The people’s William

Today's leaders could learn a lot about crisis management from Gladstone
July 3, 2009

Charles Darwin's bicentenary has overshadowed that of William Gladstone, which also falls this year. Yet, especially in these turbulent times, the four-times Liberal prime minister stands out as one of the great evolutionary pioneers of modern progressive politics—less celebrated than Abraham Lincoln and FDR because he was not a wartime leader, yet equally as important.

From his budgets as chancellor in the early 1850s until his retirement from the premiership in 1894, Gladstone was Victorian Britain's leading progressive politician. As the dominant change-maker in eight governments, he radically extended political rights and pioneered constant, iterative reform. His legacy was a world-class economy and a set of institutions dedicated to the service of a cohesive public interest, rising above the sectional claims of class.

This was in stark contrast to the Britain of his youth. Gladstone entered parliament in the early 1830s amid a deep economic crisis and semi-revolutionary struggle for parliamentary reform. The trouble was rooted in the social dislocation of the industrial revolution and two decades of war with France, exacerbated by a narrow, inflexible political elite. The Great Reform Act of 1832 quelled the immediate threat, giving a political opening to the middle class. Yet social conflict was still endemic, as reflected by the Chartist and the anti-Corn Law League protests in the 1830s and 1840s.

Seeking to overcome this, Gladstone became the first British politician to master both democratic and executive skills. He was the greatest "insider" and "outsider" of his era. As prime minister he, like Lincoln, built a team of rivals: his 1880 government (which extended the vote to the majority of men and largely eradicated electoral corruption) included radicals like Joseph Chamberlain and Whig aristocrats like Lord Hartington, heir to one of England's richest dukedoms. His careful handling of Queen Victoria and the House of Lords—combining elaborate public respect with ceaseless cajoling—was equally effective until his last years.

Yet this consummate parliamentarian was also "the people's William": the first leader to win elections by stump oratory and national print media. The Midlothian campaign of 1879-80 transformed British electioneering, as he harangued rallies of 20,000 on the iniquities of Disraeli's foreign policy and financial mismanagement. His speeches were mammoth, but never short of soundbites. The Turks should be evicted "one and all, bag and baggage, from the province [Bulgaria] they have desolated and profained"; "my mission is to pacify Ireland"; "liberalism is trust of the people tempered by prudence, conservatism is distrust of the people tempered by fear," and "you cannot fight the future"—all Gladstonian gems.

Gladstone's Liberal party was the original "big tent" of modern politics. Of greater breadth and depth than any since, at its zenith it embraced Whig aristocrats, Anglican conservatives, religious nonconformists, radicals, trade unionists, even early socialists. All believed Gladstone was on their side and accepted his definition of an elevated public interest to which narrow class causes were subordinate. It was, in the image of the historian Colin Matthew, a "double rainbow of class and religion."

The double rainbow persisted through two long reformist governments, ending in 1886 only when the Whigs and imperialist radicals refused to accept self-government for the Irish. Yet few now doubt that his plans were the last best chance for Ireland to avoid its 20th-century fate.

Gladstone was intellectually engaged in virtually every sphere of contemporary controversy, ecclesiastical and scientific as well as political and economic. Darwinism was no exception. He characteristically sought to reconcile evolution with Christianity, refusing to accept that science and religion were necessarily antagonistic. He was equally engaged in international affairs. Calling on Darwin one weekend in Kent in 1877, he bemused the great scientist not by questioning evolution but by musing on America's likely replacement of Europe as the dominant world power.

But perhaps the most intriguing insight into Gladstone the progressive comes from his relationship with Marx. Gladstone appears not to have read or even known of him, perhaps because his policies of incremental reform kept revolutionary socialism at bay. Marx, by contrast, was obsessed with Gladstone, assailing him as the critical obstacle to class consciousness and revolution in Britain. "There exists, perhaps, in general, no greater humbug than the so-called finance," Marx snapped after Gladstone's successful 1853 budget, one of a series that bolstered free trade, reformed tax equitably and promoted Britain as the workshop of the world. Similarly, although strikes were increasingly common in late-Victorian Britain, Marx lamented in 1879 that those organised by trade unions—which Gladstone had legalised—"do not advance the movement by one single step." Instead of fomenting revolution, working class leaders were spending their leisure time imitating Gladstone's speechifying in "mini-parliaments" nationwide.

The two men similarly grasped the fundamental nature of the political and social crisis in Ireland. Marx argued in 1870 that "the decisive blow against the ruling classes in England... cannot be struck in England, but only in Ireland."

Gladstone thought so too; hence "my mission is to pacify Ireland." In 1868 Marx saw the Anglican Church of Ireland—"the outpost of the established church in England"—as a potential revolutionary provocation. So did Gladstone; he promptly disestablished the church in the teeth of bitter conservative resistance. Marx saw the grievances of Ireland's tenant farmers as the next revolutionary hope. But Gladstone saw it too, and by the mid 1880s he had largely met their grievances over absentee landlords. Marx moved on to governance, urging England's working class to "take the initiative in dissolving the Union... substituting a free federal relationship for it." Gladstone did so too, declaring three years after Marx's death that England was "not fit to be lawgiver and administrator of Ireland."

Gladstone never underestimated the crises and challenges of his age. It was his success in tackling them that kept the extremes of left and right in check and built a cohesive liberal society. He summed up his political life as "greatly absorbed in working the institutions of his country." Few progressives have worked them better. As the world's liberal democracies today confront crises just as great, he remains an inspiration in both style and substance.