Sunday, 10 June 2012

How important was Gladstone’s contribution to the development of Liberalism from 1852-1868?



·     Free Trade and his Budgets
·     Gladstone’s Ideology helps to define Liberalism and unify Liberal Party
·     Gladstone and Parliamentary Reform

Some historians would argue that Gladstone made a significant contribution to Liberalism especially with his focus on free trade and low government spending. Gladstone had inherited this belief from his mentor, Robert Peel. It was over free trade and the Repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 that forced Gladstone and the Peelite rump out of the Conservative Party.

As Chancellor of the Exchequer in the early 1850s Gladstone passed a number of budgets which reduced the costs of every day goods such as tea, coffee and sugar. In comparison with Disraeli’s attempts to introduce a malt tax, which would have benefited the farmers and taxed the urban classes, Gladstone claimed he was making Britain a cheap place to live for everyone. Gladstone inherited Peel’s legacy, and he genuinely believed that free trade was the panacea (cure for all ills) for the British economy. This would stimulate investment and in turn create more jobs and wealth.

There is no doubt that Gladstone’s budgets helped to create the economic climate in which there was a boom: the 1850s was a period of massive growth and wealth creation, the high point (apogee) of Britain’s industrialisation. In the mind of the working classes and many of the middle classes cheap food and boom was the result of Gladstone’s prudent managing of the economy. This in turn boosts liberalism in popular culture and the Liberal Party becomes associated with wealth creation. This is of huge political significance for Gladstone and for the Liberal Party. 

Symbols were of great importance to Gladstone and it could be argued that he knew how to gain political support from his actions. Gladstone promoted himself as a man of the people; he was referred to in the popular press as the ‘People’s William’, as someone who was promoting the cause of the working classes, rather like a crusader. The irony in this was Gladstone was very much against democracy- his ‘Pale of the Constitution’ speech in 1864 suggested that everyone was potentially entitled to the vote but this was a manifesto that was beyond the hopes of most working people. The rhetoric and propaganda was arguably more persuasive than the reality. Gladstone’s image was replicated on all sorts of paraphernalia such as chamber pots and mugs, seen with chopper in hand. Gladstone was seen as a man of the people, and this no doubt had a beneficial effect on the Liberal Party.

There was some substance to the argument that Gladstone contributed to the popular appeal of Liberalism: his abolition of the paper duties especially overcoming opposition from the House of Lords, as well as his high moral tone suggested that Gladstone was the man of the moment. No doubt he was helped by the beneficial economic circumstances. But not all is so clear. Not least the extent to which Gladstone himself was a genuine liberal. Some would say he is best described as a liberal-conservative, and that his liberal views extended only so far as free trade and the economy.

There is an argument that Gladstone needed the Liberal Party more than the Liberal Party needed him. No doubt the power of his personality provided an element of unity amongst the Whigs, Peelites and Radicals who made up an uneasy coalition. Gladstone became a symbol of the party, with his focus on retrenchment and free trade. In his day, Palmerston was equally popular for his successful and active foreign policies.

·     Gladstone almost returned to the Conservative Party in 1858. He was invited back by Derby. But, he made a political judgment that he was more likely to become leader of the Liberal Party! Makes Gladstone seem less of a hero and more of an opportunistic politician.
·     Disraeli had first mentioned the possibility of Parliamentary Reform in the late 1850s. Gladstone rubbished this idea, but then went on to introduce his own bill in 1865. Shows no real commitment. Changing views according to the political situation.

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