It has always been a dilemma for writers when discussing the share or responsibility of W. E. Gladstone in the split of the Laberal party in 1886. However, this paper will try to give a balance undertanding of events.
Gladstone was unopposed for his Midlothian seat on this occasion, and so his election campaign was directed at the electors throughout the country and it was, as might be expected, a prodigious effort…
The 'classes', by which he meant 'the dukes ... the squires ... the Established clergy ... the officers of the army, or ... a number of other bodies of very respectable people', were against the 'masses', the remainder of the population. His point was that in all matters:
where the leading and determining consideration that ought to lead to a conclusion are truth, justice, and humanity, there, gentlemen, all the world over, I will back the masses against the classes. (Matthew 1999, 348-9)
But Gladstone faced an uphill task for all kinds of reasons were causing many of the previously Liberal voters to abstain or even to turn out and vote against them. Memories of Gordon and anti-Catholic prejudice erupted throughout the country, while his fiery rhetoric, as in Liverpool, might have scared off as many electors as it encouraged.
The main problem for Gladstone and his friends was that there were two Liberal parties to vote for in 1886. The MPs who had opposed Gladstone in the Commons made no secret of their opposition to him in public, and these 'Liberal Unionists' actually formed an electoral pact with the Conservatives; by the time the elections were over there were seventy-eight of them in the House of Commons. The Conservative Party itself did very well, securing 314 seats, while the Gladstonian Liberals trailed well behind them, being reduced to just 181 MPs. Not even Parnell's Irish Nationalists, with eighty-five seats, could make a difference to the overall balance of power in this Parliament. 'The defeat', Gladstone ruefully recorded in his diary 'is a smash'. (Matthew 1990, 585) On 30 July he tendered his resignation to the Queen.
The underlying cause of this disastrous split in the Liberal Party has been long debated. (Searle 1992, 1-5) Gladstone himself believed, and historians have long maintained, that it represented a ' revolt of the Whigs'. (Magnus 1954, 245) In general terms it is fair to say that most of the aristocratic 'Whig' elements in the party deserted Gladstone at this point over the Irish question, while the majority of the middle-class Radicals stayed loyal to him in spite of it. But it has more recently been stressed that many better-off 'Whig' members of the Liberal Party had been showing signs of disillusionment with it since the time of Gladstone's first ministry. It is also true that some 'moderate' Liberals, including some of those who might be considered 'better off', remained loyal to Gladstone even at this time, while, on the other hand, one of the leaders of the revolt was Joseph Chamberlain, the personification of middle-class radicalism. In any case, it does not seem to matter very much: enough voters had deserted Gladstone to give the Conservatives an overall majority in the Commons and put Lord Salisbury back into office, even without the Liberal Unionists' support.
It was the Conservatives who were to dominate British politics until the twentieth century. (Pugh 2002, 7-8) When Gladstone resigned as prime minister in 1886 he had no intention of ...
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