William Ewart Gladstone (1809-98) was the greatest British reforming statesman of the 19th century. He was Prime Minister of Britain three times.
Gladstone originally intended to become an Anglican clergyman but, following his father’s advice, he took up politics. He entered the British Parliament in 1832 as a Conservative (or Tory). During the prime ministerships of Sir Robert Peel, George Hamilton and Lord Palmerston, Gladstone became President of the Board of Trade (1843-45) and Chancellor of the Exchequer (1852-55; 1859-66). During these latter periods, he set about cutting tariffs and government expenditure.
Careful husbandry of government monies would be an ever-recurring theme in Gladstone’s political philosophy. “Finance is, as it were, the the stomach of the country, from which all the other organs take their tone,” he wrote in 1858.
In 1867 Gladstone left the Conservatives to become leader of the Liberal Party.
He became Prime Minister for the first time in 1868. In 1870 he established a system of national elementary education (a first in British educational history).
He viewed the British rule of Ireland as the cause of many evils and injustices for the Irish people over a period of centuries. He therefore disestablished the Irish Church (that is, the Anglican Church in Ireland), thereby reducing the power of Protestant Anglicanism in the mainly Roman Catholic Ireland. He also passed the Irish Land Act, which made it more difficult for British landlords to evict their Irish tenants.
He undertook a scheme of parliamentary reform, bringing in secret ballots and extending voting rights to working class males (the latter went a long way towards achieving universal male suffrage).
In his final two periods as Prime Minister, Gladstone tried to bring in Irish Home Rule, another measure designed to end centuries of British misrule in Ireland. However, due to Liberal Party splits, he was defeated again and again on the Home Rule legislation that he tried to push through.
Even though he did not prevail on this issue, he still believed that Irish Home Rule would have to come in due course:
“We are bound to lose Ireland in consequence of years of cruelty, stupidity and misgovernment and I would rather lose her as a friend than as a foe.” (Gladstone as quoted in Margot Asquith’s 1933 book, More Memories.)
Gladstone’s magnificent record of Parliamentary achievements was somewhat tarnished by the death of General Gordon in Khartoum, Sudan in 1885 (an event blamed on the failure of Gladstone’s government to help the general in Khartoum and on Gladstone’s supposed disinterest in foreign affairs) and by Britain’s defeats in the First Boer War (1881).
On the subject of foreign policy, Gladstone certainly had strong views which were often at odds with the jingoism and imperialism of his day. For example, on Britain’s invasions of Afghanistan during the Victorian era, here are the eloquent words of Gladstone in an 1879 speech:
“Remember the rights of the savage, as we call him. Remember 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.”
(These words, written as they are in Victorian English, still remain painfully relevant during the current NATO intervention in in Afghanistan.)
Like his parliamentary arch rival, the Conservative Benjamin Disraeli, William Gladstone was a magnificent orator. He was also an outstanding classical scholar.
Gladstone was a man of strong moral convictions, who, some say, acted more like a clergyman than a typical politician. These convictions – and thereby the achievements of his political career – were founded on the bedrock of his profound Christian religious principles.
William Ewart Gladstone left a strong legacy, not only in the extensive legislation he proposed, promoted and passed, but in the tradition of more democracy allied with more efficiency and the reduction of unnecessary government expenditure.