The Salisbury Ministry 1885-1890
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
Though Irish affairs were exceedingly prominent during the ten years which followed the last extension of the franchise, they did not occupy public attention exclusively. Although the Liberal Unionists refused to take direct part m the administration after the fall of the first Gladstone ministry the Salisbury Government was dependent upon their support.
Few as they were a very large proportion of them were men of ability and weight, respected on both sides of the House, though the most brilliant of their number was more feared than respected by his political opponents. Some considerable time elapsed before hopes of a reconciliation between Mr. Chamberlain and his former colleagues were entirely given up, and a reconciliation would have jeopardised the ministerial majority.
Thus the Liberal Unionists held a strong position, and the Conservatives, willingly or unwillingly, found it necessary to defer largely to their wishes. The position became perhaps more marked when Lord Salisbury's brilliant but erratic Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Randolph Churchill, resigned at the end of 1886.
Lord Randolph was the champion of what was called Tory democracy, the doctrine that it was the business of the Conservatives to carry out democratic measures. He resigned in Order to force upon his colleagues economies which they were not inclined to sanction, believing himself to be indispensable to the Cabinet, since there was no member of the Conservative party in the House of Commons to whom the office which he held could be assigned with confidence.
In this crisis the Liberal Unionists came to the rescue of the Government; Lord Randolph had "forgotten Goschen," who, with the assent of his own party, accepted the vacant office, and thereby sealed the adherence of the Whig section to the Government.
Mr. Chamberlain's section, however, was to a considerable extent in sympathy with Lord Randolph; his support of the Government became for the moment more dubious, and the efforts for a Liberal reconciliation were renewed.
They failed completely, since the divergencies were such as could not be bridged over, and Mr. Chamberlain ultimately developed into the most uncompromisingly hostile of Mr Gladstone's opponents. But the necessity for conciliating him until the later stage of actual coalition between Conservatives and Liberal Unionists was a constant factor in the Conservative legislation.
Ritchie the Radical
This influence made itself felt not only in the Irish Land Bills. In 1888 the ministers brought in a Local Government Bill, which caused Mr. Ritchie, the minister in charge of it, to be dubbed "Ritchie the Radical." Hitherto local administration had been very largely in the hands of the local justices.
The bill established elected county councils on the same basis as the elective corporations which controlled local affairs in the boroughs, the elected councils themselves electing a number of coadjutors known as aldermen. The large areas were further divided up into districts with an elective district council. Boroughs with over fifty thousand inhabitants were constituted as separate counties, while separate arrangements were made for the metropolis.
Free Education Act
The Local Government Bill of 1888 and the Free Education Act of 1891 were the two leading pieces of domestic legislation for which the Salisbury Government was responsible. Mr. Forster's Act of 1870 had made education compulsory; that it should be made free was the apparently inevitable corollary.
The proposal, introduced by a Conservative Government, found comparatively little opposition; although there were not wanting some stout-hearted individualists who denounced the measure as destructive of the sense of parental responsibility, declaring that free meals would follow free education, and that in the long run the state would find itself called upon to make entire provision for the rising generation.
But when a measure seems generally desirable to both parties in the state it is vain to call it Socialistic; that term in ordinary parlance is merely a phrase expressing disapprobation, which is somewhat unfortunate for persons who prefer the pursuit of accuracy in political terminology. Free education was in fact a measure typical of the " Socialism " which is based upon no abstract theory, but calls for state intervention and state action where immediate beneficial results are anticipated from action in the particular case.
The Conservatives then gave free education, and therein they had the support of the Opposition. Neither party perhaps realised at the time one unfortunate but inevitable result. Hitherto the voluntary schools had competed on comparatively even terms with the board schools. But if they were to provide free education they must have equivalent support from the state.
How far was the provision of additional support from the state compatible with the preservation of their denominational atmosphere? This question was presently to become acute, and the controversies on the subject embittered religious antagonisms, carried them into party warfare, and gave sectarian disputes a prominence painfully injurious to the efficiency of the educational system.
Before the close of the administration three other measures were passed with the general approval of the Opposition as well as of the Government. A modification of the Factory Acts extended the protection of women, and raised the age at which the employment of children was permitted.
An Agricultural Holdings Act enabled county councils to advance three-fourths of the money required for the purchase of small holdings, and a Tithes Act made the tithe payable by the landlord instead of by the tenant. Nothing was thereby affected except the method of collecting the charge.
Since 1835 the tenant had paid the tithe, and had paid the landlord his rent less the amount of the tithe; now he paid the landlord the full rent and the landlord paid the tithe. But the Nonconformist tenant was relieved from the feeling that he was being compelled personally to contribute to the maintenance of a Church to which he did not belong, a fiction which had been kept in being by the old method.
Employers' Liability Bill
When Mr. Gladstone formed his last administration, the new Home Rule Bill held the stage until its rejection by the House of Lords. The Government, however, declined to admit the right of the House of Lords "to dictate a dissolution of parliament. They proceeded with the process which was called "filling up the cup," introducing measures which the Lords amended past recognition. An Employers' Liability Bill made employers in certain cases responsible for injuries suffered by their employees, and abolished the doctrine of "common employment."
The meaning of this doctrine was that the employer was not responsible for injuries suffered by a workman in consequence of the negligence of a fellow-employee. But the bill was made nugatory by an amendment of the Peers, which permitted contracting out; consequently it was withdrawn.
