HC Deb 29 March 1889 vol 334 cc1166-78

I rise, with the permission of the House, to say a few words upon an event which, I believe, is an occasion of sorrow to every Member of this House, and to every subject of the Queen within the United Kingdom—I refer to the death of the right hon. Member for Birmingham. I had not the honour of a personal intimacy with the right hon. Gentleman. It has been my lot, and that of those who are associated with me, to be engaged in opposition to the right hon. Gentleman during the greater part, if not the whole, of his political career. Therefore, Sir, it may not be altogether unfitting that I should venture to say a few words, however inadequately, as to the loss which I believe the country has sustained by his death. His life has been prolonged beyond the ordinary life of man. He has sat in this House almost uninterruptedly for a period of 45 years. Many of us have had the opportunity of observing the manner in which he has discharged his duty as a Member of Parliament, as a Member of the Government, and still more as a citizen of the United Kingdom and of the British Empire. There is no one, I believe, who would have less desired that a word of adulation or of excessive praise should be used in reference to any action of his life, or to his character. He was a man of such perfect simplicity, such transparent honesty of character, that mere personal praise or adulation would have been most repugnant to him; and, therefore, I shall not venture to indulge in terms of exaggerated praise of the man who is gone. But to many of those who, like myself, have had the great privilege of listening to him in this House I think I may say that it has been impossible, even when we differed from him, and even when his eloquence fell upon us with excessive severity when attacking strongly that which we held to be dear, or the principles which we esteemed to be necessary—even then we could not but feel admiration for the strength and consistency of his character, for the force with which he gave expression to his views, and for the intense conviction he inspired as to his perfect honesty, for the earnestness with which he expressed himself, and for the desire which he conveyed to every man's mind that he could convince them of the truth of the arguments which he urged or of the facts which he stated. He was remorseless—almost cruel—in the severity of his attack; but no one who listened to him could doubt his sincerity. His honesty of purpose, his zeal, his energy, his character inspired admiration and carried the force of conviction frequently with his words to the mass of the people. Few men within the last 45 years have exercised an equal charm or a greater influence in this House. Few men have had deservedly greater influence in the country than the late Mr. Bright. None, I believe, have been more thoroughly in earnest in the propagation of the sentiments to which he attached himself. No one who listened to him could doubt his sincerity; no one could doubt that he really failed to understand how it was that those who differed from him could not accept the views which he put forward. His failure—if it was a failure—was the intensity of his faith in the principles which he advocated. I would venture to say that the honesty and the simplicity of his character were illustrated by the sacrifices which he made not once, not twice, only, in separations between himself and his political associates which occurred from time to time throughout his career. No one can doubt that he was warmly attached to the Party and to the Leader of the Party with which he had identified himself. But he could not sacrifice his convictions to any of those personal considerations which often have great weight with men who hold prominent positions in public life. If, however, for a time he parted from his associates and friends in deference to his own strong sense of duty, there was no trace of anger or of personal animosity in the differences which occurred. There was prominent in all his career that high sense of duty which animated him up to the very last period of his life—a sense of duty to his Sovereign and to his country which rose above all those personal considerations, and all those Party passions, and Party affections which have now passed from him for ever, and which, although he was strong in the expression, of his views and feelings, he regretted, I believe, as much as any man could regret but regarded as an inevitable necessity of the public life with which he had long been associated. Mr. Bright has left behind him a memory that will live in the hearts of men long, long after this Parliament shall have passed away. He devoted himself to the service of his country according to the light which was given him with an intensity of conviction and a reality which few public men have ever exhibited. He goes down to his grave followed by the affectionate sorrow of those who differed from him, of those who agreed with him, and of the country which saw in him the example of a man who, from the earliest period of his life, followed out his convictions and devoted himself to the service of his country and of his Queen with absolute and complete loyalty. We hope that he may be followed by men who will emulate the purity and simplicity of his life, and now that he has passed from us there is no whisper of difference, no whisper of anything but sorrow, and we shall follow him with remorse to the grave as a good man who has done his work and who has left an example which many of us would do well to imitate.

