William Ewart Gladstone dominated British politics in the heyday of classical liberalism. He entered Parliament at age 23, first held a cabinet post at 34, and delivered his last speech as a Member when he was 84. He served as Prime Minister four times.
Nobel Laureate F.A. Hayek ranked Gladstone among the greatest classical liberals. Lord Acton believed Gladstone’s supremacy was undisputed. Paul Johnson declared there is no parallel to his record of achievement in English history. One might add there are few parallels anywhere.
As Chancellor of the Exchequer in four ministries, Gladstone fought the most powerful interest groups. He helped abolish more than 1,000—about 95 percent—of Britain’s tariffs. He cut and abolished other taxes year after year. Imagine, if you possibly can, our income tax with a single rate of 1.25 percent. That’s what was left of the British income tax when Gladstone got through hammering it down. He wasn’t satisfied, because he wanted to wipe it out.
Gladstone believed the cost of war should be a deterrent to militarism. He insisted on a policy of financing war exclusively by taxation. He opposed borrowing money for war, since this would make it easier, and future generations would be unfairly burdened.
Gladstone’s most glorious political campaigns came late in life: to stop British imperialism and to give the oppressed Irish self-government. Gladstone showed that even in such lost causes, friends of freedom had the strength and courage to put up a tremendous fight that would never be forgotten.
To be sure, Gladstone wasn’t a perfect hero. Having matured in an era when his government had limited power and committed few horrors, Gladstone figured it could do some good. For instance, he approved taxes for government schools. But part of the problem was that government revenues soared as Gladstone cut tariffs and other taxes, and political pressure became overwhelming for government to spend some of the loot.
Despite his errors, Gladstone towered above his rivals. His most famous opponent was Benjamin Disraeli, the Tory who promoted higher taxes, more powerful government, and imperial conquest. Gladstone’s liberal rivals were mostly fans of Viscount Palmerston, best known for his bullying of weaker countries. During the late nineteenth century, Gladstone’s chief Liberal rival was Joseph Chamberlain, a socialist who became a vigorous imperialist. Without Gladstone’s influence, there probably would have been fewer gains for liberty, and the losses probably would have come faster.
Gladstone’s enduring contribution was to stress the moral imperative for liberty. Influential British philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill had almost banished morality from political discussion, as they touted the greatest-good-for-the-greatest-number principle, but Gladstone brought out the moral dimension of taxes, trade, everything. Whatever he did, remarked historian A.J.P. Taylor, was a holy cause. Gladstone’s moral fervor was a key to his popular appeal. As historian J.L. Hammond observed: It is safe to say that for one portrait of anybody else in working-class houses, there were ten of Gladstone.
He accomplished much, in part, because he had prodigious energy. He worked 14-hour days to become England’s leading expert on government finance. In his spare time, Gladstone wrote books, mostly about Greek and Roman literature (he loved Homer). He enjoyed riding horses. Chopping down trees was a favorite pastime. He went on long walks—up to 25 miles—well into his 70s. Earl Spencer, a Liberal friend, remarked that Gladstone was governed by the most intense impulsiveness and enthusiasms.
Gladstone gained strength from his Anglican faith and happy home life. He married Catherine Glynne on July 25, 1839, and they remained together more than a half-century, until his death. They had four sons and four daughters. They lived at Carlton House Terrace (London) and at Hawarden, the turreted castle where she was born, on a hilltop overlooking Liverpool. There Gladstone had a library which grew to 27,000 books. Hawarden was heavily mortgaged to help finance his brother-in-law’s business venture that failed, and Gladstone spent years paying down debt and saving the property for the family.
Gladstone took charity to heart, even when this exposed him to ridicule. For some 40 years, he spent about three nights every week working to help London women quit prostitution. He helped establish the Church Penitentiary Association for the Reclamation of Fallen Women, which raised money for homes where these women could turn their lives around. He started the Newport Home of Refuge (Soho Square) and the St. Mary Magdalen Home of Refuge (Paddington). He served on the Management Committee of the Millbank Penitentiary, where arrested prostitutes were sent. He often worked with his wife, and together they established the Clewer Home of Mercy. He spent \P83,500 on these missions.
