The 87th Roscoe Lecture: St.George’s Hall, Liverpool.
Lord Alton of Liverpool
27th October 2009.
Gladstone – son of Liverpool, scourge of tyrants.
Let me begin by saying why this Roscoe Lecture is being held now, why here and why the university is sponsoring it.
Why now? This year is the bicentenary of Gladstone’s birth in 1809, at 62 Rodney Street, and a series of events have been organised to mark the occasion. This lecture is among them.
Why Here? St.George’s Hall is a particularly appropriate venue for the lecture because as a young 32 year-old MP Gladstone would have seen the foundation stone laid in 1841 and have celebrated its completion and opening in 1841. For Gladstone this Hall was the scene of both political triumph and disaster and it will be here on December 29th, the day of his birth in 1809 that a wreath will be laid at his statue in the adjacent St.John’s Gardens.
The university’s interest revolves around its connection with William Roscoe, after whom these lectures and its Foundation for Citizenship are named. Gladstone’s childhood overlapped with Roscoe’s last years. He was 22 at the time of Roscoe’s death in 1831 – and his father, John, was initially one of Roscoe’s supporters.
Both men were quintessential good citizens – par excellence. The recipients of our Good Citizenship awards follow in their footsteps.
This series of Roscoe Lectures has primarily been looking at the nature of tyranny. The trajectory of my remarks tonight will begin with a summary of Gladstone’s connections with Liverpool; then an overview of his achievements, and, finally, some remarks about his role in opposing injustice and tyranny. In preparing for tonight I consulted the Liverpool Record Office and the House of Lords Library and thanks them for their help. I am also grateful to David Llewellyn, whose interventions will enliven the lecture – and my son Philip for his help this evening with the slides.
My own interest in Gladstone began as a teenager. My first newspaper interview appeared in 1968 under the headline: “If Only Gladstone Was Here.”
Four years later, now a student in Liverpool, I would be elected to represent the City Council’s Low Hill Ward, where, at Hengler’s Circus in 1896 – two years before his death – that Gladstone gave his last great speech.
In Parliament, I was privileged to represent part of the city of his birth and part of the constituency, where for three years, he served as Member of Parliament.
So, who was William Ewart Gladstone, this son of Liverpool, and what did this city mean to him?
Born in the south east quarter of Liverpool, Gladstone came in to the world in the same year as Abraham Lincoln, Charles Darwin, Felix Mendelssohn and Edgar Allen Poe.
In 1809 the Napoleonic Wars continued as Bonaparte defeated the Austrians, seized the Papal States, arrested Pope Pius VII, and took him to Liguria. In the Peninsular War the British defeated the French at the Battle of La Coruna.
George III, who was descending into madness, was King. Two months before Gladstone’s birth, he appointed Spencer Perceval as Tory Prime Minister in place of the Whig Duke of Portland.
In 1812 Perceval was assassinated in the lobby of the House of Commons He was replaced by the Earl of Liverpool – serving as Prime Minister until 1827, when one of Gladstone’s political heroes, and one-time Liverpool MP, George Canning – whom Gladstone had known since childhood – came to office.
1809, the year of Gladstone’s birth, was two years after William Roscoe had voted with William Wilberforce in the House of Commons to end the trans-Atlantic slave trade; and 24 years before the final Abolition Act would be passed by Parliament.
All of Gladstone’s childhood and early life was shaped by the debates about the morality of the slave trade and by what Wilberforce called “the laws of God.” As the battle lines became shaped around religious arguments the Gladstone family would find themselves torn between their adherence to evangelical Christianity and to their family’s principal source of income.
It was wealth from the trade that had enabled Gladstone’s father, John, to purchase the handsome property in Rodney Street, in the city’s elegant south east quarter, where William, the fifth of six children was born.
Although he never traded in slaves much of John Gladstone’s wealth was derived from the West Indian sugar plantations in Demerara, worked by slave labour.
The trade was the engine that was fuelling Liverpool’s exponential growth. In the year of Gladstone’s birth the city’s population was 94,000 – up from 60,000 in 1792, and it would continue to grow rapidly.
Although John Wesley described it as ‘One of the neatest, best built towns I have ever seen in England’ the burgeoning city became chracterised by an avaricious provincial barbarism based on the naked accumulation of wealth. The last letter penned by the dying founder of Methodism was an exhortation to the young William Wilberforce to make the elimination of the trade his life’s work. Wilberforce said he would happily be remembered as a “fanatic” for his opposition to the trade.
In his childhood reminiscences Gladstone recalled the picturesque nature of the white winged vessels waiting to catch the winds out of Liverpool but these great sailing ships represented something much darker; and as the young Gladstone grew up he would have encountered the anti-slavery movement – and its leading figures, Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson and the lawyer Granville Sharp. He would have known of the conversion of the Liverpool sea captain – and composer of Amazing Grace, John Newton, who died two year before Gladstone’s’ birth and he would have heard the stories of Olaudah Equiano (Gustavas Vassa) – the escaped slave who had died in 1797, having published an autobiographical account of life as a slave, and who had risked his life by speaking at public gatherings in cities like Liverpool.
