1. Disraeli and Gladstone
At last—in 1865—the aged Palmerston died; next year Russell followed him to the grave; and a new chapter of English history began.
For many years the chief feature of Parliamentary debates was the struggle between two great statesmen, William Ewart Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli, afterwards known as the Earl of Beaconsfield.
These men differed completely in personal history, in character, in opinions, and in aims. Gladstone, sprung from a Scottish commercial family, entered the first "reformed" Parliament at twenty-three, after a distinguished career at Eton and Oxford, and within two years joined Peel's first ministry. But Disraeli, educated at home, the son of a Jewish man of letters, was a famous novelist long before he became a politician. Born five years before Gladstone, he entered Parliament five years after him. And there he was noted at first mainly for his bottle-green coats and waistcoats, large fancy trousers, and black ties, his long, black, well-oiled curls, and his fantastic tricks in speaking. His first speech was received with mocking laughter, and Peel refused him a place in the ministry of 1841.
Gladstone, again, started life as "the rising hope of the stern and unbending Tories." Then—when the country gentlemen rejected Peel—he became a "Peelite." Then, like other Peelites, he first allied with the Liberals and then joined their ranks. For close on thirty years, whether in or out of office, he was, indeed, the greatest force in Liberalism. And as old age overtook him, and he felt the night drawing on when no man can work, his eagerness for reform drove him ever nearer to the Radical section of his party.
But Disraeli began by supporting the Chartist petition in 1839. Then he offered to serve Peel. Then he guided the Protectionist revolt against Peel's policy. After Peel's fall he led the Conservative party for twenty years as Leader of the Opposition in the Commons, or Chancellor of the Exchequer in short-lived Conservative Governments. And meanwhile he strove—like Peel before him—to "educate his party." He dropped the now discredited Protection policy. He embraced the more popular cause of Parliamentary Reform. Indeed, in 1867, he passed the second Reform Act, which many Conservatives thought a "betrayal of the party" at least as great as Peel's.
Gladstone, a devout Churchman, though the political leader of the Nonconformists, was a man of brilliant intellect, immense earnestness, extraordinary personal influence, and boundless capacity for work. His policy—especially his avoidance of foreign troubles at almost any cost for the sake of economy and reform at home—has often been condemned. Lack of principle, even deliberate bad faith, has been charged against him, for he was subtle in thought and speech, and, like Peel, changed his opinions absolutely on more than one great question. Yet few even of his opponents really doubted that he fought always for what he believed, however mistakenly, to be right.
The great opponent of this terribly earnest man seemed, above all things, a mocker. His biting sarcasm, matched against Gladstone's fiery indignation, was like a delicate rapier matched against a ponderous battleaxe. He had, indeed, ideals of his own, but to most Englishmen, even to most Conservatives, he was always something of a mysterious stranger. Combining in a wonderful way shrewdness and romance, mockery and enthusiasm, he had little in common with the sober traditions of English parties.
Yet he was brilliantly fitted to lead the Conservative party at this period. For, with his vivid Eastern imagination, he gave clear shape and expression to the vague longings of his followers after a policy of "magnificent adventure." He was one of the first English "Imperialists." And he sought for England not so much peace and prosperity and wealth and liberty at home as glory and renown abroad—the strength and grandeur of a mighty Empire, an ever closer union between all the Queen's dominions, an ever stronger sense of common interest and mutual affection between the Mother Country and her Daughter States.
2. Rival Policies
So the chief triumphs of Gladstone and Disraeli were widely different. Gladstone worked for reform of Parliament in his Ballot Act and his famous Reform Act. He did something to make men's chances in life more equal by his Education Act and his abolition of "purchase" (that is, buying officers' ranks) in the army. Above all, he struggled to give "Justice to Ireland," beginning his first ministry by disestablishing the Irish Church, and finally breaking up his party in a vain endeavour to give Ireland "Home Rule."
But Disraeli, though passing certain useful reforming measures, especially in connection with education and the public health, was far more concerned with foreign and colonial affairs. The Liberals, he complained, had destroyed England's influence in Europe. They had made her yield in coward fashion to the threats of rivals. They had failed to grasp the importance of her Empire. They had stood by while Prussia crushed France, and Russia—in the confusion—renounced the promises she made after the Crimean War. They had meekly paid three million pounds to the United States for damage done to American commerce by ships built in English ports during the American Civil War. And they had thought the colonies troublesome possessions, not to be regretted if they chose to break away, as the American Colonies had done before them.