Gladstone’s commanding manner made him seem like a giant, yet he was only average height—5 feet, 10 inches tall—with broad shoulders, a pale complexion, and large eyes which were nearly black. During his 50s, his thick black hair thinned and began to turn gray. He let it grow around his face in the popular bewhiskered style. He had a strong, musical voice that was a major asset for him as a public speaker.
Although he was sometimes long-winded—one of his speeches went on for five hours—he could rise to great eloquence. He combined a mastery of facts with an ability to inspire moral indignation. During one election campaign, he faced a hostile crowd of 20,000, then delivered a stirring two-hour speech that climaxed with a unanimous vote of confidence.
Groomed for Greatness
William Ewart Gladstone was born December 29, 1809, at 62 Rodney Street, Liverpool. His father, John Gladstone, was a Scottish politician and investor owning plantations in the West Indies. His mother, Anne Robertson, was from Stornoway.
Gladstone had a very proper education, initially learning from a local clergyman, then at age 11 attending prestigious Eton, where he acquired a lifelong taste for Greek and Latin literature. In October 1829, he enrolled at Christ Church, Oxford. Following his studies there, he broadened his horizon by traveling around Italy for six months.
His father was determined that William become a statesman, so a family friend, the Duke of Newcastle, nominated him as a candidate to represent Newark in Parliament. He won the election in December 1832. The following year, he began studying law at Lincoln’s Inn—as his future rival Benjamin Disraeli had already done.
Gladstone started his career a thoroughgoing Tory (conservative). In his first speech, delivered June 3, 1833, Gladstone claimed his father’s slaves were healthy and happy. He favored gradual emancipation with compensation paid to owners. On July 8, 1833, he talked about Ireland, opposing a bill that would divert some Church of Ireland funds for secular purposes.
Tory Robert Peel, founder of the Conservative Party, became First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer and, impressed by Gladstone’s energy and competence, named the young man a Junior Lord of the Treasury. Gladstone expressed his opposition to the income tax, but it was introduced in 1842 to offset anticipated lower revenues resulting from tariff reductions. The ministry was soon dissolved, but Gladstone was clearly prime talent. Two years later, he accepted a post as Undersecretary for War and the Colonies.
Gladstone was always a devout supporter of the Church of England, and in 1838 he wrote The State in Its Relation with the Church. He expressed the high Tory view that there could be only one religion in society, and government must enforce it. The book is remembered mainly because Thomas Babington Macaulay wrote an 1839 Edinburgh Review essay tearing it apart. He referred to Gladstone as the rising hope of those stern and unbending Tories. Considering the corrupt and brutal history of governments, Macaulay thought it was preposterous to imagine that politicians could uphold moral standards, and he believed attempts to enforce any kind of orthodoxy must provoke social conflict. Gladstone wrote Macaulay, thanking him for the candour and single-mindedness of the review.
Pledged to uphold the corn laws (grain tariffs), Peel became Prime Minister on August 31, 1841, and he chose Gladstone as Vice President of the Board of Trade and Master of the Mint. Gladstone would rather have had responsibility relating to religion, but he resolved to acquire the needed expertise, and soon he knew more about government finance than anybody else. By 1843, he was appointed President of the Board of Trade.
Free trade became a hot issue as textile entrepreneurs Richard Cobden and John Bright campaigned against the corn laws for raising the price of bread and contributing to human misery. Gladstone resisted demands that the corn laws be repealed, while working to cut tariffs. But he resigned from the ministry and Parliament on January 28, 1845, because he disagreed with Peel’s proposal to give Ireland’s Maynooth College more money for educating Catholic priests. In December, he rejoined the ministry—although he remained out of Parliament—as Secretary of State for the Colonies.