The indefatigable Clarkson had abandoned his Divinity studies at Cambridge and would devote sixty years of his life combating slavery – organising meetings and disseminating across Britain pamphlets and Wedgwood brooches depicting a chained slave and bearing the words “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” Mass petitions were submitted to Parliament and boycotts organised of sugar from plantations such as those owned by the Gladstone family. Posters were made to depict life on the slave ships – vessels like the notorious Zong from which 132 slaves were thrown to their deaths in 1783.
In Liverpool Clarkson acquired the implements used to chain and torture slaves taking them to huge rallies and public meetings where he sought to rouse the conscience of the nation. This first human rights campaign would set the tone for the mass movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It involved everything from boycotts to lobbying.
From 1783 until 1793, 878 round trips were made by Liverpool slaving ships, carrying over 300,000 slaves from Africa to the West Indies. They were sold for a profit of £15,186,850.
In the triangle of trade between Europe, Africa and America, vast numbers of people were uprooted and displaced into bondage. In the 18th century 6 million people were transported from Africa; by the 1850s, as Gladstone reached middle age, the figure was put at 12 million – some historians put the figure as high as 40 million men, women and children.
John Newton, captain of Liverpool slave ships, wrote in his Journal of a Slave Trader:
“I have no sufficient data to warrant calculation but I suppose not less than 100,000 slaves are annually exported from all parts of Africa and that more than one half of these are exported in English ships.”
William Roscoe in a 35 page poem published in 1787, The Wrongs of Africa, wrote
“Blush ye not to boast your equal laws, your just restraints, your rights defined, your liberties secured,
Whilst with an iron hand ye crush to earth the helpless African; and bid him drink
That cup of sorrow, which yourselves have dashed, Indignant, from oppression’s fainting grasp.”
At the time of the vote on February 23rd, 1807, Hansard records that:
“I have, said the hon. gentleman, Mr.Roscoe, long resided in the town of Liverpool; for 30 years I have never ceased to condemn this inhuman traffic; and I consider it the greatest happiness of my existence to lift up my voice on this occasion against it, with the friends of justice and humanity.”
Roscoe returned to Liverpool on May 2nd 1807, the day after the abolition of the trade became law. His public entry was disastrous. A combination of enraged slave traders and religious zealots – who reviled Roscoe because he had championed Catholic relief – assailed Roscoe as he stepped from his coach and horses in the city’s Castle Street.
Although he would never be returned to Parliament again, Lord Holland not only spoke for his Cabinet colleagues, but for many sympathisers of the Whig cause, when he wrote to Roscoe to say that his “rejection at Liverpool is considered by us all as one of the greatest disgraces to the country, as well as misfortunes to the party, that could have happened.”
John Gladstone, a principal opponent of Roscoe, certainly did not see it that way.
John was himself one of seventeen children, born in 1764, and of Scottish Presbyterian descent. He migrated to Liverpool in 1787. A childless widower, in 1800 he married another Scot, Anne Robertson, at St.Peter’s Church, Liverpool. As his family grew, he built a formidable trading empire and embraced his wife’s evangelical Anglicanism – which created a tension with Wilberforce’s anti-slavery movement. He built three churches – “the Scotch Church” in Oldham Street, St.Andrew’s in Rodney Street, and a third church, St.Thomas’, at Seaforth, where, in 1815, on the border of Crosby and Bootle, the family took up residence in the palatial Seaforth House. By 1820 John was worth a staggering three quarters of a million pounds.
But it was at Rodney Street that the young Gladstone had his first political encounters.
In 1812, John Gladstone was one of the merchant princes who invited George Canning to accept the Tory nomination for the Liverpool constituency. There were four candidates for two seats but, in reality, it became a duel between
Canning and the Whig candidate, Henry Brougham.
They were the two greatest orators of their age and were two of the brightest stars in the political galaxy. John Gladstone, now alienated by Roscoe’s intellectualism and opposition to the slave trade, deserted the Whigs to support Canning.
One year before the election William Roscoe wrote and published a 32 page letter to his friend Brougham. It encouraged Brougham to support full blooded parliamentary reform and it became the basis of the arguments that raged in the election of the following year.
Roscoe insisted that Parliamentary reform was “essential to the safety and preservation of the country.” He said:
“The connection between a corrupt Parliament and bad measures is as certain as cause and effect in any other instance; feel the truth of that unalterable maxim that an evil tree cannot produce good fruit.”
