Gladstone’s first government

Looking for something to take your mind off Brexit? The Liberal Democrat History Group can help! One hundred fifty years and six weeks ago, on 3 December 1868, William Ewart Gladstone took office as Prime Minister at the head of what can reasonably be accounted as both the first identifiably Liberal government and the first modern administration.

Gladstone was eventually to serve as Prime Minister on four separate occasions. The most famous, recognisable and enduring of all the Liberal Party’s leaders, he dominated British politics for more than thirty years. He brought to the leadership of the party and the labours of ministerial office a physical and mental temperament unequalled among former prime ministers. A voracious reader and bibliophile, who found leisure in his closely argued studies of the classical poets Homer and Dante, he also had a passion for physical labour, expressed in walking, estate work at Hawarden (his wife’s family home in north Wales), and tree-felling.

As Chancellor during the 1850s, he established his reputation for prudent financial innovation by replacing taxes on goods and customs duties with a progressive income tax and established parliamentary accountability for government spending. He swept away import duties on hundreds of products and established free trade almost as an article of faith. Although firmly devoted to the Church of England, he won strong support from Nonconformists for his attitude to religious questions, which at that time affected basic liberties as well as such matters as education.

After victory in the 1868 general election, Gladstone’s first government disestablished the Church of Ireland (an Anglican elite in a Catholic country), introduced land reforms in Ireland, passed the first Education Act, abolished the sale of military commissions and religious tests for university fellowships and introduced the secret ballot in elections. One of his early biographers described this period as ‘the Golden Age of Liberalism’. It advanced the Liberal assault on the remnants of the feudal order and laid the foundations of the modern state.

Issue 101 of the Journal of Liberal History, out this week, is a special issue devoted to Gladstone’s first government, 1868–74. Articles cover the general election of 1868; Gladstone’s first government: a policy overview;  A Chapter of Autobiography as campaign document (the 74-page pamphlet Gladstone published in the middle of the 1868 election campaign); Gladstone’s first ministry and Ireland; Gladstone and the 1870 Elementary Education Act; Gladstone’s first government and the House of Lords; and the general election of 1874, which brought an end to the government. The issue is available to purchase from the Liberal Democrat History Group website.

On Monday 28 January, at 7.00pm, in the National Liberal Club, the History Group will be hosting a meeting to discuss this period, with Professor Jon Parry (Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University, specialising in the history of British politics and political ideas in the nineteenth century) and Dr David Brooks (Emeritus Lecturer in History at Queen Mary University London and organiser of the annual ‘Gladstone Umbrella’ weekend conference at Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden). The meeting will be chaired by Baroness Liz Barker and will follow the History Group’s AGM at 6.30pm. All are welcome, and there’s no need to register – turn up. Further details are here.

* Duncan Brack is the Editor of the Journal of Liberal History and Vice Chair of the Federal Policy Committee.

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15 Comments

  • We need this matter resolved if only for the sake of this party which cannot move forward whilst it is Brexit, Brexit, Brexit. If there is another Referendum, October at the latest.
    June or July, most students will have left College by then, best in May, it can be organised if the will is there.

  • Gladstone…

    He was a hypocrite who preached “moralist foreign policy” but in fact supported that illegitimate, reactionary slave state formed by a bunch of slave-owning traitorous criminals called the CSA. At least Russell and Palmerston never bragged about supporting the CSA publicly. Later, he even called for a “humanitarian” intervention against a “race war”, well, painting the Blacks’ resistance against their oppressors a “race war”.

    Domestically, he often isolated and neutralized Joe Chamberlain (at that time the fiercest Radical) and the Radicals.

  • Duncan Brack 24th Jan '19 - 11:38am

    To answer David’s comment, we haven’t organised a meeting on Lloyd George and Ireland, but we publish an article on it in our special issue on Liberals and Ireland (issue 33, winter 2001-02), which is free to download from our website.

