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William Gladstone

Prime Minister 1868 - 74, 1880 - 86, 1892 - 94

The Greek writer Plutarch identified two kinds of politician. There are those who for Plutarch are the true politicians, those who see politics as a way of life, with no particular end in view. Robert Walpole and Benjamin Disraeli are definitive examples. Alternatively there are those who see politics as an ocean voyage or a military campaign. They are intent on getting somewhere. To recall a phrase used by John Winthrop, leader of puritan settlers of Massachusetts, and by Ronald Reagan, these are " shining city on a hill" politicians. William Gladstone was a definitive shining city on a hill politician. Born 29th December 1809, son of a Liverpool merchant, young William was brought up in an evangelical household, the conventions of which made an indelible impression on him. Life had a purpose, an end in view, and it was this priestly vocation which drove Gladstone, making him a man who always had to have a cause. Gladstone's crusading career was to see him coming up against the way of life philosophy in his great rival Disraeli. Rarely in history has there been such a dramatic demonstration of these two contrasting approaches to politics.



Eton College

Gladstone was a very conventional young man. While Disraeli was leaving school at fifteen, setting up newspapers which failed, losing fortunes on the stock market, and having affairs with the wives of baronets, Gladstone was taking the conventional path through life. His education was the most conventional that could be imagined. He went to Eton, where his biographer Roy Jenkins says he "liked conventional learning" (Gladstone P13). Then he, and half his Eton friends, moved on to Christ Church College Oxford, the college of the establishment. When Gladstone went to Christ Church, six out of twenty one prime ministers had studied there. But conventional though he was, Gladstone was a creature of extremes, and if he was conventional he would be excessively so. At Oxford the serious minded Gladstone soon became a target for the college loutish element. Seeking out his rooms on the first floor of Christ Church's Canterbury Quadrangle they broke in and proceeded to give him a good beating. Gladstone's extreme take on what was considered acceptable continued in the political career which began within months of his graduation in 1832. Following a tour of Europe he was elected MP for Newark. He started out in his career as a hard line member of the Tory Party, opposing the abolition of slavery, and suggesting that membership of the Church of England should be obligatory for those who wanted to enjoy the full rights of British citizenship. Prime minister Robert Peel saw Gladstone as a future talent, but given the young man's religious views Peel realised that his requested job, secretary of state for Ireland, would not be a wise appointment. Instead a position at the Board of Trade seemed more appropriate. Here Gladstone played his role in Peel's historic 1841 - 1846 administration which took the old Tory party through to its new life as the Conservative Party. Turning away from its position as a party of the landed aristocracy, Peel aimed to abolish tariffs protecting profits of agricultural producers, and to establish free trade. Gladstone was closely associated with these efforts.


In 1846 Peel was voted out of office, and Gladstone went with him. This period was to be an important one in Gladstone's development as a politician. A long trip to Naples in 1850, where political oppression was experienced first hand, brought a change in outlook. His crusading fervour was the same, but it began to travel in more liberal channels. Returning to England Gladstone began his rivalry with up and coming fellow Conservative politician Benjamin Disraeli. Disraeli and Gladstone were very different people. Disraeli was at this time aligning himself with the Church of England to give the impression of respectability, only to provide cover for more radical manoeuvre on political reform. This behaviour enraged Disraeli's earnest rival. Religion for Gladstone was not to be used dispassionately in a political game. He was full of almost fanatical certainties. But it was also the case that Gladstone's certainties were a product of confusion, a confusion which he refused to acknowledge. The upright, conventional Gladstone had a strong sexual drive which expressed itself in various bizarre behaviour. After a determined campaign to find a wife, he married Catherine Glynne in 1839, proposing to her by letter. Clement Attlee read this letter in a biography, and was dismissive of a marriage proposal, which included "a sentence of 140 words all about the Almighty" (quoted in Gladstone by Roy Jenkins P52). Gladstone of course had to be strictly loyal to his wife. But there was also a side to him that inspite of all his letters of proposal mentioning God, and his frantic efforts at self control, was not so neat and tidy. From May 1849 Gladstone began to make systematic night time encounters with prostitutes, justified to himself as efforts to "rescue" these unfortunate women. For many years Gladstone's rescuing activities were either ignored, or accepted as "charity" work, but his diaries reveal a man who would frequently beat himself for what he saw as transgressions with the women he met. In 1857 Gladstone was frenzied in his opposition to measures introduced by the Palmerston government to make divorce more widely available, a resort which until then had only been acceptable amongst the very rich. Gladstone's moral frenzy on this issue can easily be seen as a result of his deep seated confusion regarding his relationships with women. Roy Jenkins puts it well when he writes: "It was reminiscent of an intoxicated guardsman who could prevent himself from falling over only by standing too rigidly to attention" (Gladstone P184). Gladstone hated this kind of confusion in himself, and saw a natural enemy in Disraeli who casually accepted such complications. Disraeli rose to chancellor of the exchequer in 1859, under Lord Derby, but Gladstone was now a sworn enemy, and put attacking Disraeli ahead of loyalty to the Conservative Party. Gladstone opposed Disraeli's 1859 budget, helping bring down Derby's administration. Gladstone then became chancellor himself, 1859 - 66, under Palmerston.


