Herbert John, Viscount Gladstone, was the fourth and youngest son of William Ewart Gladstone and his wife Catherine. He was born on 7 January 1854 at 12, Downing Street (now No. 11), which his father then occupied as Chancellor of the Exchequer. He was thus born at the heart of politics, and remained there for most of his life. He was educated at Eton, and then at University College, Oxford, where he obtained a first class degree in modern history in 1876. From 1877 to 1880 he was a lecturer in history at the newly founded Keble College, Oxford. But, in keeping with his father’s powerful example, he aspired to a political rather than an academic career. In May 1880 he was elected as a Liberal MP for Leeds, a constituency for which his father had just been elected but had left vacant because he chose to sit for Midlothian. Herbert Gladstone sat for Leeds until 1885, and thereafter for West Leeds for twenty-five years, until he became a peer in 1910.
After his election, Gladstone acted as a private secretary to his father until 1881, when he was appointed an assistant Liberal Whip and received his first ministerial post as a junior Lord of the Treasury. Probably the most famous incident in his life was his flying the Hawarden kite – his revelation in December 1885 of W. E. Gladstone’s conversion to Irish Home Rule. The press immediately broadcast the news and the die was cast, as far as W. E. Gladstone and the Liberal Party were concerned. Gladstone had undoubtedly been indiscreet. But he had acted from good intentions towards his father and his party, believing that the revelation would bring a new unity to the divided and distracted Liberal Party behind a new mission for Home Rule. However, the revelation did the reverse: Home Rule split the Liberals and caused controversy in the truncated Gladstonian party for many years.
Although embarrassed by the results of his action, Gladstone was not disgraced, and he continued to be useful to his party in a ministerial capacity. He was Financial Secretary at the War Office in his father’s third ministry in 1886, and Under-Secretary at the Home Office in W. E. Gladstone’s fourth ministry in 1892-94. In Lord Rosebery’s government (1894-95) he was First Commissioner of Works. In 1899 he became Chief Whip when his party was in opposition and was on the verge of being seriously divided by the Boer War into Liberal Imperialists and pro-Boers. In keeping with the tradition bequeathed by his recently-deceased father, Gladstone was personally a pro-Boer. But he took no decided position on one side or the other, and struggled successfully to maintain official Liberal unity. Through this process he became regarded as a politician of considerable value to his party.
After the Boer War ended in 1902, Gladstone negotiated the Gladstone-MacDonald Pact with the newly founded and rapidly growing Labour Party, of which Ramsay MacDonald was Secretary. Under the agreement, which lasted until 1917, the two parties agreed not to oppose each other in selected constituencies in general elections in England and Wales. In fact the pact proved unnecessary to the Liberals when it was first used, in the general election of 1906. The Liberals obtained a very large overall majority, and did not need the support of the twenty-six Labour MPs (out of a total of twenty-nine) who had been returned through the operation of the pact. The Labour Party proved its ability to exist as a separate organisation, and Gladstone (acting as always from the best of intentions towards his party) had helped to give the new rival its parliamentary foundation. However, the pact was of undoubted value to the Liberal government in the two general elections of 1910, when the majority of 1906 was greatly reduced, and the government left in virtual dependence on alliance with Labour and the Irish Home Rule Party.
For four years from December 1905, Gladstone was Home Secretary in the Campbell-Bannerman and Asquith ministries. Although he was not among the foremost New Liberals such as Lloyd George and Churchill, Gladstone played a large part in carrying out collectivist policies which represented a substantial departure from his father’s much more laissez-faire approach. Among measures which he prepared and piloted through the House of Commons were the Workmens’ Compensation Act of 1906, the coal-miners’ Eight Hours Act of 1908, and the Trade Boards Act of 1909 which aimed to provide decent wages in the sweated industries. He was also responsible for important criminal legislation, including the Children Act of 1908 which established separate children’s courts. He gave complete support to the police in their efforts to control the violence of the suffragettes. But in 1908 he was accused of negligence, and strongly rebuked by King Edward VII, for not taking firmer and more expeditious action to avoid disorder on the occasion of an important Roman Catholic procession through the streets of London.
This embarrassing episode allegedly caused the termination of Gladstone’s period as Home Secretary in December 1909, and his appointment as the first Governor-General and High Commissioner of the new Union of South Africa. This appointment reflected his own strong conviction that South Africa should be granted responsible government within a short time after the Boer War. In March 1910 he was created Viscount Gladstone, and he and his wife (Dorothy Paget, whom he had married in 1901) landed at Capetown in May. He called on General Louis Botha to form a constitutional government, and the first Parliament of the Union was opened in November. In 1912 Gladstone had to deal with a political crisis in the Union, and in 1913 he declared and enforced martial law in order to avert the threat of widespread violence. His successful term of office ended in July 1914, and he returned to Britain.
Gladstone did not resume a ministerial career in this country, but did some valuable public work during the First World War. Later he performed occasional important functions, such as visiting Bulgaria in 1924 (where his father’s denunciation of the Bulgarian massacres in 1876 was remembered), and working at Liberal headquarters in 1922-23 to re-unify and re-organise the party after the effects of the split of 1916-18. In 1928 he published After Thirty Years, a celebration (highly controversial in places) of his father’s political and personal life. In the same year he and his brother successfully defended W. E. Gladstone’s moral reputation in the law courts. He died without issue on 6 March 1930 at his Hertfordshire home, Dane End.
Gladstone, partly by his own choice, lived to a considerable degree in the shadow of his father. However, without reaching the first rank of politics he was useful to his party and his country in a variety of important spheres. It is unfortunate that the two initiatives for which he is chiefly remembered, the Hawarden kite and the Gladstone-MacDonald pact, had such ambiguous effects on his party’s fortunes.
Ian Machin has taught at various universities at home and overseas since 1958. At the time of writing this piece he was a Professor of British History at the University of Dundee. He is the author of several books and many articles on the political, religious and social history of Great Britain in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.