Grand Old Man under Providence

Gladstone, Volume One - Gladstone, Volume Two
March 3, 2000

In June 1887, William Ewart Gladstone came to Swansea and faced a procession of 50,000 with a leek on his lapel and a teacupful of claret in his hand. Now, Richard Shannon, late of the University of Wales at Swansea, has repaid the compliment with the conclusion of his biography of the Grand Old Man, a long-postponed second swig after the first volume, published in 1982 and now reissued. It is time to charge our glasses, or even our teacups, to celebrate the completion of Shannon's epic task.

The two volumes are now advertised as Peel's Inheritor and Heroic Minister . It is a rather Aristotelian form of heroism that Shannon has in mind in this second volume. In the 17 years we have waited, Shannon has made pronouncements on Gladstone that do not square with those of the late Colin Matthew, "Gladstone's representative on earth" (as Roy Jenkins called him), as is made pretty plain in an article by Shannon in Parliamentary History to which he alludes on page 644 (the annotated bibliography is a very welcome and illuminating feature). There Shannon writes that some features of Matthew's Gladstone are admirable, while others he fully disagrees with - most notably, Matthew's reading of Gladstone as a progressive and as a secular Liberal: "A reluctance to take Gladstone's claims to divine legation at face value is of the essence of depicting Gladstone as a sane, sensible, practical, benevolent, far-seeing statesman surrounded by magnificent sterile obstructers - Hartington, Salisbury, Chamberlain." For Shannon, these types are rather more the crew of the Pequod . As example, take the day in 1876 when Gladstone, after submitting the proofs of Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East to Murray's - which was to serve as the springboard for his triumphant return from retirement - uncharacteristically went to the theatre with his lieutenants to see a farce. A friend of Disraeli's witnessed Gladstone "laugh very much" at the performance - while "Harty Tarty (Hartington) never even smiled".

A recent A-level essay was: "Which do you consider Gladstone's greatest administration?" The assumption is that posterity has generally plumped for the first, with its Education Act and army reform, while it might be possible to argue for the second, with its Married Women's Property Act and parliamentary reform; and that brave souls might go for the later administrations, on grounds of Irish home rule being a brave and heroic venture, whatever its fortunes at the time. Shannon's answer would, however, appear to be: "none of the above".

The title of the first volume, Peel's Inheritor , is almost constantly before our eyes in the second - appropriately enough, Shannon would have us believe, because it was ever before Gladstone's. Gladstone's greatest moment was his 1853 budget because it saw the continuing of the work of Peel. He made Peel's son chief whip in 1868: "I tread the footsteps of greater men. It is now just 34 years since yr. father did for me what I have been doing for your brother Arthur" (Gladstone to Peel's daughter). If one had been at dinner at Dollis Hill in March 1887, a high-spirited Gladstone would have told you that he thought Peel "the greatest man he ever knew or could conceive of - a perfect God".

Gladstone has become quite fashionable in recent publications. He appears in a colour photograph on the cover of the Jenkins biography, and Tony Blair was recently caricatured as Mr G in an article in The Guardian . There would seem to be those who see Gladstone as a progressive with ideas ahead of his times. Shannon, in his studied relation of Gladstone to Peel, insists that this view has been about for years. Indeed, it was one attractive to John Morley, presenting a dispirited Liberal Party with a hero in 1903. Sadly it was not the view Gladstone took of himself - which was, as he said to an uncomprehending Morley, that contempt for Locke was the beginning of knowledge.

Shannon has been praised by reviewers of his earlier volume for "getting inside Gladstone's head". Again, what looms large in this particular investigation is Gladstone's sense of himself as a creature under Providence. In perhaps the most illuminating passage of either volume, Shannon has Gladstone reflecting in 1896 on his budget of 1853 that Providence had entrusted to him a "striking gift" - "an insight into the facts of particular eras, and their relations one to another, which generates in the mind a conviction that the materials exist for forming a public opinion, and for directing it to a particular end". A useful conviction for a politician to hold, and one exercised by Gladstone not infrequently. But it spared him the tiresome detail of working out an approach to issues that was either Liberal or Conservative, and a belief that he was indeed their man was to bruise many Liberals and many Whigs. It also made him distinctly reluctant to quit the political stage. The long-delayed exit is a striking feature of Shannon's second volume. He has Gladstone as early as 1873 preparing to retire but always subject to a reserve as to a cause - a cause being something not evident in that year, but not ruled out for the future - thus condemning his party, in Shannon's opinion, to a legacy of ambiguity and uncertainty. No wonder Lord Hartington did not enjoy the farce.

If this is a portrait of a "heroic minister", it is a doomed one. Shannon, though the most recent biographer in similar possession of all the material, certainly gives an interpretation of Gladstone that is markedly different from that of Matthew. Since Jenkins is arguably Matthew in cunning disguise, it is also distinct from Jenkins. It is a less easy read than that tome, and it will not sell as well. But it will most likely be read longer into the future, and its central view of Gladstone as a Victorian figure with, unsurprisingly, Victorian values, based on Bishop more than R. A. Butler, clearly has a great deal to recommend it - even if the prevailing view of Gladstone as mad, bad and dangerous to vote for is a little difficult to square with the adulation he received in his lifetime.

He was also man with a certain sense of the cult of personality. Faced with a request to tour the United States at the age of 85, Gladstone sent as a stand-in one of his famous axes to appear in a forestry display in Chicago.

Andrew Robinson teaches history at Eton College, where he organised a special exhibition on the centenary of Gladstone's death.

Gladstone, Volume One: Peel's Inheritor, 1809-1865

Author - Richard Shannon
ISBN - 0 14 0594 0
Publisher - Allen Lane
Price - £12.99
Pages - 580

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