Although W. E. Gladstone, the "biggest beast in the Victorian jungle" (xii), has not lacked for biographies, Richard Shannon contends that John Morley's 1903 official triple-decker established a durable orthodoxy, later powerfully reinforced by Colin Matthew's essays arising from his editing of Gladstone's diaries. Matthew was unconstrained by the pieties and proprieties that bound Morley, but their two authoritative accounts share a basic view of the man and his works: Gladstone was a high-minded, intellectually capacious, and vigorous statesman, a fiscal giant and brilliant parliamentarian, whose political evolution from Tory prig to crusading Liberal populist represented a successful adaptation to the movements of the age. In all important matters he was on the right side of history, and his last great effort, to bring self-government to Ireland, was a noble, far-sighted attempt that was (as Gladstone himself said) a "golden moment" missed.
Shannon's account is avowedly iconoclastic. Gladstone: God and Politics consolidates and hones his earlier two-volume treatment in which, as he writes, "controversy rather got lost in the density. Content dulled contentiousness" (xxiv). Against Morley's durable delineations, Shannon proceeds from Gladstone's own account of his motives and actions. He argues that Gladstone's virtues have been overblown and that he was in truth a significant impediment to progress. Yet, because Gladstone bulked so large in his time, Shannon knows that merely cutting him down to size is not a satisfactory strategy for historical revision. Thus, he puts the biggest beast in the dock of history to argue that he was a kind of monstrosity: gigantic but malformed.
The subtitle indicates Shannon's central emphasis on Gladstone's powerful religious convictions and belief that his public role owed to divine election. Although his religiosity is well known, it has seldom been integrated into the political narrative to this extent. It features here primarily as the mainspring of Gladstone's political arrogance and related capacities for self-persuasion and casuistry. Shannon's chief exhibit (repeatedly invoked) is Gladstone's retrospective claim that, at a number of critical junctures, his special insight into the larger movement of political forces revealed a providential mission to lead the nation to certain ends. In practice, Gladstone's arrogance was amplified by the example of his early mentor Robert Peel's high-handed view of executive authority above party, electorate, and nation.
As Shannon sees it, this combination of God and Peel (uniting the limitations of the "schoolman's mind" with those of the "Treasury mind") caused Gladstone to be damagingly inflexible throughout his career, culminating in the disaster of Home Rule. Gladstone never became a Liberal; the party was merely his instrument. Shannon emphasizes all that the Liberals were prevented from achieving under Gladstone's leadership, even during what is typically seen as his great reforming first ministry. Divine guidance and the example of Peel's penchant for ramming through big bills left Gladstone uninterested in smaller-bore but useful improving measures that sustain party cohesion and public support. Further, Shannon stresses Gladstone's complete intransigence in considering alternatives once he had set his course with at best minimal consultation. This not only frustrated progress, it made matters far worse—not least in how his inflexibility and ineptitude on Ireland in the 1870s helped radicalize Irish politics. Witnesses for the prosecution include lesser-known politicians who, in retrospect, offered policy ideas that were possibly sounder, though ultimately ignored.
For Gladstone, the great lesson of Peel's fall was his failure to cultivate a following "out-of-doors" to counterbalance opposition in Parliament and party. As Gladstone would later claim, God's purpose was revealed in part by the potential of public sentiment to be shaped and directed to the ends he (Gladstone) perceived to be necessary. Shannon's account of the steps Gladstone took to build a huge public following begins earlier than most others (though curiously neglects the example of Lord Palmerston), but the book is primarily focused on Westminster. He registers Gladstone's extraordinary popular appeal but dwells instead on the intricacies of high politics.
Perhaps this is because, taking Gladstone at his word, the masses were merely material to be manipulated...