Meanwhile, Benjamin Disraeli came to the fore as a member of Parliament. For years, he was known as a dandy who wore jeweled shirts and rings over his gloves. He was born in December 1804, the son of a Jewish man of letters who had converted to Christianity. Disraeli had enormous political ambitions. He was seldom concerned about moral principles. He denounced the free-market views of Adam Smith, and he despised the emerging middle classes as materialistic. An author of popular political novels, he urged young aristocrats to defend the old agricultural order from the influence of merchants and manufacturers. He felt most comfortable among protectionist aristocrats, despite the anti-Semitism of many—his protectionist friends opposed one bill after another to admit Jews into Parliament. While Disraeli favored equal rights for Jews, he rejected the principle of religious toleration. He engaged in blatant flattery, and this helped him become Queen Victoria’s favorite minister. Disraeli’s taste for high living exceeded his modest means, and he spent much of his life struggling to avoid embarrassment because of overdue debts he owed moneylenders, tailors, hosiers, upholsterers, and others.
Disraeli emerged as a name to reckon with during debates about the corn laws. His speeches were noted for their controlled low-key delivery, clever phrasing, and savage personal attacks. He defended the corn laws as a great system. After Peel had come out for free trade, Disraeli called him a burglar of others’ intellect . . . from the days of the Conqueror to the termination of the last reign, there is no statesman who has committed larceny on so great a scale.
On June 25, 1846, Peel pushed through the repeal of the corn laws, and Tories were furious at his betrayal. Disraeli spearheaded efforts to bring down Peel’s government, and on the very day that the corn laws were repealed, the House of Lords rejected Peel’s coercion bill to suppress violence in Ireland. Four days later, Peel resigned. Disraeli began the long process of rebuilding the Tory party.
Although Gladstone was a devoted Peelite Tory, he instinctively rose to the defense of oppressed people. In 1840, he had spoken out against the British government’s Opium War, intended to help politically connected merchants sell opium in China. After Gladstone had visited Naples in 1850 and discovered that Ferdinand II, King of the Two Sicilies, had some 20,000 political prisoners, he wrote an angry letter which circulated throughout Europe.
Disraeli, who had become Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer in February 1852, proposed a budget which supposedly would be balanced by doubling taxes on houses. Gladstone delivered a powerful speech against the budget, intensifying their rivalry, the most memorable in British politics since that between William Pitt the Younger and Charles James Fox. The Tory ministry resigned on December 17, 1852.
Gladstone as Chancellor of the Exchequer
Gladstone was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer in the coalition government of Lord Aberdeen, and in April of 1853 he delivered his first budget speech, a five-hour review of the numbers. He called for income tax cuts, repeal of the soap tax and reductions in taxes on tea and advertisements. Gladstone’s tax and spending cuts were delayed by the Crimean War between Russia and Turkey, which Britain entered to counter Russia’s power. Gladstone had gone along with it, while Cobden and Bright lost their Parliamentary seats because of their opposition to it.
By 1859, Gladstone was serving as Chancellor of the Exchequer in Lord Palmerston’s ministry. He raised some taxes to cover the budget deficit, a legacy of the Crimean War. The following year, he approved Cobden’s plan to negotiate a trade liberalization treaty with France, and it inspired a trend toward freer trade throughout Europe. Gladstone proposed cutting tariffs on many kinds of food and eliminating tariffs on paper. Disraeli led Tory opposition to these cuts, and a number of proposals were defeated by the Tory-dominated House of Lords, but overall Liberals prevailed, and the number of tariffs was cut from 1,163 in 1845 to 460 in 1853 and 48 in 1859—only 15 of any consequence.
In 1861, Gladstone hit on an ingenious Parliamentary tactic. Rather than have the House of Lords consider proposals individually, he bundled them into a single money bill, because the House of Lords couldn’t amend money bills. They could only vote whether to approve them as presented. The tactic succeeded, and the paper tariff became history.
In 1862, Prime Minister Palmerston, who relished overseas military adventures, demanded that more money be spent on fortifications, so it became tougher for Gladstone to cut taxes and government spending, but he did manage to abolish the tariff on hops—a boon for brewers. The next year, he cut the income tax. By 1864, he secured further income tax cuts and lowered tariffs on sugar. In 1865, he again cut the income tax and the tariff on tea, and he halved the tax on fire insurance. In 1866 he cut tariffs on bottled wine and livery cabs, and abolished tariffs on timber and pepper. He announced that trade liberalization treaties had been negotiated with Austria, Belgium, and the German states.
