Are We Living in 1850?

William Ewart Gladstone
William Gladstone
Image by Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru / The National Library of Wales via Flickr

Everyone’s heard of William Gladstone. The famous Liberal politician of the 19th century, and the great rival of the Tory leader, Benjamin Disraeli.

What most forget is that Gladstone started out as a Tory. Indeed, he served as Chancellor of the Exchequer under Tory Prime Minister, Robert Peel.

Together Peel and Gladstone removed the Corn Laws (under which imported corn was subject to tariffs). That issue caused the downfall of Peel. A Peelite faction, including Gladstone, remained within the Tory Party for several years. Ultimately most of them left the Party however.

Those Peelite Tories joined with the Radical Party and the Whig Party to form the Liberal Party. Gladstone ultimately became that party’s leader, and served as Prime Minister.

Later, the Liberal Party itself split, mainly about the issue of Irish Home Rule. Part of that party joined with the Tories to form today’s Conservative and Unionist Party, and the remainder whithered over the years, eventually joining with the Social Democrats (who had broken away from the Labour Party) to form today’s Liberal Democrats.

So much for the history lesson (and forgive me if it is inaccurate as I am scarcely an expert in history). What relevance does it have to today’s politics?

Actually, the parallels are extremely interesting. In the 19th century, the Peelite Tories joined with the Whigs and Radicals to form the Liberal Party.

Consider Margaret Thatcher. While she was Prime Minister, Roy Jenkins remarked that she wasn’t really a Tory, but a Gladstonian Liberal. She herself declared that Gladstone himself would have joined the Conservative Party if he were alive then. Jenkins and Thatcher herself, then, were both saying that Thatcher’s beliefs were similar to Gladstone’s.

William Gladstone, after all, believed in sound finance, including strict control of public expenditure, and free trade. He believed in balancing the budget, and in low taxes, and in taxes that did not interfere with the sound functioning of markets. And he believed in the importance of morals and religion.

After the fall of Peel, Gladstone found himself, along with those other Peelite Tories, languishing in the wilderness. Although they were nominally part of the Conservative Party, they had little influence and poor relations with the Conservative leadership.

They looked, in fact, rather like the Thatcherite rump in David Cameron’s Conservative Party – people like John Redwood and Douglas Carswell. I hesitate to say that David Cameron looks a bit like Disraeli, but actually he does. (That is probably the nicest thing I have ever said about him!)

What about the Radical Party. What was that?

Here’s what Wikipedia says:

The Radical movement arose in the late 18th century to support parliamentary reform with additional aims including Catholic Emancipation and free trade. Working class and middle class “Popular radicals” agitated to demand the right to vote and assert other rights including freedom of the press and relief from economic distress, while “Philosophic radicals” strongly supported parliamentary reform, but were generally hostile to the arguments and tactics of the “popular radicals”…The parliamentary radicals were distinctly middle class; their radicalism consisted in opposition to the political dominance and economic interests of the traditional British elites, was broadly anti-authoritarian in nature, supporting freedom of trade and individual self-ownership.

Now who does that remind you of? Free trade? Democratic rights for ordinary people? Opposition to the traditional elites? Well, UKIP believes in leaving the protectionist EU, the extension of democratic rights including such things as local referenda and the committee system in local government. And UKIP is very clearly opposed to the traditional elites – the people Nigel Farage often calls “the political class”. That last seems like their defining characteristic (which is why the media sometimes wrongly characterise them as “simply a party of protest”).

And we have a steady stream of Thatcherite Tories (including me) leaving the Conservative Party and joining UKIP.

What of the third ingredient in the 19th century formation of the Liberal Party, the Whigs?

Here’s what Wikipedia says about them:

Generally, they stood for reducing crown patronage, sympathy towards Nonconformists, support for the interests of merchants and bankers and a leaning towards the idea of a limited reform of the voting system…Whigs rejected the Tory appeals to governmental authority and social discipline, and extended political discussion beyond Parliament. Whigs used a national network of newspapers and magazines, as well as local clubs, to deliver their message. The press organised petitions and debates and reported to the public on government policy, while leaders such as Henry Brougham (1778–1868) built alliances with men who lacked direct representation. This new approach to the grass roots helped to define Whiggism and opened the way for later success. Whigs thereby forced the government to recognise the role of public opinion in parliamentary debate and influenced views of representation and reform throughout the 19th century.

Well, that sounds rather like today’s Liberal Democrats to me. Unsurprisingly, I suppose, since the Liberal Democrats after all are the direct descendants of that 19th century Liberal Party.

