History In Focus logo and homepage link

History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 1: The Victorian Era •

The Victorian Era

Book cover: Gladstone. Heroic Minister

Author's response


Gladstone. Heroic Minister, 1865-1898

Professor R. T. Shannon
London: Allen Lane, 1999, xvii+702 pp.
ISBN 0-713-99253-0

Eugenio F. Biagini

Robinson College, Cambridge

I must begin by acknowledging Dr. Biaginis kind words about Gladstone: Heroic Minister, 1865-1898. I am very ready to accept the justice of his verdict that it is a great achievement, a work of magisterial scholarship, extremely rich in detail and based on magisterial command of the archival material. I am gratified that he makes no complaint about what other reviewers have described, puzzlingly, as my impenetrable prose. On rereading I am always impressed by its limpid clarity. And it is always agreeable to be assured that one's book is already a classic; though I must express reservations about his assertion that it is a classic of Tory historiography. This, I would plead, is a non sequitur. Dr. Biagini suggests that my study of Gladstone is perhaps comparable to Morleys. This I interpret as in its way a great compliment. But he finds some of my arguments less than convincing. Does it follow then that Dr. Biagini finds Morleys comments rather more convincing? He never, I think, quite says so. This is more than a mere debating point. For it is certainly true that if there is a partisan thrust to my interpretation of Gladstone it is decidedly a thrust against John Morley's monumental marble and bronze classic of Liberal piety, presenting Gladstone as a wonderful pilgrim questing his way from Tory benightedness to Liberal enlightenment with the latter word being accorded its full secular resonance. But whether that, in itself, makes my reading Tory is quite another matter.

Dr. Biagini is offended by what he defines as an anti-Gladstone thrust lurking in my pages. He even envisages their being perused approvingly by the shades of Queen Victoria and Lord Hartington. Well, conceivably. As George Orwell had to remind his more obsessed comrades, some things are true even if they are printed in the Daily Telegraph. But only some things. Leaving aside hypothetical conjectures, however enlivening, Dr. Biagini is a stern enough taker to task. He alleges that I ridicule Gladstones Irish land policy. He finds it offensive that I mock Gladstone by describing the election crash of 1886 as a grotesque parody of the great triumph of the people that Gladstone expected the result to be. This sort of thing comes, I suspect, from starting from a position of exaggerated deference to Gladstones historical and cultural folk-hero reputation. What pervades Dr. Biaginis critique, I think I detect, is a tone of high indignation that Gladstone should be put to the historical question. There is here an implicit presumption that the Grand Old Man, that Very Good Thing of the textbooks, lover of the people and beloved by them, should remain immune from the inescapable rudeness of candid inquiry and forthright scrutiny. Gladstone himself, it must be said, very honourably and deliberately, repudiated any such immunity. His journals, as M. R. D. Foot pointed out, bear the character of Gladstones witnessing against himself; the self criticisms of morbid astringency form a series of notes for the prosecution. And, above all, as I put it in the preface to the first volume of my biography, those journals record intimate revelations of the utmost importance for an understanding of Gladstones interior life, and need accordingly to be used with care and discretion.

Yet they have to be used, all the same. They exert an incomparable explanatory power. To Dr. Biagini my mode of candid enquiry generates a discomforting suspicion that Shannon is trying to trivialise his topic. What Shannon is simply trying to do is to treat his subject without fear or favour. Gladstone is not a sacred idol, to be approached with awe. He was undoubtedly a very great man; but he was also a composite of many human frailties, not excluding vanity, ambition, aggressiveness, jealousy and delusions about divine inspiration. And I think there is no doubt that the agonies of Northern Ireland since the 1970s have aided immensely in the consolidation and sanctification of that presumption as to Gladstones privileged immunity. If only he had been listened to in 1886!

Further: Dr. Biagini deplores my want of sympathy for Gladstone in certain important respects for example, Gladstones providentialism in politics. This want of sympathy, he alleges, leads to a failure to understand. This seems to me to another instance of non sequitur. I hold that it is quite possible to understand the prepossessions of a biographical subject without necessarily in any degree being sympathetic to them. One can sympathise, as I do, with Gladstone in all kinds of respects. His narratives were generally admirable. His high-mindedness did exist and did count. But it is consequences that matter. To cite one example of Dr. Biaginis method: I quote from Gladstones journal in 1888 which I instance as a curious vision of Gladstones sheer cosmic faith in the reality of his assignment to the cause of Irish Home Rule. Dr. Biagini misses the point entirely. He reduces the case to one merely exposing my lack of sympathy with and therefore failure to understand Christian providentialism, of my incomprehension of Christian spirituality, a spirituality which the former British prime minister would have shared with any non-conformist pastor in the country, or indeed with the humblest Primitive Methodist who ever attended chapel. But that is not at all the point I was making. The point I was making was Gladstones conviction of his personal assignment by the Most High as His instrument for His purpose in this case, giving back to the Irish a parliament in Dublin. That this, in the matter of motives and intentions, was a good and necessary thing to be trying to do I make no doubt. But equally, in the matter of consequences, I draw attention to the tragic likelihood that it was precisely the manner of Gladstones fixation on his divine assignment which explains why he was not listened to in 1886.