Gladstone’s policies were a stupendous triumph. Every effort to cut tariffs and other taxes involved a terrible fight with affected interest groups, yet he persisted. He rejected demands to have graduated income tax rates. He brought the income tax down from 10 percent during the Napoleonic Wars and 6.6 percent during the Crimean War to 1.66 percent. And the more he cut the cost of government, the more people prospered. In 1859, imports were \P179 million, and exports were \P155 million. A decade later, imports soared to \P279 million, while exports hit \P237 million. The improved living standards of manual workers, reported economic historian Charles More, were paralleled by improved living standards both for the middle class and for the very rich.
The government was awash with money from taxes that remained, and Gladstone used surpluses to further cut or abolish taxes. Still, revenues poured in, and he couldn’t resist all the pressures to spend it on new government programs. Gladstone yearned to abolish the income tax because of his concern that it could make possible much bigger government.
Expanding the Franchise
Working with John Bright, he became a powerful advocate for expanding the franchise. In 1864, he startled many people by declaring: I contend that it is on those who say it is necessary to exclude forty-nine fiftieths of the working classes that the burden of proof rests. Every man who is not presumably incapacitated by some consideration of personal unfitness or political danger, is morally entitled to come within the pale of the constitution. Disraeli scoffed that Gladstone revived the doctrine of Tom Paine.
In March 1866, Gladstone backed a bill to expand the franchise, but it was defeated, and Lord John Russell’s Liberal government resigned. Gladstone became official leader of the Liberals. Tory Lord Derby formed a government, and Disraeli got a more generous version of the bill through the House of Commons—it added about a million people to the voter rolls. Disraeli did it by gracefully accepting a succession of Liberal amendments, which eroded much opposition. In February 1868, Prime Minister Derby resigned, and he was succeeded by Disraeli.
The Irish Question
Gladstone focused on injustices in Ireland. The situation there had festered for centuries and became inflamed after 1800 when Prime Minister William Pitt, fearing that the French Revolution would spread to the British Isles, persuaded Parliament to approve the Union with England. Ireland would be ruled by Parliament, from which Catholics were excluded. The Act of Union provided that there would be an established Church of Ireland—Anglican—for which Irish Catholic peasants were to pay taxes. Charles James Fox, Pitt’s great rival, had warned that we ought not to presume to legislate for a nation with whose feelings and affections, wants and interests, opinions and prejudices we have no sympathy—and Gladstone resolved to move his compatriots toward Irish independence.
Ireland, Ireland! Gladstone had written as early as 1845, that cloud in the west, that coming storm, the minister of God’s retribution upon cruel and inveterate and but half-atoned injustice! Ireland forces upon us those great social and great religious questions—God grant that we may have courage to look them in the face, and to work through them.
In 1868, Gladstone introduced a resolution that poor Catholic peasants shouldn’t be taxed for the Church of Ireland. Disraeli objected that an attack on the Church of Ireland invited attacks on the Church of England. The House of Commons adopted the resolution, and Disraeli offered his resignation. Liberals won the subsequent elections and Gladstone became Prime Minister in December 1868.
Prime Minister Gladstone
Then came major Irish reforms. In 1869 Parliament enacted his Disestablishment Bill for the Church of Ireland; in 1870, his Irish Land Act. It gave force of statute law to Ulster custom. Namely, a paying tenant farmer, evicted from land he worked, was entitled to compensation for the eviction and for buildings and other improvements he made. This Land Act overturned previous laws that denied tenants any claim to compensation for their improvements, but it didn’t help many tenants, because most evictions were for nonpayment of rent. What the Land Act did do was make it easier for subsequent governments to interfere with private property rights.
Gladstone pursued one reform after another. He opened Oxford and Cambridge to Nonconformist Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and even atheists. He streamlined England’s court system—it had been necessary for many litigants to file suit in two courts simultaneously. He established competitive examinations, rather than wealth or family connections, as the primary basis for advancing in the government bureaucracy and the armed forces. Gladstone’s Ballot Act enabled people to vote in secrecy, without intimidation. And of course, Gladstone did as much as he could to further cut taxes and government spending.
Gladstone’s ministers promoted some measures calling for more government intervention in the economy. Incredibly, for a man devoted to separating church and state, he approved William Forster’s Education Act of 1870, which authorized taxes to finance state power over education.
