William Gladstone led the Liberal Party in four governments over a quarter of a century (1868-74, 1880-85, 1886, 1892-94) bringing to fruition a wide range of reforms and almost coming to define Liberalism.
In a party which combined radical reformers with a Whig land owning elite who entertained a worldly scepticism of such enthusiasts, Gladstone’s role was pivotal – his moral purpose and oratorical passion inspired the more widespread electorate while his conservative intent generally reconciled the Whigs to his innovations.
During this period, the second and third Reform Acts widened the electorate to include the bulk of male householders and transformed party politics. In the 1865 general election, campaigning was primarily local and voting took place in public, facilitating bullying and bribery. By 1868, Liberal leaders had agreed a key issue for the campaign and, by 1874, the first general election under a secret ballot, the leader offered a detailed defence of his record as well an attractive new tax strategy. The National Liberal Federation (NLF), founded in 1877 gradually became the foundation of a popularly based central party organisation. For the 1885 election, an extensive manifesto covering the main areas of controversy, was published for the new enlarged electorate and, by 1892, Gladstone had endorsed the policies agreed by the NLF annual conferences as the election programme.
Judging the achievements and failures of Victorian administrations by the scale and weight of twentieth century government would be misguided. Neither the intellectual environment nor the capabilities of the bureaucratic machinery would have facilitated such a level of engagement while the demand for such ‘socialistic’ policies was confined to a small fringe. Nevertheless it was in this period and led by Liberals that government began to assume the responsibilities of a modern administration and began to enact coherent programmes of reform.
In one of the best known of his Midlothian speeches, Gladstone drew attention to a banner bearing the slogan “Peace Retrenchment and Reform”, words which he “connected with the promotion of human happiness”. If used with care, peace, retrenchment and reform also offer a framework in which to consider the achievements of Gladstonian Liberalism.
No Liberal government of the period was pacifist and Gladstone’s governments were involved in Victoria’s ‘little wars’ of unintended colonial expansion. This is particularly true of the 1880-85 government, which took office on a policy of repudiating Disraeli’s aggression in Southern Africa and Afghanistan but inherited wars in those territories. In 1882, the government reluctantly intervened in Egypt to protect the Suez Canal and became embroiled in a revolt in Sudan that severely damaged its popularity. Peace was seen as inextricably linked with Free Trade which remained the cornerstone of Gladstonian finance. To maintain peace, Gladstone was prepared to make sacrifices, using arbitration to settle the long standing dispute with the United States over the depredations of the British built, Civil War, commerce raider the Alabama to demonstrate the practicality of international civil justice despite the short term cost to the exchequer and the government’s standing. In Midlothian, Gladstone argued for a concert of nations but, in practice, Liberal governments largely avoided continental entanglements; in particular, they stayed out of the Franco Prussian war of 1870.
Considered even in its narrowest form as the gradual improvement of the constitution, reform remained a continuing success for Liberals. In 1872, Lord Hartington piloted the secret ballot through parliament and in 1883 the second Gladstone government introduced the Corrupt and Illegal Practices Act which proved more effective in reducing bribery and intimidation than previous efforts. The third Reform Act of 1884 was tied to a Redistribution Act which converted traditional multi-member constituencies to the single member seats which have continued into the twenty-first century. Though Lord Salisbury’s Tory government claimed the credit for creating county councils, a Liberal government established urban and rural district councils in 1894.
At heart, Gladstone was always the careful, cheeseparing, Chancellor and retrenchment remained central to his approach to government finance; wealth should be left ‘to fructify in the pockets of the people’. Gladstone’s antipathy to military spending was the cause of his final resignation in 1894. But it would be a mistake to assume that his preference for promoting individual responsibility meant a pathological aversion to government intervention. Gladstone was too restless a politician and too effective an administrator to shut his eyes to the need for change. But Gladstonian Liberalism did predispose ministers towards reforms that improved the efficiency of government and towards interventions that would enable individuals to undertake economic or moral self-improvement.
Gladstone’s First Government
Gladstone’s first administration is seen as the most dynamic and accomplished of the Victorian period. Its first task was to redeem its pledge to disestablish the Irish Church. The Church of Ireland, represented no more than 10% of the population and its disestablishment righted an injustice to Catholics (more than 80% of the Irish population) in a manner which united all sections of the British Liberal party. The accompanying disendowment of church funds provided for the relief of Irish poverty.
