Carswell, Brexit and Gladstone

As we know, there were several fairly eccentric and spurious reasons given by the Leave side for supporting Brexit last summer. One of the most bizarre reasons, however, is that made by erstwhile UKIP MP Douglas Carswell, that it represented the fulfilment of the legacy of Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone, perhaps our greatest political forerunner as Liberal Democrats. It needs challenging.

According to Roy Jenkins’ 1995 biography, Gladstone did as much to define Britain’s Victorian golden era as the Queen herself. Nonetheless, his name is only vaguely recognised today-– he died in 1898, on the cusp of recorded sound and in 2002 he was not even included in the BBC list of 100 greatest Britons. Despite this contemporary obscurity, and total lack of importance in the referendum (compared to promises of a reinvigorated NHS), the Gladstone-Brexit argument is no less peculiar – and perhaps all the more revealing.

Carswell, and certain Brexit allies across the Tory Party, have frequently cited Gladstone as an inspiration. On April 19th last year:

It’s because UKIP is the closest party to Gladstonian liberalism today that this picture of the Grand Old Man appears in our Welsh manifesto. UKIP – like Gladstone – stands for freedom. Like him, we’re against a big, intrusive state.

Carswell keeps Gladstone’s painting in his office.

Gladstone’s career is too epic to effectively summarise– he spent 63 years as MP and 19 as Chancellor, and is the only person to have served as PM four separate times. Nonetheless, there are six clear ideas in his long life, which suggest somewhere behind a famously stern poise, he would be wincing with us in fear, bemusement and embarrassment at Britain’s upcoming Brexit disaster.

First, and most important, Gladstone was British history’s greatest advocate for free trade. He broke with the Tory party in 1846, because it would not support his mentor Robert Peel’s efforts to reduce tariffs on corn. Their triumph helped the emerging working and middle classes-build railways and initiate a second industrial revolution- whilst it hit the sclerotic land owning gentry.

1846 and 2016 have often been compared, lately by The Economist (set up in 1843 as an anti-Corn Law pamphlet) and many others, as triumphs and disasters over the same issues of British free trade. Whilst Carswell sometimes vaguely spoke of “soft Brexit” as a path to Free trade – this now looks forlorn, just as was obvious before last June for those of us in the Remain campaign. As George Osborne recently observed, leaving the Single Market would appear “the biggest act of protectionism in history”.

Gladstone was born less than two decades after Adam Smith died and lived until a decade before the Model T Ford and lived at a time where it was clear trade expanded people’s wealth and options. As he said, famously, money should “fructify in the pockets of the people” – he would be appalled by the impact that the predicted inflationary Brexit crash in the pound has come to pass and the impact it is having today on the poorest people in Britain.

Second, Gladstone was the first true spokesperson of liberal internationalism. As he said in 1880: “Remember that He who has united you together as human beings in the same flesh and blood, has bound you by the law of mutual love; that that mutual love is not limited by the shores of this island, is not limited by the boundaries of Christian civilization; that it passes over the whole surface of the earth, and embraces the meanest along with the greatest in its unmeasured scope”. Whilst we can take Carswell at his word that they actually want to increase immigration and reduce racism, his choice of bedfellows is, at best, sloppy. In 2014, Carswell rejected the Coalition for Nigel Farage who stated he felt uncomfortable sharing trains with eastern europeans; In 1880 Gladstone left comfortable retirement to lead the “Midlothian Campaign” on a platform of minority rights for Bulgarians in eastern Europe. Whilst he has left UKIP, he is as yet to condemn the innuendo of the Brexit campaign.

Third – perhaps most awkwardly for Lib Dems – Gladstone was not an unfettered direct democrat. Gladstone “liberals believe in trust in the people, tempered by prudence”. Whilst he knew Tory misanthropy too well, he also knew the fragility of minority rights in the face of a majority; unlike Carswell, he was an “Old Whig” who believed in liberal values at a steady pace. Of course, post-Brexit, neither UKIP nor the Tories are conservative in the usual sense, both are opposed to global citizenship and are radical.

Fourth, Gladstone actually achieved greatness through legislative action and an appetite for the more boring administrative side of politics. In 1853, his Budget lasted 5 hours and as historian H. C. G. Matthew wrote, Gladstone “made finance and figures exciting, and succeeded in constructing budget speeches epic in form and performance”. Gladstone cut taxes on consumer goods, and kick-started mass newspaper publishing by cutting paper duties in 1860. In contrast, Carswell, like most Brexit leaders, have thus far shied away from government responsibility, despite starting off as ambitious – and capable – young Tories.