He insisted that:
“…Men of good and independent character should be returned and these men should not have before them a continual temptation to desert their duty…they must be free from partiality and corruption”
To the House of Commons he wanted to see – in words that have a contemporary resonance – “restored that degree of independence and integrity which is indispensably necessary to enable it to perform its functions and to maintain its proper dignity and influence in the State.”
Each day in the 1812 election the candidates poured forth their verbal assaults on each other at the Liverpool hustings and either pressed for uncompromising reform or warned of the dangers to the constitution should reform be sanctioned.
Every evening the crowds gathered to hear them declaim from the windows of their houses – Brougham staying in Clayton Square and Canning staying with the Gladstone’s in Rodney Street. William Gladstone’s earliest memory was as a three year old being dressed up in a red frock and asked to utter the words “ladies and gentleman” as the diverting and beguiling warm-up prior to the appearance of the great orator Canning. Canning went on to win the 1812 election and was duly elected and served as a Liverpool MP until 1823.
Gladstone was finishing his school days at Eton when in 1827 |Canning died in post as Prime Minister. He purchased a bust and portrait of Canning, composed a memorial verse, and before returning to Seaforth visited the Statesman’s grave at Westminster Abbey.
After Eton he enjoyed a meteoric rise at Christ Church, Oxford, where he walked away with the finest academic prizes, Gladstone increasingly emulated Canning and, after some glittering performances at the Oxford Union, was elected as its President.
One of his detractors later remarked that he was “Oxford on top, and Liverpool below” – which might, when properly considered, well account for Gladstone’s phenomenal political success. Always something of an outsider, one potential spouse reputedly told her mother: “I cannot marry a man who carries a bag like that” while Emily Eden complained: there is “something in the tone of his voice and his way of coming into a room that is not aristocratic.
However, Gladstone’s workmanlike approach to his public life did win some admirers from those same circles. His trenchant opposition to the 1832 Reform Bill brought him to the attention of the Duke of Newcastle – who offered him his patronage and the rotten borough seat of Newark.
At the age of 23, Gladstone, with 887 votes, entered the House of Commons – with his brother, Tom, as Members of the Opposition. His maiden speech was in the 1833 debate on the Bill abolishing slavery in British dominions, and it was a defence of plantation owners in the West Indies. Among those accused of cruelty in his treatment of his slave workers was the young MP’s father, John Gladstone. Lord Howick described the manager of the Gladstone plantations as “a murderer of slaves.”
A few days after the Abolition Bill was passed, Gladstone’s friend, Henry Wilberforce, took him to the deathbed of his father, William. Gladstone prayed with William Wilberforce and ten days later he attended his funeral at Westminster Abbey. Gladstone said: “It brought me solemn thoughts, particularly about the slaves. This is a burdensome question.” Just as he later embraced the cause of wider electoral representation, Gladstone renounced his support of slavery and admitted that Wilberforce had profoundly affected him: “I can see plainly enough the sad defects, the real illiberalism of my opinions on that subject.”
Many changes were now occurring in Gladstone’s life – personally and politically.
In 1839, the young Gladstone married Catherine Glynne, of Hawarden Castle. Between 1839 and 1854 Catherine had nine pregnancies, including one miscarriage. There’s was a happy and enduring marriage.
Politically, his support for Sir Robert Peel during the battles over the Corn Laws led the Duke of Newcastle – an ardent protectionist – to withdraw his patronage and Gladstone lost his Newark seat – now becoming MP for the university seat of Oxford.
As Gladstone became preoccupied with great theological questions England was also undergoing radical change.
Since his childhood Liverpool and the surrounding region had altered beyond recognition. In particular, the consequences of the potato blight of 1848 had been catastrophic.
During “the great starvation” of the Irish Famine the population of Ireland had halved. One million people had died and three million emigrated – many getting little further than Liverpool “the gateway to America.”
In 1847, the Irish Nationalist leader, Daniel O’Connell had begged the House of Commons to save the starving and he described a country that had become a land of corpses and walking skeletons.
In February 1847, in his last speech to the Commons, a tottering O’Connell told Parliament:
“Ireland is in your hands….She is in your power….If you do not save her she cannot save herself. And I solemnly call on you to recollect that I predict with the sincerest conviction that one quarter of her population will perish unless you come to her relief.”
Parliament did not come to her relief and in the year of that prophetic speech, the year of O’Connell’s death, 17,280 mainly Irish people were recorded as dying in the town of Gladstone’s birth. There were also 20,000 street children. Dr.Duncan, the city’s outstanding public health officer estimated that 100,000 people were living in abject conditions. 3,000 had been tightly packed into the Workhouse – which stood on the site of today’s Metropolitan Cathedral, and there was room for no more. As typhus raged, fever sheds were erected to isolate the afflicted and two ships were moored in the River Mersey as lazarettos.
