Morley, John (1838–1923), politician, writer, and chief secretary for Ireland, was born 24 December 1838 at Blackburn, Lancashire, second son of Jonathan Morley, surgeon, and Priscilla Morley (née Donkin). Educated in Blackburn and then at Cheltenham College, he entered Lincoln College, Oxford, graduating BA in 1859. Having left university with a pass degree he moved to London, where he worked as a journalist for the Saturday Review. In January 1867 he was appointed editor of the Fortnightly Review, a magazine that ran monthly for the fifteen years that he was in charge.
A visit to America towards the end of 1867 gave Morley an insight into the concerns of Irish-Americans; he returned with a determination to address Irish problems. Attempting to enter parliament, he was rebuffed on numerous occasions, his radical politics and intellectual manner alienating voters. Writing numerous works on public policy and political biography, he argued vehemently against coercion in Ireland in the 1880s, and his journalism was given some credit for bringing about the resignation of W. E. Forster (qv) as chief secretary in 1882. His first expression of support for home rule appears in 1877, when he suggested that it would give the Irish ‘a new sense of responsibility’ (Hamer, 163). He finally entered the house of commons as Liberal MP for Newcastle-on-Tyne (1883–95), and soon established himself as one of the architects of the party's radical programme. By now a firm believer that home rule for Ireland was necessary before any social reform could be attempted in Britain, he argued passionately that Ireland must be a priority for the new Liberal government. With the Irish parliamentary party holding the balance of power after 1885, Gladstone was inclined to agree, and his appointment of Morley as chief secretary for Ireland on 6 February 1886 marked the signalling of a new Irish policy. However, Morley's nomination created a rift with his friend and political ally Joseph Chamberlain that was never healed. Acting as an intermediary between Charles Stewart Parnell (qv) and Gladstone, Morley found the Irish leader ‘acute, frank, patient, closely attentive and possessed of striking, though not rapid, insight’ (O'Brien, 185). Having helped to draft the first home rule bill he was devastated to see it defeated in the commons, and after the government itself was defeated at the 1886 general election he left office on 5 August. For the next ten years he remained committed to the home rule cause and insisted that the Liberal party should fight to win justice for Ireland ‘at whatever cost to ourselves’ (Hamer, 208). In February 1888 he was given the freedom of Dublin in recognition of his efforts.
News of Parnell's involvement in a divorce case in 1890 shattered his morale, and he became pessimistic about the future opportunities for home rule. When Gladstone prepared a letter on 24 November to persuade the parliamentary party to abandon their leader, Morley inserted the phrase about Parnell's continuance reducing the prime minister's leadership to ‘almost a nullity’. Morley returned to Dublin in 1892 when he was appointed chief secretary for Ireland a second time on 22 August. His dedication to securing home rule saw him increasingly isolated within the Liberal party, and he sought ways of escaping from the ‘back-kitchen’ of Ireland. His term as chief secretary, however, was an active episode in the ‘greening of Dublin Castle’ – the appointment of more officeholders from among persons with liberal and nationalist backgrounds or sympathies. His other main achievement during this period was his work on the second home rule bill, which passed the commons in 1893 but was rejected by the lords. By the time Gladstone retired as leader in 1894 Morley was thoroughly disillusioned with his position; with the change of government in June 1895 he left office as chief secretary for the last time. He continued to sit in the commons as MP for Montrose Burghs (1896–1908).
Retiring temporarily from active politics, he wrote a monumental Life of Gladstone (3 vols, 1903), for which he is now chiefly remembered. As secretary of state for India (1905–10), he was created Viscount Morley of Blackburn on 2 May 1908. In 1911 he was a vehement opponent of the proposed exclusion of Ulster from the third home rule bill, but as tensions escalated in Ireland in the following years he was torn between support for home rule and his steadfast opposition to the coercion of unionists. Opposed to conflict with Germany, he believed that war would only benefit Russia and resigned from the government on 4 August 1914. His Recollections were published in two volumes in 1917. Returning to the lords in December 1921 for one brief intervention, he spoke in favour of the peace treaty with Ireland. He died 23 September 1923 at Flowermead, Wimbledon Park, of heart failure. He married (May 1870) Mary Ayling; they had no children. His papers are in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.