Commentary Magazine


Topic: William Gladstone

Is Gladstone a Model for the GOP?

In the Saturday Wall Street Journal, John Micklethwaite and Adrian Wooldridge of the Economist had an article, based on their new book The Fourth Revolution, putting forward William Ewart Gladstone–the Grand Old Man of Victorian politics–as a role model for 21st century Republicans.

Their effort to revive Gladstone’s reputation can only be cheered by anyone interested in 19th century British politics (which I confess is one of my quirkier interests) and the proposals they put forward for improving the effectiveness of government while reducing its cost appear laudable. But I was struck by the complete absence of a discussion of foreign policy where Gladstone left a large imprint with his once-famous Midlothian campaign of 1880. As a parliamentary candidate and leader of the Liberal Party, he campaigned against what he saw as the imperialist excesses of the Tories in places such as southern Africa and Afghanistan where, in the First Boer War and the Second Afghan War, respectively, Britain was then suffering embarrassing reverses.

In his campaign Gladstone laid out the principles of what was then known as a Little England policy and today would be called non-interventionism. Among his principles: “1. The first thing is to foster the strength of the Empire by just legislation and economy at home. 2. My second principle of foreign policy is this: peace. 3. In my opinion the third sound principle is this to strive to cultivate and maintain, ay, to the very uttermost, what is called the concert of Europe; to keep the Powers of Europe in union together. 4. My fourth principle is that you should avoid needless and entangling engagements. 5. My fifth principle is this, gentlemen, to acknowledge the equal rights of all nations. 6. And that sixth (principle) is, that in my opinion foreign policy, subject to all the limitations that I have described, the foreign policy of England should always be inspired by the love of freedom.”

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In the Saturday Wall Street Journal, John Micklethwaite and Adrian Wooldridge of the Economist had an article, based on their new book The Fourth Revolution, putting forward William Ewart Gladstone–the Grand Old Man of Victorian politics–as a role model for 21st century Republicans.

Their effort to revive Gladstone’s reputation can only be cheered by anyone interested in 19th century British politics (which I confess is one of my quirkier interests) and the proposals they put forward for improving the effectiveness of government while reducing its cost appear laudable. But I was struck by the complete absence of a discussion of foreign policy where Gladstone left a large imprint with his once-famous Midlothian campaign of 1880. As a parliamentary candidate and leader of the Liberal Party, he campaigned against what he saw as the imperialist excesses of the Tories in places such as southern Africa and Afghanistan where, in the First Boer War and the Second Afghan War, respectively, Britain was then suffering embarrassing reverses.

In his campaign Gladstone laid out the principles of what was then known as a Little England policy and today would be called non-interventionism. Among his principles: “1. The first thing is to foster the strength of the Empire by just legislation and economy at home. 2. My second principle of foreign policy is this: peace. 3. In my opinion the third sound principle is this to strive to cultivate and maintain, ay, to the very uttermost, what is called the concert of Europe; to keep the Powers of Europe in union together. 4. My fourth principle is that you should avoid needless and entangling engagements. 5. My fifth principle is this, gentlemen, to acknowledge the equal rights of all nations. 6. And that sixth (principle) is, that in my opinion foreign policy, subject to all the limitations that I have described, the foreign policy of England should always be inspired by the love of freedom.”

Gladstone was certainly no isolationist. He criticized the Tories for not doing more about the Ottoman Empire’s slaughter of Christians in Bulgaria, and as prime minister he oversaw the virtual annexation of Egypt in 1882. But, contradictory as his thinking often appears, he was less imperialist than his Conservative rivals such as Disraeli and Salisbury.

No matter how much Disraeli and Gladstone, in particular, were often ranged against each other on matters of policy both domestic and foreign, they shared in the Victorian consensus that Britain needed to keep defense spending low so as not to be a burden on the people’s purses or liberties. Britain spent enough to maintain the world’s largest navy but even its naval hegemony was increasingly challenged by a German naval buildup in the early 20th century. Meanwhile the British army remained tiny, fit only for imperial campaigning.

This was all part of a strategy that today is called “offshore balancing”: British policymakers vowed they could safeguard their interests by controlling the seas without having to intervene in a major land war in Europe. This is the same strategy that many urge on the U.S. today–in fact a strategy that the Obama administration seems to be implementing as we downsize our army to the lowest level since 1940. Yet all it takes is a passing familiarity with British history to see how delusional and self-destructive this policy can be.

The very fact that Britain lacked an army capable of fighting the armies of Europe meant that Britain was unable to deter German aggression in either 1914 or 1939. Indeed the British aversion to land warfare called into doubt its commitments to allies such as Belgium and France and led German militarists to gamble they could overrun Europe without major hindrance from London. In the event, the German calculation was wrong–Britain’s entry into both World War I and World War II was a key obstacle to German designs. But Britain paid a huge price for not being able to deter German aggression in the first place.

Worried about spending too much on defense, the Victorians and their successors spent too little, and wound up having their country and their empire bled dry in conflagrations that might have been avoided if Britain had done more to defend itself and its allies. There is an important lesson here for present-day Republicans who focus only on reducing the size of government. They should not forget that government’s first duty is to defend the country and if it is unable to do that–or even if it is able to do so but only after a long, costly struggle that might have been avoided–then short-term cost savings on defense will prove ephemeral. In the end military weakness is far more costly than military strength. That was a lesson that Gladstone and other Victorian titans ignored and that their would-be successors should heed.