In the aftermath of the American Civil and Franco-Prussian Wars, Edward Cardwell abolished the purchase of military commissions and reorganised the War Office while, outside the Foreign Office, civil service posts were opened to entrance by examination; promotion by merit rather than influence. Similarly, the courts were rationalised. Legislation of 1871-2 strengthened Whitehall’s ability to improve public health and established local sanitary authorities, the forerunners of district councils.
The best remembered of the government’s achievements was W E Forster‘s 1870 Education Act but the government also reformed grammar schools, the governing bodies of public schools and opened scholarships and teaching posts at the ancient universities to non-conformists. The Forster Act provided for elected school boards to manage schools paid for out of local taxation and prohibited from teaching the tenets of particular religious denominations. These ‘board’ schools co-existed with church schools, a mixed system that still survives in Britain.
But the Liberal government’s greatest achievement also exemplified why the government eventually failed. The compromises necessary to carry the 1870 Education Act disappointed the enemies of church based education, and some disenchanted Radicals were prepared to sacrifice Liberal seats rather than support candidates who tolerated Anglican schools. Similar tensions between moderates fearful of ambitious reforms and over zealous radicals were repeated in other policy areas such as Irish land reform, the legalizing of trade union activity and control of the alcohol trade.
The culmination of the government’s problems came when it proposed to reform Irish university education. The idea displeased both English Liberal factions and Irish MPs who reflected the Church’s preference for the endowment of a Catholic Irish university. When the bill was defeated, Gladstone resigned but Disraeli refused to form a minority administration leaving Gladstone’s bedraggled ministry to soldier on until early 1874, when the premier called a snap election. The Conservatives gained 76 seats from the Liberals who lost an additional 58 seats to a new Irish Home Rule party. Disraeli formed the first majority Conservative government since 1842.
At the beginning of 1875, Gladstone resigned the leadership of the party, convinced that at the age of 65 he ‘deeply desired an interval between parliament and the grave.’ But he did not resign his seat.
The Liberals in opposition
Lord Granville, known for his diplomatic skills, led the opposition in the Lords and Lord Hartington in the Commons. Both were Whigs and both moderate men.
Hartington allowed the party a period for quiet recuperation from Gladstone’s incessant activism. The time was productively used. In Birmingham, local industrialist Joseph Chamberlain became mayor in 1873 and over three years developed a model for municipal enterprise which inspired emulation from other major cities. Elected MP for Birmingham in 1876 he organised the grass roots of the local party into a highly effective vote-gathering ‘caucus’. Chamberlain also created the National Liberal Federation (NLF) in 1877 to mobilise radicalism nationally.
As Disraeli’s (now Lord Beaconsfield) health gradually failed, an economic slowdown destroyed his government’s popularity, opening the possibility of a Liberal revival. Hartington created a moderate platform including representative local government for the counties, land reform and an extension to the county franchise.
But the election did not turn solely on domestic concerns. The Turkish suppression of an insurrection in Bosnia and Herzegovina filled the British press with lurid tales of massacred Balkan Christians. In Britain, an agitation developed, an explosion of moral indignation that the Liberal leadership was unwilling to exploit. Gladstone had no such qualms. In September 1876 he dashed off a pamphlet, Bulgarian Atrocities and the Question of the East, which became an instant best seller. He had found a cause that compelled his return to politics.
For the government worse was to follow. At the end of 1878, imperialist enthusiasts provoked unnecessary wars with the Afghans and Zulus. Both the human and financial costs appalled Gladstone who, in 1879, accepted an invitation to contest the Scottish seat of Midlothian and angrily assaulted all aspects of ‘Beaconsfieldism’, reminding enthusiastic audiences, totalling nearly 87,000, of the ‘rights of the savage’ and setting out the six ‘right principles of foreign policy’.
The Liberals gained 112 seats in the 1880 election, a majority of over 50 against all other parties and a greater margin than anticipated. The scale of the success was attributed to Gladstone’s contribution and, in spite of Queen Victoria’s preference for Hartington, Gladstone became premier for a second time.
The Second Gladstone Government
The Liberal government of 1880-1885 has not been celebrated in the same way as its Liberal predecessor. Most commentary, coloured by hindsight of the party’s schism in 1886, has focussed on its difficulties. Gladstone’s ambition, as outlined at Midlothian, was to purge Disraeli’s sins – essentially a negative objective. Gladstone’s age and anxiety for retirement deceived his colleagues into premature jostling for the succession. The personal competition of Hartington and Chamberlain for the leadership amplified the ideological differences between Whig and Radical, threatening to split the party apart. House of Commons procedures relied on the self-restraint of honourable gentlemen. Lord Randolph Churchill, with a small Tory ginger group, and Charles Parnell, leader of the Irish nationalists, exploited this weakness to waste government time, most notoriously over the Bradlaugh case, and to frustrate its ambitions.
