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Accomplishments of the Administration: 28 October 1871

William Gladstone

Gladstone gave this speech to his constituents at Greenwich. The first part of it deals especially with the Ministerial economy that was causing discontent among the dockyard workers.

I now pass on from the subject of the promises that I made to you in 1868; because I am not aware that there was any other question of very great consequence upon which, at that time, it was my duty materially to dilate. But we have gone on from these to other subjects; and what have they been? They have been three - three, I mean, which I place in the first order of magnitude. One of them is the abolition of purchase in the army, one of them is the education of the people - and one of them is the protection of the voter by the ballot. Well, now, first in attacking purchase in the army, we were perfectly well aware that we were assailing class interest in its favourite and most formidable stronghold, and I rejoice to think that in a single session we have been able to achieve a work so formidable. It is indeed achieved at a great cost; because, when the people of England set about political reforms they never accomplish them in a niggardly spirit, but their practice is to make generous compensations to those who may have suffered, aye sometimes even to those who only may imagine themselves to suffer, by them; and in every doubtful case to adopt the liberal course of action. But what is the real case of the British army? The public has been practised upon by writers who seem to find a kind of luxury in panic and alarm; and who endeavour to propagate these feelings throughout the country without success; although, for my part, I regard them with rather less of charity - I do not mean the people, but the endeavours - with rather less of goodwill and sympathy, than I should regard the propagation of the small-pox or the cattle plague. You have always had in this country, both as to officers and as to men, an army of the noblest and the very best material. Allow me to give you a short anecdote, to vary the wearisomeness of my discourse. I daresay many of you have heard the name of Bewick, who was a famous woodcutter - an artist of great celebrity, a northern man. He lived, I think, in the time of the American War. Besides his woodcutting, he determined that, as it was a time of danger, and he had an English heart in his bosom, he would learn a little soldiering. So he and two or three of his friends sent for the drill sergeant, and the drill sergeant put them through their exercise, but he only troubled them with one precept, and it was this, "Now mind, my lads, what you have to do is this: When you go into action, you must stand like a brick wall." And that has been the great quality of the British soldier - that under all circumstances he has been ready to stand, and has stood, "like a brick wall." And there was a time when standing "like a brick wall" was almost enough to win a battle. It will not do now. War, instead of being a rude test of strength, has become one of the most highly developed of all the arts practised by mankind. I know not whether to regret it or to rejoice at it; I simply state the fact that, instead of trusting simply to the native and sterling qualities of the people, we must now endeavour to add to these qualities every advantage that can be imparted by the most skilful and effectual training.

With a view to this training - not merely of the men, where it is comparatively simple, but of the officers, who, even more than the men, are the strength of the army, and the essential condition of its efficiency - we have asked the country to pay a large sum of money. The country has met the call with cheerfulness, and has witnessed with satisfaction the downfall of a great monopoly. And, gentlemen, with respect to our alarmists, what have we lately seen? For the first time, at least the first upon such a scale and under such conditions, we have made a very great step in advance, by endeavouring to put a portion of our forces into mimic action upon the open lands of Hampshire. The performances of those troops have been witnessed by most enlightened and distinguished foreign officers from every great country in Europe. We were told at the end of the session, and told by an ex-Minister, whose words would naturally carry force with his countrymen, that we had an army that could not march; and a gallant colonel rose in the house (A Voice: "One of your own party.") - if so, all the better for the purpose, but he was an opponent - a gallant colonel told the House of Commons, that he felt obliged to break through the rules of its procedure in order to raise a discussion upon the question of the manoeuvres, for he said such was the course of the Government, that it was a question not merely of the well-being, but of the very existence of the British army. This was the condition to which we were reduced. Well, now, gentlemen, we have had time to receive back from foreign courts the most interesting reports made to their respective Governments by those distinguished officers; and I am rejoiced to inform you that their character is of the most encouraging description. Not only in every case do they declare a warm admiration - I will not say an unbounded admiration, in order that I may avoid anything like hyperbole - for the material of both our officers and our men; but of the various branches of the service, as to their efficiency, they speak in terms of the highest honour; and while as friendly critics they point out, and as we knew they would point out, and as we hoped they would point out many matters upon which we need and may endeavour to improve, they show that the condition of the army, so far from justifying the ridiculous apprehensions that have gone abroad is one that ought to fill all Englishmen with hope and satisfaction, and to prove to us that never were our establishments more efficient; never were we more able, if it should please Providence to bring upon us the necessity, to entrust its defence to troops and to officers worthy of their country, and qualified to make the defence effectual. And now let me say one word with respect to the War Minister. It has been the fashion during the present year to scoff at Mr. Cardwell. I can only say that when he is condemned I, for my part, am glad to share the condemnation. But I venture to affirm that no man, who has held the seals of office since the Secretaryship of War was established, has done so much for the reform and efficiency of the army; and I am quite sure that when he retires from that office, he will leave behind him a name entitled to the approval and the gratitude of the country. There, gentlemen, is our justification, summarily stated, for dealing with the question of purchase. I press on to other matters.

