Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Unbowed Until the End

Again quoting from Gladstone by Roy Jenkins.  But first, a little background.  Gladstone is at the very end of his parliamentary career.  What he had come to see as his life's work, Irish Home Rule, has been passed by the House of Commons but decisively rejected by the House of Lords.  Britain won't again consider the issue until forced to by the uprising of 1916, followed by the Irish Free State and the vituperative Irish Civil War of 1922, followed of course by decades of terrorism, assassinations, and religious and ethnic hatred; Ireland's seething hatred so deep-seated that the Republic remained neutral rather than joining the fight against Hitler; Gladstone thoroughly vindicated and his opponents utterly discredited, those vacuous pieces of shit.

So Home Rule is dead for a generation.  But while Gladstone is exhausted, he is not yet done.  A previous Conservative government had undertaken a massive ship-building campaign, motivating France and Russia to play catch-up.  Now two of those British warships have collided with each other, with much loss of life.  The unerring logic of imperialism now compels Britain to fund yet another massive expansion of its navy (this being the only appropriate response to a naval accident).  Here Jenkins quotes Sir Edward Hamilton, who was at one point Gladstone's private secretary but who by this point has risen into a greater role in politics (note, by way of additional background, that Gladstone was a notorious penny-pincher who had in the past successfully resisted military expenditures on the grounds of fiscal prudence):

He [that is, Gladstone] again and again said it was not a question of amount:  he would swallow any amount of expenditures, however reckless it might appear to be, for such purposes as converting all our ironclads into wooden ships on the assumption that naval policy has gone through a transformation, or (say) doubling the Education grant.  No.  It was a question of policy.  Russia and France had gone ahead with their ship-building, solely owing to our Naval programme of 1889 for which we had to thank the late Government; and now we were to 'go one better', thus directly challenging Europe in the race of armaments.  It was his conviction that this competitive action of ours would accelerate some great European catastrophe:  these vast armaments must lead to some flare-up - probably the absorption of small states and the break-up of Italy.  He could not be party to this.

 Now admittedly Gladstone's foresight was probably not quite so brilliant as this isolated passage might make it seem.  But Gladstone's imagination and willingness to stand against the tide are remarkable.  He is one of the greatest anti-imperialist politicians of all time, and the consequences he incurred are a cautionary tale (though also in some cases an inspiring example) for all modern politicians with an anti-imperialist tendency.

And by the way, it was this political battle over naval expenditures, and not the far more crushing Home Rule defeat, that formally ended his political career.  In other words, at the end of his political life and very nearly at the end of his lifespan, Gladstone persevered in his obstinate right-headedness, pushing hard against the political tides that were to sweep Britain into so much needless pain and loss of life.


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