April 10, 2010

Gladstone "Victorian" Colossus


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"

April 09, 2010

Sulla Again


Once more I'm going to be filling in for Gracchi though of course his irreplaceable. I will be trying to shed some light on the fascinating career of William Gladstone-the most important of Nineteenth Century British Politicians.

Bulstrode Whitelock's tragedy


Recently in my meanderings at the British Library, I've been reading Bulstrode Whitelocke's Memorials of English Affairs. For those who don't know the text, Whitelocke was a senior lawyer and politician during the interregnum, a conservative he was close enough to Cromwell to have been nominated as Ambassador to Sweden and to serve in several of the Republican Parliaments. His Memorials, the edition of which most people use was published in 1853 in Oxford, is a basic list of what happened during the civil war: I'm using it for the occasional comment that Whitelocke gives on his own views about events. One particular comment that I came across fascinated me and is not part of my main work, so I thought I'd discuss it here. It is Whitelocke's comment on the death of his wife in 1649: he says

This was the saddest day of all the days of my life hitherto; my brother William Willoughby brought me the direful news that my wife was dead. When we first met it was upon terms of affection only, without consideration of portion or estate or settlement or those common provisions or discreet care of friends; she was of a very honourable and ancient family; her father the lord Willoughby of Parham, whose ancestors were barons near four hundred years together, and matched into great and noble families, her mother was daughter to the Earl of Rutland lineally descended from a sister of King Edward IV and so from King Edward III and that great name and line of Plantagenet. (Whitelocke Memorials Vol III p. 35)


Why is this interesting? Take a look at the first part where Whitelocke comments on the affection between him and his wife and then consider whether love really was invented in the twentieth or nineteenth century. Whitelocke's comments are plainly about his own feelings- the give away is that he mentions a 'portion', normally a portion was what a woman brought into her marriage and he says that he didn't care for that when he chose his wife. Furthermore Whitelocke explicitly ties the success of his marriage to the fact that he and his wife chose to marry, no friends arranged it and there were no provisions for failure. They married because they were in love, no more, no less.

Secondly take the next paragraph. The first thing that strikes me about it is how much it reminds me that the world of the seventeenth century was closer to the fifteenth than to today's world. Charles I was closer to Edward V than to Elizabeth II. The second thing though is Whitelocke's stress on the heritage and inheritance as key concepts: he believed that his wife's lineage mattered. This matters because Whitelocke was a conservative figure in a very radical Parliamentarian faction, he was left of centre in the politics of his day and possibly one of the most radical establishment figures around in the English Revolution and yet he believed that lineage mattered. Partly this is a matter of character: Whitelocke never knowingly underplayed his own importance, but partly this reflects that the culture of the time was much more interested in hierarchy and lineage than is our own culture. His conservatism on this point, and many others, suggests how different the world he lived in was from our world- but it also suggests something about that world.

One of the questions I always get asked when I say that I study the seventeenth century is why the revolution of 1649-60 failed? In part the answer is that the revolution failed because the English could not imagine a system of government that lasted a long time which was not monarchical (there are plenty of other reasons, but that is for another day and possibly a long book!): Whitelocke's description here demonstrates one aspect of that. In a culture so concerned with lineage, so concerned with the noble stock of the Plantagenets (remember Whitelocke wrote those lines in the year that the King was executed by a regime he ended up supporting), the attractions of monarchy were very very great. Whitelocke's words to me suggest two things: firstly the shock of the disruption of 1649- the break down of a system depending on lineage for its legitimacy- and secondly the difficulty of erecting any system in seventeenth century England that did not depend to some degree upon lineage for its support.

A leading Republican politician in the seventeenth century believed that the second most important thing to say about his wife was that she was descended from royalty: in that paradox I think you can see a part of the reason that Republicanism did not survive and part of the reason by the execution of Charles I was such a cataclysmic moment for his contemporaries.

