BIG BREAKFASTS, BIG RECESSES, BIG MEN
Roy Jenkins compares political life
in Gladstone's time with that of today
From a lecture delivered in the Old Library of the Guildhall, at the invitation of the Cor- poration of London.
MY CENTRAL theme is the contrast between the patterns of political life in the 19th century and the late 20th century. But first I would like to say something about Gladstone and the City of London. (Glad- stone, as Prime Minister, addressed at least eight Lord Mayor's banquets here in the Guildhall.) Gladstone did not feel any animosity towards the City, although he did at one stage, when refusing to offer Goschen the Exchequer, deliver himself of the dictum that 'no City man can make a good Chan- cellor'. By this he meant that they con- cerned themselves too much with the details of debt management and not enough with fiscal strategy. On the other hand, he made one unusual comment about the beauty of the City. In July 1876, he wrote in his diary: 'I was greatly struck, returning Holborn way, with the really great beauty of the City as well as its astounding stir.' It was not a commonplace reaction to the Great Wen at the peak of its coal-smut-filled skies and its horse manure-covered streets. But Gladstone, whatever else he was, was not a common- place man.
A few years later (1869), he had been involved in one of his earlier disputes with the Queen over his desire (very much in her own interest and that of the City authorities) that she should open the new Blackfriars Bridge and also take in an inspection of the equally new Victoria Embankment, the Far- ringdon Viaduct and the Metropolitan rail- way (`of which the construction is most curious', Gladstone wrote, presumably intending to be enticing). This produced an outburst of horror from the Queen — 'the fatigue and the excitement would be far too great' — quite apart from 'the well-known intolerable heat of London in June'. Eventu- ally, she did it in November and was delight- ed with the occasion. 'Nothing could go better or more satisfactorily in every possible way than the ceremony and long progress thro', the Qu. must think, nearly a million of people today.' Then, in 1883, the second Gladstone government involuntarily saved the City in its historic and present form. The plan was to provide a new local government struc- ture for London by extending (and demo- craticising) the City Corporation to cover the whole of what in 1888 became the area of the LCC and the 28 metropolitan bor- oughs. It foundered on the control of the police. The City, then as now, controlled its own force. In the rest of the metropolis, the constabulary, as today, was directly responsible to the Home Secretary and under no local control. Sir William Har- court, the mixture of patrician Whig and bombinating radical who was Home Secre- tary, was obsessed with the Fenian threat, fancied himself as a Fouche (Napoleon's Chief of police), and would not contem- plate giving up control. Equally, the majority of his colleagues, including the Prime Minister, regarded it as inconceiv- able that the contribution of a Liberal gov- ernment to democracy in London should involve the removal from an extended City Corporation of any power over its own police force. So the Bill foundered. The City remained preserved in its existing form and area, and the LCC and the 28- borough scheme was brought in by the Salisbury government five years later.
Gladstone is a wonderful vehicle for a comparison between 19th- and late-20th- century political life because of the metic- ulousness of his diary. It was not a journal, but a calendar, an engagement diary 'an account book to God for the all-pre- cious gift of time', as he put it. And as he assumed that God was interested not merely in how he spent his days but in how he spent each quarter of an hour of them, `They're for TV sports fans.' the diaries are an exceptional source book for patterns of life.
The main myth that they kill is that the House of Commons in the second half of the 19th century was an undemanding occupation for gentlemen of leisure. So far as ministers and leading members of the opposition were concerned, Parliament, as distinct from Whitehall departmental rou- tine, was more onerous during the session in the second half of the 19th century than it is today. And even in the case of the much larger number of MPs who saw their duties as being to listen and to vote rather than to speak, their assiduity in providing an attentive audience throughout mam- moth orations was far greater than is the case with the perfunctory speeches and empty benches of today.
The key phrase in the preceding para- graph is, however, 'during the session'. Nineteenth-century parliaments normally spent half the year in session and half the year in recess. The recesses were long, but the sessions were very strenuous and, if anything, they were slightly longer than the recesses. It could be six and a half or even seven months, as against five and a half or five, but it was practically never more. The essential basis of this almost even divide was the avoidance of autumn sessions, and this was nearly always achieved. Between 1855 and 1870 there was only one very brief exception.
The parliamentary year, like the parlia- mentary day, was slung late. Summer, despite the Thames often stinking in July, was for London and the autumn and early winter for the country. Parliament did not even aim to rise before the symbolic 12 August, and quite often missed that target by a week or two. The new session typically began in the first week of February.
