Gladstonian liberalism

Gladstonian liberalism is a political doctrine named after the British Victorian Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Party, William Ewart Gladstone. Gladstonian liberalism consisted of limited government expenditure and low taxation whilst making sure government had balanced budgets and the classical liberal stress on self-help and freedom of choice. Gladstonian liberalism also emphasised free trade, little government intervention in the economy and equality of opportunity through institutional reform. It is referred to as laissez-faire or classical liberalism in the UK.

Gladstonian financial rectitude had a partial lasting impact on British politics and the historian John Vincent contends that under Lord Salisbury's premiership, he "left Britain's low tax, low cost, low growth economy, with its Gladstonian finance and its free trade dogmas, and no conscript army, exactly as he had found it...Salisbury reigned, but Gladstone ruled."[1]

However in the early twentieth-century the Liberal Party began to move away from Gladstonian liberalism and instead developed new policies based on social liberalism (or what Gladstone called "constructionism"). The Liberal government of 1906-1914 is noted for its social reforms and these included old age pensions and National Insurance. Taxation and public expenditure was also increased and New Liberal ideas led to David Lloyd George's People's Budget of 1909-10.

The first Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Snowden, had Gladstonian economic views. This was demonstrated in his first Budget in 1924; government expenditure was curtailed, taxes were lowered and duties on tea, coffee, cocoa and sugar were reduced. A. J. P. Taylor has written that this budget "would have delighted the heart of Gladstone."[2] Ernest Bevin remarked upon becoming Minister of Labour in 1940: "They say that Gladstone was at the Treasury from 1860 to 1930".

The Gladstonian era

William Gladstone

For the next thirty years Gladstone and Liberalism were synonymous. William Ewart Gladstone served as prime minister four times (1868–74, 1880–85, 1886, and 1892–94). His financial policies, based on the notion of balanced budgets, low taxes, and laissez-faire, were suited to a developing capitalist society, but they could not respond effectively as economic and social conditions changed. Called the "Grand Old Man" later in life, Gladstone was a dynamic popular orator who appealed strongly to the working class and to the lower middle class. Deeply religious, Gladstone brought a new moral tone to politics, with his evangelical sensibility and his opposition to aristocracy.[3] His moralism often angered his upper-class opponents (including Queen Victoria), and his heavy-handed control split the Liberal Party.[4][5]

In foreign policy, Gladstone was in general against foreign entanglements, but he did not resist the realities of imperialism. For example, he approved of the occupation of Egypt by British forces in 1882. His goal was to create a European order based on co-operation rather than conflict and on mutual trust instead of rivalry and suspicion; the rule of law was to supplant the reign of force and self-interest. This Gladstonian concept of a harmonious Concert of Europe was opposed to and ultimately defeated by a Bismarckian system of manipulated alliances and antagonisms.[6]

As prime minister 1868 to 1874, Gladstone headed a Liberal Party which was a coalition of Peelites like himself, Whigs, and Radicals; he was now a spokesman for "peace, economy and reform." One major achievement was the Elementary Education Act of 1870, which provided England with an adequate system of elementary schools for the first time and made attendance compulsory. He also secured the abolition of the purchase of commissions in the army and of religious tests for admission to Oxford and Cambridge; the introduction of the secret ballot in elections; the legalization of trade unions; and the reorganization of the judiciary in the Judicature Act.[7]

Regarding Ireland, the major Liberal achievements were land reform, where he ended centuries of landlord oppression, and the disestablishment of the (Anglican) Church of Ireland through the Irish Church Act 1869.

In the 1874 general election Gladstone was defeated by the Conservatives under Disraeli during a sharp economic recession. He formally resigned as Liberal leader and was succeeded by the Marquess of Hartington, but he soon changed his mind and returned to active politics. He strongly disagreed with Disraeli's pro-Ottoman foreign policy and in 1880 he conducted the first outdoor mass-election campaign in Britain, known as the Midlothian campaign. The Liberals won a large majority in the 1880 election. Hartington ceded his place and Gladstone resumed office.

Among the consequences of the Third Reform Act (1884–85) was the giving of the vote to the Catholic peasants in Ireland, and the consequent creation of an Irish Parliamentary Party led by Charles Stewart Parnell. In the 1885 general election this party won the balance of power in the House of Commons, and demanded Irish Home Rule as the price of support for a continued Gladstone ministry. Gladstone personally supported Home Rule, but a strong Liberal Unionist faction led by Joseph Chamberlain, along with the last of the Whigs, Hartington, opposed it. The Irish Home Rule bill gave all owners of Irish land a chance to sell to the state at a price equal to 20 years' purchase of the rents and allowing tenants to purchase the land. Irish nationalist reaction was mixed, Unionist opinion was hostile, and the election addresses during the 1886 election revealed English radicals to be against the bill also. Among the Liberal rank and file, several Gladstonian candidates disowned the bill, reflecting fears at the constituency level that the interests of the working people were being sacrificed to finance a rescue operation for the landed elite.[8]

The result was a catastrophic split in the Liberal Party, and heavy defeat in the 1886 election at the hands of Lord Salisbury. There was a final weak Gladstone ministry in 1892, but it also was dependent on Irish support and failed to get Irish Home Rule through the House of Lords.

Gladstone finally retired in 1894, and his successor, Lord Rosebery, led the party to another heavy defeat in the 1895 general election.


  1. Vincent, John (24 July 1999). "Reigning not Ruling". The Spectator.
  2. Taylor, A. J. P. (1990). English History, 1914-1945. Oxford University Press. p. 212.
  3. Parry, J. P. (1989). Democracy and Religion: Gladstone and the Liberal Party, 1867-1875. Cambridge University Press. p. 174.
  4. Matthew, H. C. G. "William Gladstone". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/101010787. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  5. Hammond, J. L.; Foot, M. R. D. (1952). Gladstone and Liberalism. London: English Universities Press.
  6. Goodlad, Graham D. (2000). British foreign and imperial policy, 1865–1919. London: Routledge. p. 21.
  7. Pearce, Robert; Stearn, Roger (2000). Government and Reform: Britain 1815–1918 (Second Edition). Hodder & Stoughton. pp. 56–7.
  8. Goodlad, Graham D. (Sep 1989). "The Liberal Party and Gladstone's Land Purchase Bill of 1886". The Historical Journal. 32 (3): 627–641. doi:10.1017/s0018246x00012450. JSTOR 2639536.
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