Early on, he seemed a near reactionary, but he embarked on the rarest of political odysseys, moving from right to left as he aged. The Tory became leader of a new Liberal Party that coalesced around him; he went from being a self-described “out-and-out inequalitarian” to a backer of “the masses against the classes.” His policies over four terms as prime minister and four as chancellor of the Exchequer—roughly analogous to secretary of the Treasury—were called liberal in his time, but appear conservative in ours: he was largely successful in limiting government, imposing fiscal discipline, keeping taxes low, devolving power, and expanding political and religious liberties. Friends and opponents alike admired his integrity, yet he was also loathed for his forthright Christian piety. After meeting him, Henry James noted, “Gladstone is very fascinating—his urbanity extreme—his eye that of a man of genius—and his apparent self-surrender to what he is talking of, without a flaw.”Gladstone's career and principles remind us that modern conservatism has a strong strain of small-l liberalism in it. With a commitment to limited government and individual liberty, conservative principles have a strong overlap with the classical liberalism of the 19th century.
Conservatism, however, is not classical liberalism or its modern descendant, libertarianism. The conservative mind embraces another principle that libertarianism has never seemed able to comprehend: social solidarity. That idea of social solidarity is what led Gladstone to embrace an agenda that increased political and economic equality while grounding his agenda in a traditionalist understanding of society. Critically, unlike classical liberals and modern libertarians, Gladstone never abandoned a belief in the necessity of authority in a decent society:
Yet liberty for him never meant freedom from hierarchy and authority sustained by Christian virtue, and he never abandoned an organic conception of society. Throughout his life he praised Dante, Augustine, Aristotle, and Butler as the “four Doctors” who guided him, appending Burke to the list as well, while rejecting Bentham and both Mills. His friend and official biographer, John Morley, relates that during a friendly chat in his eighties, Gladstone claimed to be “of the same mind, and perhaps for the same sort of reason, as Joseph de Maistre, that contempt for Locke is the beginning of knowledge.” Much like another friend, Lord Acton, Gladstone believed in natural and divine law, duties and obligations, and historically-grown liberties—all while being dubious about abstract rights.As conservatism looks around trying to find a to bring its historical principles to bear on current problems in the modern political environment, it could do far worse than look to William Gladstone as an example of a politician of conservative temperament and conviction working out his principles in the public square.