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History > History of Britain Book > Victorian > Gladstone and Electoral Reform
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Gladstone and Electoral Reform

From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912


General Gordon, from a photograph
General Gordon, from a photograph

Egypt and Sudan
Two months after the Phoenix Park murder England was awakened to the existence of complications in another region by the bombardment of Alexandria. During the last decade the debts of the Khedive of Egypt, Ismail, had compelled him to subject the Egyptian finances to the joint control of British and French. As a practical consequence the dual control was inevitably extended to the Egyptian administration. A nationalist group in Egypt was consequently formed, which aimed at overthrowing the European ascendency through the instrumentality of the Egyptian army controlled by Arabi Pasha. The group dominated the Khedive Tewfik, Ismail's successor, and captured the ministry. Counter-pressure from Britain and France aggravated the antagonism, and Arabi with the army assumed an attitude so aggressive that the British Admiral Seymour, after inviting the co-operation of the French, which was refused, considered it necessary to open a bombardment and then to occupy Alexandria. But while Arabi remained in arms nothing more could be done. An expedition was despatched to suppress him, and in September his forces were shattered by Sir Garnet Wolseley at the battle of Tel-el-Kebir. Arabi was taken prisoner and Cairo was occupied.

Lord Gordon and Khartoum
The British action had destroyed not only the army but the whole system of Egyptian government. Except perhaps in France it was generally recognised that this action had been fully justified. France, by refusing to co-operate, had put herself out of court, and there was no escaping the necessity that Britain should on her own account reorganise the shattered government. Annexation would have been warranted; a protectorate would have been warranted; but the British Government wanted neither and chose instead to claim a complete immediate control of affairs, in the illusory Expectation that it would be merely temporary. The Khedive's government was restored, but Lord Cromer - at that time Major Evelyn Baring - was appointed and Consul-General, which meant in effect Dictator, and a British controller was appointed over each department of state - Finance, Public Works, Judiciary, arid Army.

The Mahdi
The work of reorganisation went on steadily and efficiently. But far to the south in the Egyptian Sudan there arose in 1883 a fanatic calling himself the Mahdi, the appointed successor of Mohammed, who gathered to his standard the wild Mohammedan tribes of the interior. The British refused to attempt bringing the interior under control; the organisa­tion of efficient government in Egypt proper was work enough. But the Egyptian government despatched an expedition under an English officer, Hicks Pasha, to overthrow the Mahdi, and the expedition was annihilated instead. The British insisted that the' Sudan must be left to take care of itself and that the garrisons there must be withdrawn. The withdrawal of the garrisons was a task of extreme difficulty. To carry it out the British Government appointed the one man who might be able to accomplish it successfully, General Charles George Gordon. Gordon, a Puritan and a mystic, was one of those men who seemed to accomplish impossible ends by methods impossible to any one else.

The one way of dealing with such a man is to accept the whole enormous risk of leaving him an absolutely free hand. Gordon went to the Sudan knowing that he had not an absolutely free hand; that he would be supported up to a certain point, but not beyond. When he got to the Sudan he acted on the assumption that he would be supported at all costs, and proceeded to carry out plans which to the authorities appeared to be madness.. They refused the support, which he demanded. The result was that in March 1884 he found himself shut up in Khartum, although a threatened invasion of Egypt proper by the Mahdi was broken by a force under General Graham at El-teb.

But it was not possible to leave Gordon to his fate at Khartum, although it had been definitely understood that no military expedition was to be sent to the Sudan. An expedition to rescue Gordon was necessary. Yet the home authorities failed to realise the urgency of the situation.

Gordon's Death
Valuable time was lost over differences as to the form which the expedition should take. It was not until September, when Gordon had already been locked up for six months, that Lord Wolseley sailed for Egypt. Then the arrangements for an advance up the Nile were proceeded with vigorously. Even until the last moment it was believed that the relief would be effected. But in fact Khartum was hardly defensible. When the Mahdi appreciated that the British force was actually close at hand he rushed the place, and Gordon was killed two days before the arrival of the British on January 28th.

So perished the heroic soldier whose marvellous personality had at last, at the very end of his career, suddenly impressed the imagina­tions of the British people with an enthusiastic admiration rarely paralleled. His death dealt an irremediable blow to the Govern­ment whose blundering failure to rescue him was felt as a shameful betrayal. But there was nothing more to be done. The re-conquest of the Sudan was not to be thought of. The expedition fell back. Years of patient and persistent organisation were needed before the times were ripe for a conquering advance upon Khartum.

India
In the years between 1881 and 1884, during the period of the Egyptian troubles, attention was temporarily attracted to India by a somewhat ill-advised attempt on the part of the Viceroy Lord Ripon to carry out an administrative reform extending the jurisdiction of native magistrates over European residents. A storm of indignation was raised amongst the British in India, easily understood by any one who grasped the conditions of European rule there, but unintelligible on the hypothesis that there is no reason for recognising any distinction between the white and the brown races.