For the next 25 weeks or so, with short Easter and Whitsun breaks, the pro- gramme was strenuous. Mondays, Tues- days, Thursdays and Fridays were full parliamentary days. Wednesdays were the equivalent of modern Fridays, when major government business was not taken and the House adjourned early — but early should be interpreted as in time to dine out in London and not to get away for the week- end just after lunch. 'The weekend', a term which has since invaded French, but was then many decades short of establishing itself in English, was accorded little protec- tion. Saturday sittings were not regular, but not very exceptional either. I experienced two in my 39-year span in the House of Commons, one for the Suez expedition in 1956 and one for the Falklands war in 1982. A mid-19th-century politician would have experienced twice as many in the course of an average session. Furthermore, even if the House were not sitting, Satur- day was then the regular Cabinet day. Palmerston habitually summoned his for one p.m. on that day, thereby killing at one blow both the possibility of lunch (of which more later) as well as of the weekend. And Gladstone, in his first government (1868-74), continued the practice.
Nevertheless, the habit of going away for brief 'Saturdays to Mondays' (there was no other phrase for it) did develop quite strongly in the 1850s and 1860s. It could not be very far, but in the Thames Valley and other parts of the Home Counties the improvement in the speed and reliability of the railways from about the mid-century point meant that a journey like that to Taplow for Cliveden (then owned by the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland), where Gladstone was a frequent guest, took very little longer than it would today. On the other hand, long railway journeys would not have made sense. There were a lot of smuts and no restaurant cars. It was the 1880s before meals on wheels became widespread. And the great houses of the North and Scotland were reserved for the recess, with visits then more on a weekly than a weekend basis.
A short Home Counties jaunt, however, particularly if it could start off after a Sat- urday afternoon Cabinet, was much facili- tated by its rarely being thought necessary to get back before midday on the Monday. Indeed, a balancing feature with Victorian politicians for their willingness to sit in the House of Commons late at night was their reluctance to do much serious work not merely on Monday but on any other morn- ing. Gladstone's favourite form of enter- taining — and he was far from alone in this — was the breakfast party. He habitu- ally gave about a dozen a session, with about the same number of guests. They bore no relation to the modern American- influenced business breakfast with orange juice and yoghurt and not much else at eight a.m. or even earlier.
Nor indeed were they much more simi- lar to Lloyd George's famous persuasive breakfasts at first No. 11 and then No. 10 Downing Street half a century later. These were a little but not much later than eight a.m. and were a matter of bacon and eggs, toast and marmalade and ear-bending. Gladstone's took place in his own grand house at 11 Carlton House Terrace and not in the liver-coloured and unesteemed Downing Street. They were at 10.30 a.m., were mixed and essentially social in pur- pose and involved entrées and wine. They were not all that different from the deje- uners at the Café Anglais in Paris of which the Prince of Wales was so fond at that time. Moreover, they did not end until noon, and even after that Gladstone at least was very inclined to go on a picture- viewing or porcelain-buying expedition.
The great time-saving, however, was that luncheon as either a nutritional or a social occasion did not effectively exist until the last 20, almost the last ten, years of the 19th century. In the 1860s, Gladstone's diaries only mention two luncheons, one in 1863 and one in 1867, and both of them on a Sunday and therefore a bit outside the pattern. The hours between one and three, in complete contrast with Churchill's habits even under the worst stresses of the second world war, were free for ministerial meetings or other business.
There are three further glosses to be put on this pattern for the first half of the day, that is to say before the hour of the sitting of House of Commons — which was 4.15 p.m. Firstly, the emergence of lunch was a function of the latening of the fashionable hour of dinner. In the earlier part of the century it had been at six or even five p.m. in London, in the country sometimes as early as three p.m. By the 1860s, it was seven or 7.30 p.m. (in London) and then by the end of the 1870s, it settled down at eight or 830 p.m., where it has remained for nearly 120 years, in sharp contrast with the shifting pattern of the previous decades.
Secondly, ministers in those days, although they often worked very hard Palmerston, for instance, conducting a large part of the diplomatic business of the For- eign Office in his own beautiful handwriting — did not work routinely in their depart- ments in a way that is now thought natural. Gladstone was indisputably a very hard worker. In his pre-Budget periods, when Chancellor, he was said to average 17 hours a day, although I believe that to be an exag- geration. But he hardly ever sat in his room in the Old Treasury building at the corner of Downing Street and Whitehall, working through Exchequer papers with his civil ser- vants on hand. Even during the London six months he did it much more from his own house, therefore mixing it up with his own private reading and correspondence. And in the recesses he — and others — rarely thought it necessary to be in London and at the Treasury unless the Cabinet was meeting.
