Gladstone was undoubtedly the leading Liberal politician of his era. He supported free trade and, under his leadership, his governments passed many significant reforms, which abolished privilege and moved Britain towards a meritocracy. He did not, however, always represent the views of his Liberal supporters. As a High Churchman and a supporter of the right of the aristocracy to govern, Gladstone led a party where many opposed the privileged position of both the Church of England and the aristocracy. It did not help that inside parliament, a rift grew between Whigs and Radicals, which led to the split of 1886.
Outside parliament, the Party comprised a wide variety of competing groups, each in pursuit of its own political aims. Historians such as D. A Hamer in Liberal Politics in the Age of Gladstone and Rosebery (1974) and Martin Pugh in The Making of Modern British Politics (1982) have referred to the ‘faddism’ within the Liberal Party in that the Party was susceptible to splits.
Even before Gladstone had become Liberal leader, the Party split over the issue of parliamentary reform when Robert Lowe led the ‘Adullamite’ faction against Gladstone’s electoral bill in 1866.
From 1873 to 1886, the Liberal party was affected by division within its ranks. Eventually the party did split, over the issue of Irish Home Rule, into two factions: the Gladstonian Liberals and the Liberal Unionists. Gladstone’s main rival was Joseph Chamberlain, he had a radically different view of which policies the Liberal Party should follow. The disunity within the party and the split of 1886 had much to do with the issue of Irish Home Rule as well as the rivalry between Gladstone and Chamberlain.
The Liberal party was often made up of many different often competing factions as well as holding Gladstone’s own political views.
His own political views were sometimes in tune with the views of the majority of Liberal supporters but, at other times, were at odds with them. A central key to understanding Gladstone’s views is to realise that he was a deeply religious man who believed that his involvement in politics was related directly to his religious beliefs. Much of his stature as a politician was based on his ability to think of political problems as moral issues. His opposition to the Bulgarian Horrors, his opposition to Beaconsfieldism in 1879-80 and his campaigns on Irish issues all seemed like religious crusades.
In practical terms Gladstone was a firm supporter of free trade for the whole of his life political life. Alongside this was his dislike of government interference in the lives of its citizens. As a result, Gladstone supported retrenchment thereby lowering taxation. This was combined with a constant drive to improve the efficiency of government and other national institutions. The basis of Gladstone’s view of the ‘minimalist’ state was the importance of the individual. Gladstone did not see society as a set of competing economic classes, but rather of individuals where each should have the opportunity to fulfil their potential.
As he stated, ‘I will always back the masses against the classes. ‘ This did not mean he that he was a democrat or even by the norms of the time, a social conservative. In 1878 he said ‘I am an out-and-out inequalitarian. ‘ He believed in rule by those individuals in society who had a tradition of service to the state and possessed sufficient wealth to be above the charge of possible corruption. He was therefore a supporter of the traditional roles of monarchy and aristocracy. Gladstone became Prime Minister in December 1868, his first cabinet reflected the diverse composition of the Liberal Party.
It contained three former Peelites (Gladstone, Cardwell and De Grey), with three Liberals (Childers, Goschen and Bruce) and two Radicals (Lowe and Bright. ) However the largest group were the Whigs who held seven posts including Foreign Secretary. The main principles of Gladstonian Liberalism were clearly present in the reforms passed. Support for free trade, administrative efficiency in government, retrenchment and individual self-expression are all apparent in many of the reforms. Many contemporaries saw the ministry as one that was engaged in an attack on privilege to create a meritocracy.
However, many of his reforms were aimed at satisfying the political demands of pressure groups associated with the Liberal party such as Educational reform (National Education League) and trade union reform (New Model Unions). With regard to Irish reform Gladstone used the slogan ‘Justice for Ireland’ as his major rallying cry during the 1868 general election to unify the disparate elements of the Liberal party. The disestablishment of the Church of Ireland Act in 1869 did possess major features to please Liberal supporters.
The Liberation Society, which wished to disestablish the Church of England, saw Irish disestablishment as a first step towards their ultimate goal. Liberals, in general, also saw the act as removing an obvious Irish grievance. However, many Whigs viewed this attack on the Irish ‘Establishment’ with deep suspicion and the later Irish Land Act was seen as a an attack on the rights of property and helped push them towards the Conservative Party. The reforms in the Army contained many of the principles underpinning Gladstonian Liberalism: the improvement of efficiency, an attack on privilege and the enhancement of individual self-expression.
