Following his electoral defeat in 1874, Gladstone resigned the Liberal leadership and, in his sixties, hoped to spend the rest of his life in retirement. The Balkan Massacres of 1876 drew him back to politics in protest at what he saw as Disraeli’s (Lord Beaconsfield’s) cynical reaction and his own party’s supine response.
His anger at Conservative financial and foreign policies were the driving forces in the Midlothian campaign.
In 1878 Gladstone indicated his intention to retire from his Greenwich seat, sparking off a competition to offer him a new constituency. He chose Midlothian (the county seat surrounding Edinburgh) as a Conservative seat which with effort and enthusiasm could be won. In late 1879 he travelled north to meet his prospective new constituents, not with a single speech but with a whole campaign planned in advance to denounce the faults and failings of Disraeli’s years in power. If Gladstone’s speeches supplied the effort, it was met with an enthusiasm only found nowadays for pop groups. At the end of the campaign, Gladstone calculated his total audience to have been 86,930. When the general election came in April 1880 he won not only Midlothian but a second premiership.
In the speech delivered at West Calder on 27 November 1879, Gladstone focussed on two themes, free trade and foreign policy. Agricultural free trade was being threatened by competition from the American prairies, and the resulting agrarian depression was a key factor in Disraeli’s 1880 defeat. Gladstone’s moral principles of foreign policy were derived from his mentor Lord Aberdeen in the 1840s. They formed the basis for an attack on Disraeli’s balance-of-power strategy towards those old antagonists Turkey and Russia. He represented the Tories as both encouraging Russian aggression and using Turkish weakness as a pretext for grabbing Crete, an unprincipled extension of the British Empire. However, this was not the speech of a rabble-rouser but one that took the audience into the leader’s confidence, strengthened their resolve and flattered their intelligence.
Inspired by the Love of Freedom – Extract from the third Midlothian Speech, Tuesday 27th November 1879 at West Calder
I first give you, gentlemen, what I think the right principles of foreign policy. The first thing is to foster the strength of the Empire by just legislation and economy at home, thereby producing two of the great elements of national power namely, wealth, which is a physical element, and union and contentment, which are moral elements and to reserve the strength of the Empire, to reserve the expenditure of that strength, for great and worthy occasions abroad. Here is my first principle of foreign policy: good government at home. My second principle of foreign policy is this that its aim ought to be to preserve to the nations of the world and especially, were it but for shame, when we recollect the sacred name we bear as Christians, especially to the Christian nations of the world the blessings of peace. That is my second principle.
Cultivate And Maintain The Concert Of Europe
My third principle is this. Even, gentlemen, when you do a good thing, you may do it in so bad a way that you may entirely spoil the beneficial effect; and if we were to make ourselves the apostles of peace in the sense of conveying to the minds of other nations that we thought ourselves more entitled to an opinion on that subject than they are, or to deny their rights-well, very likely we should destroy the whole value of our doctrines. In my opinion the third sound principle is this – to strive to cultivate and maintain, ay, to the very uttermost, what is called the concert of Europe; to keep the Powers of Europe in union together. And why? Because by keeping all in union together you neutralize and fetter and bind up the selfish aims of each. I am not here to flatter either England or any of them. They have selfish aims, as, unfortunately, we in late years have too sadly shown that we too have had selfish aims; but then common action is fatal to selfish aims. Common action means common objects; and the only objects for which you can unite together the Powers of Europe are objects connected with the common good of them all. That, gentlemen, is my third principle of foreign policy.
My fourth principle is – that you should avoid needless and entangling engagements. You may boast about them; you may brag about them. You may say you are procuring consideration for the country. You may say that an Englishman can now hold up his head among the nations. You may say that he is now not in the hands of a Liberal Ministry, who thought of nothing but pounds, shillings, and pence. But what does all this come to, gentlemen? It comes to this, that you are increasing your engagements without increasing your strength; and if you increase engagements without increasing strength, you diminish strength, you abolish strength; you really reduce the Empire and do not increase it. You render it less capable of performing its duties; you render it an inheritance less precious to hand on to future generations.
My fifth principle is this, gentlemen, to acknowledge the equal rights of all nations. You may sympathize with one nation more than another. Nay, you must sympathize in certain circumstances with one nation more than another. You sympathize most with those nations, as a rule, with which you have the closest connection in language, in blood, and in religion, or whose circumstances at the time seem to give the strongest claim to sympathy. But in point of right all are equal, and you have no right to set up a system under which one of them is to be placed under moral suspicion or espionage, or to be made the constant subject of invective. If you do that, but especially if you claim for yourself a superiority, a pharisaical superiority over the whole of them, then I say you may talk about your patriotism if you please, but you are a misjudging friend of your country, and in undermining the basis of the esteem and respect of other people for your country you are in reality inflicting the severest injury upon it. I have now given you, gentlemen, five principles of foreign policy. Let me give you a sixth, and then I have done.
In Freedom You Lay The Firmest Foundations Of Loyalty And Order
And that sixth is, that in my opinion foreign policy, subject to all the limitations that I have described, the foreign policy of England should always be inspired by the love of freedom. There should be a sympathy with freedom, a desire to give it scope, founded not upon visionary ideas, but upon the long experience of many generations within the shores of this happy isle, that in freedom you lay the firmest foundations both of loyalty and order; the firmest foundations for the development of individual character, and the best provision for the happiness of the nation at large.