In 1846, two days before Christmas, in 1846, Sarah Burns, an Irishwoman and mother of seven, died after complaining of pains in her head and chest. At the inquest it was revealed that in three days she had eaten only a scrap of bread. The Coroner said of her Liverpool home:
“The floor was composed of mud; in that hovel there were seventeen human beings crowded together without even so much as a bit of straw to lie down on.”
In April 1847, during one week, in the St.Mary’s parish, just up the hill from this Hall, and close to this university’s Learning Resource Centre, there were 166 burials; 105 were children. Typhus was compounded by hunger.
In May 1847, 8-year-old Luke Brothers died. His post mortem revealed that there “was not the least particle of food in his stomach.” The typhus was followed by cholera.
It would not be until November 24th 1998 that the first memorial to the thousands of Liverpool victims of the Irish famine was unveiled in Liverpool – in the grounds of St.Luke’s Church in Bold Street. The memorial was unveiled by President Mary McAleese, who later the same day gave the eighth Roscoe Lecture here in St.George’s Hall.
Although, even by standards of Victorian squalor, the situation in Liverpool was appalling, all over Britain the scars of industrialisation and poverty were to be seen in the lives of vast numbers of people. In their novels, Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell shone a light into the twilight worlds of the Victorian poor.
Mrs. Gaskell’s Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life was published in 1848. Mary Barton with its cast of working-class characters and its interest in Chartism, the emerging trades union movement and social issues, including the consequences of industrialisation and poverty, shocked Victorian society and provoked political debate. Mrs. Gaskell had men like Gladstone in her sights when she wrote, in Mary Barton,
“What thoughtful heart can look into this gulf
That darkly yawns ‘twixt rich and poor,
And not find food for saddest meditation!”
The situation did produce thought both for meditation and for action.
In Liverpool, Dr.Duncan, Major Lester and Canon James Nugent – two of whom are commemorated here in St.John’s Gardens – became the heroes of the hour – and the relief of poverty, public laundries, district nurses and social provision all became manifest.
The Victorian virtues are often caricatured as hypocrisy to cover Victorian vices – but taken as an era the Victorian age produced some extraordinary generosity of spirit – philanthropists like Rowntree, Peabody and Cadbury.
Gladstone once said that “No man ever became great or good except through many and great mistakes” and he along with other eminent Victorians had all the same human failings as our own generation. We criticise Victorians for trying to hide their vices from public view – and Gladstone pre-eminently represented this approach to life – but this was driven by a belief in the principles of private and public morality – a belief held by the unskilled classes as much as it was held by the middle classes. Family and home were repositories of personal and civic virtues. Gladstone became the most eminent representative of these beliefs which is why he achieved such an extraordinary empathy with the masses, but he was no cheap populist and he passionately believed it when he proclaimed: “Nothing that is morally wrong can be politically right.”
When Gladstone extolled the Arthur of the Victorian Poet Laureate, Alfred (Lord) Tennyson, who, in Idylls of the King, described his Arthur as “a selfless man and stainless gentleman…the great pillar of the moral order”, he had in mind the proto-type for the perfect Victorian. He dispensed the advice that we should “Be happy with what you have and are, be generous with both, and you won’t have to hunt for happiness.
Gladstone’s parliamentary constituencies of Newark and Oxford University had, for different reasons, constrained him and restricted his ability to take his values to the masses. That was about to change.
In 1865 he lost his Oxford constituency as a result of the opposition of clerical graduates following his attack on the continued establishment of the Church of Ireland.
One month later he was then returned for the seat of South Lancashire – a vast constituency which included the hundreds of West Derby and Salford.
He launched his Lancashire campaign at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall with the words: “At last, my friends, I am come among you ‘unmuzzled.’”
The industrialised urban electorate would now become the power base, for “the People’s William.”
His ability to reach the masses, and to give voice to their aspirations, changed the nature of political campaigning, created a more representative form of government, and arguably averted revolution by facilitating reform.
Gladstone was now on his way to forming his first Government – but it wasn’t plain sailing.
Two years after winning South Lancashire, in a boundary re-organisation, the vast seat was divided into two.
When the 1868 General Election was called Gladstone opted for the new South West Lancashire seat which included the Liverpool suburbs of Wavertree, West Derby, Old Swan and the towns of St.Helens, Bootle, Leigh and Widnes – a total electorate of 350,000
Here, on the Plateau of Liverpool’s St. Georges’ Hall, the first recognisably modern election campaign got underway.
Crowds gathered on what The Times described on November 23rd as “a raw and cold morning with some rain” to see the candidates nominated. The report continued: “By the time Mr. Gladstone had to speak the crowd had reached 10,000 to 12,000 extending in a compact mass right across Lime Street…a number of fellows on the Conservative side, some of whom if dress is any guide, should have had a little more decency, conceived it to be their duty to put down the speakers on the other side by sheer noise. Blowing horns, singing songs etc were resorted to. No personal violence of any kind was attempted, and placards and lampoons were rare, but witty.”
