This blogger has looked before at British history in the decades Before World War I in a series of posts beginning here. Now we turn to consider a longer though overlapping era- the late Victorian Era That is roughly the last third or so of the nineteenth century particularly after the 1867 "Reform Act" inaugurated an era of working. Indeed there was a working class majority in British elections-an era that was to last till the 1990’s.
We will now examine the outstanding statesman and politician of this era-William Ewart Gladstone. He towered over every other political figure of hits era even the Likes of Salisbury who in some ways was more successful (he narrowly served longer in the premiership).
Indeed arguably we should know this era from the late 1860's onwards till around 1900as the Gladstone era. He was undoubatably the dominant figure in terms of the political agenda much more so than Queen Victoria herself who bitterly loathed his policies (though I’d say the “popular” view of her personal dislike is exaggerated)
Four times Prime Minister (1868-1874, 1880-1885, 1886, 1892-1894)his ministries achieved some of the most important reforms of the era- expanding the Franchise(The right to vote) in the counties introducing the secret ballot ( a reform he himself was very sceptical off),replacing system of patronage which had been endemic in UK politics with a system for army and the civil service chiefly based on "objective" tests, the first land reform, the Disestablishment of the Church of Ireland-the first in the British isles to happen without replacement by another denomination , the first controls on alcohol (again one he himself was somewhat sceptical of) , raising the age of sexual consent to sixteen, the formal prohibition of same sex between men and many others. Moreover Gladstone was a colossal figure even when not holding the Premiership.
As Chancellor in the 1850's and 1860's he had been arguably the most influential Chancellor ever. IN his tenures as chancellor he set the foundations of the modern Treasury and having a massive impact on the Fiscal and trading Policy of the United Kingdom (then the world's foremost trading power).
Even when out of office his influence could be immense. In between his two ministries he famously led protests against the "Bulgarian atrocities" -that is the supposed tyranny of the British Backed Ottoman empire in Bulgaria. So strong was the authority this gave him at least among liberals that in 1880 he was able to sweep into the Premiership over the wishes of much of his own party leadership and the desperate efforts of the Queen herself.
Even when he failed his failures were truly impressive. The most notorious was of course his failure to achieve Home Rule for Ireland in his lifetime ( a cuase he embraced in his mid 70';s having been fairly hostile beforehand). Indeed it was not to be implemented until after World War I and in a form he would have been horrified by -he was fervenantly opposed to any exemption for Northern Irelands' passionately antiu HOme Rule Protestant and British nationalist majoirty. However it had the effect of deeply splitting the elite and part of the support of the Liberal party and reshaping British politics. This reviewer would also suggest that Gladstone had a huge pervasive influence on the politics of the period-for example in keeping down spending particularly but by no means exclusively on the military. Indeed particularly by the end of this era he was perhaps the supreme dividing force of British politics- the most polarizing figure in the country. Joseph Chamberlain stood against him on Home Rule and lost control of the same liberal party machinery he had built. AT the same time the level of hatred against Gladstone was very real even the Cecil’s opponents but quite friendly personally joked that “GOM” (for Grand Old Man one of his nicknames) stood for “God’s only mistake”.
Gladstone is undoubtedly one of the most important Prime Ministers. What perhaps sets him aside from most of the others (for example Churchill or Lloyd George) is the degree to which this is despite the lack of any enormous crisis that shook the foundations of the British state in his premiership that forms even a pale shadow of a major war. Yet he was such a dominant figure that he is properly regarded as holding a similar status.
Unsurprisingly these amazing achievements went with truly enormous abilities. He had an extremely acute intellect. His “hobbies” included writing very high level and original commentaries on Homer, Papal Infallibility and the national questions in Europe. However his intellect was probably matched by a handful of politicians –notably Salisbury (indeed when discussing reapportionment of constituencies Salisbury, Gladstone and Gladstone’s radical Dike left behind their relatively slower “allies” Hartington and Northbroke).
Where he was truly exceptional was in his sheer energy and force that was coupled to this intellect. Into his seventies he cut trees for a hobby. When assaulted at a similar age he chased down and caught the assailant. IN his youth he had often been highly awkward (his proposals of marriage to a series of often baffled young ladies are some of the funniest reading in history). Old age and success transformed his energy to charisma. His speeches were the most popular in the United Kingdom by some way- and the acoustics of the events (and the sheer size in this era before microphones) were such that this was not simply eloquence many must have gone just to gaze at the sheer force and actions of his personality. Perhaps most important of all was his will which gave him enormous powers of self discipline to the extent of beating himself to physically beat himself for sin. Again his power of determination seen in his tenth
Having given a bird’s eyes view of his massive political impact and striking personality we now turn to examine his ideological world view.
Here is a picture of Gladstone aged around 75 still only on his second of four ministries-already truly the "Grand Old Man"