Thirdly, Gladstone had the gift although one which was not without its disadvantages — of being able to make immensely long speeches with the mini- mum of preparation. In the days when I delivered what I regarded as major House of Commons speeches — mostly 9.30-10 p.m. wind-ups with a full house, which existed 25 years ago as it does not today my ratio of preparation to delivery time was about 15 to 1. Gladstone's for his habitual two-and-a-half hour orations, although they sometimes extended into the fourth and even once or twice into the fifth hour, was about 1 to 3 — one hour of preparation to three of delivery. This economy of his own time, combined with profligacy of his listeners' time, tended to a periphrastic style, although he was never I expect you read about all the sexy left-wing chicks in the Mail.' just a windbag, but it gave him many hours of reading and writing time which would otherwise have been consumed by prepar- ing reams of text.
The majority of these massive speeches were made late at night, many of them after midnight. The hours kept by the Commons in its period of classical glory were still more bizarre and irrational than those which evoke much criticism in its present-day decline. It may not have trou- bled members before the late afternoon, but it then proceeded to keep them there far into the night, with many of the most crucial and strongly attended divisions occurring at one or two in the morning.
An early Victorian example was the Don Pacifico debate of June 1850. This was the greatest parliamentary set-piece of the 19th century, the equivalent of the 20th centu- ry's Norway debate of 7/8 May 1940. They were similar in that almost every member of note spoke on each occasion and the phrases used by at least some of them car- ried a continuing resonance. They were dif- ferent in that much more followed from the Norway occasion than from the Pacifi- co one. Pacifico was just a debate, although a great one, with few consequences except for the enhancement of the reputation of some (notably Palmerston) and the decline of that of some others. Norway changed the government from Chamberlain to Churchill, and maybe the whole course of Britain's history.
The 1940 debate lasted over only two days with a cut-off point of 11 p.m. on each night. The 1850 one lasted over four with no cut-off point. Palmerston's Civis Romanus sum speech began just as on the second day the short summer night was falling and continued until a rosy dawn four and a half hours later. Gladstone on the next night was shorter — barely three hours — and sat down just before two o'clock. Equally, in the first great Dis- raeli/Gladstone duel in December 1852, when Disraeli, then a short-term Chancel- lor, was winding up (as he thought) the debate on his Budget with a two-hour-40 minute speech which concluded at one a.m., he (and the House) were amazed when Gladstone, pretending to be sponta- neously outraged by Disraeli's flippancy, but in fact having devoted more than usual preparation to his words, decided to pre- empt the custom by which a Chancellor had the last word on his own Budget, and gave the House another two hours, finish- ing only just after three a.m. Then there followed a division, with 95 per cent of members voting, which destroyed both the Budget and the government. No subsequent prime minister, except for Baldwin, ever spent nearly so much time in the House of Commons. But Baldwin spent it mostly in the lobbies, the corridors, the smoking-room and the dining-room, sniff- ing the atmosphere, whereas Gladstone spent it almost entirely on the Treasury bench. He was never very good at sniffing the atmosphere, and indeed claimed that in the whole of his 621/2 years in the House of Commons he only once dined there. This must have been more on the grounds of detachment than gastronomy, for in spite or because of his reputation for chewing every morsel several times over, he did not much care what he ate, although he did it heartily and washed it down fairly copiously, with more regard for the quality of the wine than of the food.
Mostly, he walked across the park to his house at 6 Carlton Gardens, or later 11 Carlton House Terrace, for a brief dinner. The House normally adjourned, but only between 7.30 and 8.30 p.m., and even if he were dining out, except on a Wednesday, he was normally back by ten p.m. This rais- es a mystery about reconciling the great number of courses which were offered and sometimes consumed in the 19th century with the speed with which they must have been served. As an example, when Speaker Denison dined with Palmerston in 1865, which was the 81st and last year of his (Palmerston's) life, he (Denison) was much struck by the Prime Minister con- suming two plates of turtle soup, a dish of cod with oyster sauce, a pâté, two entrées, a plate of mutton, a slice of ham and a portion of pheasant.
A counter-balancing factor to the long hours was the almost complete freedom, in session and recess alike, from constituency duties. Elections could be rough, rumbus- tious and above all expensive affairs. The expenditure of the equivalent of f1/4 or £1/2 million in today's money was by no means unusual. They were also uncertain affairs, with the added hazard that after each general election there were always quite a lot — a dozen or 20 would be typi- cal — unseatings on petition for corrupt practices. There was a delicate balance to be struck. If you did not spend enough, particularly in a constituency with an `Eatanswill' tradition, you did not get elected. If you spent too much you got unseated on petition. This happened to quite a lot of respectable people, because of what their agents did, as well as them- selves. Gladstone never had such trouble, but his father and two of his brothers did.