  • Joseph Bourke 24th Jan '19 - 12:41pm

    David Raw,

    I was at a reception a few years back (as treasurer of the Irish Liberal Democrats) where the Irish ambassador was speaking about the Liberal Party. It is mixed bag for sure and the use of Black and Tans and Auxillaries by Lloyd George was a lasting stain on the integrity of the British government and British armed forces in Ireland.
    The ambassador told us that after Irish Independence many of the street names were changed e.g. O’onnell street in Dublin was formerly Sackville street i(named after Lionel Sackville, 1st Duke of Dorset). It was renamed in honour of Daniel O’Connell. the 19th century Irish nationalist MP who brought about catholic emancipation.

    Most streets named after heroes of empire, British statesmen and aristocrats were renamed with a notable exception – that of streets named after Gladstone. He was one of the few British Parliamentarians that came out with some credit in Ireland.
    It should also be remembered that famine returned to Ireland during 1879-80. The reason we don’t here about it today compared with the potato famine of the 1840’s is the prompt response of the British government, which contrasted with its laissez-faire response during the great famine of 1845–1852.

    The election in 1880 of William Gladstone as prime minister ushered in a change in Britain’s Irish policy. In 1881, Parliament enacted the Land Act, which guaranteed fair rents and made it possible for tenants to buy the land they farmed.

    The IrishTenants Right League had campaigned for land reform in Ireland from the 1850s. Their objectives were:

    Fair rent — meaning rent control: for the first time in the United Kingdom, fair rent would be decided by land courts, and not by the landlords;
    Free sale — meaning a tenant could sell the interest in his holding to an incoming tenant without landlord interference;
    Fixity of tenure — meaning that a tenant could not be evicted if he had paid the rent.

    The Three Fs were campaigned for by the Irish Parliamentary Party during the Land War (from 1878). They were conceded by the UK Government in a series of Irish Land Acts enacted from the 1870s on, with essentially full implementation in the Land Law (Ireland) Act 1881 i.e. during Gladstone’s second ministry.

  • Duncan Brack 24th Jan '19 - 3:32pm

    Just following Joseph’s comment – I remember many years ago that when we organised a meeting on Gladstone (I think in 1998, on the centenary of his death), a couple of staff from the Bulgarian embassy in London attended, and told us that he was still remembered with affection in Bulgaria, because of his role in exposing Turkish atrocities there in 1876. I’m sure no one would defend his support for the Confederate states in the American Civil War, but I don’t think that devalues his many achievements. The same for Lloyd George and Ireland. Very few people are ever either wholly good or wholly bad.

  • @ Simon McGrath

    “I wonder what Gladstone would have said about lib dem[s] … voting … against free trade last year?”

    We will never know of course, but I assume he would have appraised the case for free trade today on its merits rather than just rehashing the orthodoxy of a bygone era. That’s complicated by the fact that ‘free trade’ has two distinct meanings which shouldn’t be confused.

    The usual meaning is unrestricted trade – for its advocates ideally with no tariffs, no quotas and no non-tariff barriers like product specifications that (whether intentionally or not) serve to limit trade. But … the way of the world is that ‘Big fish eat little fish’. Big fish, in context the biggest, strongest & most advanced economies, have lower costs and usually stronger militaries to back their trade.

    In Victorian times Britain was the biggest fish around, the lone global superpower, so ‘free trade’ was a rational policy although not always a moral one – as in forcing Indian formers to grow opium and China to buy it or not letting the immense Indian railways build their own locomotives. In short, Britain had the muscle to make rules that suited itself, or rather its wealthy commercial and banking elite.

    Clearly, rules that stack the cards against them isn’t so good for weaker countries and I know of no case where development has happened in a country practicing this sort of free trade. In Britain, the precursors to the Liberal Party supported swingeing tariffs until the industrial revolution reduced UK costs below the competition in the mid-1800s.

    Today this sort of free trade would pit UK companies against those in China with state subsidies, low wages and lax regulation. Not a good plan!

