The former PM's long and complicated legacy risks being overshadowed
It must feel surreal to live in the shadow of a famous ancestor: to be met with curious eyebrows whenever you make your introductions, and to be badgered about whether you are a descendant of the great so-and-so.
There was a time when this was a badge of honour. In Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, John Durbeyfield enters a drunken reverie when Parson Tringham informs him that he belongs to the “ancient and knightly family of the d’Urbervilles” who came to England with William the Conqueror. Tom Paine heralded an important shift in enlightened attitudes when he mocked those distant descendants of noble houses who “console themselves” by boasting of their noble pedigree “in alms-houses, workhouses, and prisons”.
The pendulum has definitively swung in Paine’s direction. Where once we exalted those with an illustrious lineage, now we tend to prefer the self-made man. The famous surname is no longer a source of pride but embarrassment. Sometimes it has to be apologised for.
Such is the case of the Gladstone family. Rather than taking pride in the fact that they descend from one of Britain’s greatest Prime Ministers, the family’s modern representatives — still sitting at Hawarden in Flintshire, the ancestral home of the baronetcy into which William Ewart Gladstone married — prefer to go back a generation, to his father Sir John. This week they will travel to the Caribbean to offer an apology for his ownership of slave plantations, to which the family largely owes its fortune.
The Gladstone name has come to be tainted. William, the son, is made to pay for the sins of the father — either on the grounds of youthful views which he later recanted, or on the more tangential grounds that he owed his political career to his father’s blood-soaked wealth.
Although the Gladstone family reserves its most scathing language for Sir John Gladstone — “a vile man”, according to his great-great-great-grandson Charlie — Prime Minister Gladstone has come under sustained attack. Seeking to offset this newly negative coverage, in the aftermath of Black Lives Matter, Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden announced a new scholarship “available exclusively for people who are United Kingdom Minority Ethnic / Global Majority Heritage”. In 2020 the University of Liverpool removed his name from a building. Both the Gladstone family and the Library announced that they would not oppose the removal of William Gladstone’s statues.
What did William Gladstone really think about slavery? It is true that in his first years as an MP, still under the wing of his father, he opposed abolition. Yet Gladstone changed a great deal over the course of an extraordinarily long political career. He may, as a priggish fogey, have taken a stance on slavery that we today find abhorrent, but later in life he regretted the “folly” of his youth, and called slavery the “foulest crime in the entire history of mankind”.
Indeed, as his political inclinations became more democratic — as he morphed from the “rising hope of those stern and unbending Tories” into “the People’s William” — he came to view slavery as a symbol of all that was wrong with the system of Old Corruption that vaulted him into parliament (his first seat was gifted to him by the Duke of Newcastle, impressed by his speeches at the Oxford Union). Slavery, after all, had been an elite project, mainly enriching families like his own: that the masses had generally opposed it was yet more proof that they deserved to be fully incorporated into national politics.
If the scions of the House of Gladstone are kept awake at night by Sir John Gladstone, it is understandable that they should wish to apologise for his sins. But they should not allow the memory of their far greater and more famous ancestor to be lost amidst their cries of self-flagellation.