The government’s first year was its most productive with the Burials Act, the first Employers’ Liability Act providing compensation for workplace injuries and Mundella’s Act, which made primary education compulsory. A Ground Game Act and the abolition of the Malt Tax provided some relief from the agricultural depression. Its 1883 Corrupt and Illegal Practices Act, limiting campaign spending, transformed the culture of Victorian elections. The 1884 Representation of the People Act lowered the county franchise to the level of the boroughs, substantially increasing the number of British voters and tripling the Irish electorate. Tory Lords obstructed the bill until Gladstone negotiated a seat redistribution with Lord Salisbury which created single member constituencies and re-allocated the smallest borough seats to the counties and larger cities.
The agricultural depression had a greater impact in Ireland than in Britain and tenants retaliated brutally against evictions. Britain traditionally responded with coercion – suspending legal procedures to jail violent protesters when local juries refused to convict. After order was restored ameliorative measures would be offered. The government’s oscillation between the two both caused and reflected divisions in the cabinet. When the prosecution of Parnell, on charges arising from the agitation, failed at the beginning of 1881, W E Forster, Chief Secretary for Ireland, sponsored new legislation under which he was imprisoned in Kilmainham jail.
By way of conciliation, Gladstone offered new land reform, which undermined organised tenant intimidation by offering a legitimate method of securing rent reductions. Under the so called ‘Kilmainham Treaty’, Parnell was freed and agreed to co-operate with the implementation of the Act in return for further protection for tenants with rent arrears.
The Kilmainham Treaty provoked the resignation of Lord Carlisle, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and Forster. Forster’s replacement, Lord Frederick Cavendish, Hartington’s brother and married to Mrs Gladstone’s niece, was assassinated on his arrival in Dublin. This did not deter the government from implementing the Arrears Act, which allowed tenants in arrears of rent to make use of the Land Act of 1881, but it hardened English attitudes to Ireland and broke a link between Gladstone and Hartington.
The government’s record on foreign and colonial affairs did not always match Gladstone’s Midlothian ideals and also formed a regular source of conflict within the cabinet. The Afghan and Zulu wars added to Britain’s territorial responsibilities. At the other end of Africa, a British army occupied Egypt, occasioning John Bright’s resignation. Occupation of Egypt brought responsibility for the Sudan, where, in 1883, the Mahdi’s rebels destroyed an Anglo-Egyptian army. General Gordon, sent to evacuate the remaining British forces, stayed in disobedience to his orders and was besieged in Khartoum. A relief column, only authorised when Hartington threatened to resign, arrived in February 1885, two days after the garrison had fallen. The government’s credibility was severely damaged.
In 1885 Chamberlain published The Radical Programme in preparation for the forthcoming election, arguing that disestablishment of the Anglican Church could fund free education. He also proposed elected county councils with powers to create allotments for agricultural labourers – popularised as ‘Three Acres and a Cow’ – and urban slum clearance. In cabinet, he proposed an elected central board in Dublin to provide Irish local government, which he mistakenly believed would satisfy demands for Home Rule. Hartington opposed both Chamberlain’s British and Irish ideas while the prime minister rebuked Chamberlain’s provocative speeches.
Shortly after the government had seen the Reform and Redistribution Acts onto the statute book, it suffered a convenient defeat on the budget and resigned. Lord Salisbury formed a minority Conservative government, while Liberal forces re-grouped.
The Home Rule Crisis
Neither the Conservative government nor the November 1885 election accorded with Liberal expectations. To woo Irish support, Salisbury let the Coercion Act lapse, encouraging Parnell to support Tory candidates in British constituencies. The Liberals gained in the counties though unexpected losses in the boroughs and cities resulted in a House of Commons of 86 Irish Nationalists, 250 Conservatives and 334 Liberals.
The fine balance in the Commons meant that once again Ireland was centre stage. Initially Gladstone hoped that Salisbury would resolve the problem but Gladstone’s son, Herbert, undermined this strategy when he flew the Hawarden Kite – leaking to a journalist his father’s conversion to Home Rule.
