In the British general election of 1868, William Gladstone and the Liberal Party carried the day decisively. Gladstone had made the election effectively a referendum on his policy of disestablishing the Irish Church, an alien Protestant establishment inflicted on a Catholic country. Following the election, Benjamin Disraeli set a new precedent - rather than face the House of Commons and take part in the debate on the Queen's Speech, he simply resigned having lost the general election. This showed the increasing recognition among politicians that it was the people of the nation who controlled them, not just their fellow legislators. It was a symbolically fitting start to what is often considered the most successful reformist administration of the nineteenth century.

The achievements of Gladstone's administration of 1868 - 74 are diverse. He and his ministers attempted to address problems in Ireland, educational difficulties at home, and to professionalise the state and civil service. However, the Liberal Party was not yet a disciplined party in the modern sense of the word. Composed of many different elements who each had separate sectional concerns and interests, it proved difficult to please everyone at once. Many causes which had strong advocates and were indeed pressing got buried in the muddle of parliamentary business. After the Irish Church had been disestablished, the Party fell in on itself and could find no new unifying cause to rally behind. Hence the administration represents both the success and the failure of early Victorian Liberalism.

The Reform Act of 1867 doubled the size of the electorate and created large expectations of further reform yet to come. Immediately after the general election of 1868 it was clear that the government had received a mandate on the disestablishment of the Irish Church, but beyond this it was not clear what should come next. The diverse elements that made up the Liberal coalition each had their own preoccupations which they were not necessarily willing to subordinate to the government's overall interests, and their expectations of movement on them were high. Many legislators hoped that socio-political equality could follow on the heels of free trade, which would meet disestablishment of all the national Churches after the Irish.

The creed of Gladstone's political father, Peel, had been to achieve fiscal reform without it having to be accompanied by a major restructuring of politics: yet this is now exactly what was expected by Dissenters. The dual and interconnected issues of religion and education dominated Gladstone and his ministry’s time for most of the government, but were not the only ones considered by a government that presided over a period of huge legislative activity. No unifying goal could be found behind which all Liberals could unite, and hence the party tended towards disintegration and sectionalism. Much legislative progress was still made during the administration, but it was achieved at the cost of political capital as the ministers involved tried to juggle competing interests.

Progress was made. Some of the reforms had been under discussion for decades, such as the introduction of the secret ballot or the adoption of the recommendations of the Northcote-Trevelyan report on the civil service of 1853. The professionalisation of the state was a central aim, with the civil service and army made more meritocratic. However, some departments of the civil service were still exempt from competitive examination. Nor were the reforms intended to create true social mobility – they were rather intended to ensure that meritocracy was achieved within the bounds of the traditional elite. The creation of a newly enlarged electorate in 1867 also seemed to make the issue of education more pressing (as did awareness of the Prussian system of compulsory education, made more acute by the Franco-Prussian war shortly after the debate had started), and attempts were made to address the issue all across the United Kingdom. Although these attempts ran into many difficulties and ended up embittering most of the interest groups involved, the principle of a rational education system superintended by the state had at least been introduced. The Trade Unions Act of 1871 gave unions of workers a legal status and hence protected their funds, although the Criminal Law Amendment Act of the same year was more ambiguous in its results due to poor drafting. Ireland was the issue in which expectations proved to be most out of step with reality, and the conclusion of many Irish Liberals was by 1874 that the Imperial Parliament was not a suitable forum to redress their grievances. A vast majority of them turned into 'Home Rulers' accordingly.

Definitions of what would constitute progress differed, as did the emphasis placed by different groups on the issues most important to them. For instance, there were different conceptions of 'religious liberty'. Nonconformists believed it resided in complete disestablishment, whereas Whigs defended the existence of a Church-State link as at least a way of restraining clerical tyranny. Religion is what made education in England and Ireland such a contentious issue, and one that was liable to split the Liberal coalition into its constituent parts. Forster's legislation on education cost the government political capital because it was not seen as going far enough in attacking the Anglican Establishment, which many Dissenters had quixotically hoped would follow disestablishment in Ireland.

His bill of February 1870, which allowed ratepayers to establish a denominational school where they had a majority, would have entrenched Anglicanism in rural areas and was seen as laying the pathway for the endowment by parliament of ultramontanism. This fear of ultramontanism was enhanced by Pius IX's assertion of papal infallibility while the bill was under discussion. Although Jacob Bright's amendment in June ensured that the rate schools would not be denominational, it did nothing to disestablish existing schools provided by the Church of England. These would still receive state aid from Dissenters' taxes. Although the principle of education for all was established and compulsory attendance became an issue on the short-term political agenda, the act had done little to please anyone. Many Dissenters, now established members of the community who valued social stability, disliked clerical pretensions as much as state control, and would have preferred the national recognition of a doctrinally unspecific and anti-sacerdotal religion.

Ireland and expectations of what would happen there after 1867 compounded the drift of several elements away from the Liberal coalition. The Irish Land Bill touched a raw conservative nerve in England and Scotland because it was seen as embodying the attack on property that conservatives had feared after the 1867 Reform Act; Whigs were Irish land connections were especially discouraged. Meanwhile, it was attacked from the Left in Ireland for not doing enough to strengthen the rights of tenants. Expectations had been rising in Ireland since it became known that the government was considering a bill, and in the end expectations exceeded the results. The lesson that was drawn from this by many Irish M.P.s was that the Imperial Parliament could not be trusted to deal with its grievances, and thus the drift of the majority of them to the 'Home Rulers' was begun.

