Masses and Classes

Ferdinand Mount

  • The Mind of Gladstone: Religion, Homer and Politics by David Bebbington
    Oxford, 331 pp, £55.00, March 2004, ISBN 0 19 926765 0

What is Gladstone trying to tell us? Through the matted undergrowth of his prose, with its vatic pronouncements, its interminable subordinate clauses, its ponderous hesitations and protestations, its sudden whimsical excursions and conjectures, something – not a message exactly but not a philosophy either, perhaps the only word would be a mind – is struggling to declare itself. A mind, moreover, that insists on its continuing vivacity, and claims our attention not merely as a brilliant relic of its own time but as an unstilled voice in the conversation of ours. We may explore and even admire the minds of Gladstone’s mentors and contemporaries: Peel’s earnest reforming zeal, Palmerston’s gung-ho gunboat liberalism, Disraeli’s sugar castles of empire – though each is splendid in its way, they do not speak to us directly. But Gladstone haunts us still; he is the greatest of the undead.

Over the past ten years and more, I have become aware – a little reluctantly because he never used to be one of my heroes – that we are faced in Britain with an agenda that Gladstone would have recognised as his own: the devolution of power to the four nations of the United Kingdom, the revival of the little platoons and the protecting of local government from the pretensions of Whitehall, the shrinking of the overblown state (‘retrenchment and reform’, to use his never-improved-on phrase), and then the most ticklish question of all, how to undo the disadvantages of the poor without denting their self-confidence and damaging their independence. In the wider world, our present agenda has an even more Gladstonian ring: the defence of human rights, the protection of small, faraway oppressed nations, the defeat of piracy and terrorism, the restoration of the European balance. Is there a single theme that Blair has articulated which Gladstone did not articulate before him, and with greater resonance? More than once in the past couple of years, politicians have been unable to resist quoting Gladstone’s reminder that ‘the sanctity of life in the hill villages of Afghanistan, among the winter snows, is as inviolable in the eyes of Almighty God as can be your own.’

The Gladstonian agenda does not apply solely to government, or even to a single party. Over the past two decades, each of the three main parties has experienced a Gladstonian moment: first, Labour came to understand that individual self-development was not compatible with state socialism and that only free trade could maximise prosperity. Then the Conservatives came to the conclusion that there was such a thing as society after all; or rather they remembered that they had always thought so and wondered why they’d ever found themselves spouting such crude Manchester liberalism. Finally, over the past few months, the Liberal Democrats have rediscovered retrenchment and reform and begun to shuffle away from the vapid tax-and-spend policies they had drifted into. Their new spokesmen – Vincent Cable, David Laws and Mark Oaten – are the first prominent Liberals since Jo Grimond who could seriously claim to be heirs of the Grand Old Man.

Political commentators point out that parties make such shifts because otherwise they have little hope of getting elected. Gladstone himself, whose eye for the main chance remained undimmed, would not have thought that an unhealthy motive. But there were deeper motives at work, too. In all three parties there was a dawning awareness that the dogmas they had come to adopt did not fit the case: they failed either to relate to the circumstances of modern British society or to echo the underlying philosophy that was supposed to drive the party. Gladstone would have recognised these intimations: he felt them at recurring moments both in his long political career and in his personal religious and philosophical life.

Why then are we not more eager to attend to Gladstone’s revisions and recantations as the forerunners of our own? Why is David Bebbington’s The Mind of Gladstone such a lonely enterprise? First, because of the sheer difficulty of reading Gladstone. His contemporaries often found his writings ‘diffuse and laboured’, a criticism that with his habitual self-chastisement he took to heart by underlining it. ‘Sometimes,’ the Athenaeum remarked in 1879, ‘we have a sentence so long and involved that nothing but a passionate intensity of meaning and a profuse vocabulary could have avoided a disastrous collapse.’ T.H. Huxley, perhaps the most ferocious and unwavering of all Gladstone’s opponents, accused him, with some justice, of rhetorical artifice. Many other critics, such as Mrs Humphry Ward, denounced him for lacking any sense of evidence and for being ready to make sweeping deductions from narrow premises.

Gladstone was well aware of his defects as a writer. As early as his thirties, he confessed to his brother-in-law that he wrote ‘not by a genuine elasticity of spirit but by a plodding movement’. He knew his shortcomings as a scholar, too, and resolved in his diary that he would in future be ‘avoiding scholarship on account of inability’. He noted of a damning review by E.A. Freeman of his Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age that it ‘ought to humble me’.

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