April 08, 2010

John Smith, loose liver

There was a lusty young Fellow, John Smith by Name, tried for the sacriligious stealing of above Two Hundred Pounds worth of Plate, out of the Vestry of St. Giles's Church . The Beadle of the Parish suspected this man, because he was a loose Liver, and came to his Lodging, but found him not within: He asked his Neighbour for him, and he said, That at Nine of the Clock at Night he was within, but since he had not seen him. The Beadle promised him Ten Shillings, to b ing him word, when he was within; but the other when he saw him, told the Prisoner what the Beadle said; then he came not to his Lodging in a Months time: But at his return, he had notice given him by others, and he took a Constable with him, and came to his Chamber-door, and rushed against it, designing to break it open, but he could not. The Prisoner hearing it, got up, and asked, Who was there? The Beadle told him, That he was suspected for stealing away the Church-plate, and they had a Warrant to apprehend him. The Prisoner then told him, He was a Son of a Bitch, and he had nothing to say to him: And whilst they were breaking open the Door, he run up into a Garret, and got up upon the House, and ran along several houses in his Shirt only, when they found he was fled, they made it their business to catch him: And in order thereto a Youth was sent up, and at the end of the House he spied him: when he approached near, he said, You Son of a Bitch, get you gone, or I will split your Brains with a Tile; this nothing daunted him, for he returned the same expression to him, but presently he came running by the Youngman, and then there was the Beadle, that lay in ambush for him, so that he leaped out of the Frying-pan into the Fire.

He that Scylia seeks to shun,

Doth often on Charibdis run.

When he was thus backset and foreset, he could not hope for a release, but by the danger of breaking his Neck, so that he unwillingly became their Captive. At his Indictment he would not-plead, because a man was to give Evidence against him, that was a Party concerned; so that when nothing would prevail to make him plead, he was sentenced to be prest to Death: But through the Sheriffs Intercession, he was perswaded to plead; and then the Court would hardly be perswaded to revoke the Sentence but upon his Knees he entreated them very importunately: at last they condisecinded to grant him more favour than he did deserve, viz. A legal Trial; and then it was proved, that he was one of the three that broke in. There was an Iron-betty shewed, and some small pieces of the Plate, that were found in a house where the Plate was sold by his and their orders: It was proved that he was one of the three, that hid the plate in a Ditch, and received an equal share of the Money. And the Woman that had it of them, sold it to another for Three Shil. Eight Pen. an Ounce: so that the Jury could do no less than find him guilty of the Fact.


This comes from Old Bailey online and is about John Smith, accused of stealing Church silver, and the process by which he was caught and tried. The story is a fantastic one- involving everything you would expect in a modern police chase today which is one reason for making sure that you can read it in its entirity. There are two things though that are also interesting to think about in terms of early modern justice. The first is the kind of evidence that starts a prosecution and is admissable in court. In this case, the Beadle suspects Smith because he knows him. Many early modern and medieval prosecutions started the same way from reputation. At the court Smith is tried on the basis of the evidence of a witness who saw him and the exchange of money- we have here physical proofs of the fact that he did steal the plate. Without those physical proofs it would have been difficult for anyone to have proceeded further. What we have is wider grounds for suspision than we might have today, but fewer grounds for proof: although it is worth also remembering that this is the era before defence counsel were admitted to the court. A last detail suggests how macabre this court system was: pressing to death, the process of loading stones on a victim until they pleaded at the court, was a process used for those who would not enter a plea and acknowledge the court's jurisdiction. As we can see in this case it terrified Smith into entering a plea eventually and being tried. Generally when criminals acceded to it, they did so because if they died through this method they were not formally guilty and kept any property to hand on to their heirs: the ugliness of the death may have convinced many however, like Smith, that it was better to face a trial and its outcome.

April 05, 2010

The Ghost Writer

Roman Polanski's latest film is bound to be interpreted in the context of the director's life, which I have commented on before: I will leave others to speculate about whether it is connected however. Partly this is because the film was completed before Mr Polanski was thrown in a Swiss jail, partly because this is an interesting piece of work in its own light without any of the outside scandal. The Ghost Writer is about a character, played by Ewan McGregor, who is invited to ghost write the memoirs of a British Prime Minister, Adam Lang. Lang is loosely modelled on Tony Blair (there are references to Halliburton, Condi Rice, Cheri Blair, Robin Cook and others scattered through it) and has the same loose charisma, easy charm and non-political background. Like Blair at Oxford, Lang at Cambridge was by his own account more interested in girls than politics and for Blair's pop music, we are tempted to read Lang's theatre. The ghost writer is brought in because his predecessor- loosely modelled on Alistair Campbell- has died under suspicious circumstances. His job is to finish the memoirs, but he soon turns to investigating why the other man died.

