William Gladstone's political thought underwent a number of changes in emphasis and character from his years at Eton and Oxford to when Hunt described him as 'The People's William' in The Daily Telegraph. Gladstone had never been the most stern and unbending of Tories to begin with, been absent from the last-ditch uncompromising ultra-Tory defence of the established order in 1828 – 32. Yet for much of the 1830s Gladstone was out of touch with the wave of the future, and the Reform Act of 1832 threw him off track for the rest of the decade. He considered it not a 'Reform Bill' but a 'revolution bill'; furthermore, it was 'monstrous'. He shared with many of his contemporaries during this period the belief that European society was on the brink of disaster, its social, moral and political qualities soon to be sold down the river by over-zealous reformist politicians. Although he looked back on this period of his life later as one of 'folly' in which he had an anti-libertarian streak, this later recollection was characteristically overly self-effacing.
Gladstone maintained throughout his life a concern with moral progress in the world and recognition of the responsibilities of governors to the governed. Gladstone was perfectly willing to admit that anomalies existed in the old system of representation and that these needed remedying, so long as this path was not pursued over-zealously and with a destructive intent. His preoccupation with a somewhat idealistic view of the Anglican Establishment gave way in the decades after 1830 to a focus on what became Liberal predilections – fiscal probity, free trade and the promotion of morality in international affairs.
To trace the process by which Gladstone changed, it is necessary to understand the starting point. Gladstone's early views on the state, and particularly the Church, were laid out in his The State in its relations with the Church (1838). Gladstone was preoccupied with Church-State relations at this time, an interest spurred on by the apparent religious slackness at Oxford University, which Gladstone considered vital to the national interest. He developed his idea of 'religious nationality', whereby each nation's Church was best suited to its interests. It acted as the moral guide to the state and represented its 'religious responsibility'. The Established Church was responsible for the 'right employment of the energies of the state', and so its moral purity was paramount. Although Gladstone advanced his views on the paramount position of the Anglican Church in a largely unqualified manner, there were some anomalies on display.
Firstly, his concept of 'religious nationality' seemed to preclude a defence of the Anglican Establishment in Ireland. By 1839 he had come to recognise that 'Ireland is inhabited by the Irish', and he was soon to conclude that parliamentary action to defend the Established Church there was perhaps becoming untenable. Secondly, in his opinion dissenters had the right to be the final arbiters of their own belief despite the primacy of the Anglican Establishment. He later began to realise the impracticality and idealism of his early ideas in their general form, and had to come to terms with changes that made the idea of 'national religion' itself spurious.
Gladstone was changed by the experience of departmental government. In 1841 he ascended to the vice-presidency of the Board of Trade, where he rapidly gained an expert knowledge of the British fiscal and tariff system. He gained a love of and competence in the routine administration of departmental work, and in 1843 he was promoted to the Presidency of the Board of Trade upon the retirement of his superior. An example of his early work is the Railways Bill of 1844, which made the legislation required to establish a private railway much easier and more streamlined. Foreshadowing his later concern in balancing the interests of all classes for the national interest, but proceeding from his belief that private property was a trusteeship for the benefit of all, he provided for the eventuality of the state taking control of the railway network as a last resort should this be necessary: but he later insisted that this was to happen in only the most extreme of circumstances. However, two years after his promotion Gladstone found himself resigning from the government on point of principle.
Gladstone's actions over the Maynooth question show that he had realised that his earlier principles were not compatible with good government in contemporary Britain. While voting to increase the endowment to the Catholic seminary, the issue caused him to resign from the government. This was to be the last time he resigned for such a reason, and Maynooth seemed to have demonstrated to him the fundamental incompatibility between his religious ideal and reality. He stated quite explicitly 'that any man, in any country, can in this age of the world, give full effect to Christian principles in the work of Government, is alas! very far beyond my belief'. His return to the Commons in 1847 would see him bringing a new practicality that sought a more attainable and less idealistic synthesis of his earlier beliefs.
The Aristotelian conception of a well-balanced organic society had always been central to Gladstone's thought, and remained so. In the 1830s and early 1830s, the integrative factor that he saw as united the myriad classes of people in Britain was the Established Church and its moral guidance. Following his practical experience at the Board of Trade and the realisation post-Maynooth that his vision of The State in its relations with the Church was impracticable, Gladstone began increasingly to adopt free trade as an integrative ideological concept. He grew ever more excited about the progress of Britain's commerce and manufactures, believing them to be of value to the whole nation. The surest way to stimulate them was to reduce taxes and tariffs, as the Peel government had done on some items in the period 1841 - 45.
Gladstone came to see free trade as a panacea to social tension, a policy capable of uniting the various interests of mid-Victorian Britain behind a disinterested and upright government. Fiscal probity came to be seen as the new measure of morality, and when Gladstone became Chancellor of the Exchequer he did his best to show his virtue. He launched his grand plan in 1853 with a budget that he considered 'the corner stone of our whole financial plan'. It provided for the reduction of some tariffs but the extension of the income tax until 1860. The implications of this plan are important for understanding how far Gladstone had come in gaining an understanding of political economy and its usefulness in statecraft.
The idea of the 1853 budget was to unite all of the interests of the country in a grand coalition that would support further moves towards free trade and hence guarantee economic prosperity and social harmony. The key was in the division of labour between those paying direct taxes and those paying indirect taxes, the former group been designed so as to roughly correspond to the electorate. The settlement of 1853 proved to be acceptable to all, as the income tax was set to expire eventually and now had a wider base after the requirement had been lowered from £150 to £100. The working class and consumers in general benefited from a lowering of tariffs and duties. To maintain the defence of established property and the disinterested character of government, it was considered vital that the burden of taxation fall justly on all classes.
