April 12, 2010

Gladstone: Pragmatism and Changeability

Having given a bird’s eyes view of his massive political impact and striking personality of Gladstone we now turn to examine his ideological world view. IT is worth noting in this context that there is a great degree of scholarship on William Gladstone of which my knowledge is rather sketchy. Perhaps my most important guiding light has been Matthew perhaps the greatest Gladstone scholar ever (sadly he died before writing a full biography) though several other writers among them Shannon and Boyd Hilton have shaped my views. I do not fill ;that confident my views so those who know about Gladstone do explain where I’m wrong or where addition gives a better picture!
It is worth noting that many of his political enemies and some of his closest political allies for example his deputy i the Commons William Harcourt saw him as constantly or often disingenuous and/or unprincipled. This contributed to the strong liberal's commen "I don't object to Gladstone always having the ace of trumps up his sleeve, but merely to his belief that the Almighty put it there."This goes against the beliefs of the great majority of historians and this author but there are several reasons why this was held against and believed of Gladstone.

Partly of course it was the usual pragmatism that is endemic to practical politicians combined with a deep refusal to acknowledge them. So for example Matthew suggests that his scepticism of votes for women owed a great deal to the very possibly they would vote for women (since women who owned or rented a home tended to be from much more affluent families than men) but one cannot find a quotation to back up this very plausible theory.

In this Gladstone was the opposite of Salisbury a man probably equally (which is to say highly) principled but a politician who frequently used “party opinion” to block progressive measures –in many cases this was almost certainly based on his own objections as much or more so than any supposed electoral backlash. Salisbury and Gladstone were diametric opposites in this on pretended to be less principled/ doctrinaire, the other more than they really were.

There was however a way in which Gladstone acknowledged Pragmatic considerations at least after the 1840’s where he first achieved high level government experience That was his emphasis on Statecraft and particularly the need for a statesman to deal only with the the issue of immediate legislation and/or governmental action -that is he did not believe in setting up vague general future aspirations- only ones that could be dealt by legislation soon”.This was very unlike his great ally and enemy Joe Chamberlain who was almost the opposite-the master of the extreme comment and the comparatively moderate policy.

This both integrates a certain pragamsticism in the teeth of politicians and the electorate and meant this this most ideological of Victorian Prime ministers put clear limit on his ideological statements. This pragmatisicm could be said to have parallels among great reforming Prime Ministers (Reform does not have to be a good idea!) whether Thatcher , Attlee or Asquith . It is probably no coincidence virtually all of them also left intact policies left they hated. They were both pragmatic enough to avoid issues which they regarded as excessively dangerous (disestablishment of the Church of Scotland being an example for Gladstone) and on the other ideologically motivated enough to actually achieve major reforms in the teeth of intense opposition.

Finally perhaps the biggest cause of Gladstone’s occasional reputation for being shifty was that he simply changed his mind a great deal not constantly but in great (nearly always permanent) shifts on a position.

IN his youth when he entered Parliament in the 1830's he was not just a member of the conservative party (This was an era of fairly weak party ties after all) but the “rising hope of the stern unbending Tories” in the name of the Whig Maccalay (a man whose politics were mch more conservative than the latter Gladstone. . At that point he certainly was not a “political economist” that is a supporter of laissre-faire or of “liberal” nationalist forces internationally. His biggest interests was in religion and the state –he horrified the conservative leadership particularly Robert Peel the then leader by the degree to which he sought to link the Church of England and the state- backing with his usual ferocious logic the exclusion of non Anglicans from the political world. This was set out in his first major work "The State in it's Relations with the Church".

Indeed the backlash by many against the book including his hero Peel seems to have been a major reason behind his latter refusal to write generally on political philosophy . This was at least in terms of policy- as said in the previous post Gladstone was to be the man who rolled back so many of such. So were large aspects- the man who was to become the exponent of lassire-faire in markets was the same man who gave his maiden speech in the Commons against the abolition of the slave trade (his father and native city Liverpool were both massively involved in the slave trade). AS we shall see many of his earlier views in particular the religous helped shape his latter views. However the evolution of his thought occurred in a series of stages culminating in major shifts often accompanied by personal crisis from the 1840’s onwards . The last truly major shift was on Home Rule in 1886 previously a fringe opinion among the non Irish. Gladstone’s often very sudden change in position often bewildered and infuriated those who had previously been supportive and gave him something of his reputation with his foes for both fanaticism and unreliability. Thus enormous loyalty could turn to huge resentment. The Duke of Norfolk rather paradoxically as both England’s most senior aristocrat and something of an outsider as a Roman Catholic. His love of Gladstone’s policies was so passionate he kept a Portrait on the wall of his mansion. When Gladstone endorsed Home Rule Norfolk sold the Portrait!

In conclusion Gladstone’s contemporary reputation for trickery was not composed of pure whole cloth. It was based in large measure on his failure to come to grips with his own political calculations emphasised specific legislation and changed his mind over the course of his sixty year political career. This did not mean that the mature Gladstone of the 1860’s and 1870’s did not have a finely worked political ideologynow.It is now to the political thought of him as a liberal that we will now turn

Here on the other hand is a picture of Gladstone when he was still a "stern and unbending" Tory. .


James Higham said...

Why did Victoria dislike him so much?

Sulla said...

A very good question James! Many talk about personal factors i think wrongly the Prime Minsiters she liked such as Disraeli and Salisbury were so different in personality (and Salisbury ahd a lot in common with Gladstone-and was probably her favourtie).

I rather incline to the view Matthew expressed once in my hearing. The queen rapidly liked all her Prime Ministers early in life (so she hated Peel and dint' want Melbourne to go-but after a while she din't want Peel to go). However after the late 1860's her politics on just about all issues are mainstream Tory views. Thus it was Gladstone's politicals that drove her dislike and bias against him.When he was replaced by the very moderate Roseberry-in large measure due to her own efforts as he was the most moderate of the leading liberals she fell out wiht Roseberry on similar grounds.

Also of course Gladstone was such the voice of liberalism of his era (in a sense like Thatcher of late twentieth century conservatism) it was hard for such virulent disagreemtn not to become personal.

She disliked Anglo-Catholicism and Albert had disapproved off Gladstone in large measure because he saw him as too Catholic (and arguably as too theologicaly Conservative) but earl,y on she does not seem very hostile-i thi0nk it's the development of Gladstonian liberalism that she like many reacted against.