" I FRANKLY tell my right honourable friend that the one
portion of my life which I shall endeavour to obliterate from my memory is that connected with the closing incident of my official career." It was with these .words that Lord George Hamilton closed the speech in which on Monday he answered Mr. Balfour's account of the transactions connected with the Cabinet crisis of last September. The words are painful reading, even for those who have never stood in any personal relation to Mr. Balfour. What must they have been when uttered by one who had for years enjoyed the closest personal intimacy with the Prime Minister ? Can we wonder that those who sat near Lord George Hamilton noted the deep emotion with which they were spoken ?
We propose to tell the plain story of the Cabinet crisis without heat or prejudice ; but before we do so we must point out that the words we have just quoted. by no means bear out Mr. Balfour's easy assumption that it is only interfering and mischief-making outsiders who assert that he did not treat his colleagues with the frankness and • consideration they had a right to expect from him, and that they themselves made no complaint of his action. Here are Mr. Balfour's words :—" That fact [i.e., that he was in possession of Mr. Chamberlain's resignation when he met the Cabinet on September 14th] which I have never denied, or even suggested a. denial of, has been twisted— not by my noble friend, not by my right hon. friend the late Chancellor of the Exchequer, but by the worst of all .supporters, the supporters that do not belong to your own party—into the foundations of an accusation that I kept from my two late colleagues a fact material to their own course durino. the Cabinet of the 14th. A more pre- posterous statement—a statement more absolutely con- tradicted by my right hon. friends, and which, if true, would be more discreditable to my right hon. friends—I cannot imagine." After Lord George Hamilton's words, can we say that this attempt to draw a distinction between the attitude of Lord George Hamilton and of "the worst of all supporters, the supporters that do not belong to your own party," is justified ? It is not easy to understand frem this enigmatic utterance exactly who are these " worst of all supporters" who twisted the facts into the foundation of an accusation that Mr. Balfour kept from his colleagues a material fact. We are aware that on October 3rd we pointed out in a leading article that Lord George Hamilton and his colleagues "were entitled to know the very material fact that Mr. Chamberlain had tendered his resignation," and we have since insisted that the gravamen of the com- plaint against Mr. Balfour is that he withheld from his colleagues a material fact which they had a right to know, and which it was his duty to tell them, irrespective of whether such disclosure would or would not have affected their offers to resign, or his determination that they should leave the Cabinet. Very probably Mr. Balfour had not in his mind the Spectator's complaint that he had withheld a material fact from his colleagues which ought not to have been withheld. It makes, however, little difference whether he was thinking of our complaint, or of one from some other source couched in kindred terms, as seems more likely, since he describes the accusers as not of his own party, i.e., not Unionists.—We are Unionists, and have a right to consider ourselves better Unionists than Mr. Balfour, since we have not neglected, as he has, the deep injury done to the Union by the continued over-represen- tation of Ireland.—The fact remains that Lord George Hamilton's closing words show that he does feel that a material fact was withheld from him.
If we follow carefully Mr. Balfour's story of the crisis, taking into account at the same time the Duke of Devon- shire's narrative and the previous statements of Lord George Hamilton and Mr. Ritchie, we shall soon find the point at which the conflict of evidence arises as to knowledge or want of knowledge of Mr. Chamberlain's resignation. The resigning Ministers say that this know- ledge was not conveyed. to them at the Cabinet of September 14th. Mr. Balfour says it was. He declares that they knew as well as he did of Mr. Chamberlain's intention to resign, because he (Mr. Chamberlain) himself stated that intention at the Cabinet of September 14th. Further, Mr. Balfour points to Mr. Ritchie's admis- sion that he heard Mr. Chamberlain say at the Cabinet that if preference were omitted from the official Govern- ment programme, he would have to resign. But, says Mr. Ritchie, though he heard Mr. Chamberlain say this, he did. not know that the Prime Minister had in his pocket a letter, dated some days previously, in which Mr. Chamberlain placed his resignation in Mr. Balfour's hands. "That is what we [Mr. Ritchie and the other Free-traders] did not know, though some members of the Cabinet did know." Upon this Mr. Balfour summed up the situation as it appeared to him as follows :—" The only difference between my right hon. friend and myself is that he seems to think there is a great distinction between that which is written and that which is spoken. I can assure him that I take a different view ; it would make no difference to me whether he said the words or wrote the words ; and that which I say of my right hon. friend I say of the Member for West Birmingham. I see no distinction between what he wrote to me and what he said to the Cabinet. Whether he wrote the words or whether he exercised his vocal chords does not seem to me to make the smallest difference in anything relevant to this discussion. Well, then, my two right hon. friends knew at that Cabinet all that I knew. I knew it by writing, they knew it by speech, but we both knew it, we all knew it."
