William Gladstone bicentenary show closing in Liverpool (UK)

Last year was a big one for significant bicentenaries, with Charles Darwin, Abraham Lincoln, William Ewart Gladstone and Alfred, Lord Tennyson all born in 1809. Summer university conferences aside, however, it is the three-month long show opened on Tuesday 29th December – 200 years on from the date of the birth of the three times Chancellor of the Exchequer and four times British Prime Minister, William Gladstone, which concerns us here.

The free exhibition is staged at St George’s Hall, less than a mile from his birthplace at 62 Rodney Street. Hosted in the Gladstone Gallery of the Grade I-listed Hall it features items such as records, diaries and books from his career. Newspaper cuttings of the day and a bust donated by Liverpool John Moores University only adds to the spectacle, making a visit almost obligatory between now and Saturday (27th March).

After the weekend, though, you would hope that exhibits from the Gladstone Exhibition, together with the Everton Collection, which is currently on display at the city’s Central Library, could help convert Liverpool’s former Irish Centre (the Wellington Rooms, which were built in 1815 as a gathering place for Liverpool’s great and good and frequented by the Gladstone family), into a museum dedicated to Gladstone – the man who twice tried to get an Irish Home Rule Bill through Parliament (1886 and 1893).

Many historians would argue that it is a tussle between Messrs Gladstone and Winston Churchill as to who was Britain’s greatest statesman. Like Churchill, Gladstone demonstrated extraordinary political resilience and longevity, representing both the Liberal and Conservative Party. Each worked long hours, “accomplishing as much as several ordinary men in every hour,” Sir William Gladstone, William Gladstone’s great-grandson, writes in Gladstone: A Bicentenary Portrait. “He had a good memory,” Sir William continues, “and could muster a mass of factual evidence which he could then lay before his hearers in a captivating manner.” No wonder, then, Churchill cited Gladstone as his inspiration. Let us not forget, either, that Churchill’s budgets were the best since the Gladstone’s age. While the state funeral order by Parliament was the first for a politician since Gladstone’s. The similarities are not restricted to political office, neither, since both were compulsive penman, remaining prolific authors outside of Westminster.

Yet the fact remains, the ‘Grand Old Man’ has no museum dedicated to his life and times. Granted, St Deiniol’s Library, the Gladstone National Memorial, is Britain’s only residential library, but it is hardly the Churchill Museum.

Talking of which, it is worth quoting at length the opening paragraph of the Churchill Museum guidebook:

“There was a clear need for a museum which would explore the complex nature of his life and his long political career; a museum which would not have as its purpose either revisionism, iconoclasm or hero worship; a museum which would tell the story in revealing and truthful detail, would show aspects of his life and personality which were unknown or forgotten; a museum which, overall, would explain and illustrate why his reputation is as high as it is, how he achieved that reputation and, of course, why he merits a museum in his name.”

The Churchill Museum opened as recently as 2005, the year in which we commemorated the fortieth anniversary of his death, so there is little reason, 200 years on from his birth, why Gladstone cannot be afforded similar treatment. (After all, the Queen’s remark upon declaring the museum open could be applied to Mr Gladstone at some point in the future: “It is … surprising that until now there has been no museum dedicated to this great statesman in this country of his birth.”)

Avoiding the pitfalls of “dullness or hagiography,” the Gladstone Museum could help clear up issues, both domestic and foreign. For example, was his character moulded more by his Scottish ancestry or his Liverpool birthplace? This is all the more important given that Sir William tends to play down the ‘Oxford on the surface but Liverpool below’ phrase often applied to his great-grandfather in his 2009 hardback.

As for the foreign front, however, it could certainly clarify his position on the American Civil War not to mention illuminate the settlement of the Alabama dispute which set a precedent for the efficacy of arbitration. Finding out whether or not Gladstone was in actual fact a realist, not an idealist, when it came to championing the cause of the Balkan Christians would no doubt be of interest to prospective visitors also. As would his opinions on intervening in Afghanistan, given the current deployment of British troops in Helmand Province.

“During such a long and active life,” Paul Knaplund, author of Gladstone’s Foreign Policy, writes, “Gladstone naturally exposed weak points.” And these should likewise feature in any forthcoming Gladstone Museum. Why did he, for instance, as leader of the Opposition, object to Benjamin Disraeli’s purchasing of the Suez Canal shares only to execute a u-turn by occupying Egypt and thus creating a trigger for the Scramble for Africa? “[S]till uneasy at having ordered the occupation of Egypt,” Niall Ferguson writes in Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, “[Gladstone] had no intention of being drawn into the occupation of Sudan” to rescue Charles Gordon from Khartoum. But was it proper to regard him, upon the news of the general’s death, as ‘Gordon’s Only Murderer’?

Whatever your opinion, though, only a museum of this kind will fill the gap in our nation’s heritage. There is no mistaking that it would provide an invaluable source of learning for people of all ages, of present and future generations. Maybe it is those leaders currently in political difficulty who would benefit most from such a venture, though. Since Churchill did quip, “Study history, study history. In history lies all the secrets of statecraft.”

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