Were we wrong in dealing with the question of education? ("No, no.") Very well. Has there ever been, I would next venture to say to the most jealous critic of the [1870] Education Act - has there ever been achieved in this country so great a step in advance towards the attainment of an object which we believe to be vital to the welfare of the nation? It is not all done at once - it cannot be all done at once. A measure so great and comprehensive, and at the same time so novel, cannot be perfect. The differences of opinion that prevail in this free country make it quite impossible to meet the views of all. Indulgence, equity, the sacrifice of extreme opinions, must be asked for in every quarter. But I ask those who are least satisfied with the Education Act this one and simple question - Whether it is not a great step, nay, a great stride, achieved upon the path of real progress? The objects of that measure shall be very shortly stated. The great object of all was to make education universal and effective. This was to be done, and in doing it we sought, and I think reason and common sense required us to seek, to turn to account for, that purpose the vast machinery of education already existing in the country, which had been devised and mainly provided by the Christian philanthropy and the voluntary action of the people. That was the second condition under which the Act was framed. The third was, and I think it was not less wise than the two former, that we should endeavour to separate the action of the State in the matter of education, and the application of State funds, in which I include funds raised by rate, from all subjects on which, unhappily, religious differences prevail. Those, I may say, were three of the principles of the measure; and the fourth principle, not less important than the others, was this: that we should trust for the attainment of these great objects, as little as possible to the central Government, and as much as possible to the local authorities and the self-governing power of the people. And let me say in passing, that in my opinion if there be one portion of our institutions more precious in my view than another, it is that portion in which the people are locally organized for the purposes of acquiring the habits and instincts of political action, and applying their own free consciences and free understandings to dealing with the affairs of the community. A most valuable Act was passed by Mr. Stansfeld in the last Session of Parliament which, I trust, will be the beginning of immense good in that respect, and I refer to it here because it touches upon the principle of the Education Act, which I have just mentioned, viz., that as far as possible the application of the Act should be left in the hands of the local authorities. I am not surprised nor disappointed, and I hope that you are neither the one nor the other, if we find that some difficulties have arisen in working out the detail of the Act. (Mr. Gladstone paused here to refresh his voice from a small bottle of restoratives. As he did so, a voice in the crowd was heard exclaiming, "Give us some," to which the right honourable gentleman rejoined, amidst much laughter, "Yes, you would want some if you had to do what I have.") The right honourable gentleman continued: -