All this takes place against another kind of background. From the first moment we meet Lang, almost, we are aware that he is under investigation at the ICC. This adds an atmosphere of confinement to the movie- it also brings the ghost writer to the Lang's complex in America. He has to come in so as to escape the press and unwittingly becomes an actor in the internal domestic dramas of Lang's home. Ruth becomes close to the ghost writer and accuses Mrs Bly of being Lang's mistress. Her intelligence is one of the features of the film. Lang himself is around but not there, the household is left to his wife, the ghost and the security men for much of the crucial middle section of the film whilst he travels to Washington to receive support from the American Congress and Administration. Whilst he is gone, the relationships inside the house become more and more intense. Polanski, an old master if nothing else, is able to make the atmosphere seem both wild and confined. McGregor seems to suspect that he is in real danger at many points- cars follow him to a marvellously sinister meeting with a Harvard Professor (played by Tom Wilkinson) and mysterious meetings are arranged in American diners.

What I liked about the film was the narrative thrust, as Roger Ebert says in his review this is a film which is purely a good story told well. The implied contemporary history is of course nonsense and Lang is not Blair: the film does not capture Blair's idealism at all. If I were Cherie Blair, I would be very flattered: Ruth Lang is the most intelligent character in the entire film and Olivia Williams portraying her gives the performance that sticks in your mind most. As a complete fiction though the film still is interesting: it charts a junction between politics and high finance and arms production charted many times before. What is interesting about this is the temptation of that frame to an intelligent man like Polanski: I think it reflects on a second quality which the film does get, the unreality of political life. Political life takes place amongst normal people but at a distance from the rest of us: politicians like Adam Lang inhabit secure complexes with every imaginable luxury. Those luxuries though taste like dirt because of another factor that I think the film does capture.

This is the loneliness of power. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown says Henry IV, and he is right. Lang is lonely- he doesn't have friends he can trust or even perhaps a wife he can trust. Ruth is lonely, so spiky that she puts thorns into any hand that is reached out to her. You can go on with a list of people whose relationships are all professional. The ghost writer is the only real source of affection in the film, his affection is used but in a sense the reason why you retain sympathy with him is both the absurd plot, but even more so it is the fact that he gives back an emotional commitment that the other characters are not capable of.

April 04, 2010

John Rogers and quotations

I've been reading John Rogers' Ohel and Bethshemesh recently for a piece I'm trying to put together. Rogers was a pastor in Ireland during the 1650s and had a convoluted career in seventeenth century radical politics before and after that. Ohel and Bethshemesh is one of the vast puritan tracts- it runs to over five hundred pages- that historians have to deal with: it is often repetitive (I've just read two successive chapters on why the church is a garden) and frequently reads better as a speech than as a text. For example Rogers writes one sentence that has no fullstop for three and a half pages: as a reader you are gasping for breath, as a preacher you would fit your own pauses in to his semi-colons and commas. However there is more of interest to say about his style than this.

Rogers is addicted to short quotations from the scriptures. He never quotes in context, never uses a quotation longer than a sentence. He assumes that every line in scripture relates directly to his own time and not the time of the scripture: when God speaks to the Isrealites in Exodus he is directly speaking, for Rogers, to Rogers and his congregation. This habit of seeing every line in scripture as a reference to the present is aided by his habit of quotation: he strips out any aspect of any quotation that refers to a particular moment, leaving the universal. Rogers uses all other texts in a similar way- Plutarch refers directly to seventeenth century England. All his reading takes place in a universal present- the only sense of time that he has is not historical but eschatological (leading to a second coming)- he does not see that others in other times had different priorities even within the eschatalogical framework he develops.

This substantiates a very old point, made by John Pocock in the 1950s, that historical understanding- the understanding that people differ across time in their priorities- arose late in European culture. Rogers is a figure who definitely had a sense of the past, but definitely did not read historically: to some extent he read the bible like the writers of the ars historica read their classical texts, phrase by phrase seeking maxims rather than book by book seeking truths about the past. In that sense, the move that history underwent: from corroding understandings of Caesar as a knight to in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries corroding understandings of the resurrection, was a natural one. Rogers and his congregation as his text makes clear lived in a prehistorical world.