Magazine article The Spectator

The Grandest of Old Men

Magazine article The Spectator

The Grandest of Old Men

Article excerpt


by William Gladstone

Michael Russell, £18.50, pp. 192, ISBN 9780859553179

Mr Gladstone's career in politics was titanic. He sat for over 60 years in the Commons, was in the cabinet before he was 35, was four times prime minister, almost solved the Irish question, set new standards for the conduct of public business and of foreign policy, and took a leading part in the disruptions both of the Conservative and of the Liberal Party. The post office did get round to issuing a commemorative stamp for his bicentenary, which fell on 29 December;

but the press, which used to publish every day in the 1880s a note of his doings, close to the court circular about the Queen's, has taken it more quietly.

He is worth remembering, as an instance of how politicians can usefully spend their time; not many of them nowadays can match him for energy. It was once said of him that he could do in four hours what would take other men 16, and that he worked 16 hours a day.

This exaggerated, but not by much. He was the son of a self-made Liverpool merchant prince, brought up at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford in the shadow of the great name of Canning - his father had been Canning's agent at Liverpool - and as a very young man his ambition had been to be a priest. His father persuade him to try politics instead; he entered the just-reformed House of Commons in 1833 for a virtual pocket borough as a junior spokesman for the West Indian slaveholders, and grew up to be the leading Liberal statesman in Europe. Garibaldi, one of the liberators of Italy, called him his precursor. …

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