Disraeli hit Gladstone at every turn. Her Majesty’s new Ministers proceeded in their career like a body of men under the influence of some deleterious drug, he snarled. Not satiated with the spoliation and anarchy of Ireland, they began to attack every institution and every interest, every class and calling in the country.
After six years as Prime Minister, Gladstone had offended a lot of powerful interest groups, and his popularity faded. In the February 1874 election campaign, he proposed abolishing the income tax, but the rate was only 1.25 percent—apparently not enough for people to get exercised about—and Liberals were routed. Gladstone’s Great Ministry ended, and he retired as leader of the Liberals.
Disraeli became Prime Minister. He was 70 years old, in frail health and desolated by his wife’s death, but he made the most of his opportunity at the top—after a quarter-century rebuilding the Tory party. Disraeli pushed through Factory Acts in 1874 and 1878, increasing government regulation of business. Disraeli’s Trade Union Act essentially put labor union bosses above the law. With the Sale of Food and Drugs Act, Disraeli’s government assumed responsibility for the health of people. The Artisan’s Dwelling Act authorized local governments to take private property for housing projects.
More distressing for Gladstone, Disraeli promoted imperialism. He spent more money on armaments. He got involved in the war between Russia and Turkey. He occupied Cyprus. He had British forces invade Transvaal, South Africa, and Kabul, Afghanistan. He guaranteed to protect three states on the Malay Peninsula. He claimed about 200 Pacific islands. He acquired controlling interest in the Suez Canal—a move which afforded more secure access to British India but became an 80-year occupation of Egypt, including wars, big military expenditures and political embarrassments. Disraeli flattered Queen Victoria by naming her Empress of India, and she cherished the thought that the sun never set on the British Empire. Gladstone was outraged.
Events in the Mideast brought Gladstone back into the public arena. Between April and August 1876, Turkish forces slaughtered some 12,000 rebellious Bulgarian Christians. Disraeli played this down, because he supported the Turkish empire to offset Russian influence. Gladstone insisted that moral standards apply to everyone, including allies. Gladstone wrote a pamphlet, The Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East, which came out in early September and soon sold 200,000 copies. Disraeli dismissed the pamphlet as passionate, vindictive, and ill-written. Disraeli added: There may be more infamous men but I don’t believe there is anyone more wicked.
To Gladstone, imperialism inevitably meant more burdens on British taxpayers and more risks of war. On May 7, 1877, he declared: Consider how we have conquered, planted, annexed, and appropriated at all the points of the compass, so that at few points on the surface of the earth is there not some region or some spot of British dominion at hand. Nor even from these few points are we absent. . . . And then I ask you what quarrel can arise between any two countries or what war, in which you may not, if you be so minded to set up British interests as a ground of interference. Gladstone went on to warn against the arrogance of good intentions which end up squandering blood and treasure in foreign wars.
Russia and Turkey negotiated a treaty, but Disraeli objected because Russia gained the upper hand. He claimed it was Britain’s business to push back the Russians, and this was his aim at an international diplomatic conference held in Berlin, June 1878. He succeeded and enjoyed a hero’s welcome back in London. Gladstone denounced Disraeli’s imperialist pretensions as all brag . . . prestige . . . jingo.
Disraeli scorned Gladstone as a sophisticated rhetorician, inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity, and gifted with an egotistical imagination that can at all times command an interminable and inconsistent series of arguments to malign an opponent and glorify himself.
Disraeli’s imperialist policies, however, brought unwanted complications. He tangled with the Emir of Afghanistan, who refused to let British diplomats into the country. In South Africa, about 800 British soldiers were killed by Zulus. European pressures led Disraeli to ask for an expanded British naval presence in the Mediterranean.
Because of all this, as Prime Minister, Disraeli hiked taxes by \P5 million and incurred \P6 million of budget deficits versus Gladstone’s previous five years marked by \P12 million of tax cuts and \P17 million of budget surpluses.
Since imperialism was popular, Gladstone recognized he couldn’t stop it by following the traditional practice of debating political issues only within Parliament. He had to win over voters. Which constituency? On November 24, 1879, he launched a campaign for a Parliamentary seat in Midlothian, Scotland, long held by Tories. This was the first British political campaign that started before an election date was set.
