24 OCTOBER 1958, Page 8

Was Dilke Guilty ?

By CHRISTOPHER HOLLIS WAS Dilke guilty of adultery with Mrs. Crawford? If there was a conspiracy against him, who was its inspirer? If he was guilty, was it right that he should have been punished by exclusion from office? Did his exclusion change the course of history? These are the four great Dilkean . questions and on all of them Mr. Jenkins* has much that is important to say.

The fascination of the Dilke case, as of the Tichborne case, is that to every explanation of it there are apparently insuperable objections, and yet some explanation must be true. That Mrs. Crawford lied in the witness box is, as Mr. Jenkins says, demonstrable, nor can there be much doubt that Mike's sexual life in general had not been wholly irreproachable. I agree with Mr. Jenkins that it seems probable on the whole that he did not commit adultery with Mrs. Craw- ford. Yet, if so, there are grave difficulties to be explained away. What motive had Mrs. Crawford for accusing him? If she wanted to get free from her husband and did not want to accuse Captain Forster, pick on somebody indeed, but why pick on somebody as formidable as Dilke? Why not pick on some member of-the considerable com- pany with whom she undoubtedly had slept? And, if she had done Dilke this grave wrong, why did she not feel under obligation during all the later years of undoubtedly sincere religious devotion to do something to put that wrong right?

Again, who put Mrs. Crawford up to making to her husband this accusation against Dilke? The part played in these intrigues by her women rela- tions is of only secondary interest. But is there anything in Bodley's suggestions of an important political figure behind the scenes—Rosebery or Chamberlain? The case against Rosebery is un- substantiated and can be summarily dismissed. Chamberlain is less simple. If we are to suppose that Chamberlain, Dilke's closest friend and colleague, afterwards to be so profuse in his protestations of belief in Dilke's innocence, at the secret interview, shortly before Mrs. Crawford's delation of Dilke to her husband, counselled such "' SIR CHARLES DILKE. By Roy Jenkins. (Collins, 25s.) a delation, then indeed Chamberlain appears as a figure of lago-wickedness. But Dilke never believed this and I agree again with Mr. Jenkins that it is hard to believe it. Chamberlain's only possible motive for ruining Dilke would have been that Dilke's ruin would have left his title to the leadership of the Radicals undisputed, but Chamberlain was always more interested in power than in post, and he was much more powerful with Dilke as his ally than with Dilke ruined. But then, if Chamberlain was whollY innocent, why did he keep from Dilke this inter- view with Mrs. Crawford until detectives dis- covered it years afterwards? There was clearlY some secret in his relations with 'Mrs. Crawford which Chamberlain Wished to hide from Dilke , and from the world.

Then there is the question whether matri- monial irregularity ought to be considered a barrier to high ollice. It is a difficult question--' the more so as each particular case always has its particular history. That was certainly so ill Dilke's case. It is not merely that the case is doubtful. If Dilke was innocent, then of course he was ill-treated, but at the time of the first pre- judice against him the public, on whichever side it stood, did not think him innocent, nor can it be blamed for that, for the public could hardlY be expected to understand the incredible ignor- ance. of the law displayed here as elsewhere bY Victorian lawyers alike on the bench and at the bar, and it was not to be blamed for accepiill the verdict of the trial. As Dilke confessed; had he been on the jury he would have decided as the jury did on the facts presented to if. The verdict only became utterly doubtful later when new facts had been discovered. And, if Mrs. Crawford s story was true, then, it must be remembered, not only had Dilke been guilty, like Parnell, of adLIl tery, but, unlike Parnell, of adultery of a partial' larly sordid and a particularly ridiculous nature --the three-in-a-bed story and the like—and wa5 lucky not to have been prosecuted for perjurY. There was no question of Dilke being dismissed from or having to resign any public post. All that was asked of him as far as Parliament went Wa.s that he should wait a little while and change constituency. That was not very much.

Office was a different story. It was not perhaPs surprising that he was not included in Glad. stone's Government of 1892. Should RoseberY have brought him in when he succeeded Glad: stone? But Dilke by. then was almost in onPosl: tion to the Government on its defence policy ao indeed in the end helped by his rebellious vote to bring it down. By the time that Campbell-Ban- nerman formed his Government in 1905 DiIke had drifted still farther away from the party counsels. Admittedly Campbell-Bannerman did. not like him, and what may have been his real. motives for the snub, who shall say? But Camp- bell-Bannerman could at any rate make a colour- able case for it that he was excluding DiIke on Purely public grounds. Mr. Jenkins has little doubt that Dilke's cata- r0Phe did change the course of history. Cer- tainly there is every reason to believe that without it he would have 'advanced to the leadership of the party, taking the place either of Rosebery or Of Campbell-Bannerman. Would that in itself have made so much difference? If, as Mr. Jenkins thinks possible, DiIke's influence could have kept Chamberlain from splitting with the Liberals Over Horne Rule, then obviously it would have changed the whole pattern of political develop- ment. But I doubt if DiIke's influence was, or could have been, sufficient to have deflected Chamberlain from the path along which he was going.

It used to be a great glory of the House of Commons that in it professional politicians had to sit cheek by jowl with other Members dis- tinguished in other walks of life, and among them sat commonly a great historian or two. I do not know that there is any Member of the House of Commons today other than Mr. Jenkins who can tell objectively and absorbingly the story of a past battle, not using it at all as a peg on which to hang an advertisement of a modern political programme. Certainly there is no other Member who can tell it nearly as well. DiIke, scandals apart, was neither as able nor as attractive a man as Mr. Asquith. Nevertheless the life of him is a worthy successor of Mr. Balfour's Poodle.