MR. W. E. GLADSTONE (Edinburgh, Mid Lothian)

I trust I may receive the permission of the House to add a few words to what has been said so well and with such deep sincerity by the right hon. Gentleman on an occasion of peculiar interest. And I cannot help saying, at the outset of the few remarks which I may be led to make, that I think Mr. Bright has been, in a very remarkable degree, happy in the season of his removal from among us. Felix opportunitate mortis! He has lived to witness the triumph of almost every great cause—perhaps I might say of every great cause—to which he had especially devoted his heart and mind. He has lived to establish a special claim to the admiration of those from whom he differed through a long political life by his marked concurrence with them on the prominent and dominant question of the hour. And while he has in that way additionally opened the minds and the hearts of those from whom he had differed to an appreciation of his merits, I believe, and I think I may venture to say, he lost nothing by the want of concord on a particular subject which we so much lamented—he lost nothing, in any portion of the party with which he had been so long associated, of the admiration and the gratitude to which they felt him to be so well entitled. I do not remember that on any occasion, from the lips of any single individual since Mr. Bright came to be separated from the great bulk of the Liberal Party on the Irish Question, there has proceeded any word—I do not say of question as to his motives, for that would have been ridiculous in the highest degree—but a single word of disparagement as to the course he pursued. For my own part I may, perhaps, make this acknowledgment—that I have not through my whole political life fully embraced what I take to be the character of Mr. Bright and the value of his character to the country. I mention this because it was at a peculiar epoch—the epoch of the Crimean War—that I came more fully to understand than I had done before the position which was held by him and by his eminent, and I must go a step further and say his illustrious, friend Mr. Cobden in the country. These men had lived upon the confidence, the approval, and the applause of the people. The work of their lives had been to propel the tide of public sentiment. Suddenly there came a great occasion on which they differed from the vast majority of their fellow-countrymen. I myself was one of those who did not agree with them in the particular view which they took of the Crimean conflict, but I felt profoundly what must have been the moral elevation of the men who, having been nurtured through their lives in the atmosphere of popular approval and enthusiasm, could at a moment's notice consent to part with the whole of that favour which they had hitherto enjoyed and which their opponents thought to be the very breath of their nostrils. They accepted, undoubtedly, the unpopularity of opposing that war, which, although many may have since changed their opinion with regard to it, commanded, if not the unanimous, yet the enormously prevailing approval and concurrence of the country. At that time it was—although we had known much of Mr. Bright before—that we learnt something more. We had known the great mental gifts which distinguished him; we had known his courage and his consistency; we had known his splendid eloquence, which then was or afterwards came to be acknowledged as the loftiest that has sounded within these walls for several generations. But we had not till then known how high the moral tone of those popular leaders had been elevated, what splendid examples they set to the whole of their contemporaries and to coming generations, and with what readiness they could part with popular sympathy and support for the sake of the right and of their conscientious convictions. I will not now refer to the great gifts of Mr. Bright except as to one minor particular; but I cannot help allowing myself the gratification of recording that Mr. Bright was, and that he knew himself to be, and he delighted to he, one of the chief guardians among us of the purity of the English tongue. He knew how the character of the nation is associated with its language; and as he was in everything an Englishman profoundly attached to the country in which he was horn, so the tongue of his people was to him almost an object of worship; and in the long course of his speeches it would be difficult, indeed hardly possible, to find a single case in which that noble language, the language of Shakespeare and of Milton, did not receive an illustration from his Parliamentary eloquence. There is another circumstance in the career of Mr. Bright that is better known to me, perhaps, than to any other person, and which I must give myself the pleasure of mentioning. Everyone is aware that for him office had no attraction, but perhaps hardly any of those who hear me can be aware of