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GLADSTONE: A Progress in Politics by Peter Stansky

GLADSTONE: A Progress in Politics


Pub Date: June 14th, 1979
Publisher: Little, Brown

Since William Gladstone's political career spanned 62 years and encompassed virtually all the major issues of 19th-century British parliamentary history, a short biography is bound to fail if it attempts too much. Stansky (History, Stanford) tries to avoid this by focusing--via a handful of the four-time Prime Minister's major speeches--on the issues that frame his career. Chief among these are the relationship between church and state, tax reform and free trade, electoral reform, British imperialism, and Irish Home Rule. Gladstone's journey from Tory to Liberal, though it took place when party lines were not clearly drawn, has led most commentators to emphasize the discontinuity of his politics; Stansky, however, endeavors to show that Gladstone's basic political and moral commitments remained essentially unchanged, a task made both easy and difficult by Gladstone's convoluted rhetorical style--as his contemporaries knew too well, there was often much doubt about just what his position was even after he revealed it in a speech. Educated at Eton and Oxford, Gladstone was the son of a wealthy Liverpool merchant, and this combination of aristocratic and middle-class ties produced a political perspective, says Stansky, which sought to maintain tradition and old values by carefully promoting a measure of change. He supported an extended suffrage, for instance, on the grounds that some working class British had achieved a measure of political responsibility. This characteristic of conservative reform is often ascribed to Disraeli, Gladstone's great political foe, but the precise differences between them are not firmly established by Stansky because of his concentration on Gladstone's speeches. Still, Stansky does manage to capture Gladstone's driving moral impulses, as well as the moral self-doubt that plagued him, by using some diary material to supplement the speeches. Though inadequate as a complete biography, Stansky's short work succeeds modestly in placing the watersheds in Gladstone's career in a context of personal continuity through change--but only the reader with some sense of 19th-century British history will fully make sense of them.