What Gladstone did

G.R. Searle

  • The Rise and Fall of Liberal Government in Victorian Britain by Jonathan Parry
    Yale, 383 pp, £30.00, January 1994, ISBN 0 300 05779 2

This impressive study of Victorian politics is built around a challenging thesis: that Gladstone, far from being the creator of the Liberal Party, was in fact a maverick who stumbled into the leadership of an already flourishing Liberal Party and, through his zealotry, restless ambition and ignorance, single-handedly proceeded to destroy it. Jonathan Parry also provides a forceful celebration of a particular kind of political system, which he sees as achieving perfection under the ‘propertied but unsnobbish’ Whig Ministers who ruled the country in early and mid-Victorian Britain.

To anyone accustomed to thinking of Gladstone and Victorian Liberalism as almost synonymous, and of the Whigs as an effete clique of reactionary landed aristocrats, these claims may come as a surprise. They do, however, go with the grain of much recent research, in which the leading Whig magnates have been portrayed as industrious, responsible, widely-read statesmen working to a serious reform agenda. Even before Gladstone had committed himself to the Liberal Party – or so many historians now believe – the Whig-dominated Ministries of the mid-Victorian period were pursuing authentically Liberal policies.

This means that the origins of the Liberal Party must be pushed back well before the famous agreement at Willis’s Rooms in 1859, the date conventionally applied to its foundation. Parry begins his story with the Liberal Toryism of the 1820s, but he locates the actual emergence of a recognisable Liberal Party in the mid-1830s, when the debate about how to distribute the ‘surplus’ revenues of the Church of Ireland gave ‘Reform’ MPs a defining political cause and a leader under whom they could rally: Lord John Russell, dubbed by Parry ‘the greatest Liberal statesman of his age’.

Over the next forty years, the Whig-Liberal Party developed a distinct set of policies and, more importantly, an idiosyncratic approach to public life. As might have been expected from someone who has already published a notable study of Gladstone and religion, Parry traces many of the leadership’s beliefs back to their Christian roots. The Whigs, he shows, subscribed to a ‘manly’ Protestantism, free alike from the ‘effeminacy’ of Ritualism and the zealous bigotry of Dissent. At the heart of their creed lay a conception of the Church as a tolerant, all-embracing organisation which could integrate people of different classes and regions into a national community.

These religious convictions in turn coloured the Whig approach to secular politics. Its leaders were well-versed in political economy, but, mistrusting abstractions and enthusiasm, they sought to apply their knowledge cautiously and pragmatically. They also favoured ‘moderate’ social reform, though they usually eschewed doctrinaire blueprints such as those put forward by the Utilitarians. ‘Liberal government involved balancing-acts, sometimes difficult ones,’ Parry explains. Above all else, the Liberalism espoused by the Whigs was a classless ideology, geared to the task of ‘integrating and harmonising different classes and interest groups within the political nation’, under enlightened aristocratic leadership.

The Whig-Liberal Ministries of mid-Victorian Britain carried a raft of important reforms. They furthered commercial progress by extending free trade and legalising limited liability; overhauled and modernised central administration and municipal government; and gradually removed the grievances of disadvantaged groups like the Dissenters. However, in Parry’s view, Liberalism depended less on any set of policies than on a particular style of political leadership. In an age when the ownership of landed estates was widely seen as the foundation of political authority, what distinguished the Whigs was their insistence that property-owners must keep abreast of ‘progress’, avoid narrow partisanship, and show a conscientious responsiveness to public opinion.

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