How are we to reconcile these conflicting statements ? At first sight they seem absolutely contradictory. The Free-trade Ministers say they did not know, in spite of what they heard, or one of them at any rate heard, and yet Mr. Balfour insists that they did know as well as he did that Mr. Chamberlain had resigned. Where is the recon- ciling fact to be found, for obviously both views cannot be correct, and obviously, also, neither side can be stating what is untrue ? It is to be found in a closer examination of the declaration which Mr. Balfour appears to find so simple, that there is no essential difference between the oral and the written statement, and that the oral statement should have conveyed as much and as certain knowledge to his colleagues as the written statement did to himself. What actually happened. at the Cabinet will appear clear enough to any one who takes the trouble to follow out the narratives in detail, and endeavours to reconstruct the scene by the use of his imagination. Mr. Chamberlain admittedly stated in con- versation round the table that he should have to resign if preference were ruled out of the official Government pro- gramme. It is not difficult to picture the scene which would take place after such a statement. We may imagine, therefore, without any great risk of creating an erroneous impression, the inevitable cries of "No! no ! " which at any Committee, Board, or Council which greet the threat of resignation by an important member. With these protests the incident doubtless passed off. There was no formal impressive declaration by Mr. Chamberlain that he had come to the conclusion that he must resign, that he had five days before lodged his resignation in writing with the Premier, and that it only needed acceptance to become complete. Again, there was no statement by the Prime Minister to the effect that this oral statement must not be taken lightly because he bad written confirmation of it. The declaration by Mr. Chamberlain, in a word, passed off just as such things apparently said on the spur of the moment always do, especially when they are said by a man: of Mr. Chamberlain's impulsive character. Mr. Chamber- lain had, we do not doubt, often threatened to resign in • this hypothetical and unconventional way before, and nothing had come of it ; and, therefore, most naturally his colleagues, when the statement was not confirmed by the Prime Minister or insisted on as a reality, took it merely as an indication of how strongly Mr. Chamberlain felt as regards preference. Possibly, also, some of the Free-traders may have taken it as a notice to themselves that they and Mr. Chamberlain could not go on in the same Government. At any rate, none of the Free-traders regarded this exercise of Mr. Chamberlain's "vocal chords" as in any sense a resignation, and they were clearly justified in their failure to believe in its reality by the fact that the incident passed off without its being emphasised in any way either by the Prime Minister or by Mr. Chamberlain.
But after all, it is really not necessary to labour the point. The essential fact which emerges is that the Free- trade Ministers did not receive the impression that Mr. Chamberlain had resigned. We know this from the fact mentioned by Lord George Hamilton, that after the Cabinet of the 14th—the Cabinet of the resignation by vocal chord—the Free-trade Ministers met in Lord George Hamilton's room at the India Office, and no reference to Mr. Chamberlain's resignation was made by any one, though they unanimously determined that they had no alternative but to resign. We know it also from the fact that the Duke of Devonshire heard with surprise of Mr. Chamberlain's resignation, and at once wished to communicate this new fact to his colleagues.
We now come to the crucial point of the whole transaction. Mr. Balfour alleges that he knew and they knew—" we all knew it "—that Mr. Chamberlain was resigning. But if Mr. Balfour was so certain that the Free-trade Ministers knew of the resignation of Mr. Chamberlain, how was it that when he found the Duke did not know, and wanted to communicate his newly acquired knowledge to those with whom he was acting, he (Mr. Balfour) effectually prevented its communication by the Duke ? In view of Mr. Balfour's Statement of Monday, one would have expected him to say to the Duke of Devonshire that he was surprised at the Duke not knowing what up to that moment he felt sure they all knew, but that if the Duke had missed the central fact of the Cabinet of the 14th, it was just possible that the others might also have done so, and therefore the Duke had no doubt better put matters on a perfectly sound footing by telling them. Instead, we hear neither of any surprise being shown by Mr. Balfour at the Duke's ignorance, nor of any assurance that the others must have known, but only of a statement by Mr. Balfour which in effect amounts to this, that he objected to the other Free- trade Ministers being told. of Mr. Chamberlain's resigna- tion because such knowledge could not affect the situation as regards them,—i.e., because they would have to resign whether or no they considered the new fact to be material. Here are the Duke's actual words "I pointed out to the Prima Minister that the effect which the fact of Mr. Chamberlain's resignation had on my mind would in my opinion probably be similar to the effect which that fact would have on the minds of those other colleagues who had already tendered their resignations and whose resignations had been accepted. I understood, however, from him that, whatever might be my decision, there was no intention of asking those colleagues to reconsider theirs, or in fact that any consideration on their part would be admitted. My difficulty, therefore, was mainly of a personal character ; it was whether I should be wanting in loyalty to those colleagues with whom I had been in communication, who had consulted me as to their course, and whom I had consulted as to mine. My first inclination. I admit, was to insist on being permitted to lay this new fact before my colleagues and consult again with them, and, in fact, to place myself to a great extent in their hands. On reflection, however, I considered that, as nothing which I could do would alter their position, I had no right to ask them to take any responsibility for my own conduct, which affected myself alone, and that my decision must be made solely upon public grounds."
We have set forth the facts of the case. We desire to ,add no word of our own which may further embitter feeling , 9r create prejudice against Mr. Balfour. We will merely ask our readers whether they do not think that Mr. Balfour would have done much better had he followed the example . of the Duke of Devonshire, and confessed that in the difficulties and perplexities of the situation in which be found himself last September he made a mistake, and failed to treat his colleagues with the absolute frank- ness which they were entitled to expect 'from him. Had he done this, he would have heard little more of the incident, for no one desired to exaggerate its importance. As it is, it is difficult not to feel that his defence has made matters worse instead of better.