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W. E. Gladstone PM The Grand Old Man of Late 19th Century British Politics (the GOM)

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  • Author: Richard Michael Lamb


The man who put the stamp on old fashioned liberalism for the 19th century and thereafter.

1. Introduction: Gladstone/ Newman 1830/40’s

Gladstone was a driven politician who in his early years nearly became a Priest in the Church of England. A man who insisted on the highest standards for himself and yet several of his colleagues failed to stand by him over Irish Home Rule. They appear to have not engaged with his deep commitments. Gladstone was not self-important. Newman speaks of Gladstone in the Tractarian period to 1840 and it appears the two emerging greats regarded each other from afar. Gladstone was a hard line Anglican opposing the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland (Protestant) in Ireland pre-1840 which policy Newman also challenged on the same grounds. They were both original Anglicans yet Gladstone stuck to his guns whilst Newman moved across to Rome. There can be no denying it the deeply religious Gladstone in effect showed up the equally devotional Newman. It was a clash of heavyweights. Newman received considerable public attention in his life and of course so did Gladstone. They both sought the limelight not for its own sake but to clarify their polemic for the benefit of all. There was no loser the fight was too well balanced but do not underestimate Gladstone’s inner turmoil at seeing Newman’s example of conversion and Newman’s struggle at seeing Gladstone’s tenacity. They both suffered without doubt. The contrast Newman/ Gladstone illuminates their characters and the impact of religion on their lives. They were both men of God. In Gladstone’s vast diaries, very detailed and secondly Newman’s prodigious letters their Godliness comes through. Their particular intensity in religion and devotion to God was rare even in a more religious age. Their lives spanned the same period and each man lived for practically 90 years. Gladstone would not have approved of Newman’s conversion and his Catholic ordination after his noble espousal of pure Anglicanism in the Tractarian movement. Newman had not fulfilled his promise Gladstone would have said. As Newman very nearly reunited the Anglican Church and the Roman Catholic Church in the Tracts and particularly Tract 90 so Gladstone nearly achieved unity and autonomy for Ireland. Each man made those two separated issues their make or break questions respectively. Newman’s came midway in his career – Gladstone’s challenge was at the end. Each man had to admit defeat.

2. Gladstone’s Politics

Party politics had become entrenched in the period of the Great Reform Bill, Duke of Wellington, Sir Robert Peel, Disraeli and Gladstone. The suffrage was not universal in spite of Gladstone’s Parliamentary Reform Bills and Disraeli’s. The organisation of political parties was changing especially in the late 19th Century. Gladstone campaigned by live speech in person one after the other e.g. Midlothian campaign in Scotland. Exhausting but the target was smaller as the electorate was so much less in numbers. Gladstone stood at home for retrenchment (i.e. economically prepared and structured growth) parliamentary reform and above all Irish Home Rule which he made his definitive policy. His foresight was remarkable and he grasped the opportunity to change the face of Ireland. Yet he was denied by the House of Peers in an act of sheer obscurantism.

3. The Grand Old Man

Gladstone was clearly no timeserver. He established the bastion for the politics of the mid-20th Century Liberalism of the Old School under Grimond and Thorpe. Gladstone bequeathed a legacy of principle to the pre-Great War Liberal governments of Campbell – Bannerman and Asquith who was supported by Lloyd George. He was greatly admired in death like President Kennedy – a man of integrity and courage like Gladstone. (The 50th Anniversary of his assassination occurs on 22 November 2013 – he died in 1963). How do we define Gladstone’s political philosophy? Firstly Samuel Smiles and his belief in self-help by the Artisan class and secondly and most importantly the supremacy of individual freedom of choice. Gladstone was straight down the line and asked no favours pursuing policies that he thought were right and just by his conscience and well worked out. He was a politician of the world but his principles were those of a high minded yet humble man. Without Gladstone 19th Century British politics and the 20th Century Liberal party would have been impoverished. He recruited the non-conformists to the Liberals in the 1850’s and they remained loyal until the virtual downfall of our party in the 1920’s and 1930’s. They were natural Liberals and some are to this day.