A new Local Government Bill establishing parish councils was carried, though at the cost of accepting two amendments which appear to have convinced Mr. Gladstone that the time was close at hand when the constitutional position of the. House of Lords would become a question too critical to be deferred. At the age of eighty-four, with eyesight and hearing impaired, he felt himself no longer fitted to enter upon so grave a contest.
The aged statesman resigned, and the leadership of the Liberal party passed to Lord Rosebery. The new administration which endured for fifteen months, ending in June 1895, was signalised by only one domestic measure of first-rate importance.
This was Sir William Harcourt's budget, which provided a lucrative source of revenue by the new imposts called the "Death Duties," whereby the state appropriated a substantial proportion of property left cm decease.
The principle was old enough, since in feudal times the heir had to pay fees to his feudal superior on entering upon his inheritance"; but it remained for Sir William Harcourt to apply it so as to add materially to the revenue, though the abstract justice of doing so had long been maintained by theorists.
This was the one measure in which the Government got its own way, since the Lords considered themselves warranted in refusing to recognise the composite majority in the Commons as representing the national will. The futility of the situation had become obvious; and when Ministers were defeated on a snap vote concerning the supplies of ammunition, they took the opportunity of resigning. The Opposition took office, at once appealed to the country, and were returned to power with an overwhelming majority, which was maintained without being greatly impaired for ten years.
In India the close of 1895 had witnessed a further extension of dominion, though not within the limits of the peninsula, by the final annexation of Burmah in consequence of the persistently impracticable attitude of the Burmese government. Mandelay was occupied in November 1885, and the formal annexation was carried out in the following year.
Relations with the Amir of Kabul continued to be satisfactory, and the completion of the delimitation of the Afghan, Russian, and British frontiers removed that question from the danger sphere. Perhaps the most important feature of the period now under review was the appearance and development within the British dominion of the body which named itself the Indian National Congress.
Representing almost exclusively one particular class, it claimed to represent the voice of India. The persistent view of the Indian Government that the National Congress is not representative of real native opinion is difficult of acceptance in the British Isles, because it is the only articulate voice that comes from the natives of India; and the action of Government has been considerably complicated in consequence.
Lord Beaconsfield's attitude of emphatic self-assertion on the part of the British Empire was not maintained by Lord Salisbury in his relations with foreign Powers. On the contrary, it was his guiding principle to avoid participation in the complications of European continental politics and to attend strictly to British interests. His ascendency over his own party was sufficient to enable him to adopt a policy of "graceful concesions" which would have been extremely difficult for a Liberal Government.
Lord Salisbury stood without a rival in his knowledge of foreign affairs, and it was not easy to charge the diplomatist who had shared with Lord Beaconsfield the honours of the Berlin Treaty with readiness to pay an excessive price. for peace. In fact at this period the European power whose interests were most difficult to reconcile with our own was France, and the source of friction lay in Egypt, from which France had been ousted by the events leading up to the British occupation.
The preservation of a free hand in the control of Egyptian affairs was of first-rate importance, and Lord Salisbury was denounced chiefly by the organs of his own party for yielding to the demands both of France and of Germany in other regions, virtually as the price for the free hand in In most cases there was justification for the concessions.
The European Powers had awakened to the fact that Africa was the only quarter of the globe which was not under the dominion of highly organised states, and a scramble had set in for the partition of the Dark Continent. The partition into spheres of influence was carried out between 1885 and 1892, and it was freely declared that Lord Salisbury surrendered to Germany much which ought to have been claimed for the British Empire. In the view, however, of German expansionists, Germany came very badly out of the bargaining.
The only plausible ground for condemning the African bargain from the British point of view was the failure to obtain complete territorial continuity from North to South of the Continent. Canada, however, and Newfoundland, had warrant for declaring that their interests were neglected by the Imperial Government in the settlement with France of the longstanding disputes as the Newfoundland Fishery rights.
Canada also was ill-pleased over another Fisheries Treaty with the United States. The treaty, however, collapsed, because both the great American parties sought popularity by denouncing it in view of an approaching presidential election. More satisfactory was the settlement through arbitration of a seal-fishery quarrel with the United States, which had twenty years before acquired Alaska from Russia, and now sought to impose limitations against which they had protested vigorously at an earlier stage; the arbitration was decisively in favour of the British claims, although concessions were made outside the award of the arbitrators, with the intention only of preventing practices which threatened to exterminate the seals altogether.
Queen Victoria's Jubilee
But while specific questions were creating some degree of friction between mother country and colonies, the conception of imperial unity had been gaining ground considerably, and an epoch was marked in the relations of the different parts of the Empire when the celebration of Queen Victoria's Jubilee in 1887 gave occasion for a conference in London for the first time between the chiefs of the imperial government and representatives of the colonies.
There was no premature attempt to bring "forward schemes of federation, or indeed to formulate schemes at all; but an immense impulse was given to the conception of imperial unity by the mere recognition of the fact that the whole Empire has common interests and common burdens in which the whole Empire should be consulted, and in which the whole Empire should share.
Between 1885 and 1895 events were taking place in one portion of that Empire which were about to issue in startling developments. During the decade Ireland had been the absorbing topic; in the next period the primary interest was to be transferred to South Africa.
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 views may be controversial by modern standards, particularly his attitudes towards other cultures and races, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.