The beacons of change

There is controversy around the decision to rename Gladstone Hall at Liverpool University, citing the fact that Gladstone’s family earned their wealth on the back of the slave trade and that as a young Tory politician, in 1831 Gladstone spoke in favour of compensating slave traders for the loss of their income.

It is my understanding that the decision to rename Gladstone Hall was taken democratically within the rules of the Liverpool University, and I find myself on the same side of this debate as the Gladstone Library who have stated that:

… if it is the democratic will, after due process, to remove statues of William Gladstone, our founder, we would not stand in the way. Nor, we think, would Gladstone himself – who worked tirelessly on behalf of democratic change.

That said, it is important that we do not in this act, or in calls for the removal of other statues, fail to acknowledge that people can change; indeed the cause of Black Lives Matter is entirely dependent upon that ability for people to change if we are to eradicate both the conscious and unconscious bias in our society today.

For that reason it is important that we reflect on the fact that Gladstone’s politics changed under the influence of people such as Richard Cobden and John Bright, so much so that by 1841 he opposed the equalisation of the duty on foreign and colonial sugar in the belief that that equalisation would aid the slave trade.  The evidence is that he was by this time campaigning against slavery, indeed by 1850 he was a changed man when in Parliament he described slavery as “by far the foulest crime that taints the history of mankind in any Christian or pagan country.”

Gladstone went on to become the first British politician to lead a left-leaning government and introduced key changes to our national life such as universal education and a foreign policy based on freedom and liberty rather than the expansion of Empire, stating that “From the ancient strife of territorial acquisition we are labouring, I trust and believe, to substitute another, a peaceful and a fraternal strife among nations, the honest and the noble race of industry and art.

It was suggested in the case of the Colston statue that we weigh his involvement in the slave trade against the charitable gifts he made resulting from them, but there is no suggestion that Colston changed his commitment to slavery.

Gladstone did change his views, and he worked to change our society to reflect that.  I would suggest that perhaps discussions about Gladstone should focus not on where he started, but on how much he changed and how much our society changed because he changed.

Acknowledgement of how people of the past, like Gladstone, have changed and championed change act as a beacon of hope to motivate us to make the changes of the future.  It is time for today’s Liberal Democrats to step up and finish the job that Cobden started.

* Chair of Manchester Gorton Liberal Democrats, a member of the NW Regional Executive and the English Council and Vice President of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats

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14 Comments

  • None of us is wholly good……. and in most cases,…. not wholly bad. Gladstone was an odd cove……. try reading Roy Jenkins’s biography for the warts and all…….. but…… consider this speech made by Gladstone in 1879, during the famous Midlothian election campaign in which he skilfully to attacked Disraeli’s policies and leadership. He made a simple moral observation that still has resonance today:

    ” Remember the rights of the savage as we call him. Remember that … the
    sanctity of human life in the hill villages of Afghanistan among the winter
    snows, is as inviolable in the eye of Almighty God as can be your own.
    Remember that … mutual love is not limited by the shores of this island,
    is not limited by the boundaries of Christian civilisation, that it passes
    over the whole surface of the earth and embraces the meanest along with the
    greatest in its unmeasured scope”.

  • He was a great man and a great Quaker, Ruth. Was he a relation ?

    The only thing I can find is after he broke with Gladstone on Irish Home rule he voted with the Tory Government for the Criminal Law Amendment (Ireland) Bill in 1887. It increased the coercive powers.Liberals opposed it. Bright didn’t speak, but he did vote.

    I’ll settle for Salisbury’s tribute, “he will be famous (for) the singular rectitude of his motives, the singular straightness of his career. He was a keen disputant, a keen combatant; like many eager men, he had little tolerance of opposition. But his action was never guided for a single moment by any consideration of personal or party selfishness. He was inspired by nothing but the purest patriotism and benevolence from the first beginning of his public career to the hour of its close”.

  • Such an important post. I have no problem with statue removal, but I do hope such decisions can be made on the basis of a full appreciation of the whole of a person’s life, not just selected bits of it.

  • “… a left-leaning government…”

    That’s an extremely relative term for the 19th Century, given that 40% of adult males in Britain still did not have the vote by its end and women had none at all!

