William George Granville Venables Vernon Harcourt was born at York on 14 October 1827, of a land-owning and clerical family which traced its ancestry to the Plantagenet kings. His elder brother, Edward Harcourt, was a staunch Conservative and for eight years an MP. William Harcourt’s views, however, began to take a Liberal turn in the early 1840s, when he opposed protection on account of the dearness and scarcity of bread for the people. He argued in the Liberal cause in the Cambridge University Union when he was an undergraduate at Trinity College from 1847 to 1851. But his political opinions were by no means settled, and until the later 1860s he appeared as an independent, whose outstanding abilities caused him to be wooed as a champion by both parties.
After obtaining a degree in classics and mathematics (with a first class in the former), he studied law in London for three years and was called to the bar in 1854. He soon obtained a large and lucrative practice, first at the common law bar and later at the parliamentary bar. He also became known as an effective writer for newspapers and periodicals (particularly The Times), and as an accomplished speaker. He was made a Queen’s Counsel in 1866 and was Whewell Professor of International Law at Cambridge from 1869 to 1887.
Harcourt first stood for Parliament as an Independent Liberal candidate for the Kirkcaldy District of Burghs in the general election of 1859, but was narrowly defeated. He was offered a safe Conservative seat in 1866 by Disraeli, but declined it. Soon afterwards he became decisively and permanently Liberal, speaking on platforms with John Bright, strongly advocating the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, and being returned for Oxford City as a Liberal in the general election of November 1868.
From 1868 politics increasingly absorbed his attention, and he gradually abandoned his legal work, supposedly sacrificing £10,000 a year (an immense sum at that time) in the process. However, he declined the post of Judge Advocate-General in Gladstone’s first government because it carried with it a Privy Councillorship, and at that time the latter would have prevented him from practising law when out of office. He showed striking debating ability in the Commons and became quite radical in approach, arguing especially strongly for religious equality and civil liberty, and criticising some of his own governments measures for timidity. However, he disclaimed any consistent radical tendency at this stage and said he was only preaching Whig doctrines. In November 1873 he accepted the post of Solicitor-General (and a knighthood). He was a constant critic of Conservative policies during Disraeli’s ministry of 1874-80, and a firm supporter of Gladstone over the Balkan crisis of 1876-78 and the government’s overseas embarrassments of 1878-79.
After the Liberals returned to power in April 1880, Harcourt became Home Secretary. On seeking re-election at Oxford (according to the then convention for ministers) he was defeated, though he had been re-elected the previous month. However, two weeks later, he found a seat at Derby, where Samuel Plimsoll resigned in his favour, and he was returned without a contest. He sat for Derby until 1895.
As Home Secretary, Harcourt carried a measure which was clearly against the privileges of his own land-owning class and in the interests of the tenant farmer – the Ground Game (or ‘Hares and Rabbits’) Bill of 1880. This signalled a populist approach to politics which marked him for the rest of his life. He became increasingly known in this period as an effective speaker before vast political audiences running into many thousands. However, he did not go so far as to align himself with Joseph Chamberlain and his Radical Programme. Various reforming measures regarding water supply and juvenile criminality also marked Harcourt’s Home Secretaryship, and as serious Irish unrest afflicted the government he had the unenviable but successful job of piloting coercion measures through the Commons.
After the government defeat in June 1885, Harcourt kept his seat in the November general election, and became Chancellor of the Exchequer on the party’s return to government in February 1886 – making him, in effect, Gladstone’s chief lieutenant and (in the event of accident to the old leader) his expected successor. He strongly supported Gladstone’s conversion to Home Rule. As a recent sponsor of Irish coercion measures, he was bitterly attacked by Unionists, but he effectively argued that all policies except Home Rule had failed as a means of settling the Irish Question.
