Today's politicians should learn from Gladstone

WILLIAM Gladstone", sneered Benjamin Disraeli, "has not a single redeeming defect." That, however, was a minority view. For many others the "Grand Old Man" was a political giant who had a more profound impact on British parliamentary life than any other before or since, a man of extraordinary eloquence and administrative ability.

The recent bicentenary of Gladstone's birth is a fitting moment not only to remember his impact on political history, but to draw lessons from his political achievements and personal morality for today's rather beleaguered, not to mention unloved, politicians. In contrast to them, Gladstone was not only much loved, but genuinely admired.

Born in Liverpool on 29 December 1809, Gladstone may seem an anachronistic figure with little to teach Gordon Brown or David Cameron, but then many of the issues which preoccupied his four terms as prime minister remain pertinent: political morality, foreign affairs (chiefly Afghanistan) and the British constitution (be it Irish or Scottish "home rule").

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Indeed, when Gordon Brown became Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1997 it was said that he intended to be the most radical occupant of the Treasury since Gladstone stood at the dispatch box in the mid-19th century. Likewise, Tony Blair repeatedly called Gladstone "one of my political heroes".

The parallels were, at least initially, intriguing. Like Gladstone, Blair favoured a highly moralistic style of foreign policy, finding his cause in the Balkans rather than Bulgaria, while Brown made much of his fiscal prudence and personal Presbyterianism, although thankfully not aping Gladstone's predilection for self-flagellation.

There, however, the parallel ends. "You should avoid needless and entangling engagements," Gladstone told an audience in 1879. "You may boast about them, you may brag about them, you may say you are procuring consideration of the country. But … if you increase your engagements without increasing strength, you diminish strength, you abolish strength; you really reduce the Empire and do not increase it."

Something for David Cameron to ponder should he inherit the quagmire that is the British engagement in Afghanistan, a country Gladstone saw as a pawn of Disraeli's ostentatious imperialism. Speaking during the famous Midlothian campaign of 1880, he implored his audience to remember that "the sanctity of life in the hill villages of Afghanistan, among the winter snows, is as inviolable in the eyes of Almighty God as can be your own".

Those were the days of mass meetings, when Gladstone could expect to attract crowds of between 2,500 (at Edinburgh's Assembly Rooms) and even 20,000 (at the old Waverley Market). Such speeches were dutifully covered, at length, by the major newspapers of the day, including, naturally enough, The Scotsman. Nor did Gladstone assume those listening were stupid. A crowd at Edinburgh's Corn Exchange, for example, listened for more than an hour to an intricate filleting of Disraeli's financial profligacy.

And oh, what Gladstone would have made of today's financial profligacy, particularly the retail orgy that takes place each Christmas. He once insisted that "economy is the first and great article in my financial creed" while boasting that he saved money on "candle-ends and cheese-parings".

As Chancellor, Gladstone was not only eloquent – some might say long-winded: he favoured lengthy Budget orations – but a ruthless tax-cutter in the 1850s and '60s. On that basis he became leader of the new Liberal Party in 1867, and prime minister for the first time in 1868. In four separate stints at Downing Street, Gladstone was not afraid of being bold; of taking political risks.

Queen Victoria famously complained that Gladstone "speaks to me as if I were a public meeting", but to millions of her subjects, the prime minister's obvious sincerity was admirable. Unlike today's political leaders, Gladstone was self-professedly, and in popular reputation, a man whose politics were rooted in moral conviction.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

In turn that stemmed from a deep religious faith that took him from Conservatism rooted in the values of the established Church (of England), to Liberal radicalism that brought him the flattering title of "the people's William". Gladstone followed Robert Peel in breaking up the Tory party out of principle (over Free Trade) and then split the Liberal Party because he saw only home rule as the solution to Ireland's problems.

Such acts of principle are unthinkable in today's careerist context, yet David Cameron (like Gladstone, an Old Etonian) could learn a thing or two from the Grand Old Man's Irish crusade. He, as will Cameron should he become PM, was much occupied by Scottish affairs, and not solely in his capacity as the Member for Midlothian.

Gladstone, like Cameron, had Scotch blood coursing through his veins. Of purely Scottish descent on either side, Gladstone's grandfather, Thomas "Gladstones", migrated from Biggar to establish himself in Leith as a modestly successful merchant (Gladstone's Land in Edinburgh's Old Town belonged to another branch of the family), while Nelly Neilson, Thomas's wife, was the daughter of an Edinburgh merchant.

After much pestering from Lord Rosebery, whose country seat was at Dalmeny, just outside Edinburgh, Gladstone agreed to legislate for the creation of a Scottish Office and a "Secretary for Scotland", which had yet to become one of the great offices of state. Neither that modest piece of administrative reform nor his proposed home rule for Ireland, however, could have repaired the British constitution.

Which is why Cameron would do well to consider what Gladstone himself pondered, although never implemented: "home rule all round", a federal solution to the aspirations and complaints of the United Kingdom's component nations and regions. Cameron would, at least, agree with Gladstone when he said that "nothing should be done by the State which can be done better or as well done by voluntary effort".

But one thing is clear. The Grand Old Man had a higher standing among the newly enfranchised masses (and their non-voting womenfolk) than any subsequent politician – perhaps apart from Churchill at the height of the Second World War – particularly the likes of Brown and Cameron. We are too worldly-wise, disillusioned or even cynical ever to accord another prime minister the same status.