This brings me to the gravamen of my objections to Dr. Biaginis critique. My big idea about Gladstone is that (as I put it in the beginning of this volume) it was his unswerving conviction, whether as young Evangelical or mature High Churchman, of the manifest providential government of the world, and his growing sense of his own assigned role as an instrument, however unworthy of God Almighty. It was this Christian providentialism which was, primarily and ultimately, most significant in explaining the contours and courses of Gladstones life. And within the frame of the big idea is my account, as I have above sketched out of hours after having voted in the confidence division for Derby and Disraeli, is of course to be found in the first volume of this biography. But I retrieve the essence of the matter in the prologue to the present volume. The reader will quickly be made aware of my admiration for what I interpret as the shrewd insights of such as Walter Bagehot and Goldwin Smith about the adaptive character of Gladstones Liberalism, as he slipped across the divide between being a Conservative with dim prospects to being a liberal with bright prospects. Even more am I impressed by Gladstones own statements on the issue of his being a member of a Liberal government and being in association with the Liberal Party, but having never deviated from those truly Conservative principles with which he first entered public life. And most of all am I impressed with what I believe to be the most pregnant statement Gladstone ever made about his sense of the general shape of politics: his prophecy to Aberdeen in 1856 that the politics of the future would consist in the doings and intentions of the minister and the corresponding conviction wrought by them upon the public mind. It is my contention that for the remainder of his long career Gladstone never deviated from that basic proposition. It was a proposition not only of a Peelite, but it was a proposition also of Gladstonian high politics. It was to be never in fact a case of the Peoples William; it was always to be a case of Williams People.

Obviously, a Peelite thesis so defined must be very near the centre of my reading of Gladstone. What he learned from his great master Peel was the potency and privilege of executive government against parliament; and within that frame of the instrumental role of party as the leverage of heroic politics. Peelism was the executive muscle of Gladstone's levering. He took Peels cue that the people could be relied upon to naturalise the mischievous tendencies of parliament. As a Liberal, Gladstone was complex, idiosyncratic, and highly problematical. His conventional fame as a populist is really wide of the mark. Dr. Biagini chides me for neglecting his popular appeal. I am not sure that I do more of that later but perhaps I might suggest to Dr. Biagini that he is asking the wrong question. The right question, in my view, is how did Gladstone come to conclude that he spoke for the people, that he was leader of the nation? The germ of the answer to that question, I think, lies in Gladstones 1856 prophecy. It was the prophecy of an authoritarian manipulator.

Gladstone's Peelism thus contributed immensely in the making of what I have described as Gladstones imperial style. Dr. Biagini and I are to some extent at cross-purposes. His Peel and Gladstone's Peel are not at all the same thing. In the 1850s Gladstone constructed an image of Peel as the beau idéal of statesmanship in contrast to the deplorable and deleterious Palmerston, (and his ultimate inheritor, Disraeli.) That was the Peel that really mattered to Gladstone. It was as that kind of Peelite that Gladstone summoned the people to his aid against a refractory House of Commons in 1866. It was as that kind of Peelite that Gladstone drove Russells government to destruction over Reform; and then drove his party to near disintegration over Reform again in 1867. It was as that kind of Peelite that Gladstone summoned the people to his aid in 1868 and then held parliament magnificently in awe and terror through 1869 and 1870. It was as that kind of Peelite that Gladstone then drove his government to destruction between 1871 and 1874. It was as that kind of Peelite that Gladstone abdicated in 1875. It was as that kind of Peelite that Gladstone after 1876 waged war against his party as leader of the nation. It was as that kind of Peelite that Gladstone, after once more summoning the people to his aid against parliament in 1880, imposed a victorious grip on his party which was not to loosen until his colleagues summoned the courage to revolt in the flow of bibliographical narrative. I would ask Dr. Biagini to take due note of Gladstones own lament amid the collapse of his expectations about the war in 1870: Here I am the slave of events. This expresses accurately the nature of political life as it is lived. The broader picture advocated by Dr. Biagini can often be a tidying away of contradictions, loose ends, and the general detritus of muddle and unlooked for consequences. Dr. Biagini makes heavy weather over Egypt. He asks: what does "Europe" actually mean in this context? Well, were he to look attentively to my pages on the subject, he will see that in certain circumstances Gladstone adopted a tone of piety (we are discharging single handed our European duty) and in other circumstances, as seeming master of events, a quite different tone about Europes obligations in the face of Britains sacrifices and Britains need to be on its guard against becoming dependent on the Powers in discharging its Egyptian responsibilities on their behalf. (Why should we promote the neutralisation of the Suez Canal if as the chief maritime power we can probably seize it in case of need?)