Gladstone, his wife, and youngest daughter traveled by train and greeted thousands of people who, despite bitterly cold temperatures, had turned out for a glimpse of this famous man. He spoke to as many as 6,000 at a time. He urged that foreign policy be based on six principles. First, keep government small so people can prosper. Second, promote peaceful relations among nations. Third, maintain cooperation in Europe. Fourth, avoid entangling engagements. Fifth, try to treat all nations equally. Sixth, the foreign policy of England should always be inspired by the love of freedom . . . in freedom you lay the firmest foundations both of loyalty and order.
Queen Victoria thought it unseemly for a former Prime Minister to address ordinary people from a railway carriage. Disraeli called Gladstone an Impetuous Hyprocrite and knocked the Midlothian campaign as a pilgrimage of passion, while Gladstone declared it was a festival of freedom. But Gladstone won his seat, the Liberals swept out Disraeli’s Tories, and Gladstone became Prime Minister again.
Gladstone wrestled with the consequences of Disraeli’s reckless commitments around the world. Turks disregarded terms of the treaty which Disraeli helped broker with Russia. Boers battled British soldiers in South Africa. Arab nationalists revolted against the Egyptian government, and the popular British adventurer Charles Gordon was killed in Khartoum. Afghanistan became a quagmire. Although Gladstone withdrew from Afghanistan, overall he failed to reverse Disraeli’s imperialist policies. At least he resisted embroiling Britain in more overseas conflicts.
Disraeli was obsessed with Gladstone, referring to him as the Arch Villain. Disraeli remarked that I really am alarmed for the country, governed by a vindictive lunatic. The bitter rivalry ended with Disraeli’s death on April 19, 1881.
Besides dealing with foreign policy issues, Gladstone engineered the 1884 Reform Act, which expanded the number of voters from about 3 million to 5 million. Gladstone’s Game Bill allowed farmers to hunt wild game, ending the centuries-long tradition that reserved the privilege exclusively for landlords.
There was an agricultural depression, and Irish discontent flared up as the biggest issue for Gladstone. An Irish Protestant lawyer named Isaac Butt had organized the Irish Home Government Association, and his cohorts won 50 seats in the 1874 election. Butt’s reasonable approach, however, didn’t produce results. Three years later, another Irish Protestant, Charles Stewart Parnell, decided it was time for tougher tactics. A young landowner and Member of Parliament, he began to hamstring proceedings thereby exploiting technicalities.
Parnell did what he could to stir up popular discontent against British rule. His battle cry was Fair Rent, Fixed Tenure, Free Sale. In County Mayo, controversy focused on one Captain Boycott, a landlord’s agent. Agricultural laborers refused to work his fields. Blacksmiths wouldn’t take care of his horses. Mail carriers wouldn’t deliver to his property. People did volunteer to help harvest his crops, but they required 7,000 soldiers to provide protection. Thus was born the tactic of boycotting.
Violence became endemic in Ireland, especially after the bad harvest of 1879, and Conservatives called for more coercion bills, which included curfews and imprisoning people without having to file charges. Gladstone insisted that violence must be stopped, so he approved the 1881 Coercion Act, and he ordered Parnell jailed for stirring Irish peasants against his proposed new Irish Land Act—the feisty Irishman remained in jail for a year.
Gladstone believed peace would come to Ireland only when feudalism ended and peasants had a meaningful stake in their work. Accordingly, he threw his energies into the Irish Land Act, passed in 1881. It guaranteed tenants could retain their holding as long as they paid rent, avoided persistent waste and obeyed the laws. The bill guaranteed tenants could sell their holding, providing rent was paid in full. In the most ominous departure from laissez-faire principles, the law specified that judges would fix rents when tenants and landlords didn’t reach their own agreements.
Influenced by philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill, who had written two pamphlets on the Irish land issue, Gladstone asserted freedom of contract just wasn’t appropriate for feudal Ireland. This claim was later challenged by historians who made clear how freedom of contract undermined feudalism in Western Europe. Although motivated by a sincere desire for justice, Gladstone’s seeming shortcut set a grievous precedent for government intervention, which became massive during the twentieth century.