4. Irish Home Rule

He committed himself to this policy and would not give up. He introduced several such measures to parliament: one passed the Commons and was defeated in the Lords, another caused a walk out by several members of his cabinet and one was defeated in the Commons. He simply forged on yet he was the Grand old man of politics in his declining years. But his energy for debate was undiminished. He would not be deflected and take the hint. Those were the days. The House of Lords was always going to reject Gladstone’s Irish Home Rule Bill with its built in Conservative and Unionist majority yet it was undemocratic and lacked representative authenticity. Asquith’s Liberal Administration in 1912 successfully truncated the power of the House of Lords on Finance Bills alone to prevent them voting down such measures passed twice by the Commons. This was Gladstone in spirit at work taking on the Lords over his Home Rule Bills and its majority against Home Rule. Asquith’s Irish Home Rule Bill was overtaken by the start of the Great War in August 1914 and was never enacted. Home Rule came in 1922 for Ireland but created a divided and violent Ireland. Gladstone would have been dead against division. The same Gladstonian influence can be seen in the Liberal’s espousal of electoral reform (proportional representation) in the 1960’s under Grimond. Gladstone wanted fairness for Ireland through home rule – Grimond and Thorpe desired proper representation for Liberal voters according to the number of votes cast – another policy based upon fairness which the establishment did not and will not permit. To Gladstone in the 1880’s and 1890’s the bug bear was the entrenched Conservative/Unionist majority in the Lords. The two major parties axis represented the same impediment and hindrance to the Liberal party of the 1960’s and 1970’s over electoral reform.

5. Gladstone the Figure of Fun

Gladstone was pilloried and vilified for his labours. He was said to be “mad” and a wild agitator. He was not bothered and pursued the goal of Home Rule for the sake of Ireland and the Irish: Catholics and Protestants. Nothing would stop him; he was acting on the rock of principle. If he had won the contest Ireland would not be divided – what a glittering prize.

6. Conclusion

He never went to War in Europe. He condemned the atrocities in Bulgaria by the Turks in his own pamphlet – a man prepared to put himself out for what counted – human life. Again he was arguing for the end of the Ottoman Empire in effect long before it happened – yes, a man with real foresight and vision. He was very much a man of external action hence his choice of a political career rather than a priestly one in the Church. His diaries reveal the inner man which helped to create his outer face of austerity and self deprecation and single mindedness. He combined a searching conscience and the power to lead men in the Cabinet, Parliament and the Country. Self adulation was abhorrent to him. Clearly he was a good family man: Herbert his son followed him into politics with the Liberals and was a strong ally to the Grand Old Man his father. I argue the defining meaning of his career is his religious adherence to the true principles of the Anglican Church which became the Conservative party at prayer in the 20th Century – Macmillan (Old Etonian). Eden (Old Etonian) Alec Douglas-Home (Old Etonian) and Churchill (Old Harrovian). These four post War Primeministers were educated Anglicans at Eton or Harrow and were Conservatives. Grimond and Thorpe (Liberal party Leaders of 1960’s and 1970’s) were also Old Etonians where they would imbibe Anglicanism/ the Gladstonian Liberal stream came through to Harold Macmillan (a progressive Conservative) and Grimond and Thorpe. Without doubt it will spring forth again if we are serious about our politics and aspire to be truly radical as Gladstone showed us. Gladstone mined the rich seem of Anglican goodness and virtue in his life to serve his Country but first and foremost God Himself. His Liberalism was born of his deep Anglican Christian understanding of Charity and Humility. Long live the Spirit and memory of the Grand Old Man! Gladstone could not have attained his political stature without the Established Church of England and his formation within Anglicanism.

AFTERWARD: I understand Gladstone pioneered the bipartisan approach to Home Rule Bills: Another proof of his enlightened attitude to this Irish Conundrum and politics generally.