Gladstone addressed the crowds at length, detailing his record in government, setting forth his beliefs, and making a rousing plea for support:
“And gentlemen, when with all possible respect to my opponents, I ask you to vote for me, I am not asking you merely to give your approval to my personal claims, which are nothing, or to give authority to my opinions, which are of no account – I am asking you to confirm by your suffrages the recoded verdict of the nation.
“….Some persons have said that you need not return me for South Lancashire because I may sit somewhere else. They say that I had better go away from the place where I was born, from the place where I was bred, from the place where my family have been for 90 years, and where they still pursue the honourable commerce of this country. You may just as well say, “I will turn a man out of his proper house because someone else will have the charity to take him in as a beggar or a vagrant.” I don’t, gentlemen, desire to be a parliamentary vagrant
“…grant the request that I may have not merely a seat in Parliament, but that I may be permitted and enabled to speak the words of truth and justice in the House of Commons, in the name and with the authority of the men of South-West Lancashire (Loud cheering).”
Gladstone never lacked in rhetoric – nor, in South West Lancashire, was he without powerful allies. He had the active support of John Pemberton Hayward, the Liverpool banker, Thomas Weld Blundell, and William Rathbone (VI) – who in 1882 would help to found University College Liverpool, the progenitor of Liverpool University.
Notwithstanding his formidable coalition of supporters Gladstone had to contend with a well organised and ferocious campaign against him. Fuelled by sectarianism – and deep antagonism to his support for Irish Catholics – Gladstone had to contend with a formidable campaign organised by the Orange Lodges.
On November 27th 1868 The Times reported that “Political rivalry had been attended in his case with far more than usual personal animosity, and the Lancashire Tories have fought rather against an enemy than an opponent….Ever since the day Mr.Gladstone made the Irish Church an imminent political question it has been known that his seat was far from safe.”
The Liverpool Daily Post announced that when the High Sheriff declared the result, votes cast were: Mr.Cross, 7,729; Mr.Turner, 7,676; Mr.Gladstone, 7,415; and Mr.Grenfell, 6,939. In thanking his supporters the newspaper reported that the vanquished Mr.Gladstone said “It is to me a matter of lively satisfaction, which I can never lose, that I received a large majority of votes within the district of Liverpool.”
Despite a massive swing throughout the country which had swept his Party to power Gladstone had suffered defeat. Fortunately, in those times, a candidate could stand in two parliamentary divisions simultaneously – and, without seeking Gladstone’s approval, the Greenwich constituency association had listed him as their second candidate in their two member seat.
Defeated in Lancashire his success in Greenwich enabled him to become Prime Minister and to form his first Administration. He remained in the office until 1874.
He would frequently visit Liverpool and the region in the years which followed but never again as a local MP. But, as I will remark at the end of this lecture, it was to Liverpool that he would return to make the last great speech of his life.
So much for Gladstone’s connections with Liverpool and how events in the city of his birth shaped his life. Let me briefly try to summarise his central achievements.
At the conclusion of the 1868 election Gladstone retreated from Liverpool to Hawarden Castle before returning to London. He received a telegram from Queen Victoria saying that her secretary would shortly arrive with a commission to form a government. He read the telegram and he continued to fell trees. It was recorded that a few minutes later he “looked up and said with great earnestness in his voice and great intensity in his face, exclaiming: “My mission is to pacify Ireland.” He then resumed his task, and never said another word until the tree was down.”
On his return to the capital, he formed the first of four administrations in which he served as Prime Minister – becoming Prime Minister at 58 years of age.
His life long legacy includes a remarkable record as Chancellor of the Exchequer- presenting eleven budgets to Parliament; consistent support for free trade and the shaping of structured fiscal policies; the “mission to pacify Ireland” – which one hundred years later found its ultimate fulfillment in Northern Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement; the promotion of Home Rule and devolution; his confrontation with the unelected House of Lords; meritocratic reform – including public exams throughout almost all of the civil service; the abolition of university religious tests; an appreciation of self reliance and the role of faith in a secular society; the creation of a recognisably modern and democratic political movement; his willingness to confront and split his political party on an issue of principle; his heroic legislation – on everything from free elementary education to the secret ballot; and his ability to rouse the conscience of the nation, embracing causes that challenged tyranny or injustice and promoting national crusades, such as the Midlothian Campaign.
Many volumes have been written about Gladstone’s life. In 1995 the late Roy Jenkins wrote his highly readable biography of Gladstone. He approached his subject in much the same way as John Morley, who published “The Life of William Gladstone” in 1903.
