April 16, 2010

A Partial Democrat- William Gladstone and the Franchise

In this exploration of Gladstone’s attitudes we now turn to his attitude to the extension of the Franchise one of the leading questions of the late nineteenth century era he dominated. He played an important part in the 1867 reform bill (though it seems it was actually more radical than he wanted) and the extension of 1885 to the counties. These reforms between them represented the creation of a working class majority in British politics that was to last till the last decades of the twentieth century.

To some degree the same attitudes that shaped Gladstone’s laissez-faire economics or disestablishmentarianism on religious policy also affected his attitude to the Franchise. The dislike of privilege and belief in a free society with adults interacting on equal terms could be extended to politics such as the privileges of the unelected ( the House of Lords) or limitations in the Franchise. Gladstone also increasingly came of the view the will of the masses represented a moral imperative different in type but somewhat similar in nature to his earlier belief in the state being the political representation of the church- the masses could be some substitute for his earlier vision of the church in the state . However he was cautious in his support never proposing full universal suffrage.

Partly that represented his usual desire to make sure there was a short or medium term opportunity for legislation. IT also represented the difficulty in taking an absolute attitude to the Franchise – particularly in a country which possessed (however reluctantly in Gladstone’s case)a vast empire. It also represented his desire both to have a movement behind a proposed change and . There may also have been social aspects he was a very strong supporter of separate roles for women and the “duty” of the aristocracy- though his belief in aristocratic noblisse oblige did not necessarily mean a defence of aristocratic privilege though he tended to be strongly biased in favour of appointing the to his cabinets. Perhaps most important was his belief that to wield such power the electorate must be responsible –thus he tended to talk about a “stake in society” – homeowners or lone term tenants rather than just all adults or even all males.

Several of these are illustrated in the cases of female suffrage. Gladstone is sometimes spoken of as a strong opponent. In fact he was not a clear cut opponent. This is particularly remarkable given his generation-he was part of the generation of the Great Reform (which formally banned women fully from the franchise for the first time). However Gladstone did have a number of objections he was worried that would it would reduce the distinction between women and men. He may also have been reasonably worried that enfranchising women particularly on a property basis would help the Conservatives -the conservative’s most reactionary leader of the era Lord Salisbury supported enfranchising women for exactly this reason. However his strongest objection was probably that only a group of voters who overwhelmingly demanded to be enfranchised should be. In t he 1890’s there was a rather formidable nascent strong female anti suffrage as well as a pro suffrage movement. For Gladstone there as the lack of a “moral force” in the sense of public pressure rallied around principle.

Thus while on the liberal side of the political spectrum of the era Gladstone’s attitude to Franchise extension was highly pragmatic.

Here is a caricature of Robert Lowe- one of the foremost opponents of Gladstone's push to extend the Franchise.