  • As others have observed, like many leading politicians of his and any other era, William Gladstone was a complex man – “an odd cove”, as David Raw puts it. His views certainly underwent a fairly radical transition during his political lifetime – from the decidedly reactionary High Toryism of his youth (largely inherited from his father in whose cause he pleaded), through his free trade Peelite phase, until ultimately becoming the high priest of C19th Classical Liberalism and the champion of Irish Home Rule, etc.

    When considering the legacies and reputations of relatively complex cases, such as Mr Gladstone, we should therefore be careful not to form instant judgements without, as TonyH says, “a full appreciation of the whole of a person’s life”. We must also always recognise the capacity of human beings to change and acknowledge when there is evIdence that they actually have changed. Otherwise, there is no hope for any of us who believe in the (potential) rehabilitation of offenders!

  • And poor old William Wilberforce doesn’t get a mention.

  • Doug Chisholm 13th Jun '20 - 8:53am

    Pull down all the statues, change all the names.

    And remember this is not token virtue signalling.

  • Doug, Do you really mean your comment or are you being ironical? My instincts tell me you are being ironical, but others may not realise it.

    Personally, while I think Edward Colston and Robert Milligan are pretty cut and dried, the removal of Gladstone’s name form the Hall of residence of Liverpool University, essentially because his dad owned slaves and when he was a young MP he supported compensation for slave owners is to me a Bridge too Far. This proposal totally ignores what he did and stood for in later life and his total change of attitude to slavery. Effectively, it is another attempt by the hard left to expunge a Liberal from sight.

    More will follow. I have even heard it argued that the statue of William Wilberforce in Hull should be taken down because he only achieved the end of the slave trade, and not the end of slavery. The minor fact that achieving this one step was much greater even than the establishment of the NHS in terms of its long term impact on human lives (especially black lives which do matter) because it changed the whole dynamic across the world, is just not relevant to them.

    What liberals have to understand is that there is a very strong grouping on the extreme left in the UK who have developed over many decades an intense loathing of everything about Britain and its past, almost up to the moment of their formative teenage years, because they and their friends have the *only* answer. Thus all the bad things now (climate change, racial discrimination, sex inequality etc. etc.) are the fault of all those old people and dead British people in the past, and nothing anyone did to change things (like Wilberforce) was good enough or fast enough.

    One way to achieve greater acceptance of this philosophy is to deny, destroy and expunge from common history the record of reformers.

    Supporting Black Lives Matters is essential – supporting the actions of those who are using it to promote totally illiberal aims is foolishness.

  • suzanne fletcher 13th Jun '20 - 12:35pm

    I agree wholeheartedly with Iain Donaldson. Also David Evans.
    Having spent a lifetime campaigning, would be pretty angry if i found that anyone had changed their mind after being campaigned upon was then punished forever for former views.
    I dare say this, as someone who works full time plus on issues around asylum seekers and refugees, the whole thing is getting out of hand, and talk of demolishing statues and changing names is a distraction from the real issues about how we treat and value people with a different coloured skin.

  • Sue Sutherland 13th Jun '20 - 1:46pm

    The reason we are having this discussion is because statues aren’t tokens but totems. This is particularly the case with Colston whose statue was put up by the Victorians long after he was dead. They seem to have wanted to make him some kind of patron saint of Bristol but failed to raise the amount needed to create the statue by public donation. Even then the ordinary people of Bristol weren’t particularly impressed, but for black people the statue represented the idolisation of someone who made a lot of money trading their ancestors for money, cramming them into slave ships and allowing them to die. In the same way in the USA black people want to see the statues of Confederate leaders removed and this is happening now.
    Of course this issue has attracted the hard left. All the more reason for Lib Dems to get involved and stop their attempts to create the revolution they aim for. It’s time to acknowledge that our history isn’t so glorious after all, that it involved cruelty and oppression whilst we were singing Rule Britannia and announcing that we Britons won’t be slaves.
    I’m going to read a biography of Gladstone, because I know very little about him. I admire very much the response of the Gladstone Library to the discussions about the Liverpool University building, which I thought the epitome of modern Liberalism. People aren’t going to vote for us in the next election because of Gladstone’s record but we may renew the party if we take up his mantle of Reform.

  • David Evershed 13th Jun '20 - 3:01pm

    “I was brought up to hate and fear liberty. I came to love it. That is the secret of my whole career.”
    William Gladstone

    Something today’s Liberal Democrat Party ought to adopt.

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