Most recently, in 2007, Richard Shannon added his brilliant “Gladstone, God and Politics”- which re-examines Gladstone’s life from a different vantage point and explains the Statesman’s political life against the backdrop of his religious faith. Morley and Jenkins rightly argue that Gladstone was a great leader of his party but Shannon argues that “Gladstone’s Liberalism was a great problem for the Liberal Party” and says that without understanding Gladstone as a religious leader, viewed simply from a purely partisan or secular point of view, the story becomes distorted and makes no real sense – a proposition with which I agree.
Gladstonianism diverged from the interventionist direction in which his party had been moving: He was highly critical of the new Liberal “pet idea – what they call construction,—that is to say, taking into the hands of the state the business of the individual man”. He wrote that Tory Democracy and this new Liberalism had done “much to estrange me, and has done for many, many years.”
In 1876 Gladstone recalled the proverb “Vox populi, vox Dei” –“The people’s voice, God’s voice”. Religion, for Gladstone, was central to his personal life and to that of the nation: “As to its politics, this country has much less, I think, to fear than to hope; unless through a corruption of its religion – against which, as Conservative or Liberal, I can perhaps say I have striven all my life long.”
These views won him the respect and support of the pioneering Christian leaders of the Labour movement, Keir Hardie, Arthur Henderson and George Lansbury along with Nonconformists, High Anglicans, and Irish Catholics.
In 1998 – the centenary year of Gladstone’s death, I invited Lord Jenkins to give the seventh Roscoe Lecture, entitled “Gladstone: A Consummate Victorian Citizen”.
I asked him where he placed Gladstone in the pecking order of great Prime Ministers:
“When I began writing about him I thought he was a terrible prig. By the time I finished, I thought he was the greatest of our prime Ministers.”
After publishing his masterly 2001 biography of Churchill, Lord Jenkins told me that he had revised his opinion adding that Gladstone, unlike Churchill, had not been tested in war.
Notwithstanding this caveat – and, in fact, as Chancellor Gladstone had considerable experience of the Crimean War – Roy Jenkins added that “Gladstone was, without question, the most remarkable specimen of humanity ever to be in No10 Downing Street.”
Gladstone had plenty of faults – and his wife of sixty years, Catherine Glynne, shrewdly remarked: “Oh, William dear, if you were not such a very great man, what a bore you would be!” What made him great rather than a bore, were his legendry energy, his formidable intellect, and passionate oratory.
At 76 he climbed the highest peak in the Cairngorms; at 86 he personally wheeled 30,000 of his books up the hill from Hawarden Castle to his new St.Deiniol’s Library, and in his eighties he still pursued his hobby of felling great oaks with one of the axes which visitors frequently presented to him.
His intellectual energy made him a voracious bibliophile, personally annotating the books he read, and, sitting with his wife, as he translated the Odes of Horace or the works of Homer, or reading his Bible – in the Greek – as he did each day.
His oratory brought thousands to hear him – and shouters would pass the words back through the crowds. Queen Victoria hated his oratory, famously complaining that when he spoke to her: “He always addresses me as if I were a public meeting.” She remarked to her daughter: “What an incomprehensible old man he is! Old Lord Palmerston was not wrong when he said to me, “he is a very dangerous man.”
Punch contrasted Gladstone’s earnestness with Disraeli’s ability to flatter and charm.
Queen Victoria was certainly not amused by Gladstone’s rumbustuous appeals to the nation as he sought to rouse the popular conscience. Gladstone asserted that “All the world over, I will back the masses against the classes”. Little wonder Lord Palmerston regarded him as a dangerous rabble rouser, stirring sedition with his calls for the enlargement of the franchise and electoral reform. Disraeli loathed him – and while the public nicknamed Gladstone “the People’s William” and the G.O.M: the “Grand Old Man” Disraeli preferred to render this acronym as “God’s Only Mistake”
In a letter to Lord Derby, at Knowsley Hall, Disraeli venomously referred to Gladstone as “…that unprincipled maniac Gladstone – extraordinary mixture of envy, vindictiveness, hypocrisy and superstition.” He once accused Gladstone of conduct that was worse than those who had committed the Bulgarian atrocities.
Gladstone was little more admiring of his leading political adversary: “the Tory Party had principles by which it would and did stand for, bad and for good. All this Dizzy destroyed.”
When Disraeli died, Gladstone proposed a State Funeral, but Disraeli’s will asked for burial alongside his wife, to which Gladstone replied, “As Disraeli lived, so he died — all display, without reality or genuineness.”
Gladstone and Disraeli were the towering figures of Victorian politics. They were political opponents whose dissonant outlook and attitudes, social and cultural backgrounds, led to bitter rivalry and disagreement.
Gladstone’s decision to leave the Conservative Party and to become a Liberal no doubt contributed to this animosity – although as late as 1870 in Dod’s Parliamentary Companion Gladstone described himself as “liberal conservative” – a label later used by Churchill and even David Cameron.
