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Did Gladstone Unite or Divide the Liberals?

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Introduction

Did Gladstone Unite or Divide the Liberals? Gladstone was undoubtedly the leading Liberal politician of his era. He supported free trade and, under his leadership, his governments passed many significant reforms, which abolished privilege and moved Britain towards a meritocracy. He did not, however, always represent the views of his Liberal supporters. As a High Churchman and a supporter of the right of the aristocracy to govern, Gladstone led a party where many opposed the privileged position of both the Church of England and the aristocracy. It did not help that inside parliament, a rift grew between Whigs and Radicals, which led to the split of 1886. Outside parliament, the Party comprised a wide variety of competing groups, each in pursuit of its own political aims. Historians such as D.A Hamer in Liberal Politics in the Age of Gladstone and Rosebery (1974) and Martin Pugh in The Making of Modern British Politics (1982) have referred to the 'faddism' within the Liberal Party in that the Party was susceptible to splits. Even before Gladstone had become Liberal leader, the Party split over the issue of parliamentary reform when Robert Lowe led the 'Adullamite' faction against Gladstone's electoral bill in 1866. From 1873 to 1886, the Liberal party was affected by division within its ranks. ...read more.

Middle

With regard to Irish reform Gladstone used the slogan 'Justice for Ireland' as his major rallying cry during the 1868 general election to unify the disparate elements of the Liberal party. The disestablishment of the Church of Ireland Act in 1869 did possess major features to please Liberal supporters. The Liberation Society, which wished to disestablish the Church of England, saw Irish disestablishment as a first step towards their ultimate goal. Liberals, in general, also saw the act as removing an obvious Irish grievance. However, many Whigs viewed this attack on the Irish 'Establishment' with deep suspicion and the later Irish Land Act was seen as a an attack on the rights of property and helped push them towards the Conservative Party. The reforms in the Army contained many of the principles underpinning Gladstonian Liberalism: the improvement of efficiency, an attack on privilege and the enhancement of individual self-expression. In an attack on privilege, the most controversial aspect of army reforms was the abolition of the purchase of commissions. In future, promotion within the officer class was to be based on merit only. This was met by fierce opposition in the House of Lords that it was introduced by Royal Warrant and not act of parliament in July 1871. Another area of controversy was the decision to withdraw British troops from the self-governing colonies, in particular Canada and New Zealand. ...read more.

Conclusion

Gladstone deliberately balanced Whiggism and Radicalism, as shown in his choice of cabinet ministers in 1880. It could even be stated that without Gladstone the Liberal Party would not have stayed united for so long. Gladstone made quite an impact on the Liberal Party as E.J Feuchtwanger wrote in 1975 'Gladstone was a towering figure in the Victorian age. The shape and the content of politics would have been quite different without him. Towards the end of his long public life there was a sense in which he had outlived himself, but the values he championed with such fervour have perennial validity.' Therefore, it can be seen that although Gladstone did divide the Liberal party with the issue of Irish Home Rule, it was not his intention to do this. This is because he tried to unite the Liberal party with a common cause such as abolishing income tax. He led the Party to victories in 1868 and 1880 which show that he was successful in keeping the Liberals together. It is more to do with the diverse nature of the Liberal Party and the competing groups within it that caused the division. The policy of 'Irish Home Rule' thus can be seen of as a turning point which caused the divide and not Gladstone himself. It must be stressed that although he did divide the Liberals, it would have been inevitable that the Liberal Party would have eventually split if Gladstone was in office or not. ...read more.

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