In January 1874, the Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone, approached Queen Victoria to dissolve parliament, surprising both the opposition and his own party. In his election manifesto, Gladstone promised to reduce local taxes, to cut taxes on consumer products and to repeal the income tax. When the campaign was over, the Liberal landslide of 1868 had been washed away and Benjamin Disraeli presided over a Conservative majority of 52, the first since 1841.
The Conservatives won 125 seats without a contest, against only 52 uncontested seats for the Liberals, but this high number indicates not only the lack of preparation for an election but also the demoralised condition of the Liberal Party. Gladstone’s first ministry has been widely recognised as the most successful reforming ministry of the nineteenth century, disestablishing the Church of Ireland, introducing the secret ballot, abolishing the purchase of army commissions and extending primary education. Why was it so comprehensively defeated?
The immediate explanation can be found in the government’s legislative problems in the spring of 1873. A major reform of the Irish university system was planned but, after opposition from the Catholic hierarchy, few Irish Liberals were prepared to support the bill and the government was defeated in the Commons. Contrary to precedent, Disraeli refused to take up the reins, preferring to leave Gladstone in office but not in power.
Shortly afterwards the government was hit by a scandal over the use of Post Office funds. This necessitated a cabinet re-shuffle in which Gladstone took on the role of Chancellor of the Exchequer as well as premier. In those days, an MP who became a minister was required to vacate his seat and stand again. Gladstones failure to do so, when taking on the second office, compounded the governments reputation for sharp practice. At the end of the year, Gladstone sought to generate a renewed mandate for the government through retrenchment of military expenditure to generate tax cuts. He called the snap election to pre-empt resistance from the defence ministers.
However there are also deeper causes of the defeat which reflect the nature of the Victorian Liberal party and Gladstone’s style of leadership. The Liberal Party was effectively a loose coalition of propertied Whigs, relaxed in their religious beliefs, middle class manufacturers, radical reformers, promoting rational cheap government, and non-conformists anxious to end Anglican privileges and earnest to save the poor. Its components were tempted from time to time to put their special interests ahead of those of the party and often suspicious of the intentions of their partners. The disestablishment of the Irish Church commanded almost unanimous Liberal support but most of the other reforms generated doubts and opposition among Liberals in the House as well as the country.
Particularly potent were the 1870 Education Act and the licensing acts. The compromises in the Education Act, which were necessary to sustain the church schools, distressed non-conformists who continued to organise campaigns for the complete separation of Church and State. The licensing acts were never popular; they aggrieved publicans and brewers without pleasing temperance reformers.
Gladstone endorsed these explanations for his failure. In February 1874 he wrote to his brother Robertson, “. . . But more immediately operative causes have determined the elections. I have no doubt what is the principal. We have been borne down in a torrent of gin and beer. Next to this has been the action of the Education Act of 1870, and the subsequent controversies.
Many of the Roman Catholics have voted against us because we are not denominational; and many of the dissenters have at least abstained from voting because we are.”
The government’s factory legislation, Irish land reforms and assistance to the trade unions seem modest by later standards but were sufficient to cause the party’s more propertied supporters to fear Gladstone’s next radical step, without ever satisfying those who had sought the reforms. Shortly after the election, Lord Halifax wrote to Gladstone, “As far as I can make out people are frightened, the masters are afraid of their workmen, manufacturers afraid of strikes, churchmen afraid of the non-conformists, many afraid of what is going on in France and Spain and in very unreasoning fear have all taken refuge in conservatism.”
Palmerston’s assertive focus on foreign policy and his emollient domestic management style were effective in constructing a nationally popular Liberal Party. As Palmerston’s successor, Gladstone’s chief concerns were Ireland and efficient government rather than foreign affairs. This gave Disraeli the opportunity to seize the foreign policy agenda for the Conservatives.
He was particularly critical of Liberal efforts to devolve power and fiscal responsibilities to the colonies. The government’s acceptance of the expensive arbitration award in favour of America, which settled the Alabama case outstanding from the US Civil War, damaged its prestige in the eyes of a nationalist public.
Gladstone’s popularity rested on his moral imperative for reform and his restless energy. After the initial strong wave of reform subsided, Disraeli was able to characterise ministers as one of those marine landscapes not very unusual on the coasts of South America. “You behold a range of exhausted volcanoes. Not a flame flickers upon a single pallid crest.” The jibe struck at an essential truth; as Lord Kimberley put it, “Gladstone is not the man to govern without measures, nor is he at all suited to lead a party in difficulties. He must have a strong current of opinion in his favour.” In 1874 that strong current had ebbed.
Tony Little is a pension fund manager and has been a student of Victorian politics for more than thirty years. He is Chairman of the Liberal History Group.