10 Nov

A book about Gladstone is unavoidably a big one. For both author and reader. Roy Jenkins 700 page epic on Gladstone reflects the scale and size of Gladstone’s political career. It’s hard to find a comparable character. Imagine if Jenkins , having spent his early post war career as a rising star of the Labour party , became a major Minister , led a sulk out on ” principle”, turned to biography and a star-studded EU career had then come back with his SDP ( a Gladstoniste vehicle ) and spent the late 80s early 90s as Prime Minister. I’m sure Jenkins dreamt that dream on many occasion.

For Jenkins Gladstone represents the Victorian age like no one else but the Queen herself. The vinegar relationship between the two is at times hilarious , and other just bonkers. Victoria’s apathy towards women in the professions is both ironic and wrong at the same time. That Gladstone survives as the pre-eminent Victorian politician rather than Palmerston, Disraeli or Salisbury seems to rely on three things. Firstly the longevity, which allows him to sneak in a further two terms as PM when no seems to be looking. Secondly the general interest in his private life and thirdly modern politicians just seem to love him and keep him alive.

Of course his longevity is a fact. He did become PM at a considerable age having spent a whole career in modern terms as Chancellor. Whether he is a better PM than some of his contemporaries is contestable. He forged a new political settlement for the Liberals ( not on his own ) and ultimately drove the party to the fork that split it over a 25 year period , namely that it had no real ideological glue on too many issues. Perhaps he should have stayed retired after his second premiership ?

His personal life is of consistent interest. What on earth was he up to ..we will never know. And while there seem various theories on his desires and otherwise, what is interesting is that Jenkins gives us nothing of interest in his relationship with his wife. It’s almost as though she doesn’t exist. We know all about the house at Hawarden ( her house incidentally ) and learn lots of Gladstone’s fascination with other women. Did he love his wife ? It seems doubtful..certainly Jenkins gives us little to consider. Is it important ? Well given his relationship with prostitutes, I would say yes.

Modern politicians just love him Jenkins can’t get enough of him, though its unclear why?. Gladstone has an indifferent relationship with his constituents, is obsessed with theology can hardly be seen as a democrat and yet is forgiven it all because he did some speaking on a campaign For this is the core of the issue, his Midlothian campaign makes him a martyr. A local campaign that added little to his vote and a constituency he then didn’t even visit( perish the thought he would live there) for another 2 years. A man who benefitted from the lack of democracy in several of his earlier elections now portrayed as a democrat.  Perhaps it is this indifference that Jenkins admires, Perhaps.


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