April 14, 2010

From Bishops to Bulgaria:Religion and Nation in the Thought of William Gladstone

So how did Gladstone’s “Puseyite” Anglo-Catholic views lead Gladstone (unlike so many other “Puseyites” to the “left” of his day? I should add another reason why religion was once underplayed as a factor in Gladstone’s decision making is that because most of his supporters had very different religious views (indeed the majority were “nonconformists” Protestants who found the Church of England too Protestant not to Catholic) and partly because of a certain basic secularism to public debate (indeed the Sectarian diversity of the UK then was a major cause of that) Gladstone was very careful in public in expressing the religious motivations of his policies.

One way it did so was by the way in which it developed is support of nationalism and the form it took. For Gladstone this was based in his theory of the church which saw the Christian church as divided into national institutions of a universal Catholic Church-and individual institutional churches that were the creation of divine will (unlike the evangelical/Protestant view) but were also independent and equal (unlike the Roman Catholic theory of the Primacy of the Roman Pontiff). AT the same time they were part of one general body Over time this led Gladstone to embrace nationalism and internationalism two of the great liberal causes of the nineteenth century-but for very unusual reasons. His belief in the spiritual reality of national churches led to a belief in real nations which he saw as fundamentally the expression of such a nation.

In terms of British politics the most radical manifestation of this was to be Home Rule for Ireland that is the repeal of the Union and the creation of a much looser relationship between Ireland and the United Kingdom- a view he only saw as “ripe” and correct after years of battling against Home Rulers –when he became convinced Ireland was indeed naturally a nation. It also rendered him highly sympathetic to national movements in Europe (and a foe of the Roman Catholic Church on almost all such issues unlike Ireland). Another flip side of this was his deep scepticism about imperialism which clashed with the growing support for the British empire in the nineteenth century. There is evidence that by the end of his career he was more or less opposed to the British Empire. At the very least he was an extreme sceptic of any strong measures to expand it including a virulent opponent of military spending (which also reflected his support for economy) and opposed efforts in the 1880’s to expand the British empire.

Nowadays “anti-imperialism” put as such seems at the very least such an uncontroversial cause that it is hard to see how Gladstone’s position invoked such strong negative emotions and led to such tensions even within his own party. It’s worth remembering the empire was the field in which the UK was involved in international power politics, carried out any form of “civilising” mission, using force to protect British interest, preventing French or German international dominance and so forth. In a sense the empire was the equivalent of NATO , military action and political intervention and overas abroad today- and thus Gladstone’s deep scepticism was extremely unpopular with the political class and controversial at least with the public. There was a reason why Gladstonian radicals were often called “little Englanders”. It also helps explain Gladstone's enormous popularity abroad -he was the voice agianst the assertion of the Power of the world's mightest country (for example when the US sought reparations from the UK over confederate shipping based in the UK)

These kind of sentiments lay in large measure behind his campaign in the 1870's agianst “Bulgarian atrocities” the notion of supporting supposed Turkish oppression of an independent nation infuriated him-and the Tory argument that the Ottoman empire was necessary to protect the British had little resonance with Gladstone . IN this case simple Christian sectarianism may also have played a role – and it may be relevant Gladstone more than most Englishman identified with Christianity in general much more than Protestantism- and the Bulgarians were Christians if not Protestants.
The flip side of his religious motivation was that nations should also have a harmonious relationship like (ideally) the different national churches. This does a great deal to explain Gladstone’s enthusiasm for international law and for multilateral trade agreements for example the Anglo-Franco trading treaty. He was a believer in a “Cobdonite” theory that a network of trade could be set up building a commonwealth of sovereign nations united in harm-but the values that underlay his vision were very different.

Some of what one might see as Gladstone’s eccentricities in his policy also owed a great deal to these religious roots. One was his absolute failure to compromise on including Ulster in a home Rule Ireland an incredibly unpopular and potentially civil war causing position. This owed a good dela to pressure from his Irish nationalist allies but arguably even more to his simple belif (partly rooted in Church government) that Ulster was part of the Irish nation –regardless of the majority of Ulsterman’s views which he ascribed to religious bigotry. His fairly strong Confederate (unusual in a British liberal though not necessarily their American counterparts) sympathies during the war itself arguably reflect to some degree his Liverpool and pro slavery background. But they probably eve more reflect his view that once one had “made a nation” then that nation’s rights should be respected.

He is a picture of Gladstone speaking against the Bulgarian atrocities just one of his many “secular” campaigns that had deep religious roots.

Here is a picture of the Same Cobdon whose views on foreign policy were so similar (if less pragmatic) as Gladstone's -but for very different reasons.