Meanwhile, landed opinion in other parts of the United Kingdom was moving against Gladstone and his administration. As well as been accused of an attack on property in the Irish Land Act, Gladstone was attacked from the Right for not upholding Britain's dignity over the Geneva arbitration with America, for Catholic sympathies, and for weakness in the face of the Home Rule movement. Both the Duke of Leicester and the Duke of Norfolk declined the Garter on political grounds during the administration, a sign that the drift of the landed interest away from the Liberal coalition had begun. Together with the use of a Royal Writ to do what was perceived as bullying the Army Regulation Bill through the Lords, some moderates with uncertain sympathies must have begun to question if the Liberals truly were the national party of government.

Although the entire session of 1873 was fraught for the government, the defeat over the Irish Universities Bill prompted Gladstone to offer his ministry's resignation. Because of the religious implications of the proposed Bill, and of the Irish educational question in general, it became a political issue of the highest order. The problem was that the Catholic laity had insufficient choice in education, which would make them susceptible to ultramontanism. The solution that was believed to be most acceptable to English Liberal opinion, the creation of a secular endowed University with denominational feeder colleges without endowment, pleased no-one.

The Irish Roman Catholic Church, and hence Irish Liberal M.P.s, was obviously not pleased. Tory opinion opposed the reduction of the endowment of Trinity College, Dublin that would have taken place had the Bill passed. Meanwhile, secular radicals would have preferred an end to religious tests and the mixed-education system. Irish M.P.s and both Catholic and Protestant public opinion there turned to the Home Rule movement so that they might obtain a solution that was not tailored to salve English consciences. In the 1874 election, fifty-nine 'Home Rulers' were returned for Ireland.

The Liberal party had reached an impasse on both English and Irish education by 1873, and they received repudiation by the electorate in the 1874 election, regardless of what Gladstone's fiscal plan might have promised had they retained power. Gladstone's search at this late stage for a cause that might unify the nation and give the Liberal party a role as the expression of this unity throws into sharp relief the lack of any such issue in the years after the disestablishment of the Irish Church. Liberal politics had been characterised by ambiguities and problems that led to the eventual revolt of the Whig-dissenting alliance and the disaffection of numerous smaller pressure groups.

Sectional interest groups became disaffected when the government failed to prioritise the issue that was most important to them, or failed to pursue it to the magnitude they desired. The temperance movement is an example. Home Secretary Bruce managed to scare the electorate massively in 1871 by proposing a bill that contained more restrictive licensing laws, and the bill could never have garnered enough support to pass. He then alienated the temperance movement in 1872 by advocating a much milder bill. This shows the tension that existed between the expectations of sectional interest groups and the realities of electorate politics. Particular sectional groups were likely to prioritise their particular issue of interest as the sine qua non of Liberalism, but as there was no unifying philosophy of Liberalism others would be inclined to disagree.

Many of these groups had nowhere to turn and some had to accept the fact that the Liberal party was their best chance of influence, even if a complete actualisation of their programme was remote. However, there was also the root taken by the Labour Representation League (LRL). Although a Labour Party would not emerge for a generation after 1867, the LRL ran sixteen candidates in the 1874 elections and managed to usurp two Liberal seats. The cause of their dissatisfaction had not been ministers not addressing their grievances, but them doing so incompetently.

The Criminal Law Amendment Act had failed to clarify the legal status of pickets thoroughly enough, and a court decision of October 1872 represented a regression to the old position. The government then failed to act decisively to correct the situation. The conditions of parliament during the administration were not amenable to every interest group getting satisfaction, and especially not government attention. Parliament became congested as heads of departments pumped out legislation, often exposing bills they knew would be defeated so as to temporarily placate a particular interest group. Due to the strain been put on ministers by the adverse conditions and Tory obstructionism as the administration wore on, many ministers did not attend on private members' bills day: the attendance record of backbench M.P.s could hardly be expected to be better.

The problem faced by the Liberal party during this period was the fact it was not actually a Party, but rather a coalition of differing and contradictory interests. The character of its leader did not help to assuage this problem, as Gladstone did not see it as his task to impose a unifying policy initiative on the party until it was too late. Although he was forever concerned with the impact of sectionalism on the good of the party and the nation, he refused to use coercion to make the party stay in line. The great legislative initiatives he did engage in – Irish Church, Irish Land – and those of his ministers – education, army reform, and civil service reform – were all huge achievements, but gained at a great cost in goodwill and support.

Meanwhile, dozens of interest groups and blocs clamoured to have their grievances addressed. Many M.P.s still saw themselves as independents and did not feel a particular affinity with the government: their concerns pre-dated the government, and they would probably outlive it. Hence the Liberal parliamentary party lost cohesion and unity, and hence its ability to push through more great reforms. Had a unifying philosophy of Liberalism existed that agreed on broad goals and principles – specifically on the content of proposals rather than just the rhetoric used in vacuous and ambiguous terms like 'religious liberty' – then more progress might have been made. However, when attempts were made to take bold steps forward it was revealed just how incoherent the Liberal parliamentary party was. There had been no substantial diminution of the number of Liberals in Parliament, just a revelation that they did not agree on just what been 'Liberal' meant.

Complete bibliography

T. Jenkins, The Liberal Ascendancy, 1830 - 86
H.C.G Matthew, Gladstone 1809 - 1874
J.R. Vincent, The Formation of the Liberal party, 1857 - 68
D.A Hamer, Liberal Politics in the Age of Gladstone and Rosebery
A. Ramm, 'The Parliamentary context of Gladstone's first government', English Historical Review (1984)
L.N. Goldman, 'The Social Science Association 1857 - 86', English Historical Review (1986)
J. Parry, 'Religion and the Collapse of Gladstone's First Government, 1870-1874' Historical Journal (1982)

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