The system was also designed to maintain fiscal probity by placing structural limits on the increase in either direct or indirect taxation. The income and property taxes were not likely to be increased by the electorate which they fell on, whereas indirect taxation could not be increased without causing considerable discontent. Gladstone’s actions in 1860, where he decided to keep the income tax and abolish almost all duties, reinforced this notion. The state was hence shackled to the minimum expense and hence was bound to maintain shrewdness in fiscal matters. By uniting all of Britain in a social compact that sought to increase the size of the national cake for all, Gladstone had found a new integrative concept.
Gladstone equally moved away from his earlier views on foreign affairs, endearing himself to European Liberals and doing the opposite to his reputation among European Conservatives. In his 'Letters' of 1850 – 51 he reserved particular vehemence for the government of Naples, which was a 'satanic agency' and the opposite of everything he considered desirable in a ruling order. His belief in a just social order was much offended by the conditions then present in Naples, and he was willing to range himself against Conservative thought in opposing it. He arrived at his position by the experience of visiting Italy shortly after the revolution of 1848, which he had heartily opposed while in Britain. He advanced his arguments from a conservative stance, arguing that where force was present, authority was absent: in Naples, 'Law, instead of being respected, is odious. Force, and not affection, is the foundation of Government.' This threatened to do Mazzini's work and stir 'the vilest corruption among the people'. He was applying his finely-developed appreciation of what it took to maintain a conservative society to events on the peninsula.
His support for Italian nationality, and later nationalism, grew into a sharp divergence from his Tory colleagues. He proved to be more flexible than them in recognising that reform and change could in some circumstances be beneficial, primarily when it was used to establish and shore up social harmony without too much inconveniencing the established order. He refused to accept that freedom and authority were mutually exclusive, instead recognising that a measure of both made for a just and practicable society. His views on Italy help explain why he drifted into the liberal camp and away from the more 'stern and unbending' Tories. Unlike them, he recognised the importance of responding to intelligent and constructive pressures for change so as to prevent the anarchy of revolution.
Although Gladstone had moved from his earlier High Toryism to a conservative Liberalism, this did not automatically make him the 'People's William'. Public opinion did not automatically accrue to Westminster politicians, especially in the provinces. Gladstone had gone some way to attaining high public regard, probably not consciously, during the 1850s by his attitudes towards Italy and his budgets. The process really took off in the 1860s, and led to Gladstone becoming the first 'People’s Chancellor'. He could not entirely claim originality in his actions, as he was much influenced by Bright and Palmerston. However, Gladstone began to court public opinion by travelling widely and often, and he was frequently well-received by members of all social classes. This was perhaps a natural outcome of his conscious effort to have been just to all in his fiscal policies, but the working classes showed a particular affection for him. This was no doubt derived in part from his abolition of the paper duty in 1861, which had allowed the provincial press to proliferate at enormous speed.
Gladstone had also come to invest the working classes with a special moral value that he no longer recognised in the gentry. Having always been somewhat suspicious of aristocratic wealth and frivolity (the feeling was mutual), he believed the poor were closer to God. The working classes had a special role in restraining the rapacity of the wealthy. The novelty of this attention no doubt spurred the poor of the nation to support him as they did Bright, but in fact almost every class in the country came to recognise Gladstone as there own. Whole towns received him en masse, keen to revel in the publicity and trade a visit by him would bring. Once the ball had started rolling Gladstone did not need to explicitly court press attention and popularity, as it would follow him wherever he went merely because he was the People's William. It was the triumph of both his theory of disinterested and prudent government and the relative social harmony and economic progress of the 1850s and '60s.
Gladstone's trajectory from High Tory to conservative Liberal was not as inconsistent as might be imagined. He maintained at all times a desire to preserve society through promoting social justice and religious morality, but his perception of to what extent this was possible and the methods necessary changed over time. He never abandoned his notion of an essentially organic and harmonious society in which everyone had their right sphere of action, although he supplemented this with recognition of the benefits individualistic political economy could bring the nation as a whole. His belief in a responsible ruling class that was disinterested and concerned with the good of all gradually led him to abandon the idea that the Tory party was a good tool to this end and move into the Liberals, who vindicated the popularity of his fiscal measures by making it their party orthodoxy for over fifty years.
He never lost sight of his concern with moral progress in the world; an end that he believed could be effectively discharged by the Church initially, but then charged a prudent government with achieving. In foreign affairs, his initial interest had been sparked by the colonial office and the possibility of diffusing a moral and Christian Anglo-Saxon civilisation around the world. As turbulent events moved on throughout Europe in the decades after 1830 he came to a conclusion slightly different to many of his erstwhile party colleagues, which was that a middle road could be forged between reform and immobility. His intelligent reaction to the pressures of a new socio-political system helped him become the 'People's William', even if in his heart of hearts he remained a conservative man of the old order.
H.C.G Matthew, Gladstone 1809 – 1874
E. Biagini, Liberty, retrenchment and reform: popular Liberalism in the age of Gladstone 1860 – 80
H.C.G Matthew, 'Disraeli, Gladstone and the politics of mid-Victorian budgets' Historical Journal (1979)
D.M. Schreuder, 'Gladstone and Italian unification: the making of a Liberal?', English Historical Review (1970)
E.D. Steele, Palmerston and Liberalism 1855 – 65
J.R. Vincent, The Formation of the British Liberal Party 1857 - 68