As chancellor, according to Roy Jenkins, the great difference between Gladstone and Disraeli was the way Gladstone seemed to believe that he could "drive in whatever direction he judged right" while Disraeli didn't care which way he went "as long as he was in the driving seat". But although Gladstone seemed to have all the certainty of someone driving in a clear direction, he also illustrates the fact that politicians can really only drive in the direction that events want to go anyway. In 1866 he gave a speech about the need for electoral reform in which he said to his opponents: "You cannot fight against the future... The great social forces which move onwards in their might and majesty, and which the tumult of our debates does not for a moment impede or disturb - those social forces are against you" (quoted Jenkins P 262). Gladstone himself, on many occasions in his career, found to his cost the futility of fighting a tide which is against you. A good example is provided by income tax. Gladstone is often credited with revolutionising Britain's financial system in the budget of 1859. This budget introduced income tax as a standard feature of administrative practice. What is often forgotten is that fifteen years later, in his 1874 budget, he tried to repeal income tax, and failed. Gladstone did not actually have a grand plan in which he saw a different future for Britain's finances. He simply tried something for a while, and it took on a life of its own, so much so that attempts to reverse the decision at a later date were unsuccessful. Circumstance was in play here, even though Gladstone liked to think he was the driving force. Gladstone saw himself a crusader rather than a pragmatist, but in many ways he was deluding himself that he had power over events, just as he deluded himself about the true nature of his personality and his physical drives. In the grip of this crusading delusion, Gladstone was soon to find that the Conservative Party, a traditionally pragmatic party, was failing to provide the sense of mission which Gladstone was looking for. In 1867 he crossed the House of Commons to the Liberals, for whom he became leader.



Trafalgar Tavern Greenwich, a favourite meeting place for Gladstone and his ministers

Meanwhile Disraeli was playing his political games with great skill. The Conservatives had come to the conclusion that reform was needed, but were deeply divided about what actually to do. As Disraeli's biographer R. Blake suggests, Disraeli in guiding his party had no other aim than maintaining unity. Any idealistic notion of changing things for the better took second place. He knew that without unity there would be no reform at all. Disraeli, taking over the Conservative Party leadership when Derby fell ill, had to decide how to react to the passage through the Commons of a bill reforming voting rights. A policy of deliberate procrastination was adopted, making noises about reform to keep idealists happy, but actually doing little, which kept traditionalists happy. In this way, inspite of violent differences of opinion, the Conservatives managed to stay together. Disraeli was soon to get his reward, firmly establishing his leadership of the party, and helping pass the 1867 Reform Act, which effectively doubled the number of people who could vote, from one million to two million. But this was an age when the shining city on a hill was a powerful beacon, both for Gladstone and for many people generally. Inspite of Disraeli's achievements, a divided Liberal Party still won 1868's general election. This made William Gladstone prime minister for the first time. A great reforming government followed. Gladstone's own cause was Ireland. Taking personal charge of Irish problems he did not get very far. Meanwhile officials in other departments had more success. There were reforms of the army, civil service, and local government, which helped individuals to advance on merit. The Local Government Board Act of 1871 brought order and planning to previously more haphazard social welfare provision. Perhaps the best remembered reform of this administration was the Education Act of 1870, laying the basis for universal elementary education. This was largely the achievement of W.E. Forster. It was also the result of wider circumstance. Electoral reform meant that more people had the vote, giving rise to a feeling that more people should be educated so that they would be responsible with their vote. Industrialists were also pressuring government for a better education system so that they had a more effective work force. This was simply the right time for Forster to make progress with education. It was not a case of idealistic politicians suddenly deciding that it would be a good idea if more people had an education. Where things were ready to happen they began to happen. Meanwhile, on issues where politicians were simply being idealistic, progress did not come. This was true of Ireland. It was also true of Gladstone's efforts made in 1873 to remove discrimination against catholics in higher education. This of course was a laudable aim, but it was an aim that was going to break up his party. Disraeli would not have tried this. He would have waited, holding his party together in the hope of a more appropriate time in the future. Gladstone's principles were in large measure to lose him the general election of 1874. Disraeli, the opportunist, took over 1874 - 80. He was the man who once again held his party together, and achieved unity without which nothing could be done. Like the preceding Gladstone government, Disraeli's 1874 - 80 administration was to become famous for reform.



