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Observations placeholder

Gladstone, William Ewart - Removing threats – Peacemaking and Diplomacy



Type of Spiritual Experience


Gladstone was at heart a peacemaker.  He abhorred aggression and had little appetite for colonial expansion – trade yes, but colonialism for the sake of power – no.  

  • Africa - Gladstone stood firm in his opposition to the "colonial lobby" pushing for the scramble for Africa, for example. His term saw the end of the Second Anglo-Afghan War, First Boer War and the war against the Mahdi in Sudan.
  • America - During the 1870s, and in foreign affairs,  his over-riding aim was to promote peace and understanding, characterised by his settlement of the Alabama Claims in 1872 in favour of the Americans.
  • Ionian Islands - Between November 1858 and February 1859, Gladstone, on behalf of Lord Derby's government, was made Extraordinary Lord High Commissioner of the Ionian Islands embarking via Vienna and Trieste on a twelve-week mission to the southern Adriatic entrusted with complex challenges that had arisen in connection with the future of the British protectorate of the United States of the Ionian Islands.
  • Italy - Another example of the use of diplomacy in correcting a perceived wrong, occurred when in 1850/51 Gladstone visited Naples for the benefit of his daughter Mary's eyesight.
    Giacomo Lacaita, legal adviser to the British embassy, was at the time imprisoned by the Neapolitan government, as were other political dissidents, and Gladstone became concerned at the political situation in Naples and the arrest and imprisonment of other Neapolitan liberals.
    In February 1851 Gladstone visited the prisons where they were held and in April and July he published two Letters to the Earl of Aberdeen against the Neapolitan government and responded to his critics in An Examination of the Official Reply of the Neapolitan Government in 1852.Gladstone's first letter described what he saw in Naples as "the negation of God erected into a system of government".  Giustino Fortunato, prime minister of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, was made aware of the letters by Paolo Ruffo, Neapolitan ambassador in London.  Although Ruffo did not inform king Ferdinand II directly, it was not long before Fortunato was dismissed by the sovereign.
  • France - MP Richard Cobden was sent as Britain's representative to the negotiations with France's Michel Chevalier for a free trade treaty between the two countries. Gladstone wrote to Cobden: "... the great aim—the moral and political significance of the act, and its probable and desired fruit in binding the two countries together by interest and affection. Neither you nor I attach for the moment any superlative value to this Treaty for the sake of the extension of British trade. ... What I look to is the social good, the benefit to the relations of the two countries, and the effect on the peace of Europe".

There is a tendency for commentators to link these actions to his constant wish to manage the budget and reduce expenditure – and war should be a total unnecessary expenditure if one actually practices peace making and diplomacy.  But his actions were undoubtedly also a part of the need to remove the threat of war from the average person, where the women lived in fear of losing their sons and husbands and being left with no one to provide an income for their families, and the husbands and sons lived in fear of pain and death.

There is no glory to be had in war.  It is an admittance of total failure on the part of a politician if they enter a war [other than in self defence] as their job is diplomacy – to avoid war.

A description of the experience

Evelyn Ashley famously described the scene in the grounds of Hawarden Castle on 1 December 1868:

One afternoon … in the Park at Hawarden, I was standing by Mr. Gladstone holding his coat on my arm while he, in his shirt sleeves, was wielding an axe to cut down a tree. Up came a telegraph messenger.

He took the telegram, opened it and read it, then handed it to me, speaking only two words, namely, 'Very significant', and at once resumed his work. The message merely stated that General Grey would arrive that evening from Windsor. This, of course, implied that a mandate was coming from the Queen charging Mr. Gladstone with the formation of his first Government.

I said nothing, but waited while the well-directed blows resounded in regular cadence. After a few minutes the blows ceased and Mr. Gladstone, resting on the handle of his axe, looked up, and with deep earnestness in his voice, and great intensity in his face, exclaimed:

'My mission is to pacify Ireland.'

He then resumed his task, and never said another word till the tree was down.

The source of the experience

Gladstone, William Ewart

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Reducing threats