Explain why the Liberals were electorally so successful so often, 1868-85?

The intermittent successes of the Liberals in the second half of the nineteenth century played a very great part in the fashioning of the politics of Britain not only in contemporary Victorian times but also right up to the present day. In this way, understanding the brevity of their existence is of vital importance for any scholar studying the period as it signifies that although their party status was reasonably solid, their existence was a result of the evolving mass culture of Great Britain.

This was a period when the aged structured traditions and elites began to crumble and erode, and a new age of mass consciousness, popular press and open politics began to emerge. It is imperative to understand that the Liberal Party answered this call – a call that the Conservatives could not answer satisfactorily, and a call that the Whigs were not even able to attempt. The Liberal Party is generally considered to have been formed in June 1859 and had all but disappeared within half a century. During this time the Liberals were in power just five times before they were engulfed by the rise of the Labour Party early in the twentieth century.

Why then were the Liberals initially so successful? Firstly, it should be noted that during the seventeen years in question there were three general elections, and the Liberals only won two of them – losing catastrophically in the election of 1874. With this in mind the best way of proceeding is to first identify and analyse the overriding factors that worked to the benefit of the Liberals throughout, and only then will it be possible to delve more deeply into the causes of Liberal success in the elections of 1868 and 1880.

To begin with an analysis of the role of William Ewart Gladstone seems sensible as he was, of course, the dominant Liberal figure of the age and therefore the orchestrator of many of the rationalisations of Liberal popularity. It is, however, easy to heap too much responsibility upon Gladstone as the hero of liberalism rather than Liberalism. It was, in fact, the prevailing liberal mood that allowed Gladstone to work as he did, and without which he would have been unable to make any headway at all.

Gladstone, a devout Christian, had had trouble from early in his career in not just reconciling his religious beliefs with politics, but, much more practically, where his party allegiance should lie. Throughout his wanderings through Westminster first as a Tory, then as a Peelite (and later, to a lesser extent, a Whig), he was troubled by an unending worry that the state could not be trusted to be the guardian of his beloved Church.

1 He deserted the Conservatives, but neither did he want to be a Whig as he mistrusted Palmerstone and was unwilling to commit to any party grouping on a permanent basis. Additionally, the man's character altered constantly throughout his career making any analysis rather vague and airy – The Gladstone of 1868 was rather different from the Peelite of the 1840's, and vastly altered from the Tory reformer from even earlier. 2

Gladstone's work as an architect of the Liberal successes began even before the party was formed. His morals and ambitions required him to achieve a large base of support and he began building towards this in the early 1860's with his popular reforms of the trade budgets, winning him support with the commercial and manufacturing sectors, and cunningly proving himself to be indispensable in government and a power to be reckoned with in parliament.

3 As Gladstone grew, so did the force of the Liberal Party. He managed to give the party an identifiable face under which factions could unite and the public could identify. This was absolutely essential for the new political force to succeed and as he moved towards the political left he appealed to the self-respect rather than the self-interest of the working class – being, in effect, the first politician to do so – and reaped the benefits.

The shift from Mr Gladstone to 'the People's William' seemed to partly be due to this sincerity as well as a change in his own personal beliefs that eventually led to the Liberal Reform Bill, 1866-7. 4 The electoral success of the Liberals can certainly partly be attributed to Gladstone; however his achievements would be markedly less had there not been an entirely different and fresh party and political outlook within Britain. His successes complement those social changes with which this period is so readily identified.

The new Liberal Party was able to appeal to the new social forces emerging: the rise of organised labour; cheap national popular press; and the phenomenon of 'militant nonconformity'. 5 Gladstonian Liberalism placed its emphasis upon the freedom of the individual whilst conforming to free trade and cheap governance: the state would enable, but not provide; mediate, not dictate. This, Gladstone felt morally obliged to uphold, particularly following the death of Peel (his political mentor) in 1850.

The Liberal stance on free trade meant Peel's followers could have a new rallying point, adding further support to the blossoming party. 6 The appeal of the party was central to establishing a firm base of support with the electorate, and the Liberal Party, as the only new party to emerge as an alternative to Disraeli, particularly after the Whigs and Peelites had effective disappeared or been absorbed, meant there was a very simple choice to be made.

Many people were automatically drawn to the Liberals, especially those that had specific ideals and aspirations: The United Kingdom Alliance had the temperance of Liberal policy as a comfort; the National Education League were similarly pleased at the plans for a free and equal state education; and the Liberal Society itself followed the Victorian nonconformist ideals of Church disestablishment just as the party did. 7 The Liberals also drew their popular support from areas overlooked by the Conservatives, particularly in the Midlands and the North as well as the peripheral areas of the Kingdom, in particular, at least initially, Ireland.