Such hazards and expenses apart, howev- er, constituencies were remarkably unde- manding. Gladstone sat for Greenwich his fourth constituency — from 1868 to 1880. He never liked the borough and they never showed vast enthusiasm for him, electing him in 1874 only in second place to `a gin distiller'. Despite it being only seven miles from Westminster, he visited it only twice in the six-year Parliament of 1868-74. Then he did three vast open-air meetings in the 1874 general election. He did another such meeting in September 1876 in pouring rain. That was it. He never went there again, even to say goodbye. In 1872, the Queen played a rather good joke on him (although ironical teasing was not exactly her style) by offering him a grace-and- favour house in Greenwich Park to 'ease the discharge of his constituency duties'. He declined, courteously but firmly.
After Greenwich he went to Midlothian and was elected there in 1880 following one of the most famous barnstorming cam- paigns in history. The election over, howev- er, he did not return for three years. And this remained his pattern to the end. He treated constituencies like an exigent hunt- ing man (which he was not) treated his horses: he called for a new one whenever he felt the old one was tiring. Nor was he whol- ly exceptional in this respect. Until Joseph Chamberlain, with his special identification with Birmingham, no major 19th-century politician remained faithful to one con- stituency throughout his political life. Peel sat for Cashel (an unreformed Co. Tipper- ary borough), Oxford University, Westbury and Tamworth, Palmerston for Newport (Isle of Wight), Cambridge University, Bletchingly, South Hampshire and Tiverton. Disraeli sat for Maidstone and Shrewsbury before settling down in Buckinghamshire. Chamberlain, with his 38 years as member for Birmingham, set an uxorious pattern which was taken up by Lloyd George with his 52 years as member for Carnarvon Bor- oughs, and then followed by such diverse figures as Anthony Eden, R.A. Butler, Harold Wilson, James Callaghan and Mar- garet Thatcher.
So long, however, as constituencies were treated as (maybe expensive) conveniences rather than as marriages made in heaven, or even as serious obligations, this was a major counterbalancing relief to the stren- uousness of the session, and only a small or non-existent interruption to the broad acres of leisure time in the recesses. What did politicians mostly do during these six months? Some, perhaps the majority, retired to their own broad acres, or those of their friends, and passed the autumn and most of the winter in estate manage- ment and country pursuits, intermingled for a few with serious intellectual ones. In those pre-skiing and pre-beach-life days (Gladstone liked invigorating sea-bathing, but was quite willing to do it in the autumn) the sporting recreations of the British ruling classes made the country more attractive in the shortening days than in the spring and summer. Even Gladstone's tree-felling, which was his substitute for shooting and hunting, could not be done for silvicultural reasons until August.
I suppose it's a bit late for a man-to-man chat, son.' As to travel, when in office they hardly moved outside Britain (which did not include Ireland) unless it was to go to a French or German spa for a cure. Castlereagh had been quite exceptional in going to Vienna in 1815 and to the subse- quent mini-congresses which followed in the wake of Vienna. Canning, when he called the new world into existence to redress the balance of the old, certainly did not do so from the soil of South America. Indian secretaries did not go to India, for- eign secretaries did not cross the Channel on business, and colonial secretaries did not go to the colonies. Joseph Chamberlain in this last category again broke new ground when he spent the winter of 1902-3 on 'the illimitable veldt' and came home to destroy the Unionist government by his conversion to imperial preference.
When they did travel, however, which was mostly in opposition and in the autumn and winter, they still did so on an ample scale. The spirit of the Grand Tour lin- gered into at any rate the third quarter of the 19th century, even though railways had then transformed the actual journeys. Thus Gladstone, after his longest continuous period in office, which was as Chancellor in the Palmerston government and its brief Russell epilogue from 1859 to 1866, cele- brated his release by going for four months to Rome. It was the sixth of his nine long visits to Italy.
These, then, are some of the main differ- ences between the patterns of political life in the second halves of the last two cen- turies. Politics has become much more pro- fessional for the great mass of members, but the calling has become less respected. Parliament has become less demanding for the leading participants, except that the rigid division of the halves of the years, like one side of the moon and the other, has ceased. The hours have become a good deal less bizarre, although still striking most people and other countries as dis- tinctly eccentric. Speeches have become much shorter, but paradoxically the num- bers willing to sit and listen to them, both in Parliament and in the country, much smaller. Politicians have become intellectu- ally narrower. Now they nearly all write (or at least publish) their memoirs, but few write anything else. In the 19th century, political autobiographies published during the author's lifetime were effectively non- existent, but quite a high proportion of the leading figures wrote works of scholarship, as Gladstone did on Homer, on the Odes of Horace and on theology. Was the coun- try then better governed? Instinctively we probably all think 'yes', but that is too big a subject to go into now. The country's posi- tion in the world was certainly stronger and the national mood was more self-confident, but there are issues much wider than politi- cal habits here involved.
Lord Jenkins is the author of a recent biogra- phy of Gladstone (Macmillan).