Gladstonian Liberalism

Few statesmen left a deeper and more permanent mark on British Liberalism than William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898). What secured a unique place for him in the history of Liberalism was not simply the fact that he was Prime Minister four times (1868-74, 1880-85, 1886 and 1892-94), having previously served as Chancellor of the Exchequer for most of the years between 1853 and 1866. It was especially his ability to speak to the hearts and minds of successive generations of Liberals both men and women motivating them to political action as a matter of moral obligation.

Throughout his life he preserved an extraordinary ability to adapt to changing historical circumstances that is, to what he perceived as the needs of the times. Thus, despite being fundamentally conservative in constitutional matters, he became a spokesman for moderate franchise reform in 1864, implemented the single most radical electoral reform in nineteenth-century British history in 1884-85, and, as Martin Pugh has recently suggested, in the 1890s he was slowly moving towards the extension of the parliamentary franchise to women (they had already obtained the local government franchise in 1869, when Gladstone was Prime Minister for the first time). He was a life-long supporter of the ideal of selfless aristocratic rule in the Whig and Peelite tradition; yet his last speech in the House of Commons was about the need to reform and reduce the powers of the House of Lords, an issue on which he would have dissolved Parliament and fought an election in 1894, had he been supported by his colleagues in the Cabinet. He was not, and the Liberal Party paid for their mistake over the next 18 years, during which it was plagued by the obstruction of the hereditary legislators. It was only in 1911 that Asquith and Lloyd George finally forced the Lords to face the realities of a democratic Britain.

Despite all these changes, there were basic continuities in Gladstone’s approach to politics. He was shaped by the strong Evangelical culture of early-nineteenth century Britain and by the formative experience of the Peel/Aberdeen government of 1841-6. In some fundamental respects his instincts remained both Evangelical (although he moved first into the High Church, and later the Broad Church camp), and Peelite (although from 1864 he adopted an ambiguously democratic rhetoric, and later, increasingly Liberal policies). In 1876 the Bulgarian Atrocities agitation marked the beginning of a new phase in his career: during the last twenty years of his public life Gladstone’s extra-parliamentary performances and charismatic public speaking became key features of his strategy to provide effective leadership for both the party and the nation. However, while his style had changed, his aim remained that of converting the masses to his own version of the Peel and Aberdeen political gospel, consisting of financial rectitude, free trade, and a foreign policy shaped by the doctrine of Christian interdependence among the nations.

In Parliament and in the world of high politics, Gladstonianism was a creed of gradual reform consistent with the Liberal quest for rational government and organic innovation. This was exemplified by much of the legislation passed under his first government (1868-74), including the abolition of the purchase system for army commissions, the reforms of trade union legislation, and the full opening up of the ancient universities to students who did not belong to the established Church. Here Gladstonian reform was consistent with the older Whig, reform and Liberal government tradition as it had taken shape from 1832-1865. Gladstonian policy in Ireland was similarly inspired by the traditional Whig attempt to Anglicise (i.e., modernize) the Emerald Island, for example by reforming its land laws and pulling down sectarian barriers between the communities through non-denominational university education (a project which failed in 1873). A crucial dimension of Gladstone’s appeal both inside and outside Parliament was his achievement as a financial reformer. As Colin Matthew and Martin Daunton have shown, this became both the pillar of a social consensus in Victorian Britain, and the cornerstone of a Treasury view that dominated British financial and fiscal policy until the late 1930s when it was undermined by the Keynesian revolution. Although the Gladstonian fiscal orthodoxy has often been criticized for its laissez-faire approach and emphasis on retrenchment, which twentieth-century social reformers came to regard as the main obstacle to imaginative solutions to poverty and unemployment, in Victorian Britain it was endorsed not only by the City, but also by the TUC and the organised labour movement. The reason for its appeal to the left was not only the then prevalent faith in self-help and the corresponding assumption that government was a necessary evil. It was also Gladstone’s emphasis on both the neutrality of the state in social conflicts and on a levelled playing field for all social groups in fiscal matters. Moreover, through free trade, Gladstonian finance appealed to consumer pressure groups (including the co-operative societies) at a stage when Britain was the largest world market for raw materials and the main world provider of both services and manufactured goods. To both the working man and his wife free trade meant that they would have access to the best articles on the cheapest markets, and to an unprecedented wide range of them. Moreover, in so far as Gladstonianism involved a tight management of the central governments budget, it was the best guarantee that wasteful expenditure on the military and the National Debt would be contained, while low taxation would encourage self-help (leaving the money to fructify in the peoples’ pockets). Finally, a minimalist central government was no obstacle to social reform as practised in Victorian Britain, where local government undertook most of the expensive operations.

