One small but telling difference between the political culture of modern Britain and that of previous centuries lies in our apparently insatiable appetite for self-serving political memoirs. Until this century, the genre was decidedly unfashionable – much less so, for example, than in France. It would have been considered disreputable for any 17th or 18th-century English politician to leave the kind of memoir written by Cardinal de Retz, which was not only a brazenly exaggerated account of his own actions but an open celebration of his ambition, cynicism and lust. Like a number of French memoirists, de Retz wished to leave a record of his personality; for him the function of autobiography was to present ‘faits vus à travers un tempérament’. Englishmen were not so keen on confessing their passions; they also had a more reliable way of defending their honour, consistency and patriotism, because of the centrality of Parliament to 18th-century politics. It was in public speaking to one’s peers that one explained one’s actions, declared one’s principles and asserted one’s consistency and integrity. This did not change in the 19th century – though there was an increasing demand for political biography, which was almost invariably pious and posthumous. The Foxite Whigs became the first leading politicians (as opposed to court observers) to write memoirs. They were enthusiasts for French culture and for history; they were believers in open government; they were inventors of a permanent party of principle; and their party tradition set particular store by honour and fame. Lord Holland’s were the first published reminiscences of a major politician, Brougham’s was the first full autobiography, and Lord John Russell’s the first broad-canvas memoir by a former prime minister. Even so, these were not generally regarded as good examples: Holland had an exotic reputation, Brougham’s Life and Times was an egotistic fantasy and Russell wrote his book too late in life for it to have any coherence.
The memoir became fashionable in Britain only when the rise of mass-market publishing coincided with the eclipse of the aristocratic Parliamentary culture: in the 1880s and 1890s. Enterprising firms of American publishers then twice approached Gladstone, suggesting that he should write an autobiography. He responded half-heartedly, drafting a set of autobiographical memoranda, which were eventually published in 1971. It is clear from his drafts that he thought the proper function of the memoir was limited. A full narrative was for others to attempt posthumously. The memoir should explain specific shifts of opinion and so protect the writer against the charge of lack of principle. This was the view of his mentor Peel, who had left an account of the Corn Law crisis, and of Gladstone himself in his Chapter of Autobiography of 1868, about his evolving opinions on the Irish Church. Unfortunately, by the 1890s, Gladstone had gone through such startling changes of mind that his credibility was unsalvageable in the eyes of many propertied people who had been brought up to see politics as the open, honourable and clear-cut adherence to principle. To the average unintellectual defender of institutions, property and traditional hierarchies, Gladstone, tempestuous, opaque and unpredictable, seemed increasingly defective in ‘character’. How could one trust a man whose attacks on his political opponents were, in the words of one commentator, ‘censures upon his past state of mind ... He dismisses his past self’?
Gladstone never made much headway with his autobiography, partly because until 1894 he remained an immensely active politician obsessed with current battles, but also because he cared very little about reassuring his innumerable critics. He wished to justify himself not to posterity but to God. He regarded his changes of mind as extrications from error, admissions of sin, small steps towards divine forgiveness. Gladstone’s testament was not a self-justifying account written to edify or bamboozle future generations; it was a diary kept as a severe discipline, an account of his use of the ‘all-precious gift of Time’. Begun in his Evangelical childhood, and stretching over seventy years and 41 volumes, it consists very largely of books read and persons seen, but with many reflections on his own shortcomings. Its publication, begun 26 years ago, has now concluded, with the two volumes covering the last decade of Gladstone’s life. It has been supplemented by an invaluable and fascinating 862-page index including, among other things, the titles of the 20,500 volumes which Gladstone records having read.
The publication of the diary, masterminded by Colin Matthew, who has devoted over half an academic career to it, has transformed our view of Gladstone. In successive introductions, Matthew has set out a subtle yet lucid analysis of all aspects of his public and private life, and his extraordinary mental composition. The diary has driven from the field those – there have been many over the years – who relied simply on ambition or hypocrisy to explain Gladstone’s career. It has left us with a much clearer view of his religious motivation and his intense anxiety to use his allotted time to battle against sinfulness in himself and in others. Drawn to politics in order to infuse public life with religious principle in ways compatible with the circumstances of the 1830s, Gladstone naturally had to adapt his mission a great deal over time, and was enticed down paths which many regarded as alarmingly radical. Nonetheless, he continued to see his political goal as a conservative one: to purify institutions of the consequences of human sinfulness (such as the anti-social behaviour of vested interests). He knew that this was an endless task, for the political world could never be cleansed: ‘nowhere does human conduct fall so far below the highest ethical standard.’ Ever since the early 1870s, Gladstone had sought retirement from politics in order to prepare himself to meet God – to acquire a true sense of his own flawed nature. But the opportunity to mount new crusades against public sinfulness kept recurring. Was this not his duty? ‘All I can see is that I am kept in my present life of contention because I have not in the sight of God earned my dismissal.’
