Gladstone's legacy in today's politics

Posted on 21st July 2009
The legacy of four-time Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone still resonates across the landscape of British politics today, scholars from across the world have heard.
Dr Eugenio Biagini
Dr Eugenio Biagini

Leading academics from all four corners of the globe descended on Chester for a prestigious conference to commemorate the bicentenary of Gladstone’s birth in 1809.

Speaking at the Conference, which was organised by the University of Chester's Department of History and Archaeology and Centre for Victorian Studies, in conjunction with St Deiniol’s Library in Hawarden, Dr Eugenio Biagini explained in the concluding lecture that Gladstone’s influence could still be found in current British politics.

Dr Biagini, from Cambridge University’s Sidney Sussex College, said: "There is no doubt that there is common ground between Thatcher, Blair and Gladstone, and that he continues to speak to political imaginations today.

"We are currently living through the end of Blairism and we may be seeing the end of New Labour, but Gladstone's memory is still evoked as a battle cry. It is remarkable that he continues to be part of the current debate among colleagues in political science."

William Gladstone was one of the dominant political figures of the Victorian era. In September 1842, when he was Vice-President of the Board of Trade, Gladstone attended the official opening of Chester College, founded in 1839 as one of the country's first teacher training institutions.

Dr Biagini attributes Gladstone's longevity to his ability to reinvent himself and adopt a range of different policies over a 64-year political career.

He continued: "The ultimate reason for his enduring appeal is partly charisma, but also his ability to propel a new definition of liberalism. From 1993, Paddy Ashdown suggested that Tony Blair's approach to politics was moving towards an echo of Gladstone, particularly in regard to a moral and ethical stance in foreign policy, and there was a sense of Blair trying to deal with Gladstone's unfinished business.

"It is ironic that that to modernise the Labour Party, Blair looked to the man who had led the liberal party more than 100 years earlier."

The Conference involved speakers from as far afield as the USA, Canada, Australia, Japan, Bulgaria and Russia, including Lord Asa Briggs, former Chancellor of the Open University and World War II code breaker at Bletchley Park.

Across four days, a programme of lectures and seminars enabled leading academics to explore Gladstone's incredible life and achievements, from his relations with Queen Victoria to his stance on Irish Home Rule, while visits were organised to St Deiniol’s Library in Hawarden, the national memorial to Gladstone, and Gladstone's Temple of Peace at the family home, Hawarden Castle.

The Conference Co-ordinator, Roger Swift, Emeritus Professor of Victorian Studies at the University and newly-appointed Fellow of St Deiniol's Library, said: "This conference has been an unqualified success and has undoubtedly enhanced the international reputation of the University of Chester for promoting research initiatives in Victorian Studies."