The period 1868-80 is remarkable for the starkness with which political differences were epitomized by dramatic confrontations between its two leading men: Gladstone (1809-98) and Disraeli (1804-81) and two political parties (see Iolanthe, 1882).
The 1867 Reform Act had brought in household suffrage in the boroughs. Of all males aged 21 and above, a third now enjoyed the vote in England and Wales, just under a third in Scotland and just under a sixth in Ireland. Over all, about a million were added to the electorate. In the decades after this reform, British political parties slowly took on the characteristics of a modern party.
The general election of 1868 was held under the new franchise, but in many respects it was a typical general election. There was much violence. About 80 seats remained under the control of the landed patrons, while in the industrial North factory owners were emerging as a new political elite. Religion was still a major issue. Most MPs came from the usual backgrounds: aristocracy, landed gentry and commerce. John Stuart Mill was defeated at Westminster. The result was hardly an earthquake. The Conservatives lost 20 seats and the Liberals gained 20, giving the Liberals a majority of 110.
Gladstone himself lost South-west Lancashire, but a week before he had been elected for Greenwich. As Roy Jenkins puts it in his biography of Gladstone,
The public were used to politicians shuffling constituencies about as quickly as a Mississippi steamboat gambler did a pack of cards.He was MP for the borough for eleven years, but rarely visited it. He received the news that the Queen had asked him to form a government at Hawarden.
Gladstone and the Liberals
In December 1868 Gladstone headed the first of his four Liberal administrations. The Liberal party was an uncertain animal, divided between old-fashioned Whigs and radicals. It was never an easy party to lead and as leader, Gladstone, who on some questions was an extreme Radical and on others an old-fashioned Conservative, stood outside his party.
Gladstone’s career and character
He had begun, in Thomas Babington Macaulay's phrase, as ‘the rising hope of the stern, unbending Tories’, and had followed Peel into the wilderness. At the end of 1852 he became Chancellor in Aberdeen’s Liberal/Peeling coalition. In 1859 he became Chancellor in Palmerston’s Liberal government.
He moved with bewildering rapidity from disturbingly frequent bouts of prostration to displays of almost manic energy. He found time to translate Homer, write works of theology and to read voraciously. His physical energy found release in chopping down trees. Lord Randolph Churchill said:
The forest laments so that Mr Gladstone may perspire.In spite of his happy marriage in 1839 to Catherine Gwynne (which brought him the ownership of Hawarden) there were sexual tensions which found release in good works among prostitutes. This had begun systematically in 1849 as part of an Anglo-Catholic charitable enterprise. But for Gladstone it involved temptation and after many of his meetings his diary records a sign for scourging. His association with prostitutes was an open secret in political circles. In 1896 he told his clergyman son, Stephen that he had never ‘been guilty of the act which is known as that of infidelity to the marriage bed’. But what did he mean by infidelity?
Even more potentially embarrassing was his deeply emotional friendship with the ex-courtesan turned theosophist preacher, Laura Thistlethwayte. In November 1869 while he was piloting the Irish Land Act through Parliament, he was especially obsessed with her. His relationship was carried on in the full knowledge of the political elite.
Religion was the motivating force in his life. He had moved from Evangelicalism to High Anglicanism. He was friends with Bishop Samuel Wilberforce and (until his conversion) with Henry Manning. He was also friends with the liberal Catholic Döllinger, but he detested Ultramontanism and ‘Vaticanism’: see his publication of The Vatican Decrees (November 1874). In spite of his Anglicanism, his electoral base came largely from the Nonconformists.
He brought his moral beliefs into politics, and there were many who found his overbearing moralism irritating - the Queen among them. Two causes in particular aroused the crusader in him: Ireland and the pursuit of an ‘ethical’ foreign policy. He favoured a concert of Europe rather than isolationism or imperialism. At the height of the Franco-Prussian war he set out his views in an anonymous article in the Edinburgh Review:
a new law of nations is gradually taking hold of the mind ... which recognises, as a tribunal of paramount authority, the general judgment of civilised mankind.For him this was a religious rather than a secular ideology - taken from St Augustine.