Gladstone doubtless did think that he was worthless in the sight of God and must prepare the ‘crawl toward death’ in a submissive spirit. It is revealing that the only work which he records as reading on three separate occasions in these last years is King Lear: ‘Marvellous!’ But he had no delusions about his power on earth. He knew that he was as dominant, and was in the eyes of many as god-like, as Lear had been. This awareness requires us to tread carefully in interpreting his political career. And, for all its invaluable help in fathoming him, the diary, like a memoir, will only take us so far, for it gives Gladstone’s rationalisation of his situation. Matthew has seen his editorial job as being to present that rationalisation, which he has done with masterly insight. But he is no Cardinal de Retz, and one could argue that Gladstone, more than most, has to be viewed ‘à travers son tempérament’. His intellectual and administrative command, and political understanding, were impressive, even in extreme old age, and are rightly celebrated by Matthew. But to see him in the round we must add in his strong but unpredictable and self-serving moralising impulse, his harsh temper, his compulsive hurrying, his disdain for the performance of most other politicians and his enormous frustration if denied the chance to bend events to his will. The upshot was a difficult personality which almost no one outside his family understood; and the difficulty increased with age. Buried in a footnote in these volumes is a sardonic account by H.M. Stanley of a visit to Gladstone in 1890, with a view to getting his support for a railway into Uganda to help suppress the slave trade – a visit rendered hopeless by the pedantic, crotchety, ill-tempered antiquarianism with which Gladstone interrupted Stanley’s every sentence.
In these years, he appeared increasingly obsessive, obstreperous and dogmatic, but also indomitable. He could not be gainsaid. His belief in divine guidance of his actions goes some way to explaining this. Gladstone took remarkably little account of other politicians, and could get away with it because he lacked talented colleagues after the disastrous Liberal Party split of 1886. His unparalleled public reputation also bolstered his position. He was very well aware that a combination of moral force, clever publicity and age gave him cult status among many humble Liberal supporters. He systematically exploited this following in order to create momentum behind the causes he advocated – very often in ways which his opponents thought vulgar. He received delegations at his home. He made a recording of his voice, which become a fairground novelty, played, for example, at one Oxfordshire fair in repertoire with ‘Daddy wouldn’t buy me a bow-wow’. He went on ‘progresses’ through friendly parts of the country, noting the invariably good weather (a sign that divine providence favoured his cause), and willingly enduring the enthusiasms of his supporters – eisteddfods, for example, or, on one occasion in 1887, a four-and-a-half-hour-long march-past of 49,000 loyal Welsh Liberals in Swansea, during which he was sustained by claret disguised in teacups so as to avoid offending local temperance activists.
The main cause for which all this was done was his last great obsession – Home Rule for Ireland. Adopted in 1886, it delayed his retirement and kept alive his influence over the political current, but at the terrible cost of destroying the great Liberal governing coalition and casting the rump of Liberals who followed him into opposition. Once he had decided that Ireland needed justice, nothing would divert him from the battle to secure it. As Matthew sagely remarks, his conversion to Home Rule was personal repentance for involvement in the past misgovernment of Ireland; and his personal repentance must become national repentance. But on almost every ground Gladstone’s solution for Ireland was surely misconceived (though Matthew finds it ‘compelling’). It was founded on the notion (derived, like many of his wilder ideas, from historical reading) that the Irish nationalist dynamic could resolve social and religious tension and reconcile the people to the rule of property. So it ignored the Ulster problem; it tried to revive moribund landed leadership by proposing a separate assembly of property-owners; and, unwilling to countenance a proper federal system for the whole kingdom, it could not solve the difficulty of the relationship between Westminster, on the one hand, and the Irish MPs and Irish finance, on the other. By polarising politics around this unworkable solution, it retarded the settlement of the Irish question for years – until the stakes had become too high for a settlement at all.
As Gladstone was uneasily aware, it also radicalised British politics in ways which he found unwelcome, by detaching the Liberal Party from the political centre ground – the influential consumer classes – and making it dependent on constituency activists and sectional lobbies. Gladstone became the first party leader who was forced to endure vociferous annual conferences. He watched as his party began to exalt a faddist/legislative conception of politics over the primarily consumer/administrative one which had been so electorally successful – a change of questionable wisdom, which it has taken a hundred years for the parties of the left to reverse. Demands were unleashed which to him were uncongenial – for the eight-hour day, the payment of MPs, Scottish Home Rule and Welsh disestablishment (which, from his idiosyncratically scholarly perspective, he could not take seriously; he asserted to a speechless Lloyd George that Welsh Nonconformity lacked firm roots, on the grounds that as recently as 1742 there were only 105 chapels). With that staggering lack of self-doubt which his submission to providential will gave him, he put the blame for these developments not on himself but on the Liberal Unionists who had deserted him in 1886. Indeed, he lectured Queen Victoria on the need to facilitate the passage of Home Rule immediately, before more damage was done to the Constitution.
