Markets and Morality

This House prefers Gladstone to Disraeli

On 10 March 2022, the Cambridge Union organised a debate on the motion This House prefers Gladstone to Disraeli.

Professor the Lord Alton of Liverpool spoke in favour of the motion. The article below is based on his opening remarks.


I paraphrase William Ewart Gladstone, in saying you may wonder what brings me to Cambridge. It’s similar to a phrase he used in his last public address.

What has brought me here tonight is not just that the People’s William was born in Liverpool – a city I had the privilege to represent in the House of Commons; not just that he was elected to lead four Administrations as our Prime Minister; not just his domestic legislation, which included the secret ballot and the 1870 Education Act; not just the combination of his faith and his politics – which led to riveting exchanges in The Times and elsewhere between him and John Henry Newman; not just his self-declared “mission to pacify Ireland”, seeking justice and home rule for its people and being willing to split his own party on that matter of high principle; not just his passionate opposition to the Opium Wars – he called it a moral outrage; not just his willingness to change his mind and denounce the slave trade; not just his steadfast championing of the human rights and rights of self- determination of the Balkans – but I say it because these were the very words he used in the last public oration he gave in Liverpool.

In 1896 aged 87, at Hengler’s Circus – in the Low Hill neighbourhood of Liverpool where as a student I was elected as a City Councillor, he told a crowd of 3,000 people “You may wonder what brings an old man like me out of retirement.” The answer he said was two Armenian gentlemen who had visited him at Hawarden. Having heard their description of abominable massacres, in his speech at Hengler’s Circus he denounced the Great Powers for failing to confront the Armenian atrocities – which 19 years later would lead to the genocide of 1.3 million Armenians. He said “Collectively, the powers have under-gone miserable disgrace…being dragged at the chariot wheel of other powers…”. He warned that indifference had led to crimes “which have already come to such a magnitude and to such a depth of atrocity that they constitute the most terrible, most monstrous series of proceedings that have ever been recorded in the dismal and deplorable history of human crime.” The failure to heed Gladstone’s warnings would one day lead Hitler, as he planned the Final Solution, to say with scorn: “Who now remembers the Armenians?”

In our odious Cancel Culture, attempts are now made to defenestrate Gladstone because of his father’s role in the slave trade.

A few days after the passage of the Abolition Bill, Gladstone’s friend, Henry Wilberforce, took him to the deathbed of his father, William. They prayed together and ten days later he attended the funeral of William Wilberforce at Westminster Abbey. Gladstone said: “It brought me solemn thoughts, particularly about the slaves. This is a burdensome question.”

And just as he later embraced the cause of wider electoral representation, Gladstone then renounced his support of slavery admitting that Wilberforce had profoundly affected him: “I can see plainly enough the sad defects, the real illiberalism of my opinions on that subject.” He denounced the owning of slaves as “the foulest crime” and abolition as one of the ten great achievements of the previous sixty years, saying the masses had been right and the ruling classes had been wrong.

Gladstone then became intense on another form of slavery – Palmerston’s Opium Wars describing them as “infamous and atrocious” that they would bring “dread… judgements of God upon England for our national iniquity towards China”, stating that there had never been “a war more unjust in its origin, a war more calculated in its progress to cover this country with permanent disgrace”. To this day, that stain continues to bring toxicity to our relations with China.

And, if Gladstone had been listened to on Ireland – and I say that as the son of an Irish speaker from the famine lands of the West of Ireland – the tragedies of civil war and partition might well have been avoided.

Gladstone had seen the consequences of the Irish famine – which led to 1 million deaths and 3 million emigrating. In his hometown of Liverpool there were 20,000 orphaned Irish street children. The coroner reported on endless deaths including that of an 8-year-old boy Luke Brothers, His postmortem revealed that there “was not the least particle of food in his stomach.” The typhus was followed by cholera.

