Frenzy of a Grand Old Man

Today's grandest Liberal assesses the life of the 19th-century's greatest Liberal: is it a mirror image? By Roy Hattersley

The combination of author and subject makes Roy Jenkins's Gladstone (Macmillan, pounds 20) irresistible. The one Liberal grandee to have survived into the modern world has written a biography of the man who dominated Liberal politics for almost half the 19th century. It would be wrong to pretend that the two men have very much in common. Jenkins could never have been convincingly described as "a half mad firebrand". But his account of Gladstone's progress from "hope of the stern unbending Tories" to The People's William inevitably includes insights into the writer's own character.

Jenkins's distaste for Gladstone's acceptance of his party's Newcastle Programme ("a capacious rag-bag but weak on theme") is reminiscent of his own reluctant acquiescence to more than one Labour manifesto. And Gladstone's offer to support a Liberal administration which he did not lead might well have inspired Jenkins's assurance that - having voted against his party whip in favour of joining the Common Market - he had no plans to rebel again. The wording of the two statements is very different. But the intention was virtually identical. Both men believed that honour required them to make clear - at least to their more perceptive observers - that the promises of good behaviour were carefully qualified.

A biography of Gladstone is - as Jenkins graciously concedes - a formidable task. Gladstone lived so long and did so much that even 700 pages can barely accommodate the full achievements of a man who, despite taking his health far too seriously, threw himself into everything that he did with an almost manic frenzy. Jenkins hits his moving target with consistent accuracy. He pays meticulous attention to appropriate detail, judges each incident with the eye of an experienced politician and writes in a wonderfully clear, if occasionally florid, style. His biography is all you need to know about Gladstone including the things you never dared to ask.

The chapter which is devoted to the Grand Old Man's sexual expeditions into London's backstreets is the weakest section of the whole book - coming, as it does, to a highly dubious conclusion about the exact nature of his relationship with the West End prostitutes. It was Gladstone's view that "things are done best by those who agree with them". It is hard to believe that Jenkins enjoyed assessing the significance of the sexual symbols which Gladstone drew in his diary. A man who was really interested in such things could not have written so generally excellent a book.

It is the treatment of the famous moments in Gladstone's life which best reveals Jenkins's remarkable talent for biography. The stories of the great man's inability to understand the public's sympathy with General Gordon, his long-winded and argumentative domination of the House of Commons and his pathological incompatibility with Queen Victoria are all so familiar that it is difficult to repeat them without sounding hackneyed. Jenkins avoids the tedium by adding his own succinct - and sometimes original - judgement to the description of each episode.

Gladstone is usually given the benefit of the political doubt. Undoubtedly, when the odious Captain William O'Shea first threatened to name Parnell in his divorce proceedings, Gladstone was "more disposed to tolerance than either of his lieutenants". But it was the withdrawal of his support which destroyed the Irish leader in the end. Without Government backing for the Home Rule party, Home Rule had no future. So, as soon as it became clear that Parnell had lost the Liberals' confidence, he had to go. Jenkins claims that the harshest passages in the ultimatum were not Gladstone's own work, and diplomatically does not even speculate about how the existence of the threatening message reached the newspapers. But he has no doubts as to why the Liberal Leadership cracked under pressure frorn the Methodists during their Sheffield party conference. Not having "any inside knowledge of Non-conformity ... they took its fulminations too seriously". He has clearly not forgotten his boyhood in the Welsh valleys.

Jenkins is as impressed by Gladstone's indomitable character as he is by his political achievement. He seems almost in awe of the Grand Old Man's continuing vigour. At the age of 69, Gladstone set out on a Midlothian Campaign, an enterprise which is still unrivalled in the annals of electioneering. He made 30 major speeches, many of them in the open air, in 15 days - addressing (by his own careful calculation) 86,930 people. Often he spoke for several hours. But Jenkins deals in quality as well as quantity. "He never pandered or talked down to his audience. His flattery lay in assuming their seriousness and judgemental capacity."

Gladstone knew that he would win the Midlothian election. So "while it was magnificent [it] was not therefore electorally bold. The purpose for which it was necessary was the re-imposition of Gladstone's authority on the political scene and the sending out of beams of Liberal enthusiasm." It is comment which gives life to detail.

Very occasionally, the achievement is under-rated. The First Irish Land Bill (1870) is dismissed as a "dead letter" because its reference to "exorbitant rents" (rather than "excessive" as Gladstone first intended) "enabled the courts to interpret the protection narrowly." Certainly, the Land Bill of 1881 brought more relief to peasant farmers than the earlier measure. But the 1870 legislation, as well as helping the worst treated tenants, changed history. It was the first acknowledgment that the demand for Home Rule was based as much on the need for bread as on the hope of independence. And it established the notion that the state has a duty to regulate "free" contracts when the power of the rival parties is so disproportionate that the will of one is imposed on the other. The philosopher, TH Green, thought it an early example of parliamentary socialism.

Gladstone was (at least until the last years of his life) not even a radical. The reforms of his First Administration - including the Great Education Act of 1870 - were the achievements of his Ministers, not their leader. He told John Ruskin in 1878 that he was a "firm believer in the aristocratic principle - the rule of the best. I am an out-and-out inegalitarian." Jenkins concludes that "what he liked best was an austere duke of large fortune." But he also liked scholars, poets, theologians and philosophers. He was by far the most conscientiously intellectual Prime Minister in British history and certainly the most genuinely pious.

Jenkins illuminates Gladstone's complex character in a series of vignettes which add colour to the careful narrative. And the full supporting cast, no less than the star, is painted in vivid colours. General Gordon "was temperamentally unsuited to be the agent of a cautious policy. He was the prototype of a Boy's Own Paper hero, with an additional capacity to seize the attention and attract the admiration of many who had passed the age of boyhood." Parnell, until destroyed by the divorce, seemed set upon a classic path, "an organiser of intransigence who, after a qualifying period in gaol, became a moderate, even a conservative founder of a new party."

The moderate, even conservative party that Jenkins helped to found in 1981 was, as we now know, a staging post on his journey to his natural home amongst the Liberals. And, in consequence, we can make one real comparison between the politics of author and subject. Some Liberals move left as they grow older. Some do not.

Gladstone by Roy Jenkins, Macmillan, pounds 20

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