemed no other course left open to British statesmanship than that which he recommended. The part he took in regard to South Africa has been condemned by most of his opponents, and by some even of his habitual supporters. England had been induced by utterly mistaken representations to proclaim herself the Sovereign of the Transvaal Republic, a republic of Boers descended for the most part from Dutch ancestors. The Boers would have none of our rule; they fought against us and they fought with success. Our arms received for the time a complete defeat.
Gladstone, suddenly called to power, had to deal with this crisis. No one can doubt that if he had so decided, he could have sent out to South Africa a force sufficiently strong to trample the Boers into the dust, and reduce their Republic for the time into a vassal colony of the British Crown. Gladstone would do nothing of the kind. His conscience and his judgment told him that we had been deceived into the annexation of the Boer Republic; he was convinced that we were entirely in the wrong, and the Boers were only doing what any colonists of English descent would have done under the same conditions. He refused to see any national glory in the deliberate slaughter of a number of Boers. He did not believe that the honour of the British flag would shine any the brighter for such an act of vengeance. He made peace with the Boers and allowed their Republic to stand.
The condition of Ireland was meanwhile growing more and more disturbed. Coercion Act after Coercion Act, introduced by Liberals and Conservatives in succession, only served to increase disorder, and on the 6th of May, 1882, the assassination of Lord Frederick Cavendish and Mr. Burke, in the Phoenix Park, Dublin, aroused the horror of the whole civilised world. Lord Frederick Cavendish had just been appointed Chief Secretary to the new Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Spencer, and both were appointed by Mr. Gladstone as an evidence of his intention to govern Ireland on the principle of an advanced liberal policy. The murders were the result of a conspiracy formed by a small knot of men in Dublin, who were opposed to anything like constitutional agitation, who lived upon disorder and crime, and who believed that Mr. Burke, the Under-Secretary, was in possession of information which must lead to the discovery of their previous crime. The murderers were afterwards convicted and executed. They were, in fact, a gang of desperadoes such as is unfortunately to be found in the wake of every great organic political movement. For a time the cause of Home Rule seemed to have been thrown almost hopelessly back, but Mr. Gladstone was not a man to confound the deeds of a knot of miscreants with the national cause of a people. Gladstone's study of Irish politics convinced him gradually of the justice of the Home Rule claim. In 1885 his government was defeated in a vote on a question of financial policy. Lord Salisbury and the Conservatives returned to power, but only for a few months, and then there was a general election, as the result of which Mr. Gladstone and the Liberals found themselves in office once again.