Front Page Titles (by Subject) MR. GLADSTONE AND THE PEOPLE. ( From The Economist, 4 th November, 1871.) - The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review)
Return to Title Page for The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review)
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
MR. GLADSTONE AND THE PEOPLE. ( From “ The Economist, ” 4 th November, 1871.) - Walter Bagehot, The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review) 
The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, ed. Mrs. Russell Barrington. The Works in Nine Volumes. The Life in One Volume. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1915). Vol. 9.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
MR. GLADSTONE AND THE PEOPLE.
Mr. Gladstone’s speech at Greenwich marks a new era in English politics,—not that it is for him a very great speech, and still less that it is the speech of a statesman as such,—if it had been, in that place and delivered to such an audience it would probably have been a great mistake and a sad failure,—but that it marks the coming of the time when it will be one of the most important qualifications of a Prime Minister to exert a direct control over the masses—when the ability to reach them, not as his views may be filtered through an intermediate class of political teachers and writers, but directly by the vitality of his own mind, will give a vast advantage in the political race to any statesman. We are not saying that the power of addressing twenty-five thousand people for two hours, and holding their attention and interest in spite of plenty of hostile elements in the great crowd, is one which above all others we delight to see in a leading statesman. As far as our own tastes go, we might prefer the sort of statesman who could only reach the nation through comparatively select audiences like Parliament, whose power is reserved for the higher regions of statesmanship, and who possesses none of the notes of the great popular orator. All we are saying is that the time is evidently approaching when such statesmen will be at a considerable disadvantage, even as heads of an Administration, when a power like that evinced by Mr. Gladstone will be of the very first importance even for his position as leader of the House of Commons and first Minister of the Queen. Criticise Mr. Gladstone’s speech as you will—virulently, contemptuously, patronisingly, compassionately, or from any other point of view, however depreciating,—no politician in his senses will deny that it has added greatly to the strength of the Government’s position; that it has to some extent neutralised much of the political result of the process of many months’ slow decay and demolition of his power. If Parliament were to meet again to-morrow, Mr. Gladstone’s position would be quite changed. It would be at once felt by all his discontented allies as well by his party foes that Mr. Gladstone’s direct command over the people is still immense,—that the result of an appeal to the people by him against a divided and hostile Parliament would very probably end in his full reinstatement in power, with as large a majority as ever. Mr. Gladstone has illustrated most remarkably his reserve power outside Parliament. No English Minister probably ever had less of a personal Parliamentary following than Mr. Gladstone. There he has no phalanx like Lord Russell’s Whig phalanx, and Lord Palmerston’s personal admirers. In Parliament he has no body-guard. But he has shown once more how easily he can get the ear of the electors themselves, and that under circumstances of no little difficulty,—circumstances in which both his policy and his shortcomings as a local representative combined to make him unpopular with his audience. Parliament fully appreciates this reserve power in a Prime Minister, which secures him, as it were, a separate and private appeal to the people,—an appeal not simply through the people’s representatives, and what the people may or may not understand of his reported Parliamentary speeches, but by direct personal influence. Parliament may not like it,—may think it even a dangerous power,—may echo the grumblings of three years ago over Mr. Gladstone’s stumping tour in Lancashire; but Parliament will recognise and respect it as a new store of political force, as a guarantee that the Premier has more direct relations to the people than any other Premier of our times, and that if he becomes unpopular with the representatives of the people, he may still be more popular with the people themselves than even those representatives. Undoubtedly Mr. Gladstone’s Greenwich speech will serve as a conspicuous mark for the date when it first became advisable for a Minister to cultivate the gifts of a great popular orator,—an orator who can deal with political topics in the broad, easy and animated style which touches the people, and without any of that subtle flavour of Parliamentary skill which only suits the statesman.
Mr. Gladstone not only displayed this sort of power in a very remarkable degree at Greenwich, but what is quite as remarkable as anything else, it is a late-acquired power. He was from the first no doubt a good Parliamentary speaker. Lord Macaulay, in his review of Mr. Gladstone’s early book on Church and State, speaks of his Parliamentary promise in high terms. But the constitution of his mind was so complex, and his style of argument so little popular, that no one certainly then thought of him as a popular orator. Sir R. Peel, if we remember his words rightly, says in his political memoranda, that Mr. Gladstone brought “his high character and great attainments” to the aid of the Conservative Ministry, but evidently thought little of his oratorical powers. Indeed, it was not till he busied himself with finance,—i.e. with very definitely marked-out subject-matter, in which there was no room for subtleties, though much for explanatory and expository dissertation,—that his remarkable faculty as an orator, his artistic power of planning out his subjects, his ease and vivacity in making them interesting to others, his skill in illustrating principles, his animation in recounting facts, began to be generally understood. And it was far later again that he acquired any of that power of fascinating and influencing a genuine multitude, by which Mr. Bright first became noticeable. Mr. Gladstone’s rhetorical powers, at first as little popular as great fluency and earnestness could well be, have gradually worked themselves out into a real command of popular sympathies and the popular intelligence, and the fact is one that at so critical a moment as this will hardly fail to be of the greatest significance to his but recently tottering Government.
We are quite willing to admit that the speech itself, though a very powerful and lively speech from a Prime Minister to his constituents, was in no sense the speech of the head of a great Administration declaring and expounding his policy. Such a speech could hardly have been made to 25,000 people in the open air under the conditions of time and space under which he spoke. A man who has to exert his voice to its utmost, and to interest a great crowd for a considerable time, cannot by any possibility trace out the fine lines of a national policy, even if he had spare energy enough to concentrate his mind upon them in the face of such physical difficulties. But as the speech of a Prime Minister who is also a representative to his constituents, it is not easy to over-estimate its ability and its interest. The historical illustration of the difficulty of keeping together large Parliamentary majorities, as introductory to his own expression of confidence in his colleagues and himself, and his complete refusal to admit that this address was his “last dying speech and confession,”—his bold expression of continued confidence in his Irish policy,—his reply to the charge of niggardly economies, which was as far from any yielding of principle as it was from any unfair attack on those Conservative predecessors who had yet, as he showed, economised (and quite rightly economised) more labour in the national dockyards than ever he and his colleagues,—his defence of his military policy,—the moderate and just stand he took upon his education policy,—and finally, his extremely lively and true remarks on the fundamental popularity of the House of Lords, even with the working classes, and the undesirability therefore of doing away with the hereditary principle,—were all treated with a lightness and yet energy of touch, and connected together in so natural and taking a manner, that Mr. Gladstone taught the audience, which he was also amusing, without letting them know that he was teaching them. And the last part of his speech on the mistake made by the representatives of skilled labour in their negotiations with certain peers and baronets, through Mr. Scott Russell, and in venturing to hope that legislation could do for them what really nothing but individual energy and self-denial could ever achieve, was more than instructive and lively; it went thoroughly home to his audience, and made them feel how thoroughly Mr. Gladstone understood their position, and how steadily he could resist unwise demands, even while heartily entering into their most urgent wants.
Thus when Mr. Gladstone left the Greenwich hustings, his Government certainly stood in a far stronger position than it has done for many months back. The nation has again learnt to realise that its Prime Minister understands both its unwise wishes and its genuine wants better than almost any other man in it, and that even if misunderstandings must arise between the Cabinet and Parliament, there will be a very strong disposition on the part of the masses to believe what the Prime Minister says of Parliament, more easily than what Parliament says of the Prime Minister.
[Page 93, line 7,]for as well by read as well as by
[Page 93, line 7] from end, for relations to read relations with