Front Page Titles (by Subject) MR. GLADSTONE'S RESIGNATION. ( From The Economist, 16 th January, 1875.) - The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review)
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MR. GLADSTONE’S RESIGNATION. ( From “ The Economist, ” 16 th January, 1875.) - Walter Bagehot, The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review) 
The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, ed. Mrs. Russell Barrington. The Works in Nine Volumes. The Life in One Volume. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1915). Vol. 9.
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MR. GLADSTONE’S RESIGNATION.
In one respect Mr. Gladstone is unique. Many statesmen have written books in retirement, and some have ostentatiously commended it. But ordinarily those books are tame and those commendations forced. Now that they feel no longer the excitement of the Senate or of office all else seems tasteless to them, and you can trace that languor in every phrase they utter. But no one can say this of Mr. Gladstone. His writings in retirement may or may not be too many; they may or may not be models of style; but no one can say that they do not show the keenest interest in their subjects. If he writes in the Quarterly, you wonder at the unusual vigour of the anonymous contributor; if he writes on the “Vatican Decrees,” you admire the minute research and the zeal of disputation which no divine can surpass. In Homeric criticism his eagerness is almost greater; it has long been said of him that he “cared as much about the sons of Priam as if they had votes on a division”; and, in fact, he can pursue, with elastic energy, inquiries which most bookworms would call tedious. And in all this exceptional earnestness there is not a vestige of affectation. It is the simple expression of an intense nature, which singular to say is both variable and concentrated, which pours itself in a hundred pursuits, but which for the time being is absorbed in each.
This is the real explanation of Mr. Gladstone’s resignation. He can withdraw into comparative retirement, because he can be absorbingly occupied in retirement. If he hears from a distance the din of Parliamentary battle, he is not overpowered with melancholy musing; his compensations are at hand; his study is no place of calm to him, for it is alive with “hot thought” and rings with controversies for which he cares.
That Mr. Gladstone has judged wisely for himself in resigning the leadership of the Liberal party we cannot doubt. There can be little pleasure in leading that party in its present state, and there must be much vexation. It will be impossible to please everybody, and easy not to please anybody. The toil of attending Parliament merely to “watch the proceedings”; to sit opposite to a Government in anxious hope that it may make some mistake, and with little to say if it does not; to detect errors in figures and poke amendments into clauses,—is an excellent training for young members, but a dismal employment for a finished statesman. In Mr. Gladstone’s case it would be particularly melancholy, for it would be a striking contrast to his own Government. After just having achieved much of which even those who question the policy do not doubt the greatness, it would be pitiable to be occupied for session after session in framing minute criticism on measures of which those who approve the object cannot deny the mediocrity.
The task would be the less pleasing because it is a kind of Parliamentary work, probably the only kind, for which Mr. Gladstone is not well fitted. In framing or explaining great measures, in great replies—in short, in all first-class combats—he is without a rival in our time; Lord Russell, no partial judge, seems to think, without a rival during his immense Parliamentary experience. But exactly the qualities which fit Mr. Gladstone for these great combats unfit him for much small work. He is not a man to hold, as the lawyers say, a “watching brief”. The best requisites for that task are—first, taciturnity, so as not to be hurried into premature objections; and next, a light way of handling small objections, so as not to make too much, and yet to make enough of them. But no one would praise Mr. Gladstone for these gifts; he has greater ones, but he has not these.
If anything could incline a statesman in Mr. Gladstone’s place to resign the leadership of the Liberal party, we should say that it would be the speeches which have been made during the recess by Liberal members. At first sight these speeches all look complimentary, for they are unanimous in professions of allegiance; but when carefully examined their purport is less pleasing, for most of the speakers expect their fealty to be recompensed, and to be recompensed by the achievement of an impossible task. The Liberal party is, by admission, divided: what some wish others reject; what some think an indispensable good others think an irreparable calamity. And many expect Mr. Gladstone to discover the word of the enigma—the measure which is to bring them together. But he cannot do so at this moment, nor can anyone else. Such measures must “grow”; they cannot be made. A new race of ideas must be formed. Long controversies and many agitations will be necessary before the Liberal party will be united upon a single plan, and before the nation will be prepared to accept it of them.
For himself, therefore, as we believe, Mr. Gladstone has judged wisely. What will be the effect of that decision on the Liberal party is another question. For the moment it will, we cannot doubt, be unfavourable. In the first place the party will lose the enormous advantage of being led by a man of genius. Indeed it seems as if genius would soon be banished from practical statesmanship. If anything should happen to the present Prime Minister, and if Mr. Gladstone perserveres in retiring, two great parties in the State will be left with what in the cotton market would be called “best middling” statesmen and with no others. And we believe that the effect will be to make politics as a study less elevating and less instructive to the English people than they have been used to find it. The spectacle of the contentions of first-rate men on subjects which the many care for is the best and almost the only way of bringing home to the many what high mental ability really is, and how completely they are themselves destitute of it. What such men do by intentional benefit is less instructive than that which they confer by the unintentional spectacle of what they are. This, it appears likely, we may before long much want. As a contemporary of Pitt and Fox said when they had passed away, “We are left with pigmies whom we know to be pigmies, because we have measured them with giants”.
The want of an intellectual bond in the Liberal party will also be much more felt now that Mr. Gladstone has retired than it was before. The allegiance paid to him might often be, perhaps often was, hollow; still it was an allegiance. The consequent tie might be a frail tie, still it was a tie which there is nothing to replace. There is no one whom all sides of the Liberal party can even profess to reverence in the same way. Between the two extremes of the party—between men like Mr. Chamberlain and men like Lord Cardwell—how weak is now the bond, and how wide is now the contrast.
The most pleasant aspect of the subject is that, though Mr. Gladstone retires from the leadership of the Liberals, he does not retire from Parliament or from public life. We shall still be instructed by his occasional efforts, though not, as we have for so many years been, by his daily and constant efforts. And this will be a considerable compensation, especially as compared with the times most recent. It is impossible not to imagine that a nature at once so eager and so peculiar as Mr. Gladstone’s must have suffered much in fulfilling a representative function as a party leader. He must have had to suppress much he would have said if he had been left unshackled, and have said much that he did say in a different way. It must have been painful to think that common people had a kind of veto on his words; that they had a kind of right to say, “Our leader ought not to say that; we ought not to be bound by this sort of thing”. And as so often happens in a struggle against nature, we think Mr. Gladstone not unfrequently overdid what was necessary. We should be inclined to say that throughout very many of his speeches while Minister there was, notwithstanding their other great merits, a want of the idiosyncratic and individual charm to which we are used. The Minister was great, but the man, such as we had known him for years, and as doubtless he still is, seemed somehow disguised and eclipsed. From all hindrance of this sort we shall now be freed. Parliament will again have the most chosen thoughts of the most peculiar statesman of the age uttered not only in most eloquent but in most characteristic words, and it will be a great refreshment.