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.

Parry is well aware of the personal weaknesses of many of the leading Whigs: the petulant egotism of Russell, for example, and Palmerston’s devil-may-care bluster. Even so, he has enormous admiration for the Whig temperament, which he depicts as serious, but not priggish; optimistic, but not utopian; sensitive to public opinion, but never populist. Liberalism, we are told, ‘offered rule by high-minded men of property and unshakeable character, disdainful of reputation, short on vanity or personal ambition, and anxious to demonstrate the willingness of the aristocracy to serve the people by laborious administration’.

Although committed to their party and creed, the Whig élite of mid-Victorian Britain took a relaxed view of party discipline. Between 1855 and 1865 the Government was defeated 112 times, but only rarely were these defeats regarded as occasions for resignation, since successive prime ministers realised the necessity for cajoling Parliament and for working within the confines of what MPs and peers found acceptable. The idea of a docile party being whipped into compliance with the Government’s wishes was abhorrent to them. A similar deference to ‘the power of discussion and reason’ characterised the operation of the Cabinet, which, if this account is to be believed, was run in the mid-Victorian period rather like a well-conducted Cambridge college. These collegial values made possible a civilised, consensual kind of political culture with which Party believes Liberalism itself was inextricably intertwined.

Onto this scene erupted William Ewart Gladstone. The trouble with Gladstone, according to Parry, was that, as a former Conservative, he understood neither the values nor the governing style which the Whigs had developed. He also suffered from other disadvantages. For one thing, his Anglo-Catholic perspective on life put him at odds with mainstream Whig-Liberal ideology, which was mildly anti-clerical. Gladstone’s mercantile family background was another source of misunderstanding. Many Whig aristocrats thought him a parvenu; Emily Eden once observed that there was something about Gladstone’s tone of voice and way of coming into a room that was ‘not aristocratic’. True, the GOM felt no hostility whatever to the idea of aristocracy – on the contrary, he tended to idealise the landed classes, but when they fell short of the unrealistically high standards he had set for them, he was inclined to lambast them for their ‘selfishness’.

Equally foreign to the Liberal Party was Gladstone’s leadership style, a strange mixture of excitable populism and authoritarianism, the latter copied from his revered mentor, Sir Robert Peel, whose ‘Canute-like executive arrogance’ had wrought so much damage in the 1840s. In this account Gladstone emerges as a half-crazed genius, who, unexpectedly elected as master of the college, had then gone on to write a weekly column for the Sun, as it were, all the while inciting the undergraduates to campaign for a curtailment of the privileges of the fellows. Gladstone, we are reminded, was a man of an extraordinary restless energy who, convinced of the rectitude of his own beliefs, sought to ward off the ‘corruption’ which he saw everywhere around him by committing his followers to a succession of ‘crusades’. ‘His was the politics of conviction not consensus,’ Parry concludes.

By behaving in such a way Gladstone overburdened Parliament with legislative projects, strained the patience of many of his followers and showed little loyalty to other members of his Cabinet. ‘Did any leader ever treat a party in such a way as he has done?’ Lord Hartington exclaimed in the middle of the Irish Home Rule crisis. After reading Parry, we understand only too clearly what lay behind this cry of anguish. Indeed, Parry’s claim is that it was Gladstone’s wayward brand of leadership, as much as the contents of his first Home Rule Bill, which shattered the party in 1886.

In describing the party realignment of that year, Parry sheds no tears over the defection of Joseph Chamberlain, presumably because he sees the Brummagem Tribune as someone who shared Gladstone’s fatal addiction to reform ‘agitations’ without possessing any of the latter’s few redeeming virtues. Instead, Parry believes that the tragedy of the Home Rule schism was that it provoked the departure from the Liberal Party of the head of the Whig faction, Lord Hartington, Gladstone’s most likely successor. Hartington emerges here as potentially the Liberals’ greatest leader, an experienced statesman in the Palmerstonian mould, who, with a judicious blend of moderate reform at home and a patriotic foreign policy, might, given a reasonable chance, have saved the country from social disintegration and national decline.

The main body of Parry’s account stops in 1886, logically enough – for, in his view, most of what had been distinctive and valuable about Liberalism was destroyed in the Home Rule upheaval. True, the Liberals recovered to win a landslide victory in 1906 and to carry a series of important social reforms in the years preceding the Great War. But, in Parry’s eyes, the ‘gaggle of outsiders’ who ran the parliamentary party during the Edwardian decade had largely forfeited their right to be known as ‘Liberals’. Asquith himself may well have inherited his leadership style from the Whig tradition – to the approval of Parry, who admires his rationality and patrician composure. These were not qualities universally found within the Edwardian Liberal Party, in which demagoguery and ‘sectionalism’ were rife. Lloyd George is passed over without so much as a mention.