Fifth and most dangerously, in later life, Gladstone made his “mission to pacify Ireland” with Home Rule. Hard Brexit and the prospect of a hard land border with Ireland represents the biggest present threat to peace in Ireland.

Sixth, and perhaps most germane, Gladstone made clear his support for the “Concert of Europe” throughout his career and said in 1888 that “We are part of the community of Europe and must do our duty as such”.

The imprecise image of Gladstone is vulnerable to those seeking a blank canvas on which to paint a new utopia, like Brexit. Gladstone, in reality, personified the self-confidence of the Victorian age which used trade to make our small island the most powerful nation in the world; Brexit speaks of a pessimism likely to do the exact opposite. Carswell should either swap sides in this great struggle for global comity and free trade in our own time, or find a new hero.

* Douglas Oliver is secretary of the Liberal Democrat History Group and is based in London.

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  • Jayne Mansfield 9th Apr '17 - 9:38am

    @ Martin,
    A wonderfully succinct observation.

  • I think he is making a selective reference to Gladstone’s connection to the “Little England” movement. To be fair a some Remain people cite Churchill in a similar selective fashion.

  • Its more like an attempt at a white bar to echo the 1971 colour bar.

  • Peter Martin 9th Apr '17 - 10:42am

    I’m not at all clear what the point of this article is. How can Gladstone, or anyone else who lived and died well before the treaties of Rome, Maastricht, Lisbone etc were drafted, and who might have expressed an opinion, one way or another, on the desirability of a united Europe have any influence on our current EU debate?

    The remain-or- leave argument isn’t particularly about whether we want a united Europe in principle. I am sure there would be a large majority for that. The debate is about whether we want the EU we currently have and whether we have confidence that its acknowledged imperfections can be remedied by democratic means.

    Call me an anti-European if you like (but I assure you I’m not) but I take the view that the EU is stuck in an unworkable state. It either needs to take a step back to what worked before, a collection of freely trading nations each with their own currency, or forwards to a United States of Europe. That could work too. But there would have to be the political will to have a common taxation system which would mean that taxes would have to be net levied in the richer areas like the SE of England and the western part of Germany and net spent in the poorer regions like Greece, Spain, and Portugal.

    I honestly don’t think the political will is there to do that. So reluctantly I came to the conclusion, during the Greek Crisis of 2015, that I didn’t want to support the repression of the Greek people and that the UK was better off completely out of the EU.

  • Peter, the point is that Brexiteers shouldn’t claim Gladstone would approve. Which Carswell is doing. And which you clearly think is wrong, too.

  • Richard Underhill 9th Apr '17 - 11:39am

    Peter Martin 9th Apr ’17 – 10:42am A long period of peace saves lives and money, but the 2016 referendum was partly about what happened in 1870, 1914 and 1939.
    A Tory MP used to come to the Gladstone Club and spoke occasionally. When John Major withdrew the whip from eight MPs this guy made it nine. Comments such as “bastards” and “the sound of white coats flapping” came from the PM.
    We should accept that there is a place for independent councillors, MPs. MEPs and Peers.
    We did stand down a parliamentary candidate for Martin Bell in Tatton and lent him an effective agent. Mark Reckless has become an independent who votes with the Tories in the Welsh Assembly without triggering a by-election. Diana James has become an independent MEP. Martin Bell did not accept that Ken Livingstone was truly independent and was proved correct when Red Ken rejoined the Labour Party, with the support of Tony Blair, before standing for re-election as London Mayor.

  • i feel uncomfortable claiming to speak for dead people. Carswell doesn’t know what Gladstone would think, it worries me that he thinks he does. I suppose the upside for him is he can claim anything and Mr Gladstone is unable to contradict him.

    If you have to hang your case on your perceived views of what long dead politicians would have believed, it really isn’t much of a case. The motto of the Brexiteers truly is back to the future; but only their rose tinted view of it.

  • Gienn
    Such as Churchill’s proposed union of Britain and France.

  • Martin ; Jane; I had thought that tolerence of difference was one of the core liberal values?

  • Manfarang.
    Such as pretending his belief in the Empire is the same thing as liberal internationalism and his belief that there was a case for a United Europe included Britain. He was very much a trad Victorian conservative really. And I’m not a big fan of him or his self promotion.

  • David Evershed 9th Apr '17 - 2:56pm

    The Corn Laws were measures enforced in the UK between 1815 and 1846, which imposed imposed steep import duties, making it too expensive to import grain from abroad, even when food supplies were short. They were designed to keep grain prices high to favour wealthy UK farmers. The laws raised the price of bread for the poor. The Corn Laws were supported by Conservative landowners and opposed by Whig industrialists and workers.