Though Gladstone was upset by these by-products of his Irish crusade, he was so single-minded and self-driven that he would sacrifice anything that got in its way. After four years’ labour to maximise popular support for his Liberal opposition, he was taken aback to receive word, from the proprietor of Colman’s Mustard and other prudes, that some provincial Nonconformists were offended at the revelation of the Irish leader Parnell’s affair with a married woman. Within hours, and without consulting his colleagues, Gladstone had unceremoniously destroyed Parnell, whom he had spent eight years building up as a virtuous constitutionalist. Even so, the momentum which he had perceived gathering in favour of Home Rule was checked. When the election finally came in 1892, it was a ghastly disappointment. The Liberals had only a small majority, insufficient to force the Lords to surrender their opposition to the Bill. The next eighteen months were a sad anti-climax to Gladstone’s career, devoted to papering over the crevasses in the Home Rule measure and pushing it through the Commons with the help of the guillotine (another unwelcome constitutional innovation), only to encounter massive resistance from the peers. Inevitably, Gladstone wanted to meet this affront by a popular campaign against the Lords’ veto – all in the name of conservatism, of course. But his colleagues overruled him.
Gladstone in these years presents a truly terrible, tragic image. Half-blind (his eyesight made worse by a ginger nut thrown at him by an opponent during the 1892 campaign), accident-prone (injured when felled by a heifer on the Hawarden estate), afflicted by bowel problems (‘the peccant department’) and forbidden by his doctor from attending political dinners (thereby damaging Liberal organisational efforts), he admitted, on becoming Prime Minister at the age of 82 in 1892, that he was no longer fit for public life – though, of course, ‘bidden to walk in it’. Printed as an appendix to the diary are extracts from the journal of his only real supporter in that cabinet, John Morley. Heavily censored, the surviving passages nonetheless tell of the ‘horrid pall of physical decline’ that hung around Gladstone, and the gruesome pathos of his ‘struggling, striving, writhing, clutching’ for power with ‘indomitable tenacity’. (What must the excised passages contain?) Notwithstanding the immense popular admiration for him, the Liberal Party had somehow to retire this obsessive, manic, dictatorial man, if it was to rediscover a flexible relationship between party, policy and a broad public opinion. In fact, Gladstone’s infirmity meant that cabinet ministers could often ignore his views – not only on the Lords and the timing of the Home Rule Bill, but also on Egypt and Uganda, where he thundered impotently against the ‘mad acts’ of his ‘Jingoist’ Foreign Office. Finally, in early 1894, he opposed the ‘mad and drunk’ campaign for increased naval spending to counteract the Franco-Russian threat. His cabinet colleagues were unable to hold out against the clamour of the Admiralty, the Queen, the press and the bulk of articulate public opinion, and he found himself almost alone. It took two months for Gladstone to realise that his adversaries would not budge and that his threat of resignation must be carried out. It was a very British coup, but a coup nonetheless. He entered the God-seeking retirement which for twenty years he had been claiming to want. But he found, to his surprise – if to no one else’s – that he met it ‘with a want of quick and lively gratitude’.
The diaries reveal one final tragedy. Though he complained that the naval increases of 1894 surrendered to militarist sentiment, Britain was hardly a militarist society. The force of the campaign in favour of extra spending was redoubled by the need to lobby a Liberal government about whose patriotism, in the light of its Irish policy, the predominantly Unionist propertied classes had great doubts. Had Gladstone not divided his party by urging Home Rule for Ireland, he could have led a much better-supported and less controversial crusade in favour of the free-trading, low-spending, pan-European ideals which he and many Liberals had embraced since Cobden’s days. He was prescient in identifying European militarism as a monster which threatened commerce, economy and peace, and which Liberalism must either destroy or be destroyed by. Matthew rightly remarks that in these years he missed a great opportunity to defend free-trade principles aggressively, against ever-rising Continental tariff walls. Similarly, he did not follow up his support for the building of a Channel Tunnel, which he advocated in the late 1880s in order to develop commercial links with Europe and promote international harmony. Had Gladstone concentrated less on Ireland, he could have devoted more of the astonishing energies of his last years to promoting a determinedly pro-European, anti-militarist consumerist policy. It would have left a more fitting legacy; it might even have changed the course of history.