William Gladstone

William Gladstone

William Ewart Gladstone, one of the dominant prime ministers in British history, was born in Liverpool, England, on December 29, 1809. Although his legacy is as a great Liberal reformer, he began his career as a Tory member of Parliament for Newark in December 1832.

The year 1832 was important because it witnessed the passage of the Great Reform Bill of 1832, a first and historic step to enfranchise a larger segment of the British population. Before this, members of Parliament were often chosen by corrupt lords or magnates, which guaranteed the election of members handpicked by the influential local political power.

The passage of successive Reform Bills in the 19th century is considered to have been the main reason that Britain missed the tides of revolution that swept through Europe during the same period.

For a man who would be a Liberal standard-bearer, Gladstone’s first speeches, which marked him as a great orator, were in favor of slavery, at a time when William Wilberforce was attempting to have the institution banned.

While author Philip Magnus says Gladstone was opposed to the actual institution of slavery, he was against the sudden abolishment of slavery without due planning. Otherwise, in Gladstone’s words, emancipation from slavery would be “more fleeting than a shadow and more empty than a name.” In spite of Gladstone’s perorations, Wilberforce’s dream was realized.

Gladstone’s evident parliamentary skills brought him to the attention of the Tory Party’s prime minister Robert Peel. Two years after his maiden appearance in Parliament, Gladstone joined Peel’s government as a junior lord of the treasury and then as an undersecretary at the Colonial Office in 1835, at a time when British relations were becoming tangled over the importation of opium from British India (then governed by the quasi-governmental British East India Company) to the Chinese Qing (Ching) dynasty.

Peel’s overall reputation as a reformer may have played a role in the gradual evolution of Gladstone’s political view. When Peel resigned as prime minister in 1835, Gladstone loyally followed him.

In 1841, when Melbourne fell from power, Queen Victoria asked Peel to form another Tory government. In 1843 Peel rewarded Gladstone’s loyalty by appointing him to the prestigious position of president of the board of trade.

Gladstone’s evolving liberal agenda ultimately cost him the support of his long-time patron, the duke of Newcastle. Still, Gladstone retained his position in Peel’s cabinet until Lord John Russell formed a Whig government in July 1847.

Gladstone at the age of eighty-two introducing the Home Rule Bill of 1893
Gladstone at the age of eighty-two introducing the Home Rule Bill of 1893

Serving under Peel, Gladstone became aware of the problems in Ireland and embarked on the political cause of home rule for Ireland that would dominate the later years of his political life. By the fall of Peel’s administration, Gladstone had already become a rising force in the Tory Party.

In 1847 he became the member of Parliament for Oxford University, a unique indication of the value of Oxford to the nation. When the Tory George Gordon, Lord Aberdeen, formed a coalition government in 1852, Gladstone became chancellor of the exchequer.

Once the Crimean War began in 1854, the Aberdeen government was blamed for all the mismanagement that dogged the British army in the long and bloody struggle with Russia, which Britain fought as an ally of the Ottoman Empire.

Aberdeen’s government fell in 1857, perhaps the last casualty of the Crimean War. Aberdeen himself would die in 1860. By this time, Gladstone had earned such a name as a competent public servant that Henry Temple, Lord Palmerston, the Whig who had formed the coalition ministry with Aberdeen, offered Gladstone his old position as chancellor of the exchequer in June 1859.

Taking office necessitated Gladstone giving up the conservative Tory Party and joining Palmerston’s Liberals, as the Whigs were now being called. Oxford University, as Tory as it had been when it supported King Charles I in the English Civil War, abandoned Gladstone, and he was forced to take a seat as the Liberal member of Parliament for South Lancashire.

When Palmerston died in 1865, Lord John Russell became prime minister and requested that Gladstone stay on at the exchequer. Moreover, Gladstone became leader of the Liberals in the House of Commons.

Voice of Progressivism

On March 12, 1866, Gladstone emerged as the voice of progressivism in the British parliament when he proposed the Second Reform Bill. Although the lack of Conservative support doomed the bill and Russell’s ministry, it was clear that the time had come to extend the voting franchise once again. The workers in the factories were demanding more of a say in their government. Meanwhile, Gladstone’s premonitions about Ireland were coming true.

When Edward Stanley became prime minister in 1866, Benjamin Disraeli, the Conservative leader in the House of Commons, also realized that another reform bill had become a political necessity. Together, in a rare display of partisan unity, the two future political rivals joined forces and mustered enough votes to pass the Second Reform Bill in 1867.

