I have just finished reading Roy Jenkins’ life of Gladstone. This weighs in at 698 pages, so it is not a quick read and it is too heavy to carry around for those odd quiet moments. Nevertheless, I am pleased I persisted. I enjoy Roy Jenkins’s written style most of the time. Although occasionally his orotundity gets in the way, by and large his political insight adds depth to the analysis.
I confess to having known only a limited amount about Gladstone prior to reading the book. I now know a great deal more, including more of the background to Dollis Hill House about whose future I campaigned a few years ago.
However, the abiding feeling is that Gladstone was only the Grand Old Man of Victorian politics because of his longevity (or as Woody Allen puts it 90% of success is turning up) and stamina (he was still cutting down trees for recreation (sic) in his eighties). Of his four terms as Prime Minister, only the second can really be deemed a success and that ran out of steam some two years before it ended. He failed to deliver a measure of Home Rule to Ireland, admittedly despite valiant efforts. His attitude on many social questions was more conservative than liberal. In his private life, he was unremittingly snobbish, searching out Dukes so that he could stay on their estates. He had a strange fixation with “saving fallen women”, which might have been thought commendable were it not for fact that even he doubted his own motives as is shown by the guilt that it produced in him and which is recorded in his diaries.
I cannot help but conclude that the reason many modern Liberal Democrats revere Gladstone to the extent that they do is that he did succeed in winning four General Elections – something that it is difficult to envisage their current Leader coming anywhere near.