Gladstone was at Hawarden when he received the news that he had won the general election. He said,
My mission is to pacify Ireland.In 1845 Gladstone had written in a letter to his wife: I
reland, Ireland, that cloud in the west, that coming storm of he vehicle of God’s retribution.But however strong his feelings, he had never visited the country.
Since 1829 it had been possible for Catholics to be returned to Parliament. The 1850 Franchise Act finally overhauled the registration system and simplified the franchise to an occupational qualification based on a Poor Law valuation of £12 in the counties and £8 in the boroughs.
But this left a range of other grievances, which had intensified after the famine.
In September 1867 the Fenians had rescued two Irish prisoners from a police van in Manchester and shot one guard dead. In December they had blown up part of the wall of Clerkenwell prison, killing twelve people. This made it all the more courageous for Gladstone to campaign in the election on Irish grievances and it explains the reason for his defeat in South-West Lancashire.
In July 1869 Gladstone’s government disestablished the Irish Church - a major concession to Irish grievances, and a cause that united his disparate party. His Land Act of 1870 was more timid; it gave legal sanction to the so-called ‘Ulster custom’ by which departing tenants in good standing received generous ‘compensation’ from incoming tenants. The eviction of tenants without a lease (the majority) was to be made more difficult. As an immediate solution, the Act was a failure, but retrospectively it can be seen to have heralded the beginnings of the demise of the landed class in Ireland. Those conservatives who attacked it as an assault on property were ultimately right.
The Education Act
In 1870 there were 4.3 million children of school age in England and Wales. From the early 19th century primary education for the great mass of English children was in the hands of the churches: the National Society (Anglican, founded 1811) and the British and Foreign Schools Society (Nonconformist). In the 1830s ragged schools came into existence. These were intended for children who were too wretchedly dressed, and whose attendance was too sporadic, for the National Schools. They were co-educational and lured children with free buns and tea, with plenty of singing and short, enjoyable lessons. The facilities were inadequate, as classes were typically held in rented rooms of buildings not designed for the instruction of large numbers of children. In the 1860s, when the Ragged School Union was at its most active, it assisted 200 schools claiming an average total attendance of 20,000 pupils.
The state had given a small grant in 1833, but had taken no direct responsibility for schools. However, from the 1840s training colleges were set up for teachers (St Mark’s, Chelsea) and from the 1850s, school inspectorates were established. . In 1862 the Revised Code had laid down a syllabus (mainly the three ‘R’s) assessed by a school inspectorate, and the teachers were paid by results. Matthew Arnold: ‘the heaviest blow dealt at civilization and improvement in my time’.
By the time Gladstone formed his government in 1868, it was clear that the education system needed reform. England (not Scotland) lagged far behind (eg) Prussia. There was also the fact that the Second Reform Act had enfranchised considerable numbers of the urban working class. Robert Lowe: ‘We must see to it that our new masters learn their letters.’ However, denominational conflicts were a major problem. There were two main voluntary education bodies:
1. The National Educational Union (Anglican)
2. The Education League (Nonconformist)
The Union wanted to maintain the privileged position of the Church of England, the League campaigned for free, compulsory, non-sectarian schools.
In February 1870 an Elementary Education Bill was introduced by William Edward Forster (Matthew Arnold’s brother-in-law), Vice-President of the Council, aimed at providing for the first time a national system of primary education. He proposed to set up new directly elected local authorities called School Boards, which would have the power to direct their own schools, which would be paid for by the local rates. But the bill was designed to supplement voluntary and denominational effort in education not supersede it. The Board Schools would ‘fill in the gaps’ and provide education where there were no church schools. The boards had the power to pass bye-laws for compulsory attendance (so-called ‘permissive compulsion’), assist existing schools, and pay fees for poor parents.
