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Gladstone and the Liberal Party

Updated Thursday 16th July 2015

In 1868, as the Liberals in the Commons reunited and the influence of Palmerston and Wallace became history, the man who untied the factions was the obvious choice to lead the first modern version of The Liberal Party.

As Tim Farron wins the leadership of the LIberal Democrats, we take a look back to the 1868 coronation of one of his predecessors, William Gladstone. Gladstone had assumed leadership of the Liberals in 1868, the first man able to claim to be the head of a modern version of the Liberal party - the previous general election had delivered a coalition of sympathetic and less sympathetic individuals under a loose partnership in the House of Commons. As the 'new' Liberal party started to plan its direction, the Liverpool Mercury was happy to endorse Gladstone as leader, but was realisitic about the task he was taking on:

William Gladstone Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: John Jabez Edwin Mayall The Daily News remarks that the question the Liberals have now to settle is not that of choosing a leader, for only one leader is possible, but of following him.

In Mr. Gladstone's favour there is every point save one. His hold over the country is complete. Since Chatham's time no Minister ever possessed so entirely the confidence of the people. But he has yet to gain the hold over the Liberal party in Parliament which he has over the Liberal party in the nation.

In many respects, he is peculiarly fitted to combine the suffrages of Liberals of all shades, yet the very range and subtlety of his intellect and a refined and scrupulousness of conscience, lead him to find distinctions and to m ake reserves scarcely appreciable by other men, or not obviously reconcilable with the principles of his party. On some critical occasions the Liberals have been disconcerted by finding their leader in the camp of the enemy or holding aloof from the fight.

Elaborate and varied as Mr. Gladtone's political experience and training have been, they have in one respect been defective. Mr. Gladstone has studied every branch of government except The House Of Commons. The omission is not irredeemable and it is easily explained.

Mr Gladstone never had practically to grapple with the problem of Parliamentary management till he entered upon the leadership of a party loosened by Lord Palmerston's death from the bonds which held it together, and had to confront a question even Lord Palmerston could only deal with by shirking it.

It must be admitted that Mr. Gladstone has sometimes appeared to confound the functions of a leader with those of a dictator. When he ought to have frankly conferred with his party, her has thought it enough to take counsel with a popular tribune and a veteran tactician, and has proclaimed as edicts what he ought to have submitted as proposals.

All deductions, however, having been made, leave Mr. Gladstone not only the best buy the only possible Liberal leader. The defects which are freely canvassed are trifles; still, trifles if they do not make up the sum of political life, contribute a good deal to it.

It depends on Mr. Gladstone himself to win his way to a political ascendency as complete as that of Palmerston or of Peel. Let his followers renounce a temper too critical or exacting, and let Mr. Gladstone learn to humour somewhat a sensitiveness inseparable from popular assemblies, and the chief difficulties in the way of LIberal unity will be removed. How much depends on this reconciliation, none can say.

 

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