At the beginning of 1875, following his defeat by Disraeli in the 1874 general election, Gladstone resigned the leadership of the Liberal 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.
Lord Granville, a close friend of Gladstone and known for his diplomatic skills within the party, assumed command of the opposition in the Lords and Lord Hartington, the heir to the Duke of Devonshire and Granville’s cousin, led in the Commons. Hartington, an enthusiast for horse racing, maintained an air of gruff indifference to conceal his devotion to politics. Both were Whigs and both moderate men, indeed Hartington was described by George Goschen as a violently moderate man.
Hartington’s modesty and self-deprecation have led many to underestimate his skills as leader though modern scholarship tends to view the position of the Whigs within Liberalism up to 1886 favourably. It was Hartington’s misfortune to succeed and to compete with perhaps the most charismatic orator of his age.
During the early part of Disraeli’s government, Gladstone gratified himself with his Homeric studies and indulged in religious controversy, while Hartington allowed the party a period for quiet recuperation. The time was productively used.
In Birmingham, local industrialist Joseph Chamberlain, who had fought against aspects of the 1870 Education Act, became mayor in 1873 and over the next three years developed a model for municipal enterprise which inspired emulation and competition from other major cities. But his ambitions were greater. Elected MP for Birmingham in 1876 he organised the grass roots of the party into a highly effective vote-gathering machine. Other cities organised caucuses on similar lines. He used the lessons learnt in his National Education League to create the National Liberal Federation (NLF) in 1877.
Despite Chamberlain’s powers as a propagandist and the fears of some Whigs, the NLF never became the alternative power base that Chamberlain sought to coerce the leadership of the party into following a more radical direction. Always individualists, other Radicals resented Chamberlain’s presumption to lead them, depriving the NLF of the breadth of support it needed while the leadership of the party gradually co-opted the organisation to its own ends. In time the NLF became the foundation for a more ideologically broader based campaigning organisation and the forerunner of the party’s annual conference.
As the Conservative government became bogged down in foreign affairs and the aging Disraeli’s health began to fail, a gap opened up in domestic policy. Hartington, who had sympathised with much of Disraeli’s foreign policy, found more scope at home and seized opportunities to outline a programme of moderate domestic reform including representative local government for the counties, land reform and an extension to the county franchise which all sections of the party, including Radicals could support. The onset of an economic slowdown, particularly acute in agriculture, confirmed the unpopularity of the Conservative administration and Liberals began to hope for a return to government when the governments term expired.
But the election did not turn primarily on these domestic concerns. In July 1875, a rebellion broke out in the Turkish provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The suppression of this insurrection with massacres and ill treatment of Balkan Christians filled the British press with lurid tales of brutality. For the government, these events were unfortunate. Traditionally, Britain was a defender of the Turkish Empire as a bulwark against expansion by Russia, which liked to portray itself as a defender both of Orthodox Christians and Slavs, the communities represented in the rebellion. Unwisely, Disraeli played down the accounts of the slaughter.
An agitation developed, especially among non-conformists, an explosion of moral indignation which the Liberal leadership was slow to recognize and unwilling to exploit. A good Palmerstonian, Hartington was no more willing than Disraeli to weaken Turkey or further Russian ambitions. Gladstone had no such qualms. He did not lead the agitation but he recognised its importance and sympathised with its aims. In September 1876 he dashed off a pamphlet, Bulgarian Atrocities and the Question of the East, which became an instant best seller.
Gladstone had found a cause which compelled his return to politics.
Despite the popular support for the campaign, strongest among the non-conformists, Gladstone found little backing from the Whig leadership when, in 1877, he set out to move a series of resolutions condemning the government. The divisions within the Liberal party were offset when Disraeli’s aggressive stance appeared to risk of war with Russia and caused the resignation of his Foreign Secretary, Lord Derby (who later joined the Liberals and served in Gladstone’s second government). The Eastern Question was resolved at the Congress of Berlin in 1878 which gave Disraeli (now Lord Beaconsfield) the opportunity to manoeuvre upon a world stage where he acquired Cyprus as an addition to the British Empire, further angering Gladstone.
For the government worse was to follow. At the end of 1878, imperialist enthusiasm among the British pro-consuls in India and South Africa provoked unnecessary wars with the Afghans and Zulus respectively. Both the human and financial costs appalled Gladstone.
In 1879, Gladstone accepted an invitation to contest the Scottish metropolitan county seat of Midlothian and in November set out to introduce himself to his prospective constituents by a speaking tour. By this stage, it was not unusual for senior politicians to address large public meetings but the first Midlothian campaign was innovative. Gladstone’s trip to Scotland became a triumphal procession with a number of short addresses given to crowds at railway stations along the way. Once at Edinburgh, he gave a planned series of speeches to audiences totalling nearly 87,000 with accompanying parades and processions. The orations were an assault on all aspects of what Gladstone termed Beaconsfieldism but especially foreign and colonial policies. Whether asking his audience to remember the rights of the savage or setting out the six right principles of foreign policy, Gladstone’s moral indignation burnt through not just to the people on the spot but to the newspaper readers who were a more important audience in this appeal direct to the people over the heads of the party.
The process was repeated during the election campaign itself in the spring of 1880.
The Liberals won by a much greater margin than anticipated, gaining 112 seats and, despite the continuing strength of the Irish nationalist party, a majority of over 50 against all other parties. The scale of the success was attributed to Gladstone’s contribution. In spite of Queen Victoria’s effort to appoint Hartington as premier, it had become inevitable that Gladstone would resume the office a second time.