Indeed, it is sensible to see the Liberal Party as more of a British force than an English one. Broad party appeals such as these have been disputed by historians who suggest that the Liberal Party was nothing more than an automatic reaction to the Conservative Party. It is suggested that the humble beginnings of liberalism were laid in 1859 when Whig, Peelite and Radical leaders met over common sympathy for Italy and her treatment by Derby and Disraeli, and acted to expel the Tory government from office.

This advocates the proposition that the Liberals were nothing more than a loose alliance of groups of different opinions united together against a common enemy rather than by an agreed set of principles and policies. 8 There is certainly credence to this claim, however if Winstanley were to rely wholly on this idea it would mean that there were no concentrated ideals or morals of the party and that it was be essentially flawed. Indeed, the party did not survive long; nevertheless they were in power several times and were able to implement crucial policies that were to pave the way for the modernisation of the nation.

The political reconstruction implemented by the Liberals, such as over the franchise and ballots gave the electorate a higher hope and a unifying theme: effectively opening politics up to every man. Having identified the wider sweeping causes of Liberal popularity, it is necessary to address the question more directly and analyse any direct and independent reasons for the Liberal electoral successes. The general election in 1868 was Gladstone's first opportunity to test his new political machine and very deviously manufactured the election to his advantage by, in effect, making it a referendum on his policies in Ireland.

The 'Irish Question' troubled Gladstone his whole career and while it occasionally assisted his popularity, it often also hindered him. In 1868 he had proposed a series of policies in Ireland including the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland. Although central to his beliefs, Gladstone had also picked this as a cause behind which the party could unite and destabilise the Tories. 9 This tactic worked successfully in conjunction with his policies on land reform and Gladstone enjoyed a marked victory over the Tories.

The Liberal ethos and election promises had also been instrumental in their victory. Gladstone had made it clear that 'the people' would be his priority, and accordingly set out three policy guidelines which would be popular with the work class. As well as terminating the power of the Church of Ireland, he also promised to attack monopolies and liberalise various social practices, winning him the support of the lower middle-class and merchants alike. Promises of the regulation of sex, drink and trade unions were also made in order to enable a curbing of social nuisances and grievance.

Bentley postulates that from this we can see that the Liberal Party was pioneering a new political technique, never effectively used before: Gladstone wished to use his power to do 'good' in the nation, and this took precedence over the eradication of the 'bad'. 10 This seems a rather vague argument that does not completely tally with the evidence, though it is possible to draw further conclusions that suggest Gladstone was obsessed with what he wanted to do for the good of the nation, rather than concentrating on the pre-existing blights.

Despite the noteworthy victory of 1868 the Liberals seemingly failed to modify themselves to the newly emerging mass electorate who had become more sophisticated with new priorities and issues requiring attention, and as a result were crushed by Disraeli and the Tories in the general election of 1874. Gladstone was forced to resign due to his policies on the reformation of Irish universities; and the calls for clear finance management and responsibility in foreign affairs meant that the Liberals found themselves increasingly out of touch as human 'motivations' and the 'role of government' changed.

11 The reasons behind the Liberal election victory in 1880 differ distinctly from those of 1868, and it is now necessary to consider these before continuing the overlying analysis. The Tory government had been in power in the preceding six years and had pursued forceful policies both domestically and abroad, that had caused the electorate concern. However first and foremost it is crucial to consider the state of the economy, as it is this prevailing situation that should be noted as being the basis for opinion for the majority of the electorate.

The 1880's had seen a prolonged decrease of agricultural prices in concurrence with a reduction in rents and land values which had led to the impoverishment of many small land owners and farmers. This deterioration was blamed upon Disraeli and his economic policies – perhaps a little unfairly. In reality there was a significant change in the industrial and commercial sectors due to foreign competition threatening British trade. 12 These changes saw a further and unprecedented move that was to become more and more significant throughout the century.

The reduction in land values – the economic base on which the landed class's power rested – would lead irrefutably to their gradual withdrawal from politics, leaving a weakening Conservative Party with a gap to plug. A gap they failed to plug. The depression was associated with the Conservative financial policies and in particular their extravagant foreign policy. 'Beaconsfieldism' (Disraeli – The Earl of Beaconsfield) as it was known, saw jingoistic policies implemented abroad.

Disraeli found himself honouring various treaties and alliances and involved himself in the Russo-Turkish War, 1877; a war with Afghanistan, 1878; and at war with the Zulus. All of which were unpopular at home, and which provided ammunition for Gladstone in his campaigning. 13 However, what was to become the biggest thorn in Disraeli's side concerned the Turkish massacre of Christian subjects in Bulgaria in 1876. Not only did the debacle bring Gladstone out of retirement but it also allowed Hartington, leader of the Liberal Party to make a great deal of noise. A debate was forced in parliament were Disraeli was disgraced.