the extraordinary efforts which were required to induce Mr. Bright under any circumstances to become a servant of the Crown. It was in the crisis of 1868 with regard to the Irish question, and when especially the fate of the Irish Church hung in the balance, that it was my duty to propose to Mr. Bright that he should become a Cabinet Minister. I do not know, Sir, that I ever undertook so difficult a task; but this I do know, that from 11 o'clock at night until one o'clock in the morning we steadily debated that subject, and it was only at the last moment that it was possible for him to set aside the repugnance he had felt to doing anything which might, in the eyes of any one, even of the more ignorant of his fellow-countrymen, appear to detract in the slightest degree from that lofty independence of character which he had heretofore maintained, and which, I will venture to say, never to the end of his career was for a moment lowered. It was the happy lot of Mr. Bright to unite so many intellectual gifts that, if we had had need to dwell upon them alone, we should have presented a dazzling picture to the world; but it was also his happy lot to teach us moral lessons, and by the simplicity, by the consistency, and by the unfailing courage and constancy of his life to present to us a combination of qualities so moral in their nature as to carry us at once into a higher atmosphere. The sympathies of Mr. Bright were not only strong, but active; they were not sympathies which can answer to the calls made upon them for the moment, but they were the sympathies of a man who sought far and near for objects on which to bestow the inestimable advantage of his eloquence and of his courage. In Ireland in the days when the support of the Irish race was rare, in. India when the support of the native race was rarer still, in America at the time when Mr. Bright probably foresaw the ultimate issue of the great struggle of 1861, and when he stood as the representative of an exceedingly small portion of the educated community of this country—although undoubtedly they represented a very large part of the national sentiment—in all these cases Mr. Bright went far outside the necessities of his calling, and not only subjects which demanded his attention as a Member of this House, but whatever touched him as a man, whatever touched him as a subject, and whatever touched him as a member of the great Anglo-Saxon race—all these questions, unasked, obtained not only his sincere advocacy, but his enthusiastic aid. All the causes which are associated with the names to which I have referred, as well as many others, obtained from his powerful advocacy an assistance and a distinct advance in the estimation of the world, and made a distinct progress on their road towards triumphant success. It has thus come about that we feel that Mr. Bright is entitled to a higher eulogy than any that could be due to intellect or than any that could be due to success. Of mere success he was indeed a conspicuous example; in intellect he might lay claim to a most distinguished place; but the character of the man lay deeper than his intellect, deeper than his eloquence, deeper than anything that, could be described as seen upon the surface, and the supreme eulogy which is due is, I apprehend, that he lifted political life to a higher elevation and to a loftier standard, and that he has thereby be- queathed to his country the character or a statesman which can be made the subject not only of admiration and of gratitude, but even of what I do not exaggerate in calling—as it has been well called already by one of his admiring eulogists—reverential contemplation. The right hon. Gentleman said that he trusted there would be no note of dissonance, in the sense which the country entertained for the claims, the merits, and the distinctions of Mr. Bright, and I may safely say that on that score all apprehension may be dismissed. In the encomiums that have sprung up from every quarter there is no note of dissonance, there is no discordant minority, however small, the sense of his countrymen is the sense of their unanimity. It goes forth throughout the length and breadth of the land, and I do not know that any statesman of my time has ever had the happiness to receive on his removal from this passing world honours and approval at once so enthusiastic, so universal, and so unbroken. And yet, Sir, none could better have dispensed with the tributes of the moment, because the triumphs of his life are triumphs recorded in the advance of his country and in the condition of his countrymen. His name remains indelibly written in the annals of this Empire—aye, indelibly written, too, upon the hearts of the great and ever-spreading race to which he belonged—that race in whose wide expansion he rejoiced, and whose power and pre-eminence he believed to be full of promise and full of glory for the best interests of mankind.

