Phineas Redux, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 9

The Debate

The beginning of the battle as recorded in the last chapter took place on a Friday — Friday, 11th November — and consequently two entire days intervened before the debate could be renewed. There seemed to prevail an opinion during this interval that Mr Gresham had been imprudent. It was acknowledged by all men that no finer speech than that delivered by him had ever been heard within the walls of that House. It was acknowledged also that as regarded the question of oratory Mr Daubeny had failed signally. But the strategy of the Minister was said to have been excellent, whereas that of the ex-Minister was very loudly condemned. There is nothing so prejudicial to a cause as temper. This man is declared to be unfit for any position of note, because he always shows temper. Anything can be done with another man — he can be made to fit almost any hole — because he has his temper under command. It may, indeed, be assumed that a man who loses his temper while he is speaking is endeavouring to speak the truth such as he believes it to be, and again it may be assumed that a man who speaks constantly without losing his temper is not always entitled to the same implicit faith. Whether or not this be a reason the more for preferring the calm and tranquil man may be doubted; but the calm and tranquil man is preferred for public services. We want practical results rather than truth. A clear head is worth more than an honest heart. In a matter of horseflesh of what use is it to have all manner of good gifts if your horse won’t go whither you want him, and refuses to stop when you bid him? Mr Gresham had been very indiscreet, and had especially sinned in opposing the Address without arrangements with his party.

And he made the matter worse by retreating within his own shell during the whole of that Saturday, Sunday, and Monday morning. Lord Cantrip was with him three or four times, and he saw both Mr Palliser, who had been Chancellor of the Exchequer under him, and Mr Ratler. But he went amidst no congregation of Liberals, and asked for no support. He told Ratler that he wished gentlemen to vote altogether in accordance with their opinions; and it came to be whispered in certain circles that he had resigned, or was resigning, or would resign, the leadership of his party. Men said that his passions were too much for him, and that he was destroyed by feelings of regret, and almost of remorse.

The Ministers held a Cabinet Council on the Monday morning, and it was supposed afterwards that that also had been stormy. Two gentlemen had certainly resigned their seats in the Government before the House met at four o’clock, and there were rumours abroad that others would do so if the suggested measure should be found really to amount to disestablishment. The rumours were, of course, worthy of no belief, as the transactions of the Cabinet are of necessity secret. Lord Drummond at the War Office, and Mr Boffin from the Board of Trade, did, however, actually resign; and Mr Boffin’s explanations in the House were heard before the debate was resumed. Mr Boffin had certainly not joined the present Ministry — so he said — with the view of destroying the Church. He had no other remark to make, and he was sure that the House would appreciate the course which had induced him to seat himself below the gangway. The House cheered very loudly, and Mr Boffin was the hero of ten minutes. Mr Daubeny detracted something from this triumph by the overstrained and perhaps ironic pathos with which he deplored the loss of his right honourable friend’s services. Now this right honourable gentleman had never been specially serviceable.

But the wonder of the world arose from the fact that only two gentlemen out of the twenty or thirty who composed the Government did give up their places on this occasion. And this was a Conservative Government! With what a force of agony did all the Ratlers of the day repeat that inappropriate name! Conservatives! And yet they were ready to abandon the Church at the bidding of such a man as Mr Daubeny! Ratler himself almost felt that he loved the Church. Only two resignations — whereas it had been expected that the whole House would fall to pieces! Was it possible that these earls, that marquis, and the two dukes, and those staunch old Tory squires, should remain in a Government pledged to disestablish the Church? Was all the honesty, all the truth of the great party confined to the bosoms of Mr Boffin and Lord Drummond? Doubtless they were all Esaus; but would they sell their great birthright for so very small a mess of pottage? The parsons in the country, and the little squires who but rarely come up to London, spoke of it all exactly as did the Ratlers. There were parishes in the country in which Mr Boffin was canonised, though up to that date no Cabinet Minister could well have been less known to fame than was Mr Boffin.