So Disraeli claimed for England a leading part in European affairs. He enforced the claim by threats of, war. And he strove to strengthen and increase the Empire. India was his especial care. He arranged the Indian tour of Edward VII, then Prince of Wales. He made the Queen Empress of India. He bought for England nearly half the shares of the new Suez Canal, joining the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, the shortest route from Europe to the East. And he took advantage of the bankruptcy of the Egyptian ruler, the Khedive, to set up, with France, a control of Egyptian finance which soon became a control of the Egyptian Government.
Fear of Russian designs on India, moreover, made him oppose the aims of Russia in Europe. So he refused to join her, with the other Powers, in threatening war on Turkey for her brutal treatment of Bulgarian rebels. And when Turkey, thus encouraged, persisted in cruelty, and Russia thereupon attacked her alone, England went to the verge of war. The danger was ended by the treaty of peace between the combatants, but it speedily returned—for Disraeli demanded, and Russia refused, a revision of the treaty by a Congress of the Powers. The army at home was now strengthened; and Indian troops were called to Malta.
But, happily, Russia made a secret agreement with England, and then allowed the Berlin Conference of 1878 to finish the settlement. England undertook to defend the Turkish dominions in Asia. She received in return an empty promise of reforms there, and, for herself, practical possession of Cyprus. And Disraeli, now Earl of Beaconsfield, returned exultingly to London, boasting that he had brought back "peace with honour."
This was his greatest triumph. Soon afterwards his jealousy of Russia caused an Afghan war, successful enough in itself, but followed by a massacre of Englishmen in Afghanistan which made another invasion necessary. In South Africa, the annexation of the Transvaal caused first a war with the powerful Zulu race, which opened disastrously, and then a quarrel with the Transvaal Boers themselves. In Egypt, a national movement against foreign interference began. In Ireland, disorder steadily increased. The adventurous policy of the Government, being no longer invariably successful, became unpopular. Gladstone attacked it as extravagant and un-Christian. Public opinion condemned it, as it seemed to associate England with the cruelties of the Turks. And in the General Election of 1880 Beaconsfield was utterly defeated.
3. England in Egypt
Gladstone now solved the problems of Afghanistan and South Africa after his own fashion, though not as Beaconsfield would have wished. But Russian hostility, and Irish disorder, and the Egyptian question, harassed him to the end, and the last two proved his undoing.
The nationalist movement in Egypt, under one Arabi Bey, which led to attacks on European residents, obliged England and France, as the controlling Powers, to step in. But France soon retired, and England had to restore order single-handed. So an English fleet bombarded Arabi's forts at Alexandria, and an English army crushed him in battle, and remained to garrison the country. Thus the English occupation of Egypt began.
England, indeed, claimed no sovereign rights. She honestly intended to withdraw as soon as possible. But meanwhile her troops preserved the peace; her statesmen reformed the government and finances; her engineers changed the face of the country, and caused the desert to blossom as the rose, by the great irrigation works which made the Nile a blessing instead of a curse to the Egyptian peasantry. And more and more it became impossible for English Governments to think of withdrawing from the country. They could not abandon to some hostile Power the control of the Suez Canal banks, or leave reforms half finished, or let the Egyptian peasants become again poor and miserable and oppressed. So at last the rights of England in Egypt were recognized by the other Powers. The Khedive, the vassal of the Sultan, remained, indeed, the nominal ruler. But an English Resident guided his policy, and English officers controlled alike the army and the civil service.
It was not, however, the occupation of Egypt, but the abandonment of the Egyptian Sudan to the south of it, that so damaged Gladstone's Government. For, however wise in itself, that abandonment led to a tragedy which filled all England with indignation.
Some twenty years before, English explorers had pierced through the unknown region of the Upper Nile to the great lakes in the south, which they named Victoria Nyanza and Albert Nyanza, after Queen Victoria and her husband. They found the natives there the prey of cruel slave-hunters. But a little later the Khedive asserted his authority over the country, and appointed two Englishmen in succession as Governors, with orders to suppress the slave-trade. The first was one of the explorers themselves, Sir Samuel Baker. The second was Charles Gordon, an officer of saintly life and long experience in China.