Home Rule failed as well; the first bill to establish it was defeated in June 1886, and the ensuing general election returned a large Conservative and Liberal Unionist majority. He was anxious for reunion with the Liberal dissidents, and took part in the unsuccessful Round Table Conference for this purpose in 1887. He was prominent in criticising the new Conservative government, and often triumphed (though sometimes lost) in parliamentary jousts with Chamberlain. He also continued to be a most assiduous speaker in the country, and Gladstone (sometimes suffering from ill health) came increasingly to depend on him. By 1891 Harcourt was urging the wide array of reforms which came to form the Liberals’ Newcastle Programme of October that year.
Harcourt was again Chancellor of the Exchequer and crown prince in the last Gladstone Government of 1892-94. This was a time of largely fruitless struggle and, ultimately, of great personal disappointment. The second Home Rule Bill was rejected by the Lords; a local veto bill to restrict the sale of alcohol was abandoned in the Commons. A Parish Councils’ Bill got through in 1894 only after stringent amendment by the Lords, and Harcourt signalised the rapidly developing antagonism between Liberals and the Upper House by indicting the latter as the champion of all abuses and the enemy of all reform. Gladstone resigned as premier in March 1894. But, despite Harcourt’s great prominence and activity as second-in-command since 1886, the Queen (without consulting Gladstone) offered the premiership to the Earl of Rosebery, Foreign Secretary and Harcourt’s junior by twenty years.
This event virtually robbed Harcourt of the highest political office, to which he had legitimately been able to look forward. While some feelings of antagonism on his part were unavoidable, he bravely continued as Chancellor of the Exchequer and acted as Leader of the Commons in the Rosebery ministry. His 1894 budget included the reform for which he is chiefly remembered – the introduction of graduated death duties on both real and personal property, together with reduction of the liability of lower incomes to tax. Despite the measures anti-aristocratic tone (and, it was argued, anti-aristocratic retaliation), the Lords did not yet dare to reject a budget. Following a government defeat in June 1895, the general election in July was a Conservative triumph, resulting in a majority of 152 for themselves and their Liberal Unionist allies. Harcourt was defeated at Derby, but once again a Liberal was ready to stand down in his favour, and West Monmouthshire became his new constituency.
As Leader of the Liberal Party in the Commons, Harcourt supported electoral reform and House of Lords reform, defended temperance, and criticised imperialist policies. He was soon able to claim an opposition triumph when the government withdrew its Education Bill of 1896, which had proposed to abolish the school boards introduced by the Liberals’ Education Act of 1870. Rosebery resigned as leader of the party in October 1896, after declaring his opposition to both Harcourt and Gladstone over a question relating to Turkish massacres in Armenia. Harcourt was a pall-bearer at Gladstone’s funeral in May 1898, but by the end of the year, his increasing difficulties with the Roseberyite Liberal Imperialists caused him to abandon the leadership of the Liberals in the Commons, and in February 1899 Campbell-Bannerman was elected in his place.
Harcourt continued to criticise the Salisbury government over imperial policy and to show his differences from Rosebery. Chamberlain’s tariff reform campaign of 1903 provided the ambience of his last great battle, in defence of free trade; public speeches and letters to The Times sprang abundantly from him. Before he died on 30 September 1904 at his family estate at Nuneham Courtenay, Oxfordshire (which he had just inherited from his deceased nephew), Harcourt had the satisfaction of seeing the Liberals regain considerable unity over the tariff question.
Harcourt married twice (to Therese Lister in 1859, and to Elizabeth Ives in 1876), and had a surviving son by each marriage. The elder of these, Lewis (Loulou), had just become a Liberal MP when his father died, having served as his private secretary, 1881-1904, and took office in the Campbell-Bannerman government in 1905. The younger son, Robert, became a Liberal MP in 1908.
It took Harcourt, like Gladstone, a long time to become a Liberal, but once this affiliation was decided, he became an active and prominent one. He did not completely fulfil his expected potential, being perhaps the classic case of the best Prime Minister we never had. But as a strong contender for another title, that of the democratic aristocrat, he achieved notable reforms and, to a very striking degree, worked effectively for his party through thick and thin. The main biography is A. G. Gardiner’s The Life of Sir William Harcourt (2 vols, 1923).
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.