Great interest has been excited, both in this and in other constituencies, with respect to the payment of fees to denominational schools for the teaching of those children whose parents are found to be unable to bear the charge of their education. Now, perhaps, it will be a comfort to you to know that at least there is some hope that the extent of this particular grievance and difficulty may not be very wide. In the town of Stockport the Education Board has lately resolved to introduce the principle of compulsion, which, as I have stated, or as I have implied, was one of the principles of the Education Act. They have, by issuing their notices to that effect, added 25 per cent. to the number of children attending schools. In 400 cases they have had to admonish parents, and to warn them that they would be punished unless they complied with the Act; but the whole amount of money - although there are as yet no rate-schools in action, and they have been obliged to allow all children to be sent to denominational schools - which they have as yet paid to these schools in aid of poor parents comes only to £47. But, gentlemen, I have no doubt that this question is a grave and serious question, and I will not attempt to say more upon it than this: On the one hand we shall endeavour to adhere to the principle of the Act which aims at severance between the application of State funds and controverted matters in religion. On the other hand I must pause for my own part, and I believe my colleagues would feel themselves obliged to pause before they could resolve to say to the parent who desires to send his child to a school of his own persuasion, but is unable to pay the charge, and who is compelled by public authority to send it to some school, "If you attempt to send your child to a school of your own Persuasion, if you will not send it to a school of the principles of which you disapprove - namely, to a rate-school, - we will send you to prison." I do not believe public opinion would sustain us in such a course as that.

Well, gentlemen, with regard to the remaining one of these great subjects - namely, the Ballot [the secret ballot] - I will only say we believe it to be your opinion that we have made a good and wise choice in pressing that important question on the attention of Parliament. The enfranchisement, the wide enfranchisement of the working classes, was intended to give the boon of political power not only to the class, but to every individual in the class. We have, therefore, to secure in the case of these persons, many of them to a considerable extent from their temporal circumstances dependent upon others, that the vote which we invite them to give shall be given freely - freely as respects landlord, freely as respects customer, freely as respects employer, freely as respects combination of the working-class itself; and I rejoice to think, gentlemen, that, although the Royal Assent has not yet been given to a bill for secret voting, yet for every practical purpose, after the proceedings of last Session, the question has very nearly reached the stage of final triumph.

I will now, gentlemen, for the present assume that, as regards the class of greater subjects, on which I had the honour of addressing you at the time of my election, and as regards those greater questions to which we have invited Parliament principally to apply itself, you may be disposed to think we have not made the unreasonable or injudicious selection, although we had to choose from among many matters of deep interest and importance.(A short discussion on the need of future legislation relating to health is omitted.) . . . . .