    Although Gladstone opposed the Corn Laws, it was the Conservative Robert Peel who managed to get parliament to repeal them, allow cheap imports and lowering the price of bread.

    The EU currently imposes tariffs on wheat and other food imports to protect EU farmers from low cost competition in the USA and elsewhere – thus increasing some food prices in the EU.

    For medium/low quality wheat, a duty of €12 per tonne is payable up to a maximum volume – the Tariff Rate Quota (TRQ) – with different volumes available for different origins. Ukraine is an exception, with duty free imports up to a maximum of 950,000 tonnes per year. Once the quota limit is reached, additional imports are subject to a tariff of €95 per tonne. For imports of high-quality wheat, the import duty is derived by a calculation based on the global market price and the specification, which currently means imports are duty free.

  • Katharine Pindar 9th Apr '17 - 3:27pm

    Hello, folks, I don’t care much about defeating UKIP sympathisers’ views, since I reckon they are a spent force anyway (thank goodness) – and while interested in Douglas Oliver’s information about Gladstone’s views, actions and effectiveness, I don’t feel the need to explore his Liberal credentials for myself. I can agree with Peter Watson on that.

    But, Peter, I really have to oppose your suggestion that the EU is in an unworkable state, and should either step back to being a collection of freely trading nations or move forward to a federal union. Apart from the fact that this is up to the other 27 nations now, that’s like the Referendum question, an over-simple binary proposal. The EU situation is in my view far more complex, its members are in possibly creative flux now and will develop the system in ways we can’t currently foresee, for example perhaps splitting into inner and outer groups of states, or becoming a looser, more democratic but still united EU. As for us, I think the eventual outcome will be that Britain will apply to join EFTA, which as Nick Clegg said back in January, we did actually found. I just hope that we Lib Dems will be able to contribute to Europe’s fruitful further development.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 9th Apr '17 - 4:20pm

    Douglas, as I often mention sharing my birthday with Sir Henry Campbell – Bannerman, and as I have adored a woman since I was six, Marilyn Monroe, who went before her time, before I was born, and as so many or most of my personal or political favourites or heroes were of another era, I am not one to deny the other Douglas, Carswell, his inspirational source . But , really ?! Enough said, on this ,apart from, to this Douglas, superb!

  • George Crozier 10th Apr '17 - 9:39am

    Good article that sets out well why – despite every man being of his times etc – it’s pretty unlikely Gladstone would have been a Ukipper.

    What it ignores though is the reasons that Douglas Carswell was never wholly at home in UKIP either. Having met him and talked politics with him I regard him as both a social and (especially) economic liberal. He has interesting, decentralising, ‘power to the people’ political ideas that would probably find more favour in the Lib Dems buying the Conservatives or UKIP.

    He is undoubtably a believer in freetrade, unlike probably a majority in UKIP. He just sees the EU as an impediment to global free trade rather than, as I do, the most successful free trade block the world has yet seen, and something which should be developed and built on.

    Ultimately it is probably Douglas Carswell’svmisfortune that his views don’t fit naturally in any one single political party, so he is destined to be either a maverick or an independent.

  • Matt (Bristol) 10th Apr '17 - 10:30am

    Gladstone would have spat if you’d called him an ‘Old Whig’, because that had tribal as well as ideological meaning. He was if anything a dissident Peelite.

    Trying to claim Gladstone’s legacy is a parlour game the entire political family can play, as most political parties have inherited some of his DNA.

    It’s almost impossible for anyone to have a political career of over 50 years, at a time of major constitutional transformation, and have a legacy that would be definable in terms of one faction.

    But I agree that the post-Thatcher Tory Gladstonism tends to ignore large parts of the man’s actions in government, in particular his preparedness to reconcile himself to a (relatively for the times) interventionist state.

  • Simon Banks 14th Apr '17 - 9:30pm

    No-one should appropriate dead leaders for current political programmes, but we can learn from – and sometimes admire – their principles and values. Gladstone did indeed move us in a more internationalist direction, aiming for the rule of law in international affairs, and was indeed a firm believer in free trade. The small state Gladstonianism thing has been overdone. As Chancellor he bailed out depositors in a failed bank. He pushed for the extension of the franchise and more local democracy; he didn’t do this to make the democratised state powerless, as some pretended neo-liberals would. The Newcastle Programme of the Liberal Party near the end of his leadership represented a substantial increase in the role of the state in matters like public health and education.

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