The First Gladstone Administration 1866
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
Gladstone, as we have noted, had already come to the conclusion that the endless troubles in Ireland must be met by dealing with two questions in which he found a legitimate cause of grievance, the Established Church and the land system. The Irish Church question he brought definitely to the forefront while Disraeli was in office in 1868, and he had united the Liberals in determining upon disestablishment. In Ireland, as in England, the technical continuity of the Church as a religious corporation had been preserved in Tudor times. Apart from confiscations, the Reformed Church retained the wealth which had belonged to the Church before the Reformation. But the Reformed Church was never at any time the Church of more than one-fourth of the Irish people. It was a National Church only in the sense that it was recognised as such by the state. Obviously it could be argued with equal plausibility that the Church in the nineteenth century was one and the same with the Church a thousand years before, and was entitled to all that it had then possessed or that had subsequently been bestowed upon it - or, on the other hand, that the Church was not one and the same, that the Romanist priesthood, not the Anglicans, were the real successors of the Church, and that as a matter of fact all property bestowed upon it was merely held by it in trust, by the sanction of the state, upon condition of its fulfilling the office of a National Church. Since in the Liberal view it did not fulfil that office, it was legitimate for the state to appropriate that wealth to national purposes.
Next, the two arguments stood opposed - on one side that the state in a Christian country ought to make profession of its Christianity, which it could only do by supporting and recognising a National Christian Church, and, on the other, that while Christianity was divided into sects the state as such ought not to recognise one sect in preference to the rest; to which was added the contention that endowments and connection with the state in fact tend to weaken the activities of the Church and to destroy its spiritual independence, an argument which involved the rejection of counter-proposals for the concurrent endowment of other religious bodies. Apart from such abstract questions there was the concrete difficulty that institutions and individuals derived their stipends from these endowments, which the usage of centuries had entitled them to count upon, and of which they could not be deprived without flagrant injustice.
Gladstone's Land Bill
The measure proposed by Gladstone took full account of this last consideration. All life interests were secured, ￡10,000,000 out of the ￡16,000,000 at which the wealth of the Church was valued being restored to it. At one stage it seemed likely that there would be a sharp conflict between the Commons and the Lords, since the Lords sent; down amendments which were for the most part rejected by Gladstone. They were satisfied however with a show of compromise, practically arranged between Lord Granville and Lord Cairns for the Liberals and Conservatives respect tively, and the bill became law. In its final form the uses to which the surplus was to be put were not specified, but were left to the pleasure of parliament.
With his next measure Gladstone embarked upon that troubled sea of Irish legislation which provided abundant occupation for Liberal and Conservative governments until after the twentieth century had opened. Theoretically in Ireland, as in England, the occupation of the land was for the most part a matter of contract between landlord and tenant; the terms were settled by simple bargaining, modified in practice by local customs which however had not the force of law. But in fact the conditions in Ireland and in England were entirely different. In England the contract was comparatively at least a free one; the diversity of employments .open to the small capitalists who occupied the soil compelled the landlords to lease their farms upon reasonable terms, and improvements were for the most part carried out either wholly or partly at the landlord's expense. In Ireland, on the other hand, the occupier of the soil was a poor man who if he left his holding, would find it exceedingly difficult to get any other employment. In effect he had to accept the terms that were offered him And the Irish landlords, though of course with notable exceptions, were either unable or unwilling to sink their money on improvements. Consequently, if improvements were made at all, the tenant was apt to find that he paid for making them and that the landlord then pocketed the profits by increasing the rent.
The Ulster Custom
Gladstone's Land Bill, then, proposed to provide by law two of the three conditions of a healthy and progressive occupancy which in England were practically secured without any direct application of law - fair rents, fixity of tenure, and free transfer, involving the tenant's right to have his property in improvements which he had effected recognised. But this could only be done by interfering with freedom of contract, which was held to be justified by the argument that the contracts interfered with were not in fact free. In Ireland the tenant was usually a tenant at will, occupying only under an agreement without any written lease, and liable to be simply evicted on six months notice. But the "Ulster custom" habitually observed by Ulster landlords, though it could not be enforced in law courts, forbade the eviction of a tenant who paid his rent, and allowed him to sell the goodwill of his tenancy - in other words, the value of such improvements as he had made - to some one else if he wished to part from his holding.
The Ulster custom in effect recognised fixity of tenure and freedom of sale. The bill proposed to give this custom the force of law, thereby in effect establishing a joint proprietary. Land however could under this bill be granted on long leases, free from these restrictions; on the other hand, the tenant at will who was evicted for other reasons than the non-payment of rent could claim compensation for disturbance as well as for improvements. Also public loans were authorised in order to enable tenants who so desired to purchase their holdings; that is, it was attempted to provide means for establishing a peasant proprietary by the side of the dual proprietary. There was no machinery however for securing fair rents. The bill became law in 1870, the year after the Disestablishment Act.
Home Rule agitation
Still the introduction, with a pacificatory intent, of these two measures failed to produce pacification. Though the Fenian movement had not been agrarian, it had revived the spirit of hostility to the law among the agrarian population; and the disturbed state of the country caused a second bill to be accompanied by the Peace Preservation Act, forbidding the carrying of arms in proclaimed districts, and increasing the powers of the police and the summary jurisdiction of the magistracy. Irish. Nationals sentiment began to take shape as a demand for an undefined "Home Rule" professedly differing both from the unqualified separatism of the Fenians and from O'Connell's old demand for the repeal of the Act of Union.