Outbid for Irish support Salisbury reverted to coercion. The Liberals carried an amendment to the Queen’s speech based not on Irish policy but on a demand for ‘Three Acres and a Cow’. However the majority of 329:250 concealed 18 Liberals who voted against the motion and 51 who abstained. Hartington, Selborne, Derby and Northbrook could not be enticed to Gladstone’s third government formed to consider the practicability of Home Rule; a serious weakness.
Gladstone’s aims were conservative – to preserve the ties of union by reducing the tensions between the two parts of the kingdom. He had recognised that neither repression nor conciliation had dampened Irish nationalism but he had also surmised that Parnell’s party was essentially constitutional. A devolved parliament in Dublin dealing with local but not imperial matters would satisfy their demands for Home Rule and remove the obstruction to legislative progress in the British parliament. To Gladstone’s opponents, Home Rule was an unacceptable first step to casting off the ties of union.
Between February and June 1886, Gladstone manoeuvred to find a Home Rule Bill and Irish land Bills, which would unite the Liberal Party. His speech winding up the Home Rule debate on the night of June 7th/8th recognised ‘one of those opportunities which may come and may go, but which rarely return . . .’, but the Bill was defeated by 341 to 311 – 94 Liberal MPs voting against the government. The dissidents included both Hartington and Chamberlain, though in terms of numbers, Whigs predominated. The concomitant loss of Whig lords was of even greater significance as their wealth provided substantial party funding.
Rather than make way for another minority Conservative government, the cabinet called a general election, where the dissidents stood as Liberal Unionists unopposed by the Conservatives. The outcome was damning. The Conservatives gained 66 seats and 77 Liberal Unionists were returned. The Gladstonian Liberal party was reduced to 191. Conservative governments assisted in office by Liberal Unionists dominated for the rest of the century.
The Liberal Party extended its extra-parliamentary organisation to meet this increasing competition from the Conservatives and Liberal Unionists. As the national press became more unionist so did the need for Liberals to organise their own propaganda. The NLF remained faithful to Gladstone but, even so, it was a novelty when Gladstone endorsed the NLF’s 1891 Newcastle conference resolutions, which became the Liberal manifesto for the 1892 election. In addition to Home Rule, the Newcastle programme confirmed the Liberal commitment to small holdings, local control of alcohol licensing, payment of MPs and disestablishment of the Church in Wales and Scotland.
The Liberals ended the campaign as the largest party but with only 274 MPs against 268 Conservatives, 47 Liberal Unionists and 81 Irish Nationalists, Gladstone formed his final government reliant on Irish support. Inevitably a second Home Rule bill followed. Equally inevitably it foundered in the Lords and while Gladstone was ready for a fight with the Upper House, his colleagues lacked the appetite. In the 1894 budget, advocates of higher naval spending defeated Gladstone’s calls for retrenchment and six decades after first accepting a ministerial office, Gladstone resigned in March 1894. An era had ended.
Rosebery and after
The Queen sent for her favourite Liberal imperialist, the Earl of Rosebery, a charming, charismatic figure but lacking determination in adversity. It was his misfortune to follow Gladstone and to inherit Sir William Harcourt as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Their personal antipathy was compounded by Salisbury’s use of the Tory majority in the Lords to wreck Liberal bills. Graduated death duties were the principal achievement of Rosebery’s government despite his aversion to the policy and it was with relief that the government resigned after a Commons ambush in June 1895.
The subsequent general election saw the Liberals lose 93 seats, and Salisbury formed a government which included Liberal Unionist ministers. In 1896 Gladstone led a last campaign against massacres in Armenia, which split the Liberal leaders and irritated Rosebery into resignation. Sir William Harcourt proved unable to unify the party and in 1899 he too resigned leaving Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman to take the disunited party into the new century against the background of the Boer War.
This quick turnover of leaders reflected frustration with their inability to divine the public mood or to reproduce Gladstone’s inspiration. The increased public enthusiasm for the Empire and a growing realisation of German and US economic strength had been only partially accommodated in Liberal policy development. The party responded rather better to the aspirations of the more rural ‘working class’ electorate after 1885 than its urban counterpart and its assimilation of labour leaders into positions of authority disappointed. The Newcastle programme demonstrated the power of the party’s lobby groups rather than a cohesive ideology and its failure led the Liberals to draw back from grass roots policy making. However as the century closed, T H Green, L T Hobhouse, and J A Hobson were laying the foundations of an effective alternative strategy to class politics – New Liberalism.
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.