Magazine article The Spectator

God's Politician

Magazine article The Spectator

God's Politician

Article excerpt

IN the United States, it has become something of a cliche of political life that expresidents are commemorated by a memorial library - even those presidents who were not notable devotees of books in their lifetimes. So far in Great Britain, I think only Mr Gladstone is remembered in this way among former prime ministers. St Deiniol's Library in Hawarden on the Welsh border, the national memorial to Gladstone, is a remarkable place, uniquely a residential library, where you can live as well as work. With its decorous Gothic architecture set in a small village amidst quiet countryside, it is deceptively tranquil. - deceptive, because to stand amidst its books is an intimidating experience, for it is an encounter with the restless, brooding intelligence that was William Ewart Gladstone.

And there is a surprise at Hawarden for those who know no more of Gladstone than that he addressed Queen Victoria as if she were a public meeting. The thousands of books which Gladstone left his memorial library largely focus on the scriptures, theology and the history of the Church, for these are the themes which Gladstone considered the most important of all. His memorial library was avowedly set up to promote `divine learning' and to combat unbelief.

This is the fascination of Gladstone. He was a politician who was not a politician. All his life he felt that he should have taken holy orders in the Anglican Church. Repeatedly throughout his career, and without insincerity, he wanted to leave politics behind and devote himself to something more useful. Although he proved a brilliant chancellor of the exchequer, all political or economic issues which mattered became for him at root moral issues. It was anger, moral outrage, the sense of things left undone which ought to have been done, and things done which ought not to have been done, which impelled him from retirement to complete that extraordinary political saga, still prime minister at the age of 85.

He loathed moral evil, with that intensity of revulsion which the King James Bible seeks to convey in Chapter 12 from the Epistle to the Romans with the translation `abhor that which is evil'. If he recognised the face of evil in national and international affairs, it must be denounced, and it must be made the subject of a public crusade. On this subject, his diary for 7 May 1857 has an entry in fortunately rather more lucid words than many of the millions which he has left us. With `Balaam, Balaam, Balaam,' he reproached those who were not prepared to make an all-out effort to be in harmony with the will of God. His priority was the worship of God, and after that, service to the Church which sought to do God's will. On his lips as he died was the hymn, `Praise to the Holiest in the height, and in the depths be praise.' For him, the everyday, the political struggle in those depths must be shot through with the divine, or it was not worthy of consideration. The combination of sacred and secular could be engagingly incongruous. On one occasion, on the sudden resolution of a particularly knotty crisis in his foreign policy, he was able to exclaim, `God Almighty be praised! I can catch the 2.45 to Hawarden.'

The 12th chapter of the Epistle to the Romans is virtually Gladstone's manifesto, the agenda to which he worked, the expression of his conviction that the Christian faith led to a carefully prescribed life of action. The chapter is one of the central expositions of the Christian life.

`Be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.' These words from the epistle could serve as William Ewart Gladstone's epitaph. In a life of exceptional length and energy, he showed great zest in refusing to conform, and in renewing his mind. From being the highest of high Tories, he ended up leading the newly shaped Liberal party:, the party of the nonconformist conscience. Paradoxically, he, the High Church Anglican who lived in a castle, was the greatest nonconformist of them all; that is why all those millions of newly enfranchised voters who flocked to his cause, and called him the Grand Old Man, saw him as their champion against corruption and entrenched privilege. …

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