As a political leader the winter of 1866-1867 was the culminating point in his career. The Reform Bill was carried with a clause for minority representation, and in the autumn of 1868 Bright, with two Liberal colleagues, was again returned for Birmingham. Mr Gladstone came into power with a programme of Irish reform in church and land such as Bright had long urged, and he accepted the post of president of the Board of Trade. He thus became a member of the privy council, with the title of Right Honourable, and from this time forth was a recognized leader of the Liberal party in parliament and in the country. He made a great speech on the second reading of the Irish Church Bill, and wrote a letter on the House of Lords, in which he said, "In harmony with the nation they may go on for a long time, but throwing themselves athwart its course they may meet with accidents not pleasant for them to think of." He also spoke strongly in the same session in favour of the bill permitting marriage with a deceased wife's sister. The next session found him disqualified by a severe illness, which caused his retirement from office at the end of the year, and kept him out of public life for four years.
In August 1873 Mr Gladstone reconstructed his cabinet, and Bright returned to it as chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster. But his hair had become white, and though he spoke again with much of his former vigour, he was now an old man. In the election in January 1874 Bright and his colleagues were returned for Birmingham without opposition. When Mr Gladstone resigned the leadership of his party in 1875, Bright was chairman of the party meeting which chose Lord Hartington as his successor. He took a less prominent part in political discussion till the Eastern Question brought Great Britain to the verge of war with Russia, and his old energy flamed up afresh. In the debate on the vote of credit in February 1878, he made one of his impressive speeches, urging the government not to increase the difficulties manufacturers had in finding employment for their workpeople by any single word or act which could shake confidence in business. The debate lasted five days. On the fifth day a telegram from Mr Layard was published announcing that the Russians were nearing Constantinople. The day, said The Times, "was crowded with rumours, alarms, contradictions, fears, hopes, resolves, uncertainties." In both Houses Mr Layard's despatch was read, and in the excited Commons Mr Forster's resolution opposing the vote of credit was withdrawn.
Bright, however, distrusted the ambassador at the Porte, and gave reasons for doubting the alarming telegram. While he was speaking a note was put into the hands of Sir Stafford Northcote, and when Bright sat down he read it to the House. It was a confirmation from the Russian prime minister of Bright's doubts: "There is not a word of truth in the rumours which have reached you." At the general election in 1880 he was re-elected at Birmingham, and joined Mr Gladstone's new government as chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster. For two sessions he spoke and voted with his colleagues, but after the bombardment of the Alexandria forts he left the ministry and never held office again. He felt most painfully the severance from his old and trusted leader, but it was forced on him by his conviction of the danger and impolicy of foreign entanglements. He, however, gave a general support to Mr Gladstone's government. In 1883 he took the chair at a meeting of the Liberation Society in Mr Spurgeon's chapel; and in June of that year was the object of an unparalleled demonstration at Birmingham to celebrate his twenty-five years of service as its representative.
At this celebration he spoke strongly of "the Irish rebel party," and accused the Conservatives of "alliance" with them, but withdrew the imputation when Sir Stafford Northcote moved that such language was a breach of the privileges of the House of Commons. At a banquet to Lord Spencer he accused the Irish members of having "exhibited a boundless sympathy for criminals and murderers." He refused in the House of Commons to apologise for these words, and was supported in his refusal by both sides of the House. At the Birmingham election in 1885 he stood for the central division of the redistributed constituency; he was opposed by Lord Randolph Churchill, but was elected by a large majority. In the new parliament he voted against the Home Rule Bill, and it was generally felt that in the election of 1886 which followed its defeat, when he was re-elected without opposition, his letters told with fatal effect against the Home Rule Liberals. His contribution to the discussion was a suggestion that the Irish members should form a grand committee to which every Irish bill should go after first reading. The break-up of the Liberal party filled him with gloom.
His last speech at Birmingham was on 29th March 1888, at a banquet to celebrate Mr Chamberlain's return from his peace mission to the United States. He spoke of imperial federation as a "dream and an absurdity." In May his illness returned, he took to his bed in October, and died on the 27th of March 1889. He was buried in the graveyard of the meeting-house of the Society of Friends in Rochdale.
Bright had much literary and social recognition in his later years. In 1882 he was elected lord rector of the university of Glasgow, and Dr Dale wrote of his rectorial address: "It was not the old Bright." "I am weary of public speaking," he had told Dr Dale; "my mind is almost a blank." He was given an honorary degree of the university of Oxford in 1886, and in 1888 a statue of him was erected at Birmingham. The 3rd marquess of Salisbury said of him, and it sums up his character as a public man: "He was the greatest master of English oratory that this generation - I may say several generations - has seen.... At a time when much speaking has depressed, has almost exterminated eloquence, he maintained that robust, powerful and vigorous style in which he gave fitting expression to the burning and noble thoughts he desired to utter."
See The Life and Speeches of the Right Hon. John Bright, M.P., by George Barnett Smith, 2 vols. 8vo (1881); The Life of John Bright, M.P., by John McGilchrist, in Cassell's Representative Biographies (1868); John Bright, by C.A. Vince (1898); Speeches on Parliamentary Reform by John Bright, M.P., revised by Himself (1866); Speeches on Questions of Public Policy, by John Bright, M.P., edited by J.E. Thorold Rogers, 2 vols. 8vo (1868); Public Addresses, edited by J.E. Thorold Rogers, 8vo (1879); Public Letters of the Right Hon. John Bright, M.P., collected by H.J. Leech (1885).
(P. W. C.)