There is a question of the future on which we have heard much said of late - I mean the question of the constitution of the House of Lords. (A Voice: "You had better leave that alone.") My friend there says, "Leave the constitution of the House of Lords alone." I am not prepared quite to agree with my friend, because the constitution of the House of Lords has often been a subject of consideration among the wisest and the most sober-minded men; as, for example, when a proposal - of which my friend disapproves apparently - was made, a few years ago, to make a moderate addition to the House of Lords, of peers holding peerages for life. I am not going to discuss that particular measure; but I will only say, without entering into details that would be highly interesting, but which the vast range of those subjects makes impossible on the present occasion - I will only say that I believe there are various particulars in which the constitution of the House of Lords might, under favourable circumstances, be improved. And I am bound to say that, though I believe there are some politicians, bearing the name of "Liberal," who approve of the proceedings of the House of Lords with respect to the Ballot Bill at the close of the last Session - I see a gentleman disposed to differ from me, and I have no doubt that his opinion is entitled to the greatest weight: if he likes to address this assemblage, I daresay they will be delighted to hear him, but, if I do not stand in his way, perhaps he will allow me to go on - I must own that I deeply lament that proceeding on the part of the House of Lords. It seems to me to have been a great error. After the House of Commons, which had been engaged in other and most serious labours for four or five months, had given some six weeks of the Session - six weeks of very arduous labour - mainly to maturing the Ballot Bill, it appears to me to have been a great and grievous error, I cannot call it anything less, on the part of the House of Lords, in the second week in the month of August, to say that really such was the time at which they had arrived as to render it impossible for them to afford to that measure the number of days - not a very large number of days, according to all precedent and likelihood - that it would have required from them. In the year 1835, the House of Lords, which had a Conservative majority in the face of a Whig Government, not only devoted the month of August, but carried into September the labour necessary for a subject not more important than the Ballot, and at that epoch a subject which had come prominently before the public for the first time - I mean the subject of municipal corporations. But the House of Lords at that juncture was led by a great man. The Conservative majority was guided by the Duke of Wellington; and, although, for my own part, I am not able, in all its parts, to admire the statesmanship of the Duke of Wellington, I shall always profoundly admire the tact, and the skill, and the sound constitutional judgment with which he managed the House of Lords, so as to prevent that particular branch of the Legislature from being placed in dangerous conflict with the popular branch or with the sentiment of the country. But the reform of the House of Lords, which has been recommended in many quarters, is briefly this, - and here I think I am coming to a point of probable agreement with my honourable friend, if he will allow me so to call him. The reform recommended is this - that we should eject and expel from the House of Lords what is termed the hereditary principle. Now, gentlemen, I hope I am at least earnest and sincere in my intentions as to being what passes for a Liberal politician; but before I agree, and before I commit myself to expelling from the House of Lords, the hereditary principle, I will think once, I will think twice - nay, I will think even thrice. It is not on account of this or that particular error committed by a public assembly that we are vitally or profoundly to change the established and accustomed usages and principles of the Constitution. Mark what has since happened. Lord Shaftesbury, whom I mention with a profound respect on account of his earnest and devoted philanthropy, went the other day down to Glasgow, and be received a most warm welcome on the part of the vast population of that city - the working population of that city. In consequence of that incident, some politicians threw up their hats, and exclaimed that the people of Glasgow approved of Lord Shaftesbury's motion with regard to the Ballot Bill. I think that was a precipitate conclusion. But this I conceive was shown by his reception - that the people of Glasgow, being a sagacious people, were not disposed, on account of that particular error, to draw rapid and precipitate conclusions, either against a man or against a body which had performed distinguished services. I will ask you two things; this is a question of so much interest to all, that even after the length to which I have necessarily been drawn, I beg your attention to two points on this portion of our subject. Before you determine to expel the hereditary principle from the House of Lords, I first ask you, what you will substitute for the hereditary principle? (A Voice - "Five years' election.") That is a fruitful hint, but yet I have another point to suggest, and it is this: I have a shrewd suspicion in my mind that a very large proportion of the people of England have a sneaking kindness for this hereditary principle.

I do not mean, gentlemen, by these words that a large proportion of the people of England either desire, or intend, or would permit that which I hope that they never will desire, or intend, or permit - namely, that the House of Lords should exercise a paramount control over the legislation of the country. That is quite another matter. But this I do say - that the people of England are not, like the people of France, lovers of naked political equality. England is a great lover of liberty; but of equality she never has been so much enamoured. Gentlemen, in judging of this question, I must say that possibly the observation of the manner in which, for such long periods, and under so many varieties of form, the love of equality in France has proved insufficient to save our generous and distinguished neighbours from the loss of liberty - the observation of these facts may tend to confirm the people of the three kingdoms in the feelings that I think they entertain; but I want to put this to you as a practical question. The only mode of judging whether an Englishman - and I use the word "Englishman" for the people of the three kingdoms - is not unfriendly to social inequalities is by watching the working of our institutions in detail. My observation has not been of a very brief term - I wish it had been, for then I should have been younger than I am now - and it is this: that whenever there is anything to be done, or to be given, and there are two candidates for it who are exactly alike - alike in opinions, alike in characters, alike in possessions, and one is a commoner and the other a lord, the Englishman is very apt indeed to prefer the lord... This I do say, as my own conviction, that the general sentiment most prevailing in this country is that those who compose the House of Lords are men, or are the descendants of men, of whom a very large proportion are, or were in other times, put into that house for public services, and people are disposed to look with considerable favour upon such men, and likewise upon the descendants of such, until they have proved themselves unworthy. And they know that in effect, not by compulsion, but by the free will of the people, this body of gentlemen in the House of Lords exercise throughout the country a vast social and political influence; and lastly, that many of them although the good ones have to carry, as it were, on their backs the dead weight and the responsibility of the bad - many of them perform their duties in an admirable and exemplary manner. Under these circumstances, gentlemen, though I hope I shall, while I remain in public life, be able to act zealously and cheerfully with you for the promotion of Liberal opinions, I, for one, have never understood by Liberal opinions either precipitate conclusions or subversive opinions. And I hope we shall well consider, before we commit ourselves to vast changes, to the introduction of new and far-reaching principles, what the results are likely to be.