Dr. Biagini makes particularly heavy weather in defending Gladstones occupation of Egypt as an exercise in financial moralism with abstruse references to Italy and Greece, but not, oddly, to Mexico. He does not need to convince me of Gladstones good faith. But he might have had difficulty convincing those disillusioned liberals of the Midlothian ethos that the whole affair was not what it looked: a war of bond holders against the Egyptian peasants. And what does he think of Gladstones notion that what was needed was to plant solidly western and beneficent institutions in the soil of a Mohamedan community? In many ways, it seems to me, Gladstones interlude as High Commissioner in the Ionian Islands encapsulates as well as anything his urge to hold the world in Peelite tutelage. Out of that, precisely, came the disaster in South Africa (which Dr. Biagini does not mention).

On Ireland my sins are those of commission rather than omission, it seems. I am accused of not being impressed at all by Gladstones land policy. Since I hold the view (held at the time by many Liberals, not necessarily followers of either Mill or Bright) that the better way forward in Irish land would have been to fund the sale of tendencies to tenants rather than to prop up the landlords by making them concede tenant right, I must once more, I suppose, plead guilty. But I do object to being told that treating Gladstone without fear or favour on this question somehow constitutes a plot to ridicule him. Morley indeed jokes that had Gladstone in 1881 declared the Koran or the Nautical Almanack to be an Irish Land Bill he would have got it through. Ridicule? What is fascinating to me is that Dr. Biagini quite ignores what I think to be the most revealing episode in the entire record of Gladstones involvement with the Irish land question. After 1870 Gladstone blocked all efforts to make the 'Bright clauses in the 1870 Land Act, allowing tenants to purchase their tenancies through special loan facilities, to become an expanding and effective aspect of land policy. Many Liberals (and Conservatives too) agitated for tenant purchase and the creation of a solid owner-occupier Irish constituency. A parliamentary select committee recommended it. Irish opinion favoured it. When Gladstone visited Ireland in 1877 his speech in Dublin included, astonishingly, a statement that while landlordism was a necessary and beneficial element of English society, he accepted that that was not at all the case in Ireland. He thereupon endorsed the tenant purchase policy as going with the grain of Irish sentiment. He alluded to the success of the purchase scheme and his Irish Church disestablishment measures. I point out that this was a quite revolutionary declaration for him to make. And Gladstone repeated that endorsement in the House of Commons in 1879. He said these things, it must be ituencies. Tragically, that was not provided by Gladstone in 1886, Instead, he imperially and instantly polarised opinion into rigid blocs which remained fatally stuck for generations. And to all pleas thenceforth for a remodelled, more acceptable Home Rule Bill, Gladstone returned the bleak response: to propose any measure, except such as Ireland could approve on the lines already laid down, would be fatuity as regards myself, and treachery to the Irish nation.

Dr. Biagini takes it very much amiss that my sympathies obviously lie with Hartington, as if, ipso facto, that were inadmissible and even disgraceful. Well, yes, to some extent they obviously do. One consideration I had in mind here is that had Gladstone retired in 1885, as he was widely expected to do, and been succeeded by Hartington (which, again, is what was widely expected), some measure of comprehensive Irish self-government would, paradoxically, have had a good chance of being realised in the 1885 parliament. The fact that Hartington had been opposed to Home Rule in general and in particular to Gladstones radical version of it in 1886, need not be taken as the end of the story. Being a subaltern member of a government and being head of a government are two quite different things. However, I refrain from pursuing such counterfactually heavy-handed conceits.

In conclusion I must unpolemically say how much I enjoyed Dr. Biaginis account of The Economist issue in April 1992 and associated material about Gladstone as a prophet for the left and as a model for both modern Liberal Democrats and New Labour. I am very sorry I missed seeing that Economist issue (on checking I see that I was abroad at the time), for I have had occasion to publish critical comment on the way Gladstone has been converted and, as I think distorted, for contemporary progressive purposes. But I must also add that if Mr. Blair is indeed tending, as some people fear, towards taking himself seriously as spokesman for the people and as leader of the nation, then we could be heading for rough times.

February 2000

Original review

Back to reviews index

Back to top