Disraeli revealed his contempt for the Irish when he said:

“The Irish hate our order, our civilization, our enterprising industry, our pure religion. This wild, reckless, indolent, uncertain, and superstitious race have no sympathy with the English character …. Their history describes an unbroken circle of bigotry and blood.”

Disraeli, the consummate wordsmith, coined what he called “The Irish Question”.

By contrast, Mr. Gladstone wrestled with the injustice and sought answers to the question.

His ability to change his mind – even to change his politics, as Churchill would also do – was not something about which we should  be contemptuous. Politically courageous rather than politically correct, it’s the kind of “PC” we need today.

But of course, great men and women can make us feel uncomfortable.

His wife of sixty years, Catherine Glynne, shrewdly remarked: “Oh, William dear, if you were not such a very great man, what a bore you would be!” Like the rest of us Gladstone was far from perfect.

What made him great rather than a bore, were his legendry energy, his formidable intellect, and passionate oratory. One of his detractors remarked that he was “Oxford on top, and Liverpool below” – which might, when properly considered, well account for Gladstone’s phenomenal political success.

Always something of an outsider, one potential spouse reputedly told her mother: “I cannot marry a man who carries a bag like that” while Emily Eden complained: there is “something in the tone of his voice and his way of coming into a room that is not aristocratic.”

But his ability to move people brought thousands to hear him – and shouters would pass the words back through the crowds.

Queen Victoria hated his oratory, famously complaining that when he spoke to her: “He always addresses me as if I were a public meeting.” She remarked to her daughter: “What an incomprehensible old man he is! Old Lord Palmerston was not wrong when he said to me, “he is a very dangerous man.””

Victoria was happier being told by Disraeli that she was an Empress than being told by Gladstone that we had to enfranchise working people, bring justice to Ireland through an Irish Parliament within a United Kingdom, and champion the right of sovereign peoples.

Queen Victoria was certainly not amused when in seeking to rouse the popular conscience, Gladstone asserted that “All the world over, I will back the masses against the classes.” And that “We look forward to the time when the power of love will replace the love of power, then will our world know the blessings of peace”

After publishing his masterly 2001 biography of Churchill, Roy Jenkins once told me “Gladstone was, without question, the most remarkable specimen of humanity ever to be in No10 Downing Street.”

At 76 he climbed the highest peak in the Cairngorms; at 86 he personally wheeled 30,000 of his books up the hill from Hawarden Castle to his new St. Deiniol’s Library.

His intellectual energy made him a voracious bibliophile, personally annotating the books he read, and, sitting with his wife, as he translated the Odes of Horace or the works of Homer, or reading his Bible – in the Greek – as he did each day.

After his defeat in 1874 – having sought to raise revenue from spirits and death duties – and “borne down in a torrent of gin and beer”, as he put it – and as head of a government which Disraeli famously described as “a range of exhausted volcanoes”, Gladstone resigned as Leader of the Liberal Party.

But in defeat he did not retreat from public life embarking on a scathing critique of Disraeli’s imperialism, warning of the dangers of a bloated empire.

Most memorably, in 1876 he published his “Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East” and led his Midlothian Campaign. In 1879 he gave 30 substantial speeches heard by an estimated 87,000 people. He argued that nations should reconcile their differences through the Concert system, not secret alliances, that Britain should assert a doctrine of “equal rights of all nations” and, in particular, he condemned the brutality of the Ottoman Empire against its Christian subject nations.

And he castigated the Government saying “We are bound to lose Ireland in consequence of years of cruelty, stupidity and misgovernment and I would rather lose her as a friend than as a foe.”

Undoubtedly, Gladstone and Disraeli were the towering figures of Victorian politics.

While the public nicknamed Gladstone “the People’s William” and the G.O.M: the “Grand Old Man” Disraeli preferred to render this acronym as “God’s Only Mistake”.

Tonight, you must choose between principle over pragmatism, the flattering amusing wordsmith, or the truly great statesman.

The only mistake tonight would be to vote for Disraeli above Mr. Gladstone – the greatest of our peace time Prime Ministers. Not a mistake that I hope you will make.

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