Now, gentlemen, I am drawing very near to my close; but I must still detain you while I refer to a sentiment, which undoubtedly has been more perceptible in the country during the present year, than I have noticed it in a good many former years. I mean a suspicion on the part of many members of the working class, that they are not governed as they ought to be, and that their interests are not properly considered. I will not enter upon the particular causes, connected with the uneasy state of Europe, which may go far to account for this sentiment; but I will venture to say this, that I think the working man will do well briefly and calmly to review the history, with regard to himself, of the last eighteen years. I take that period. - I might take a longer one - but I take that period because it enables me to present results in a tolerably simple form, and because it is a period within which I have been most intimately conversant with a multitude of questions, in which the welfare of the mass of the community is deeply and directly concerned. Within these eighteen years, what has taken place affecting all classes of the community, but especially, and more than all others, affecting the working classes of the people. In the first place, perfectly free access has been given for the entry into our ports of everything that they can want from every quarter of the world - I mean perfectly free, whether as regards prohibitions or as regards protective duties. In the second place, we have seen remitted during those eighteen years an amount of taxation which I will not undertake - and which it is not necessary for me at this moment - to state minutely; but I will venture to assert that the taxation upon commodities, which he has seen remitted within that period, is something between £5,000,000 and £20,000,000 sterling per annum. That remission of taxation, in which the working man is so especially interested, has not been purchased by an augmentation of the burdens upon other classes; because the Income-tax, though it is higher now than I should like to see it - namely, at 6d. in the pound - is still one penny lower than it was eighteen years ago, before those fifteen millions of taxes were remitted. Within these eighteen years, his class has been invested largely with the Parliamentary franchise, and he now sees himself at the point where be may reasonably hope that, before he is six or eight months older, he will be protected in the free exercise of that franchise by means of the Ballot. The Parliament has passed an Act which aims at securing for all his children, under all circumstances, a good primary education, and which provides that, if unhappily he is unable himself to meet the cost, it shall be defrayed for him by the State and by his wealthier neighbours. Whilst this provision has been made for primary education, endeavours have been made, through reforming the Universities, through the entire abolition of tests, and through an extensive dealing with the public and the grammar schools of the country, to establish the whole of our schools in a hierarchy of degrees - the several orders of education rising one above the other - so that, whenever there is in a child a capacity to rise, be may, with facility, pass on from point to point, and may find open to him the road through knowledge to distinction. But education would not be of great use to the people unless the materials of study were accessible; and therefore, at no small cost of political effort, the material of paper has been set free of duty, and every restriction, in stamp or otherwise, upon the press has been removed. The consequence has been the creation of a popular press which, for the lowness of its price, for the general ability - aye, for the general wisdom and moderation with which it is written, and for the vast extent of its circulation, I might almost venture to call, not only an honour to the nation, but the wonder of the world. And in order that the public service might indeed be a public service - in order that we might not have among the civil offices of the State that which we had complained of in the army - namely, that the service was not the property of the nation, but of the officers, we have now been enabled to remove from the entry into the Civil Service the barriers of nomination, patronage, jobbing, favouritism in whatever form; and every man belonging to the people of land - if he is able to fit his children for the purpose of competing for public employment - may do it entirely irrespective of the question of what is his condition in life, or the amount of means with which he may happen to be, or not to be endowed. I say confidently, in the face of those of the working community who may hear me, and to the minds of all those who may pay the least attention to these words through any other medium, that when, within such a period as I have described, measures like these have been achieved, while there may remain much to be done - I am the last to deny it, I am the first to assert it - there is reason to look with patience and indulgence upon a system under which such results have been accomplished; some reason for that loyalty to the Throne, and that attachment to the law, which are the happy characteristics of the people of this country.