For five years—almost alone—Gordon fought the slave-traders, earning their hatred and the love of their victims. But the accession of a new and worthless Khedive ended his work. He returned to England; and the Sudan returned to misery under the now corrupt and cruel Egyptian rule.
Then, in 1882, there appeared a Mandi—that is, a conqueror claiming to be the man foretold by prophecy who would subdue the whole world to the Mahometan religion. This man gained many followers in the Sudan; for the inhabitants had little reason to fight for their Egyptian master. One after another the Egyptian garrisons fell. The Mandi advanced northwards. A wretched Egyptian army, commanded by an English officer, was misled by treacherous guides and cut to pieces in the desert. The Egyptian Government, unable even to keep order at home without British soldiers, could do no more. And Gladstone's ministry, loving economy and loathing war, would neither allow Turkish troops to enter Egypt nor send a force itself.
So the garrisons and other Egyptians in the Sudan, it was decided, must withdraw. And Gordon, the friend of the Sudanese natives, was sent out as the only man who could carry out the withdrawal peacefully. The choice seemed wise; yet it produced fresh difficulties. Gordon insisted on plans which the Government felt unable to accept, and when he reached the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, the inhabitants would not believe that he had come alone. An English army, they were sure, would follow him and protect them where they were; so they refused to leave. Thereupon Gordon, in spite of his instructions, declared that he would never desert them, and called on Gladstone to send a force to "smash the Mandi."
Thus the peace-loving English Government was driven, in spite of all its efforts, into war. But it delayed for weeks and months in the vain hope that war would prove unnecessary. It would not believe how great was Gordon's danger. And when at last an English expedition, admirably planned and equipped, marched up the Nile, it failed. The troops pushed on in two divisions, racing against time. Late in January, 1885, the first division reached Khartoum. But it was just too late.
For ten months Gordon had resisted the ever-growing forces of the Mandi. Week after week, month after month, he had mounted every night to the Palace roof to pray for an English army and watch and listen for the first signs of its coming. Long before the end he was cut off altogether from the outside world, and his only English comrade was murdered on his way north to hasten aid from Egypt.
Presently starvation stared the garrison in the face. The Mandi's followers pressed the siege ever closer. And at last, two days before the relieving army arrived, they burst into Khartoum. Gordon, armed with sword and pistol, would use neither. Where bloodshed could do no good, he would shed no blood. So he fell unresisting, and his head was borne in triumph to the Mandi's camp.
The news filled England with remorse and anger. Gladstone hastily promised to crush the Mandi in the following year. But by that time other matters occupied both the nation and the Government, and so for more than fifteen years the Mandi and his successor, the Khalifa, ruled and ravaged in the Sudan.
4. The End of a Great Reign
In 1886, on the Irish question, Gladstone's ministry fell, and now the Conservatives and their allies, led first by Lord Salisbury and then by his nephew Mr. Arthur Balfour, ruled England for nearly twenty years.
In this period local government was greatly developed by the creation of County, District, and Parish Councils. Education, already compulsory for every child, was made free. Home Rule was for the time emphatically rejected. Peace was maintained, though England was exceedingly unpopular abroad. The Indian frontier was advanced; vast developments were made in Canada and Australia; and the English possessions in Africa were enormously increased.
In 1896 the reconquest of the Sudan was at last taken in hand. Led by General (afterwards Lord) Kitchener, English and Egyptian troops, fighting side by side, crushed the Khalifa's armies in battle after battle. Finally Khartoum itself was recovered, and a solemn service held in memory of Gordon in the place where he had died. Then the Sudan was formally taken under the joint rule of the English Crown and the Khedive. Meanwhile the English territories in East and South Africa grew ever larger, till in the South the rivalry of English and Dutch produced the South African War of 1899–1902 and the final suppression of Boer independence.
In the middle of this war, bowed down with age and toil and grief; Queen Victoria died. A girl of eighteen at her accession, she reigned more than sixty-three years—longer even than George III. For twenty-two years she enjoyed a singularly happy married life. But by the death of the Prince Consort the whole world was changed for her. Though never very popular, the Prince had done his duty nobly in a very difficult position. And not for an instant had he ever swerved from loyal devotion to his wife.
The Queen was inconsolable. Business of State, indeed, she never neglected. But for years she avoided, as far as possible, all public functions, causing thereby no little discontent. And still troubles came thick upon her. Two sons, a daughter, two sons-in-law, and three grandsons died in her lifetime, and more than once public affairs gave her terrible anxiety.