All this sheds a rather interesting light on today’s politics. People often suggest that it would be natural for UKIP to ally itself with the Conservatives. However, most UKIP people would rather leave the party than agree to such an alliance. David Cameron and Nigel Farage, as well as clearly disliking each other, seem to me to be completely different in their whole approach to politics. One believes in government by an (enlightened) elite, the other in government by the “common sense” of the people.

In fact, their mutual antipathy reminds me in a way of that of Disraeli and Gladstone.

Meanwhile, the Conservative and Labour parties look ever more similar. With the 20th century experiment with socialism / communism discredited, Labour has morphed into “New Labour”. Meanwhile the Tories under David Cameron have shot off to the Left, and appear to rather like their new position in British politics, with, as I said, the few remaining Thatcherites sidelined. Increasingly, as Nigel Farage has often said, “you can’t put a cigarette paper between them”.

It seems to me therefore, after this rather long analysis, that the natural realignment in British politics is that Labour and the bulk of the Conservatives merge to form a new Conservative Labour Party.

Meanwhile, the Thatcherite Conservatives join with UKIP and the Liberal Democrats to form something rather like the old Liberal Party.

Now that would be regarded as mad by most political commentators, who insist on bracketing the Lib Dems with Labour and UKIP with the Tories. Their analysis has always seemed to me a little forced.

What is more interesting still is my experience as a UKIP County Councillor since May. We find the Conservatives and Labour, on the Conservative-controlled council, working ever closer together. They disagree on small things, but seem to share a common overall approach and attitude.

Meanwhile we find a surprising level of common understanding between the Liberal Democrats on the council and ourselves. The co-operation between the two groups would shock most national political commentators (and perhaps the leadership of UKIP as well!)

The only real stumbling block is, of course, the European Union, with the Liberal Democrats being heartily in favour and UKIP vigorously opposed. With the European Union in apparently terminal decline, and with Britain anyway perhaps headed for the exit, it seems to me that British politics may yet be set to return to the forms of the 19th century. Perhaps that is the more stable political configuration that will emerge from the upheavals that are convulsing our country.

Which leaves just one question: where are the towering figures in that new politics, to stand in for Gladstone and Disraeli?

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3 thoughts on “Are We Living in 1850?

  1. A very interesting article and I am much wiser for it. I agree with most of your ideas contained in it but shudder at the thought of allying with the Lib-dims as for me they are just hard socialists in sheep’s clothings with some very loony ideas. The infusion of experience from UKIP joining with the likes of John Redwood etc would indeed be a game changer and could lead to considerable election success. However I believe in doing so it would expose Nigel Farage and show him as being of feeble intellect and dictatorial (a source of conflict and would put many off a partnership with UKIP) his only strength being as a front man.

    • Thanks for your kind comments. I think you are misunderstanding the Lib Dems though. They are definitely not hard socialists. Some of them (the ones who joined from the old SDP) are indeed soft socialists, or social democrats; but many (the “orange bookers”?) are definitely not socialist. I would say though that they can never win on their own. They need some additional critical mass from those Thatcherites like John Redwood (who is great but appears not to understand that he is not a Tory) and also from that Radical, populist “common sense” approach that UKIP increasingly stand for.

      I don’t agree with your assessment of Nigel Farage. (You won’t be surprised to hear that!) I certainly do not believe he is of feeble intellect; I do not believe he is instinctively dictatorial but is forced into behaving like that to hold a relatively undisciplined and fractious party together. I also believe he has an instinctive feeling for his place in British politics. He may not have thought it through in an intellectual way (or perhaps he has – I don’t know!) but he seems to have a clear set of political beliefs that mirror the 19th century Liberal ones. He might not be the equal of Gladstone (and God knows I am not!) but his politics are, in fact, remarkably similar. And I am absolutely convinced that he is a real leader, able to inspire others to follow him. I have not seen his equal in that respect in British politics since Margaret Thatcher’s fall.

      • I bow to your superior knowledge and analytical ability and and accept what you say. The only caveat is that I will reserve judgement on Nigel Farage until and if he is included in the leaders pre-election debates and see how well or badly he performs. I have a feeling or at least a fear that he may not do well as he has to be pretty quick on his feet and will lack the experience of the other leaders. To me to be on the safe side the best outcome for him and UKIP is for him to be barred and by so being collect a considerable number of sympathy voters come election day. He will not be barred for that very reason but will be dangled until the last minute so that he does not have time to prepare properly. Well that is what I would do if I was Cameron, Clegg and RedEd.

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