Gladstone’s charismatic leadership was crucial in translating his views into votes and parliamentary power. But the reason why his charisma was effective was that his message was in tune with popular expectations, and in particular with a strong current within the British tradition of liberty. This consisted of two components: Christian humanitarianism in both domestic and overseas affairs, and an emphasis on participatory citizenship. The latter reflected the British veneration for representative government at both the local and the national level. To be free was to be an elector, which was the privilege of every man who is not presumably disqualified by some consideration of moral unfitness and political danger (as Gladstone had guardedly put it in 1864). Humanitarianism was an expression of the British Christian (mainly Protestant) tradition, first voiced in John Milton’s famous sonnet on the 1641 massacre of Piedmontese Waldensians, and later further developed in the many campaigns against the slave trade and for the emancipation of various social and political groups, both at home and abroad. In view of Gladstone’s own background (his father had made a fortune with slave labour in the West Indies) it is remarkable that he could voice these concerns more eloquently than any other contemporary politician, especially when he galvanised the country with his campaign about the iniquity of ethnic cleansing in Bulgaria in 1876. His words went straight to the heart of people in different paths of life, from the humble provincial Nonconformists, whose outlook was shaped by the stories of ancient Israel, to the sophisticated Oxford idealists, who followed Immanuel Kant’s injunction that men should be treated as ends in themselves, rather than means to an end.

Gladstone’s support for local government and Irish Home Rule remained one of his long-lasting contributions to British Liberalism. The actual details of the Home Rule Bills of 1886 and 1893 are beyond the scope of the present article. There were certainly many faults in both Bills, which proposed a potentially explosive compromise between Parliamentary centralism and federal devolution, without a written constitution to clarify the boundaries between the two; it is depressing to see most of these faults reproduced, over a century later, in the Labour legislation for Scottish and Welsh devolution, introduced by Tony Blair. But here it is important to discuss the reasons why the principle of Home Rule became the trade-mark of the Liberal party for generations.

Some historians have followed Cooke and Vincent in regarding Home Rule as either a figment of Gladstone’s imagination which he managed to impose on the party, or a cynical attempt to dish the Whigs in a ruthless struggle for the party leadership in 1885-86. There are good reasons to reject both interpretations. If it is true that the announcement of Gladstone’s adoption of the cause came as a surprise to many, it was one which delighted those who had already come to regard it as the only alternative to coercion especially after 1881-85, when the Liberal government had imitated their predecessors, the despised Beaconsfield regime, and had suspended civil liberties and introduced special police powers in Ireland in order to preserve law and order. This was in flagrant contrast with the principles of Midlothian on which Gladstone had won the support of the radicals (and a landslide majority) in 1880, and seemed to indicate that the centralised parliamentary union between Britain and Ireland was inconsistent with Liberalism. But it is important to observe that radical sympathy for Home Rule predated both the experience of Liberal coercion in 1881-85 and indeed the election of 1880. It was as early as 1874 that several prominent radical leaders including the Lib-Lab MPs first expressed their support for the idea as proposed by Isaac Butt, the leader of the Home Rule Association. In fact, Gladstone himself, far from being converted to Home Rule at the end of 1885, had been thinking about it for years from as early as 1877 or 1882.

Historians have tended to regard Gladstone’s adoption of this cause as one of his worst political mistakes. Allegedly, by imposing Home Rule on his followers, Gladstone first split the party, then lost his working-class supporters thus indirectly paving the way for the rise of the Labour Party and eventually leading British liberalism towards its terminal decline and fall. The Liberal defeat in the 1886 election and twenty years of ensuing political impotence seem to bear out this conclusion, which is ultimately based on the assumption that Ireland was merely a pawn in the British parliamentary game. However, there are three main problems with such an interpretation. The first is that it takes little note of the fact that until 1921 the United Kingdom included the whole of Ireland and that the total number of Irish MPs accounted for about one-sixth of the House of Commons. Even within the British electorate, mass immigration from Ireland from the 1840s meant that the Irish comprised a sizeable proportion of the working-class voters in many constituencies. Thus, politically as well as morally, in the 1880s and 1890s the Irish question could not be ignored: indeed, more than social reform or anything else debated in Parliament, Ireland was the pressing question of the day.

