Gladstone's ministry of 1868-74.

Essay by shamus786 April 2003

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Gladstone was a complex man whose liberal principles clashed with the strong Anglican conservative influences of his early life; in addition there was, as always, the need to maintain public support for his government, and the views of other MPs in his party. As a result the decisions he took during his first ministry were not always as principled as his stern conscience would advocate. But nonetheless, he was a man of great integrity who was more preoccupied with doing the right thing than with staying in power, and the reforms he undertook during his first ministry were in general wise and fair that would live up to its reputation of a reforming government.

Gladstone was a committed and educated Anglican who had in his youth seriously considered joining the clergy. His one dilemma throughout his life was that the established Church in Britain was not as perfect an institution as the Christian principles it preached.

The deeply moral Gladstone, therefore - though he may well not have consciously realised this - was torn between rational support for Christian principles, with all their liberal and even radical ideals, and the instinctive Right-wing protection of the privileges of the community and of the Church in which he had been brought up. He began his political career firmly in the ranks of the reactionary, wealthy Anglican Right; by the end of his life he would have forsaken this completely in favour of the image of the "People's William", with a semi-mystical belief that he and the good working classes were fighting against "the deterioration of the Governing Classes in comparison with the poor."

Gladstone was dismissed by his rival Disraeli as a scheming politician and opportunist desperate to hold onto power and for whom it happened to be convenient to uphold liberal...