But while I would exhort you to impose upon the Government and the Legislature every burden that they are, in their own nature, capable of bearing, in my mind they are not your friends, but in fact, though not in intention, your enemies, who teach you to look to the Legislature, or to the Government, for the radical removal of the evils which afflict human life. I read but a few days ago, in a questionable book, verses which I think contain much good sense, and which I will read to you: -

"People throughout the land
Join in one social band,
And save yourselves.
if you would happy be,
Free from all slavery,
Banish all knavery,
And save yourselves."

It is the individual mind, the individual conscience; it is the individual character, on which mainly human happiness or human misery depends. The social problems which confront us are many and formidable. Let the Government labour to its uttermost, let the Legislature spend days and nights in your service; but, after the very best has been achieved the question whether the English father is to be the father of a happy family and the centre of a United home, is a question which must depend mainly upon himself. Those who propose to you schemes like those Seven Points of which I spoke - who promise to dwellers in towns that every one of them shall have a house and garden in the country - those who tell you that there shall be markets for selling, at wholesale price, retail quantities - I will not say, gentlemen, that these are impostors, because I have no doubt that they are sincere; but I will say that they are quacks - they are misled and beguiled by a spurious philanthropy, and when they ought to give you substantial, even if humble and modest, boons, they are endeavouring, perhaps, without their own consciousness, to delude you with phantasms, and to offer you glowing fruit which, when you attempt to taste it, will prove to be but ashes in your mouth. No, gentlemen, what we have to ask ourselves are questions which depend upon ourselves individually in the main to answer. How are the ravages of strong drink to be checked? In an age when, from year to year, more and more women are becoming self-dependent members of the community, how, without tampering with the cardinal laws that determine providentially their position in the world, how are we to remove the serious social inequalities under which I, for one, hold that they labour? How, in a country where wealth accumulates with such vast rapidity, are we to check the growth of luxury and selfishness by sound and healthy opinion? How are we to secure to labour its due honour? - and I mean not only the labour of the hands, but the labour of the man, with any and with all the faculties that God has given him? How are we to make ourselves believe, and how are we to bring the country to believe, that in the sight of God and man labour in this world is honourable, and idleness is of all things most contemptible? Depend upon it I do but speak the serious and solemn truth when I say that, within and beneath the political questions that are found upon the surface, lie the deeper and more searching questions that enter into the breast, and that strike home to the conscience and the mind of every man; and it is upon the solution of these questions, and other questions such as these, that the well-being of England must depend.

Gentlemen, I use the words of a popular poet when I give vent to the sentiments of hope with which, for one, I venture to look forward to the future of the country. He says -

"The ancient virtue is not dead,
And long may it endure
May wealth in England.... "

(and I am sure he means by wealth the higher sense of it - prosperity alone, but healthful and sound prosperity)-

"May wealth in England never fail,
Nor pity for the poor."

May strength and the means of material prosperity never be wanting to us. But it is far more important that there shall not be wanting the disposition to use those means aright. And now, gentlemen, I shall go home from this meeting, after having given you the best account in my feeble power, within the time and under the circumstances of the day, strengthened by the comfort of your kindness and your indulgence, to resume my share in public labours. And no motive will more operate upon me as an incentive to the discharge of duty than the gratitude with which I look back upon the, I believe, unexampled circumstances under which you chose me for your representative. But I shall endeavour and shall make it my special aim to show that gratitude less by words of sounding compliment or hollow flattery than by a manful struggle, according to the measure of my gifts, humble as they may be, to render service to a Queen who lives in the hearts of the people - and to a nation, with respect to which I will say that through all posterity, whether it be praised or whether it be blamed whether it be acquitted or whether it be condemned, it will be acquitted or condemned upon this issue - of having made a good or bad use of the most splendid opportunities; of having turned to account, or having failed to turn to account, the powers, the energies, the faculties which mark the people of this little island as among the small and select company of great nations that have stamped their name on the page of history as gifted with the qualities that mark the leaders of mankind.

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