PM who would be `leader of the nation'

Historical Notes
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The Independent Culture
WILLIAM EWART Gladstone died just over a century ago, in May 1898. He was over 60 years an MP, holding high office as a Conservative under Sir Robert Peel, as a "Peelite" under Lord Aberdeen, and as one who had hoisted Liberal colours in 1859 under Lord Palmerston and Lord Russell. Gladstone succeeded Palmerston as leader of the Liberal Party in the Commons in 1865 and Russell as leader of the Parliamentary Liberal Party in 1867. Between 1868 and 1894 he served on four occasions as prime minister.

Gladstone bestrode the Victorian world like a colossus. He laid the financial foundations of free trade. He crushed the Conservatives under Disraeli. He challenged both Bismarck and the Pope. He laboured to emancipate Italians, Bulgarians, Boers and Irish. He intimidated the Sultan. He conquered Egypt.

Gladstone's huge energies were by no means confined to politics. He was a deeply pious Anglican Christian who grappled indefatigably with every aspect of religion and defence of belief in his time - indeed, by 1878 he had convinced himself that he was the assigned instrument of the providential purposes of God Almighty. He wrote copiously on contemporary literature and more copiously about classical philology and Homer. He was as much a figure of grandeur in the intellect of his day as in its politics.

When he took office for the first time as prime minister in 1868, he evoked Peel as the tutelary genius of the great design he was then about. That design had at its heart the restoration of what to Gladstone had been the "golden age" of great government and good administration between the first Reform Act and the disaster of the Crimean War. He was not so much inaugurating a new epoch as retrieving an old one and would prove a very problematic Liberal.

Very much at the centre of that "problem" was Gladstone's gross failure as Liberal leader between 1865 and 1875. It was like Peel all over again. His party mutinied over Reform in 1866 and 1867. He disciplined it by summoning the people in 1868. He terrorised it into order in 1869 and 1870 with his Irish Church and Land reforms. But recalcitrance and disaffection returned in 1871, leading to electoral collapse in 1874 and Gladstone's abdication in 1875.

The furious quarrel with Disraeli over foreign policy from 1876 brought Gladstone ultimately to triumph in 1880 as leader of the nation. This was his sweet revenge over his own party. Thereafter he had it for the most part cowed. Between 1880 and 1885 he waited for signs from on high telling him whether to abdicate once more or to gird himself for the providential purpose to which he was assigned.

He was inspired to learn that it would be the giving back to the Irish of a parliament in Dublin. Gladstone did not regard this as a matter upon which he needed to consult the Liberal Party. He duly split the party in 1886 but he saw this as an instance, yet again, of the House of Commons's mischievously failing to rise to the mark set by him. He would, yet again, summon the people to do the work shirked by their betters.

To his astonishment, the public mind failed to register the conviction corresponding to his executive decision. What Gladstone had correctly marked as a "golden moment" of opportunity for Britain to set to rights its constitutional relationship with Ireland was lost in the welter of electoral ruin.

Gladstone gallantly pressed on to give the people a second chance to redeem their mistake. But his puzzlement at failure in 1892 was not less than it had been in 1886. By 1894 Gladstone's offer to his colleagues to lead a great campaign as "leader of the nation" against the House of Lords was rejected out of hand. It was a tragic end to a career of once unsurpassed greatness which went on too long and lost its way.

Richard Shannon is the author of `Gladstone: heroic minister, 1865-1898' (Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, pounds 25)