HAWARDEN, November 4th, 1881.
—F. had talks with Uncle W. about his resignation, which he is very seriously contemplating about Easter, on the strength of having carried out all the great foreign matters of policy that he took office to do. The conversation as I have it from F. was pretty much as follows. Uncle W. began by saying that resigning the Chancellorship of the Exchequer would have the great drawback of in a manner binding him to remain on as P.M. for an indefinite time. His reasons for wishing to give it up altogether he then went into.
(I ought to have put in, after his words about the Exchequer, what he then proceeded to say as to his having been called to office. All the special reasons which justified his taking office were at an end or nearly so: the Berlin treaty carried out, Afghanistan evacuated, Transvaal settled, finance put on a satisfactory footing. Two matters that had since arisen no doubt still required his care—the state of Ireland, and Parliamentary Obstruction; but these were, he trusted, in a hopeful way of being settled.)
Never liked the tone even of Sir Robert Peel, when he used to complain of the severity of public service; which, in his (Uncle W.'s) opinion, was fairly requited and not heavier than duty called for. At the same time, he considered that after 50 years of public service it was not well to be obliged to work with the intensity which office now entailed, nor was it desirable to look forward to end one's days in the contentions necessarily entailed by the office of P.M. In the next place, his position towards the Queen was intolerable to one who throughout life had reverenced her as a constitutional sovereign, inasmuch as he now had to strive daily with her on the side of liberty as opposed to jingoism. In the 3rd place he said it was only fair to Lord Granville and Hartn., who had led the party thro' difficult and disagreeable times. F. acknowledged the force of all this, but represented the practical impossibility. While he retained his full powers, the country would not let him resign and nobody else could lead. Uncle W. then suggested temporary abstention on his part as meeting these difficulties; though he acknowledged that a retired Minister was inevitably the centre which attracted all discontent.
Subsequently, he mentioned the House of Lords, but said he thought of that with great reluctance. F. replied that to take a peerage was his only possible course if he was bent on retiring; that the country would otherwise always be turning to him and clamouring for him; that in the H. of Commons he could never occupy a 2nd place. Uncle W. laughed and said, "You have indeed put a serious bar in the way of my retiring." When he spoke of Ld. Granville, F. said he had heard on good authority (which he did not quote—it was a letter from Lord Acton to Mazy) that Ld. G. meant to retire whenever Uncle W. did. At this he was greatly surprised; but said he did fear Ld. G.'s life was not a good one. He spoke of the effects of old age: said he was constantly reminded of Cobden's remark about Ld. Palmerston — that with age authority was apt to increase as powers of judgment decreased; and quoted the D. of Wellington as another instance of harm done by old men. Nevertheless he was obliged to confess that he had stood the hard work of the last session without harm, and was in perfect force, and better than he had been. Spoke of a former time when he could not sleep on one side without disquiet and bad dreams—was now quite free from that. He tried to make out that Ireland might be quiet and the regulation of the House all settled by Easter. F. thinks there is hardly any chance of this. Within this very week he has given F. to read an able and exhaustive paper (such as might furnish matter for a 3 hours' speech) on Local Government for the guidance of Mr. Dodson. How could this be launched and then left to others? (F., however, has learnt since that it is to be laid before a special Committee on which Uncle W. will not sit.) The talk ended by his saying he would consult Lord Granville.
The impression F. gathered from the whole conversation was that the thought of retirement was not so much prompted by the personal longing for it (tho' without doubt it is a vision which refreshes and cheers him to turn to) as by conscientious scruples with regard to Ld. G. and Hartn., and as to his own conviction against old men going on at politics till they drop. He hates making himself the exception. (But N.B. what an exception he is, as a matter of fact!)
The upshot seems to me that he will find it impossible to retire before there is some indication of serious overstrain in him, either mental or bodily. That otherwise, however he might seclude himself he would remain a great power in the country, such as would necessarily hamper his successors. That the only feasible way, supposing his powers anything like what they are at present, would be by taking a peerage. That, unless he should be in real danger of breaking down, it could not be right for him to leave the helm in the present state of politics; nor can the moment be foreseen when it would be right. I think the hope of being able to retire soon will continue to please him; but that he will find it impossible at any given moment except under the above-mentioned conditions. Taking a peerage and continuing to be P.M. might do ; but it could hardly be bearable for him to be P.M. with no power over the H. of C. and in a minority in the H. of Lords.