Gladstone’s first government

After an apprenticeship in government under the Conservative Robert Peel, Gladstone served as Chancellor of the Exchequer in Aberdeen’s coalition and Palmerston’s Government of 1859-1865. His energy, administrative and oratorical skills marked him as the Liberal Party’s future leader.

The failure of the Reform Bill of 1866 led to Lord Russell’s withdrawal from politics. Gladstone, as Leader of the House, had piloted the Bill through debates and his failings had contributed to its defeat. Nevertheless after some reflection on his relations with the party, he bounced back with calls for the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland and won the 1868 General Election with a majority in excess of 100 on this same issue.

In retrospect, Gladstone’s first administration has been seen as one of the most dynamic and accomplished of the Victorian period. However, its achievements should not be considered as the outcome of any pre-planned programme for government and although its first task was to implement the campaign pledge to disestablish the Irish Church it was not intent on liberalising religion in the way that Gladstone had liberalised trade in the 1850s and 1860s. The Church of Ireland, privileged as the national church, represented no more than 10% of the population and its disestablishment righted an undoubted injustice to Irish Catholics (more than 80% of the Irish population) in a manner which united all sections of the British Liberal party the non-conformists welcomed the weakening of Anglicanism and the Whigs escaped the alternative of endowing Catholicism with state funding. Gladstone saw disestablishment as renewing the Church of Ireland’s sense of mission. The accompanying disendowment of church funds provided substantial sums for the relief of Irish poverty.

The 1868-1874 government was also responsible for significant reforms of government. In the aftermath of the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War, both the army and the civil service were opened to promotion by merit rather than by influence. Edward Cardwell abolished the purchase of military commissions and reorganised the War Office, subordinating the commander in chief to the Minister of War. Outside the Foreign Office, civil service posts were open to entrance by examination. Similarly the workings of the courts were rationalised and legislation of 1871-2 strengthened Whitehall’s ability to tackle public health and established local sanitary authorities, the forerunners of the urban and rural district councils.

The introduction of the secret ballot, in 1872, consolidated the second Reform Act by reducing the influence of large landowners over the voting of their tenants and deterred the use of bribery in elections.

In the 1867 debates on the second reform act, Robert Lowe sardonically argued that it will be absolutely necessary that you should prevail on our future masters to learn their lessons. It may be thought that Gladstone’s government had taken the advice literally when it embarked on a series of education reforms but of more weight with ministers had been concerns over US and German economic competitiveness reinforced by the easy German victories over the French. W E Forster’s Education Act of 1870 was the best remembered of the government’s achievements but this should be seen as the culmination of a series of reforms. At the end of 1868 the governing bodies of Britains best known public schools were reformed and in 1869 it was the turn of the grammar schools. In 1871 non-conformists were enabled to receive scholarships and hold teaching posts at the ancient universities.

The Churches built and operated the bulk of primary schools in Britain though they did not have the resources to provide places for all children and their teaching on matters of faith did not meet the requirements of an increasingly vocal and organised non-conformity. The Forster Act provided for the establishment of elected school boards to manage schools paid for out of local taxation and prohibited from teaching the particular tenets of the various religious denominations.

These board schools charged fees except in the poorest districts and co-existed with the church based schools, a mixed system that still survives in Britain. The Act provided the impetus which in time delivered state funded education for all children. But what may be seen as the Liberal government’s greatest achievement also exemplified why the government eventually failed. Gladstone’s moral crusading campaign on Irish Church disestablishment focused on the single issue around which all the sections of the party could re-unite after their Reform Act splits in 1866-7. Many of the other reforms proposed by the government either went too far for the more Whiggish section of the party or not far enough for the Radicals.

The compromises necessary to carry the 1870 Education Act disappointed the Radicals who sought the elimination of church based primary education and the most disenchanted were prepared to see Liberals lose seats rather than support candidates who tolerated church schools. Irish land reform disturbed some Whig aristocrats who feared its extension to England while the trade union reforms went nowhere far enough to satisfy the working class activists looking for legal protection for strike action. Changes in the alcohol licensing arrangements multiplied the party’s enemies in the brewery trade, often a vital element in the sometimes rowdy and disreputable election arrangements of Victorian Britain, while disappointing the temperance campaigners, a well organised pressure group within Liberalism.

The culmination of the government’s problems came when it proposed to reform university education in Ireland to assist Catholic integration. Irish university legislation had been in Gladstone’s mind since the beginning of his premiership but he made insufficient effort to prepare the way for the proposals to create a central authority under which Catholic Presbyterian and Church of Ireland university colleges would shelter. To escaped religious controversy, there would be no professorships in modern history, philosophy or theology within this federated university. The idea pleased none of the English Liberal factions nor Irish MPs who reflected the Catholic hierarchy’s expectations of the endowment of a Catholic Irish university. When the bill was defeated, Gladstone resigned but Disraeli refused to accept office while in a minority at the tail end of a parliament’s life merely to give the Liberals a target to fire at and so rebuild their unity.

Reluctantly, Gladstone resumed office and a tired ministry soldiered on until early in 1874, when the premier surprised colleagues with a snap election and a manifesto hinting at the abolition of income tax; Gladstone hoped that a cry for sound finance would be the banner under which squabbling Liberals could all campaign. The disagreements within the party were too great to be overcome in the short term and the party organisation was less prepared for the election than its Conservative rival.

When it was over, the Conservatives had gained 76 seats from the Liberals who had lost an additional 58 seats to a new Irish Home Rule party. Disraeli formed the first majority Conservative government since 1842.

Gladstone was clear on the causes of his defeat. In a letter to his brother, he wrote “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. At the end of 1874, he resigned the leadership of the party, convincing himself that at the age of 65 he deeply desired an interval between parliament and the grave. But he did not resign his seat.


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.