God's vicar in the Treasury

Gladstone, 1875-98 - Gladstone
December 1, 1995

Among his multitude of other accomplishments, Gladstone was the only British prime minister to have written a popular hymn, which was included in Percy Dearmer's English Hymnal of 1906 as suitable to be sung during the celebration of Holy Communion. It was left out of the 1986 revised English Hymnal, presumably as no longer suited to modern taste, and certainly its omission is no loss to Anglican hymnology. This fragment of faith passes unnoticed among the great man's many biographers; yet from the historian's point of view Gladstone's hymn is not without interest. Its verses managed to combine a fervent, almost feverish, sanctity and self-abasement, with a liturgical affirmation of the view that God was an organic utilitarian, remarkably similar in outlook to Gladstone himself. In this harnessing of power and piety, the public and the private, hubris and humility, lay the clue to Gladstone's inner life and political pre-eminence over more than 50 years.

Nearly 100 years after his death Gladstone never ceases to amaze us by his extraordinary synthesis of the familiar and the exotic. He juxtaposed materialism and holiness, abstract principle and moral relativism, puritanism and carnal pleasure to an extent that continues to baffle us, no less than it tantalised and eluded the majority of his contemporaries. Throughout his political life Gladstone grappled with problems that are still the living stuff of politics in the late 20th century - Ireland, public finance, political economy, forging civic unity out of class and cultural division, managing Britain's uneasy relationship to other European powers. His solutions to many of these problems were in many respects strikingly "modern"; yet he arrived at them through a frame of reference derived from Homer, Holy Scripture, Aristotle and Bishop Butler that many would now regard as far stranger than life on another planet. Despite his reputation for piety, probity and public virtue his career from the 1830s through to the 1890s was punctuated at every stage by what would nowadays be regarded as the most flagrant public scandals - association with prostitutes, lies to the House of Commons, secret deals with terrorists, and undisclosed shareholdings in politically sensitive public companies. His U-turns - from erastianism to disestablishment, from high Toryism to advanced liberalism, from denouncing Bulgarian atrocities to the bombardment of Alexandria - were the most notorious in British political history. No wonder Gladstone continues to attract academic and popular attention far more than any of his predecessors or successors in the office of British prime minister. Indeed, Gladstone is the perfect subject for biographers of the 1990s. He had all the elements of larger-than-life theatricality and charisma that our culture demands of its heroes; but he also had in full measure the range of vanities, weaknesses and sexual peccadilloes that enable us to knock our heroes off their pedestals and cut them down to size.

The two volumes under review both bear witness to the lasting fascination of Gladstone, not merely as an epic figure from a now vanished imperial age, but as a human being - complex, flawed, brilliant, often magnanimous, sometimes repellent, frequently self-deceitful, never dull. Though the two books draw on very similar material (Lord Jenkins acknowledges his large debt to the massive scholarly accomplishment of Matthew's edition of the Gladstone diaries) they are in style and substance as different as two Mycenean tragedies written by rival Greek dramatists. Lord Jenkins is the Lord Macaulay of modern political biographers, a storyteller with an effortlessly easy narrative style, punctuated - particularly in his account of Gladstone's career as "God's vicar in the Treasury" - by illuminating references to his own experience as a parliamentary orator, reforming home secretary, and chancellor of the exchequer. His story is full of unforgettable vignettes of Gladstone's relations with other people, not least with the long-suffering Mrs Gladstone ("Oh, William dear, if you weren't such a great man you would be a terrible bore") and with Queen Victoria (who committed the appalling crime of putting whisky in her claret). He deals sympathetically with Gladstone's emotionally charged rescue work among prostitutes, rather less so with Gladstone's boundless wells of religious conviction (which he has difficulty in portraying as anything other than maudlin cant).

Gladstone's three-volume work on Homer, which attempted to graft Homer on to the historic roots of Christianity, is portrayed as "Gladstone in his Lord Longford mood, showing indifference to mockery, vast reserves of both energy and self-confidence and more enthusiasm than scholarly fastidiousness". Gladstone's opposition to liberalisation of the divorce laws Jenkins clearly finds quite unintelligible ("Gladstone was always a little unhinged on anything to do with the institution of marriage. Its disciplines had to be preserved at all costs. It was reminiscent of an intoxicated guardsman who could prevent himself falling over only by standing too rigidly to attention"). But overall Lord Jenkins's portrait is an imaginative and sympathetic one, which traces with great clarity the paths along which Gladstone was driven in economics and church politics, Egypt and Ireland, the aristocracy and the masses; it deals with the "evolution" of his many changes of mind with insight and generosity.

Colin Matthew's volume, which covers the later part of Gladstone's life after his first "retirement" in 1875, is a very different kind of study. Like his earlier volume, which charted Gladstone's career down to the end of his first ministry, it is the distillation of its author's 25 years of research into, and commentary upon, Gladstone's lifelong daily diaries. Matthew has clearly lived with Gladstone over a prolonged period, as one might live with a marriage partner (indeed with a good deal more intellectual intimacy and effort at total understanding than Gladstone appears to have extended to Catherine Gladstone). Not merely Gladstone's political deeds and intellectual beliefs, but his physical ailments and sexual drives, his intimations of spirituality, his patriarchal tyranny, and his only half-articulated grapplings with the subconscious are all more familiar to Matthew than has perhaps ever before been possible for any previous academic historian. Only Gladstone's editor could say with irrefutable authority that over 41 volumes of diary the G.O.M. never made a joke (unless one counts an occasional pun of the very refined variety).

Matthew's study not merely catalogues Gladstone's career, however, but sets it within a sweepingly ambitious interpretation of the Victorian constitution and its aftermath. It portrays Gladstone as exemplifying three overarching political principles which were to be of key significance in Britain's transition and decline, from world-historical empire to democratic mediocrity. One of these principles - and the most transient - was Gladstone's commitment to a powerful but aloof "minimalist state", which performed certain sharply defined functions with extreme rigour and efficiency but turned its back on any further excursion into autonomous civil society. Such a principle Matthew sees as being subverted by the rise of social welfare and ultimately shipwrecked by Keynesian economics. A second principle was the apparently opposite idea of "the Platform", whereby ruling elites had to construct their politics not in a vacuum of abstract principle but in a context of dialectical counterpoint with the ever-widening enfranchised masses. This second principle was the clue to many of the dramatic about-turns of Gladstone's career, which might seem to contemporaries and historians to be gross acts of expediency, but to Gladstone himself were the fruit of higher and more refined ratiocination and syllogism. The third principle was the progressive displacement of a rigid analytical theory of unitary sovereignty (centred on Westminster) by a multilayered tier of relativistic sovereignties (represented in 1886 by Gladstone's Home Rule proposals, a century later by the upward migration of sovereignty to the European Union).

Readers' responses to this three-pronged analysis will be a matter of opinion (I am myself utterly unconvinced by the logic of prong number three). And many sceptics at the time would have argued that it was not social welfare that torpedoed the minimalist state but Gladstone's own unpredictable selectivity in its practical application. Nevertheless, the result is a volume that not merely describes the life of a great Victorian statesman, but expresses it like a work of art: it captures not merely the factual verisimilitude, but the subjective verstehen, the tension and turbulence, the sheer intellectual complexity - at times even the sound and smell - of the greatest political drama of the late-Victorian age.

Jose Harris is reader in modern history, University of Oxford.

Gladstone, 1875-98

Author - H. C. G. Matthew
ISBN - 0 820 405 1
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £25.00
Pages - 421

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