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The Worst Brit PM: Loser of the Colonies or Appeaser of Hitler?

As we await the results of today’s British elections, it’s hard to work up much enthusiasm about the outcome, given the dismal choices facing the voters there. David Cameron, the not-very-conservative Conservative leader who doesn’t appear to be much of a friend to the United States, might be the best of the lot compared with Gordon Brown and Labour, and especially with the hard-left anti-Israel venom emanating from the Liberal Democrats led by Nick Clegg, but that is to damn Cameron with faint praise.

But whoever the next resident of No. 10 Downing Street may be, the Times of London has provided readers with an interesting feature about his predecessors, ranking the top 50 British prime ministers. A panel of political writers and journalists — not historians — composed the list, but it still is enough to spark a lively conversation about the subject.

At the top of the list (no surprise here) is Winston Churchill, though it should be noted that the panel wasn’t unanimous about the choice, with one of the members voting for the overall No. 2 choice: David Lloyd George, who led Britain to victory during World War One. The rest of the top 10 were: William Gladstone, William Pitt the Younger, Margaret Thatcher, Sir Robert Peel, Clement Atlee, Earl Grey (it pays to have a tea named after you), Robert Walpole, and Benjamin Disraeli. (In case his buddy George W. Bush is interested, Tony Blair was ranked number 16, tied with the elder William Pitt.)

More curious than the leaders in the poll, most of whom are obvious choices, were the ones at the bottom. For those of us whose view of 20th century British history was primarily formed by our interest in the battle between Churchill and the “guilty men” who appeased Hitler, it is fascinating to note that while Neville Chamberlain’s name is synonymous with infamy, the Times panel thinks that he wasn’t really all that bad, ranking him at 34th, which is not so good but far from the bottom. Interestingly, fellow appeaser Stanley Baldwin, who preceded Chamberlain, was ranked fairly high at 14th, apparently because of the slick way he handled the abdication of Queen Elizabeth’s uncle the Duke of Windsor.

So who did the panel think were the worst prime ministers? Interestingly, the bottom three of this list of 49 men and one woman were the three Brits who lost the American colonies: Lord George Granville, the Duke of Grafton, and Lord North (1770-1782), who was the last and the least. There’s no question that these three were terrible British leaders, but I’m not exactly sure what it says about the Times of London — or Britain for that matter — that their panel thinks the creation of the United States was a greater disaster for their country than a policy of appeasement that led to a global war and to Auschwitz. I’d have thought that our friends across the pond had gotten over the results of the Battle of Yorktown a long while ago, but perhaps now that President Obama has put an end to the “special relationship” with Britain, the chasm between our two nations — divided, as G.B. Shaw said, by “a common language,” is even greater than we could have imagined.

As we await the results of today’s British elections, it’s hard to work up much enthusiasm about the outcome, given the dismal choices facing the voters there. David Cameron, the not-very-conservative Conservative leader who doesn’t appear to be much of a friend to the United States, might be the best of the lot compared with Gordon Brown and Labour, and especially with the hard-left anti-Israel venom emanating from the Liberal Democrats led by Nick Clegg, but that is to damn Cameron with faint praise.

But whoever the next resident of No. 10 Downing Street may be, the Times of London has provided readers with an interesting feature about his predecessors, ranking the top 50 British prime ministers. A panel of political writers and journalists — not historians — composed the list, but it still is enough to spark a lively conversation about the subject.

At the top of the list (no surprise here) is Winston Churchill, though it should be noted that the panel wasn’t unanimous about the choice, with one of the members voting for the overall No. 2 choice: David Lloyd George, who led Britain to victory during World War One. The rest of the top 10 were: William Gladstone, William Pitt the Younger, Margaret Thatcher, Sir Robert Peel, Clement Atlee, Earl Grey (it pays to have a tea named after you), Robert Walpole, and Benjamin Disraeli. (In case his buddy George W. Bush is interested, Tony Blair was ranked number 16, tied with the elder William Pitt.)

More curious than the leaders in the poll, most of whom are obvious choices, were the ones at the bottom. For those of us whose view of 20th century British history was primarily formed by our interest in the battle between Churchill and the “guilty men” who appeased Hitler, it is fascinating to note that while Neville Chamberlain’s name is synonymous with infamy, the Times panel thinks that he wasn’t really all that bad, ranking him at 34th, which is not so good but far from the bottom. Interestingly, fellow appeaser Stanley Baldwin, who preceded Chamberlain, was ranked fairly high at 14th, apparently because of the slick way he handled the abdication of Queen Elizabeth’s uncle the Duke of Windsor.

So who did the panel think were the worst prime ministers? Interestingly, the bottom three of this list of 49 men and one woman were the three Brits who lost the American colonies: Lord George Granville, the Duke of Grafton, and Lord North (1770-1782), who was the last and the least. There’s no question that these three were terrible British leaders, but I’m not exactly sure what it says about the Times of London — or Britain for that matter — that their panel thinks the creation of the United States was a greater disaster for their country than a policy of appeasement that led to a global war and to Auschwitz. I’d have thought that our friends across the pond had gotten over the results of the Battle of Yorktown a long while ago, but perhaps now that President Obama has put an end to the “special relationship” with Britain, the chasm between our two nations — divided, as G.B. Shaw said, by “a common language,” is even greater than we could have imagined.

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