Gladstone meanwhile wrote a sensational article entitled Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East which he used as a basis for his Midlothian campaigning. 14 Gladstone moved from the constituency of Greenwich to Midlothian in order to make a fresh start, and from there conducted a series of forceful speeches that did much to reinvigorate electoral confidence in the Liberal Party. Gladstone's spirituality which had discomforted some people now gave way to a rapport between himself and the masses resulting in a healthy union against the Victorian 'establishment' built up by the Tories.

15 However, it has been suggested by historians that the violence of Gladstone's rhetoric may have scared some Moderates who saw him as being too radical. 16 A Liberal victory was by no way assured yet, however the Liberal use of the popular press, forceful speeches and pamphlet publications somewhat led the way to liberalism once again becoming the champion of the oppressed. The final, and some argue decisive, factor in securing the Liberal victory came about in the form of the National Liberal Front. Indeed it was only in 1877 with the creation of the Front that a regulated party structure actually emerged.

The defeat of 1874 prompted the creation of numerous 'popular' Liberal fronts in the urban areas styled on the original Liberal Association based in Birmingham. However by 1877 these were all centralised into a structured formation of the National Liberal Front, which initially remained in Birmingham. This enabled the liberal masses to have a cohesive and specific body with which to identify. Hartington, refusing to acknowledge it, lost popular support, partly leading to his replacement by Gladstone who had actually given a speech at its inaugural meeting.

It was so popular and instrumental in gathering support that Chamberlain and Schnadhorst claimed in 1880 that 60 out of the 67 constituencies where these 'popular' associations existed were gained by the Liberals in the election. Though historians now consider these claims to be a little exaggerated. 17 The election of 1880 was a Liberal landslide with 353 seats gained to the Tories 238. 18 How much the result was due to the popularity of Liberal policies themselves is arguable, however no one disputes that the state of the economy was probably the prevailing factor that allowed Gladstone to play on the insecurities of the masses.

Indeed, how much the effectiveness of the party played in people's calculations seems minimal as the Liberals went to election without a single unifying policy behind which to unite. 19 Was their victory simply the pendulum swinging back against the Tories? This is a question historians have attempted to answer, of which there seems to be no immediate answer. If one were to analyse the brief five years of Gladstonian rule it is easy to see that their defeat was imminent. Gladstone's second ministry was dominated by his obsession with Ireland which eventually led to the Home Rule Crisis, 1885-6.

However it is important not to see all these events leading to this crisis. According to Michael Bentley, three themes dominated the early 1880's, all of which show Gladstone's tenuous and insecure grip on the support for his party. He was fettered in Egypt, as he did not want to lose support from the radicals; he had to attempt to cope with the new emerging form of democracy without losing the remnants of the Whigs; and he had to quieten Ireland without alienating public opinion. He failed in all three.

This situation is demonstrative of the history of the Liberal Party: the party, throughout its history, was built on a brittle fragmenting structure of support. The party itself was a conglomeration of Peelites, Radicals and Whigs. Its bulwark of mass support hardly existed, and that which there was, was unreliable and susceptible to a change in party allegiance – a term it is seemingly impossible to use for the Liberal Party. The two remarkable electoral successes for the Liberal Party from 1868-85 owe much to chance and circumstance.

Without the emergence of mass political consciousness, without the population being disaffected by economic blight (particularly in 1880) and without the repugnance of a common 'enemy' – the Conservatives, Gladstone would have been hard pressed to find an ear to talk to. This is a point on which there is no debate. However an emerging key historiographical debate in this area is how much of a role Gladstone himself played in the Liberal electoral successes.

It is obvious that he was the figurehead for the party and therefore a natural rallying point, however his religious compulsions and obsession with Ireland only served as an impracticable obstacle between further success and further failure. However, there is an equal and opposite argument that states that without his political genius and magnificent rhetoric there would never have been a Liberal Party, let alone a briefly successful one. A decision can only truly be reached when one considers the events both before and after this period, in particular the roots at which Liberalism began and the cliffs where it ended.


Adelman, Paul, Gladstone, Disraeli and later Victorian Politics, 2nd edn, Harlow, 1988.

Bentley, Michael, The Climax of Liberal Politics: British Liberalism in Theory and Practice, 1868-1918, London, 1987.

Harvie, Christopher, 'Gladstonianism, the provinces, and popular political culture, 1860-1906' in Richard Bellamy (ed.), Victorian Liberalism: Nineteenth-century political thought and practice, London, 1990, pp.152-175.

Jenkins, T.A., Gladstone, Whiggery and the Liberal Party, 1874-86, Oxford, 1988.

Parry, Jonathan, The Rise and Fall of Liberal Government in Victorian Britain, New Haven, 1993.

Pugh, Martin, The Making of Modern British Politics, 1867-1945, 3rd edn, Oxford, 2002.

Ramm, Agatha, William Ewart Gladstone, Cardiff, 1989.

Winstanley, Michael, Gladstone and the Liberal Party, London, 1999.