Gladstone, William Ewart

Gladstone, William Ewart
   William Gladstone was four times British prime minister, and leader of the Liberal Party at the height of its power in the late nineteenth century. Gladstone’s name became synonymous with a central kind of Victorian liberalism, combining prudent and skillful public finance, earnest moralism, cautious reform, a broadly pacific foreign policy, and retrenchment on the defense expenditure. Known for his profound religious belief, prodigious industry, and argumentative skill, Gladstone’s relation to British imperialism is ambiguous. Although he presided over periods of rapid imperial expansion, he resisted many acquisitions and professed a stern belief in the importance of consensual relations with foreign powers.
   Gladstone came from a family of prosperous Liverpool merchants and was educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford. Influenced by his family’s evangelicalism in his youth, he was all his life a devout Anglican. Although he was as a young man primarily interested in theological questions, Gladstone first entered the cabinet in 1843 as president of the Board of Trade under Sir Robert Peel and shortly distinguished himself as a master of complex fiscal detail. In 1845, however, Gladstone resigned from Peel’s cabinet in protest against a public subvention in support of a Catholic seminary in Ireland. He shortly rejoined Peel’s cabinet as secretary for war and colonies, and served in the administration that, in 1846, split the Tory Party by repealing the protectionist Corn Laws in the name of free trade. Gladstone thus became associated with the Peelite group that formed much of the core of the early Liberal Party.
   In opposition, Gladstone opposed on legal grounds Palmerstons use of the British fleet to compel Greece to compensate a British subject for losses in an anti-Semitic riot, the famous Don Pacifico affair of 1850. Shortly thereafter, Gladstone traveled to Italy and published a pamphlet on Neapolitan prisons, describing the government of that country as “the negation of God erected into a system of government.” These were his first ventures into foreign policy and gave voice to the moralistic liberalism for which he became famous.
   Gladstone became Chancellor of the Exchequer under his fellow Peelite Lord Aberdeen in 1852. In his four terms as Chancellor over the following 30 years, he did much to turn that office into the chief controller of public funds that it has been ever since, as opposed to a mere accounting office recording decisions made elsewhere: the well-known battered briefcase in which chancellors carry their budgets to the House was originally Gladstone’s. His first budget envisioned continuing tariff simplification and the abolition of the income tax by 1860, a hope not realized because of the outbreak of the Crimean War with Russia in 1853. With the fall of Aberdeen, he was out of office from 1855 to 1859. Gladstone returned to the Exchequer under Palmerston in 1859, a government generally held to have marked the birth of the British Liberal Party. Gladstone served as Chancellor under Palmerston until 1865, and in the subsequent short-lived administration of Earl (formerly Lord John) Russell. As Chancellor, he cut tariffs further, and was leader in the Commons during Russell’s failed attempt at franchise reform in 1866. Gladstone first became prime minister on the strength of the Liberal election victory of 1868, famously proclaiming on receiving his summons to the Queen that, “my mission is to pacify Ireland.” His government disestablished the Anglican Church of Ireland and also reformed Irish land laws, introduced in the 1870 primary education bill, abolished commission purchase in the army, and introduced the secret ballot. In foreign policy, Gladstone’s first government remained neutral in the Franco-Prussian war while successfully persuading the belligerents to respect the neutrality of Belgium, and also negotiated the 1872 Anglo-American arbitration treaty under which American claims for compensation for the depredations of the British-built confederate cruiser Alabama in the American Civil War were settled. This government saw the withdrawal of most British troops from the New Zealand Maori Wars and from Canada, which led to charges that, in Disraeli’s words of 1872, the Liberals were intent on “the disintegration of the empire of England.” This was untrue - Gladstone’s government in fact in its final years annexed the Diamond Fields of South Africa, a move pregnant with future consequences, and also made war on the King of Ashanti - but the charge that Liberals were indifferent to imperial concerns did reflect much Liberal opinion, and so had some traction. Gladstone lost the election of 1874 by a large margin, bringing the Tories under Benjamin Disraeli into office with a majority for the first time since that party’s split over protection in 1846. There was widespread feeling that the Liberals had run out of ideas, and Gladstone surprised the party by resigning the leadership. In 1876, the Tory government supported Muslim Turkey in its campaign against Christian Bulgarian nationalists, a consequence of Britain’s traditional policy of supporting Turkey to contain Russia. With his famous pamphlet, Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East, Gladstone became the voice of popular anger, particularly but not exclusively among Liberals and nonconformists, at Turkish outrages. A number of foreign and imperial incidents followed on the heels of the Bulgarian crisis: Disraeli’s acquisition of Suez Canal shares in 1876, the Royal Titles Act making Queen Victoria Empress of India, and the 1878 acquisition of Cyprus, among them. They combined with Disraeli’s own pro-imperial rhetoric and the jingoism of his supporters to associate the Tories with a kind of bombastic and expansionist imperialism, which Gladstone found morally offensive. Gladstone was among those who first used the term imperialism to describe not support for the empire but rather its aggressive expansion, and for Gladstone there was always a suspicion that imperialism was as much as anything a set of what he called “theatrical displays and tricks” designed to divert the voters from more serious issues.