Parnell called Gladstone’s new Irish Land Act a fraud, and he urged continued Irish resistance. His bloc voted against Gladstone, forcing the Prime Minister’s resignation on June 9, 1885. But because the Tories didn’t get enough support in the subsequent elections, they refused to form a new government, and Gladstone formed his third ministry in January 1886. Parnell’s followers had won 85 seats during the Parliamentary elections, and this seems to have convinced Gladstone that the time was ripe for really bold action. On April 8, 1886, he announced he was for Home Rule, although he hadn’t campaigned on this explosive issue. Home Rule would have meant setting up an Irish Parliament to determine domestic policy. Ireland would have remained part of the British Empire, and the British Parliament would have handled international relations. Ireland would have contributed some tax revenue to help cover imperial expenses. There would have been no more Irish representatives in the British Parliament—hence the prospect of an end to Irish obstructionist tactics.
Home Rule split apart the Liberal party. Like John Bright, many believed their mission was to extend individual rights and the rule of law as widely as possible. They opposed what they considered concessions to violent peasants. They feared Home Rule would encourage demands for Irish independence and the unwinding of Great Britain. In June 1886, 94 Liberal members of Parliament voted against Gladstone’s Home Rule bill, defeating it and leading to a general election which swept the Liberals out of power.
The remaining Liberals were devoted mainly to domestic issues. They wanted more government intervention in the economy. Having approved much government intervention during the past decade, Gladstone began to see where it was headed—socialism—and he didn’t like it. Moreover, as far as he was concerned the top priority was Irish Home Rule, which he viewed as a prelude for Home Rule in England, Scotland, and Wales—hopefully resulting in a federation with more freedom. The Liberals accepted Gladstone’s views because they weren’t ready to drop him as their leader. He was the Grand Old Man, the most famous political personality in the land.
Liberals won the July 1892 general elections, and Gladstone formed his fourth ministry. A majority of English Members of Parliament were against Irish Home Rule, and those Members who remained with Gladstone were weary of the issue. But Gladstone had the support of 81 Irish nationalists, giving him an overall majority of 40 votes. He began his last political battle on February 13, 1893. He knew he would lose, but he persevered.
Never did Gladstone speak more ably than on the introduction of the second Home Rule bill, reported biographer Walter Phelps Hall. The old familiar thumping on the treasury box was renewed; the magic voice, so grave, so eloquent, now rose and fell in musical cadence, exhorting Englishmen. . . .
On September 1, 1893, the House of Commons passed Gladstone’s Home Rule bill, but a week later the Tory-dominated House of Lords rejected it. Tories hated Gladstone and the Irish nationalists. Queen Victoria shared the view of the Lords: The mischief Mr. Gladstone does, she wrote, is incalculable; instead of stemming the current and downward course of radicalism which he could do perfectly, he heads and encourages it, and alienates all true Whigs and moderate Liberals from him. The following March 1, he delivered his last speech, a denunciation of the House of Lords. Two days later, he resigned as Prime Minister.
He told his loyal associate and biographer John Morley: I was brought up to hate and fear liberty. I came to love it. That is the secret of my whole career.
Gladstone died of cancer at Hawarden, around 4:00 A.M., May 19, 1898, surrounded by his wife and children. He was 88. The coffin was placed in Westminster Hall, and an estimated 250,000 people came to pay their respects. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, near his mentor Robert Peel, who had converted to free trade.
As Gladstone had anticipated, the Irish seized their destiny. On December 6, 1921, an Anglo-Irish treaty established the Irish Free State. With adoption of a constitution in 1937, this became the Republic of Ireland. It ended ties with the British Commonwealth in 1948. Northern Ireland, still subject to British rule, remains a place of chronic violence.
Gladstone achieved much for liberty. He was a world-class tax cutter. He slashed government spending. He secured the triumph of free trade. He helped give millions of taxpayers a greater say in their government. He did more than just about anyone else to advance the cause of Irish liberty. He courageously spoke out against imperialism, urging people to embrace liberty and peace rather than power and prestige. He displayed the kind of moral fervor that could help liberty rise again.