Over the coming weeks and months we are publishing excerpts from the book ‘A Diary of Two Parliaments’ by Henry W Lucy, published in 1885. A popular book in our library, it covers the parliament of the Disraeli government during the years 1874-1880.
Catch-up with other posts in this series here, or search our library here.
The Disraeli Parliament 1874-1880
Mr Smollett attacks the Late Premier
Friday 24th April 1874
When at five o’clock Smollett rose, in accordance with notice to call the attention of the House of Commons to “the abrupt dissolution of the late Parliament,” and to move a resolution, there was present only such a House as is customary on Friday evenings, when a private member is availing himself of the privilege of airing a grievance on going into Committee of Supply. A quarter of an hour earlier Gregory had, by a speech on probate in England, Scotland, and Ireland, driven the bulk of the members away. But they came flocking back as the news spread through the lobbies that Smollett really was moving his resolution, and that Gladstone was on the Treasury bench taking notes, with the obvious intention of replying.
Smollett set out with the declaration that he was not working in conjunction with any party, nor was he expecting sympathy from either Ministers or the Opposition. The former were, he declared, too well satisfied with the position in which the dissolution had landed them to interpose, and the other too fully impressed with the wisdom of not crying over spilt milk, to complain of “the political madness of Mr. Gladstone,” or to bewail their own “condition of political disorganisation.”
This way of speaking, the plainness of which was considerably augmented by a certain brusqueness of manner, raised a laugh on the Conservative benches. Thus encouraged, Smollett proceeded to indulge in “a short historical retrospect of the Session,” the dramatic interest of which he somewhat damaged by declaring at the outset that it was designed to prove that Gladstone had “organised a dissolution in secret, and sprung it upon the House.” It was not, he was careful to state, for the sake of the late House of Commons that he was moved to protest. He had not himself belonged to that House, had “never thought much of it,” and had even seen it referred to as “an assembly of soap boilers.” But the facts did not lessen his indignation against Gladstone and his colleagues, whom, in the course of his speech, he accused of “having, by unworthy, improper, and unconstitutional methods, tried to seize power of having “acted in a manner that was ungenerous to their friends, insolent to their enemies, and to the country at large barely honest;” whose conduct he variously described as “indecent,” as “utter wantonness,” as a “device,” an “artifice” a “plot,” a “pious fraud,” as “sharp practice more likely to have come from a sharp attorney’s office than from a Cabinet of English gentlemen.” To account for all of which the most charitable suggestion that offered itself was that “the late Ministry had lost their wits, and were not responsible agents.”
To this, members on the Conservative side listened with appreciative laughter and applauding cheers, and only once when Smollett declared, speaking of Gladstone, that “the stratagem had recoiled on the head of the trickster” did indignant cries of “Order!” from the Liberal benches interrupt the speaker.
When Smollett sat down, Gladstone half rose from his place, but there appeared a prospect of his speech remaining unspoken. No one had seconded the resolution, and no response came in reply to the Speaker’s demand for the name of the seconder. At the second appeal from the chair, however, Whalley came forward, hat in hand, from the obscurity of a corner under the Strangers’ Gallery, and said,
“I beg to second it.”
A great roar of laughter and cheers followed upon this unexpected apparition. It was some moments before silence was restored, and the Speaker found an opportunity for putting the motion from the chair. Then Gladstone appeared at the table, and was greeted by long and loud cheering from the benches behind him and below the gangway. In tones of grave mockery he declared that, as the motion had been supported by “two such distinguished members” as the proposer and seconder, he felt it his duty to lose no time in replying to it. In the same tone of grave banter, hugely relished by both sides of the House, Gladstone, whilst admitting that Smollett had the support of a name that stood high in historical literature, took exception to the date of the “historical retrospect” which they had listened to. “What he calls history I call romance,” said he, and, with a half apology for treating the matter seriously, he proceeded at some length to contradict and disprove the serious allegations “which appeared amid the jokes and the invective of the hon. member. “The main statement, to the effect that the Ministry had early in January determined upon the dissolution announced in the last week of the month, and had secretly informed their supporters of their intention, with the view to their obtaining advantages at the hustings, Gladstone denounced as “not only untrue, but absurd; not only absurd, but impossible.” Coming to the passage in which Smollett had stigmatised her Majesty’s late Ministers as “tricksters,” he, pointing over to the place where Smollett sat, called out, in a loud voice,
“Let the hon. member rise in his place and say whether he still holds to the utterance of the word ‘trickster.'”
He paused a moment, and Smollett, standing on his feet, said hurriedly,
“I shall not rise again from my seat.” The House laughed at the “bull” but it became hushed as Gladstone protested his scorn for a man who, when challenged, had “not the decency, had not the manliness, to reply, but took refuge in ignoble silence from the consequence of his act.” A prolonged cheer from the Liberal benches followed, and when Gladstone spoke again it was in a quiet, subdued manner. Thenceforward his speech resolved itself into an elaborate defence of the course taken by the Cabinet in dissolving Parliament, and comprised an historically interesting statement of his personal views and feelings in the last critical moments of his Premiership.
When Gladstone had finished, he, amid loud cheers, walked out of the House, and Whalley presented himself, this time from a seat behind the front
Opposition bench. His naive confession, that he had “scarcely read the resolution he had seconded,” caused great laughter, which became quite boisterous when he said he was very glad to have the opportunity of commenting upon the inconvenience occasioned to candidates for election and re-election by the suddenness of the dissolution, adding, “It found me in prison” When, finally, Whalley sat down, there was a pause, and all eyes were turned towards the Treasury bench, where Disraeli sat with folded arms and downcast eyes. Showing no signs of intention to interfere in the matter, Sir George Bowyer rose amid deprecatory cries. It transpired that he wanted Smollett to withdraw his resolution, but the Liberals opposing to his suggestion a determined shout of “No!” the question was formally put from the Chair and negatived.
Excerpt from A Diary of Two Parliaments by Henry W Lucy published in 1885
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