Book review: William Gladstone – New Studies & Perspectives

Abraham Lincoln, Charles Darwin and William Ewart Gladstone, giants of the nineteenth century, were all born in 1809 yet as Frank M Turner argues in this collection of essays Darwin and Lincoln are much better remembered today. I am sure this is true even for Liberal Democrats. In the final essay, Eugenio Biagini reflects on a 1992 Economist front cover describing Gladstone as ‘A prophet of the Left’. Gladstone’s legacy has been appropriated by Thatcherites who over simplify the Victorian Liberal view of the roles of government and private enterprise. Tony Blair cited Gladstone in his enticements to Paddy Ashdown over ‘the Project’ and to justify overseas intervention. Why is it, that despite Ashdown’s best efforts, the Party that descends from Gladstone makes the least effort to safeguard his legacy of humanitarian Liberalism?

As Turner points out, Gladstone studied Homeric Greek government to sharpen his political thinking. With profit, we could use Gladstone’s experiences to refine our understanding of current policy dilemmas and these essays are a useful toolkit for this engagement.

In Quinault’s essay on Gladstone and War he quotes the Grand old Man as saying ‘we have no faith in the propagation of free institutions, either political or social at the point of the sword among those who are not prepared to receive them’. Do Iraq and Afghanistan come to mind? Gladstone was the liberal interventionist who awakened the world to atrocities in the Balkans but he was also the premier who bombarded Egypt to suppress a popular uprising. Can you be an advocate of peace while prepared to lead the nation into war?

Gladstone presided over the British Empire as it approached its zenith but saw its expansion as wasting resources and promoted devolution to preserve the union. More significantly, he was a great promoter of globalisation (before the term existed) describing trade as a ‘powerful agent in consolidating and in knitting together the amity of nations.’ Overall five of the essays relate to Gladstone and British international relations, highlighting the ethical issues created by those interactions.

Gladstone was also a great advocate of austerity – it was the retrenchment in the Liberal slogan ‘Peace Retrenchment and Reform’. But that did not make him the unthinking proponent of small government – under Gladstone, government began the gradual accretion of responsibilities such as education and entrepreneurial local government. Two essays here show the complexity of his application of retrenchment to Ireland and to the suppression of the African slave trade.

Turner goes on to argue that the best remembered figures of the nineteenth century were those who were cultural rather than political radicals. Gladstone became increasingly politically radical as he aged but he remained the archetypal Victorian. His participation in theological controversy, the fervour which he generated among the working class and his skirting of personal controversy in his charitable work would probably damn him in today’s tabloid press. But in his own time no one was better at the management of his image. This book contains essays on his relations with Labour, how cartoonists saw him and on campaign paraphernalia idolizing him from the 1884 electoral reform agitation. Where are the materials for a Lord’s reform campaign today?

This collection of fourteen essays proves that there is much still to be discovered about Gladstone and much that is pertinent to current debates but it does reflect its origins as the papers given at an academic conference. While some essays require prior knowledge for full appreciation the opening essay, the closing paper and those concerned with international affairs are well worth exploring.

Buy William Gladstone: New Studies & Perspectives, edited by Roland Quinault, Roger Swift and Ruth Clayton from or direct from Ashgate here.

* Tony Little is Chair of the Liberal Democrat History Group.

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  • Richard Dean 8th Aug '12 - 10:32pm

    Interesting. Not sure I would like to meet this austerity advocate on a dark night with the banks closing in!

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