Gladstone: God and Politics

April 24, 2008

Alistair Campbell said, "We don't do God", but, as we know, Tony Blair did. Few prime ministers have consciously made their political decisions in the light of their religious beliefs but one who did was Gladstone, who, as Richard Shannon demonstrates, strove in politics "to realize God's purposes".

Gladstone: God and Politics is a thoroughly revisionist work that not only revalues the relationship between Gladstone and God but that between Gladstone and the Liberal Party.

It sets out to demolish the image of Gladstone first crafted by John Morley, "a 'wonderful pilgrim' questing from Tory darkness to Liberal light", and to reveal a man guided by religion who had little regard for his instrument, the Liberal Party.

It has, of course, always been clear that he was a deeply religious man. But most historians of the modern period write from a secular perspective and Gladstone's biographers have been no exception; they have, from Morley to Colin Matthew and Roy Jenkins, underplayed the centrality of religion in Gladstone's life and drawn back from making the links between his religion and his politics.

Thus, we have been presented with a split Gladstone, a man with a deep faith that imparted little but moral seriousness to Gladstone the politician, while the whole man in fact sought to discern the political paths that would fulfil the purposes of God.

Was Gladstone ever a Gladstonian Liberal? Shannon argues that he was rarely in tune with the Liberal Party in the House of Commons. Perhaps he remained the last member of that short-lived but talented political persuasion, the Peelites, and inherited from Peel an executive approach to politics that combined a dedication to the carrying out of the Queen's Government with impatience with party and the Commons.

Gladstone rarely sought to carry his parliamentary party with him, but rather ordered it to follow when revelation had shown him the policy to pursue and, when it demurred, went beyond it to a wider public opinion. He was ever the "People's William" rather than the Liberal Party's. To Max Weber, Gladstone was a "Caesarist plebiscatorian", challenging, with his "completely personal charisma", the "everyday power of the party".

Convinced of the necessity of parties, he found the confusion of the politics of the late 1840s and 1850s unsettling but was, nevertheless, no faithful member of the Liberal Party he eventually joined. Its insubordination at the time of the Second Reform Act irritated Gladstone and it was its refractoriness that made him step down as leader of the Opposition in 1875.

His return as leader and Prime Minister in 1880, expeditiously sidelining his successors, was based on his mobilisation of public opinion over the Eastern Question and was, in his own estimation, because "the Almighty has employed me for His purposes in a manner larger or more special than before".

It is in Gladstone's conversion to Home Rule for Ireland that Shannon finds the ultimate example of both the politics of revelation and disdain for party. Not only did the Grand Old Man, now in his seventies, thwart the initiatives of colleagues on Irish matters between 1880 and 1885, but in 1886 he imperiously foisted on his party a radical policy that it would never of its own initiative have undertaken and that nearly did for it what the repeal of the Corn Laws had done to Peel's Conservative Party.

Campaigning in Liverpool during the 1886 election and sensing defeat, Gladstone went "in bitterness, in the heat of the spirit: but the hand of the Lord was strong on me".

Shannon's challenge to the established image of Gladstone will be controversial. It will also add to the debate as to whether pragmatists or even opportunists are preferable as political leaders to those who feel the hand of destiny, providence or God on their shoulder.

Gladstone: God and Politics

By Richard Shannon
Hambledon Continuum
SBN 9781847252029
Published 1 November 2007

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