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Gladstone’s first ministry (1868-74) was elected in favour of Disraeli’s Conservatives, despite the fact that it was the Conservative Party which passed the Second Reform Bill, because the electorate felt that Gladstone had consistently supported reform. As such, his ministry passed many reforms in their first tenure. There are a range of criteria by which these reforms can be deemed successful, and many interpretations of Gladstone’s reform programme.
One interpretation of the reforms of Gladstone’s first ministry is that it was, in the words of historian E. J. Feuchtwanger, a “great reforming ministry”. In terms of social reform, there is much to commend this view. Although far from the most notable reform carried out by this ministry, the Married Women’s Property Act (1869), which gave married women legal status and allowed women to keep ï¿½200 of their own earnings, was one of the most important pieces of legislation regarding women’s rights. The Education Act of 1870 also made advances in gender equality, as it made provision for girls to attend school, leading to the suffragette movements in 1918 and 1928. So, in terms of women’s rights, the social reforms of this ministry can be judged a success, as although the changes may not seem hugely significant, they were the foundations for further campaigns and reforms. The 1870 Education Act greatly pleased the working classes and indicated a move away from laissez-faire in government legislation, but it also caused divisions in terms of religious teachings, with Catholics clashing with Anglicans.
However, the short-term drawbacks are dwarfed by the protracted consequences and the benefits therein. It is clear at this juncture that Gladstone’s ministry was committed to extensive reform. The Cardwell Reforms of 1872 concerning the British Army were more focused on making the Army a more efficient Imperial force, and the Judicature Act of 1873 aimed to simplify the British legal system, establishing a single Supreme Court of Judicature and tidying up the organisation and roles of the courts. Both of these measures show effective and logical attempts to cut public expenditure and count as unequivocal successes, despite opposition from the House of Lords and Queen Victoria with regards to the Cardwell Reforms.
The Irish Church Disestablishment Act (1869) showed a willingness by Gladstone to make concessions in Ireland in order to maintain peace. The reforms of this ministry, then, can be deemed successful when judged against Gladstone’s own aims of ‘peace, retrenchment and reform’. In terms of economic reform, Gladstone’s ministry was perhaps less successful: entry to the Civil Service on the basis of a competitive exam (introduced in 1870) qualified as a success in terms of ‘reform’ and ‘retrenchment’; in terms of clear economic policy, however, there was very little done by the ministry, perhaps because the economy was faring well and did not require government intervention. So, it can be seen that the programme of reform passed by Gladstone’s first ministry, although not complete successes, consisted of effective and progressive changes which shaped the future of the country. The ministry reformed with good intentions, and improved efficiency of some the nation’s key institutions.
However, another interpretation of these reforms is that they were not part of a ‘programme’ at all; more that they were a series of unplanned reforms that alienated supporters. The aforementioned Education Act is a good example of one of the main problems with even the most successful reforms made by Gladstone’s ministry: while they may have appeased or please one faction of the population, they served to alienate or anger another. Sometimes reforms alienated two sides: the 1872 Licensing Act drew criticism from temperance groups like the United Kingdom Alliance for not being harsh enough on drinking, but also incurred the wrath of the working classes whose access to beer was restricted. This mild piece of legislation had highly adverse consequences for the Liberal Party, and they further irritated the working classes through economic reform, namely the Trade Union Act and Criminal Law Amendment (1871).
This Act and Amendment, which gave trade unions full legal rights before banning strikes and picketing, cost Gladstone a great deal of working class support, and shows a distinct lack of success in his aim of ‘reform’. However, the introduction of the Trade Union Act allowed for support of the whole labour movement, and can therefore be seen as a long-term answer to an omnipresent problem. Reduction in income tax in 1874, from 6d. to 3d. in the pound may have satisfied the people and given stimulus to the economy through higher general spending, follows the Gladstonian aim of ‘retrenchment’ in one sense, as it gives the government less to spend, but it may also mean that more progressive measures are not taken as a result of cost. In terms of Gladstone’s aim at ‘peace’, his ministry was again arguably unsuccessful.
While the Irish Church Disestablishment Act was a progressive concession to the Irish, it heightened expectations in Ireland, which in turn increased the chances of future unrest. Again, Gladstone’s ministry fail to preserve ‘peace’, then. Cardwell’s abolition of the purchase of commissions caused outrage in the elite classes and obscured the far-sightedness of other army reforms. A pattern is emerging: Gladstone’s reforms seem to irritate every single faction of the population (even Queen Victoria, who opposed the Cardwell Reforms), and this cost his ministry so much support that the Liberals lost the 1874 elections. This is not the mark of a successful ministry, and it can thus be said that, although Gladstone’s ministry may have had good intentions, the haphazard and unstructured programme of reforms single-handedly lost them the subsequent elections, qualifying these reforms as unsuccessful.
Perhaps it would be most prudent to argue that although Gladstone lost support in the short-term, his ministry reformed with regards to the future. Theirs was a far-reaching and innovative programme of reform, and it covered a wide breadth of areas, from women’s rights to army reform. At the cost of support and a consecutive term in government, in a fashion similar to Peel and his Corn Law Repeal, Gladstone’s ministry pushed through many unpopular but effective reforms. And although to proclaim that his first ministry was ‘one of the finest instruments of government that ever were constructed’ may be rather hyperbolic, it worked with honest aims at progressive reform, rather than the more cynical reform of the preceding Disraeli administration. A successful programme, then, with bad consequences for the party.