Through the centre of Tenniel’s cartoon lies a fallen tree that represents ‘obstruction’, and specifically the adoption of systematic obstruction by Irish nationalists, as they attempted to disrupt parliamentary procedure in order to call attention to their preoccupations. The latest, and perhaps most serious, instance of this had occurred from 31 January to 2 February. As a result, Gladstone, the Liberal Prime Minister, attempted to move a series of rules for preventing obstruction and bringing debates to a close. This became known by the French term ‘clôture’, as inscribed on the nut held by Gladstone at the centre of the cartoon.
Indeed, Tenniel represents each significant issue for debate as a nut in need of cracking, held by the minister responsible for it:
To the left of Gladstone sits the Foreign Secretary, Lord Granville (1815- 1891), hugging a nut marked ‘Egypt’, the government of Egypt, and the control of the Suez Canal, being one of the key international issues. He is doing his best to keep it from Lord Salisbury (1830-1903) who, as Shadow Foreign Secretary (as well as Leader of the Opposition), is shown attempting to grab it. Two other Conservatives, Lord Randolph Churchill (1849-1895) and Sir Stafford Northcote (1818-1887) – the former riding on the latter’s shoulders – also expressed strong views on Egypt.
In the shadows behind Gladstone sits Lord Hartington (1833-1908), Secretary of State for India, while in front of him crouches Sir Charles Dilke (1843-1911), the Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. Though Dilke was preoccupied with the renewal of the Anglo-French Treaty, he also voiced concerns about the running of the India Office, and especially its handling of the matter of Russia’s borders with Persia and Afghanistan. To the immediate right of Gladstone sits the dominating figure of Sir William Vernon Harcourt (1827-1904), the Secretary of State for Home Affairs. Prompted by Dilke, he was taking charge of the Municipal Reform Bill for London. Further to the right sits Hugh Childers (1827-1896), Secretary of State for War, who would be busy with restructuring the regiments of the army until the middle of the year, when he needed to organise military support to quell the Urabi Revolt against the Khedive of Egypt. In front at the right squats Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-1891), who is attempting to break his nut, marked ‘Land League’, on a rock. Representing the Home Rule constituency of Meath since 1875, it was he who led the policy of Obstructionism that still hampered parliament over five years later. Becoming President of the Irish National Land League from its foundation in 1879, he promoted land reform as a step towards the self-government of Ireland. At the time that Tenniel produced this cartoon, he and his party lieutenants were imprisoned in Kilmainham Jail for ‘sabotaging the Land Act’ but, on his release in spring 1882, he achieved a crucial amendment regarding an abatement for tenant rent-arrears.
The fact that Tenniel tended to characterise the Irish people as ape-faced ‘Paddies’ may have influenced his decision to present Obstructionism in terms of the latest theories of man’s ancestry.
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