If Ireland occupied the first place in Gladstone's programme, the first democratic parliament was also necessarily zealous for the amelioration of popular conditions in England. The lack of education and of educational possibilities among the poorer classes attracted, as we saw, periodical attention after the passing of the great Reform Bill; but the result had been little more than the application of a slowly increased government grant in aid of schools maintained for the most part by voluntary support, under the control commonly of the Church of England, but in some cases of other religious bodies. The admission of the working-man to the franchise had extracted from a prominent Adullamite, Robert Lowe, the remark that we "must educate our masters," and at last the education of the children of the poor was recognised as a matter which must be taken in hand directly by the government.
1870 Education Act
The result was W. E. Forster's great Education Act of 1870. The voluntary schools were wholly unable to cope with the vast amount of work that had to be done, and hosts of children got no teaching at all because there was no accommodation, and no superfluous zeal on the part of parents in seeking to obtain it. The essential principle of the scheme was to provide sufficient accommodation for all children, to make school attendance compulsory and contributory - that is, to require the parents to pay something towards the cost - but to throw the bulk of the expense upon the public at large, the provision being made not by the central government but locally through the rates. The new schools were to subsist side by side with the voluntary schools.
But the difficulty of religious instruction at once presented itself. The great consensus of public opinion demanded unmistakably that there should be religious instruction; but it seemed equally clear that in schools maintained by public funds drawn from the pockets of persons of every kind' of religious denomination, the teaching should not be that of any one denomination. The difficulty of applying a government grant to Church schools had been surmounted by a conscience clause, which permitted parents to withdraw their children from the religious instruction; but if the same principle were applied in the new state-supported schools, the children of Nonconformists would be shut out from religious instruction altogether, while it did not appear practicable to adopt the alternative of providing special religious instruction for each denomination.
The solution was found in the "Cowper-Temple Clause," which required that no formularies of any religious denomination should be employed, but that undenominational Biblical instruction should be given; a compromise with which the majority of the public were satisfied, since the position of the definite Church and other denominational schools remained unaltered. All the schools were to be under government inspection, and the general control in each district was to be in the hands of the locally elected School Board.
Another question was necessarily brought into prominence in a parliament representing an electorate largely composed of the working-classes. This was the regulation of the position of trade unions. As matters stood in 1868 the trade union was an illegal association. It could not protect its own funds, even although those funds might be mainly used not for militant purposes, but for sick pay and other benefits. The law of Conspiracy had proved to be so elastic as to make practically any action in furtherance of a strike a punishable offence. To make combination an effective method by which the men could bargain collectively with the masters, it was necessary that the existence of the unions should be legalised, but that they should not be liable to be sued as corporate bodies, since they would then be open to ceaseless attacks involving a perpetual and paralysing litigation. Further, it was necessary that it should be legal for men to do jointly what it was legal for an individual to do; that is, that an action should not be rendered criminal because it was committed by persons acting in concert instead of singly, or, again, because the person who committed it was what the law called a "servant."
The Government however was by no means eager to move. Under pressure it at last brought in a bill which was subsequently divided into two. By the one, the unions were allowed to register themselves as legally constituted societies, while, as was universally understood, they were protected from being sued as corporations. The second, called the Criminal Law Amendment Act, sought to summarise and define the coercive acts which might be penalised. It did not introduce new penalties; but it so defined the law that, while it declared the strike of joint withdrawal from work to be legal, it declared every action by which the strike could be rendered effective to be illegal, including the mere publication or communication of the fact that a strike had been declared. Violence or threats we're unnecessary.' Any kind of persuasion' to abstain from working in a place where a strike had been declared was "molestation" within the meaning of the law. To this position the Government held resolutely, with the result that employers fastened upon the first bill as having made trade unions dangerously powerful, while the union men fastened upon the second bill as having completely paralysed them.
The Government then very emphatically lost favour with the working classes, and they did little to recover it by the introduction of the ballot, one of the old demands of the Chartists. The ballot enabled the voter to cast his vote without any one knowing on which side he had voted unless he chose himself to give the information, and was intended to secure him against giving it under virtual intimidation, though it was only to a limited extent that it actually served the purpose intended.
The Franco-Prussian War, with its startling demonstration of the military power of Germany, led to a much needed reorganisation of the British Army. One of the proposed changes encountered the most vehement opposition. This was the abolition of the purchase system, by which officers were 'able to buy promotion. That system had been established by royal warrant, and, in the face of the determined opposition to the bill on the part of the House of Lords, Gladstone took the unexpected course of abolishing it by royal warrant, a step which was vigorously condemned as unconstitutional.
If the domestic methods of the Government tended to diminish its popularity, this was still more the case with its conduct of foreign affairs. It successfully maintained the attitude of neutrality throughout the European war, and in some degree reduced the severity of the- terms imposed by the Germans upon the French. Nevertheless, there was a good deal of popular feeling that British intervention ought to have been carried further, and that the dignity and power of the nation should have been emphasised more vigorously and decisively.
The impression that ministers allowed themselves to be brow-beaten by foreign Powers was intensified by two grave diplomatic defeats. Russia seized the opportunity of Napoleon's fall to announce her repudiation of the Black Sea Treaty. Britain was able to insist upon the position that no single Power had a right to withdrawal, and that grievances must be referred to a conference of the signatory Powers. To this Russia acceded; but at the conference held in London her diplomacy procured everything she demanded.-Britain in effect found herself isolated, and the clauses neutralising the Black Sea were cancelled.