Gladstonian liberalism was characterised by a number of ambitious and far-reaching reforms designed to improve civil and religious liberties, as well as a foreign policy unlike any other Britain had seen before.

One of Gladstone’s first domestic reforms was the 1870 Education Act. This act gave all children aged 5-13 the opportunity to attend school. This act proved to be a success, producing a largely literate population by the end of the century. Industrialists were pleased as the act meant that Britain was less likely to lose its position as a leading industrial nation. Opportunities for girls were increased and the act was a good compromise between Anglicans and Nonconformists.

However, the success and popularity of Gladstone’s domestic policies cannot be judged on just one of his reforms. Another education centred act, The 1871 Religious Equality and University Tests Act, proved more contentious. The Religious Equality and University Tests Act opened up the vast majority of academic appointments at Oxford and Cambridge to those of any religious belief. Although the act was an example of a truly Liberal measure, it can be argued that it failed to have any immediate effect. Many aristocratic Whigs, radical Irish and working class also opposed the act, although it did prove popular with the middle classes.

On becoming Prime Minister in 1868, Gladstone told Britain “My mission is to pacify Ireland”. His first attempt at this was the 1869 Church Disestablishment Act, which proposed the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland and reduction of church property to £10 million. This act was arguably Gladstone’s most successful piece of Irish legislation and it united all of the Liberals (a rare occurrence!). However, despite uniting the Liberal party, the bill caused acrimony between the House of Commons and House of Lords and Queen Victoria was forced to personally intervene to help get the bill passed. Overall, this was a popular act and helped increase Nonconformist support for the party as well as removing the worst examples of privilege in Ireland.

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On the other hand, the Irish Universities Bill in 1873 was far from popular. It was an attempt to reorganise higher education in Ireland but failed to pass parliament by three votes because of religious controversy over the syllabus. The proposed changes displeased Catholic bishops and Gladstone even attempted to resign over the issue. Despite the unpopularity of this bill, some would argue that the opposition cannot be blamed on Gladstone’s government but should instead be attributed to the widespread anti-Catholic feeling at the time.

Gladstone’s domestic policies were not all centred around education and religion, however. The Trade Unions Act (1871) had a big impact socially and was designed to benefit the skilled male urban working class. The Trade Unions Act gave Trade Unions legal recognition as long as they registered their funds. However, this act outlawed peaceful picketing which caused widespread anger amongst Trade Union members and led to much campaigning for change. Evidence suggests that this act led to Disraeli and the Conservatives making gains in urbanised areas that had been traditionally Liberal, e.g. Oldham.

The Licensing Act of 1872 was another act that proved unpopular. It restricted the opening hours of many pubs and led to some areas becoming completely alcohol free. This legislation was not particularly Liberal; it is thought that Gladstone produced such a measure in order to please Nonconformist supporters of the party rather than to stick to his own principles. Many brewers and publicans who had previously supported the Liberals swapped their allegiances to the Conservative party. In addition to this, the act was unpopular among the working classes who opposed such a restriction on their freedom. Nonconformists, many of whom wished for a teetotal Britain, did not think that the act went far enough. Some historians attribute the effects of the Licensing Act to Gladstone’s defeat in the 1874 general election.

The last piece of legislation in Gladstone’s first ministry was arguably his most successful. The 1873 Judicature Act reorganised the court system and established the final Court of Appeal. This reform provided the basis of much of today’s British legal system and is widely regarded as a considerable administrative achievement. The act passed without difficulty and was popular with the majority of society.

Gladstone’s foreign policy was a peaceful one, reflective of his own ideas and beliefs. Gladstone publicly argued that the expansion of the British Empire was not in British interests, in contrast with Disraeli’s imperialistic stance on the matter. He regarded overseas military interventions as dangerous and a waste of money. Such a radical foreign policy gave political opponents plenty of ammunition with which to criticise Gladstone. Disraeli accused Gladstone of neglecting the British Empire in order to appeal to certain groups of key voters.

One example of Gladstone’s peaceful foreign policy in action was his handling of the Franco Prussian War, where he remained neutral, despite opposition from the Cobdenite Radicals and some aristocratic Whigs. Opposition to his handling of the dispute was mainly to do with their favouring of the more secretive practices of a traditional diplomacy.

Although Gladstone’s foreign policies were largely unpopular at the time, it is argued by some historians that Gladstone was simply ‘ahead of his time’ in trying to implement such a radically different foreign policy to his predecessors. Another point to consider when assessing the popularity and success of Gladstone’s foreign policy is the influence of Disraeli’s critique on people’s opinion of it.

So, how popular were Gladstone’s domestic policies? His domestic reforms can be regarded as wholly positive, creating a fresh outlook and direction for governments to come. His policies often favoured the newly enfranchised skilled working class, therefore winning him large amounts of support. However, many of his reforms caused divisions within in the Liberal party, perhaps compromising their unity. Also it could be said that some of his decisions, such as the Licensing act, alienated key voting groups. Because of the reasons detailed, I do agree that his domestic policies were popular to an extent but think that by 1874 they contributed to the end of his first ministry.

Overall, I am inclined to agree that Gladstone’s foreign policy was an unpopular one. It was used as the key condemnation of Gladstone in Disraeli’s opposition campaign, as well as causing many patriots who believed in the maintenance and expansion of the British Empire to defect from the Liberal party. To summarise, I believe that Gladstone’s foreign policies were generally unpopular but his domestic reforms divided opinion and therefore it is difficult to accurately assess the extent of their popularity.


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