Parry’s interpretation of Victorian politics is put forward with great skill and eloquence, so much so that it seems likely to become a new orthodoxy. Not everyone will be entirely convinced by it, however. After all, sceptics will protest, ‘Palmerstonianism’ had largely broken down even before Palmerston’s death in 1865; could Hartington have revived it twenty years later? Moreover, Parry himself suggests that the enlarged electorate brought into existence by the Second Reform Act was creating difficulties for the leadership after 1867, as Liberals struggled to reconcile their two traditions: ‘how to remain the party of wisdom, property and rational parliamentary debate, and yet also the party of the people?’ With a further broadening of the franchise in 1884, followed by the advent of universal suffrage in 1918, such difficulties would surely have multiplied, even had the party stayed united under Hartington’s leadership after 1886.

Parry’s tone of voice is also likely to antagonise some. The Rise and Fall of Liberal Government is a sophisticated piece of scholarly writing. And yet, beneath the surface of its cool, urbane prose, one often senses the stirring of strong, even passionate feelings. Why, many will ask, should a young Cambridge don react to Home Rule as though to a personal affront? And why, describing the political realignment of 1885-6, does his voice merge with the complaints of Gladstone’s angry Whig critics?

I suspect that the answer is to be found in events of more recent date. It may not be entirely fanciful to imagine that some parallels are being drawn in Parry’s mind between the disruption of the delicate political equilibrium which sustained Whig government in mid-Victorian Britain and the way in which the ‘Great and the Good’ fell victim to Mrs Thatcher’s ideological zealotry. Certainly Parry’s Gladstone bears many resemblances to the former prime minister – another social outsider who hijacked one of the great historic parties and, through force of personality, committed it to a succession of moral campaigns. The self-righteousness, authoritarian populism, obsession with ‘crusader politics’, lack of consideration for the feelings of Cabinet colleagues – all these traits can be found in both prime ministers. No doubt those in the know will also have noticed something not quite ladylike about Mrs Thatcher’s manner of entering a room.

Reading Parry, I felt for the first time that I really understood Thatcher’s rage as she confronted the arrogance of upper-class Conservatives who imagined that they had a prescriptive right to govern the country. Similarly, though this was almost certainly not his intention, Parry’s book may throw indirect light on why so many contemporary opponents of Britain’s mid-Victorian aristocratic governments should have railed against the dominant social and political dispensation. For this is insiders’ history with a vengeance. Parry’s heroes are practical men of affairs, ‘the administrative Liberals’ who staffed the departments of state and knew, at first hand, how the system worked. He shares Bagehot’s admiration for ‘dull government’, as practised by the likes of Sir George Cornewall Lewis and Sir George Grey. And he feels nothing but impatience for those who made a habit of criticising the system from the outside.

In fairness to Parry, one must say that he has not written one of those studies of ‘high politics’, fashionable in the Seventies, in which the political world is portrayed as hermetically sealed off from the problems of the wider society. On the contrary, he is acutely aware of the fragility of political and social order in Victorian Britain and of the severity of the many challenges which government faced – from disease, social unrest and political turbulence. But he also believes that only a wise, tolerant and sanely progressive élite could have saved the country from revolutionary breakdown. God, it seems, might almost have invented Chartism and the cholera to allow the Whig aristocracy to go through its paces as an enlightened ruling class.

Nor is Parry insensitive to the status aspirations of subaltern social groups resentful of the patrician ethos of the Victorian state. But he insists that the Whigs, though an élite, were an ‘open élite’. In the 1850s and 1860s talented outsiders could expect to receive the occasional invitation to join it, and a few outstanding individuals from the provinces were given posts like the Board of Trade that were deemed suitable for ‘commercial Members’. (The major offices of state continued, by and large, to be reserved for the great aristocratic magnates.) All this formed part of the process of ‘social integration’ which Parry reveres.

Anyone benighted enough to refuse cooperation with the Whig aristocracy on the latter’s terms, however, receives short shrift. Feargus O’Connor, the Chartist leader, is dismissed as ‘the mob orator’; Palmerston is approvingly quoted in support of the view that Richard Cobden was ‘an impractical inverted snob, like “a shop apprentice in a back alley in the City” ’. Class-conscious urban politicians, revolutionary workmen and ‘superstitious’ Irish peasants are all put in their place, though it should be added that ‘stupid’ Tories are treated only slightly less brusquely. Unless guided by a ‘cultivated’ leadership, it seems, Victorian political movements invariably went off the rails. Thus ‘the hysterical provincial nonconformist drive against prostitution, arising out of the campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts’ is mocked; attacks on the land laws and the Church Establishment, and attempts at repealing the Union with Ireland, are presented as pieces of utopian silliness.

This, then, is a provocative book. It is also one of the most stimulating accounts ever written of Victorian politics. Many will feel that Parry enjoys a far too familiar relationship with his Whig grandees. How else account for the extraordinary claim that the mid-Victorian Liberals had ‘come as close as human nature allowed to disinterested national government’? But such an excess of sympathy is, on balance, a virtue not a vice, because it impels Parry to explain a type of political culture which more facile commentators might have been tempted to pillory.