    The far less common meaning of ‘free trade’ is, IMO, better described as ‘open trade’ or ‘open markets’, meaning that, as far as reasonably possible, there is a level playing field to ensure all firms can compete on an equal footing and that monopoly & oligopoly don’t rule. If implemented in the UK (I’m not holding my breath!) this would soon lead to big reductions in price and increases in efficiency as dinosaur monopolies were exposed to competition. You can see why the establishment doesn’t talk about it.

  • Joseph Bourke 24th Jan '19 - 7:16pm

    Good points, Gordon. However, when you say “I know of no case where development has happened in a country practicing this sort of free trade.” – New Zealand comes pretty close with its wide array of free trade agrements and lack of agricultural subsidies – https://www.mfat.govt.nz/en/trade/nz-trade-policy/

  • Gordon – yes, the Whigs supported protectionism. Whigs/Liberals simply aligned themselves with industrial interests, which changed between 18th and 19th century. The US Federalists were inspired by 18th century Whigs.

    Joseph Bourke – Gordon is correct when it comes to fully industrialized countries, not quasi-primary producers like New Zealand or Australia.

    David Raw – it seems like you always lean towards Asquith, who was anything but a Radical, instead of a natural radical like Lloyd George.

  • Gordon – oh, about China. I suddenly think about a phrase that may increase press attention towards our party if that phrase is put into our manifesto: “Ban Huawei” (or “Restrict Huawei” if you want to tone it down).

  • @ Joseph Bourke

    Thomas is right – I was thinking of countries aiming to develop an industrial sector where there was none before.

    From your link it appears the NZ government has a good understanding of their position. A third of the people live in Auckland while the total population of 4.8m is only slightly larger than ‘Greater Birmingham’ but spread over a land area somewhat bigger than the UK.

    So, it’s intensely rural with just one very small (by global standards) city making a fully-featured industrial base impossible. Countries must play to their strengths and that’s what NZ is doing but the key industries of farming and tourism are typically low margin, low wage business. Cutting edge technology-based industries are where the best margins (and most wealth generation) are so they may struggle in future as that’s not an option.

    It’s one thing to mock Rees-Mogg as “the member for the 18th century” but if Lib Dems don’t get their thinking together on ‘Free Trade’ they will deserve the title of “the party for the 19th century”.

    Separately, I have found variations on, “The way of the world is that big fish eat little fish. The UK is a small fish; we join a shoal or become lunch for some big fish” hits home with Brexiteers while arguments put in economic language just don’t hit the spot. Predatory fish on the other hand are the stuff of their own experience whether it’s playground bullies or various work-related contexts – and they know it’s true.

  • Gordon – an excellent way to attack the Brexiteers’ aim of chasing after FTAs including a potential China FTA. This can be used together with using China as a big bad scapegoat against the Tories and then talking about “ban Huawei” on our own.

  • Simon Banks 3rd Jul '19 - 10:00am

    Thomas’ comment is useful in pointing to double standards, but is weak on historical context. Gladstone was a keen supporter of self-determination and saw the Confederacy as a nascent nation. This was a common attitude at the time, especially as Lincoln and his supporters, for internal reasons, were saying early on that the war was not about slavery, though it clearly was. This is an object lesson for Liberals: Lloyd George keenly defended the rights of the Boers, but not the Black Africans. Liberal good intentions can attach to a cause which appears to be that of the oppressed – if you ignore the people they themselves are oppressing.

    Gladstone’s record on Ireland shows him anything but a hypocrite. He split his party for what he believed was right. We may wonder if he handled the Irish Question as well as he could, but hardly his sincerity.

    On Brexit, he was broadly in favour of law-based international co-operation. THose who say a later Liberal government’s decision to go to war in 1914 was nothing to do with Belgian independence might note that in the Franco-Prussian war during his first administration, Gladstone warned France and Germany against violating Belgian neutrality and indicated Britain would intervene if it was violated. This was not only in obedience to treaty commitments, of course, but also to traditional English determination not to let the Low Countries fall into potentially hostile and powerful hands.

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