Leaders from all sides of the political divide, including Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, have laid claim to Gladstone’s mantle.
I have talked about his Liverpool upbringing, and his central achievements. The last part of my remarks turns to his abhorrence of tyranny and his belief in the liberties of free peoples to determine their own destiny.
After his defeat in 1874 – having sought to raise revenue from Spirits and Death Duties – and “borne down in a torrent of gin and beer”, as he put it – and as head of a Government which Disraeli famously described as “a range of exhausted volcanoes”, Gladstone resigned as Leader of the Liberal Party. Disraeli formed a new Government.
A short period of quiet followed but Gladstone soon began publishing mildly inflammatory pamphlets and embarking on a scathing critique of Disraeli’s imperialism, warning of the dangers of a bloated empire.
Most memorably, in 1876 he published his “Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East” In a tirade against the tyranny of the Ottoman Turks in the Balkans Gladstone used all his powers of rhetoric. Let me give you a sample:
“Let the Turks now carry away their abuses, in the only possible manner, namely, by carrying off themselves. Their Zaptiehs and their Mudirs, their Bimbashis and Yuzbashis, their Kaimakams and their Pashas, one and all, bag and baggage, shall, I hope, clear out from the province that they have desolated and profaned. This thorough riddance, this most blessed deliverance, is the only reparation we can make to those heaps and heaps of dead, the violated purity alike of matron and of maiden and of child; to the civilization which has been affronted and shamed; to the laws of God, or, if you like, of Allah to the moral sense of mankind at large. …..That such things should be done once is a damning disgrace to the portion of our race which did them; that the door should be left open to their ever so barely possible repetition would spread that shame over the world!”
By 1879 he had decided to turn his moral indignation into a nationwide clarion call.
He would contest the next election at Midlothian and from this began what would become known as the Midlothian Campaigns (of 1879, 1880 and 1884).
In 1879 he gave 30 substantial speeches heard by an estimated 87,000 people; another 18 speeches followed in 1880 – and each was reported extensively in the national newspapers. They were speeches for and from his constituency.
Throughout the Campaigns he argued that nations should reconcile their differences through the Concert system, not secret alliances, that Britain should assert a doctrine of “equal rights of all nations” and, in particular, he condemned the brutality of the Ottoman Empire against its Christian subject nations.
In the 1880 General Election Gladstone’s victory saw him back in office for four years Now he had to deal with the “bloated empire” – not least in the debacle in Sudan with Charles Gordon’s death at Khartoum when the acronym G.O.M. (Grand Old Man) was turned on him by the Conservatives who now called him M.O.G. (Murderer of Gordon).
The following year, 1886, Gladstone returned to office for a third time. Now allied to the Irish Nationalists he sought to promote Irish Home Rule. This policy split the Liberal Party and led to the Unionist breakaway. Within months his Home Rule Bill had been defeated. Once again he was out of Downing Street. He knew that the failure to provide an equitable settlement for Ireland would have disastrous consequences: “We are bound to lose Ireland in consequence of years of cruelty, stupidity and misgovernment and I would rather lose her as a friend than as a foe.”
In 1892, at the next election, Gladstone returned for the fourth and final time. Now aged 82 he became the oldest man to occupy the Prime Minister’s office. He held the post for two years until resigning in 1894. His resignation followed the defeat of his second Irish Home Rule Bill. It had passed all its stages in the Commons achieving a Second Reading majority of 43 but the House of Lords defeated it 419 votes to 41 – and ended both Gladstone’s parliamentary career and any prospects of a peaceful settlement of the Irish Question.
His mission to pacify Ireland would be put on hold for the best part of one hundred years and a civil war; partition; Stormont’s abuses and discrimination; civil rights marches; British troops; Bloody Sunday; direct rule; internment; hunger strikes; and decades of bombings and paramilitary terror would be the consequence.
His last speech to the Commons came on March 1st 1894 when he urged the House to overturn the veto of the Lords. That day he also chaired the last of his 556 cabinets. Because of the tears of his colleagues it became known as the “blubbering cabinet”. Gladstone remained still and composed.
The following year, in 1895, he left the House.
But let me end where I began – in his home town of Liverpool.
On December 3rd, 1892, Gladstone returned to this St.George’s Hall and he was given the freedom of the city. The presentation of a casket was made on behalf of the Corporation by Robert Durning Holt, the Lord Mayor – which his great grandson, Sir William Gladstone, has brought with him for us to see today.
And, in a perfect act of symmetry, four years later, on September 24th, 1896, now aged 86, at Hengler’s Circus, in Low Hill, Gladstone gave his last public speech. In another two years he died of cancer.
The Hengler’s Circus speech came after a minor uprising in 1894, in Sasun, in Turkish Armenia. Throughout 1895 a series of pogroms were carried out throughout Turkey’s Armenian provinces – and even in the capital, Istanbul.
