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  More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)

More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)
William Gladstone

Politician who was four times prime minister (1868–74, 1880–5, 1886, 1892–4) and who shaped the *Liberal party. He entered parliament as a *Tory in 1832 and during the next 30 years served in cabinets of *Peel, *Aberdeen, *Palmerston and *Russell, becoming chancellor of the exchequer in 1852–5 and 1859–66. In the extremely fluid political situation of the mid-19C these leaders opposed each other on specific issues or refused to serve in each other's administrations, but together they represented a gradual move towards Liberalism.

Some had come from a *Whig tradition. Others, like Gladstone himself, moved out of the Tory party with Peel over the *Corn Laws. But it was only under Gladstone that the Liberal position became clarified. He believed in self-government for the colonies (an attitude which extended to Home Rule for Ireland), a minimum of sabre-rattling abroad (both of these in marked contrast to *Disraeli's imperial vision), a reduction in government expenditure and intervention, and an emphasis on individual freedom and political rights. A Liberal slogan of his time summed it up as 'Peace, Retrenchment, Reform'.

A good example of Gladstone's unaggressive stance cropped up during his first administration in the case of the Alabama. This was a warship, privately built and equipped in Britain, which was used on behalf of the Confederate side in the American Civil War, doing much damage to Federal shipping. The US government claimed heavy damages against Britain for not having prevented this unfriendly act. The matter was allowed to go to arbitration and Gladstone agreed in 1872 to pay $15,500,000 in gold. He was criticized at the time, but it is now seen as an early triumph of international law.

He virtually retired from politics after *Disraeli won the election of 1874, but again it was a moral matter which brought him back. He was appalled by the atrocities committed against the *Bulgarians by their Turkish overlords, and was distressed that Disraeli overlooked this aspect in his pro-Turkish and anti-Russian policy on the *Eastern Question. Gladstone's pamphlets and oratory on the issue gradually built up moral indignation in a previously indifferent electorate and contributed largely to the defeat of Disraeli in 1880.

In his last years *Home Rule became his dominant theme. All his attempts to push it through parliament failed, but it was the support of Irish MPs which gave him his last electoral victory, in 1892, when he was in Queen Victoria's words 'an old, wild, and incomprehensible man of eighty two and a half'. The queen had never liked him, preferring the warmth of Disraeli and complaining that Gladstone 'speaks to me as if I was a public meeting'. His moral conviction made him seem aloof or fanatical to many, but he had a happy marriage and eight children. His famous method of relaxation, felling trees, seems less eccentric nowadays, even if his other quirk of behaviour, wandering the streets at night to offer advice and protection to prostitutes, would still be considered unusual in a prime minister.

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