Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Gladstone by Roy Jenkins

Gladstone by Roy Jenkins (Pan Books 1995)

Other than Queen Victoria herself, William Ewart Gladstone is probably the persons who defines the Victorian period. Four times Prime Minister (a record so far unmatched and very unlikely to be matched in the years to come) in a career spanning 1832-1895.

After the typical Prime Ministerial education of Eton and Oxford, Gladstone first made his mark on the world in a fiercely conservative tome 'The State in its Relationship with the Church' in which he argued that membership in the Church of England should be prerequisite for anyone who wished to serve in public life and that the aim of the nation should be to uphold the principles of the Church (it is something of an irony that Gladstone was the man to bring about the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland and argued for the same in Scotland and Wales). Lord Attlee described Gladstone as being a 'frightful old prig' for his religiosity particularly in relationship to his proposal to his wife. 'Fancy' he said 'writing a letter proposing marriage including a sentence of 140 words all about the Almighty. He was a dreadful person'.

Gladstone was first elected as MP for Newark in a semi-rotten borough and supported by a local duke, hardly a democratic start. His first major oration in the House of Commons was rather surprisingly pro-slavery with a defence of the negro apprentice schemes on the West Indian plantations, talking for over two hours (a pretty standard length for a Gladstone oration). Gladstone had a pretty amazing career prior to taking the highest office serving as Chancellor of the Exchequer in successive governments effectively he was the man who made the job what it is today. Jenkins argues that 'Churchill would have been little more than a footnote to history had he died on the threshold of his premiership. This would certainly have been true of Salisbury had he gone in 1886, or of Macmillan had he done so in 1956...but such obscurity would not have been the fate of Gladstone had he died instead of becoming Prime Minister in 1868.

On being told that the Queen had requested Gladstone to form his first government he uttered the immortal phrase 'my mission is to pacify Ireland' and his Irish policy was to dominate all four of his premierships. In his first premiership Gladstone managed to enact legislation disestablishing the Church of Ireland, reforming land rights and access to the Irish universities however it was the decisive issue of Home Rule which thwarted his attempt to bring peace to that land and caused somewhat irreparable divisions within the Liberal party (which were later blown apart in the power struggle between Asquith and Lloyd George) as the Whigs deferred to the Conservatives in large numbers.

Gladstone was such a strange man. In his earlier years his passion was to rescue prostitutes, a pursuit to which he devoted a large amount of his time and energy spending many hours talking to these women about religion, even when he was in high office. Whilst these activities no doubt expressed some sexual repression for which Gladstone punished himself (an act his diary either noted as 'the scourge' or was annotated with mark that looked rather like a little whip) there is no reason to believe that his actions were nothing short of moral and charitable although one cannot imagine a politician today being able to act like this and rather speaks to a certain naivity of Gladstone's as well as a firm belief in his own moral rectitude. In later life the rescuing of prostitutes was replaced by an equally bizarre hobby of chopping down trees, a pursuit he encouraged his children to take part in.

Gladstone was a voracious reader and is said to have read some 40,000 volumes throughout his life although his favourites were always the Latin and Ancient Greek classics, Homer, Dante and Horace (his speeches were littered with untranslated Latin and Greek quotations). The sheer volume of books despite having worked the highest offices in Britain shows one of the key Gladstone characteristics which is that he believed himself at war with time and it was his duty to fit as much into a day as he possibly could.

The book is well written from a man who has had his own time as Chancellor of the Exchequer and also his own turn at dividing political parties (as when he fractured the Labour Party to create the short lived Social Democrat Party which eventually merged with the Gladstone's old Liberal Party to form the Liberal Democrat Party). He rather glosses over a lot of the nitty gritty of the different Gladstone premierships however to go into that detail would probably require a book of some number of volumes that I most certainly would not have bought. The book also lacks a summary chapter which would have been nice to tie things up and not end upon the sad note of the Grand Old Man's death.

If you're interested in the politics of Victorian Britain then this book is a must buy.



Anonymous said...

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Paolo said...

I'm glad it helped. If you're interested in Liberal politicians, there is a biography of David Lloyd George coming out this Christmas written by Lord Hattersley who is another former Labour Party minister.