Degree Year


Document Type

Thesis - Open Access

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts




Barry McGill


William E. Gladstone, Otto von Bismarck, Great Britain, European


William E. Gladstone was the rising star of the Liberal Party between 1859 and 1874. His domestic and foreign policy played a role in the two most important developments of this period in British History: the surge of liberalism and the loss of British influence in European affairs. Because he was the leading British statesman of the period, Gladstone's statesmanship is widely blamed by contemporaries and historians for Britain's decline in European affairs at the time of Otto von Bismarck's ascendancy. This study seeks to answer the question of whether Gladstone's statesmanship is to blame for Great Britain's dramatic slip in European influence.

The prevailing view is that Gladstone's statesmanship in this period failed to contend with the shrewd Realpolitik of Bismarck. As a result, critics of Gladstone contend, Britain fell from the leading role to secondary status in European diplomatic circles in less than ten years. Historians like Paul Kennedy and Raymond sontag condemn Gladstone's statesmanship, while others, such as Paul Knaplund and H.C.G. Matthew, applaud Gladstone's pursuit of morality in his policy, but see his statesmanship as second-rate. Similarly, contemporaries like Bismarck and Napoleon III had little respect for Gladstone's diplomacy. While each of these interpretations raises valid points, none takes into account the crucial interplay of foreign and domestic events that limited the options available for British diplomacy to respond to the challenges of a new Bismarckian order in Europe.

This study considers the tumultous political environment facing Gladstone both at home and abroad as an accelerator of British isolation from European affairs. The interpretation that follows demonstrates the critical interplay between internal and external affairs by targetting two factors that hamstrung Gladstone's statesmanship between 1859 and 1874. First, Gladstone inherited a bankrupt and impotent foreign policy from Lord Palmerston's last five years at the helm. By 1864, the new Bismarckian order had been established and British isolation had been ensured. Secondly, the rise of liberalism in Britain preoccupied Gladstone's policy throughout the period, with most of his time and energy spent uniting the Liberal Party with his legislative agenda. Indeed, the constraints on her policy were so great that it would not be an overstatement to say that Britain would have found herself just as isolated by 1874 even if Bismarck and Gladstone had exchanged positions and Britain found herself under the guiding hands of the Iron Chancellor. The rise of liberalism in Britain and the limited options of British diplomacy painted Gladstone's statesmanship into a corner.

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