The second problem is that Liberal England did not die in 1886: it was alive and well both in 1906, when Gladstone’s heirs achieved a memorable election victory, and indeed throughout the 1910s and early 1920s. Moreover, even after the decline and fall of the Liberals in 1929, Gladstonianism continued to inspire and shape the political outlook not only of the rump Wee Free party, but also of Labour, especially in international relations, free trade and imperial devolution. Thus the question to be answered is not about the early demise of Liberalism, but about its resilience and pervasiveness, which was strengthened, not undermined, by the Home Rule crisis. The third problem is that historians have tended to consider it in isolation, when arguably it was part of the broader Question of Imperialism. Yet, in 1886-95 it was difficult to disentangle Irish Home Rule from broader imperial concerns: indeed, this was the main reason for the Liberal Unionist split. By the same token, while socialism remained a vague new jargon, both old and new radical pressure groups, including the ILP, demonstrated a firm commitment to Gladstonian causes such as imperial devolution, international arbitration, a foreign policy inspired by humanitarian concerns, and free trade.

Home Rule became the single most important catalyst in the remaking of popular radicalism after the extension of the franchise to the county householders in 1884. The 1886 Bill together with the subsequent agitation and electoral campaigns polarized British and Irish politics and the crisis created a new political awareness even among subjects including women who hitherto had been marginalized. Animosity and partisanship under the recently enlarged franchise stimulated the rise of the party machine and caucus politics. The latter had contrasting effects on popular radicalism simultaneously increasing and limiting effective participation in national politics but became an essential device of mass mobilization in both Britain and Ireland. As the years went by, the prolonged Home Rule crisis consolidated new identities, political cultures and party allegiances. By the late 1880s Home Rule for Scotland and Ireland had already become part of a broader Liberal programme for a federal reconstruction of the United Kingdom. Such a programme was vocally supported by the Scottish Home Rule Association (SHRA) with increasingly separatist undertones. For many, especially in Scotland and Wales, Home Rule was to be accompanied by the disestablishment of the Church, abolition of the hereditary principle in the House of Lords, One Man One Vote, and reform of the system of electoral registration, reform of the land laws, local option for the control of the drink trade, triennial Parliaments and the payment of MPs. In short, Home Rule had nearly become a by-word for democracy and constitutional reform.

When Home Rule split the Liberal Party, the Radicals main casualty was Joseph Chamberlain. From the 1870s his zeal for social reform which had first expressed itself through municipal socialism counterbalanced Gladstone’s unrelenting enthusiasm for retrenchment at the Treasury. There was no necessary contrast between the two policies: local authorities and the central government had complementary roles under the Victorian constitution. The latter could implement drastic cuts to public expenditure in the areas for which it was directly responsible mainly the Army, Navy and National Debt while the former could expand its functions and related budgets. Gladstone himself was largely responsible for the growth of local government in mid-Victorian Britain, especially through the 1870 Education Act, one of the most expensive social reforms adopted in nineteenth-century Britain. The contrast between Gladstonian retrenchment and municipal socialism was therefore purely apparent: in reality it was a division of labour, readily understood and accepted by both sides. Indeed, as Jon Parry and others have argued, in Victorian Britain social reform was not party-politically controversial.

Quite different was the case for issues pertaining to Ireland, foreign and imperial policy, on which the Liberals nearly split in 1876-79, and then actually did so in 1886, 1899-1902 and 1916-1923. Chamberlain’s politics did not include peace, and indeed his family had made a fortune out of Britain’s past wars. Rather they embraced Utilitarianism and Philosophical Radicalism, traditions which prized individual liberty of judgement, and scrutinized religious as well as social practices in the cold light of reason. In this respect, as Peter Marsh has pointed out, Chamberlain was the political heir to Joseph Priestley. For a Liberal, this heritage came with obvious benefits, but also a few disadvantages. Of the latter, crucial was the emotional impoverishment of strictly rational religion. This cut him off both from the other Dissenters, and indeed from much of the rest of Victorian society, which was dominated by that powerfully emotional form of Christianity Evangelicalism. Like the education of the young John Stuart Mill (who also moved in Unitarian circles), Chamberlain’s education included no emphasis on sentiments or the poetic imagination. His consequent inability to interact with the countrys predominantly Evangelical mood and especially with the famous Nonconformist Conscience was bound to generate misunderstanding and mistrust, which originated not from the sphere of political difference, but from the deeper and non-rational sphere of emotional incompatibility.

