WE Gladstone, Prime Minister of Great Britain and Ireland - Part One Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

WE Gladstone, Prime Minister of Great Britain and Ireland - Part One

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This entry forms the first part of a three-part series looking at the life of William Gladstone, the religious-minded illustrious politician who dominated British Politics in the 19th Century.

The political life of William Gladstone closely reflects the impact of most of the Parliamentary Reforms which occurred in the 19th Century, the later ones which Gladstone himself had a hand in bringing about. He was first elected to the House of Commons for a rotten borough1, lost one of the two seats at Oxford University on the first appearance of the postal ballot and tried to solve the Irish Home Rule situation through legislation. All the time Gladstone never gave up on what he saw as his God-given task to serve through being a Christian member of the House of Commons. He even crossed the House2 from the Tory benches to the Liberals, for whom he served four terms, 1868-74, 1880-85, January-July 1886 and 1892-94, as Prime Minister. He also served many years as Chancellor of the Exchequer however, despite his opposition to Income Tax. This had been revived by the Peel administration in 1842, in which Gladstone was a minister; he was, however, never able to abolish it.

Early Life

John Gladstone's fourth son and fifth child3 William was born on the 29 December, 1809, in Liverpool; he was named after a close friend of his father William Ewart. John Gladstone had risen from humble beginnings from the docks of Leith (which serve Edinburgh) to be a highly respected and wealthy businessman through his interests in the West Indies, America and India. John Gladstone was a friend of Sir Robert Peel, the Prime Minister from 1834-5 and 1841-1846, who in later life conferred a baronetcy upon John Gladstone, sat in Parliament from 1818 to 1827 and was master of many slaves upon his various overseas properties and plantations. His wealth enabled him to give his sons the start in life that he never had and thus William was dispatched to Eton in 1821 for his schooling.

At home, the Gladstone children had been encouraged to discuss all manner of subjects on a basis of equality with the adults, and William as the youngest son had learned from an early age the need to be heard by his elders. When he arrived at Eton he sought further outlets for his thoughts, both through debating at the Eton Society, and through publications, two traits which remained with him, and were utilised by him, throughout his life. However, even at Eton, although he had a great desire to debate, he did so at an intellectual level that left most of his listeners unclear as to his actual point. Sadly for many of the members of the House of Commons they were to suffer the same fate in later life. Gladstone was very much a supporter of William Pitt, even at such a young age, and was a great supporter of the laissez-faire economics4 of the day. His friends while at Eton included George Selwyn, later Bishop of Lichfield, Arthur Hallum, son of Whig (Liberal) historian Henry Hallum (and therefore of the opposite political view to Gladstone), Horace Walpole, son of the Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole, and Francis Doyle, later a civil servant.

In October 1828, Gladstone went up to Christ Church, Oxford. Here he continued his fascination with debating and on the 16 May, 1831, spoke in the Oxford Union against the Reform Bill, which at the time was passing through the House of Commons. He helped to win the debate (in Oxford at least) although the real Bill became an Act of Parliament in 1832. One of his friends from his Eton days, Lord Lincoln, was so impressed he wrote to his father, the Duke of Newcastle, asking for Gladstone to be given one of the seats his father controlled. He went on to be awarded a double first in Classics and Mathematics, before embarking on a tour of Europe.

During his days at Oxford and on his European tour, Gladstone had been considering whether his future lay in him entering the church. However, in 1832 Lord Lincoln wrote to Gladstone saying that his father was willing to use his influence in the Borough of Newark at his disposal. William jumped at the chance as he felt that he could do a lot of good for the church from a position in Parliament, which he couldn't do as a humble cleric. Despite the Reform Act passing into law in June 1832, the influence of certain gentlemen - which it was intended to limit - was to go undiminished for a few years to come.

Elections to the Commons

Gladstone was first elected to parliament in 1833, the first election following the Great Reform Act of 1832. He was returned for the 'pocket borough'5 of Newark, under the patronage of the Duke of Newcastle (the Duke's son Lord Lincoln having written to his father following an impassioned speech by Gladstone at the Oxford Union in opposition to the Reform Act). He was to be active in politics for the next 62 years until the election of July 1895 when at last he took no part, representing a total of four constituencies.

On 12 December, 1833, having the patronage of the Duke of Newcastle and being opposed to the Reform Act only a matter of months before, Gladstone gave the following acceptance speech:

You return me to Parliament not merely because I am the Duke of Newcastle's man; but because the man whom the Duke has sent, and the Duke himself, are your men.

Maybe a hint the new member for Newark had learned some lessons from the Reform Act after all. He defended Newark twice unopposed in 1835 and 1837 before actually facing an opponent in 1841. He wrote to his father saying that 'there will be no resort to bribery... I believe we shall get through without mischief'. So, even a decade after the Reform Act, votes were still up for the highest bidder. Gladstone, however, was proved right and was returned with the most votes. He served the constituency until 1845. In that year he accepted the post of Colonial Office and, as was the custom of the time, all Cabinet Ministers had to resign their seat on taking such an appointment. However, because of differences over taxation policies between Gladstone and his patron the Duke of Newcastle, Gladstone was left in the cabinet without a seat. This was because the Duke of Newcastle was a protectionist and wouldn't sanction Gladstone to stand again in a seat over which he was the chief landlord.

It was not until 1847 that Gladstone returned to the Commons in the General Election of July/August for one of the seats for Oxford University, his much-loved place of learning. However, even his connections with the old university were not to keep him here indefinitely, for Gladstone opposed the disestablishment of the Anglican Church in Ireland. The Clerical Graduates of Oxford displeased by their member's attitude in this matter, as well as his defection from the Conservatives, used the newly-instated postal vote in 1865 to remove Gladstone from the Commons for a second time when the result was declared.

However, the nature of the election process then was long and drawn out and Gladstone was able to reserve a nomination for South Lancashire, near the City of his birth. Before the result was even declared in Oxford (although it looked ominous) Gladstone was heading north to start campaigning afresh, and on the 18 July he opened his speech in Manchester with the words:

At last, my friends, I come amongst you. And I am come... unmuzzled.

And unmuzzled at last he was from trying to appease his electorate of Graduates. On 22 July, Gladstone was duly returned as the Member of Parliament. So, finally, after representing a pocket borough and Oxford University, Gladstone, after 22 years in Parliament, had faced a real election campaign where he had to address and engage the voters. And this time he emerged the victor.

Following his first term as Prime Minister however, Gladstone refused to bow out of public life, seeming to know that he would return to the highest office, refusing elevation to the Lords. He did, however, relinquish, in name at least, the leadership of the Liberal Party. This role came to be shared between Lord Hartington in the Commons and Lord Granville in the Lords.

The Midlothian Campaign

In 1879 Gladstone started to campaign for the new seat of Midlothian in Scotland. He spent two weeks touring the seat speaking from Edinburgh to East Calder to crowds that were often in the hundred of thousands. The following year with an election looming he again toured the constituency as well as key locations on the way up to it from London. He was successfully returned as the MP for Midlothian and was joined by his son Herbert who won his back-up seat of Leeds.

1A constituency where the vote was controlled by usually one wealthy benefactor or occasionally a group of concerned businessmen. 2Literally leaving one main party who sat on one side of the House of Commons' chamber to join the other on the opposite side. As did another great statesman and Prime Minister, Sir Winston Spencer Churchill (1874-1965).3His siblings were, in order, John, Thomas, Anne, Robertson and Helen.4A policy on no government intervention, but letting the business world control the economy and not inhibiting them with taxation.5Previously known as rotten boroughs before the Reform Act came into being, where a candidate's patron would buy him his seat.

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