William Gladstone was born of Scottish merchant parents in Liverpool in 1809. He was educated at Eton and Oxford, where he studied Classics and Mathematics. He was a fine orator at the Oxford Union. He was soon elected to Parliament, as a high tory, and would serve Robert Peel’s Government in the Treasury and the Colonial office.
Gladstone made a habit of identifying injustice and putting it right. One of his first bugbears was the Opium wars. He was outraged at Britain declaring War on China and the peddling of Opium, which he knew to be a dangerous and destructive drug. He championed the cause of dock workers who were based in pubs and needed a central organisation. He had a life-long personal crusade to save prostitutes. He would walk the streets talking to the girls, trying to help them into better circumstances. He was investigated, but proven innocent of any wrongdoing.
Peel’s Government fell over repeal of the Corn laws. Gladstone stayed in the Peelite faction and led it on the death of the founder. They formed a Government with the Whigs, and he was made Chancellor. He was always a believer in equality of opportunity, free trade, and laissez-faire economic policies. His first budget wanted to reduce tariffs on imports, to increase free trade and rely on income tax, which he would also like to reduce. His first budget speech was 5 hours long and was hailed as the work of a man fit to direct Governments. His oratory made the subject interesting and his skill in balancing the budget was recognised by all.
The Crimean War followed, and Gladstone refused to borrow, instead he raised income tax, to demonstrate the folly of War. His continued in a fiscally responsible manner, reduced income tax, increased trade and improved the lot of the working man. This was important as many would not have the vote, yet he still worked hard for them. Like Peel before him, he was much respected by the workers.
Another Government in 1867, saw a Bill on Electoral Reform. Gladstone campaigned for a greater franchise, but his arch rival Disraeli outmanoeuvred him by seeking an amendment to give even more people the vote, despite being a Conservative. Gladstone was stung, and a great rivalry would commence.
He was now the leader of the Liberal Party, formed from the Whigs and Peelites. He was elected to be Prime Minister in 1868, and remained in that position for 6 years. He believed his main role was to pacify Ireland. He would also seek individual liberty and reduce economic and political restraints. Always campaigning for better opportunity for the working man and rooting out injustice.
He was voted out in 1874, and he was very critical of Disraeli’s foreign policy in opposition. But returning to power in 1880, he presided over some bad overseas ventures. Afghanistan, Egypt, Sudan and South Africa were all disastrous as the scramble for Empire in Africa was beginning.
His chance came for Ireland with the first Home Rule Bill. He united his minority Liberals with Irish Nationalists, giving devolution to them and power to him, but it split the Liberals. The Irish leader Parnell, was dragged through the mud in a divorce case and Gladstone’s morals mitigated against dealing with the man. He tried again in 1892, but the measure was defeated in the Lords.
He continued to fight for his principles, but he saw that politics was regressing from free trade, opportunity and support of the working man. The Tories were amassing wealth in the colonies and in the financial institutions and were espousing protectionism. He was Prime Minister until 84, and he stayed in the House three more years.
Regarded by many as one of the greatest Prime Ministers, he always championed the cause of the unfortunate. Driven by his morality, it also be could be his downfall. Disraeli, whose morality was less well defined, was a shrewder political operator and was able to outfox him at times.
But surely our leaders are there to represent us. We vote for them based on the promises they make to improve out lot. If they think they are smart because they outsmart us to get power, how has the world improved. Being a clever and devious operator has its uses, especially in dealing with those of a similar ilk. Surely a great leader is one who demonstrates that he can represent those who need help and stand up for principles first.
William Ewart Gladstone did that all his life. In Government, in Opposition, at home and in his private life. He practiced what he preached and boy what a sermon!