In an attack on privilege, the most controversial aspect of army reforms was the abolition of the purchase of commissions. In future, promotion within the officer class was to be based on merit only. This was met by fierce opposition in the House of Lords that it was introduced by Royal Warrant and not act of parliament in July 1871. Another area of controversy was the decision to withdraw British troops from the self-governing colonies, in particular Canada and New Zealand. Gladstone believed these colonies would only be truly self-governing if they looked after their own defence.
This decision created opposition in Canada, who feared a US invasion. Disraeli, the Conservative leader, even went so far as to claim that this proposal was part of a Gladstonian plot to dismember the Empire. As a politician who had been involved in the formative stages of the Liberal Party, Gladstone possessed considerable support within the party. In addition, to the middle class supporters of liberalism within the electorate Gladstone’s name was directly linked to the achievement of free trade and the economic boom with which it was associated.
From the mid 1860’s he also became associated with the extension of the right to vote to skilled workers. Gladstone did realise, perhaps more than any other politician, the diverse nature of the Liberal party and its capacity to split into competing groups. Between 1859 and 1895 each Liberal Administration had fallen from power because of internal divisions. To hold the different aspects of the Liberal Party together, Gladstone believed that a single issue, which contained clearly Liberal principles, should be used to force unity on the party at election times.
In 1868, Gladstone used the rallying cry of ‘Justice for Ireland’, in 1874, ‘Abolition of Income Tax’, in 1880 ‘Anti-Beaconsfield’ (opposition to Conservative foreign policy) and in 1886 and 1892 ‘Irish Home Rule’. It is true that Gladstone did lead the party to stunning victories in 1868 and 1880. Yet in 1886 his decision to support Irish Home Rule did split the party in two, thus even though Gladstone did try to unite the Party, inevitably he did end up dividing it. Unity was never restored, after 1895 the Conservatives and Liberal Unionists merged to become the Unionist Party.
However, historians such as A. B Cooke and J. Vincent in The Governing Passion (1974) see the split on Home Rule as part of a deliberate act by Gladstone to reassert his control over the Liberal Party. By getting rid of Chamberlain, Gladstone was able to regain some amount of control. In his biography of Gladstone (1995), H Matthew stated that ‘It is not difficult to see the latter part of Gladstone’s public life as a failure: religion on the wane, the free order giving way to militarism and protectionism, Britain bloated by imperial expansions, Home Rule unachieved, the Liberal Party divided. This is quite a harsh assessment of Gladstone’s career after 1868, during his time in power; instead he led governments, which destroyed the Anglican/landowning monopoly of political power. He passed a large number of reforms, which attacked privilege and helped establish a meritocracy. His cabinets were the first to contain nonconformists and in 1883 to 1886 he passed electoral reform which moved Britain closer towards manhood suffrage. However, Matthews claim that Gladstone divided the Liberal party does have some truth in it.
Yet, as T. A Jenkins suggests in Gladstone, Whiggism and the Liberal Party (1988) Gladstone’s leadership may have split the Party in 1886 but it was also a major factor in holding the diverse elements of Liberalism together in the years 1868 to 1880. Gladstone deliberately balanced Whiggism and Radicalism, as shown in his choice of cabinet ministers in 1880. It could even be stated that without Gladstone the Liberal Party would not have stayed united for so long. Gladstone made quite an impact on the Liberal Party as E. J Feuchtwanger wrote in 1975 ‘Gladstone was a towering figure in the Victorian age.
The shape and the content of politics would have been quite different without him. Towards the end of his long public life there was a sense in which he had outlived himself, but the values he championed with such fervour have perennial validity. ‘ Therefore, it can be seen that although Gladstone did divide the Liberal party with the issue of Irish Home Rule, it was not his intention to do this. This is because he tried to unite the Liberal party with a common cause such as abolishing income tax.
He led the Party to victories in 1868 and 1880 which show that he was successful in keeping the Liberals together. It is more to do with the diverse nature of the Liberal Party and the competing groups within it that caused the division. The policy of ‘Irish Home Rule’ thus can be seen of as a turning point which caused the divide and not Gladstone himself. It must be stressed that although he did divide the Liberals, it would have been inevitable that the Liberal Party would have eventually split if Gladstone was in office or not.