But in her later years her devotion to duty and ceaseless care for her subjects won back for her a double portion of her people's love—a love all the tenderer when tinged with pity for a lonely and sorrowful old age. And twice—in the Jubilee of 1887 and in the Diamond Jubilee ten years later—this love found vent in vast rejoicings, which hailed first the fiftieth and then the sixtieth anniversary of her accession.
It would not be easy to surpass the brilliance of the first Jubilee, when seventeen princes rode before the royal carriage in the procession to Westminster Abbey, the tall figure of the Queen's son-in-law, the Crown Prince of Germany, towering above all others in his splendid uniform. Yet perhaps the second Jubilee appealed still more to the heart of the Queen herself.
The little band of princes, indeed, was sadly thinned, for Death had taken his toll of them, claiming first the Crown Prince himself, when he had just become German Emperor. But though she mourned the loss of kinsmen—the breaking one after another of the ties of blood—she must have rejoiced at the new tokens of the devotion that her noble life had won throughout her dominions. For there, in the great procession that stretched for a mile and a half. through the streets of London, were the Prime Ministers of all the self-governing colonies, and troops from almost every possession of the Crown—a living, moving witness to the common love and loyalty which now bound the whole Empire together round the throne.
Three years and a half later—on January 22, 1901—the Queen died, and, borne by night across the Solent between dark lines of towering warships, thundering out their farewell salute, she was laid at last in peace at Windsor, where, nearly forty years before, her beloved husband had been buried.
5. Edward the Peacemaker
And now, for nine years, Edward VII reigned over "all the Britains." "Uncle Edward" the Germans called him, for their Emperor was his nephew, and the Russian Empress and the Spanish Queen were his nieces; while his brothers-in-law sat on the thrones of Greece and Denmark, and the Queen of Norway was his daughter. "Edward the Peacemaker" he was called when he had died; for—by his great experience, his wonderful tact, his personal popularity abroad, and his loyal use of all the opportunities of his position—he did much to end the isolation of England among the Powers of Europe.
Peace was made in South Africa before his Coronation. That same year England, for the first time in recent history, entered into an active alliance, her ally being "the England of the East," the island Power of Japan. Then an agreement with France settled many long-disputed points, and covert hostility between the two nations changed into hearty goodwill—the famous Entente Cordiale, which the King's popularity in Paris so greatly helped to establish. And this naturally led to a better understanding with France's ally, Russia.
Meanwhile the Conservative Government had at length fallen. It had lasted so long mainly because disputes as to the justice of the Boer War split up the Liberal party. And now the Conservatives themselves were divided into Tariff Reformers and Free Traders, and unable to follow any vigorous policy. So the Liberals, led first by Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman and then by Mr. Asquith, returned to power with an enormous majority. Abroad they continued Mr. Balfour's policy. In South Africa they treated the Boers with unparalleled generosity. At home they soon began vigorous social reforms, involving vast additional taxation, especially for the payment of Old Age Pensions to all men and women over seventy who were in need. A violent party conflict ensued over the new taxes and the general attitude of the House of Lords to Liberal measures, and in the middle of it Edward VII died, greatly lamented, and his son, George V, became king.
In this brief sketch there has been no room even to mention the greatest writers of each period. Yet the Age of Walpole was also the age of the poet Pope—cold, formal, brilliant as his times; and of political pamphleteers like Defoe, Swift, and Bolingbroke. The stirring Age of Chatham was the Age of Dr. Johnson, the great-hearted dictionary maker; Goldsmith, whose charming "Vicar of Wakefield" pictures the country parson at his best; Richardson, Fielding, Smollett, and Sterne, whose novels show the English life that Hogarth painted; Gibbon the historian; Chesterfield and Horace Walpole, whose letters describe the fashionable world that sat for portraits to Reynolds, Gainsborough, and Romney. And the Age of Pitt began a time unequalled since the days of Shakespeare, yet hardly greater than the early years of Victoria. For first came poets—Cowper, Burns, Southey, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Byron; essayists—Lamb and Hazlitt; novelists—Jane Austen and Walter Scott, whose works are now known throughout the world. And then another flood of masterpieces poured forth from Tennyson, the two Brownings, Dickens, Thackeray, Charlotte Bronte, "George Eliot," Macaulay, Ruskin, Carlyle, and Meredith.