Gladstone Becomes Prime Minister of Britain

Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone’s activist approach to governing transformed British politics, especially during his first of four ministries. He supported the evolutionary growth of democracy in Great Britain and introduced an agenda for social and economic improvement, and he introduced and passed legislation that remedied unjust and inhumane conditions in Ireland.

Summary of Event

William Ewart Gladstone came to power in 1868 after Benjamin Disraeli’s first ministry Disraeli, Benjamin
[p]Disraeli, Benjamin;first ministry collapsed after a few months. Gladstone’s first ministry (1868-1874) not only brought much needed stability to the British government but also emerged as an activist government bent on eliminating abuses and corruption, improving the quality of life for citizens, and expanding the role of government in society. In part, this agenda was motivated by Gladstone’s personal values through which he hoped to improve the political, economic, and social life of the nation. Gladstone, William Ewart
[p]Gladstone, William Ewart;prime ministership
[kw]Gladstone Becomes Prime Minister of Britain (Dec. 3, 1868-Feb. 20, 1874)
[kw]Prime Minister of Britain, Gladstone Becomes (Dec. 3, 1868-Feb. 20, 1874)
[kw]Britain, Gladstone Becomes Prime Minister of (Dec. 3, 1868-Feb. 20, 1874)
Gladstone, William Ewart
[p]Gladstone, William Ewart;prime ministership
[g]Great Britain;Dec. 3, 1868-Feb. 20, 1874: Gladstone Becomes Prime Minister of Britain[4260]
[c]Government and politics;Dec. 3, 1868-Feb. 20, 1874: Gladstone Becomes Prime Minister of Britain[4260]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Dec. 3, 1868-Feb. 20, 1874: Gladstone Becomes Prime Minister of Britain[4260]
[c]Social issues and reform;Dec. 3, 1868-Feb. 20, 1874: Gladstone Becomes Prime Minister of Britain[4260]
[c]Economics;Dec. 3, 1868-Feb. 20, 1874: Gladstone Becomes Prime Minister of Britain[4260]
Cardwell, Edward

Gladstone also was keenly aware that the new political parties—his Liberals and Disraeli’s Conservatives—had to conduct business within a different framework than did the earlier Whig and Tory Parties. The new reality of the late nineteenth century was the continuing growth of democracy in a Britain that saw an increasing number of voters who were better educated and more demanding than in the past. Gladstone recognized that party identity was critical for long-term success, and he directed his policies and developed alliances with that consideration in mind. In foreign affairs, Gladstone looked on as the French were defeated by the Prussians in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, the German Empire and the Kingdom of Italy were proclaimed, and Parisians experimented with communism in the Commune.

William Ewart Gladstone in 1866, at the age of fifty-six.

(The S. S. McClure Company)

Early in his first ministry, Gladstone focused Gladstone, William Ewart
[p]Gladstone, William Ewart;and Ireland[Ireland] on Ireland. In 1869 the Irish Church Disestablishment Act dismantled the Anglican Church of Ireland and the much despised tax that supported it. Until this act was passed, Catholic Irish were compelled to support the Protestant church through a required tax; after the Irish Church Disestablishment Act was enacted, another tax was levied that supported Catholic, Presbyterian Presbyterians;in Ireland[Ireland] , and Anglican churches, none of which was considered to be the “official” Irish church. In 1870, Isaac Butt Butt, Isaac established the Irish Home Rule movement Ireland;home rule
Home rule, Irish that was directed at establishing an Irish parliament so that the Irish could control their own affairs. Butt argued that Ireland would remain within the British Empire British Empire;and Ireland[Ireland] . From its inception, Gladstone considered Irish home rule a concept that might provide stability, but he had not, for more than one decade, formally embraced it. In August, 1870, Gladstone’s government enacted the Landlord and Tenant Act for Ireland, Landlord and Tenant Act for Ireland of 1870 which specified that a given tenant had the right to receive compensation for any improvements that were made during a given tenancy.

In 1870, Gladstone’s government introduced a wide range of reforms. Initial steps were taken to improve the quality of the civil service, steps that included the introduction of testing for employment and suggestions for testing as the basis for promotions. Similarly, in 1870, Gladstone’s secretary of state for war, Edward Cardwell Cardwell, Edward , succeeded in gaining support for reducing the size of the standing army and establishing an army reserve. Later, in 1871, Cardwell managed to eliminate the long-standing tradition of purchasing army commissions.

Also Women;in Great Britain[Great Britain] in 1870, Gladstone’s government passed the First Married Women’s Property Act, which provided wives with some property rights. It would take two additional laws and twenty-three more years before married women would gain the same property rights as single women. Perhaps the most significant enactment in 1870 was the Education Act. Education;British Under this measure, local elected school boards were enabled to establish schools that were supported by taxes and fees; religious instruction in these public schools would not be compulsory nor could it be sectarian. Parliament increased its support for voluntary schools. The Education Act was the initial step in a national strategy that would improve literacy rates; in 1881, under another Gladstone government, attendance in elementary school was made compulsory.

