Liberal government, 150 years on

It’s already been a big year for anniversaries, but this week marks another one that shouldn’t be allowed to go without mention. It’s 150 years ago this week that William Gladstone took office on the first of four occasions as prime minister of the United Kingdom.

This was not Britain’s first Liberal government; either Russell or Palmerston, who preceded him, should have that honor. But Gladstone’s was the great reforming administration that defined for a generation what liberalism was all about.

Much has changed since then, but if liberalism is to have a future, it needs to rediscover the sense of radical urgency and moral purpose that Gladstone gave it.

As it happens, I’ve written about this before, so I’m going to just republish some extracts below. They’re from an essay on Roy Jenkins’s Gladstone: A Biography (Random House, 1995), published in a book by the Institute of Public Affairs, 100 Great Books of Liberty.

It’s a bit over ten years old, so some of the political context has shifted – in particular, Gladstone’s (and my) enthusiasm for international co-operation would probably find even less sympathy at the IPA than it did then. But I think the basic message is more important than ever.


William Gladstone, Liberal leader and prime minister of Britain four times between 1868 and 1894, was the outstanding political figure of the Victorian era.

By 1859, Gladstone had been a cabinet minister twice (the first time at age 33, one of the youngest ever), and had participated in another split in the Conservatives – this time, with Peel, on the more liberal side, splitting from the party’s protectionist majority over repeal of the Corn Laws. But he was still sceptical about electoral reform, voting against the motion that year that brought down a Conservative government on the issue. With the Conservatives out of office, however, Gladstone led the surviving Peelites (Peel had died in 1850) into union with the Whigs to create the country’s modern Liberal Party.

This was Gladstone’s first great achievement. He completed the party realignment begun by Peel, leaving the Conservative Party in the hands of its reactionary wing.

The dividing line was ostensibly financial – free trade and public economy versus protection and fiscal irresponsibility – but it had deep philosophical roots. Gladstone and the two Whig leaders, Russell and Palmerston, were drawn together initially by a foreign policy issue, support for Italian unification, and the party they built was committed, not always effectively, to the promotion of liberty both at home and abroad.

Gladstone spent the next seven years as Chancellor of the Exchequer, modernising Britain’s finances while ruthlessly cutting taxes (especially tariffs) and public expenditure. When the issue arose again, it turned out that he had changed his mind about parliamentary reform as well, becoming in 1864 the first senior politician to offer in-principle support for universal (male) suffrage.

The changed nature of elections meant that political parties had to take on a new character, and Gladstone’s second great achievement was the way he put the Liberal Party on a popular basis. The Whigs, although committed in theory to popular government, had traditionally been a narrow aristocratic clique, and the more Gladstone pushed for reform the more he encountered resistance among the upper classes. Instead he turned to the common people, and found that his oratory was capable of swaying a mass audience: “All the world over,” he said, “I will back the masses against the classes.”

In the course of these campaigns Gladstone gave fresh life to the old Liberal program of “Peace, Retrenchment and Reform”. His two great reforming governments of 1868-74 and 1880-85 saw many significant milestones: the Anglican church in Ireland was disestablished, Irish land tenure was overhauled, the civil service was opened to competitive examination, the judicial system was comprehensively rationalised, married women were given the right to own property, sale of commissions in the army was abolished, Oxford and Cambridge universities were secularised, liquor licensing was introduced, and a redistribution for the first time created roughly equal electoral districts.

Despite these successes, a final great achievement was denied him. By 1885, Gladstone – in his mid-seventies, and already having made one attempt to retire – was convinced that self-government for Ireland (known as “home rule”) was the only alternative to continued repression and ultimately civil war.

History was to prove him right, but the issue split the Liberal party; the prime minister was deserted by most of the aristocratic Whigs (many of whom were wealthy absentee landlords in Ireland), and his third government was destroyed in 1886. Gladstone fought on, finally winning office again, and at the age of 83 succeeded in shepherding his Home Rule Bill through the Commons, only to have it thrown out by the House of Lords. His colleagues had no stomach for a constitutional struggle, and Gladstone retired for good the following year.

Although he dominated the Victorian era, Gladstone was actually hostile to some of its most distinctive features.

He loathed imperialism, and his most famous duels with Disraeli were over the latter’s adventurous and jingoistic foreign policy. His relations with the queen were notoriously bad, and worsened as his career progressed. He became an object of fear and animosity not just to her but the vast majority of the respectable classes in general.

And although he displayed strong personal religious feelings, they were accompanied by a determined hostility to mixing religion and politics – Gladstone opposed most forms of official puritanism, and given time would probably have moved to disestablish the church in England as well as Ireland.

Jenkins’s sympathetic interest in Gladstone, as well as his own political career, are symptomatic of revival in the fortunes of Gladstone’s program, or at least an echo of it.

In the mid-twentieth century, Gladstonian liberalism seemed a dead duck; Britain’s Liberal Party, its lineal descendant, had dwindled to a handful of seats, and its counterparts elsewhere either matched it in irrelevance or else had moved far from their philosophical roots.

Now, however, the Liberal Democrats hold more seats than the Liberals had since 1923, and the party looks more Gladstonian than it has in a long time. Its rivals are moving the same way: both Conservative leader David Cameron and former Labour leader Tony Blair have described themselves as Gladstonian liberals. And many of Gladstone’s causes, including free trade and devolution, have regained favor after decades out of fashion.

It’s not clear how impressed Gladstone would have been by the change. Politicians might pay lip service to his ideas, but some of the things he valued most – notably low taxes and restraint in public spending – are in a bad way. The sheer size of government today would fill him with horror. His attitude was as much moral as fiscal; even more so than today, the biggest component of the nineteenth century budget was the military, and Gladstone regarded almost all military spending as destructive waste.

His final resignation in 1894 came when the rest of his cabinet insisted on increased naval expenditure, one of the ingredients in the arms build-up that eventually led to the First World War.

In Gladstone’s eyes, financial, social and foreign policy formed a united whole, driven by the love of liberty in all spheres. He was especially attached to international law; as he said in the famous Don Pacifico debate of 1850:

I think it to be the very first of all [a foreign secretary’s] duties studiously to observe, and to exalt in honour among mankind, that great code of principles which is termed the law of nations.

Gladstone was often disappointed that his colleagues did not live up his high principles; no doubt he would be even more disappointed in their successors. But his sense of moral purpose is what a future liberal party will most need to recapture.

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