THE MARQUESS OF HARTINGTON (Lancashire, Rossendale)

Perhaps the House will allow me, in the name of some of those hon. Members with whom in recent times it has happened that Mr. Bright has been very closely associated in opinion, to express our thanks to the Leader of the House, and to the Leader of the Opposition, for the touching and noble words in which they have given expression to the universal regret which is felt throughout the country for the loss it has just sustained. If I may be allowed to add, however inadequately and imperfectly, a very few words to those which have been already uttered, it would be to endeavour to give my own estimate of those qualities possessed by the late Mr. Bright which have combined to win for his character—since it has been fully understood by the country—the admiration, the respect, and I may say the veneration of his countrymen. I do not think that that result has been due in any degree, as has already been said by my right hon. Friend near me, to the successful advocacy of the great principles in which he took so large a share, nor even to the splendid eloquence which he brought to bear in their support. The cause of the estimation in which the late Mr. Bright was held is to be found rather in those qualities to which reference has already been made—namely, the transparent simplicity of his character, and the high standard of political conduct which he set before his fellows. Mr. Bright did not profess to be—perhaps he was not—a statesman versed in all the arts of government—a statesman capable of conducting all the complicated affairs of a great nation; but upon certain subjects Mr. Bright had thought deeply and felt strongly, and had formed convictions which, to his mind, carried all the weight of absolute and indisputable truth. It was this absolute conviction which gave to the eloquence of Mr. Bright extraordinary and unrivalled power and force. As to the standard of political conduct which Mr. Bright raised for himself, I will not say that we have not known others as personally pure, as patriotic, as independent as himself; but I think we have known few men who have brought to the forming of their political conduct a standard equal to that which he set before himself. In forming his political opinions, in shaping his political conduct, he consistently and resolutely determined, as perhaps few men have ever been equally able to determine, that the standard which should guide his political conduct should be precisely the same rule as that which the strictest principles of morality imposed upon the private life and character of the man. These are the things which have combined to make Mr. Bright, if not one of the foremost statesmen, one of the noblest figures we have ever known in Parliament. These are the qualities which have combined to win for him the admiration of all who have had the pleasure of his personal friendship. These are the qualities which, in my judgment, will make his memory a precious possession of the nation, and which will make it an example to be steadily kept in view and followed by all who may hereafter inspire to lead public opinion in this country, and to combine the possession of political influence and power with the strictest adherence to the rules of right and duty.

MR. JUSTIN M'CARTHY (Londonderry)

Mr. Speaker, in the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Cork, an absence quite unavoidable, and which he regrets as much as I do, I desire to ask leave to address a few words to the House. Any words of mine must come like an anti-climax after the noble eloquence of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Mid Lothian. But my colleagues and I feel that if on this occasion no voice were to be raised from the benches on which we sit, our silence might possibly be misconstrued or at least be misunderstood. It is at least possible that if we remained silent it might be thought that because of late years we had not Mr. Bright's sympathy and support for our national cause, we were unwilling to associate ourselves in the tribute all other Parties are paying to his career and to his memory. Mr. Speaker, the Irish Party is not so wanting in generosity, and the memory of the Irish people is not so short. We regret—we deeply regret—that we had not of late years the unspeakable advantage of Mr. Bright's sympathy and support, but we are not thinking much of that just now—we are not desirous of thinking of it. In our ordinary experience of life we often find that impressions made long ago remain abiding and imperishable, while the events which occurred the day before yesterday are already forgotten. So we feel, so we wish to feel, for the great public and private career of Mr. Bright. Our memory goes back to the time when he championed our Irish cause with an eloquence and a sincerity never surpassed in the struggle for any great purpose whatever. We cannot but remember that he was our champion and our advocate at a time when we had nothing like the amount of sympathy and support in this House and out of it which, thanks alike to friends and enemies, we possess to-day. We remember, too, we must remember, that some of the most superb, the most magnificent illustrations of his immortal eloquence were given to champion the cause of the suffering Irish peasant, and to awaken in this country a sympathy with the Irish cause. Bearing in mind all these things, and others I will not go through, we feel we cannot remain silent on an occasion like the present. For myself personally, I may say I speak with the memory of long years of close association with Mr. Bright. I worked with him and under him in many thrilling struggles and in many great political movements. Remembering, then, what he did for Ireland in days gone by, and with the full conviction, alluded to by the First Lord of the Treasury, that every one of Mr. Bright's views was conscientious and sincere, we desire to associate ourselves with the tribute paid in this House to his memory, and we claim the right of Ireland to lay her immortelle, her mourning wreath, on this great Englishman's grave.

