William Ewart Gladstone, Prime Minister on four occasions, was born on the 29th of December, 1809.
William Ewart Gladstone was one of the greatest political figures ever to grace the Mother of Parliaments. He was one of the dominant political figures of the Victorian era and Prime Minister of Great Britain on four occasions, the last at the age of eighty-two. Gladstone was an interesting character, full of seeming contradictions, but undoubtedly a man of great principle and intellect. Yes, he had his principles, but he was never so dogmatically entrenched that he couldn’t see the light when it shone. He began his political life as a Tory, but then changed his mind and became one of the great father figures of the Liberal movement. He was a passionate campaigner on a huge variety of issues, particularly Irish Home Rule and the matter of ethical foreign policy, another point of principle. Gladstone had a gift for public speaking and in a famous election campaign in Midlothian, in 1879, an estimated 20,000 people heard him speak. Although he was born in Liverpool, both his parents were Scottish and Gladstone considered himself a Scot. He was always quick to point out that “not a drop of blood in my veins is not Scottish”.
One of Gladstone’s early Cabinet appointments was President of the Board of Trade and in that capacity, in 1844, he was responsible for the passing of the ‘Parliamentary Train Act’, which provided for one train each way, each day, carrying third class passengers at no more than 1d. per mile and at not less than twelve miles per hour. The price has changed, but not the speed of perambulation. Gladstone also served as Chancellor of the Exchequer on three occasions; under Robert Peel and Palmerston, and in Aberdeen’s coalition of Whigs, Peelites and radicals. He even combined the role with that of Prime Minister on one occasion. As Chancellor, he was noted for simplifying the tax system and for cutting out unnecessary expense. One of his initial acts when first created Chancellor was to order the Foreign Office to stop using large, thick sheets of double notepaper when single, thinner sheets would do and he also ‘invented’ or introduced the postcard on grounds of economy. Gladstone introduced the Post Office Savings Bank during his second stint as Chancellor, which enabled ordinary people to make small savings and gave the Treasury an extra source of revenue. We could do with his like today.
Gladstone’s greatest political rival was Benjamin Disraeli, but there was no friendship between them throughout their long political lives. When they met for the first time, in 1834, Gladstone was appalled by Disraeli's “foppish” attire and Disraeli’s ascerbic assessment of Gladstone was that he “had not one single redeeming defect”. Gladstone served a record sixty-one years in the House of Commons. His maiden speech was made on the 3rd of June, 1833, during the Committee stage of the Bill for the Abolition of Slavery in the British Empire, which he stood against, his father being an owner of slaves in the West Indies. Gladstone’s last speech was delivered in Liverpool, in 1894; a protest against the Armenian massacres in Turkey.
During the so-called ‘Eastern Crisis’ in the Balkans, Gladstone fiercely tore into the Conservative Government over its weak policy response to the Ottoman Empire and Turkish brutality, and in 1876, he published ‘The Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East’. Gladstone’s foreign policy is summed up nicely in this quote, which some of today’s Western Governments would do well to think about; “[The duty of government is] not to set up false phantoms of glory which are to delude them into calamity, not to flatter their infirmities by leading them to believe that they are better than the rest of the world; but to proceed upon a principle that recognizes the sisterhood and equality of nations.” Nevertheless, Gladstone had foreign policy problems of his own, where he was less successful than at home. He was particularly criticised for failing to rescue General Gordon from the Mahdi at Khartoum, which led to the loss of British control in Sudan, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that Gordon disobeyed orders to evacuate. Unfairly, Gladstone’s nickname of ‘Grand Old Man’ was reversed from ‘GOM’ to ‘MOG’ – ‘Murderer of Gordon’ – probably by the equivalent of the Sun newspaper.
Apart from not getting on with Disraeli, Gladstone didn’t get on with Queen Victoria either. Gladstone was offended by the Queen when, in the capacity of Vice-President of the Board of Trade, he was invited to dinner and was appalled to find that there was no Chaplain present and that grace was not said prior to the meal. He later offended Victoria in 1866, when he refused to support the purchase of gun metal for a memorial to Prince Albert. Gladstone also supported the second Reform Bill, which was seen by the radicals as a move towards universal suffrage and which horrified the Queen. Amazingly, when Gladstone was to form his second Government, Victoria attempted to appoint Lord Hartington instead and is reported to have complained that Gladstone “speaks to me as if I were a public meeting”. Just before she appointed Gladstone, Victoria wrote that she would “sooner abdicate than send for or have anything to do with that half-mad fire-brand who would soon ruin everything and be a dictator”. None of that prevented her offering him an Earldom, but he refused, preferring to remain in office.
William Ewart Gladstone was born in Rodney Street, Liverpool, on the 29th of December, 1809. William was educated in a preparatory school at Seaforth Vicarage, near Liverpool, before attending Eton from 1821. After Eton, in 1827, he went to Christ Church in Oxford where he studied until 1831. His Degree was in Classics but he also studied Mathematics and in 1831 was awarded a Double First in those subjects. Interestingly, in terms of his future parliamentary stance and whilst at Oxford in 1831, he spoke at the Oxford Union against the Reform Act, suggesting that any electoral reform would lead to revolution. Perhaps we can put that down to youthful innocence. In the 1832 election, following the passing of that very Reform Act, Gladstone was elected as the Tory MP for Newark-on-Trent. He then went off on the obligatory Grand Tour of Europe, visiting Belgium, France and Italy, before returning in 1833 to enter Lincoln’s Inn. However, by 1839, he had requested that his name should be removed from the list because he no longer intended to be called to the Bar. His historical career in politics had been launched. William Ewart Gladstone died at Hawarden on the 19th of May, 1898. He died of cancer, which started behind the cheekbone and spread across his body. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.