The Midlothian Campaign

A year after the defeat of his government in 1874, William Ewart Gladstone retired as leader of the Liberal Party. At 65, he deeply desired an interval between parliament and the grave to devote to religious affairs. Indeed, it was while engrossed in notes on Future Retribution that he was called away to write the pamphlet on the 1876 Bulgarian atrocities that marked his return to politics. At the beginning of 1879, he accepted an invitation to stand for Midlothian in the general election expected for 1880.

Midlothian was the county seat surrounding Edinburgh held by the Earl of Dalkeith for the Conservatives. In November 1879, Gladstone left Liverpool for Scotland with the intention of introducing himself to his prospective constituents through a series of speeches.

The masses who thronged the market places were the immediate and enthusiastic audiences for Gladstone’s outpourings. At the end of the campaign, Gladstone calculated his total audience to have been 86,930. He addressed 20,000 at Waverley market, people were continually handed out over the heads who had fainted and were as if dead. But the more important target was the wider public who followed the campaign in the newspapers and who would have been presented with virtually full transcripts of his speeches. By 1879, it was no longer unusual for a front ranking politician to give public speeches outside elections but Gladstone was probably the first to deliver a pre-planned campaign of public orations designed as a comprehensive assault on government policy.

The magnetism and charisma of Gladstone as a speaker are well attested and the processions and the marshalling of the crowds built up the sense of occasion. Perhaps more importantly, Gladstone took his audiences into his confidence, flattering their intelligence rather than their emotions; he made them feel that they were about to participate in the important decisions of government. Much of what he said on this campaign was concerned with immediate political issues Scottish representation, hypothec, malt tax, the manipulation of the electoral register (faggot votes). Other topics such as income tax and the state of agriculture are the staples of political campaigning at anytime. Read today, these parts of the speeches generate little excitement. But Gladstone had another task in hand.

Lord Beaconsfield (Disraeli’s title since 1876), had paid inadequate heed to the Bulgarian massacres perpetrated by Turkish forces and had backed Turkey when its quarrel with Russia threatened to involve Britain in a re-run of the Crimean war. Although the Congress of Berlin in 1878 averted this wider war, Gladstone had not forgiven Beaconsfield’s cynical realpolitik. Beaconsfield had also become embroiled in a series of expensive colonial adventures, as frequently happened with Victorian premiers. Unfortunately, as a result of local initiatives rather than Whitehall direction, two of these minor wars, in southern Africa and Afghanistan, occurred almost simultaneously. Neither went according to plan. A heady mixture, compounded of Christian humanity, dislike of administrative inefficiency and hatred of fiscal extravagance, kindled in Gladstone a moral indignation and detestation of Beaconsfieldism, if not Beaconsfield himself. This passion flows through the speeches creating the positive elements by which they are remembered.

On 26th November 1879, Gladstone spoke to a crowd of 3000-5000 at Dalkeith for an hour and a half. After a short break for tea, he attended a Ladies’ meeting where, in response to a presentation to Catherine Gladstone, he spoke again. He used the old radical slogan of Peace, Retrenchment, Reform to launch an assault on the colonial wars, defending the right of the Zulus and Afghans to defend themselves and arguing that the wars were unnecessary: “If they resisted, would not you have done the same? And when, going forth from their villages they had resisted, what you find is this, that those who went forth were slain, and that the village was burned . . . the women and the children were driven forth to perish in the snows of winter . . . To think that the name of England, under no political necessity, but for a war as frivolous as ever was waged in the history of man, should be associated with consequences such as these?” He ended with the great appeal to human rights which still resonates at the beginning of the twenty-first century:

“Remember the rights of the savage, as we call him. Remember that the happiness of his humble home, remember that the sanctity of life in the hill villages of Afghanistan among the winter snows, is as inviolable in the eye of Almighty God as can be your own.”

The next day Gladstone delivered a major address in West Calder in which he enunciated what he called the right principles of foreign policy:

“1. The first thing is to foster the strength of the Empire by just legislation and economy at home.

2. My second principle of foreign policy is this: peace.

3. In my opinion the third sound principle is this to strive to cultivate and maintain, ay, to the very uttermost, what is called the concert of Europe; to keep the Powers of Europe in union together.

4. My fourth principle is that you should avoid needless and entangling engagements.

5. My fifth principle is this, gentlemen, to acknowledge the equal rights of all nations.

6. And that sixth (principle) is, that in my opinion foreign policy, subject to all the limitations that I have described, the foreign policy of England should always be inspired by the love of freedom.”

Before accepting the invitation to stand for Midlothian, Gladstone was advised that he would defeat the Conservatives and despite the creation of faggot votes on both sides, his pollsters were accurate. In April 1880, Gladstone won Midlothian and the Liberals won the general election. The Midlothian campaign restored Gladstone to the front row of politics, supplanting Hartington’s and Granville’s claims to the premiership. Gladstone had also set the standard for electoral campaigning up to the television age.

An ethical foreign policy was as difficult to practice in the nineteenth century as now and Gladstone’s government of 1880-85 could not live up to the ideals he set. But the six right principles remain the legacy of Midlothian, inspiring Woodrow Wilson at the end of the Great War in establishing the League of Nations and in turn the foundation of the United Nations.


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.