MR. J. CHAMBERLAIN (Birmingham, West)

I hope the House will allow me to say a very few words upon this subject. I shall not venture to add anything to what has already been spoken, so eloquently and so feelingly, by the Leaders of Parties in this House as to Mr. Bright's claims to our admiration as a great popular Leader, a great Tribune of the people. It is only of the Friend and of the Colleague that I would wish to say a few words. I have been personally acquainted with Mr. Bright for more than 30 years, almost from the day when he was elected for the first time as the Member for Birmingham. Since then he has occupied a position as a Parliamentary Representative which I think is unique in our history. He was returned in his absence while he was still prostrated by illness induced by overwork, and he was returned, as he always has been subsequently, without any pledge of any kind and without any expense to himself. The only condition which was suggested to him was that, in order to mark the fact that the constituency considered that it was receiving and not conferring an obligation, he should himself be always exempt from any claim to contribute in any way to our local institutions or to our political organizations; and that understanding has been ob- served in all its fulness down to the present time. I venture to think that relations so begun and so maintained for a period of a generation are honourable alike to the constituency and to its great Representative. I well remember the first speech which Mr. Bright addressed to his constituents in the autumn of 1857 in the Town Hall, Birmingham. He spoke in terms of great pathos of the illness from which he had just recovered, when, as he said, from a condition of apparent strength he had been brought down to a condition exceeding the weakness of a little child. He spoke of the innumerable kindnesses he had received from all classes and conditions of his fellow-countrymen, and he went on to express the consolation it had been to him in his time of suffering to receive this proof of the confidence and affection of the electors and population of the great central city of the kingdom. He said:— I shall not attempt, by the employment of any elaborate phrases, to express to you what I felt at the time when you conferred upon me the signal honour of returning me as one of your representatives to the House of Commons. I am not sufficiently master of the English language to discover words which shall express what I then felt, and what I feel now towards you for what you did then, and for the reception which you have given me to-night. I never imagined for a moment that you were prepared to endorse all my opinions, or to sanction every political act with which I have been connected; but I accepted your resolution in choosing me as meaning this—that you had watched my political career; that you believed it had been an honest one; that you were satisfied I had not swerved knowingly to the right hand or to the left; that the attractions of power had not turned me aside; that I had not changed my course from any view of courting a fleeting popularity; and, further, that you are of this opinion—an opinion which I religiously hold—that the man whose political career is on a line with his conscientious convictions can never be unfaithful to his constituents or to his country. Mr. Speaker, the motives which Mr. Bright assigned as actuating his constituents in choosing him have continued from that day to determine their feelings towards him; and now that he has passed away, now that in a beautiful figure, which he himself was the first to use, he has gone "to join the great majority," those who differed from him are united to those who agreed with him in mourning his loss, in honouring his memory, and in respecting his courage, his con- sistency, and his honesty. The characteristics which distinguished his public actions were equally conspicuous in his private life. Mr. Bright was a most loyal colleague, most considerate, most unselfish. He was, as many Members of this House can testify, the most delightful company, always simple, always straightforward, always unmindful of himself. He was very strenuous in asserting the principles and convictions which he held to be true and just, but with all his strength no one ever knew him to do an unfair or an ungenerous thing. I remember his once saying to me—it may seem perhaps almost trivial to recall it, but it was characteristic of the man—that whenever he entered a strange house, if there were a dog or a cat in it it always came to him directly and made friends with him. I think that those domestic animals are good judges of character, and I know—I am certain—that theirs was the only popularity that Mr. Bright ever courted. I have no right to detain the House further; I only spoke because Mr. Bright was in a special sense the Member for Birmingham, and because he has always enjoyed the affection and the reverence of every man and every woman in that great community.