   Disraeli’s government blundered into the Second Anglo-Afghan War in 1878. In the previous year it had faced a war in the eastern Cape Colony and in 1878 another with the Basuto. By early 1879, Britain also found itself at war with the Zulus in Natal, an indirect consequence of the annexation of the Transvaal in 1877. The Zulu War was marked by the catastrophic defeat of Isandhlwana, although it was won by the end of the year. Gladstone was adopted as Liberal candidate for the Scottish constituency of Midlothian, and there, in the fall of 1879, he made an epochal series of speeches laying out a detailed critique of Disraeli’s imperialism. On being returned to office as prime minister in 1880, Gladstone shortly found himself confronted with the difficulties of these not-always-consistent principles. He ordered withdrawals from Afghanistan and the Transvaal. Lord Roberts’ victory at Kandahar allowed the former to be accompanied by a satisfactory agreement with Afghanistan, and relative peace prevailed on the Northwest frontier of India until 1919. But a Boer Victory at Majuba in 1881 made the Transvaal withdrawal appear, to both the Boers and the Tories, an ignominious defeat.
   In opposition, Gladstone had protested against Disraeli’s purchase of Suez Canal shares and against other encroachments on Egypt. In office, however, disorder in Alexandria and the threat of an Egyptian default on its international debts led to British intervention. The Royal Navy bombarded Alexandria on July 11, 1882. A force under Sir Garnet Wolseley then landed in the canal zone and defeated the Egyptian Army at Tel el-Kebir on September 13, 1882, leading to an effective British protectorate - although Egypt remained nominally subject to the Ottoman Empire.
   Britain’s intervention in Egypt led to strains with France, which was pursuing its own ambitions in Tunisia and in West Africa. The so-called Scramble for Africa was to some extent provoked by the British occupation of Egypt and led to the 1884 Berlin conference on the partition of West Africa. Gladstone resisted large annexations in tropical Africa and saw some merit in German claims in East Africa. He only permitted the 1884 Warren expedition into Bechuanaland because the rest of his cabinet insisted. Gladstone saw a large empire as a source of “needless and entangling engagements,” rather than strength, and viewed imperial problems through the lens of European relations. That fear of entanglements and a parallel desire to avoid expense led Gladstone’s government to countenance the reinvention of the semi-sovereign chartered company with the chartering of the British North Borneo Company in 1881. Little noticed at the time, the revival of the chartered company nonetheless prepared the way for subsequent and more prominent exercises in private imperialism, most notably of course that of Cecil Rhodes and the British South Africa Company.
   The Egyptian occupation also led to British involvement in the Sudan, a territory in which the Egyptian Khedive had claims. General Charles “Chinese” Gordon was sent out to arrange an Anglo-Egyptian withdrawal from the Sudan in the face of an Islamic rising. But Gordon did not withdraw, and soon found himself besieged in Khartoum. Gladstone hesitated in sending Wolseley down the Nile to relieve Gordon, with the result that the latter was killed as the Mahdi’s forces took the city. By this point the septuagenarian Gladstone was known in his party as “The Grand Old Man,” or GOM: the Tories turned this around, calling him MOG, or “Murderer of Gordon.”
   After a brief interval of Tory minority government, Gladstone returned to power in 1886, determined, as in 1868, to bring peace to Ireland. His solution was Home Rule, an Irish legislature that was to have strikingly limited powers well short of the Dominion status extended to the settlement colonies. The question was not adroitly handled, and many of the more Whiggish or right-wing Liberals bolted the party, leading to the fall of Gladstone’s third government. But they were accompanied by radicals like Joseph Chamberlain and John Bright, who saw in Home Rule a set of special privileges for Ireland, and who also saw the end of the Union of 1801 as a possible prelude to the breakup of the Empire. The 1886 split of the Liberal Party ushered in a period of largely Tory rule that lasted until 1906, as the Liberal Unionists found places within an increasing middle class and imperialist Tory Party. Gladstone returned to office for the fourth time as prime minister in 1892 at the age of 82, but he was increasingly out of sympathy with the imperialist temper of the times, and also less than equal to the strains of office. He resigned in 1894 over a dispute in which the rest of his cabinet insisted on the need for an increase in the naval estimates. Gladstone died on May 19, 1898, and was given a state funeral and buried in Westminster Abbey. Gladstone was in favor of the British Empire as an association of self-governing states and considered the empire and British power more generally a liberal force. But he was opposed to what he called “ imperialism ” - the expansion of the empire for its own sake or simply to obstruct the expansion of others. Although he occupied Egypt, he was also willing to pay a political price for retrocession in the Sudan and South Africa. He saw the empire as a consequence rather than a source of power. With the exception of Ireland, his primary interests were elsewhere.
   See also <>; <>; <>.
    Gladstone, W. E. Midlothian Speeches. Edited by M.R.D. Foot. New York: Humanities Press, 1971;
    Jenkins, Roy. Gladstone. London: Macmillan, 1995;
    Matthew, H.C.G. Gladstone, 1809-1898. Oxford: Oxford: University Press, 1998.
    Morley, John. The Life of William Ewart Gladstone. 3 vols. London: MacMillan, 1903.

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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