The Diaries of John Bright

By John Bright; R. A. J. Walling | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XIV IN AND OUT OF OFFICE

1

FOR the few months of his tenure of the Board of Trade, Bright was a prophet in chains. Even if he did not make a fundamental mistake in taking office (and it can be argued, from one point of view, that he performed a public service of some importance), the acceptance of the burden at this point in his life was a personal tragedy. He already dwelt perilously on the brink of another breakdown: in a year he was over the edge.

But the personal point of view counted little with Bright. Gladstone's urgent insistence had roused his remorseless sense of duty. Together they had created the new Liberal Party. It was about to go into action for the first time. To have stayed outside the Ministry would have been to fly the field on the eve of battle. Ireland, Education, Army Purchase, the Ballot, University Tests lay ahead. He believed he could forward these causes better from outside the Ministry than within. Yet the major policies among them were his very own: in the popular mind his name was firmly joined to them: a Liberal Cabinet to put them into practice with Bright standing aloof would have been misunderstood by the newly enfranchised masses. No man in the country, perhaps not even Gladstone, commanded their confidence in the same way. For them his presence guaranteed, as nothing else could, the stability of the new Government, its emancipation from Whig monopoly, and its devotion to democratic and progressive principles. Bright was the deeply- needed hall-mark of Liberalism on a Cabinet which included Lowe as Chancellor of the Exchequer. In his admiration for Gladstone and his gratitude for the practical driving force Gladstone gave to Liberal ideals, and in his concern for the success of the new Government, Bright made the greatest sacrifice of his life.

"I abhor the very idea of joining the Administration," he told his sister. He was already in office, he added; "and who will take my place if I relinquish it?" A searching question. No prophet, expositor and

-338-

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