In the same year the Conservatives were defeated in the general elections and Gladstone became prime minister. While the Reform Bill opened the franchise far wider, it nevertheless still left open the voting system for abuse. In 1872 Gladstone passed the Ballot Act to ensure secret, safe, voting.

In 1874 Disraeli became the new prime minister, inaugurating the fascinating political situation where the two most powerful and astute politicians of their day took turns holding the office of prime minister.

It was also a time of epochal change for Britain, for from this time on the events of its growing empire took perhaps even greater involvement of its government than the affairs at home which had previously commanded all the talents of Gladstone and Disraeli.

In 1875 the Christian subjects of the Ottoman Empire rebelled against Turkish rule. Sultan Abdul Aziz began a reign of terror, killing thousands of men, women, and children. The rebellion ultimately led to Russian intervention on the side of the Christian Slavs.

Gladstone, motivated by reports of the slaughter, wrote his Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East in 1876. As Russian troops swept down the Balkans, Disraeli, as prime minister, deployed the British Mediterranean Fleet off Constantinople.

War between the Russians and Great Britain was finally averted when Chancellor Otto von Bismarck chaired the Congress of Berlin in 1878 to effect a diplomatic solution to the Balkan crisis.

In 1880 Parliament was dissolved by Disraeli in March. Disraeli, thinking he could score an impressive political triumph, lost the general election, and Gladstone was returned to office as prime minister.

While reversing Disraeli’s stern policy toward the Turks, Gladstone found himself increasingly embroiled in colonial affairs, especially in southern Africa. A British victory over the Zulus in July 1879 had made England the dominant power in South Africa.

When British troops under General George Colley were slaughtered in the Battle of Majuba Hill, instead of taking revenge, Gladstone granted political self-government to the Boers in their Transvaal Republic.

Either through advancing age or a godlike determination that he alone knew what was best, Gladstone almost always found himself at odds with the British people on imperial matters.

In 1875 Disraeli bought the controlling interests in the Suez Canal from the bankrupt Khedive Ismail of Egypt and Gladstone was later forced to send a British expeditionary force to Egypt. Gladstone now was confronted with a virtual British colony in Egypt.

His imperial involvement did not end there. Years of Egyptian misrule had led to a rebellion in the Sudan led by Muhammad Ahmad Abdullah, who called himself the Mahdi, the Rightly Guided One. One Egyptian expedition under General William Hicks to crush the Mahdi ended in total defeat, and the Mahdi created a separate Sudanese state.

In 1884 Gladstone sent British hero General Charles “Chinese” Gordon to the Sudan to evacuate Egyptians from the capital of Khartoum. When it became clear that Gordon was determined to remain in Khartoum, Gladstone authorized a British relief expedition to be sent up the Nile to Khartoum, all the while hoping Gordon would change his mind at the last moment.

When the first elements of the relief force finally reached Khartoum in January 1885, it was clear that the city had fallen to the Mahdi and Gordon had been killed. As a result of this, Gladstone was blamed for the murder of Gordon, a national hero.

Gladstone continued to pursue the policy of political reform that had been dearest to his heart. In 1886, riding on his new popularity among the working class, Gladstone was elected yet again to serve as prime minister.

The other issue that mattered to him was home rule for Ireland, an attempt to make amends for generations of misguided and sometimes brutal British rule against the Irish people.

On this issue, both the Tory Party and the conservatives of the Liberal Party joined forces against him, determined to preserve primacy for the British—and avoid any political autonomy for the Irish at all costs.

In the general election of 1886, Gladstone’s government was defeated, with his advocacy of home rule for Ireland the deciding factor. Robert Cecil, the marquess of Salisbury, was given permission by Queen Victoria to form a government, drawn entirely from the Tory Party.

In 1892 Gladstone was elected yet a third time to serve as prime minister. In 1893, his Irish home rule bill was finally passed in the House of Commons, by a vote of 307 to 267. Victory seemed near.

Yet the bill still had to pass the House of Lords, where the alliance between the Tory Party and the industrial and land-owning magnates of Ireland opposed to home rule was firm. Opposition was led by Lord Salisbury, who referred to Irish home rule as “this treacherous revolution.” The House of Lords defeated the bill by a vote of 419 to 41.

On March 1, 1894, Gladstone addressed the House of Commons for the last time and resigned as prime minister. He died on May 19, 1898.