If we want to understand the making of both Liberal Unionism and the last phase of Gladstonian Liberalism we must look at foreign policy in the period 1879-1885. From 1881-85 the Liberal government of which Chamberlain was a member faced a number of imperial emergencies, including the collapse of law and order in Ireland, the Boers’ decision to force the issue of their independence in South Africa, and a crisis in Egypt, leading to British military occupation from 1882. Interestingly, in two of the three cases Chamberlain took a line consistent with traditional radical concerns. In Ireland he opposed coercion which he described as a blot upon our civilization and recommended instead land reform. For the Transvaal he recommended independence for the Boers, consistently with the party’s electoral promises. He supported the invasion of Egypt, but again on this matter there was broad agreement within the Cabinet, including Gladstone.

Where Chamberlain differed from Gladstone was in terms of his motivations. Marsh has pointed out that Chamberlain was deaf to the moral cadences of Gladstone’s rhetoric on foreign affairs and never shared his altruistic concern for the comity of nations. There were certainly important moral cadences in Gladstone’s philosophy of international relations, which was articulated during his famous Midlothain speeches of 1879. Later generations would regard these speeches as the blueprint for the internationalism which characterised much of twentieth-century Liberal politics in Britain and elsewhere in the world, including Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen points in 1918. Moreover, Gladstone’s emphasis on Europe’s cultural and moral unity and the supranational forms of legitimacy and authority emanating from the Concert among the six powers (Britain, Germany, France, Russia, Italy, and Austria-Hungary) seemed to prefigure the modern process of European integration. Was the Midlothian theory of foreign policy an example of Gladstone’s disregard for the logic of imperial argument, of his [acting] throughout for Europe, within a European frame of assumptions and intentions?

Some scholars, including the present writer, believe that it was not, and that, instead, it reflected a more sophisticated, although contradictory, approach to foreign policy. In the first instance, the Midlothain theory must be assessed in the light of Gladstone’s subsequent conduct of foreign affairs once in government from 1880. Far from being utopian and idealistic, such conduct anticipated the late twentieth-century democratic dilemma so evident in recent U.S. foreign policy between support for universal principles and defence of national interest.

Although these scholars disagree with one another as to how precisely Gladstone dealt with this dilemma, they follow Colin Matthew in arguing that his foreign policy reflected a realistic assessment of Britain’s global interests and an effective occasionally ruthless pursuit of imperial power and stability within the constraints of the international context. For example, they believe that Gladstone’s vision of Europe and the European Concert was generally based on an appreciation of Britains long-term interests and vulnerability, an attitude which was more realistic than the unilateralism and insularity of those who preached national assertion. In particular, he advocated the peaceful solution of international problems and the enforcement of international treaties. In this respect his policy is best exemplified by the settlement of the Anglo-American dispute over the losses inflicted to US shipping by British-built Confederate cruisers during the American Civil War (the Alabama case, after the name of one of the privateering warships). Gladstone insisted on peaceful arbitration. When a specially convened international court ruled that London did indeed owe reparations to Washington, Gladstone promptly accepted to pay. This surrender to Yanks and foreign judges irritated jingo opinion at home. Yet, there can be no doubt that the peaceful settlement of this question was a great success for the British Empire, averting an escalation of tension which could have caused long-term damage to Anglo-American relations, and might have led to an armed conflict between the two powers a conflict which would have been far more expensive and damaging than the settlement paid by the Liberal government to Washington after arbitration.

However, Gladstone was not only concerned about the material advantages of arbitration, but about the general principles involved -namely, that international conflicts between Christian powers should be settled without recourse to force. Against this background it is easier to see why in 1879 he argued that unilateralism was both immoral and impolitic. In short, his approach combined idealism and pragmatism and pursued enlightened national interest, believing that the latter would benefit from the assertion of international law. He regarded the comity of nations and the Concert of the European powers both as good in themselves and as beneficial for British interests, which could be protected without committing Britain to entangling European alliances. This is precisely what Chamberlain also believed. Before 1886, the main difference between the two statesmen was that Chamberlain did not share Gladstones evangelical emotionalism, through which, for the benefit of the Nonconformist masses, the Grand Old Man interpreted his principles of diplomatic prudence as eternal and inalterable moral truths turning Realpolitik into Christian humanitarianism.