The Reform Club - unofficial headquarters of Gladstone's Liberal party

With Disraeli as prime minister, at the height of his career, Gladstone immersed himself in theology, and engaged in abstruse disputes about the supposed infallibility of the pope. By 1876, however, Disraeli's energy was beginning to fade, and Gladstone threw himself into renewed opposition to his old rival. Battling with failing health, Disraeli was struggling with a chaotic international situation. Fearing Russian expansion, attempts were made to support Turkey against Russia. This was a complicated problem. Turkey was ruthlessly suppressing rebellion in Bulgaria, then part of Turkey's Ottoman Empire. Meanwhile Russia threatened to take advantage of Turkey's troubles to win influence in disputed Balkan territories. Gladstone was supposed to be in retirement, but he certainly missed politics, and the Bulgarian situation was an ideal issue to allow him back in. He quickly wrote what can only be described as hysterical pamphlets portraying the Turks as the bad guys, oppressing by brutal means Christian people in Bulgaria. The Turks did do some terrible things in Bulgaria, but the Russians were doing equally terrible things elsewhere, in their treatment of Romanian Jews for example (see Disraeli by Stanley Weintraub P 564). The desire to re emerge from retirement with " a clap of thunder and a whiff of smoke" as Jenkins puts it, had to be disguised to himself and others as moral outrage. Moral outrage also hid the fact that Gladstone was at this time suffering one of his periodic infatuations with women, this time with the wife of a member of the Russian General Staff. This all fed into Gladstone's overheated moral outlook and caused him to urge a crusade against the evil Turks. Disraeli meanwhile had to steer a course between people calling for Britain to support the Russians against the Turks, and those who fearing Russian expansion, called for action against Russia. It is to Disraeli's credit that he resisted both sides, and was able to help cobble together a peace deal at the Congress of Berlin in 1878. Once again Gladstone's seeming moral clarity hid all kinds of more murky considerations.



Sadly Disraeli's moment of triumph after the Berlin Congress was not to last long. Officials and awkward generals took it upon themselves to start wars in Afghanistan, and in South Africa against the Zulus. Disraeli was furious and had the choice between appearing out of control of events, or appearing in control of unpopular events. He could not win. Gladstone was suitably outraged. The Conservatives were defeated in the 1880 election, and Gladstone returned as prime minister for a second time. Once again there were reforming successes. The Reform Act of 1884 gave more people the vote, increasing the electorate from three to five million. Gladstone, however, found foreign affairs as difficult to deal with as Disraeli. Gladstone was not a natural colonialist, but found himself as the head of a huge empire, with awkward figures in far flung places unwilling to follow the party line. In 1884 the government decided to abandon the Sudan in Africa, but General Charles George Gordon had other ideas. Gordon was sent to the Sudan to supervise withdrawal. Instead he fortified the town of Khartoum and set out to defend it against the Sudanese. The public clamoured for Khartoum's relief, with Gladstone having to reluctantly comply. Just like Disraeli before him, Gladstone found himself at the mercy of events overseas. A half hearted relief effort failed, Khartoum fell in January 1885, Gordon was killed, and much damage was done to Gladstone's government. On a more positive note 1884 also saw the Third Reform Bill and Redistribution Bill, which gave the vote to all male householders, and created single member constituencies generally as they exist today. But Khartoum was fresh in people's minds, and Gladstone, continuing to pursue his great cause in Ireland, split the government over his support for Irish home rule. The Liberal Party lost the 1885 election, and Lord Salisbury took over. Gladstone was to return to power one more time, 1892 - 94, but his government once again fell over support for Irish home rule. Gladstone resigned in 1894, and Queen Victoria found it hard to disguise her relief. He was not an easy man. Gladstone refused to just rub along. This was his great quality as a politician, and his great weakness. A final judgment of Gladstone all depends on whether you see politics as a mission with an end or as a way of life. For someone who seeks a shining city on hill, Gladstone will be a hero. He was a hero to Roy Jenkins for example. But there are many people who do not see life like this. As Tolstoy wrote, "The activity of Alexander or Napoleon cannot be termed beneficial or harmful, since we cannot say for what it is beneficial or harmful" (War and Peace P1341). In a situation where there is no end in view, the indefinable Disraeli is seen in a better light. Plutarch would certainly have preferred Disraeli. Perhaps, however, we really need both of the approaches personified by Disraeli and Gladstone. As Hugo Young said in his biography of Margaret Thatcher, "the politician needs to believe, or perhaps assumes the voters need to believe, that the events in which he is taking part belong to a sequence which is nearing its heroic and predestined conclusion" (One Of Us P518). I admit that the way of life politicians that personally I instinctively admire might struggle to provide this impression of purpose. Since a mission politician and a way of life politician are unlikely to co-exist in one person, we might look upon Gladstone and Disraeli as a great double act, and value them together rather than as individuals. This is inspite of the fact that Gladstone detested Disraeli, and Disraeli took the initials of Gladstone's nickname -Grand Old Man - and turned them into God's Only Mistake.

Gladstone died on 19th May 1898 at his home at Hawarden Castle.