What’s left of Gladstonian Liberalism in the Liberal Democrats?

William GladstoneWilliam Gladstone’s legacy for modern political parties was the subject for discussion at the January meeting of the Liberal Democrat History Group. The meeting was addressed by both Eugenio Biagini, of Cambridge University, and Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat Shadow Home Secretary and keen collector of Gladstone memorabilia.

Biagini highlighted the contradiction at the heart of Gladstone’s reputation: both being seen as a quintessential Victorian, more Victorian than Queen Victoria, but also someone who has continued to be sufficiently revered by the National Liberal Club for its premises, where he was speaking, to be decorated with paintings and statues of the man. He was both a man of his times and a hero for our times.

Gladstone’s political legacy has variously been claimed by people across the political spectrum. Although neither speaker directly made this point, this is perhaps unsurprisingly for a politician who predated the modern party system and was a member at different times of the Conservatives, a centrist group (the Peelites) and then also the Liberals.

Biagini highlighted two of these claims in particular – that of the Keith Joseph Conservatives, appropriating his economic liberalism, and that of the Economist, labelling him a prophet of the left – a progressive free of class – in a 1992 editorial.

His own explanation of the eclectic appeal of Gladstone’s legacy is that a man prominent in politics for over 60 years, and who reshaped a party during that time (the Liberals), is bound to leave behind a wide choice of actions and beliefs for different people to pick and choose from.

In particular, Gladstone mixed a belief in free trade and laissez faire economic policies with, over the years, an increasing support for new forms of regulation as required by the country’s swift social change – a mix which cuts across conventional left/right dividing lines but sits comfortably with many modern Liberals and then Liberal Democrats.

Both Biagini and Huhne picked out Gladstone’s willingness to nationalise the railways – putting a provision for this into railways legislation – as an example of his willingness to be pragmatic when it came to laissez faire beliefs. He did not nationalise the railways – but wanted powers to do so as he could envisage circumstances in which that would be the right thing to do.

This was not a one-off aberration. Gladstone did nationalise the telegraph system and was fully in tune with the increasing municipalisation (nationalisation at a local level) of gas and water supplies.

As Biagini put it, Gladstone gave the needs of people priority over ideology and economic dogma. He was willing to tackle natural monopolies with government intervention and to provide public goods via the state.

In addition to echoing these views, Huhne emphasised the two phases in Gladstone’s career as Chancellor and Prime Minister when it came to national debt. Gladstone initially halved the public debt to GDP ratio – dealing with the huge debt left over from the Napoleonic wars. But then in the second half of his career Gladstone instead emphasised spending on social causes, with the debt ratio staying largely static.

This reversal of Gordon Brown’s record – who spent first and is now worrying about cutting debt – reflected the increasing demands for the state to respond to the social strains and challenges of the industrial revolution as the nineteenth century progressed.

The Gladstone who initially sought out to abolish income tax was by the end sufficiently keen on spending in areas such as education that Huhne even argued the New Liberals  were not a radical departure from his policies.

As he aged, Gladstone left behind his initial near obsession with thrift – well illustrated by Huhne’s recount of how Gladstone had bemoaned the Foreign Office’s use of thick sheets of notepaper instead of thinner paper. But through his career Gladstone retained an interest in transparency and control over spending. Gladstone may have become keen on spending, but he was not slapdash with it and the financial controls he introduced, such as the Public Accounts Committee and the Auditor General, still heavily shape our contemporary systems.

Gladstone’s emphasis, by the end, on wise public spending is not the only respect in which his policies sit comfortably with Liberal Democrats. Both Biagini and Huhne spoke of how Gladstone’s emphasis on humanitarian concerns in foreign policy are echoed by the more modern concerns such as those of Paddy Ashdown  over the Balkans. Huhne also noted that William Gladstone was first western statesman to willingly take part in decolonisation – the Ionian Islands.

The application of moral principles and the international rule of law to matters of foreign policy, as pioneered by Gladstone, has been repeatedly followed by his successors as party leader. So too, Biagini pointed out, have Gladstone’s emphasis in foreign affairs on working with other countries and appreciating the European context.

Huhne agreed and extended the point by reminding the audience that all three parts of Gladstone’s famous trio – peace, retrenchment and reform – were still very applicable to the party’s approach. Having already talked about peace and retrenchment, Huhne pointed out that Gladstone was a keen reformer of the political system. His strident belief in devolution was married to major work to introduce a politically impartial civil service, changes to the electoral system and more.

During questions from the audience, it was pointed out (by William Wallace) that even the new Supreme Court being brought into existence at the moment was originally proposed in the Supreme Court Act of 1873, a measure which was then stymied by the fall of the government.

Both Huhne and Biagini concluded that the overall shape of Gladstone’s policies – economic responsibility married with willingness to mend market failures, concern for social reform, a humanitarian foreign policy and political reform all were followed by subsequent party leaders, right through to the present.

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