The affair was unfortunate, because although the measure in the form in which it was finally promulgated did not give rise to grievances it intensified instead of diminishing the racial antagonism which is always latent in the great dependency. In relation to the colonies, the growth in the minds of a few leading men,, of a new conception of the unified British Empire, was marked by the birth of the Federation League but he idea had not as yet taken any general hold of the public. While Lord Rosebery was a lively advocate of the new movement, the official attitude was more nearly akin to that of the Colonial Secretary, Lord Derby, who had joined the Liberal ranks; it seemed to be governed by the assumption that separation was the natural and desirable goal to which all colonies were tending and should be encouraged to tend.

The Franchise Bill
At home Ireland continued to be disturbed, and in England a good deal of alarm was created by sundry ineffective dynamite outrages originating with the extremists among the Irish in America. But there was little opportunity for legislation until, in 1884, a bill was introduced for completing the democratic system by extending the franchise to the agricultural labourer who had still been excluded by the Reform Bill of 1867. Officially the Conservatives declared themselves in favour of the franchise extension, but it was obvious that the step would necessitate a far-reaching redistribution of seats; and the Conservatives claimed that the two measures should be combined. The Government insisted that the Franchise Bill should come first, though it was to be followed by a Redistribution Bill.

The Franchise Bill was carried in the House of Commons; the House of Lords, under Salisbury's leadership, passed a resolution that it should not become law except as a part of a complete scheme. This attitude was taken as implying an attempt to compel the Government to dissolve, and Liberals angrily denounced the claim of the peers to force a dissolution. The bill was withdrawn with the announcement that it would be reintroduced in an autumn session. There was every prospect of a fierce struggle between the Houses. The Government had been losing credit with the country; but a fiery campaign in the summer appeared to revive Liberal enthusiasm, and the "mending or ending" of the House of Lords seemed likely to become a plank of the Liberal platform.

The Redistribution Bill
Yet the strong element of Conservatism in Gladstone himself, as well as in the Whig wing of the party, made him anxious to avoid a constitutional crisis of such gravity, while the more cautious among the peers viewed the results of such a struggle with grave apprehension. A compromise was arrived at between the leaders; when the autumn session was opened, the bill went through the Commons, and it was then announced that if it were passed the Redistribution Bill should be brought in forthwith, and that in effect the second bill should not be made a party measure but should be shaped so far as possible in conformity with Conservative as well as Liberal opinion.

The second bill was then brought in, the Lords passed the Franchise Bill, and the Redistribution Bill went through both Houses with the minimum of controversy. The fundamental principles of the measure were the disfranchisement of boroughs with a population of less than 15,000, and the return of one member only by every constituency with only a very few exceptions.

Afghanistan (again)
The Liberals had gained something by the vigorous campaign of the summer; but this was more than compensated by the fall of Khartum; and the Penjdeh incident in Afghanistan in March 1885 probably weakened the Government again. There was a collision between Russian and Afghan troops on the border of Afghanistan, unmistakably due to the aggressive action of the Turcoman commander Ali Khan, whose name has been conveniently Russianised as Alikanoff.

For a moment it appeared that there would be war between the Amir and the Tsar, and that the British would be bound to support the Amir in the most thorough-going fashion. Fortunately Abdur Rhaman, with a singular shrewdness, refused to make much of the incident which was judiciously smoothed over; and the process of delimiting the several frontiers, which had given occasion to it, was con­tinued without further serious friction. At the same time there was a certain feeling, born of the general suspicion of timidity attaching to the Gladstone Government, that sufficient vigour and firmness had not been displayed; though on the merits of the particular case there was hardly sufficient warrant for that view.

Gladstone Resigns
The weakened Government was defeated on the Budget. Gladstone resigned, and Lord Salisbury took office. Divergencies in the ministry as to the treatment of Ireland had contributed to its fall. But the Conservatives, in an actual minority, were not inclined to throw down a direct challenge to the Irish members. They did not find it necessary to renew the Crimes Act, and they brought in a generous measure, known as Lord Ashbourne's Act, for the provision of public funds to facilitate the purchase of their holdings by the Irish tenantry. Coming from the Conservative Government the measure received no active opposition. In the circumstances however a dissolution was inevitable, and the results of the general election in August were unexpected.

Election Results
Gladstone had rejected certain overtures from Parnell, declaring that a definite Irish policy could not be laid down until Irish opinion had been clearly expressed by the now enlarged electorate. The answer as far as Ireland was concerned was emphatic. No Liberals were returned for that country, but there were eighty-five Home Rulers. The Liberals in the House of Commons numbered precisely one-half of that assembly, and it was obvious that the Parnellites were in a position to paralyse any government whatever.

Lord Salisbury had no disposition to attempt carrying on government by Parnellite aid. When parliament met in January 1886, it was announced that a new Coercion Bill would be brought in. Ministers were defeated on an amendment to the address, Lord Salisbury resigned, and the queen sent once more for Gladstone.

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This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's point of view may not be currently accepted by modern historians, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.

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