Yet, also Chamberlain assessed foreign policy in moral terms of right and wrong and was prepared to accept that imperial ambition ought to be subordinated to both liberal principles and the true interests of the subject races. This is best exemplified by the invasion of Egypt in 1882. At first, he was hesitant about invading: like Gladstone, Chamberlain regarded Arabi as the hero of a people rightly struggling to be free. However, soon news of riots in Alexandria convinced him that Arabi was only a military adventurer and that there was no national party behind him. The time for Britain to act had come. However, intervention should be directed not to impose on Egypt institutions of our choice but to secure for the Egyptian people a free choice for themselves so far as this may not be inconsistent with the permanent interests of other powers. In reality, the latter turned out to be the overriding consideration, but Chamberlain like Gladstone insisted on the programmatic statement in the main clause. At the time, the claim that Arabi was a military adventurer usurping authority and causing anarchy in Egypt was the Gladstonian equivalent of Tony Blair’s insistence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction at the beginning of the recent war i.e. the supreme justification for liberal imperialism. Gladstone and Chamberlain claimed that Britain had a mission in the East: to guarantee peace and order for the natives and the security of the Suez Canal for the (British dominated) international community. From the process the Egyptian people would eventually emerge with all the benefits of representative institutions. However, as Gladstone knew (and Blair is now finding out) exporting solidly western and beneficient [sic] institutions to Muslim countries has never been easy, especially when the western modernizers assumed that this could best be achieved by force and invasion.

On the other hand, when faced with anarchy, force was an irresistible temptation for Victorian Liberals. British liberalism was concerned with progress and individual liberty, which were supposed to be the essential prerequisites of self-government. Many Liberals believed that the British government was justified in enforcing law, order and financial accountability on corrupt subjects. It is remarkable that even J.S. Mill who was an ardent supporter of the principle of national self-government believed countries such as India were not yet ready for representative institutions, let alone independence. He accepted the notion of a hierarchy of cultures within which inferior ones should be trained for order and progress by those which were superior. For some of Mill’s successors in the 1880s, including Chamberlain, Egypt was a case in point: people needed to be coerced to be free an old republican or neo-roman injunction which acquired new significance in Britain’s imperial heyday.

In 1886 the question was whether or not in this respect Ireland was like Egypt. For Chamberlain it was, and consequently he stood for the forceful preservation of the Union and abandoned the Gladstonian Liberal party, reckoning that there was no future for Irish Protestant liberties without Britain, no future for the Irish economy outside the Union, and no future for the British Empire if it allowed a noisy but insignificant peripheral minority of short-sighted farmers and self-interested politicians to break away when they wished. National interest, individual liberty, the cause of progress in Ireland and the greatness of Britain in the world, all depended on the preservation of the Union. In many ways, he was close to the younger generation of radicals and socialists who believed that, at the end of the nineteenth century, politics should be about social reform and improving the lot of the people: true radicalism required not devolution, but the rational reconstruction and empowerment of the imperial executive at the centre. Despite Chamberlain’s marginalization within the Liberal party after 1886, his views would have an enormous impact not only on late nineteenth- and twentieth-century Unionist radicalism, but also on New Liberal and Labour politics.

By contrast Gladstonian Liberals followed the Grand Old Man in his belief that progress depended on popular consensus and citizens participation in the government of the country, and that Ireland, like Canada, was a nation that had earned the right to rule itself within the British Empire. They believed that loyalty, rather than rebellion, would be the outcome of Home Rule. Tragically, the Gladstonian experiment was not allowed a fair trial in Ireland until 1918, when it was too late.

In conclusion, it is difficult to overemphasise the importance of the Gladstonian experience for British Liberalism. It was a formative phase for the democratic tradition of this country. It consisted of an effective government tradition and yet pioneered the politics of conviction which would sustain the Liberal party during the years in the wilderness from the late 1920s until the end of the 1980s. It affirmed the centrality of active citizenship and local government against parliamentary centralism and the imperial state. It provided the Liberal Party with a refined theory of international relations and it captured the imagination of generations of Liberals, for whom Gladstone became the standard bearer of an uncompromising idealism which regarded Liberalism almost as a secular religion or, in Lady Aberdeen’s words, as the Christianity of politics.


Eugenio Biagini is Reader in Modern British European History at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Robinson College. His publications include Liberty, retrenchment and reform: Popular liberalism in the age of Gladstone, 1860-1880 (1992 and 2004) and Gladstone (2000). He is currently working on the impact of the Home Rule crisis on popular liberalism.