Trusty Servant May 2019 No.127 - Page 15

No.127 approach vigorously opposed by fellow OW Matthew Arnold). And yet the anticipated call to a cabinet post did not arrive, even when Palmerston finally died and the Russell-Gladstone ministry came in. Lowe was bitter, and when the 1866 Reform Bill was introduced, he was feeling very little loyalty to his party. The bill was actually a fairly mild affair, aiming at peeling off the upper layer of the urban working class and forestalling more revolutionary demands for change. But Lowe was implacably opposed to any further move towards democracy beyond the 1832 settlement. Our modern sensibilities make it hard for us to understand a liberal anti-democrat. But Lowe’s liberalism was literal: its guiding principal was freedom, tolerating ‘all that inequality between man and man which is the result’, with ‘each part discharging its destined functions without envy and without discontent, with absolute personal freedom, under an equal law.’ His focus was on the welfare of the people, not abstract rights, and that goal would be achieved by ‘pure and clear intelligence alone’: by an impartial governing meritocracy. Any concession towards democracy would only lead to worse government. He did not pull any rhetorical punches. His most (in)famous contribution came in his first parliamentary speech. ‘If you want venality, if you want ignorance, if you want drunkenness, and the facility for being intimidated; or if, on the other hand, you want impulsive, unreflecting, and violent people, where do you look for them in the constituencies? Do you go to the top or the bottom?’ It did not make him popular with the people. He even used the classic accusation beloved of many a modern reactionary: the resultant pressure for economic equality would quickly turn the country The Trusty Servant ‘Communist’. The gullible rabble would be bewitched by trades-union socialists, or plutocratic demagogues, or imperialist tub-thumpers, and good government would become impossible. Enough Adullamites voted with the Tories to defeat the bill, and the government resigned. As Derby and Disraeli formed a minority administration, Lowe hoped that his Adullamites could be the core of a new party that would hold the balance of power. But he had not reckoned with Disraeli’s scheming. Rejection of reform prompted big demonstrations, including a riot in Hyde Park. Disraeli, sensing the public mood and spotting a chance to show that the Tories too were capable of reform, proposed a moderate franchise bill of his own. However, he cynically jettisoned his ‘safeguards’ as the bill passed through parliament, resulting in a bill significantly more radical than the Liberals’. One million men were added to the electorate, nearly doubling it from less than a fifth to just over a third of men over 21. Derby called it ‘a leap in the dark’, but the Tories and sufficient Liberal rebels were willing to jump for it to pass. It left Lowe vigorously but impotently professing his ‘rage, grief and shame’ at Disraeli’s trickery. It did, however, give him opportunity to coin his most famous saying while reflecting upon the importance of education under an expanding franchise: ‘We must educate our masters’ (although, like most famous sayings, those weren’t his exact words; he said that parliament should ‘induce our future masters to learn their letters’). Incidentally, a tweaked version of this political episode provided the background for Phineas Finn, the Palliser novel by Anthony Trollope, who was a Winchester contemporary of Lowe – as, moreover, were Disraeli’s two younger brothers (Disraeli himself regretted not being a Wykehamist). 15 The newly reformed electorate made re-election for Calne impossible, so in 1868 Lowe stood for the new seat of London University, whose voters liked him for his health reforms and anti-clericalism; he beat Walter Bagehot and Edwin Chadwick to the nomination. The election brought Gladstone to power, and to almost everybody’s surprise he forgave Lowe’s machinations and made him Chancellor of the Exchequer. He hoped that Lowe would be as firm at holding public spending down as he had been in opposing franchise reform. Lowe helped drive through the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms to introduce competitive exams to the Civil Service. But spending rose; Gladstone judged his performance ‘wretchedly deficient’ (the last straw was a tax on matches) and shifted him to Home Secretary in 1873. On Gladstone’s return in 1880, Lowe’s prospect of a ministry was vetoed by the Queen who had noted his opposition to Disraeli’s 1876 Royal Titles Bill which had made her Empress of India. Her opposition could not prevent Gladstone raising him to the peerage as Viscount Sherbrooke. He retired from public life soon afterwards with health and mental powers failing, although he lived until 1892. Those cruel years at Winchester, with nothing but his wits to defend him against the bullies, had sharpened a tongue whose lash had been felt by the whole of society – for good and ill. Gladstone’s final verdict was that he was ‘capable of tearing anything to pieces, but of constructing nothing.’ But his achievements in company law, health, education and the Civil Service belie that assessment: ‘harassing the country’ (Disraeli’s phrase) had driven many of the great Liberal reforms of the mid-Victorian era.