Initially, he proposed to give the boards the power to decide religious instruction. But this ran into heavy opposition from Nonconformists, who opposed any use of the rates to support denominational schools. In the end, after much wrangling, the ‘Cowper-Temple’ clause excluded denominational catechisms and formularies from rate-aided schools. This provision severed the local authority schools from the denominational schools (the latter were to be funded by central grants).
The ‘Board Schools’ were a conspicuous feature of late-Victorian and Edwardian education. The majority of schools were still voluntary schools, but it was a steadily declining majority. There was as yet no compulsion, but once the school boards were established, particularly in the big towns, they took compulsory powers, so that by 1873 40% and by 1876 50% of the population was under compulsory powers, 84% in boroughs. Even Tory squires and parsons in the rural areas now felt that more general powers to compel attendance were necessary to keep voluntary schools in rural areas in business. In 1876 the employment of children under ten was forbidden. In 1880 compulsion became general, though not yet quite universal.
For some years after 1870 a controversy raged round clause 25 in the act which enabled local authorities to pay the fees of needy children at denominational schools. The clause was thought by Nonconformists to give an unfair advantage to church schools in places where board schools did not exist - especially in the rural districts. In 1891 the remaining fees were effectively abolished for pupils at voluntary and board schools alike.
"Look at those big, isolated clumps of building rising up above the slates, like brick islands in a lead-colored sea." "The board-schools." "Light-houses, my boy! Beacons of the future! Capsules with hundreds of bright little seeds in each, out of which will spring the wise, better England of the future." Sherlock Holmes and Watson, in "The Adventure of the Naval Treaty" from The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1892)
The abolition of privilege
The removal of barriers to advancement by merit and the establishment of full civic equality were part of the philosophy of Gladstonian Liberalism. He was a strange mixture of the elitist anti-democrat and the populist.
In June 1870 an Order-in-Council opened the civil service to competitive examination.
The fight against privilege was especially intense over the abolition of purchase of commission in the infantry and cavalry undertaken by Edward Cardwell, the Secretary for War. The matter became especially urgent after the Franco-Prussian War. But in the debates in 1871 the Tory opposition put down a long series of obstructionist motions. In a speech to his constituents at Greenwich, Gladstone accused his opponents of class selfishness. In the end the abolition of purchase did nothing to alter the social composition of the armed forces. Because pay was not increased, exactly the same kinds of men continued to be officers as before. The problems the army was to face in the Boer War show the limitations of the reforms in creating a truly efficient army.
A major move towards the abolition of privilege was the Ballot Act of 1872 - though it caused no general enthusiasm and the electorate did not thank him for it. Gladstone himself was lukewarm about secret voting.
The election of 1874
In retrospect the first Gladstone administration seems one of remarkable achievement. Unlike his predecessors, he considered legislation to be the main function of government, and acted upon this belief. But Disraeli touched a raw nerve in a brilliant speech delivered in Manchester in April 1872, which contained one of the great similes of political invective:
Ministers reminded me of one of those marine landscapes not very unusual on the coasts of South America. You behold a range of exhausted volcanoes. Not a flame flickers on a single pallid crest. But the situation is still dangerous. There are occasional earthquakes, and ever and anon the dark rumbling of the sea.In 1874 Gladstone sought a dissolution at a time when trade unionists were disappointed by his failure to enact social legislation. In addition his Licensing Act , which would have made it possible for magistrates to introduce fairly strict limitations on opening hours and the granting of licences, had led to minor riots and the collapse of the bill. This enabled the Tories to pose as champions of the beer-drinking working man. The election of 1874 was the worst Whig-Liberal result since 1841.
‘We have been swept away, literally, by a torrent of beer and gin.’After this, he privately resigned the leadership of the Liberals though he kept his unloved Greenwich seat. In January 1875 the resignation was made public and Lord Hartington succeeded him. Forster, the obvious candidate, was still not forgiven. Disraeli: ‘
The Whigs were dished; now they are Cavendished.’It might have looked as if Gladstone’s career was over.