In 1871, Great Britain;trade unions Gladstone continued the reform momentum with the Trades Union Act Trade Union Act of 1871 , which gave labor unions legal status before the law, and the Criminal Law Amendment Act, which established strike regulations for labor unions. In 1872, Gladstone focused on political reform and the protection of children. Through the Ballot Act, Gladstone enhanced the integrity of British democracy by establishing the secret ballot in all British elections; no longer could employers impinge upon an individual’s right to vote through intimidation, whether explicit or implied.

The Infant Life Protection Act of 1872 Infant Life Protection Act of 1872 required that women register as a foster parent if they had more than one foster child. Other measures required the maintenance of data on infant deaths, supported single mothers in obtaining child support from fathers, and allowed for legal action against a father in the event he did not provide support. In the next year the Agricultural Children’s Act was passed; it prohibited the employment of children in agriculture who were under the age of eight.

Throughout the nineteenth century, Parliament had passed several laws that addressed some of the problems associated with the administration of justice in the British courts. To a large extent these changes were required because of the rapid transformation of Great Britain during the first six decades of the century. In 1873, Gladstone’s government aligned these reforms in a series of measures that provided clarity and a reasonable degree of judicial stability; the Common Law and Equity courts were combined and the Court of Appeal and the High Court of Justice were formalized.

The energy that these reform efforts required took a toll on Gladstone. He lost the February, 1874, general election to Benjamin Disraeli Disraeli, Benjamin
[p]Disraeli, Benjamin;second ministry and gave up the leadership of the Liberal Party. Gladstone would return, however, during the late 1870’s and spend another fifteen years as Britain’s most influential political force.


William Gladstone’s first ministry transformed British politics by its response to needed reform measures in Ireland and in education, the military, and the structure and administration of the British government. Gladstone understood the impact of the Reform Acts of 1867-1868 extending the vote, and he recognized democracy as a historical force that would be further evident in 1885, which saw additional legislation, giving all men the right to vote.

Gladstone’s domestic agenda during his first ministry set the tone for British politics to 1914, when World War I began; Gladstone’s Liberals and the Conservatives vied with one another in their attempts to gain and sustain the loyalty of the voters. Gladstone also recognized the importance of building and reinforcing the Liberal Party Liberal Party (Great Britain) at all levels—boroughs, counties, municipalities, regional (Scotland, Wales, and Ireland), and national. While his Liberal Party did not survive as a major political party beyond the Great Depression, it attained significant domestic achievements and improved the quality of life for most Britons; the seeds of those later gains were visible during Gladstone’s first ministry.

Gladstone’s hope that Britain would restrain its imperial ambitions and avoid entangling alliances and alignments with European powers did not succeed. Indeed, Liberal governments prior to 1914 were actively, though secretly, involved in expanding Britain’s diplomatic commitments.

Further Reading

  • Beeler, John F. British Naval Policy in the Gladstone-Disraeli Era, 1866-1880. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1997. An important scholarly work on how Gladstone and Disraeli developed naval policy within the context of national security and imperial considerations.
  • Biagini, Eugenio F. Gladstone. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Part of the British History in Perspective series, this book is useful as an introduction to many of the issues that were reflected in Gladstone’s policies and decisions.
  • Feuchtwanger, E. J. Gladstone. London: Allen Lane, 1975. A very readable and still-useful introduction to the life of William Gladstone.
  • Jagger, Peter John, ed. Gladstone. London: Hambledon Press, 1998. A series of essays on Gladstone’s life, his politics, and his tenure as prime minister.
  • Jenkins, Roy. Gladstone: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1997. A worthwhile and readable biography of Gladstone by the late Labour Party leader and Chancellor of the Exchequer.
  • Matthew, Henry Colin Gray. Gladstone, 1809-1898. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Originally published in two volumes (Gladstone, 1809-1874, and Gladstone, 1875-1898), Matthew’s biography remains the most authoritative and comprehensive work on Gladstone.
  • Partridge, Michael Stephen. Gladstone. New York: Routledge, 2003. A solid biography of Gladstone that provides a balanced and critical analysis of the Liberal leader.
  • Willis, Michael. Gladstone and Disraeli: Principles and Policies. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989. A scholarly comparative analysis of the concepts that motivated William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli and how those values were reflected in their domestic and foreign policies.
  • Winstanley, Michael. Gladstone and the Liberal Party. New York: Routledge, 1990. A useful guide for undergraduate students that focuses on issues related to Gladstone as a politician.

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[p]Gladstone, William Ewart;prime ministership