Gladstone took first hand accounts of the killings from Armenians who travelled to Hawarden Castle, his home in North Wales. He said “the powers of language hardly suffice to describe what has been and is being done, and exaggeration, if we were ever so much disposed to it, is in such a case really beyond our power.”
Gladstone reflected that only the enormity of the “sickening horrors” perpetrated against the Armenians, and “a strong sense of duty” could have induced “a man of my age” to abandon what he called “the repose and quietude” of his retirement to embark on what would be his last great mission.
He declared that “We are not dealing with a common and ordinary question of abuses of government. We are dealing with something that goes far deeper…..four awful words – plunder, murder, rape, and torture.”
By the time he came to speak in Liverpool, a year later – and where an immense crowd of 6,000 people gathered to hear him – Gladstone knew that it was his duty to rouse the conscience of the nation. The Times reported that many more people thronged outside while The Liverpool Daily Post recorded that the entire city turned out for him and had greeted him with “a tornado of applause.” Such passion for great political questions is so often absent today.
In describing the “horribly accumulated outrages” he demanded a non-sectarian and non-partisan approach; and he also emphasised that “this is no crusade against Mohammedanism”; that, whatever faith had been held by the Armenians, “it would have been incumbent upon us with the same force and the same sacredness” to speak out on their behalf.
With precision, Gladstone identifies and names the Ottoman Turkish Sultan, Sultan Abdul Hamid II – “the assassin” – as responsible for the order to massacre the Armenians; and he roundly condemns the European powers for giving the Sultan “the assurance of impunity.” While believing that ideally Europe should act together he bitterly criticised their failure to do so: “Collectively, the powers have under-gone miserable disgrace…
“Translate the acts of the Sultan into words and they become these, ‘I have tried your patience in distant places; I will try it under your own eyes. I have desolated my provinces; I will now desolate my capital. I have found that your sensitiveness has not been effectually provoked by all that I have heretofore done; I will come nearer to you and see whether … I shall or shall not wake the wrath which has slept so long.'”
When Europe failed to act, Gladstone said Britain had the right to act alone and not “make herself a slave to be dragged at the chariot wheel of other powers of Europe.”
Many of these same arguments have relevance and application in our own times but so does the challenge which comes at the culmination of his Hengler’s Circus address: he demands no ambiguity, no neutrality but condemnation of crimes against humanity “which have already come to such a magnitude and to such a depth of atrocity that they constitute the most terrible, most monstrous series of proceedings that have ever been recorded in the dismal and deplorable history of human crime.”
Gladstone was right to prophesy that indifference would lead to catastrophic consequences.
Seventeen years after his death, the Armenian genocide of 1915-16 would become the first genocide of the twentieth century. Over one million men, women and children were killed as the Ottoman Turks sought to erase entirely the Armenian identity from eastern Turkey.
The belief that no-one really cares is what always encourages the tyrant.
Hitler believed he could invade Poland and do so with impunity: “who after all,” he asked, “speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” The same rationale – a culture of impunity – led to the industrialised murders of the concentration camps.
The folly of forgetting – collective amnesia about what has gone before – led to Hitler’s ideology of a purified Master-Race. It was directly inspired by the biological vision of a purified pan-Turkism, based on racial origins and racial superiority; even his corruption of medicine and science drew inspiration from the deliberate infecting of Armenians with typhus in a sequence of medical experiments.
If, in 1896 or 1915, the world had saved the Armenians – or after World War One held those responsible to account – would Hitler have believed that he could act against the Jews with impunity? And might a holocaust have been averted?
Perhaps, as we ponder the contemporary failure to end the continuing massacre of people the world over – from Congo, to Burma, to Darfur – we should lament the absence of statesman like Gladstone today.
After his death, on Ascension Day, 19th May, 1898, he was given a state funeral and was buried in the statesman’s corner of Westminster Abbey. Two years later Catherine was laid to rest at his side.
Gladstone was mourned throughout Britain and hardly a town or city is without a road or street named in his honour.
In this bicentenary year of his birth, as we revisit the life of this scourge of tyrants and great son of this city, it may be pointless to say “If only Gladstone Was Here” – as I did when I was 17 – but it is far from pointless to hope that through the study of his life and times we can inculcate a new generation with his sense of political purpose, his high calling, and his passionate belief that we must confront tyranny in all its forms.
Gladstone knew that the best we can sometimes do is to put down markers for the future, memorably asserting that “We look forward to the time when the power to love will replace the love of power. Then will our world know the blessings of peace.” Perhaps we can share his optimistic belief in the final outcome recalling his words that whatever the short-term defeats “you cannot fight against the future. Time is on our side.”
With Andy Li During The Hong Kong Elections In...