Friday Book: The Grand Old Man of politics

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A LAPSE of 17 years between the first and second volumes of a biography must be close to the record. But if any subject excuses such a delay it must be William Ewart Gladstone.

The sheer scale and documentation of his life is so massive, his domination of the politics of the 19th century so complete and his influence into the 20th so pervasive, that no other political career can stand comparison. Churchill competes for longevity and documentation, but not for lasting influence. Richard Shannon's monumental volume in 1982 was the first to have full access to Gladstone's extraordinary diary, meticulously accounting to his Maker for every quarter-hour of his crowded life, which was then published up to 1868. Publication was completed in l994; hence the delay in Shannon's second and concluding volume.

He has been beaten to the punch by two other biographies: one scholarly (by the editor of the diaries, HCG Matthew), the other popular (by Roy Jenkins). Shannon's bids to be the definitive life for our generation. But it has to be said that its long gestation makes it a demanding read. The prologue, which we might have expected to recapitulate Gladstone's career up to 1865, is almost impenetrably obscure, and the narrative is extraordinarily dense and detailed.

You desperately want more signposts and pauses for interpretation and reflection. Taken on its own terms, however, it is a formidable achievement. The reader who invests time and effort will come away humbled both by Gladstone's heroic grandeur and Shannon's scholarship.

Shannon's Gladstone is very different from Jenkins's, but both set out to revise the revered icon of the Grand Old Man handed down by Gladstone's disciple and first biographer, John Morley. Jenkins gave us a more domesticated Gladstone, less a superman and more like a normal politician (more like Jenkins, in fact) who enjoyed country-house society, was surprisingly often ill, and needed his eight hours' sleep. Shannon by contrast portrays an egotistical monster, a terrifying old religious maniac who drove his colleagues to despair and his party to destruction by his stubborn sense of his divine mission.

We need both views. It is important to be reminded that Gladstone was a product and part of the Victorian social scene in which he operated. But Shannon's unblinking portrait displays an autocratic temperament that could easily have driven him right off the democratic map, had he not been constrained by rigid conventions.

As it is, we are still living in his mighty shadow in three areas. First, the whole structure of Government finance - the ideal of balanced budgets equalising taxation and expenditure, pruning unnecessary duties and holding tax levels as low as possible - was largely his creation in his great series of budgets in the 1850s. For a generation after 1945, the idea of balanced budgets and minimal expenditure went out of fashion. But it was essentially Gladstonian finance that Mrs Thatcher restored in 1979; and Gordon Brown shows no sign of backsliding.

Second, there have been been powerful Gladstonian overtones in the war in Kosovo. Admittedly, we were now on the other side. Gladstone roused the country to indignation against Turkish atrocities in Bulgaria, whereas Blair's outrage was directed at the Serbs getting their own back on Albanian Moslems. But the moral impulse to stop barbaric behaviour in a faraway country is identical - although Gladstone would not have bombed Constantinople even if he had possessed the weaponry. He put his faith in the Council of Europe, and, particularly, Russia.

Blair and Clinton are the inheritors of a specifically Anglo-Saxon tradition of moral imperialism that derives from Gladstone. His was the spirit which animated all those idealistic Labour anti-colonialists such as Fenner Brockway and flourished most purely in CND's naive faith that the world was just waiting for a moral lead from Britain to abolish nuclear weapons. Those who see no British interest in the Balkans are the heirs of Disraeli.

Third, Ireland. The great failure of Gladstone's life has remained the bleeding sore of British politics over since. It is to his undying credit that Gladstone saw the need to redress Irish wrongs when it could still have been done, by the timely concession of home rule within the United Kingdom. But so divisive and messianic was his personality, so imperious his determination to force home rule on his unpersuaded colleagues and carry it by a sheer exertion of will, that he only split his party and raised such -opposition that the historic possibility was lost for ever.

If only he had been a subtler politician. If only he had exerted himself to keep Chamberlain on board - perhaps by offering him the Treasury in 1886. Sometimes the wiles of a Lloyd George or the stealth of a Wilson are needed to carry great projects, when the frontal assault of a Gladstone can not. The attempt was magnificent, but we are still suffering the consequences of his failure.

The first volume of the reviewer's life of Margaret Thatcher will be published early next year