What would those Liberals do who would naturally rejoice in the disestablishment of the Church — those members of the Lower House, who had always spoken of the ascendancy of Protestant episcopacy with the bitter acrimony of exclusion? After all, the success or failure of Mr Daubeny must depend, not on his own party, but on them. It must always be so when measures of Reform are advocated by a Conservative Ministry. There will always be a number of untrained men ready to take the gift without looking at the giver. They have not expected relief from the hands of Greeks, but will take it when it comes from Greeks or Trojans. What would Mr Turnbull say in this debate — and what Mr Monk? Mr Turnbull was the people’s tribune, of the day; Mr Monk had also been a tribune, then a Minister, and now was again — something less than a tribune. But there were a few men in the House, and some out of it, who regarded Mr Monk as the honestest and most patriotic politician of the day.

The debate was long and stormy, but was peculiarly memorable for the skill with which Mr Daubeny’s higher colleagues defended the steps they were about to take. The thing was to be done in the cause of religion. The whole line of defence was indicated by the gentlemen who moved and seconded the Address. An active, well-supported Church was the chief need of a prosperous and intelligent people. As to the endowments, there was some confusion of ideas; but nothing was to be done with them inappropriate to religion. Education would receive the bulk of what was left after existing interests had been amply guaranteed. There would be no doubt — so said these gentlemen — that ample funds for the support of an Episcopal Church would come from those wealthy members of the body to whom such a Church was dear. There seemed to be a conviction that clergymen under the new order of things world be much better off than under the old. As to the connection with the State, the time for it had clearly gone by. The Church, as a Church, would own increased power when it could appoint its own bishops, and be wholly dissevered from State patronage. It seemed to be almost a matter of surprise that really good Churchmen should have endured so long to be shackled by subservience to the State. Some of these gentlemen pleaded their cause so well that they almost made it appear that episcopal ascendancy would be restored in England by the disseverance of the Church and State.

Mr Turnbull, who was himself a dissenter, was at last upon his legs, and then the Ratlers knew that the game was lost. It would be lost as far as it could be lost by a majority in that House on that motion; and it was by that majority or minority that Mr Daubeny would be maintained in his high office or ejected from it. Mr Turnbull began by declaring that he did not at all like Mr Daubeny as a Minister of the Crown. He was not in the habit of attaching himself specially to any Minister of the Crown. Experience had taught him to doubt them all. Of all possible Ministers of the Crown at this period, Mr Daubeny was he thought perhaps the worst, and the most dangerous. But the thing now offered was too good to be rejected, let it come from what quarter it would. Indeed, might it not be said of all the good things obtained for the people, of all really serviceable reforms, that they were gathered and garnered home in consequence of the squabbles of Ministers? When men wanted power, either to grasp at it or to retain it, then they offered bribes to the people. But in the taking of such bribes there was no dishonesty, and he should willingly take this bribe.

Mr Monk spoke also. He would not, he said, feel himself justified in refusing the Address to the Crown proposed by Ministers, simply because that Address was founded on the proposition of a future reform, as to the expediency of which he had not for many years entertained a doubt. He could not allow it to be said of him that he had voted for the permanence of the Church establishment, and he must therefore support the Government. Then Ratler whispered a few words to his neighbour: “I knew the way he’d run when Gresham insisted on poor old Mildmay’s taking him into the Cabinet.” “The whole thing has gone to the dogs,” said Bonteen. On the fourth night the House was divided, and Mr Daubeny was the owner of a majority of fifteen.

Very many of the Liberal party expressed an opinion that the battle had been lost through the want of judgment evinced by Mr Gresham. There was certainly no longer that sturdy adherence to their chief which is necessary for the solidarity of a party. Perhaps no leader of the House was ever more devoutly worshipped by a small number of adherents than was Mr Gresham now; but such worship will not support power. Within the three days following the division the Ratlers had all put their heads together and had resolved that the Duke of St Bungay was now the only man who could keep the party together. “But who should lead our House?” asked Bonteen. Ratler sighed instead of answering. Things had come to that pass that Mr Gresham was the only possible leader. And the leader of the House of Commons, on behalf of the Government, must be the chief man in the Government, let the so-called Prime Minister be who he may.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:43